The Killing Fields

Could we do this full time? That is travel from developing country to developing country, making the most of the cheap cost of living? I reckon £80 a day would easily do you, especially if you stayed in some places for extended periods (as travel, even some coach and rail travel, eats into your daily allowance). And for that money you could get B&B and eat out, plus a couple of beers. It might be the ultimate life of Riley? Imagine never having to cook or wash up?

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C and I had a breakfast discussion about this and, whilst we agreed we were having a royal time, there were two red flags. First, the heat. We are both good in the heat, but if there were no escape in sight, I think it would drive us a bit mad. I did six months in Sierra Leone without an air-conditioned bedroom, and whilst I worked through that it wasn’t a long term solution. The second red flag, waving madly for me, would be living as a rich white man abroad. I struggle with the deference, the smiles and bowed heads, even if there’s a different reaction when we’re not in view. I can understand how some people might enjoy that level of service, but for me it grates. What about working over here for an NGO?, C asks. Not a bad idea, but then the heat becomes a factor … and, in any case, I do want to write.

So, no. Probably not. Any extended time away will be in Doris. Like the 8-month extended tour of Italy and Greece we did 5 years ago (was it really that long?). Yes, that’s it.

The coach journey with Giant Ibis coach company to Phnom Penh ($15 each) was comfortable, included free water and a croissant, left on time and reaffirmed to us that coach and rail travel is so much better than flying … if you have the time. And our driver did not knock over a single motorcyclist.

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Which is a surprise when you consider how many there are (motorcyclists, not coaches) and how ruthlessly our driver drove. Motorcycles and tut-tuts are everywhere. Everyone has one, including most children. They are used to transport four people at the same time, adapted to carry loads you’d need a skip for back home, and many are made into travelling shops. I love them. And, thankfully, we have yet to see any accidents, although I understand that motorcycle usage moves to another level in Vietnam. Looking forward to that.

Phnom Penh is super crazy. Built on the confluence of the mighty Mekong (which rises in the Himalayas, don’t you know) and a lesser river, and remembering that the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s, it is a city alive with endeavour. They’re building everywhere and some of it looks both modern and safe. There’s money here, mixed brashly amongst the poverty, and high-rises are on the up, so to speak. The streets are alive with vendors, with cars and motorcycles traveling in all directions, not all them complementary. And yet it seems to work. There’s no angst here, just life. A miasma of it. And it’s fab.

Our homestay is … interesting, down a backstreet of a backstreet, but it’s clean, comfortable, has WiFi and air-conditioning. The owner dropped us off at a restaurant-cum-garage where we were offered beef or soup. We had both, and then brought some crisps on the way home. And none of us got injured crossing the roads. Result.

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And then down to earth.

On Sunday we visited S21, the genocide museum, after which we went to one of the killing fields. We’ve done Auschwitz/Birkenau and Bergen/Belsen and I’ve written about the former before. Here, like then, it’s very difficult to put into words what you feel. But I’m going to try.

Like the original Auschwitz camp, which was cavalry barracks before it became the test-case centre for mass-murder, S21 was not purpose built. It was originally a school; four, three-story concrete blocks around two courtyards. The museum had tried to leave it as it was, with the wretched, tortured and then often murdered inmates replaced by horrific photographs. The make-shift cells (some wooden, some brick) are as they were. Some of the barbed wire, put there to prevent prisoners commiting suicide over the balconies, is also in place. C took an audio-guide, whilst I wandered and read the many signs and notes. For me that was enough. The stained tiles told the story. The grainy photos added depth.

 

I closed the door of one of the 2×6 foot wooden cells – whilst I was in it – and tried to imagine the lashings with electrical cable, the beatings with sticks – swapping guards when one of them got tired, being hung from tied writsts behind my back knowing that to cry out was against the rules and that more beatings would come if I did.

Of course I couldn’t. There was no way to transport yourself to that hell. But in fairness to the museum, the environment enabled me to give it my best shot. Being left as it was with little elaboration makes it more poignant than if there had been electronic displays … and a coffee shop.

