Malaysia, Part 2

Wednesday I woke up to hurricane winds and our hotel shaking. I moved the love seat in off the patio expecting to have torrential rains hitting soon, then I went back to sleep. When I woke up 3 hours later everything was calm. I guess that’s just how night weather is in Malaysia.

Sometimes when I dream it is like a movie with actors and character development, a climax and an ending. Some times the credits roll. This night I had a dream in that style about a big heist, but not a bank heist. It was something about ripping off a big corporation. I remember less of the plot from this dream than probably any other dream I’ve had like this, but I do remember the ending where about 4 of us survived an ambush. The whole dream was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Tien and I were awake in time for breakfast this morning so we went downstairs and had a surprisingly good meal. We went back upstairs and relaxed for a bit and tried to figure out if we should leave, and then after a big pillow fight we decided to pack up. We checked out and caught a Mercedes Benz taxi back to the bus station. We got on the bus to Seremban, the city where we had to transfer to a train that would take us back to Kuala Lumpur. We turned on some music and zoned out and nearly missed the station. Luckily I happened to see the walkway we’d taken a few days earlier and recognized it in time to get off at the exactly right stop.

While we were waiting at the train station I saw a scale and decided to weigh myself and my backpack. I weighed 97 kg with a bunch of stuff in my pockets, and my backpack was 16 kg. I have to say I’m pretty happy with my backpack, especially since it holds 35 lbs of gear comfortably.

We boarded our train and headed off. I was staring out the window watching forests of palm trees pass by when I was struck with a craving for Mexican food. Then I thought about Puerto Alegre and how lovely their guacamole is with a margarita. There was no chance to have anything like that here though, so I let the thought go…

We checked back into the Mandarin Pacific in KL and had a rest, then headed out to find the Petronas Twin Towers. On our way down to the Pasar Seni station I smelled cloves in the air and realized that it wasn’t the first time I had smelled them in Malaysia. I guess people here love cloves, and I can’t blame them.

Four stops down the line we got off at a subway stop called KLCC and walked up a few flights of stairs. Walking up the steps from a subway into a new city is always an exciting thing and I recalled my first time walking up to Stockton and Market in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what to expect here in KL, but what I did see when we walked out was a huge ƒ building. I wasn’t sure what it was but I began photographing it, and as we strafed it I realized that it was in fact one of the two Petronas Towers.

Petronas Twin Towers The Petronas Towers were enormous and awesome. I’d never seen such at glorious building before. They were shiny and clean and all of the spaces surrounding them were huge. Huge entryways, huge fountain, huge driveways. Tien and I spent a long while photographing them from near and far, and then went inside to take more photos. Inside on the bottom levels is a four or five story mall. Outside in the back is a large patio with an impressive fountain and an island. We took many many photos and some videos. TIen had never been inside of a shopping mall before and had never seen skyscrapers aside from those in Saigon, which aren’t really skyscrapers so much as tall buildings.

After we got tired from awe at the towers we were hungry, and since mall food tends to suck I resisted the urge to let Tien try Pizza Hut for the first time and we walked a block away and found a better, cheaper restaurant than what would’ve been available at the KLCC mall. I was beginning to feel a little ill in my digestive system, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying two beers and a delicious plate of spaghetti with chicken. Tien got some sort of delicious chicken and rice dish and honey lemonade. We sat and enjoyed our food as it got dark, then returned to the Petronas towers to take some photos of it at night. They are much more impressive at night because of the way they are lit up. Aside from the unique Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, the rest of the skyline wasn’t even remarkable when compared to these towers.

We were really tired by this point so we got on the train and managed to stay awake. Between the train station and the hotel I began thinking about an old friend I used to work with named Ron Abitbol. Sometimes we had to travel for work to the same places, but we did t work together all that long. Ron lived out of his car about half of the time, and sometimes he’d live in his boat or in an actual dwelling of some sort. He was a unique character, his own man. Some people thought he was weird, and I guess he was. He did his own thing pretty much all the time. Before I had met him he had gone to Mexico for a long time and worked on a boat. He ended up marrying a Mexican girl and bringing her back to America. He would wander all over. I felt like I might be a Ron.

That night I slept unusually poor. The sickness had set in and kept me up frequently. Even so, we ended up sleeping in late and missing breakfast on Thursday morning.

