Sunday, May 9, 2010

I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like ... Indonesia.

I cannot WAIT to get out of this country. Okay, I tried to put a positive spin on our travels in Java and had high hopes for Bali, but jeez Louise, this place has worn both of us down and out!

The very high point of our time in Indonesia was our time on the Gili Islands (we went to Trawangan and to Air)- they were spectacularly beautiful, the water is the clearest I have seen in my life, and the locals were really relaxed and friendly. We spent nearly two weeks reading, walking, swimming, and snorkelling there. I can highly recommend a visit if you fly right into Lombok, take a boat directly to the Gilis, and bypass Java and Bali.

Tomorrow we fly to Singapore, (we promise not to spit on the sidewalks) and on Thursday, we return to Portland.

This has been the most incredible adventure of my life, and I wouldn't trade anything for the experiences (the good and the not so good) we've had! See you all soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"But I need you today, oh mandi"

I thought you all would enjoy that song on a continuous loop in your heads. If I have to hear it constantly on my internal radio, you all should too. Share the joy, and all...

We have been in Indonesia for 8 days and seen 4 cities and a lot of countryside. Our flight to Jakarta was uneventful, the line for immigrations was interminable (though we did end up chatting with a nice young man from Pittsburgh, a Penn State student of mathematics and Mandarin, who's been studying in Singapore for the past year and a half), the city was huge, and we only stayed overnight and left the next morning for Bogor to see the botanical gardens. The gardens were quite pretty, though not nearly as well signed as you'd think botanical gardens should be. They did have an impressive variety of bamboos, orchids, and palms. From there we took off to Bandung for just an overnight in order to catch the train to Yogyakarta. The ride was bee-you-tee-ful: up into the mountains, through verdant rice paddies and plantations, just lovely!

Yogyakarta is supposedly the historical and cultural center of the island of Java, so we were looking forward to exploring the sights. When we arrived, we promptly got lost (between my already questionable sense of direction, the lack of street signs, the incorrect scale of our map, and our out of whack internal compasses from crossing the equator, we really didn't stand much of a chance) and spent an hour circumnavigating the train station and its surrounding neighborhoods searching for the street we wanted before giving in and relying on one of the local hotel touts to take us there. Best of all, it was only TWO BLOCKS from the train station! Anyway, we got a room and some dinner and an introduction to the batik industry for which "Yogya" is famous. Everywhere you go there are people selling batik everything. And you can't go to any of the sights without being invited to a "special gallery, only open the day you're there, the only government sponsored school of batik," and so on. Between fending off these folks and the becak (bicycle trishaws) drivers, it's absolutely exhausting. We did manage a visit to the sultan's palace one day, where we saw traditional Javanese dance accompanied by a gamelan (orchestra) and some really good examples of batik in their museum. The orchestras are comprised of gongs, metal and wood xylophones, drums, and singers. Sound like an awful combo? Your would be wrong, it actually was really nice.

The next day, we went to Borobudur, which is a 9th century Buddhist temple and a World Heritage site. It's from the same era as the temples of Angkor, but stylistically is completely different. The temple is 5 levels which rise like a stepped pyramid with a huge, central stupa. The scale is amazing! Like Angkor, all surfaces are carved, but the subjects are different, and the reliefs are much more deeply carved at Borobudur. It was, overall, mighty impressive.

This afternoon we leave for Bali (a 15 hour bus ride and ferry combo, leave at noon, arrive at 7am tomorrow), so we will (hopefully) be able to say we spent our anniversary on Bali, sleeping off the aches associated with a long bus ride and the usual case of "bus butt" (itchy, bumpy, chicken skin on the lower cheeks- not to be confused with "crotch rot," from hiking too long in sweaty pants).

Oh, since this is the first time we've been across the equator, here are a couple of notes: the days are getting shorter, I have no idea which direction is north, and, most importantly, the water in the sink whirls clockwise. My most scientific study involved toothpaste spit in the sink. Yes, I used the drainplug and let the foamy spit and water still before pulling the plug. And I repeated the experiment several times (one doesn't want icky breath) with the same result. And yes, I am easily amused!

PS: mandi is Indonesian for bathroom!

Toodles for now!!!