It was something else, and a must if you come to SE Asia.

And do you mind me making a contemporary point? Dictatorships are driven by men who crave authority and power. Their currency is fear. They’re sustained by the desires of those in power, not by the needs of those they control. As such they are self-perpetuating, that is until the grip is broken. And, once dictatorships have a taste of unopposed rule, those in power will resort to anything to hold on. Free speech, the rule of law, human rights … they go in time.

Liberal democracy is not dead at dictator Putin has recently argued. It can’t be. It mustn’t be. As I understand it, His Orangeness had hijacked the 4th of July celebrations in Washington. Apparently there wil now be VIP enclosures, with tickets etc. His daughter, not his Secretary of State, was at his side at the recent G20 summit. These are small steps by a man who would be king. Over here Brexit breaks us from a group of nations designed to be held together for the common good – among other things, to prevent a replay of our continent’s very recent ‘horrible history’. We only have to look to the very recent mass-killings in Bosnia to know what we’re capable of.

No, liberal democracy is not dead. It can’t be. And, if it is, our descendent’s decendents will be visiting camps such as these where we might have been guests.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Sorry. More positive news next time.

Angkor Wat

We did a day looking around Siem Reap and took a late tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat (you can get in to watch the sunset if you have a ticket for the following day = $37 each).

 

Siem Reap is lovely. Provincial, a bit tatty, but very ’boutique’ with a lovely river/canal running through it. We did a temple and then the palace gardens where we came across a colony of fruit bats, which are like bats but bigger and who’ve spent a lot of time in the gym. C was fixated. We had coffee at a v colonial, open-centred (around a pool) hotel and retired to our place post-lunch (where I went for a run having had 20 mins in our pool before breakfast … no ‘well-dones’ necessary.)

Angkor Wat at sunset was magical, sat on top of a crumbling, 10th Century, sandstone pyramidal temple – with quite a few other respectful tourists. The sun didn’t quite make it to the horizon due to some low clouds, but other than that it was a fab evening.

 

A few words on Cambodian history/politics, but only a few as, until recently, it has been v depressing. The Khmer people have lived here for eons and have pretty much been put upon by the Thais, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the French, bombed during the Vietnam war by the US and then, most horrifically, purged by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 70s/80s until the Vietnamese invaded them + the UN to stop the rot.

Two million people (TWO MILLION) were murdered in the ‘Killing Fields’ … in our life time. I’m not going to make a contemporary point, but why, or why didn’t we do something about it then? Phnom Penh, the capital, was literally emptied by the Khmer Rouge with the aim to take everyone back to 11th century fuedalism. Anyone remotely intellectual was murdered – those wearing glasses were considered middle class and had to go (I’d have been a goner). Whatever next? The fact that Angkor Wat survived after they dismantled all of the temples remains a bit of a mystery.

Since then there has been a dictatorship in any other name (think Putin’s Russia where one bloke stays in power regardless), but they have a king … who doesn’t quite attract the reverence of his Thai neighbour. But the people seem happy and genuinely lovely … which is maybe not a surprise if you consider their recent alternatives. I mean, the French … come on.

And then a day at Angkor Wat, although that’s just one temple among scores. The place is massive, I reckon as big as Thetford Forest, and all there is is a tourist road network joining more temples than a templey thing. In the end, with our own tuk-tuk driver ($20 for the day), we did six. Which, by mid-afternoon, was more than enough.

Think Tomb Raider. Sorry, don’t. I can’t get Angelina Jolie out of my head. Try Indiana Jones. Yes, that’s better. Think sandstone temples, large moats, jungle, ruins and intricate carving, some small, some as big as a barn door. Think tall, steep, uneven stone staircases, with an Indo-Chinese regard  for health and safety. Think uneven blocks and simmering heat. Now multiply that by 100 and you’re not even close.

Oh, and the carvings are fab, especially the big faces. And the long corridors and large stone windows. Yes, the colour has all drained out, leaving a patchy grey brown finish and the jungle backdrop is all one shade of green, so the pallet is muted and samey, but each of the temples is a world-class attraction in its own right. And there are many, many temples. All in various states of repair.

