Being a VIP in KL

Day 61
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Based on our previous two bus trips, we awoke this morning with a fair amount of trepidation. When we arrived at the terminal, however, we learned that our leader (perhaps sensing an imminent mutiny among the group) had bought us tickets aboard a “Super VIP” coach for our 4-hour ride to Kuala Lumpur. This meant that although the bus wasn’t any newer, it did have air conditioning and reclining seats, both welcomed at 8 o’clock in the morning. Indeed, life was good behind the exclusive velvet rope, until an emergency exit door in the back swung open, leaving one of our travel companions sitting precariously close to the edge. Guess you can’t have it all on Malaysian buses — that is, both comfort and safety.

After checking into our rooms at the Mayview Glory Hotel — a relatively clean but loud joint about 500-feet from a frequently passing subway that shakes our windows — we hopped into a cab for an orientation of KL. Our first stop with the National Mosque (Marjid Negara), a boxy, almost utilitarian structure built just over 100 years ago. The main dome is an 18-pointed star, one for each of the 13 Malaysian states and five for the Pillars of Islam.

We walked up one of the busy 6-lane thoroughfares that run through this capital city, stopping along the way for a quick workout at one of the many public exercise parks.

Our destination was Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, an historic location from which the Union Jack was lowered on August 31, 1957, marking the end of British colonial rule here. Today, there are fountains, flags and fields, as well as an architectural juxtaposition between old and new.

Rain came next and we found shelter in Central Market, a building filled with stalls selling more carvings, paintings, pottery and glassware than we even knew existed. After some aggressive bargaining, we walked away from buying some handcrafts, anticipating that once we left the store, we would be called back and the deal closed. This never happened, so we continued empty-handed and later were thankful.

Jalan Petaling is the main drag in Chinatown specializing in knock-off everything. Unlike in Shanghai in which vendors can’t sell these goods out in the open, here in Kuala Lumpur, anything goes. A Breitling watch bought by my roommate for 25 ringgit ($8USD) lasted about 6 hours before it stopped ticking — although it’s now working again and we’d classify its status as “temperamental.”

Drenched in sweat from having misjudged its distance from us, we arrived at the KL Tower, the fourth tallest communication tower in the world (at 421-meters), perched atop Bukit Nanas. Number three is the Shanghai Pearl. While wild monkeys played on the first level, it was the observation deck views from 276-meters, including that of the landmark Petronas Twin Towers, that stole the show.

We got back, showered and then headed back to an illuminated Petronas for a delicious (and Western) dinner — avocado salad, spaghetti with king prawns — at a trendy restaurant called The Apartment and then a couple of drinks at the scenic Sky Bar, on the top floor of the nearby Traders Hotel.

Trekking the Highlands

Day 60
Tanah Rata, Malaysia

Officially 3/4 of the way through my 80-day trip around the world, today was about pushing myself — and enjoying each remaining minute of this fantastic journey. After some eggs and a grandé iced latte from Starbucks (how they’ve managed to open a store here is beyond me), we met our guide for a day’s trek through the Cameron Highlands. The rest of my G.A.P teammates opted for other activities, leaving me with Calley, an infatigable 65-year-old life long resident, as well as two other young travelers from Germany. Wielding a machete, Calley led the way to our “trail” at the entrance to the thick jungle.

“I can tell within the first 5 minutes who can hike,” Calley said, as three guys in their mid-twenties sat panting at their first rest stop. “Can we hike?” I asked. “You can hike,” he said, before turning and starting what felt like a light jog through the uneven terrain. Along the way, we were shown a variety of plants that are used by the Malay people — as well as some that can be eaten for survival. We emerged from the jungle covered in sweat and underbrush.

We next hiked through the narrow paths of the Cameron Valley Tea fields, past workers, many of whom are from Nepal, harvesting the plants. At one point, we were so deep that it was tea for as far as the eye could see.

After crossing several burbling brooks and nearly face-planting twice, we passed a remote village inaccessible by car, where several children called out to us. Calley offered them some candy.

It was now time for the most difficult part of the trek, getting to the top of Gunung Perdah. The ascent was very steep and slippery from an earlier rain. There was a lot of sweat but after 90 minutes, we made it to the 1750 meter lookout! You can see our starting point way off in the distance — it’s the blue circular orb (actually a water purification plant) under my right armpit.

We made our way back down the treacherous path, following Calley as he nonchalantly skipped. In 6 hours, we covered 10 km, so “strenuous” would be a nice way describe today’s activity. But it was also one of the most rewarding. There was something about pushing myself physically, all while surrounded by the peace and serenity of nature. Unfortunately, my New Balances were not nearly as satisfied.

