Thaipusam and Langkawi

On Saturday evening I thought I wasn’t going to get up to much, but in fact I had had quite an interesting evening. I was pursuaded that it would be a really cool idea to go to Thaipusam festival which was being celebrated by the Tamil in Penang. First to get there we headed up towards the festival by bus which took almost 90 minutes; unfortunately we didn’t get off at the right place so we had to get a taxi back towards the festival so the whole process took ages. After we eventually got to the festival we grabbed some food before heading towards the temples themselves.

The festival is actually a two day affair and I only caught the first day, where a chariot is brought up from one temple to another pulled by bulls. The festival also involves people piercing themselves which people do to prove their resistance to pain. They often had a bar in between their teeth to stop them biting off their tongue so it must have hurt a lot. First we had a wander around the temples, one of which was surprisingly in a colonial style building and the other opposite was more traditional before we walked back to the bus stop and the chariot. This took absolutely ages as there were tons and tons of people walking, and there was a bit of a crush as we tried to pass the chariot which got a little scary for a moment or two.

The festival was really good overall – much better than the mediocre Chinese New Year.

On Sunday morning I left Penang and I arrived into Langkawi on Sunday morning on the express boat, the journey was fairly uneventful, except that they didn’t have breakfast on board the boat and I got to watch some tom and jerry cartoons. That evening I had a pizza for dinner which was expensive at RM30, but the main issue was that I ate it too fast as I hadn’t had much food that day, so I had to sit down afterwards on the beach for 30 minutes to digest it fully.

Over the next few days I basically just chilled out, and on Monday I sat on the beach for several hours and managed to get really sunburnt which still hurts a bit now a couple of days later. I’m not going t-shirt less on the beach or snorkeling again as its actually pretty embarrassing. One of the main problems was that I didn’t get all the sand off as the showers are cold so that probably made matters worse. On Wednesday I went up to a nearby mountain to go on a cable car which gave great views of the rest of Langkawi island which was really good to see.

Langkawi itself is a tropical island in the north of Malaysia near the Thai border, basically it has lots of restaurants and the prices aren’t too bad, really its like a combination between Tahiti and Moorea though the prices are literally less than 20% of those on Tahiti, and I’m eating all my meals out here, rather than buying food from the supermarket as I did on Tahiti, except for one meal/day where I’d buy a meal on the side of the road.

Bed bugs

Well it appears that the mosquito bites I talked about weren’t actually mosquito bites at all but were actually bed bugs, so now I have to wait for my clothes and stuff to be washed to get rid of them.

It also appears that the accommodation in question, Love Lane Inn has a problem with them. There is a trip advisor review from 2006 saying the same thing, as well as the owner of where I am staying now on Langawi.

Oh the joy.

Georgetown, Penang

On Friday evening after an excessively long bus ride that included 2 hours messing around in KL bus stations and no movies I arrived into the small port of Butterworth. From there I was able to get the RM1.20 (US$0.33) ferry across to Penang island itself. As the sun set Georgetown looks like a typical city with some skyscrapers towering overhead. After the boat docked I headed into the area of town with the travellers accommodation and checked into a guesthouse. That evening I didn’t do much other than grab some chicken noodles from a nearby street stall before heading to bed. I decided to stay in Penang for a couple of nights though so I wouldn’t have to leave first thing the next morning to go to Langawi It also gave me some time to sort out accommodation.

The next morning I set out to explore Georgetown. First I headed to the KOMTOR tower where the tourist office was supposedly located. I also thought that I’d be able to grab some breakfast as well. Upon arrival the only open place for breakfast was an overpriced Starbucks where they hadn’t even put on the air conditioning. After a wander I found the tourist office but it failed at it’s task by only having it’s opening hours in Malay – for a country with a sizeable Indian and Chinese community and where English is the lingua Franca between those communities and the Malays as well as being the language of tourism that was very surprising to see.

After this things got much better however. I headed back to my accommodation to book my onward transport and accommodation on Langawi. After doing that I headed to the excellent Penang museum which only cost RM1 ($0.28). This had thoroughly interesting coverage on how the British founded Georgetown and the communities that live there. It was pretty fair in general though it was probably a little biased towards the British. After seeing that I went to an Indian restaurant to have a delicious sweet lassi and slightly spicy rice and cashew nuts that also wasn’t too expensive – the whole meal only cost RM6 ($1.67). After this I headed through the colonial part of town before looking at the main mosque and an impeccably restored Chinese temple before returning to my hostel to shave (which is actually an event when you don’t use a manual razor) and catch the end of Casino Royale on Star Movies which was excellent.