We got hot and tired. We refreshed ourselves with ice-cold water, thanks to our driver, and the odd can of fizz. And we loved it.

 

 

Could we do a three-day pass which appears to be the norm? No. Not for us. It’s not our period of history and whilst the architecture is stunning (and almost overwhelming), it’s just not varied enough. And I sense you would grow tired of the enormity of it all, which would be a shame because that’s what makes it ever so special.

Phnom Penh by coach tomorrow. Our tour guide, Bex, has booked us into a ‘homestay’.

I’ll let you know how that goes …

Life is good

The train to Aranyaprathet, which is the Thai town on the Cambodian border closest to Siem Reap (the Angkor Wat temples), was more 3rd and a half class than 3rd. The four of us also got on the only carriage without soft seats. And it was full. Deep joy. But at £1.29 each (the experience was free) it wasn’t really any trouble … at all. Although, here’s a thought. We made a snap decision about which side of the train to sit on, to avoid the sun. We thought we’d chosen the wrong side (we were travelling east and sat on the right side of the train), but the sun shone through the other window … result.

But why?

Because it’s mid-summer (northern hemisphere) and we were south of the Tropic of Cancer. Simples?

 

 

As we approached the Cambodian border the flat terrain remained flat … agricultural in a paddy field, other short crops way, and, other than some fabulous birds, the scenery was uneventful – unlike the previous day where there were spiky hills and jungle aplenty. The good news was that the train thinned out later on and we were able to stretch our legs.

And then Aranyaprathet. The edge of nowhere. A long, wide sandy/tarmac road with local industry spilling out onto its fringes. It could be southern US (not that I’ve been). We decided to walk the one mile to the Indochina hotel. Dogs barked defendingly from their plots, cars and trucks sped past. Where were we going? What had we booked?

An £15 a night oasis, as it turned out. Opposite the hickest, most bizarre rock ‘n roll bar in the east, with a beat-perfect, 5-piece band and supper and a number of big beers for £7 each. What a night. What a place. I was even invited (I think it was an invitation) to sing. All my dreams (but nobody else’s) coming true. Could things get any better?

 

 

Well, they did. Breakfast was, I kid you not, full English, which was fab after my early am swim. Then … the border, which we’d read and heard so many wincing stories about. In the end it was straightforward, although you had to be on your toes.

A hotel bus took us to the Thai crossing (others will take you to a ‘pre-crossing’ where you get badly shepherded through the process for an almighty cost. We got our passport exits stamped on the Thai side and then walked into, what can only be described as, a dystopian no-man’s land. It was 300 metres of building site, moped park, vagabond stop, furtive individuals keeping an eye on you type of place. The visa shed didn’t look cosher, and we almost walked past it. Inside we paid our $30 and an extra TB4000 (= £1) each, the latter appearing to smooth the wheels of administration. We didn’t need our passport photos, although they took them originally, but then handed them back. And then our visas were done.

 

 

Next, another 50 metres on, was another shed marked ‘customs’ (all the way we were walking alongside a road full of traffic and people). We weren’t encouraged to  go in, and I was concerned that it was another ruse … which it wasn’t. Suprise, surprise it was a 3rd-world passport control, which we could have walked past. Photos and fingerprints scanned later and we were officially in Cambodia.

Next, the big roundabout that everyone spoke about, where you can get a taxi to Siem Reap. Or some other disease.

Take your choice. A cordial 10-second barter and for $40 we were off in a tatty Lexus 4×4 headed for our hotel … which, and we knew this, was two and a half hours away. It was easy, though. Our driver spoke perfect English, and he even stopped so we could buy a tourist SIM.

And then Residence 101, delightfully picked by Bex for our three-night stop in Siem Reap. Absolutely fab. Drink and fruit on arrival, a poolside apartment that is really tastefully done, more smiling service than a Wimbledon finals match, and breakfast = £24 a night. I can’t tell you how good that is.

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Two days here … and more reflection from me in a bit.