Our bus to Kuala Lumpur, this country’s capital, departs tomorrow morning.

My date with a rhinoceros beetle

Day 59
Tanah Rata, Malaysia

We were up just before 7 a.m. for our day of travel to this small town in the Cameron Highlands. After a short transfer to the terminal, we boarded a real beater of a public bus run by Kurnik Bistari Sdn. Bhd. If you ever happen to find yourself in Malaysia, traveling between Georgetown and Tanah Rata, don’t believe the pictures of the vehicles shown on the ticket kiosk window — they’re clearly for promotion purposes only.

There were times that our coach bus (circa 1970) had us covering less ground than yesterday’s funicular. An oversold bus meant sharing seats. Our driver also had a tendency to smoke, but only while filling us up with diesel. Guess this is what 23 ringgit, or $8USD, buys you for a 7-hour journey.

A pit stop at Ipoh was our halfway point. If the bus station there is any indication of what the rest of that city is like, I’ll never return. We did eventually make it onto the super-windy roads that lead to the Highlands and arrived in Tanah Rata at around 2:30 p.m. It is a whole different world at 1,500 meters above sea level; the air is cooler, the soil fertile and the vegetation lush. And our accommodation for the next two nights, the Hillview Inn, doesn’t get much better.

Having spent most of the day on a bus and with only limited time here, we hopped on a minivan to visit BOH Tea, which founded in 1929, is the country’s oldest. After a factory tour, we learned that all tea comes from the same plant; variety (like green or black) is based on the fermentation and drying process. Only freshly picked leaves have flavor so they must be harvested every 3 weeks. After a cup of Earl Grey with Tangerine and a slice of apple pie, we drove through the 600-acre plantation.

This area is also well known for its strawberries, so visiting a farm was our next stop. At Raaju Strawberry Farm in the nearby town of Salamat Datang, they served up some fresh and delicious fruit with a little honey and cream.

Down the road is a butterfly farm that also houses a variety of exotic insects, reptiles and birds from around the area. I’m told that this Three Horn Rhinoceros Beetle was not poisonous. Hopefully.

We got back to the inn for showers (even the bathrooms have scenic views) and walked into town as crickets and cicadas came to life. It all reminded me a bit of camp — until the mosque began its call to prayer. Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant that served up a mean plate of ginger beef. We had a couple of drinks at the bar of a nearby hostel and headed home.

The Pearl of the Orient

Day 58
Penang, Malaysia

Thousands of miles from the Pearl of the Adriatic sits the Pearl of the Orient, or the Malaysian state of Penang. The largest town on this island is Georgetown, whose British architecture and old street names harbor back to a colonial past. It’s worth noting again the strong sense of diversity you feel in a place like this — is it possible to define the Malaysian national identity? — and how remarkably well all of these different people appear to co-exist.

With only one day here, we hit the ground running early. Our first stop was Penang Hill, the tallest vantage point on the island at 821 meters. An ancient Swiss-built funicular from 1923 crawled us to the top in just over a half hour. The incline was steep and the 5 degree celsisus drop in temperature once at the summit, much welcomed.

While at the top, we stopped in a small restaurant for some nourishment. My gutsy roommate, noting the abundance of locals eating the same dish, ordered a Malaysian Ice Cream Sundae. It arrived with just about every ingredient but the kitchen sink — including beans, corn, nuts, licorice, fruit — and tasted as you would expect: like complete garbage.

Once back on the ground, we took a local bus a couple of stops to Kek Loksi Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Sitting atop the hillside at Air Itam, the temple was constructed in 1890 — it took 20 years to complete, and today, perpetual additions (a la Sagrada Famiglia) continue.

We walked back through a maze of market vendors, where a deck of knock-off Uno cards caught my eye among Buddha statues and other tourist schwag. After some negotiating, they were in my pocket for 3 ringgit, about $1USD. The day’s heat and humidity had left us dehydrated and drenched, so after a water refill, we grabbed taxis to Batu Ferringhi, or “Foreigner’s Rock.” This is a pleasant beach about 30 minutes from Georgetown, and while it doesn’t even come close to comparing to Thailand, it does offer a relaxing getaway — as well as views of my burgeoning flip-flop tan.