Of note the island of Penang is actually spelt Pinang in Malay and like many only recently romanised languages it is pronounced like Spanish or Portugese (and maybe Venetian) reflecting those countries dominance in the world in the 16th century.

Melaka

I arrived into Melaka on Wednesday evening. The bus ride up wasn’t particularly exciting as it was motorway driving all the way. The crossing over from Singapore was fairly painless however. Melaka itself doesn’t seem to be particularly exciting beyond the usual shopping centre. Even most of the restaurants shut early. The town itself is quite pretty and has some ok European style buildings but it isn’t really my favourite city. The highlight was sitting around my hostel chatting and on Thursday evening having a satay dinner where you dipped scewers into a central pot. It was good but a little expensive at RM10 (£2). On Friday I’m going to get the bus up north to Penang and from there I’ll probably go and relax on the beach for a few days.

The Night Safari

After arriving into Singapore once again I took the MRT back to Bugis and my accommodation, the Inn Crowd hostel. In the afternoon I uploaded some photos to Flickr and did a brief bit of shopping. After this I had a delicious Burger King burger before heading over to the Singapore Night Safari using my pre-purchased ticket I got at the bird park before I went to Cambodia.

To get there I took the special S$4 bus which was an adventure in itself as I was running late for the bus (something I’ve *never* done before.). Once I got there the Singaporeans around tried to be helpful but failed miserably – the first guy refused to tell me which street I was on and instead gave me directions somewhere else. The second then told me to stand on the wrong side of the road where there was a public bus bus stop so I had to cross like it was Viet Nam to get the bus.

Then after all that fun I arrived at the Night Safari itself. The night safari itself was absolutely amazing and was well worth the entry fee. First I saw their night animal show – this was complete at the beginning with a request not to use camera flash in 5 languages (everything else was only in English.) – unsurprisingly this wasn’t followed through and people used their camera flashes anyway. The show was pretty good and entertaining even so. Probably the flashes where on because the people didn’t know how to switch them off – or they are like my Canon which auto-reenables the flash in auto (and even night scenery) modes. Yeah it’s lame Canon – the Panasonic Lumix range doesn’t do this.

After this I ignored the crowds going on the tram and walked around the enclosures that you can reach on foot -this enabled me to see lions, tigers giraffes as well as a sloth bear and giant flying squirrel which was amazing to see. The animals also seemed to be fairly lively.

After a nearly 2 hour walk around the animal enclosures (I don’t have photos as my camera was out of battery.) I decided to not be cheap and shell out the S$10 for the tram which took me round some more of the animals I had missed in my initial explorations with surprisingly few duplicates before I headed home to bed.

The next day I arranged my bus to Melaka and finally found the decent priced food court in Bugis junction – finally I could get a decent priced meal there and for which I had the speciality “carrot cake” and a delicious ice dessert.

Note that the food at the Night Safari is expensive at at least S$10 a meal. Also if you are catching the public bus back from the zoo/night safari then the 927 bus and changing onto the MRT at the far end is probably about 5 minutes faster even though you go to a more out of the way MRT station if your accommodation isn’t on the red (north-south) line. You could also probably get the 138 and transfer at the end of the upper thomson road to another bus and then get the MRT from Newton if you want to be really cool and that would probably be even quicker – though its only viable with an EZ-link card and you’d need to ask where to get off.

Siem Reap and the Angkor complex

While my previous comment on the niceness of Siem Rep was a little hyperbolic it was still considerably nicer than expected, another thing was that the town seems to have kept the airport road full of 5* hotels and not slum-like buildings that you generally manage to see somewhere en-route, even in Santiago or New York. I also managed to have some food for generally only US$3 or so, and in one case less than US$2 including a drink.

Anyhow so on Thursday after my last blog post I headed to the Angkor national museum, this was expensive at US$12, but was of a good western standard and had a lot of good presentation of some of the Angkor artifacts including high-tech audio-visual displays in about 5-6 languages. They even have a collection of 1000 Buddha statues but it was way less impressive than the collection I saw in Kyoto. Unfortunately I did manage to get given a dodgy dollar bill at the museum, I detected and refused it though, its annoying checking if the dollar is real as you have to check the paper quality and there is no watermark to check like most other currencies.