Friday, April 9, 2010

It's a zoo



Formula 1 frenzy is over for the time being. Last weekend was the race at Sepang, which is about 25 miles from Kuala Lumpur. Colin went to the track Friday to watch the practice sessions, and both of us went Saturday and Sunday for qualifying and the actual race. It was quite an experience to be part of the festivities after seeing the races on television. The cars are smaller than I imagined, and the noise was DEAFENING!!! Fortunately, we both brought earplugs. Saturday, I tried (with reasonable success) to memorize the teams' car paint schemes (none of them have numbers) and drivers in preparation for the big event. This year's race was the first with no rain in its 12-year history at Sepang, and it finished without major incident or injury to any drivers. All in all, a loud, sweaty, fun weekend was had by all 97,000 spectators.
Since we'd already seen what we want to see of KL and had a week to kill before our flight to Indonesia, we took off on Monday for Taiping. It's a small city off the normal tourist trail, and for the first time since we arrived in Malaysia, we actually felt like strangers in a strange land (we encountered no other non-Asians during our stay). There's not a whole lot to do there besides look at the pretty Chinese storefronts and 100-plus year old government buildings, but it's really a nice, quiet, and relaxed town. Its jewel is the Lake Gardens, which were landscaped in the 1880s on an abandoned tin mine. The pair of lakes spread like fingers through the park, and the trees and flowers are beautiful! We saw many vividly colored birds, more than anywhere else, in the trees and hunting bugs in the grass as well. The real surprise was the zoo in the center of the park- we thought it would be a tiny one since we circled the outside perimeter looking for the entrance, but apparently it's in a wormhole and expands once you're inside. The zoo was pretty nice (it's not the NC zoo or the National zoo) and has mainly animals that are native to SE Asia and the subcontinent with some African lions, hippos, and rhinoceroses thrown in the mix. We were fortunate to be there during feeding hours, so everyone was out and about munching their snacks. The local troupe of macaques who live around the zoo but aren't part of the zoo looked forlorn (what are we, chopped liver?!?! Oh, I guess that's the trade-off for being FREE!) when the zookeeper fed the animals in the enclosure below them
We're now back in GeorgeTown (yes, again!) until Tuesday, when we fly to Jakarta for the last leg of the trip (for now). We are bypassing Sumatra after all (it's raining, they just had yet another earthquake and more civil unrest in Aceh again. Call us wusses if you want, but we'd rather live to fight another day. Plus, Jakarta has a MUCH better reputation for stability- HA!). Our tentative itinerary includes Java, Bali, Lombok, and the Gili Islands, but it is subject to change with our whims.
We have uploaded the photos from Malacca, Kota Bharu, Kuantan, Kuala Lumpur, the Perhentians, and are working on Taiping (with a bunch from the zoo). Alas, you will need to look for Silat (the bizzarro martial art) examples yourselves- we deleted our movie (referenced in the previous blog post) in order to get photos uploaded. Anyway, toodles for now!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slummin' in paradise





Last we chatted, we were in Kota Bharu. It's the very conservative, predominately Muslim, northeastern corner of Malaysia, a place with no malls, movie theaters, alcohol, or bowling. It is home to traditional Malay culture though, since the people were basically cut off from the rest of the country until fairly recently, when they built a road on the east coast. We went to the Kelantan State museum while we were there and saw an exhibit on the elaborate kites of the region. We also took in a performance that included a mock Silat fight (Silat is a Malay form of martial arts), which was one of the top ten oddest things we have witnessed. I won't try to describe it, you'll have to watch the movie when we get it uploaded. The musical accompaniment was by oboe (normally one of my favorite instruments, but in this scenario, think snake charmer, not symphony orchestra) and various drums and gongs. The oboe player was truly amazing - he could somehow play continuously without a single break in the sound- we have no idea how he did it. Before the Silat performance, another group of men played kertoks, which are drums made out of coconut husks with a wooden board attached to the top. You bang the board with a dowel wrapped in rubber bands (I got to try it, and yes, once again impressed Colin with my total lack of rhythm), and it make a lot of noise. I had fun!
The next day we took a speedboat the 16 miles to Pulau Kecil (Little Perhentian Island). You all would have hated it! The island is really rustic- electricity by generator (our bungalows only had power from 6:30pm until 8:00am), no phones, no vehicles other than boats. There is almost no development on the island- just three sandy beaches, a few bungalows and dive shops on each, and one dirt path across the middle through dense jungle to connect them. Our bungalow was right next to the water (we would open the sliding door and watch the boats from the bed in the mornings). The water was so clear! We went snorkeling by swimming right out into the bay- we didn't even have to take a boat trip to get to live reef. The sea creatures were amazing: we saw giant clams (the clams themselves are really colorful, the shells have coral grown around them), huge parrot fish, gobies, sea cucumbers, and... NEMO (okay, his distant relations. They were clown fish and lived in anemone houses nonetheless.)! We also saw all sorts of colorful coral formations, a HUGE puffer fish, and other technicolor fish we couldn't identify.
As for other island fauna, our constant companions in the open cinderblock bathroom vent were a pair of tokay geckos (blue with orange spots), which we believe, accounted for the lack of mosquitoes in our bungalow. There are also monitor lizards of small to very large (5ft?) size strolling freely everywhere. The greatest excitement for everyone was when some of the local men caught a reticulated python that was probably 6ft long in a palm tree in front of our veranda. The men were talking animatedly about its barbecue potential (it was hard to tell whether or not they were joking; we had vegetarian dishes that evening for dinner).
After an epic boat to bus to bus to bus to hotel in Kuantan to bus to Kuala Lumpur journey, we're settling here in KL through the weekend for the F1 race (hopefully we won't get too waterlogged- rain is in the forecast, but it's a nice, warm deluge!)and to plot our next move.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't get your panties in a twist.