There’s a constant tout for water sports on the beach so we finally conceded to a banana boat ride. We jumped into the warm Strait of Melaka, climbed aboard an inflatable banana and were pulled briefly out to sea before our motorboat starting smoking and promptly went dead. Detaching us to float freely in the sea, our driver said another boat would return to pick us up. The two women in headscarves behind me glanced around nervously. “Maybe we could swim,” I joked. “We don’t swim,” they replied.

Alas, another boat soon arrived to take us on our bouncy 10-minute ride. The skies opened, which didn’t make much of a difference, and we headed back to the hotel, feeling remarkably cool and refreshed. For dinner, we walked to Little India, a section of Georgetown that felt as though we were in Mumbai. The ensuing feast of butter chicken, mixed vegetables in a curry sauce and garlic nan was much welcomed and quite delicious — and not only because it’s the first Indian food I’ve had in two months.

Another big travel day awaits us tomorrow when we take a 7-hour public bus to the Cameron Highlands. Can you sense my excitement?

The long road to Malaysia

Day 57
Penang, Malaysia

Still groggy from a couple of Chang beers with Derek and Andy last night, we set out from Ao Nang this morning at 8:30 a.m. It was a long haul through all of southern Thailand, which although certainly scenic, wasn’t very comfortable with 11 people packed into our small minivan. We stopped a couple of times for gas and food — with the dodgy rest stops, that was limited to Lay’s crisps and Coke Light.

After 6 hours, we arrived at the Butik Kayu Hitam border crossing with Malaysia. This was my second overland border crossing of my 80-day trip and was just as chaotic as my first. There were huge masses of people, lots of pushing, no queues and general unhappiness as we waited with our backpacks weighing us down. After exiting Thailand, we managed to find a couple of taxis that drove us to Malaysia to be stamped in. In the process, we set our clocks back an hour, pushing us to 12 hours behind the East Coast. Another bus was waiting to drive us the last leg to Penang, where we arrived at around 7 p.m.

This city on an island on the west coast of Malaysia has a long history. It was the East India Company’s first settlement on the Malay Peninsula and was later occupied by the British, then Japanese. Here, Indians, Chinese, Malay all mix; as do Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Bollywood movies are shown at Chinese cinemas and the aroma from truly global cuisines fill the air. It’s a multiethnic melting pot and reminds me a lot of New York. Somehow it all works.

What didn’t remind me of home was our room at the Cathay Hotel — a decrepit, beat up place that probably hasn’t seen a renovation in 40 odd years. The shower has one temperature setting (“on”) and the provided towels weren’t even suitable for drying dishes. This is not a welcome sight after you spend 12 hours traveling to a city, are covered in sweat, grim and who knows what else, and just want a hot shower.

We later discovered that our ash-tray had not been cleaned out from our room’s previous occupant, and there was a mysterious jug whose contents could not be determined. Then, the helpful man downstairs offered to turn on our air conditioning, provided we pay him 10 ringgit ($3USD). Deal!

This lovely abode in the heart of Georgetown’s Red Light District couldn’t damper our spirits though. Starved, we walked across the street to the Red Garden, a night market filled with food stalls. A barbecue chicken leg, plate of fried oysters, order of char kway teow (rice noodles with egg, vegetables, shrimp in dark soy sauce) and Tiger beer later, life was much better. Plus, entertainment was provided by this awesome guy.

There were a couple of bars just down street, so we decided to head out for a sampling of Penang’s nightlife. We walked into the first decent place we saw, which happened to be an expat hangout filled largely with Americans and Aussies. It was an interesting crowd — with an even more interesting classic rock “band” that covered Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses and Journey.

Beat from Belivin’, we called it a night a little after midnight.

Exploring the Andaman

Day 56
Ao Nang, Thailand

The sun was up early this morning and so were we. We’ve only got one day here so decided that chartering a speedboat would be our best way of exploring the secluded beaches, islands and marine life of the famed Andaman Sea.

With everyone piled aboard, we took off for our first stop, Bamboo Island, which had fantastic white sand beaches and clear waters. We were off to a good start!

After an hour, we got back on the boat and, after passing the Viking Cave, where bird’s nest are collected for the soup delicacy, we arrived at Pi Leh Lagoon. With limestone jutting from the calm sea, it was breathtaking, and the shallow waters made for some good snorkeling (highlight: a parrot fish stupidly attempting to eat a jelly fish — idiot!).

A short ride brought us Maya Bay, another gorgeous spot where “The Beach” was filmed. We asked Leo about Giselle, took a dip and took off.

After lunch at Hippies beachside restaurant on Tonsai Bay, on the island of Phi Phi that is still rebuilding from the tsunami, we stopped at Monkey Beach. We fed the island’s only inhabitants a couple of bananas.

