Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand

On March 12, I flew from Brisbane, Australia to Singapore. It was a seven hour flight. I didn't think about Australia being that far away form Asia. One can almost get from the US east coast to Europe in that amount of time. As per the earlier post, the flight food and service was really good and I had all three seats to stretch out. But I didn't like the way it started. The lady at the ticket counter asked me if I had a visa to enter Singapore. I told her I was not required to have a visa to enter Singapore. She then looked it up and sure enough, I didn't need a visa to enter Singapore. But the notes in her system said you need a passport, proof of sufficient funds, and proof of onward travel. I told here that I was going to go by train to Malaysia after leaving Singapore. She wasn't having it. She was not going to let me on the plane without it. But there just so happened to be a tour desk right by the Etihad check-in counter. So I ended up having to buy a plane ticket to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia for about $50. I was seething. Most countries stipulate that travelers need proof of onward travel. But I have never once been asked to show it and was not asked for it by customs in Singapore. Oh well. No train ride for me.

Singapore is a city state that became independent in the 50's. It is very clean and westernized (to an extent). English is one of the official languages. It is a good transition from West to East.

Eating is Singapore is one of the great experiences, especially in the food centers. It's basically around 5-10 restaurants serving a food court area. These are all over Singapore and have a wide variety of foods that reflect it's make-up - Chinese, Malaysia, & Indian. You see Singaporeans at these food centers at all hours drinking beer and eating this incredible food. In one day in one food center, I had barbecued stingray and pig's organ soup.

Sentosa is a theme park and is the southern-most point of continental Asia.

Durian is an Asian fruit with a unique smell that I got to try. From a distance, it smells like a combination of pooh and sweetness. The smell isn't as noticeable close in, or maybe I just got used to it. It actually wasn't that bad. The inside pods tasted like custard. I would recommend it.

I enjoyed my four days in Singapore. It is a good place to visit and not nearly as boring as it's reputation. Although chewing gum is illegal and the government controls the media. The 7-11s have mashed potato machines. For on Singapore dollar (about 70 cents) you can get a cup of mashed potatoes with gravy. The machine dispenses this semi clear liquid that turns into mashed potatoes in about 5 seconds. It's best not to watch it being dispensed. Perfect at 1:00am after a few drinks.

I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 16. I only spent two days in KL. The big thing to see in Kuala Lumpur is the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers were built in 1998 and were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004, although there is some controversy about how they are measured. If you take away the spires, they are quiet a bit shorter than the Sears Tower in Chicago. The antennas on the Sears tower are not counted in the height. Still, they are quite impressive, especially for a small country.

Free tickets to the bridge at the 41st floor were provided beginning at 9:00am until they ran out. It was impressive, but it seems like they would have some sort of observation deck closer to the top floor. I only spent two days in Malaysia. I saw an Outback Steakhouse near my hostel. I was feeling a bit homesick and had a sudden craving for Alice Springs chicken, so I went in. The decor, menu, and uniforms were just like back home. But the meal was not all I had hoped. The food in Asia is more spicy and the flavors are more intense than food typically is back home. I don't know my tastes are changing or if I got a bad order of Alice Springs Chicken, but it was quite bland. Even the Diet Coke with ice and free refills left me wanting.

Getting out of Kuala Lumpur proved to be more difficult than I imagined. The airport in KL is quite impressive, but pretty far from the city (about 60 kilometers). There is a train service that gets you into the city in about 25 minutes for about $12 US. I took that train from the city back to the airport. When I got there, I didn't see the Air Asia flight listed on the big Departures board. So I thought, hmmmm that's odd. I went to the information desk and the lady said Air Asia departs from the LCC terminal about 20 kilometers away and the best way to get there in time was by taxi. So that was another $12. The LCC terminal was awful. It was basically a tin building and you have to walk around this crazy route because of the construction. And it was packed. Nothing like the nice terminal I flew into. I found my way to the check in desk. The lady informed me that my bag was over the weight limit. I had only purchased 15 kilograms of baggage and my bag weighed 18. Cost of the extra weight - an extra $17 US. I had now paid $41 to get to the airport to board a flight that cost $52. This probably doesn't sound like a lot of money, but this is in a country where lunch typically costs about $2.