Thailand in a nutshell

The first thing to say about Bangkok is that it’s hot. Properly so. We decided to walk the 1.5 miles from the station to the Vivit hostel (yes, that’s not a misspell, we’re staying in a hostel and it’s fab) as there was no suitable subway and we didn’t (yet) want to trust a taxi/tuk-tuk. That almost killed C and we managed to find a cafe with air-conditioning to regroup before the final assault on the hostel – which, BTW, is fabulous. Small room, shared facilities, but clean and with breakfast and WiFi for under £20.

Second, like Thailand, Bangkok is enigmatic. There’s real poverty here; you can see it from the train windows. Tin shacks with corrugated roofs, gaps filled with plastic bags and kids washing in streams. There’s rubbish and plastic away from the main streets, but in and around the makeshift houses, pride seems to keep order. The electricity supply is a bird’s-nest of black wires and there are stand pipes for some.

 

And yet on the beaten track things are more first-world. Thailand is a military dictatorship, disguised by a unitary parliament. It is the only SE Asian country not to have been colonised and has held onto its monarchy through military coups and recent, brief flirtations with democracy (quickly overcome by military intervention). Yet there’s no sense of subjugation – unless you consider a large swathe of v poor people as disenfranchised and put upon. Literacy rates are in the high 90s and Buddhism attracts over 95% of the population, which probably makes them more chilled out than your ordinary dictatorship – and they love their king. When the last one died the country went into mourning for a whole year. His pictures and appropriate flags and bunting are everywhere.

And much of the city looks prosperous, especially the military buildings. There are trains and buses, taxis and a metro. There are 7-11s (all air-conditioned, a really helpful fact when you’re wandering around in an open-plan oven), and the palaces and temples are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re like Disneyland meets Claire Accessorize. The photos only touch on the story.

Oh, and they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. Nope. They use Buddha’s calender which is 543 years ahead of the rest of us, which can be a bit confusing when you’re using booking.con.

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We walked out on Saturday night and found the main backpacking tourist areas and had supper. And on Sunday we did the palaces and temples, and a couple of river taxis … which ply the Chao Phraya River like demented waterboatmen. Fabulous. You must do the temples/palace if you come here, but if you’re really short of time visit the big gold lying down Buddha temple (it does have a proper name). It is special. And big. And lying down. And gold (leaf).

 

We spent late afternoon planning the next stage of our journey, which looks to be more adventurous still. But first …

… on Monday C and I broke away from Bex and Steven and caught an early train from a minor station in BK to Nam Toc, the end of the line for the poorly named Burma railway, as it travels through both Thailand and Burma. And, importantly, the bridge over the River Kwai (which isn’t actually the River Kwai and was called something else until the Thai government renamed it Kwai as the guy who wrote the book got the wrong river … which was difficult for tourist purposes … if you follow me), is definitely in Thailand.

Anyway we caught the train (£10 for both of us, return) that went to the bridge built by Allied PoWs and interned civilians during WW2.

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And it was fab. Up to Kanchanaburi (3 hours) the route is pretty dull; urban and busy. Beyond Kanchanaburi (a further 2 hours), where the train crosses the newly named Kwai on the same structure built in WW2, the landscape changes and it’s beautiful … arable land (cassava plants predominate, although C thinks they’re a cover for cannabis), crossed by mud-red tracks and well kept farmsteads. The railway cuts through these, as well as rocky and pointy, jungle covered hills, the viaduct at Wang Pho taking the biscuit.

In a suprise move to everyone we stayed on the train and then pottered  back home again. Yes it was a bit hot in 3rd class (no a/c, but that meant you had the windows open and could experience everything) and I got time to reflect on the many, many beautiful temples en route set against all the poor people living in squalor by the tracks … and my organised-religion hypocritometer ratched up the scale a bit. So I stopped reflecting.

 

And after a very ‘cool’ night out with Bex and Steven, that’s Thailand, I think. We’ve still got 3 weeks left but the plan is Cambodia (by train and taxi … could be interesting) for a week and then two weeks in Vietnam. Apparently the Cambodian border can be a bit tricky.