When I said we are flying back on April 6th, what I meant to say was May 13th. Actually, we've decided that this is still fun, and since we don't have to be anywhere anytime soon, we will continue our travels to either Sumatra or Borneo (haven't decided which, but either way, I see orangutans potential in our future). We're in Kota Bharu right now, heading for the Perhentians (finally) tomorrow.

The lack of new photos on smugmug is because we have yet to find an internet cafe that is set up for uploading photos. We will add them when we can. As someone once said, "patience is a virgin."

And remember: it's good to be flexible.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Coasting toward the finish line

Let's just say it's good to be flexible with one's traveling agenda. Instead of going to the Perhentians, we detoured to Kuala Lumpur (heretofore known as KL) for the purpose of obtaining Formula 1 tickets for the race at Sepang the first weekend in April. That will be our last hurrah since we have actually committed (with mixed emotions) to a return date of April 6 from Singapore to Portland. sigh...
While in KL, we stayed in Chinatown on the main drag, Petaling Street, which is the place to get genueeeen (the shopkeepers say they're real, so mustn't they be?) Fendl or Louis Vittoon bags, Billadong t-shirts, and real Rolex watches for a very low price. It's chaotic and noisy: we were serenaded each night by our mega nightlight of a video screen with psycho soundtrack promoting Malaysia tourism (it served its purpose- it made us want to go anywhere else just to escape the noise). But it was fun. KL is an interesting mix of Moorish, colonial, and very sleek, modern architecture and has a multi-ethnic culture like much of the country. We spent one day in the National Museum learning about Malay culture and history and were both quite inspired by the spirit of cultural harmony that pervades the nation's independence. Unlike so many places that had long, bloody battles, here the three main ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) sat down together with the British and ... talked. How novel! We were there on what must have been an elementary school field trip day (permission slips must have read: "Dear parents, we will go to the National Museum for the day. The main activities will be running, squealing, and whistle blowing. Please ensure your child wears appropriate running shoes and brings his/her favorite noise maker.") . All I can say is, it must be much easier for Muslim girls to get away with things at school, because in their matching uniforms and head scarves, they all looked very similar.
We also went to the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world and one of the tallest buildings overall) and took the elevator to the 41st floor skybridge for a panoramic view of the city. The elevator was actually the most amazing part of that trip- it took 41 ear-popping (literally) seconds to climb 41 floors. And in and amongst all of our really delicious regional meals, we had dinner at a Papa John's (here they provide sit-down service with white tablecloths and china, but the garlic sauce still tastes like home!) with dessert in leather club chairs at the Krispy Kreme next door! We really haven't eaten much western fast food on this trip, but every now and then, pizza and donuts is a nice, comforting addition to the culinary mix.
After KL, we took the bus to Melaka (or Malacca, both are correct) and have been here for 5 days. We've visited virtually every museum devoted to every darned thing here (we're officially getting museum-ed out). The old parts of the city have been beautifully restored- it's a colonial mishmash of Portuguese, Dutch, and British with Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian styles rolled into one city. We've seen the ruins of the Portuguese fort and Catholic church with its 400-year old head stones, the Dutch stadthuys (governor's home and town hall), the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the People's Museum (exhibits on traditional kite making and top-spinning as well as one on beauty practices like foot binding and lip plating), the Naval and Maritime Museums. Wow, that was a lot of sightseeing. We've also eaten a whole lot of great food (my pants still fit, though). Tomorrow we begin the journey to the northeastern part of the country to hit the Perhentian Islands for real this time. See you soon!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chicken claws: they're not just for breakfast anymore!