On March 18, I flew to Bangkok Thailand. I took the airport bus to Kho Sahn Road.
Kho Sahn Road is the ground zero for tourists in Bangkok and usually the first place most people traveling in southeast Asia stay. There are many, many street vendors selling food, bootleg DVDs, fake Rolex watches, fake IDs, etc.

There is an interesting variety of street food in Thailand. Noodles make up a big part of it, but you can also get insects and a variety of animal parts not normally consumed in the states. I had a few smaller insects. I'm pretty daring when it comes to trying new food, but some of the bugs were really, really big. They are usually salted and deep fried, which gives them potato chip and pork rind like flavors.

Fried chicken feet. They tasted like....(wait for it).....chicken.

A variety of pics from temples. Anyone traveling to southeast Asia will spend a lot of time taking off their shoes and visiting temples.

Things are really cheap here, but there is this constant feeling that you're getting screwed. You have to haggle for everything. The cabs use the meter sometimes. The price has to be agreed on ahead of time for the tuk tuks. The hotel I stayed at off Kho Sahn road cost about $7.50 US for shared bath.

My guesthouse in Bangkok didn't really lend itself to meeting people the way hostels do. One day, I decided to treat myself to a spa. I had a one hour Thai massage ($5). A Thai massage is not nearly as good as it sounds. It is mostly pressure based and was quite uncomfortable. It also involved a lot of cracking of joints. Joints I didn't previously know could be cracked. I then had a manicure and a pedicure ($5.70). I'd never had either. I was unaware that a pedicure involved taking a razor-like instrument and actually shaving the dead skin off the feet. I then had a one-hour oil massage ($5.70). The oil massage is more like what I was used to.

Anyone traveling to southeast Asia will spend a lot of time visiting Buddhist temples, trying to avoid getting ripped off, and eating great food. The tuk tuk drivers are the worst. You have to haggle with them, not just to get a fair price, but to actually get them to take you where you want to go. They always suggest other places. Right outside the Wat Pho, home of the famous reclining Buddah, the touts and tuk tuk drivers boldly lie to your face and tell you that the temple is closed. I walked from Kho Sahn road to the temple and was told by four touts that the temple was closed until 2:00pm. Two of them were right outside the temple walls. They all seemed to have their stories straight. What they were trying to do is get you to ride in their tuk tuk. They would then take you to a few temples and then some jewelry and souvenir stores that pay them.

On March 20, I took an overnight train to Chang Mai. Pretty much everyone that travels to Thailand goes to Chang Mai and does a jungle trek and stays with a hilltribe village. My first day in Chang Mai I visited the Tiger Kingdom and the monkey show. At the Tiger Kingdom, you get up close and personal with tigers inside their cage. I was literally a few feet from a couple of tigers going at each other. I also got to pet the tigers.

On March 22, I left for a three day trek in the jungle. It was a group of 12 Irish, Germans, Dutch, Hawaiians and a Dane. It was a good group and good craic. The scenery was nice. It was the dry season in Thailand and it wasn't lush and green like I had expected. The hilltribe experience was a little lacking. A lot of people complain about not getting an authentic experience with the hilltribes. I agree. It's hard to get an authentic experience with a hilltribe that hasn't already seen four groups that day and doesn't make their living selling drinks and snacks to tourists. Two days were mostly spent walking through the jungle and visiting waterfalls. The conditions were basic. Showering was done in the river near the waterfalls.

Market on the way to the trekking site.

Accommodations in the village were pretty basic.

By the third morning of the trek, I was to face my greatest fear of the trip. I had been putting it off long enough. It was time to face the Asian squat toilet. Hotels, airports, and restaurants, places of businesses that cater to tourists, have western style seated toilets. But out in non-tourist areas and smaller towns, the squat toilet with a barrel of water for flushing reigns supreme, and that was the only option with the hill tribe people. When you finish your business, you take a dipper and pour water in the toilet until everything goes down. You have to bring your own toilet paper. These toilets feature a hose instead of toilet paper. I'm not entirely sure how the hose option works without getting water all over everything. I survived.