I’ll let you know

A final flourish

Our last day in Langkawi had an unexpected, but pleasant turn. We’d thought we’d potter around on the bike, catch a coffee at #Starbucks and then find a beach somewhere. Down at the pointy end of the island I metaphorically wandered around with £10 in hand in the hope that a fisherman would take us to one of the islands (broken, jungle-green teeth rising from turquoise gums – stunning). In the end we hopped on a 3-hour trip to three islands for £8 each.

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Wow. Welcome to Jurassic World. The boat, a fibreglass fishing outfit fitted with a Bugatti Veron engine, was quicker than any RIB I’ve been on. And the tour was fab. Two highlights were  the sea eagles diving and feeding right next to us, and, along the same lines, watching the monkeys sprint out from the jungle and feed from our neighbour’s picnic as they went for a swim on a quite delightful Robinson Crusoe island. We swam, but didn’t feed the monkeys as we’d only bought a few biccies, unlike our German friends. Just fab.

And then the great escape.

In incredibly slow time we took a Grab taxi (like Uber, if I’d ever used Uber) back to the port, caught the 3 pm ferry, wandered around Kuala Perlis (mainland ferry port, like Dover but 1/1000th of the size – but just as poor and shabby) before calling it a night back at our favourite Muslim hotel, which was even cheaper (£18 inc breakfast) and even more acceptable.

It’s worth pointing out, in case I die on you, that my heart hasn’t been right since we got off the plane from Heathrow. Thursday night was particularly bumpy, but I slept soundly, only woke once and was feeling refreshed – but not regular – the next morning. And for the record we’ve both lost our stomachs and currently can’t find them. Oh well.

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the Langkawi port is protected by a blooming big bird. Dover could learn a lesson here

Friday was the mad dash to catch the 5 pm sleeper from the only railway border crossing between Malaysia and Thailand, at Padang Besar. Another Grab and £12 lighter for a 40 km trip (there are no buses) and we were at station 8 hours before we needed to. But it’s about the journey, and we popped out of the station and found reliable WiFi at KFC and then twiddled our thumbs a bit.

Our 5 pm sleeper (2nd class, don’t you know, and easily workable) arrived at 5 pm and left at 5.03. By then we’d befriended a young Argentinian footballer (currently playing for a BK side but popping into Malaysia to get his visa renewed) and his girlfriend, a French Canadian couple and their two young kids who were spending 6 months travelling this part of the world (the kids, both under 8, had their own weighty back packs – respect), a Singaporean, post-national service trio who were, wait for it, bus and training it to Mongolia, and a young English couple who were on a 4-week break via Singapore (where her dad worked) … they were from Essex, his dad lives in Great Bentley where my folk live/lived. What a team.

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And what an adventure. I played cards with the Singaporeans whilst the waiter showed C the v basic menu which displayed 20 dishes in glorious technicolour, 18 of which were not available. We decided on our own pot noodles and some wine.

Sleep? More adventures. C wanted to sleep on the top bunk … I got the wider, bottom. I slept fitfully, woken by shuddering and bouncing – I think I had concussion where my brain had rattled against my skull. C the same, adamant that she had chosen the wrong bunk, but I’m not sure. But, and it’s a big but, C can now claim that she slept with an Argentine footballer (her quip, not mine). And checking googlemaps in the morning we were considerably closer to BK and woke to fab views.

More about Bangkok later, other than to say we met up with Bex and Steven as planned, and now the second leg of our adventure begins. Hurrah!