Well, Phuket (we now pronounce it, eeewwww) was not our cup of chowder. Two days was all it took to determine it is Thailand's answer to South Beach, Myrtle Beach, and Cancun wrapped up into one convenient, over-priced, crowded package. We did see plenty of large, leathery, old European tourists in speedos and other inappropriate attire, as well as at least four McDonald's in a twenty minute walk along the beach road. And... our pal Bernie from George Town was right where he said he'd be! We did have a nice afternoon chat with him while standing shoulder-deep in the Andaman Sea, so it wasn't all bad, but we did move the next morning. Since we enjoyed our extended stay in George Town, we decided to head toward Malaysia via Hat Yai (I've mentioned it before) for a couple of days.
There's really not much to do in Hat Yai besides plan an exit strategy to somewhere else, so we took the local bus to Songkhla, a nice, little city on the coast with some interesting sculptures, for the afternoon. After walking the shore picking up some really neat shells and taking photos of the sculptures, we decided to join the hordes of school children and locals in their quest for lunch from the food vendors lining the sidewalk. Lots of people were ordering what looked like salad with some kind of sea life (abalone maybe?) from one lady, so we went to investigate. I asked what it was, and she replied, "chicken foot," NOT what we wanted. The next tray had actual pieces of chicken meat, so I (thought I) ordered two salads with chicken, and we sat down on the grass to wait for lunch. When she handed me the first tray, it was... the chicken foot salad. Thinking it must have been my fault for ordering the wrong item, I accepted the tray with thanks (you'd be proud, Mom) and pointed at the chicken meat before she made the second one. Colin and I sat there looking at this tray of food in front of us, wondering what we're going to do with it. I have no earthly idea how exactly one prepares chicken feet to acquire such a ghastly appearance, but imagine floppy, irregularly shaped pieces of a pure, white substance with the texture of scaly chicken foot skin that looks like it's been soaking in a tub of lye for hours. Now imagine trying to put that between your lips. Our mantra is, if millions of people eat it, it can't be that bad...WE STAND CORRECTED. So Colin (not me) tried it. He managed to get it in his mouth, bit down and found something hard, either a claw or a piece of bone that somehow remained un-gelatinated by the cooking process. A horrible gagging sound emanated from Colin's mouth at the same time our lady turned to give us the second tray of food. I really thought he was going to spew, but he managed to keep the contents of his mouth between his lips until the nice lady turned back around and then he spat it into a tissue. I was impressed by his efforts but determined that no way, no how was I going to make the same mistake. The surrounding salad itself was quite tasty. After this and a nice walk back into town, we hopped the bus back to Hat Yai. That night, we went to the local market for dinner to have one of our favorite local meals, khao mok kai, which is a Muslim-Thai chicken and turmeric rice dish. It always comes with a bowl of clear soup with some vegetables in it. Well, when Colin put his spoon to the soup bowl, he asked, "is that what I think it is and if so, please remove it before I see it in its entirety." It was what he thought is was, another chicken foot, lurking at the bottom of the bowl under a piece of winter melon. If anyone had ever told me that there would be a day in our lives in which we'd have chicken feet in two meals in one day, I'd have said, "get outta here," (or something much less polite). Anyway, Colin survived, and I'm just glad to be old enough to ignore the two bite rule we had in our house growing up.
The next day, we took a minibus back to Georgetown. I am going to be really disgusted when we get back to the states and see gigantic SUVs with one person inside after this trip. Our minibus was a 4-row minivan with 10 adults and 3 kids plus luggage inside. The kids were well-behaved throughout, but unfortunately, the little boy sitting in his mother's lap next to me shot back two boxes of milk at the beginning of the journey and then happily bounced around for awhile. I knew the state of events was getting ready to change for the worse when he got very quiet and laid his head against the seat back in front of him. When he started gagging, I moved my bag to my lap (off the floor), and his mom gave him a towel to throw up in. Colin had an empty plastic grocery bag and handed that over to the boy, who promptly hooked one handle over each ear like a horse's feedbag (now why didn't I think to do that in my younger days when I was Barfarella?). We thought it was ingenious until he started holding it up to his mouth and breathing into it. He was on the right side of natural selection that day and survived the remainder of the drive.
Anyway, we made it back home to George Town (they even gave us our old room back!!!!) and will be here until Monday. Then we go to the east coast to Kota Bharu and the Perhentian Islands for awhile. There are more photos on smugmug, including some from the end of the Chinese New Year celebration in George Town. We thought it was the year of the tiger, not the year of Tigger (see photo)!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Won't you take me to, Phuket Town?


