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!