On our way back, we anchored at Hin Klarng for open-sea snorkeling. There were some of the biggest schools of fish there that I’ve ever seen. With a little bit of bread, we were all about attacked — look at all of them!

We got back to the hotel, showered and changed up. Coincidentally, two of my buddies from back home, Derek and Andy, are also here in Ao Nang tonight, so we’re getting together for dinner and some drinks. It’ll be good to see some familiar faces after so long.

How the beaches measure up

Day 55
Ao Nang, Thailand

The Bangkok train station had nothing on Beijing, but it was still busy last night. At 6 p.m., the national anthem played and everyone stood to face a painting of Thailand’s beloved king. Our leader, Kim, passed out tickets which, on the reverse side, stated: “Strong smell food/fruits are not allowed in the air-conditioned coaches.” After a quick bag check, we got on board at about a quarter past seven.

Today was one of, if not the, most difficult travel day of this trip so far. While the overnight train wasn’t terrible, there weren’t sleeping compartments and the ride down was bumpy, so it was only possible to get a couple hours of shut eye.

When we arrived in Surat Thani about 12 hours later, we were hot, greasy and needed to brush our teeth. But the day was only beginning. We then boarded an absolutely cramped public bus with no air conditioning — fortunately, Kim put up a real stink and we were soon transferred to a less crowded bus with still no air conditioning. The four-hour ride to Krabi was pretty brutal. From there, it was time to hop into a minivan (the pick-up truck was a no-show) for the final 30-minute leg to Ao Nang, where we are now. Entire trip from Bangkok: just about 24 hours.

Yet, it was worth it. We’re staying at J. Mansion, not a “mansion” per se, but a clean, comfortable place a block from the beach with amazing showers that left us quite happy. After a spicy chicken pizza and Chang beer at a café overlooking the water, we took a short orientation walk and got our first taste of Thailand’s beaches. Lined with limestone outcroppings, the backdrop is spectacular for the white sand and crystal clear waters that must be around 80 degrees fahrenheit — if not warmer.

We took a longtail boat to Railey Beach, a 10-minute ride away. It was relatively quiet and local kids playing soccer outnumbered tourists. On our way back, we witnessed a spectacular sunset. The longer I’m here, the more I’ve come to understand why some visit this country and never leave.

The City of Angels delights

Day 54
Bangkok, Thailand

We had our orientation meeting last night. Besides getting a chance to meet my 10 travel companions (and relishing in knowing that I’m the only American), we also learned that this trip falls under the “Roam” category, which means much more independence to see and do what we’d like versus the more tightly controlled itineraries in Egypt and China.

I’ve been in Thailand less than 24 hours but already know that I’ll return here. They call this country the Land of Smiles, which isn’t just a slogan. The Thai people are the most friendly and welcoming of just about any I’ve encountered on this trip. There is something about them — exactly what is hard to put your finger on unless you’ve been here and experienced their hospitality.

Bangkok is, as most would expect, a traffic-clogged, chaotic and absolutely stifling place. But compared to some of the cities I’ve already visited, like Cairo and Beijing, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad — or, I’ve just grown accustomed to this all.

My first stop of the day was the Grand Palace, which is the former Thai royal residence but is now used only for ceremonial occasions. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a richly ornate shrine to a 75 cm statue that is carved from a solid piece of green jasper. The dress code for the palace requires pants, so I’d wanted to get there as early as possible. But, even by 9:30 a.m., the air was heavy with humidity and my shirt was already soaked through.

Many who visit Bangkok talk of “temple fatigue” — after a while, it’s said, they all start to look the same. If this is the case, I’m glad to have started my tour at the palace, which was a colorful, detailed and absolutely stunning introduction. It was hard to put my camera down.

Right next door is Wat Po, better known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is Bangkok’s oldest monastery and houses an absolutely huge (150 feet long, 50 feet tall) Buddha reclining on the elbow — his intricate feet are inlaid with mother of pearl.

Wat Po is also famous for its traditional Thai massage school, said to be one of the best in the country. For around 400 baht, or $13USD, one of the students treated me to a wonderful hour massage, which as an added bonus, allowed for an escape from the heat into an air-conditioned treatment room.

Across the polluted and filthy Nam Mae Chao Phyraya river is Wat Arun, named for the Indian god of dawn. It’s covered in a mosaic of porcelain tiles, some of which are broken plates that have been repurposed for decoration. An 82-meter climb to the peak of the Khmer style spire provided an interesting vantage point to take in the surrounding city.

