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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Spent two nights in Berastagi, where I spent my free day climbing a volcano known as Gungung Sibayak. The peak is around 2000m and you have to climb 700m to get there. As has been my luck with these things low cloud obscured the view from the top. It was still atmospheric, very much a volcano in shape with a pool of water in the crater and jets of steam coming out of yellow sulpur stained holes.

Gungung Sibayak
One of the steaming holes on Gungung Sibayak. The mist meant no really good pics.

On the way down met up with Bob, a Liverpudlian expat who had just moved into a news house nearby. Over a cup of tea he recommended a place to stay on my next stop. That night had a drink with the few westerners in town including 3 girls who were Christian missionaries. I generally consider missionaries to be cultural vandals or even WMDs but out of character kept my views to myself.

After almost 7 hours I have arrived on the island of Pulau Samosir in the middle of Danau Toba lake. The lake has formed in the crater from an immense volcanic eruption 80,000 years ago and the island by a smaller eruption 30,000 years later. Not had much of a chance to explore but the scenery so far is stunning.

Tourism has obviously been badly affected in Indonesia by events of the past couple of years as most places are operating at a tenth of capacity. It leads to some stunning deals for me but I feel sorry for the locals.

My next problem is getting a ticket on a boat down the west coast of Sumatra. I already knew I had to catch the boat from a port with an exceptionally dodgy reputation, but it now appears I will have to buy my ticket in advance there as well. Despite the fact that Pelni is the national ferry company and has offices in every major town, for this boat I have to buy the ticket at the port of departure. Itís these little surprises that make travel in a developing country interesting.......

Sorry this is a bit brief but I'm on an internet connection 6 times more expensive than the one in Medan and around a sixth of the speed.


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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Indonesia 

I arrived in Medan, north Sumatra yesterday afternoon. If you discount the few hours I spent in Burma (Myanmar) this is my 10th country on the trip. The Rough Guide starts its description of Medan with "it has acquired a reputation as a filthy and chaotic metropolis with few charms" though it goes on to say this is somewhat unjust. I'll be honest, I think the reputation is fairly accurate.

I'm also back to a country where customer service doesn't have much of a meaning. All 3 components of the first meal I had here were cold & tasteless and the local Pelni ferry office didn't have any route maps or timetables, not even on the walls. On the plus side although its a Muslim country you can still get a beer in some places and when you find a decent place the food is tasty and spicy.

Today is to spent planning the next week or so, changing money, buying malaria pills, etc, etc. My rough plan before getting here was to head to Bukit Lawang and check out the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and possibly do a jungle trek. Rumours reached me yesterday that much of the village and the centre were wiped out in floods. Checking the internet I found the Bukit Lawang Flood Appeal so I may head to Berastagi first and see what I can pick up on the traveller grapevine.


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Thursday, April 22, 2004

I stayed a very friendly guesthouse in Taneh Rata called Father's Guesthouse, though its a touch pricey for what you get. I hiked down one of the nearby trails past the pipes, dams and collectors for a small hydro electric station. At the bottom of the hill I then hiked up to the Boh tea plantation to unfortunately find that the visitors centre is closed on Mondays. The Cameroon Highlands is a lovely place to be and much cooler than KL.

Boh tea plantation
The Boh tea plantation

After 3 nights I headed back to Georgetown for a couple of nights, splashing out on a suite in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Best place I have ever stayed in. The suite was over 50 feet long by around 15 wide, had a bathroom with a huge bath, separate rainfall shower, toilet in its own cubicle, a dressing room (a first for me), sleeping area with two double beds and a living area with a bay window, couch, writing desk and 2nd large TV. Unreal as the cost was around 50 pounds a night; anywhere else I know of of this quality would have been hundreds. If youíre ever in Georgetown treat yourself to a night here.

EO bathroom
One view of the bathroom...

EO bathroom 2
and another and we still haven't seen the loo or the 2nd sink!!

EO dressing
The dressing room

EO bed living
Half the bedroom and the kiving area beyond

I hiked up Penang Hill. On reaching the top I found there wasnít a view because of the trees & Iíd not taken any photos on the way up. I took a different trail down involving climbing down ladders formed by tree roots and using knotted ropes to lower myself down steeper slopes. About half way down I met the road that curls up the hill and heading down it. I have never got as sweaty as that before in my life and canít imagine what I must have looked like as a re-entered the E&O.