The third day of the trek included a ride on a bamboo raft (with a 10 year old doing the rowing) and an elephant ride.

There are much better pictures on other peoples' cameras, but none of the others on the trip have uploaded their pictures. I will post some additional pictures (some are quite good) when I get them.

On March 25, I took an overnight train back to Bangkok. I would have preferred to go straight from Chang Mai to the Laotian border, but I had left my passport in Bangkok to get visas for India and Vietnam, which have to be obtained beforehand. As I was negotiating a ride from the train station to my hotel, it seemed like I was getting a good price. I was proud of myself. Then when I followed the dude, he handed me a helmet. I was negotiating a ride on a motorcycle. So I climbed up on the back with my big backpack and rode to my hotel. It got me there more quickly because the motorcycles weave in and out of traffic and between cars, but it was pretty damn scary.

On March 28, I took a bus to Cambodia.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Australia Part Two

Sydney to Cairns

On Monday, March 2, I departed for a four day guided tour through the Australian countryside that would take me up the east coast and drop me off at Byron Bay. Rob was the tour guide and along on the tour was James and Sam (Brits), Donna and Cathy (Irish), Janell (Italian), and Billie (Israeli). The first stop was at the Australian Reptile Park in Somersby. The name doesn't cover everything as there are plenty of non-reptile animals to see. Along with the extensive collection of snakes, crocs, and lizards, they also had Tasmanian devils, dingoes, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and koalas.

Up close and personal with a koala.

Tasmanian devil

I finally got to see a platypus, but the room was dark and no flashes were allowed. It was smaller than I expected. He moved around too fast to get any quality pictures. However, if your curious, check out the Picasa site (photo link to the right).

They also had a kangaroo petting zoo where people could feed and pet the kangaroos. I picked a medium sized kangaroo to feed and play with. I thought it was pretty safe since there were several kids there. But this dude started coming at me, scratching me with his claws. In about ten seconds he reached up and bit me on the side of my stomach. Little f%&cker was mean. A zoo worker took him away this happened. They said he was a young male and was trying to show dominance. I told my mother this story and she said, “I'm glad that happened to you rather than some kid.”

Me and the juvenile delinquent.

It was just a flesh wound.

The next stop was a wine tasting at the McGuigan winery in Hunter Valley before heading up to a ranch near Glocester.

On Tuesday, for the first time in my adult life, I got on a horse. We did a one-day "City Slickers" type ride. It was an actual 3,000 acre working ranch with 600 head of cattle and we rounded them up and moved them old school style on horseback. My horse was named Monty. We separated a group of steers and drove them to a grain lot for finishing. We also tried to separate a bull and bring him back (I was never clear on where "back" was). We failed. There was some really gorgeous scenery. It was fun, but not something I'm dying to do again right away. All the cliches about horseback riding are true. My bum and legs were quite sore. The horses seemed very well trained and good tempered.

Australian road kill.

We came across this. Someone had hit a kangaroo. Rob, the tour guide said whenever you come across roadkill, it should be checked for a joey and then moved off the road. This one had a joey in its pouch, but it was also dead.

The third day was spent canoeing and the fourth ended in Byron Bay, a charming little beach town not overgrown with high rise condos. Most of the beaches in Australia allow topless sunbathing, although less than about 5% of women actually do it.

Byron Bay lighthouse.

Eastern most point on Australia's mainland.

On Friday March 6 we spent most of the day on the beach and in the evening, I took a greyhound bus from Byron Bay to Brisbane.