Sorry once again for being out of touch for better than a week, but we were busy lounging on Hat Sai Ree beach on Ko Tao (yes, that is Colin's knee in the photo, and that was our view). It's a scuba diving mecca (unfortunately, neither of us dives and were both waaayyy too busy reading under our favorite tree on the beach to bother getting certified) in the Gulf of Thailand. The water is a clear teal color- so clear that we could see the tan lines on our feet when standing in five feet of water. Our bungalow was about 75 feet from the water's edge with a nice "veranda," upon which we sat and watched the birds and the boats while eating our breakfast from the 7-11 (they are ubiquitous in Thailand and have cheap cereal and yogurt, which is of great value when staying in a bungalow on the beach- you HAVE to be able prioritize, you know..). When we felt the need, we took walks around the island, to the southern end and the east coast (which was UP and over the mountainous middle of the island- boy, am I out of shape...). In our original itinerary, our time in the islands was supposed to be spent figuring out what to do next, and we actually did some thinking (until our brains overheated and it got too difficult, then we got back in the water to cool our heads). It is really hard to make decisions about our futures when we have virtually no obligations! We may now have a plan for the next year or two (stay tuned for further developments, since our plans change more than the weather) that involves being out of the US when "Pol Pot" Palin is nominated as the presidential candidate representing the Teabaggers. (How can you NOT see the similarities when she and her ilk seem to think all educated city-dwellers are elitist and evil?!?!?!).
Yesterday we took the bus to Phuket (get your minds out of the gutter, it's pronounced poo-get) to see what islands on the west coast in the Andaman Sea look like. It's a big, affluent island province with lots of rubber and palm plantations and big, fancy resorts (we are not staying in one of those, though). We will be renting a motorbike for a couple of days to explore the island's beaches and do some snorkelling. Hopefully we'll also be able to locate our friend Bernie from George Town while we're here; he emailed me with the location of the beach near the police station where he likes to sit between specific hours of the afternoon (he's a character). We may still be here when our bowling partner Alan and his wife, Maggie arrive as well. Who knows, it may just turn into a big, happy reunion!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bangkok, round two




Well, we've been in Bangkok for five days now, and I will say I didn't give it a fair chance on the first visit. The bus ride here was quite comfortable (on a VIP bus with blasting cold aircon, cushy, reclining seats, and lunch! of course, everything is better with food included), and arriving with at least somewhat of an idea where we were going helped as well. There are many spectacular sights in the city, and we've tried to take in a bunch of them. One day, we went to see Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace grounds. Wat Phra Kaew is the home of the Emerald Buddha, probably the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand. It's not very big (about 26 inches high) but it's carved from a single piece of jade (not actually emerald). It's placed high up on an altar in the temple, and many people make pilgrimages here to see it. The building itself is really impressive in its over-the-top-ness; there's an abundance of mirrored mosaic tiles in primary colors and LOTS of gold. All of the doors and shutters are wood inlaid with intricate mother of pearl designs. We also went to Wat Pho, which is the oldest temple in Bangkok and home of the largest reclining Buddha (46 meters long!). The feet were the most amazing part, with the 108 auspicious virtues of the Buddha also inlaid in mother of pearl along with whorls on his toes (I think he may have needed corrective arches though, because the feet were as flat as could be).
Another day we walked to Dusit Park to see Vimanmek Palace, one of the homes of the former King, Rama V (the current one is Rama IX). It's a 72-room home built of golden teak with NO NAILS! It is a really beautiful building; Colin once again commented how good it is to be king. The other buildings on the grounds have exhibits on silk production, amazingly intricat bamboo and fern basketry, gold and silver traditions. There was also an exhibition of the "Masterpieces," created in honor of many different occasions in the monarchs' lives. It was all a bit more than our tastes could handle (Colin said if he was king, his first decree would be, "enough with the gold, already"). Today we went to the Jim Thompson House, which is actually six old teak houses put together, filled with antiques and artwork. Jim Thompson was the man who introduced Thai silk to the western world after WWII. They came to prominence after being featured in the movie, "The King and I," which our guide had never seen, since it's still banned in Thailand. Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967. No one knows what happened to him, but an astrologer warned him that his 61st year would be a bad one for someone born in the year of the horse, and he was 61 when he disappeared. Our guide warned Colin against traveling to Malaysia when he is 61 (he's also a horse...I'm a monkey, whoever would have guessed that). We don't have many photos of any of these places because cameras were forbidden within all of the buildings.
Enough about the cultural stuff. Bangkok has a seamy city, and we have seen some of that in our visit as well. We wandered Khao San Road, which is the tourist "ghetto" and didn't find it to our liking, although if anyone is in need of a diploma from Oxford or the London School of Economics and would rather blow the college fund on a trip to Thailand, you can buy one on Khao San Road (along with fake dreadlocks and an assortment of ugly t-shirts). Last night we had dinner at a Japanese steakhouse in Patpong, the seedy district favored by American GIs on R&R visits during the Vietnam War and now a night market and tourist trap. The restaurant looked (and smelled) like it hasn't changed since it opened 50+ years ago, and the food was terrific (you know us, it's all about the food).
Tomorrow we will take the train back to Chumpon and will hop a ferry to the island of Ko Tao (renowned for the snorkelling and diving), or maybe we'll go to Phuket to find our new friend from George Town, Bernie. We haven't decided, so we'll let you know when we get there!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Decisions, indecision...