Off to Medan, Indonesia tomorrow. Sorry for this update being short but I have limited time on this terminal; I'll add more later.


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Saturday, April 17, 2004

My initial impressions of Georgetown weren't great, though being tired and having just left my beach idea of paradise was probably colouring my view. What it did have was great food, Malay food itself being a cross between Indian & Chinese cuisine with a hint of Thai. In addition there were plenty of good Chinese & Indian restaurants themselves. It did seem that the town was fairly empty of tourist, especially backpackers. Though good during the daytime seeing the sights it tended to make the evenings quieter that hoped for.

The town was interesting for a couple of days, old historical buildings mixed with more modern architecture and a few scruffy lanes of restaurants and hostels contrasting with hotels like the Shangri La and Eastern & Orient. As I'd be coming back here to catch the ferry to Indonesia I didn't stay long, leaving stuff to see for my second visit.

Georgetown street
Fairly typical street

I did manage to make Fort Cornwallis, the original British fort that unfortunately is now run by a private company which has filled the previous empty centre with a small theatre, souvenir shop, snack bar, etc and started to charge entry. Nearby was a lovely clock tower donated by a local businessman to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. I also headed to the main shopping complex housed in a plaza at the base of a tower block. Itís quite unlike most western plazas with its small number of large chain shops and far greater number of small independent shops / stalls. That combined with the very 60's / 70's atmosphere (low ceilings, tiled beige walls, crap lighting) reminded me of the old Birmingham Bullring.

Georgetown Victoria clock
Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee clocktower

I caught the sleeper train from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur after a couple of days. I wanted to see the capital and in addition it seemed the best place to see if I could get a longer Indonesian visa in advance than the 30 day non-extendable one now given out on arrival.

I decided to stay in Chinatown on the train and listed 4 hotels that seemed OK & not too expensive. The first 3 were full and I was getting worried when I found a place at the 4th. Even better I could have the room now at approx 10am and not have to wait until the afternoon. Before I went for a snooze I sent an email to an old colleague of mine from TRW who lives in the city. I had meant to send an email before but every time I was in an Internet cafe it slipped my mind. Steve called me a few hours later, catching me at the end of a quick sleep to propose we meet up that evening for a meal and a drink with his wife. I had been lucky to catch him as he had spent much of the past few weeks abroad.

It was a very pleasant evening with a meal and a few drinks in the Bangsar area before a quick tour in the car round KL, Steve & Chrissie pointing out the sights I should see over the next few days. It proved to be a great help over the next couple of days and I thank them both.

Job 1 next day was to head to the Indonesian embassy and see about the visa. After queuing for a bit to get the forms, queuing a lot longer to photocopy the passport and queuing again to hand in the documents & fee ($40) I was told it was all OK and to pick up the visa in 3 days. When I did head back 3 days later they found fault with my travel arrangements out of the country and I had to buy a refundable plane ticket out of Bali and head back the next day.

Kuala Lumpur is a shopperís delight with a lot of really good shopping malls in the city. One section of Bukit Bintang street has 3 alone and as this is the closest point public transport will get you to the Indonesian embassy I was here a few times. The best shopping mall is at the base of the Petronas towers, the worldís tallest buildings (excluding comms towers). They are not only large but the design is very elegant with them tapering towards the top and the stainless steel catching the light. The floor plan is based on Islamic art with two overlapping squares 45 degrees apart creating a star shape. The inner angles of the star are rounded out by semi-circles and the overall effect is superb. Architects round the world need to take note as they are the finest skyscraper designs to my mind since the Empire State & Chrysler buildings which were built in the 1920's. All the shopping facilities gave me a consumerist twinge I hadn't felt since I left home, one that I couldn't escape even at my hotel as the street outside converted daily into an incredible market with a fabulous glass roof the length of the street.

Petronas Towers
Petronas Towers

Market roof
The market roof over the street

On a cultural front I headed to the Islamic art museum that was within walking distance of the hotel. However there was a small river, a railway and some highways between me and it, and I couldn't work out a way through. I gave up and jumped in a taxi that took a route that reminded me of those maze puzzles you used to get as a child. The museum was modern and elegant showing exhibits quite different to those you normally see in a western art museum. As painting pictures of things is seen as creating icons Islamic art is dominated by calligraphy (normally passages of the Quran) and patterned surfaces (cloth, metalwork, architecture). It was interesting but as a non-Muslim I needed more explanation of the context and significance of most of the items.