We decided to go to the Batu Caves, a place I’d wanted to see since I saw taka’s photos of it. As we were getting ready a screw fell loose on my glasses like it had back at Angkor wat. We wandered around looking for a micro screwdriver and found an optics shop where a girl tightened the loose screw for me.

A block later we found a small temple and were invited inside. We went in and as I was taking photos I noticed that the battery on my camera was nearly dead. We went back to the hotel and ended up staying there and not going to the caves at all because I felt so ill. Tien went to find some medicine and food. I had told her to get some dried fruit. She returned with medicine, tea and junkfood which she said was the closest thing she could find to fried food. She did have some multigrain crackers though and that was nice.

Tiny WatchersWe napped the afternoon away and when I woke up I was antsy and feeling a little better, but rather than the batu caves we went to Menara KL looking for a geocache.

Two train stops up we began what was a decent walk to the top of a hill. As we got near the cache location a group of monkeys came running up. We took photos of them and watched them play and preen. When a menara security guard finally left we found the cache and dropped off a travel bug I’d found in SF. This was Tiens first geocache.

Since we were at menara we decided to go up into the tower. It was nearly sunset and the views were gorgeous. It really helped me see the space of the city, which was larger than the maps had led me to think.

There were many Islamic families in the tower and many of the women were dressed head to toe in black with just eyes and hands showing. One of them was having her photo taken, which I thought was funny since you couldn’t see almost any of her. It was like taking a portrait of somebody wearing a gorilla suit, it could be anybody. I thought about that custom and the more I thought about it I became slightly offended at it. I couldn’t put my reason into words but I was definitely offended and that was strange since I don’t usually get offended by people’s lifestyles.

We went back down the 1 minute elevator ride, me feeling slightly ill on the way, and at the bottom was a vendor playing with a really neat crazy remote controlled car. I ended up buying it for tiens nieces.

We took a shuttle down the hill to the street. The radio was playing a local Malaysian radio station with pop hits in English. One thing I like about Malaysia is that almost everybody speaks English. On top of that, many of the Malay words are misspellings of english words. For example, restoran, motorsikal, ekspress, monorel, and bas.

I had a hard time staying awake on the train home because I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in a day and was extremely dehydrated due to my ongoing gastrointestinal problems. There was a sign on the train that said “Three seats are reserved for senior citizens, disabled and pregnant ladies. Aren’t we courteous?”

Back at the hotel I noticed the the battery in my LX3 was dead so I plugged it in with a funky 3 prong plug. Back in Vietnam I’d looked at that plug and had nearly thrown it away since my American plugs had been working great everywhere. In malaysia though all power plugs were these and I’d used that cable to charge my Nikon and my laptop.

I was starving by this point so we went for food. I very irritably dragged Tien Through the market and settled on chicken fried rice with sprite, which was very satisfying. We then went to look for some gifts for her family at the market but couldn’t find anything that really stood out and decided to get some perfume once we were back in Saigon since we probably couldn’t bring it on the plane. We headed back to the hotel and packed for our early departure the next day. I always take a long time to pack so I gave Tien On the Road and had her read aloud to me while I packed.

We got to sleep later than I had hoped and 6am came too soon. We hit the train to sentral and arrived at nearly 7, which was a bit later than planned. Even at that time Starbucks was not open and we weren’t going to eat McDonalds so we just got on the KLIA Ekspres and went to the airport with the intention of getting breakfast there. We ended up arriving much later than I had planned and I was a little worried that the lines through passport control would be as long as last time we were here, but the whole process of getting into the international terminal was actually very easy. This ease was the last bit of joy I experienced in Malaysia.

There were pretty much no breakfast places in the airport. I say this from the perspective beyond passport control. After making one of my innumerable uncomfortable bathroom breaks that were the ongoing result of my illness, we went to a cafe and got coffees and a vanilla muffin, which would’ve made a great breakfast if we had time to eat it. Instead we went down the travellators, that’s what they call the moving walkways, and got to our gate. At the gate there were unsurprisingly no places to sit, and surprisingly another xray security checkpoint. I put our coffee, the muffin, my phone, LX3, ipod and the remote controlled car into a tray and passed it through the metal detectors. On the other side I received my electronic devices soaking wet with coffee that had spilled as it went through the machine along with the spoken notice, although it was not written anywhere, that I was not allowed to bring drinks into the gate waiting area. I had run my coffee through the machine and spilled it all over my new camera, phone and iPod for nothing.

