Arriving in Southeast Asia was a hot and muggy shock to my pampered
California bones. The equator runs very close to Singapore so the weather
doesn't vary much by time of year. You wouldn't think the heat would make
much difference when one is luxouriously ensconced in air-conditioned hotels.
I must confess however I found it oppressive and wearying from the time
we arrived in Singapore to the time we departed from Bangkok 12 days later.
Our room in the Oriental looked out across Singapore Marina with a glimpse of the polo field in the distance. As elegant as the room was, after three nights we began to find that the hotel was a bit isolated from the city activities. It required a taxi ride to get to the shopping area. We were to find this was true of most of our hotels throughout the trip. Our posh lodging was always a bit out of town and isolated from the main activities of the city. Later in the trip at our hotel in Bangkok, we found they had gone so far as to ban taxis, leaving only the hotel limo if one wanted to venture into town. We did discover that by walking to the less exclusive (non-white) wing of the hotel we could get a taxi.
The hotels throughout the trip were either five-star or the best each location had to offer. The tour we booked was a so-called 'independent' tour. They provided transportation, lodging, hotel transfers, and a few pre-set excursions. This seemed to work pretty well since we don't enjoy being herded with other tourists, but do like to have the tedious work of travel done for us. When one doesn't speak the local language it is certainly more comforting to have these details pre-arranged. As it turned out Ronda and I were the only ones that had booked this particular package so our transportation was by private car and driver.
The famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore was a pathetic imitation of what
it must once have been. It has been restored, renovated, redone, commercialized,
and ruined. Our tour included a dinner at the Raffles and we anticipated
it eagerly. Upon arriving we were a bit dismayed when we were marched past
a set of elegant diners into what I could describe as a cafeteria. It was
to be 'buffet' (which I normally go out of my way to avoid). The other
disappointed tourists were dressed nicely also and the overall ambiance
of the room was satisfactory, but I felt a bit cheated. The elegant dining
area we had passed was for people who knew better and perhaps for people
who put out the big bucks to overnight in one of the few restored guest
rooms. After feeding ourselves, we walked to the famous Raffles Long Bar
and ordered drinks. The bar was authentically dark, punkah fans wafting
from the ceiling, and with a young stylish crowd of drinkers. It failed
to cheer us up however and we left to wander around looking into the closed
shops that have been built into the Raffles complex. It was welcome relief
when our driver came and rescued us.
On Sunday we took a taxi to a café in mid-Singapore to where Chinese men bring their birds once a week. The café courtyard has an eight foot high metal framework where they hang their bird cages while sipping coffee, and there must have been close to a hundred cages with as many birds singing and cheeping loudly. The bird afficionados are all Chinese men of various ages. The cages are of bamboo, many have intricate carvings at the tops and around the bottoms, and some are decorated with ivory carvings. There are small decorated ceramic vases mounted inside for water and seed. The cages are standardized in shape and size to suit the few types of birds we saw. The most popular was the small rounded-top cage, each containing a tiny bird which, legend has it, sings most beautifully when it is sad. Medium-sized birds with top-knots were in cages with pointed tops. And larger blue-jay-sized birds with long tails were in larger diameter cages. The long-tail birds are prized for their songs and their cost goes into the thousands of dollars for those with extra-log tails.
I had the notion that we would join in, drinking coffee and perhaps visiting with the locals. There were a few other tourists, but it was clear we were outsiders. It didn't seem appropriate or easy for us to participate so the best thing was to observe and admire.
Across the street from the café I discovered a shop specializing in bird cages. They had new and old cages and some birds. The proprietor was chatting with us about birds and cages when his pager began beeping. He excused himself, pulled a cell phone from his pocket ('hand phone' as they are called in SE Asia), and returned the call. This didn't diminish my enthusiasm for the moment although it was a reminder that these folks are in the 1990's also. I've concluded that one of my main objectives in travel is the quest for the quaint and exotic. The goal had eluded us up to this point in the trip, but this 'birdwatching' experience seemed to hit the target.
I've found that when travelling my purchasing sphincters tighten up.
I have to make a concerted effort to open my wallet and buy things. I suppose
this is because I'm not sure of the fair price of things, I think I'll
find a better bargain at the next stop, and also because of the difficulty
of carrying it all back home. In this case however I was pleased to purchase
a small antique bird cage, quite elegant with intricate basket-weave carving
at the bottom. It came with a cloth cover which I put on to protect it.
>From then on during our tour it was a sure-fire conversation piece and
ice-breaker when the locals asked about my imaginary bird. I fancied also
that carrying the cage gave a certain flair when emerging from our car
at hotel entrances and marching into lobbies. Mr. And Mrs. Coleman and
Tweety checking in.
Melaka was our first stop in Malaysia. It's
an interesting city with lots of Dutch trading history and now populated by Malays (Moslems)
and Chinese. Our visit included the 'tour from hell'. Our guide was an enthusiastic
chap who wanted to show us and tell us everything. My head was aching with info. overload
before it was all over. Near some Chinese temples was saw shops which sell paper replicas
of household items such as TVs, stereos, food, and even money. The replicas
are burned by the Chinese as an offering to the spirits of the departed.
We saw the restored ruins of a
fort and other buildings built by the Dutch. In the days of sailing ships, shipping between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific had to pass through the
straits of Melaka and the city commanded an important harbor on this route.