National Mosque 2
The National Mosque nearby

Nearby, in the Lakeside Park, is a bird park and an orchid garden. I set off on foot passing shelters every so often provided to protect pedestrians from the sudden tropical downpours you get here. I must have looked hot as a taxi driver picked me up for free and dropped me at the entrance. I was only in there for 15 minutes or so before I gave up. The birds were spectacular, unlike those I had seen before but it was so hot & humid I was getting drenched by sweat and becoming very uncomfortable. It meant I had seen little of a wonderful exhibit and missed the orchids completely. Malaysia is definitely hotter / more humid than Thailand.

Rain shelter
Sign for a rain shelter

Bird park
Residents of the bird park

Many of the cities I have been already on the trip have communications towers with observation platforms high up on them for tourists (Toronto, Auckland & Sydney) but I'd not been up any of them. As the Petronas Towers only let you up to the bridge between them less than half way up I didn't bother with them for a view, I headed to the KL tower instead. I got within spitting distance of them on the monorail but couldn't work out how to get up there and once again had to use a cab. Again the route was tortuous and meant heading to the opposite side of the hill from the nearest public transport. It did give me a chance to see a strange sight, a small area of tropical rain forest perched on a steep hill in the middle of the city. The view from the tower was good, allowing me to piece together the areas I knew and had visited.

I've decided against heading to Singapore now, it would be a second thriving Asian city in a row and would probably go underappreciated. I fly there from Perth in June so will see it then. I now have a bus ticket up into the Cameroon Highlands for a bit of nature and where the altitude will hopefully knock 10 degrees (C) off the heat. After that itís back to Penang and then on to Indonesia.


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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Bluffers guide to travelling South East Asia 

I'll attempt to update and add to this post as time goes on keeping it somewhere near the top.

Food

In general really great, especially when you know what your getting. A mixture of spicy heat, strong herbs, salty and sour flavours usually served with rice. Noodles, in particular as noodle soup, are also available and will be the only time you are provided with chopsticks. The bulk of dishes here are eaten with fork and spoon.

If ordering western food beware as although their intentions are good the locals don't always have the right idea; my bacon cheeseburger came as a toasted bun with cheese, ham and salad, but no burger.

Unexpectedly (to me at least) the most reliable high quality non-native food here is Indian. The best meal I had in Laos was chicken tikka, a vegetable curry and a garlic nan all cooked to perfection. I found this trend in several countries so you're sorted if you're a curry'holic. In Malaysia the local cuisine has a distinct Indian influence.

The only downside (for me at least) is the pervasiveness of egg. If I forget to ask it to be left out of a fried rice dish I'll have to order again, it sometimes sneaks into a fried noodle dish when I least expect it and once was raw in a Tom Yam soup.

Beer

A most important subject. In Lao its easy, Beer Lao and generally only Beer Lao, is available everywhere for around US$0.70 a 600ml bottle. The label claims 5% alcohol but often feels like more; I'm sure the alcohol content varies between batches. Luckily enough its the most drinkable beer in the region.

Cambodia is a little more complex and I've yet to fully figure it out as there are several local brews of which 2 are know as Ankhor and Anchor. This leads to confusion about what you've ordered and are drinking, especially after a few. In strength and flavour they seem somewhere between the Thai and Lao styles. Also available, at some roadside stalls, are a range of beers in Coke size tins including a lager and a stout. They are all around 8% alcohol and I missed my opportunity to try them, much to the relief of my head and liver. Glasgow tramps can be assured of feeling at home here.

Thailand is interesting with a full blown beer war. First there is Singha, the best known Thai beer outside the country, which has around 6% alcohol, a slightly hoppy taste and sells for about $2 per 600ml bottle. Carlsberg set up a half owned joint venture to brew here under the Carlsberg name with a beer similar to Singha but lighter in taste. Singha responded by calling itself the patriotic beer and Carlsberg counters by launching Chang.

Chang quickly established itself as the best selling beer in Thailand and for obvious reasons. Its got 7% alcohol and a 600ml bottle sells for US$1.25 therefore giving it a lot more Bang for the Baht. This more than overcomes the problems that it doesn't taste great and a night on the stuff leaves a serious imprint on the next day. The Singha mob then releases Leo which also has 7% alcohol and sells for US$1.35, the better flavour being well worth the extra dime.