Then on Friday morning I headed out for the day to Angkor Wat. To get to Angkor Wat I decided to cycle (for US$1) the 7km on flat roads to the temple complex, it was quite interesting as I was by far the fastest cyclist on the road mostly due to my practice in Oxford. I would also say that it was fairly safe, the cars mostly behaved themselves and the cyclists probably cycle safer than they do in Oxford. On the way I also had to buy a US$40 ticket to get access to the Angkor site for the next 3 days, this apparently doesn’t apply to Cambodians for whom it is free. There are a lot of police around though, and with help from foreign governments including China, the US, India and Japan they are maintaining the sites, the Japanese seem to be contributing to the most sites however and they also seem to be doing a really good job of the maintenance and reconstruction.

Angkor Wat itself is seriously impressive, basically it is located in the Jungle inside a set of massive walls with a huge moat around the outside that is probably 1.5km across. The most interesting things to see are the view of the site from across the lake where it blends into the jungle and close up where you can see the elaborate carving of battle scenes that exist throughout Angkor Wat and the other temples and buildings in the complex. As I said before, Angkor Wat is a massive complex, firstly there is an outer wall, and then significantly further in there is a much smaller central temple which you can walk around inside, it is also built up higher than the surroundings.

After seeing Angkor Wat I headed up the road north towards the old town of Angkor Thom, I didn’t get there however as I got distracted by a hilltop temple on one side of the road, this was beautiful as well, and you could climb up the very steep steps at the side to get a view over the surrounding jungle and fields that stretch off very flatly into the distance.

The next day I met up with an English and Cambodian girl working for a Cambodian NGO at my hotel and we went off to spend the day relaxing and chatting by a nearby lake that was mostly visited by Cambodians rather than tourists. The Cambodians themselves are generally very nice and relaxed people and this was shown here (as well as their cycling :p). In the evening we went out to the night market which was relaxing and we also saw a local orphanage perform some traditional Cambodian dance which was excellent to see, unfortunately the orphanage was spending a lot of money on not really needed stuff like US$180 on monthly internet access, that is as much as it is in Tahiti and internet cafes are nowhere near that expensive here.

On Sunday I then cycled out to Angkor Thom and the temples there which also had lots of beautiful carving as well as large faces carved into the stone, as well as this I saw a couple of other temples which really seemed like cliched temples that blended into the jungle, though they weren’t complete ruins which was good to see and I really enjoyed it. After this I cycled back before having dinner and going to bed around 10pm.

To be honest the story of the temples is better told with pictures rather than words and I’ll try and get them online soon.

Siem Reap: First Impressions

I flew into Siem Reap airport from Singapore this morning on a nice and early 6am flight, fortunately I managed to get to bed early last night so I’m not too tired today. After arriving and taking the free transport to my accommodation I settled in and had a nap in the morning before exploring the town a bit.

Siem Reap is actually surprisingly modern and clean, the pavements are built up and there are a large number of expensive hotels here. There also don’t appear to be any shacklike buildings and the guidebooks sold in the shops aren’t photocopied! The prices for many things are correspondingly high, with the museum costing US$12, though I had a meal for only US$5 which wasn’t too expensive. The only hassle you get is occasional hassle for transport though the Cambodians are pretty laid back so don’t hassle you too much for it.

This afternoon I’m off to the museum and have a wander around town, before heading out to the temples in the morning.

OH MY GOD: Jurung Bird Park

On Wednesday I caught the MRT out towards the Jurong bird park. First I had some lunch in the mall at Boon Lay – the far end of the east west line. I had a chicken curry noodles. This was really tasty and also pretty damn spicy -a nice random dish. It also wasn’t too expensive at S$4.60 – at least it was a better price than I’ve been paying over the Chinese New Year holiday while the food courts were shut.

After that I caught the bus from the MRT station to the bird park itself. The bird park is run in a similar style to Singapore zoo and while it isn’t as impressive it’s still pretty good. I got to see lots of birds – most of which are in large cages from Barn Owls to Crested-woodpigeons. There are also lots of tropical animals like Macaws and a lot of smaller birds too. After that I saw a hawk display that was pretty good but not totally brilliant to be honest.

One problem with the zoos and wildlife areas in Singapore is that there is a sizeable minority who don’t know how to behave in venues like this – and I’m not talking about the children. They seem to think it’s acceptable to shout like they are in a crowded bar and bang on the glass – there are no signs telling you not to but it’s obviously unacceptable behaviour. It’s sad that they don’t have the common sense not to do stuff like this when it isn’t explicitly forbidden. Of course even then they do jaywalk :p.

After the birdpark I headed back to my hostel where I had a cheap supper before settling down for an early night before my early flight to Siem Rep in the morning.

