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.


Ozzy Nelson said...

I'm glad you had better luck with the tigers and monkeys than you did the kangaroos!

Anonymous said...

Dude, that tiger looks nervous - what are you doing back there?

Out of curiosity, just what type of insects did you sample?


Jay G said...

Crickets and Maggots.