We've spent the past two weeks debating whether to continue traveling in Malaysia or to take the ferry to Sumatra for a few weeks. Each and every itinerary of the approximately 23 we came up with had its strong points, and after all that hemming and hawing, we decided to go to... THAILAND! Our original intent was to spend some time in peninsular Thailand in order to see some of the islands and do a little snorkeling, but because of the high frustration we experienced in Bangkok trying to get to the south, we bypassed everything we wanted to see in the southern half of the country. And on top of it, virtually everyone we've spoken with has told us that Bangkok is a really interesting city to spend a few days. Since we didn't give it a fair chance, we're going to head in that direction tomorrow and work our way back down the peninsula to Malaysia again, stopping off along the way when and where the fancy strikes us. We really enjoyed our extented time in George Town and most definitely will return to see other parts of the country (and maybe stop back in G-Town for just one more banana leaf lunch. Oh, and one more banana roti and a dim sum dinner also... okay, maybe we shouldn't go back for fear of never leaving!)

Now that we've ended our stasis, be looking for more photos and blog posts. I'll try to overcome my sluggy habits and put more frequent updates on here!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thaipusam




Yesterday was the beginning of Thaipusam. We've said numerous times that we will stay in George Town until it's over, since opportunities to witness the festivities are few and far between. It was an interesting and very colorful experience! Colin is adding the pictures to the smugmug account as I write, so have a look-see to learn what all the hubbub is about!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wasting away in Marg.. err George Town



Yes, we are still in George Town, learning what it's like to be an expatriate from those around us. We've spent several days at the beach, read a bunch of books, sat on the veranda of our guesthouse chatting about life with the long-term and the rotating housemates, and taken up... bowling (see attached video of Bernie demonstrating proper technique). Alan from Manchester, Bernie from Bali by way of Baden-Baden (so nice, they named it twice), Colin, and I have spent a couple of hours several days over the past two weeks at the bowling alley improving our game. Dad, you would be proud-I finally crested a three-digit score today!
We also went to see the absolute worst excuse for a movie of all times, Case 39, starring Renee Zellweger (she must have a serious gambling debt to pay or the collections department from Fingerhut to get off her back- there is no reason for such lame drivel to be made otherwise). It's apparently so bad, they won't even release it in her home country. But it only cost us a couple of dollars and an hour and a half of our lives that we can never get back... .
Yesterday we went to the national park for a hike to the meromictic lake, which is one with both fresh and salt water sources. The salt water is denser and forms the lower layer, with the fresh water on top. It's the only one in Malaysia and one of few anywhere, and they get Ridley and green sea turtles nesting there each year. Unfortunately, we saw no turtles, and the lake is a smelly mud-clay puddle at this time of year due to the lack of rainfall. We, of course, had to explore and see exactly what there is to see in a sort of dry lake bed (tons of empty seashells, lots of mud, and mudskippers was our conclusion). Oh, and mud. I tried to blaze a trail from dry spot to dry spot, and quite thoroughly missed, resulting in about 5 pounds of really stinky mud on each shoe. Colin, thinking he could do better, chose an alternate route and encumbered himself up to the knees in a different patch of smelly mud. I of course, had to laugh hysterically, not realizing at that point that he had lost both shoes and really was in a bit of a twist. Alas, there was no help for me to offer (besides moral support in the form of giggling, pointing, and picture-taking), and he eventually extricated himself. Things got even better when we were washing said shoes in the ocean to clean off some of the mud, and Colin apparently ran into a jellyfish with both feet. Fortunately, it wasn't one of those anaphylactic reaction causing ones, just super-annoying. I didn't have the Benadryl stick with me, so we used...Blistex (its stated purpose is as a topical analgesic for one's lips, and if you can put it on your mouth, surely it's okay to use on one's feet). I'm not sure if it helped, but it did no harm. The hike back was long, hot, and hilly, but we did see monkeys. And I've determined that not all monkeys are scary- the really cute ones up in trees are quite nice. We saw two types: long-tailed macaques and silver leaf monkeys (langurs). I tried to get some pictures, but the ones of the langurs came out kind of blurry.
Tomorrow is the start of Thaipusam, which is a Hindu festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Murugan, one of Shiva's offspring. It's a time of thanksgiving for everything from the birth of a child to a new motorbike, and people say "thanks" by piercing themselves with spears and hooks and performing amazing feats of endurance. Since there is a large Indian population here in George Town, the festival is a big deal. We will be watching the festivities and expect to see some pretty interesting stuff. (hmmm...I see some freaky photos in your futures).
PS- we have added a few more pics to the Georgetown smugmug file.