On Saturday morning, I took a train from Brisbane to Beerwah, home of the Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin zoo). Beerwah is about an hour train ride from Brisbane. About halfway there something just didn't feel right and I discovered it was because I didn't bring my camera. I bought a disposable camera at the zoo. That's why these pictures are kind of lousy. What did we do before digital cameras? Most of the animals there I had already seen. They had an extensive collection of crocodiles. Crocodiles are kind of boring unless they are feeding. They just lay there. Luckily, they had two shows in the "Crocoseum" where they fed the crocs. That was pretty cool. The zoo workers also got in the tiger den and played around with he tigers, getting them to jump into the water to chase them. No pics of the tigers as these didn't really come out good.

On Sunday, I flew from Brisbane to Cairns. Cairns is the most popular base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef. On Monday I went for a dive. It was a day package of two guided dives, snorkeling, and glass bottom boat ride. The reefs were amazing, but I thought they would have been more colorful.

On Wednesday I flew back to Brisbane and on Thursday, March 12, I flew from Brisbane to Singapore. I flew on Etihad Airlines. Etihad is a fairly new airline based out of the United Arab Emirates. It was by far the cheapest trip from Australia to Asia. It was actually a connecting flight from Brisbane to Abu Dabhi. Most of the people on the flight didn't look like they were from either Singapore or Abu Dabhi. I believe a lot of people were connecting to Europe. Great service and good food. I would recommend them. It's a seven hour flight from Brisbane to Singapore. On a map it doesn't really look very far.

A few more observations about Oz.

Australia has really good coffee. Almost all coffee sold is espresso based and really good. There are very few Starbucks, so it happened independently of Starbucks. That's something that wasn't on my radar.

They love their pies. Meat pies are the traditional foods of Australia. It's basically a pot pie, but better than the one's that cost 30 cents at the grocery.

Sales tax is included in prices of items in stores and restaurants. So the price shown is the price you pay. It's good as it helps keep ones pockets from filling up. Also, they round to the nearest 5 cents. So they don't have to deal with pennies. Brilliant! If you order something in a restaurant that is listed at $15, you pay exactly $15. Tax and service are included in the prices.

Most of Australia is wide open spaces. It is about the size of the continental United States, with a population of only 21 million. And most Aussies live in cities. The look out a plane window is pretty barren.

Aussies are crazy about traveling. Both Lonely Planet and Frommer's are headquartered in Australia. Travel books are featured prominently in bookstores at the entrance. One guy I talked to summed it up pretty well. He said that Australia is really far from anywhere else. So if they travel, it is usually a long trip and they make it count.

I would like to spend a lot more time here. I think one could easily spend 4-5 months here. There's a lot to see. But it is time for me to move on to southeast Asia.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sydney & Melbourne

Wow that was a long flight to Australia. I left Rio de Janeiro at 3:00pm on February 15 and made it in to Sydney at 9:30am February 17. It was one hour to Sao Paulo, three hours to Santiago, three hours in Santiago, 13.5 hours to Auckland, and 3.5 hours to Sydney. When I got to Auckland I though I was just about there, but I had another 3.5 hours to go. The personal entertainment centers on the plane were nice though. I watched about 8 movies and several TV show episodes. I was really hungry for an abundance of English language entertainment.

I was in Auckland for about an hour. We had to get off the plane, go through security, and then get back on the same plane. I wasn't really sure what the purpose of that was. The three guys working the LAN gate in Auckland all looked like and sounded like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. I think I can tell the difference between an Australian accent and a New Zealand accent.

Sydney is a great city. It reminds me a lot of Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle, Washington. The first few days I was crazy jet-lagged. I was doing my best to stay up during the day, going to be early and exhausted, and waking up at 3:00am unable to go back to sleep - kind of like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. I have not done well with jet lag on previous trips to Europe (7 time zones). I faired even worse with this trip (11 time zones).

Australia is a lot like America and England. It is a modern country, people speak English, and watch a lot of the same TV programs we do. They drive on the left side of the road. Cars are built with the driver's seat on the right. It seems like everything is oriented to that pattern. Escalators are backwards. When walking down a crowded street, I tend to go to the right to move around people and move through the crowd. They tend to move to the left. This causes many awkward moments. I really enjoyed the abundance of English language bookstores.