Malaysia – 2

Well that’s different. From KL the 9-hour coach journey (should have been 6, but it took us 2 to get out of the city) saw everything change a bit. The pointy, tree-covered rocks became a coastal plain. Light industry appeared alongside paddy fields. There were housing developments and shopping areas. It was more southern Italy than northern Malaysia. The coach was fine. We had, again, plenty of room and were able to spread ourselves out. We had a lunch stop, which was the Malaysian equivalent of Moto services and we didn’t feel the nine hours.
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We were destined for Kuala Perlis, an unknown to us, save it was a one-hour ferry to Langkawi, an island resort we had chosen off the map because it was the closest to the Thai border and the station that would allow us to take a second-class sleeper to Bangkok (yes, you read that right) on Friday night to meet Bex and Steven. We’d booked into the Putra Brasmana hotel, which is by the beach road and a 3-minute walk from the ferry terminal. The hotel was – and we were just getting used to this now – run by, and possibly for, the Muslim community. It was a reasonably tasteful high-rise that had seen better days (the heat always making things look and feel worse than they are). Inside was functional, if Spartan. There was no TV and no WiFi, but breakfast could be bought on the terrace (leading to a total of £23 all in) the next morning. We ate supper on the beach … Again all clearly Muslim locals or holiday makers. And then collapsed into bed.
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Now I’d like to make a point about religion. Those that know me, know that I have a problem with organised faith. I guess it’s having seen a bit of the world where all of the Gods have forsaken everyone. I have no problem with people having faith, if that helps them. What I cannot support is organised religion, of all colours. Where (mostly) men build temples, elicit money, subjugate the weak and the poor with tales of impending disaster, and then live in luxury with many wives … Or, in the case of the Catholics, the odd choir boy. [OK, I know this doesn’t apply to all clerics across the spectrum, but it is, trust me, the basis of all religions.] If I believed in a God, She would preach in the slums, bring down the temples to money and greed, and distribute the ensuing wealth accordingly. And She certainly wouldn’t let good people die unnecessarily, hiding behind the fact that ‘it was Her will’ working in a mysterious way. And, not to worry, they’re safely in heaven now (with, in some religions, 1000 virgins … Although I’m not sure that works for the recently departed women?). No, She would give the bad people a hard time, getting them to trip over chairs and chose the wrong shares to buy; they’d be the ones who bought houses in flood areas and buy second hand cars that were made up of two broke ones from previous crashes. Good people would get good interest rates, find lovely people to marry and discover bargains in the sales no one else had. That would be my God.
What has been surprising here is that, among the predominantly conservatively clothed and head scarfed-wearing women, there are many in complete purdah. Now, call me a scientist, but black is not a great colour in the sun. And a full-faced veil is not great for eating chips. I couldn’t not glance at the poor woman next to me having to lift her veil with one hand, whilst shovelling in chips with the other. BTW, her ‘man’ was in shorts and t-shirt (as are they all), and had no problem filling his face. This may be considered anti-Islamic and I can hear the fatwa being offered from where I’m typing, but all of the other Muslim ladies that we have met – and we’ve met a few – have all been smiling and happy. They seem to be enjoying their time whilst upholding their faith. And they are waitresses and probably doctors. And mothers, of course. No, sorry, I’m struggling with the burqa/yashmak combination. I guess having experienced it in far-away places, like Kabul, it seemed more natural there – or maybe I was preoccupied with other things. Here, on holiday, it seems anachronistic at the very least.
Anyhow. On, on.