Malaysia comes as a shock after the previous three. As a Muslim country alcohol will not be available in all restaurants and when it is it will be a similar price or more expensive than at home. Tiger & Carlsberg are the most common brands, especially on draft. The Carlsberg has a bit of an after taste so I'd recommend the Tiger.

Itís worth noting that when reasonable to good rooms are available from US$5 to US$10 and meals for less than US$1, that beer can quite quickly become a significant element in a travellers budget. For the locals, who exist on far smaller daily budgets than travellers, it must be a luxury, explaining the popularity of local rice spirits like Lao Lao.

Lao Lao tastes like a cross between Sake and Vodka and therefore mixes easily. Available to rich tourists for US$1 a bottle, which are normally filled from large plastic barrels as you watch, it has a high destructive potential (as me and a couple of Irish lads can attest).

Transport

Varies a lot in this region, Thailand's & Malaysia's is generally great, whilst Cambodia roads are dreadful and you can outrun the average speed of their trains. In Thailand the 3 wheeled tuk-tuk is the key round town vehicle, in Lao the tuk-tuk goes everywhere and comes in larger sizes and in Cambodia you're perched on the back of a motorbike with a driver who doesn't know where you want to go and assumes you'll guide him.

What is common to them all is that the buses will be rammed full and will depart slightly late. 200 yards down the road the bus will stop for fuel and will occasionally manage a stop before this to rearrange luggage in the racks. Despite being a several hundred kilometre journey taking many hours the bus driver will stop every 2 minutes in the town of departure to pick up passengers who didn't go to the bus station. This is understandable as bus stations here are invariably located several km from the centre of town and you'll need a tuk-tuk to get there. The tuk-tuk will generally cost a significant fraction of the bus ticket.

If the route goes though mountainous territory you will quickly find that the Asians get motion sick easily. All of a sudden you find their heads ducking out open windows or filling little plastics bags (the buses often have a stock of these hanging on the handrails) which are then thrown out of the window. I'm sure I've even seen the driver up-chuck once.

Towns

If old and not flattened by war they will have some lovely architecture and seems to consist mainly of Wats (temples) and markets. If in regions that have received the attention of B52's they will have buildings that make you want to forgive Western architects of the 1970's, far fewer Wats and still the ever present markets.

Music

Not a strong point this. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia most public music, especially where you are trapped on boats and buses, is dreadful Thai karaoke music played on VCD machines. Imagine an endless sequence of crappy love ballads, accompanied by crappy soft focus videos with the lyrics (in a script you can't read) being coloured in as the song is sung. Now imagine being stuck with this for hours at a time; one song is distressing enough, several push you to the edge of sanity. Thankfully itís unusual for others to sing along, except for one horrific occasion in Burma when the family running the cafe I was eating at had a sing along. Bring earplugs, your own music or both.

The situation on Thailand is improving with most traveller hangouts playing a reasonable selection of tunes, though trendier places for locals will tend towards the tacky "Britney et all" style of pop.

Plumbing & electrics

Why are they a mixed topic? Because several places I have been don't necessarily keep them apart. One shower in Laos had an unsealed switch within 2 feet of the shower head, and I could see the copper in the switch!!! Both are technical skills that haven't transferred fully to the poorer countries; things just aren't done as you would expect them at home.

The plumbing will leak. Luckily all toilets / bathrooms are designed to have wet floors and have drains in the corner. In all public toilets the floor will be awash for two reasons other than the leaks :

1) they don't tend to use toilet paper, you clean yourself with your left hand and clean it with a small shower head next to the toilet

2) most toilets don't flush. A tap fills a basin and you scoop water from that to flush the toilet manually. Its not a foolproof process, especially in poor light, after a few beers and in a hurry to depart ASAP. I don't understand why they do this, having fitted a basin and got the water to it you've done a lot of the work in fitting a proper flushing toilet.

Of course many of the toilets are not as you recognise them at home. They don't have a seat, just two foot pads either side of a porcelain hole you squat over. Trust me, the first time you come across one is an experience you are unlikely to forget. Also many of these are attached to drainage systems unable to cope with toilet paper so you're meant to dump you used tissue in a bin.

Its worth carrying a few of those small packs of tissues with you in case you get caught short. Nothing is going to make you feel worse about a stomach upset than it forcing you to learn and use the local method of cleaning yourself.

Litter

Have to mention this, particularly for Lao. Remember those plastic bags I mentioned above getting thrown out of bus windows. Its not only those bags and buses, its everything from every vehicle. Soon many of the roads the will have little kerbs of rubbish and its a definite blot on the landscape.