I drank some of my drinks and left the rest there, picked up my soggy electronic devices and my muffin and proceeded to the waiting area for our gate, complete with plenty of chairs and absolutely nothing else. This was a place meant for people to wait, yet they could not bring liquids in, and there were no restaurants or even a drinking fountain. I sat there dehydrated from my illness and ate my muffin with no liquid to wash it down.

I then boarded a plane and sat there for over 30 minutes with really irritating music that sounded like french music mixed with banghra being played backwards and a screaming brat in the next seat over. Neither Tien or I could understand a single word spoken by the man who offered us a meal on the plane and we ended up getting a meal that was to me entirely inedible. At least I got a few tablespoons of Sprite.

Malaysian Airlines had bragged about being one of the few five star airlines in the world, but judging from their airport and their air service, I honestly wouldn’t choose them if I am ever given a choice again, and I’ll avoid KLIA or at least plan ahead if I have to go there.

I managed to find some calm by listening to Chicane very loudly and closing my eyes, but as we landed that terrible music came back on and that brat started screaming louder and I felt a little like I was on an airplane straight to hell. We were in Saigon though, so at least that was good.

We landed. I exchanged my ringgits and some Lao money that I still had into dong, slew a few taxi touts and found a good driver to take us to the familiar District 1, Pham Ngu Lao, and the Ruby Star.

Bye bye Bangkok, hello Laos

I’m in one of those mid range SE Asian guesthouses again. The kind with the mini fridge stocked with soda, water and local beer. They’re nice enough to have an air conditioner, but not nice enough to have free wifi. There’s a shower, but no bath tub. Along with the bidet they do provide toilet paper, but you’re not allowed to flush it down the toilet. Instead you have to put it in a little bucket. My bucket came with some already used tissues and a used condom. This bathroom has two tiny extras: a phone in the bathroom next to the toilet and a clothes rack on the door.

One nice constant on my month-long trip has been the availability of american power plugs. They’re not always grounded plugs, but there are always plugs. The ones that aren’t grounded sometimes make your gear sting you with a tiny flow of stray electrons.

I’m in Laos at the Douang Deuane hotel in Vientiane. This was the 4th place I had to try before I found an open room. My room wraps in an L around the elevator shaft, but it’s quiet so far. I’m on the 4th floor which is second to the top. You can find me in room 404.

I have yet to check into a hotel that has 4 digit room numbers, let alone get lucky with room 2046.

Room 410 would’ve been mildly amusing too, and if I had Tien here we might have had to play charades.

It took me 5 modes of transportation to get here: taxi, motorbike, train, car, and airplane. I was somewhat hoping for a sixth being a tuk tuk, but you can’t win them all. I suppose the sixth could be my feet since I had to wander around in the dark of night looking for a place to sleep.

Yesterday was Tuesday and My had school. We caught a taxi to the Sky Train in Bangkok and she went off to class leaving me to do what I wished in Bangkok. I took some photos and soon got lost inside of an enormous mall next to six or seven other enormous malls located in Siam Square. I basically wandered around and took some photos and gawked at all the different things. I tried to find some photography gear that was decently priced but everything was just slightly more expensive than in America. I wonder if photographers in Thailand are inherently better because of the higher cost of entry.

The AnoontakaroonsThat night Mint and I sat up watching The Usual Suspects on Thai TV. They blurred out guns pointed at people at point blank. They blurred out people smoking. They blurred out people’s lips when they said certain thing. They let you hear every cuss word.

Today I looked at my schedule and decided that I better get a move on and get out of Thailand. I was enjoying the company of My and her family, but I was longing for the freedom and the lifestyle that comes with it. I also only have a few days left until I need to be back in Saigon and I have a whole country to see. With that in mind I logged onto ye handy internette and bought a plane ticket to Laos, surprising My and spoiling her day at school. She called her friend to answer her name and fill out her homework for her, then spent the day with me. We once again performed our taxi and sky train maneuver to get downtown, then got coffee and headed off for the backpacker district, Khaosan Road.