We caught the ferry along with 300 identically dressed ‘Mr-DIY’ employees off for their 13th anniversary trip, picked up a taxi (£6.40) which took us to our hotel/villa. We’d provisionally booked for 2/4 nights as we had no idea if we would like it. In the end we’ve stayed for the duration. At £35 for a sea-view villa, which could be transported to the Maldives and cost you £350 a night, it’s perfect. There is no breakfast, but good WiFi, the beach is beautiful, but ‘boggy’, if that makes sense. The views of the sunsets and the sea eagles (yes, true) are magnificent. It’s secluded and isolated … Which we count as a good thing. The staff are lovely and the restaurant will knock you up a decent supper and soft drinks (no alcohol, sorry) for about a tenner. We’d got wind of the no alcohol rule and raided the ferry terminal’s duty-free shop. And, that was an unexpected bonus. Langkawi is a duty free island and, like across all Malaysia, you can buy alcohol, you just can’t seem to get it in hotels and restaurants. But here you can pick up a bottle of wine for £6 and a small can of beer for 60p. (£12 and £3 in a KL shop.) Result.
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We booked a moped for three days (£8 a day, cash, no paperwork and no insurance – about £1 a day for fuel. There are no markings but I’m pretty certain it’s a 125cc so you can get around the island easily) and the place is fab. Think Menorca, but hotter. It’s hilly and green. There are some good beaches, but there are also a lot of resorts, many exclusive. There’s an airport – indeed, our villa (Coconut Villa Resort) is right next to the airport, but you don’t notice. You can eat anywhere for next to nothing, if you’re happy to eat local, and there are supermarkets to get the essentials. The buildings are all a bit tired, but there are plenty of neon bars. In fact I’d say it was more like a Caribbean island – with it’s relaxed atmosphere and colourful paintwork … And calls to prayer …
On day one we did the cable car to the top of the main mountain (the steepest in the world, let me tell you – built by the Austrians, so we felt safe enough – £24 for both of us). On top there’s a canopy-height walkway with views over the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea … Exquisite. If it weren’t for the loud Chinese tourists with selfie-sticks and bad-mannered children, you could touch the tree tops and hear the animals and insects talk to you.
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Next we drove to an unexpected gem: a waterfall up a short trail. The water fell over 100 metres straight down into a pool … Which you couldn’t not swim in. And then we found a lovely beach with a few people on it, bathed again and remarked at how lucky we were. Supper was a short cycle down to ‘the strip’, which could be any beach resort anywhere and ate our now staple chicken and rice for £8.
And that brings me onto ‘budget’. Leaving aside flights (£1800 all told) we have budgeted for £80 a day including travel and hotels. Those of you who read this drivel and remember some of it, will know that we have always (even now with the house) budgeted for £50 a day – that’s everything, less mortgages and insurances Currently on this trip we are in credit, but we have been lucky with staying with people and some v generous benefactors putting us up in hotels. But, having now forked off on our own and working strictly to the budget, I think we will do just fine. I’ll keep you abreast as we go.
Today was going to be a visit to the ‘best beach in Malaysia’. Well, we did that at the same time as a tropical squall. Wind and rain – and more wind and rain. It stayed ‘wet’ all day, but we managed another waterfall, another beach and a long trip around the island on the bike … Where we were reminded of how dangerous the roads can be. On one particularly windy, downhill bit we came across two accidents due to the slippery roads. Note to self …
I think that’s enough from me for now. Next post will be after the sleeper train to Bangkok experience. Mmm, looking forward to that.
I suppose I could finish on British politics. That about 87 people are choosing the next prime minister (come on, how does that work?), and they’re likely to chose someone who will not admit to how many children he has fathered from his three wives. I wasn’t serving when Mr Johnson was Foreign Secretary (I will not call him Boris, he is no friend of mine), so I can’t tell you what rumours there were about his competence. But if you believe just 10% of what’s out there we are getting a man who cares more about himself than he does the people. Sorry, my mistake, he does care about the Tory party which, apparently, will be scuppered if Brexit doesn’t go ahead. Really? Do we, the rest of us, really care about saving a political party for the sake of saving the nation?
I keep apologising about Brexit to anyone I meet over here. Ho hum.
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Malaysia – one