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Thursday, April 08, 2004

Malaysia 

I arrived in Georgetown after a 23 hour journey. I didn't get onto the train until 1:30 am and only got a little sleep before things got noisy at around 6am. I didn't know this but we were nearing Hat Yai and most of the passengers were to get off here. I just saw that all the beds around me were up and converted into seats, so got up as well. Half an hour later as we departed Hat Yai the carriage was quiet and I noticed some sensible people at the other end had stayed tucked up. I live & learn. A couple of hours later we are at the Malaysian border where we get stamped out of Thailand and into Malaysia. The train is stopped here for around an hour and a half to give time for immigration and to allow the Thai loco to be swapped for a Malaysian one.

As we set off a blind guy was making his way up the carriage asking if a seat is free and I indicate the one opposite me. He is on his way to an Easter Christian gathering of the blind on Penang (the island just off Malaysia's coast containing Georgetown). We chat for a bit and the he asks if I can do him a favour. As I will be catching the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, as he needs to, would I mind guiding him? Itís OK by me but I point out as itís my first visit I may get lost. I needn't have worried; the transport in Butterworth is really well integrated with the train, bus and ferry stations all next to each other and the routes well signposted. We parted company at the bus stops in Georgetown when we found the correct bus for him.

After a long journey I was looking forward to a bath, followed by falling asleep watching BBC World whilst drinking a beer. The Lonely Planet contained several possibilities that wouldn't break the bank and on arriving at the first, which looked really nice, I checked in. It turned out that the bath plug wouldn't seal so I had to run the water continuously to keep it filled, the TV only had 3 channels all in Malay and the minibar was empty and would have broken the bank to fill it. Despite the bed being really comfy I was too restless to snooze so set out to get a first look at Georgetown and posted the original message in this slot.


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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Sunday the 4th of April saw the Full Moon party on Haat Rin Beach when between 5,000 and 12,000 people turn up to party through the night. All along the beach are bars with their own music selection giving a variety of musical styles. Arriving at midnight I spent much of the time wandering, trying different DJs and see what was happening, returning to the Cactus Bar to catch up with the others I'd come to the party with. I was sat on the beach with a fresh Gin & Tonic as the sun came up over the sea after a great nights partying. Unfortunately all the music stopped within the next half hour and it was some time until the after parties were to start so we caught a boat back to our beach to get some sleep. Rumour has it that the party ended early as 1 to 3 Thais had been shot by other Thais during the night. Brings back memories of Manchester in the early 90's when several dance clubs including the Hacienda attracted gang violence leading to the closure of most..... I hope this is not the start of the end for Haat Rin's Full Moon parties.

I don't have any photos of the event itself as I was convinced I would either soak my camera or loose it, prophetic when one of my friends lost his and another girl soaked hers in a fabulous display of drunken acrobatics getting off the boat at Haat Yaun and landing head first in the sea. I do have some photos as we got ready to go out and were covering each other with flourescent paints.

Full Moon Painting

Full Moon Ken

All in all it was a great night, not quite a Glastonbury, on the hand you are unlikely to have to fend off propositions by transvestite prostitutes at Glastonbury.

The next few days were spent chilling out and recovering some sleep and Haat Yuan is perfect for this. Today I have to leave and go to Malaysia and found leaving Haat Yuan about the hardest place to say goodbye to so far. I could easily have stayed here until my money ran out and at 300 baht ( 4.30 GBP) a night for my own bungalow with bathroom that would have taken a while. Not only was the location good but so was the company; thanks to Leia, Carmen, Mick, Ashley, Cassie, Lol, Alasdair and all the others.......

Haat Yuan
Haat Yuan itself

Barcelona
The Barcelona bungalows where I stayed

Haat Yuan stairs
The walkway & stairs at the north end leading to the Bamboo Bar then over to Haat Tien with Guy's Bar

I have to thank Paul from Manchester, who I met in Bangkok in January, for recommending the beach, the bungalows and the bar; cheers mate. This is one place I am determined to return to.....

Ahead of me I have quite a journey, catching a taxi to the pier at 4pm for a 5pm boat to the mainland. Landing at 9:30pm and getting a bus to the station for a 1:30 am sleeper to Butterworth, Malaysia arriving just after midday tomorrow, then catching a ferry to Georgetown. Think I'll stump up the cash for a nice hotel when I get there.....


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