video

Saturday, January 16, 2010

We needed a vacation from traveling

We're stiiiiillll in George Town! I think both of us are kind of travel weary, because neither has found a compelling reason to move on. In the last week and a half, we've seen three movies, been to the beach three days, and done some more milling about various tourist sites. The biggest surprise enjoyment was the Penang Butterfly Farm, which sounds like an average tourist trap, but I realized that I could become an amateur lepidopterist (butterfly geek) while there. Colin thinks that would be okay, and his next career move will be into the butterfly poaching business (he hears there's good money in it, and he would get to carry a net). This place had thousands of Malaysian butterflies of many color schemes and sizes. We walked the paths gasping in amazement, calling. "ooh, wow, look at this one," over and over. They also had a bunch of native insects, including various rhinoceros beetles (two and three-horned ones. People actually fight them and place bets- like cock fighting, only much more lame, since they don't fight to the death, only to the "fall off the twig") and some gigantic stick bugs (there's a photo of one next to Colin's hand- the bug is bigger) as well as a number of different geckos (including Sal's leopard gecko kin). There are a bunch of photos on smugmug, sorry to bore you all... . We also spent a day at the Botanical Gardens, admiring some very large, tropical trees and avoiding the roaming bands of rhesus monkeys (whatever you do, don't look them in the eyes!!!!!). Along the way we picked up a dog, I initially labeled her our tour guide, but I when we came to the monkeys, she positioned Colin and me between herself and the monkeys. I think she was looking for some protection herself. In all seriousness, wild monkeys are unpredictable and not very nice company (and really, don't stare at them- they shriek and come at you).
Nothing much new here, we're still trying to determine the next stop on the adventure train. All of our photos are now on smugmug, and I've gone back and labeled a lot of the older galleries, so you'll have an idea what you're looking at (as will we, when we get home).
Toodles, til' next time!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I'm really glad we didn't go home







We've been in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia for five days, and I now know where I'd live if I won the lottery. Penang is a fairly large island on the east coast (a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland) of Malaysia that was obtained by the British East India Company in the late 18th century. It has a long history as a trading and shipping port and has a really interesting multicultural feel. The Brits brought people from China and southern India to work for them, and the old town still has vibrant Chinese and Indian sections as well as what is called Baba Nyonya (the Chinese settlers who intermarried with the Malay locals). The food is fabulous (Colin keeps admonishing me for hiding the glorious flavors of Indian food from him all these years), and the architecture and colors remind me alot of the Caribbean, as does the rather relaxed attitude of the people.
Neither one of us knew what to expect when we arrived, and we were both really surprised by the abundance of EVERYTHING modern here. Not only do they have an affordable public transport system that would make any major US city proud, but the tap water is also drinkable. We went to the MALL (they even have a Starbucks, but I like the local coffee better) and saw Avatar one evening (in English with Malay and Chinese subtitles). We also noticed that we could purchase the dvd of Avatar from several stores (hmmm... who knew it was available for home viewing already- I wonder what the copyright folks would have to say about that).
There is so much to do here- one day we took the bus to Penang Hill (elevation 800 metres), which was where the upper crust built their homes in the Victorian era because of its significantly cooler temperatures. I got to take my very first funicular ride there- it's a two stage deal with a stop and change of cars halfway up the hill. It wasn't the most exhilarating ride ever, but it was a scenic one. At the top are gardens, temples, a hotel, walking paths, beautiful vistas of the island and the sea, and... the biggest spiders I have seen in my life. The thorax on one of them was a big as my thumb, and the leg span must have been longer and wider than my palm. Fortunately, they seem to build their webs out of hair's way, so no shrieking was done (by me, anyway). We also spent parts of two days doing a walking tour of the old city, taking in the Penang State Museum, with its historical overview of the island and its settlers, Fort Cornwallis, the Chinese clan houses, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques, enjoying and absorbing the atmosphere as we went. Yesterday we took the bus to the beach at Batu Ferringhi, about 15km from town. It is, by far, the cleanest beach we've been to in SE Asia. They have TRASH CANS, which is quite novel in this region of the world, and people use them instead of just dropping things wherever when they get tired of carrying them. The sand is the largest grain I've seen, but it brushes off your feet easily and makes a good exfoliant. We did get a bit pink, even slathered thoroughly with sunscreen (I forget we're only about 6 degrees from the equator).
As I said before, the food here is terrific. I could happily stay just to eat! We've tried a bunch of different Indian and Chinese meals, not knowing what to expect (even though I can read the words, they don't mean anything in my realm of experience), and everything is delicious. For those of you who like to paddle in your food, you should try a banana leaf meal (see the photo of Colin) next time you're at the Taj Mahal.
Anyway, I think we'll probably be here for another couple of days since the nice people at the border allow us to stay for up to 90 days, so there's no need to hurry. When we were in Bangkok, getting frustrated by our inability to get on a train and by the crowds of people, we both thought pretty seriously about heading home. I am really glad we persevered, because this was definitely worth the trouble!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Our own version of The Odyssey