The coach from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur was straightforward. Five hours, lots of room and a wee stop (£12 each). Travelling by bus allows you to see the sights and we did: palms for palm oil and the odd billboard selling tools, office equipment and sanitary stuff. It’s very green and very bumpy and very full of palm trees. Apparently they mine a lot of tin. And there’s oil, the crude stuff. But there’s also a lot of palms for palm oil.

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Our hosts in KL (parents of ex-students of ours) run a palm oil plantation or two. And he tells me that soya creates five times as much deforestation as palms, and you can’t use soya to replace diesel. What with the orangutans and everything it’s getting a bad press, but soya is worse, apparently. Anyhow, there’s miles and miles of it here.

We were booked into a v swanky colonial hotel, with pithe-helmeted doorsmen and more staff than I had tips for. Our first night was a drive-by tour of KL kindly provided by another ex-student who now works as a property developer in the city. And, wow. There’s been a lot of property developed in KL.

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The most iconic is the Petronas Towers, once the tallest building(s) in the world, but now dwarfed by that mad thing in Dubai. It only became clear in daylight, but KL is a busy, skyscraper city that’s doubling as a building site. It has more cranes than a paddy field. There are gihuge buildings everywhere – as far as the eye can see. And bigger ones are being built. None, however, will eclipse the extraordinary spectacle that is/are the Petronas Towers. After a local supper we took a fast lift to the 33rd floor of another tower, hoped to get a drink only to realise that it was ladies’ night (Teng and I were going to be lucky numbers wise, less so C). So whilst we didn’t stop we did manage to get a full-frontal of the towers. Mad, absolutely mad. We finally got our drink in a bar in another hotel high-rise. Again, fabulous views.

 

 

The next day was the full KL tour with driver and guide (thanks Mrs Gan). It was only then that we began to realise that KL isn’t Singapore. There are metaphorical and actual cracks in the pavement. The concrete looks more West African than West Byfleet. It’s a bit dirty. The workers don’t have that ordered efficiency of Singapore. A lot of it is half- finished. And everyone told us to watch out for petty, but determined crime.

Apparently much of the race for the skies is underpinned by backhanders – certainly the previous PM is being done for some serious corruption including a £41 million super yacht. And the new builds are not supported by appropriate infrastructure. It’s about being big and bold, but not so much integrated. As a result the traffic is like rush hour Naples … in 90% humidity. It’s trying very hard to be a first world country, but at only 70 years old, its ambition isn’t supported by a first world government. Yet. And there are gently simmering racial issues. The indigenous, Muslim Malays who hold the power, don’t quite see eye to eye with the centuries old Chinese Malaysians, who have the money. There’s the jealousy of the uber-rich Singapore who were, not so long ago, Malaysian. And the Thais who let the Japanese in during the second world war, are looked down on.

And I loved it (the place, not the racism).

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We did the palace where my day was made by a minibus-load of Chinese tourists who wanted their photograph taken with me. I think they mistook me for Harrison Ford, which happens a lot. We did the main Taoist temple, which is in an old bat cave (nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner … Batman!), up an unnecessarilyl  multicoloured flight of steps protected by a huge, gold God-type figure. We did a Chinese temple, and all of the old, central colonial buildings, finishing off at the old cricket square next to a Tudoresque private club which we weren’t allowed to go into. It was all very 1900s, but delightfully so, especially compared to the glass, steel and concrete superstructures that surrounded us.

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Exhausted but not out, we ran in the hotel’s gym, swum in the hotel’s terrace pool and, undaunted by the threat of being mugged, we walked and found a McDonald’s for fear of ending up looking like a grain of rice.

We also booked the next stage of our trip (so excited … I’m penning this on my phone in a coach heading north).

Our second full day was a trip to Malacca, down the coast from KL. Again a driver and guide were provided. We chose Malacca because my mum and dad were based there in the early 60s. It was fun and v provincial. We looked around the old colonial sites, visited a Malay/Chinese merchant’s house museum and then drove onto dad’s old barracks … which was strangely moving.

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And last night the Gans took us out for supper, finishing with coffee and pud in our hotel. It was a v chilled way to end our stay in KL.

Would we come again? We loved Singapore and could certainly see us stopping over for a day or so, if the bank balance allowed. KL? Other than to see the Gans, possibly not. It’s an inexpensive city with a gawpable skyline. There’s plenty of nightlife to make you feel special and shopping malls galore. The colonial history is fascinating, but that only needs to be told once.

So, maybe not.

And Malaysia? Mmmm. As we snake our way north through huge limestone gorges where the rainforest hasn’t been decimated for palm trees, to a ferry to an island off the northwest coast … possibly. And more of all that later. ‘Cos Malaysia also includes the northern half of Borneo where Bex has just come back from. We’ll see what she says.

(BTW, luxury coach – Cosmic Express! – from KL, 500 km north to Kuala Perlis is £12 each. Clean and efficient and leaves from a modern, 3-storey bus terminus the size of Watford.)

More of Malaysia next time.