I spent my first few days in Sydney seeing the sights and shopping. I visited the Opera House, the Sydney Aquarium, the Sydney Tower, and Bondi Beach.

The inside of the Opera House was less impressive than the outside. It was opened in 1973 and definitely had a 70's motif.

Cauldron from the 2000 Olympics.

Dugong at the Sydney Aquarium.

The Australia Museum. Had an impressive dinosaur bone collection.

I went to Tropfest on February 22. Tropfest is billed as “The World's Largest Short Film Festival”. It was in a park and about 70,000 attended. Sydney is the kind of town where 70,000 people will show up on a Sunday night to see short films. The films were amateur and were made specifically for the competition. The quality was uneven. The winner was Be My Brother about a man with down's syndrome (who sounded a lot like Ozzy Osbourne) talking to a woman at a bus stop. It was really good.

Fosters Beer is not very common down here. I didn't see it in any bars or stores for a while. I was beginning to think the Australia theme was a marketing ploy. But I found out that Fosters is considered a low grade beer and not many people drink it. Anyone who orders it at a bar is assumed to be a foreigner. The two beer brands down here that seem to be the most popular are Toohey's, Carlton's, and Victoria Bitter (VB).

Australians are crazy about Asian food. I think it's safe to say that in Sydney, two out three restaurants are Asian. I hope I don't get burned out on Thai food before I get to Thailand.

I know I said I was ready for a first world, English speaking country. But I wasn't really ready for first world prices. Australia is expensive. Not by U.S. or European standards, but expensive compared to what I was used to. It's prices are comparable to those in major cities in the U.S. But I got a bit spoiled in South America. Here, lunch costs more than $3-4 and a beer in a bar costs more than $1.50-$2.

The Kings of Leon are incredibly huge down here. Everybody loves the and I hear them constantly on the radio and in bars. I would say they are as big here as Guns & Roses circa Appetite for Destruction or Nirvana circa Nevermind. It's funny because in the U.S., they are still kind of considered to be an indy band. They are based in Nashville. Which is also funny because I don't know of anyone in Nashville who has seen them play. They have an interesting back story. Three sons of a traveling rural pentecostal preacher and their cousin. The lead singer has a drinking problem. That and infighting are threatening the future of the band. Europeans eat that stuff up.

On Monday, February 23, I took an overnight bus to Melbourne. I hadn't planned on going to Melbourne, but everybody I talked to said I had to go, so I went. Melbourne seemed a bit smaller than Sydney. The grass was brown and it was very dry.

Most Aussies seem to be of British descent. Take the whitest people on the planet and park them in a place under the thinnest spot in the ozone layer, and you have a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. I have been good about using SPF30. In South America, I saw a lot of older people on the beaches with terrible-looking, sun damaged skin. This keeps me motivated.

Australia has been dealing with drought conditions for several years. Most of the grass surrounding Melbourne is brown. There are money raising events too numerous to mention raising money to help the victims of the Victoria Bush fires. I haven't seen any fires first hand.

I went for a drive down the Great Ocean Road with Laura from England and Jennifer from Ireland. They had rented a car and I tagged along. Normally I would rather drive than ride. But in this case, I let the girls drive for several reasons. 1. I hadn't driven in 6 months and kind of wanted to keep the record going. 2. They drive on the left side of the road. 3. The driver is on the right side of the car. 4. The stick shift was on the left side. All of these factors combined made me very happy to sit back and navigate. The drive was really pretty. It reminded of me Pacific Coast Highway 1 in Northern California. We went through several smaller towns. It is crazy how much Australia looks like America. The houses, neighborhoods, and downtown areas were very reminiscent of American towns. The main sight along the Great Ocean Road was the 12 Apostles National Park. 12 Apostles is a series of islands formed by wave erosion. We took a helicopter ride to get a better view. The ride was short, but awesome.

We saw a koala bear on the side of the road. I still haven't seen a kangaroo.

On February 28, I flew back to Sydney on Virgin Blue, Australia's discount carrier. On Monday, I will go on a four day tour that will take me up to Byron Bay on the East Coast.