Okay, so I left off after a day in Kanchanaburi touring the WWII related sights. The next day we hopped on our rented motorbike and headed to Erawan Falls, which is a seven-tier waterfall 75km north of the city, reputedly one of the most spectacular in Thailand, and it was. We spent the afternoon hiking the trails upward, stopping along the way to take a dip in several of the crystal clear pools with the creepy, foot-fetish fishies. As soon as you step into the water, you feel raspy little fish lips kissing your feet and ankles, eating the dead skin. We saw places in Cambodia and elsewhere in Thailand with swimming pools full of the same fish where people would pay for the privilege of having their toes lipped. They apparently hit the mother lode with my feet, because I think there were about 30 of them munching away at one point. It was pretty icky but sort of became a test of will to see how long I could stand it, sort of like watching a mosquito bite you (outside of malarial areas, mind you). The BEST thing was watching other people discover the fishes! The next day, we rode out to see some Angkor-era ruins that were mightily unimpressive after seeing the real deal. We also went to see a very large monkey-pod tree, which is an acacia of some variety and must have been about 15 feet in diameter, and rode past some huge horse stables (seemed odd to me, I didn't know there were many equestrians here). The next day was the New Year, so we got back on the bus (having determined that yes, the Malaysia-bound trains from Bangkok were full through the 4th of January) and went to the city of Cha Am.
Cham Am is on the Gulf of Thailand about two hours from Bangkok and is one of the places the locals go for beach time (not sunbathing, the locals stay in the shade of umbrellas and use whitening creams to remain as pale as possible). They also wear street clothes when they do get into the water (we saw this in Vietnam as well). Since the day was a holiday, the beach was packed- it looked like photos from Coney Island in the mid-20th century. It was really neat to see, but we decided not to stay and went the next morning to Hua Hin (20 minutes south) to catch another bus to southern Thailand, only to learn that the bus station "is finish," which means closed, gone, not there anymore. Fortunately for us, a very nice lady waiting in the back of a songthaew (a pickup truck with a roof over the bed and two rows of bench seats along the sides) told us it was going to her hometown of Pranburi, which has a big bus station, and to hop in. We did and got a bus to Songkhla in the south of Thailand, arriving 12 hours later, at around 11pm, without a map or a place to stay. We found both, along with a noodle soup midnight snack, and went to sleep. The next morning, since it was raining, we got on yet another bus and went to Hat Yai, which is where all roads and trains in southern Thailand meet. Since the train was full and the buses would arrive in Malaysia late in the evening, and we were tired of sitting on buses anyway, we stayed the day and went to....McDonalds for dinner. Yes, we ate at McDonalds for the first time since September, and you know what? It tastes the same in Thailand as it does in the US! And you know all the super-size fries they can't sell at home because of the exhorbitant caloric content? They must have shipped all the packaging over here, because that's what we got and enjoyed each and every one of those delicious, crispy potato and grease angels.
Finally, for the last leg of our epic journey, we got up the next morning at the uncivilized hour of 5am and were able to get tickets for the train to Butterworth, Malaysia. We were seated across from a Buddhist monk from Taiwan who was traveling to Kuala Lumpur. He started to giggle when he saw the book in my lap, Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and pulled the Chinese version of the same book from his bag- same edition, same photos even! Well, we made it to Malaysia on Tuesday and are now on the island of Penang, in the city of Georgetown and loving it here!