Singapore over the Chinese New Year holiday

After celebrating in the new Chinese Year I had a pretty relaxing new years day like the rest of Singapore appeared to be doing. The first thing of note I did was watch the British horror movie “Eden Park” this was a great film until the end. It started subtle with some teenagers cycling across a red light (which is a crime in UK the average Oxford don probably commits.). The movie in general is great as mostly it just twists the rules of society and adds a bit of ignorance to create a great horror film. There are no monsters or demons in this film which is great. The film is flawed though in the last 2 minutes which turns it from the probable overall winner of the Patrick Levy award for cinematography to something little better than Four Christmases. If you watch it walk out in the scene with the inflatable swimming pool.

Then I went to the waterfront to see another free concert though this one wasn’t as good as the last one I saw and I walked off early before I returned to my hostel. Once back I found a copy of the Economist which I read – primarily to see why the British currency is quite so weak at the moment (it’s up to US$1.40=£1 today). On reading the magazine I did answer a curious question about racism in the UK that I’ve been pondering for a while. Now it is true in the UK that most of the rich areas are mostly full of only whites but that most people there have no/little overt problem with ethnic minorities. The issues is more subtle than this and there is actually a lot of pregudice based on class instead – as blacks and asians start more likely to be poor then due to this class pregudice they don’t get richer.

Of course there is a flip side to this argument as the economist also published an article on some psycological research on racism which said that although people aren’t overtly racist they don’t seem to act appalled when someone is racist in front of them.

The next day, which in the west would be Boxing Day, I first went to McDonalds again as the food courts still appear to be closed. After this I had a little shopping to do as I managed to lose my washbag. Of course the most expensive part of the replacement was the washbag itself; it was also the los difficult to replace and it took 2 hours including a lot of time borrowing the Singaporean free wifi (Singapore has free wifi practically nationwide now – well at least in the numerous shopping centres.) to find something. After this it was getting quite late so I headed to the Singapore botanic gardens for an hour or so to wander around. It was good; especially the national orchid garden which was beautiful though being a public holiday it was fairly busy.

Relaxing, trains and Chinese New Year

After the museum the next day I just chilled out in Kuala Lumpur and read the excellent book Absolute Power. This is about an American president who has rough sex with a woman which goes too far and she lands up dead. The problem is that there is a witness; a three times convicted burgler so from there the plot unfolds.

Apart from that I chilled out in my dorm. On the 25th I then took the train to Singapore which actually ended up taking 7.5 hours to complete the journey. This is due to the extreme speed of the Malaysia/Singapore border controls which took absolutely ages to complete. The issue is that Singapore and Malaysia have a lovers tiff over a few different issues including Singapores water usage and the railway line which is owned by Malaysia. I can see why the Singaporeans are upset about the railway. It is hardly used but the space taken up would allow six tracks to be constructed all the way through Singapore. To put this into perspective the Japanese run a Shinkansen up to 9 times an hour between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka with only two tracks (aside from stations which have four tracks – two fast, two slow) and some of those trains are much faster than others.

After arriving into Singapore I caught the bus from the unmarked railway station bus stop (evidence of the lovers tiff from the other side) to the MRT to get to my hostel. After arriving in Singapore I headed down to get some food first of all – as it’s Chinese New Year I expected to have some Chinese food. Unfortunately all the Chinese restaurants were shut leaving me with a choice of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC or fish and chips. After careful deliberation over my difficult choice I went for the fish and chips – however it was only average as it was in breadcrumbs rather than only being cooked in batter.

After this I headed down to the bay to watch some free live Chinese jazz by the waterfront (the venue is actually called Esplanade outdoor theatre) before returning to my hostel at 9pm to see who was there. I liked the atmosphere on the waterfront it was chilled out and relaxed and not tense at all so it was very non-Anglo Saxon in a good way. They do this every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and it isn’t a Chinese new year think so if you’re in town go and check it out.

At this point I returned to my hostel were I met some English guys and we had a few beers before going to Chinatown via the longest wait ever at the MRT ticket machines – if you go to Singapore at festival time get an EZ link card – do not pass go do not collect £200 (which at the current exchange rate is US$200 :p – seriously it’s only US$270 when at the start of my trip it was US$400.) the people I was with didn’t and we had to queue for 30 minutes. After this we hung around Chinatown waiting for midnight. At which point there were some cool but loud firecrackers followed by frankly mediocre fireworks. My local school has put on better for bonfire night in the UK.