Khaosan Road is just about everything I hate about backpacker culture, all wrapped into a very long block. We were only there for 90 minutes, but that was plenty time to see what there was to see. I could go on and on about how much BS there is there, and I plan to do so over at Dream Not of Today where I post photos and from time to time write logical criticisms of culture, other assorted diatribes and whatever else fits the edgy dynamic of that site rather than the personal angle of this site.

Long story short, we hit the road in a taxi that went so slow we both fell asleep and woke up 1 block later. My paid the 45 minute 100 baht fee that took us around 2 sides of a single city block, and we walked. We had to do something, I was now 45 minutes late for my projected timeframe of going to the airport.

A block or so later she found us some motorbike taxis. This was not only a fantastic way to kill the 5km of gridlocked traffic between us and the sky train, but it was reminiscent of Vietnam, the country where four days from now I will return into the arms of my fiancé.

Siam Square transit took the two us through gridlocked traffic on that motorbike the way I’d handle just myself on a bicycle, which is more aggressive than most, passing between cars and taxis and busses like he was navigating a maze and knew the way through. We used the oncoming lane to pass hundreds of cars. We ran gridlocked red lights with police sitting right there or doing the same thing on their motorbikes in the opposite direction. We passed a traffic cop stopping cars that would otherwise have a clear shot and hit 50km on the open 5 lane road and were passed only by a CBR 150 before diving back into the gridlock. We passed through more maze like traffic, turned down and alley and went through a parking structure and ended up right at the stairwell for the sky train. Why did we ever get into that stationary air conditioned automobile?

I thought about how there are never any traffic jams in Vietnam unless there are automobiles involved. I shared this thought with My. Later on that night her dad would share the same thoughts with me.

We got off the sky train, got into a taxi and got stuck in traffic again and I loathed the automobile. I wondered how on earth so many cars could contain so many drivers that were so fucking stupid as to sit there in the street burning up and smoking dead dinosaurs when they ought to be going somewhere at a very rapid pace. I thought back to when I first bought a motorcycle in San Jose in order to cut through traffic and give up the sitting and dinosaur smoking lifestyle.

We eventually got home, I packed as fast as I could, which gets harder every time I buy a bamboo flute or a man purse or a pair of broken swimming shorts, piled into her dads car and headed off to the airport. I arrived at the airport 45 minutes before the plane left. I got my ticket 30 minutes before the plane left. I got through passport control and security 15 minutes before my plane left. I got to my seat on the plane 10 minutes before my plane left. I didn’t know things could go so well after going so badly.

The flight was nice, I was nearly asleep when they gave me a delicious meal and a small pour of wine. I listened to Halcyon + On + On and One Perfect Sunrise. Orbital is always great traveling music.

When I got off the plane I still hadn’t filled out my arrival card, which is standard procedure on the plane in order to make passport control quicker. There were no pens, so I just went to the line and stood there. The man turned me away to go fill it out at the desk where there were no pens, so I went. There were about 7 people standing around sharing a single pen. It belonged to an Asian man of a descent I couldn’t discern, but he gave it to me when everybody was done with it and walked away with his wife and child. I filled out my stuff and left the pen there as goodwill, but then thought I should’ve done differently when I ended up next to him in line. He didn’t care, he just smiled and waved it off. It was late and we were tired, who cared about a pen? It’s always good to have smiles and laughs from strangers, and there’s something extra when there’s no other communication beyond the rudimentary.

I changed my remaining Baht to Kip. Kip is another currency with 4 or 5 trailing zeros. My taxi ride to the hotel was 52,000. I got dropped off by the waterfront of the river that separates Thailand and Laos, so basically I was only a few hundred meters into the fourth country on my journey. The hotel I had found in the guidebook was full. The place next door was full. I had predicted this and had scoped out a few places on the way in. They were also full, including the one that had wifi. I had picked the right neighborhood though and the 5th or 6th place I went had a room open, and that is where I am now.

I like Beerlao. I’m not sure if the beer here is great just because I haven’t been drinking as frequently, of if it’s just better, but beer here in Asia is nice. Maybe it’s the property of ones being applied to a heat factor that is well above what I’m used to. Anyhow, I’m safe and sound in Laos. I have 4 days here, then it’s back to Saigon to be with my fiancé and handle visa stuff for her trip to America with me. Beyond that, I’m not sure how my trip is going to go, but I think I will only be able to see Malaysia and not Singapore. Perhaps I can shift in a different sixth country to make up for it…