Needing some lunch, it was time to see Khao San Road, or simply, Backpacker Road. This infamous stretch of bars, beat up motels, souvenir shops, laundromats and everything in between is what many envision Bangkok is like. While chowing down on my first plate of pad thai and sipping a local Tiger beer, two other solo travelers sat down next to me. We chatted for a couple of hours — there are loads of friendly farangs (foreigners) here, really unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

We’re gearing up now for our 12-hour overnight train (my last!) to Surat Thani. From there, we need to take a 4-hour public bus to Krabi and then hop on the back of a pick-up truck for the last 30 minutes to our somewhat isolated beach destination of Ao Nang.

Live from Thailand!

Day 53
Bangkok, Thailand

After over a week’s delay in daily updates due to Internet restrictions in China, it was welcome to arrive in a country this morning with unfettered access to information. You can now catch up on my travels in China and Dubai.

From Shanghai’s sparkling new Terminal 2, we boarded Thai Airways flight 663 for our 4-hour southwestern journey at about a quarter to eight. After being greeted by wai’ing flight attendants, served an interesting breakfast (sweet and sour pork, rice and two cups of coffee) and then digesting an entire issue of Newsweek (much needed after 10 days in a Chinese media silo) wheels were down in BKK at 11:50 a.m.


A metered taxi brought me to the Trang Hotel in the midst of Bangkok’s concrete jungle. My driver didn’t even try to rip me off. A first!

I’ve got a couple of hours before the orientation for my next G.A.P Adventures trip: “Roam Malaysia.”

Observations from Shanghai

Day 52
Shanghai, China

With my official tour of China completed, it was nice to sleep in this morning before grabbing a map, and more importantly, a hotel card, and hitting the streets of Shanghai by myself. Most roads in this city lead to Nanjing Road, the main shopping drag, so it wasn’t hard to find my way there — even without Leah the Leader and her red flag.

An outdoor café, in prime people-watching territory, provided a good spot to set up shop for a couple of hours. Here are some observations:

  • With just a sliver of sun protruding through the clouds, hundreds of umbrellas open. This, our guide explained yesterday, is less about the Chinese people protecting themselves from harmful UV rays as it is about keeping their skin pigment as pale as possible — only lower-class outdoor laborers have dark skin here.
  • Cameras, camera-phones and video cameras are everywhere. It’s hard to look more than a couple of seconds without seeing one. The Chinese pose of choice is the peace sign, which I’m told is actually just a pose and has no significance.
  • An armless beggar hangs around outside of Starbucks to guilt those drinking their 35 yuan frapuccinos into giving him some spare change. Several comply.
  • A woman sitting next to me begins clipping her nails. Her companion follows by clearing his throat and spitting a couple of feet from my bare feet.
  • A shoe-shine boy comes by to offer his services (perhaps he saw the spitting man’s aim at my feet). He points at my flip-flops and then tries to start polishing them.
  • The Chinese have a different definition of cold. Beer is traditionally drank at room temperature, and even “cold” beers are luke-warm. Why? I’ve not got a clue.
  • A young man carries his girlfriend’s (fake?) Louis Vutton handbag. Another man walks by holding his wife’s (fake?) Prada purse.
  • No fewer than a dozen hawkers approach me to offer “watches, DVDs, clothing.” Facing international pressure several years ago, the Chinese government began cracking down on bootleggers in this city, which is the Knock-off Capital of the World. The entire operation has since moved underground, and Western tourists face a constant hassle: “Come, you look, you buy.”

If there’s one thing that sticks with me from a week in China, it’s the size and cleanliness of this country. When your population is 1.3 billion, “small” cities like Xi’an are around 8 or 9 million people — comparable to New York City, the most populous city in the U.S. Large cities, like Shanghai, are three times this size. I’ll never forget the view from Shanghai’s Pearl Tower, with buildings stretching for as far as the eye could see, or being swallowed up by Beijing’s huge train station.

With so many people, China is a remarkably clean place. Empty plastic bottles are snatched out of your hand for recycling redemption literally after the last sip and street sweepers are everywhere — including in the middle of four-lane expressways. Yesterday, a nationwide ban of plastic bags went into effect here that’ll eliminate the 3 billion used and promptly thrown away each day. The English news channel here says that the only city in the States with a similar law is San Francisco.

Unable to stomach another General Tsao’s chicken, my last dinner in China was back at the Bund Brewery. They served up a tasty plate of nachos and chicken wings. My flight to Bangkok, Thailand leaves tomorrow at 8:15 a.m.