As part of my quest for the exotic, I shopped for shadow puppets. Shadow puppets are the original SE Asian village version of movies. There are a set of traditional stories and characters and at night the puppeteer uses a lantern to project images of the puppets on a sheet while enacting the story and reciting the dialog. I am under the impression this is traditional for Malaysia as well as Indonesia and Bali.
I must be horribly goal oriented since if there is no real goal I find
myself setting an artificial one. I felt compelled to buy some authentic
looking puppets. Most of the examples I found however were crudely made
tourist junk. I found some possibilities in a stall in a large mart but
it was at the end of a long day and my buying sphincters again had tightened
up and we went away emptyhanded. In a museum we did see some wonderful
puppet examples as well as a mock-up of a puppet show.
In Kuala Lumpur, a taxi driver suggested a visit to the Batu Caves. The caves are a Hindu shrine and were pretty darned exotic. Once a year the caves are a major destination for the thousands of Hindus in the area, but there were very few visitors when we were there. The natural limestone caves are in the side of a cliff and are accessed via a long wide stairway. Monkeys hang around begging for food, and we saw a few chickens also. Inside the cave are multiple alcoves, each shrine for a different figure in the Hindu religion. Some were attended by devotees, and some were deserted. Although there were electric lights illuminating individual shrines, the main cavern was quite dark and was littered with refuse and monkey droppings.
Kuala Lumpur (KL as the congnicenti call it) is a city with a fine,
exotic name. In fact it is smog filled, traffic congested, thoroughly commercial,
and the home of Asia's largest flagpole. There are some magnificent buildings
such as the Sultan's palace, but I reach my fill of this kind of touring
pretty quickly. Again our hotel, the Regent, was opulent, and the other
people on a city tour we took were quite impressed by our temporary address.
They should have seen how grand we were when arriving with birdcage in
We flew from KL to Penang, an island just off the west coast of Malaysia. Penang has for many years been a resort island and has been called 'The Pearl of the Orient'. In addition to being a resort destination, the island now has several semiconductor assembly plants. Most of the island however is either undeveloped or is farmland, and we saw the rural parts in a motor tour. We stopped at a fruit stand and sampled several fruits that were new to me. The most notable was the durian, a fruit with fleshy white globs inside that smell strongly, possibly of old cheese or gym sox. The story is that one either likes it or hates it, with no middle ground. I liked it, but Ronda couldn't get past the smell. On our drive, we could see from the car where nets had been stretched across gullies to catch these fruits as the fell from very high trees. They are in high demand and command a good price in local markets.
Georgetown, the principal city on Penang, is an interesting old colonial
outpost. It has become mostly Chinese, with the Malay population in the
minority. We ventured from our posh beach resort and wandered around the
town. For lunch we tried the old Eastern and Oriental Hotel. The E&O
is a remnant from the past, left thankfully in its original appearance.
The lobby is open air, shaded with potted palms and cooled by overhead
fans. The dining room was authentically shabby and the staff was relaxed
and inattentive. Our lunch was unremarkable and quite inexpensive. This
was a welcome relief from the eager-to-please hovering we endured at our
five-star compounds. We strolled through the grounds later and saw where
they had yielded to economics and added an air-conditioned wing. Their
small-scaled garden and pool overlook the Indian Ocean and seemed far preferable
to our five-star theme parks. We agreed that this is the kind of lodging
we need to seek out for future visits.
The traditional transport in Georgetown is the trishaw, pedaled by ancient
Chinese men. We explained our destination to an old fellow who sought our
business, and he exclaimed that this was 'very far'. Maybe this was a ploy
for a higher price or a bigger tip, but we did feel a bit guilty having
this old fellow struggle through the heat for our pleasure.
The Eastern and Oriental Express
The train was the highlight of our trip. We boarded the Eastern and
Oriental Express at Butterworth Station, a short drive to the mainland
across a bridge from Penang. The train begins in Singapore, and spends
one day getting this far into Malaysia. We joined it halfway on its journey
to Bangkok. The scenery it passes through, the elegance and comfort of
the cars, and the small scale of the train all contribute to making it
a remarkable experience.
The rail line up the Malay peninsula has been there a long time, but
it is not often that a train has gone through all three countries. Apparently
a mountain of Asian bureaucracy had to be conquered to set up the procedures
for passing customs and immigration at the borders. The rails are narrow
gauge and single track most of the way. The cars were originally from New
Zealand but have been refitted with no expense spared. The cars are narrower
than in the U.S., but the standard sleeping compartments are quite comfortable.
The have en suite facilities including private showers. The woodwork and
fixtures are elegant. There are two dining cars, a saloon car, and a bar
car, each one with a unique style of wood work and finish.
The bar car was my favorite, with light colored oak burl I believe, set off by wicker paneling. Because we joined the train late, we dined in the saloon car rather than the more elegant dining cars. It was pretty nice by my tastes though and I dressed in black tie and Ronda in her finery to fit the occasion. Since the sleeping compartments were compact, our two large suitcases were stowed in the baggage car. It took some planning to do all this fancy dressing from our carry-on bags.
In the bar we chatted with an English man travelling alone. Charles had been a medical journalist in his career and after talking with him a while it became clear he was travelling to escape the grief of the death of his spouse 3 years prior. We also spoke briefly with a South American woman who was recently widowed. There were newlyweds from Japan and a pair of newlyweds from Switzerland with whom we shared a table at lunch.
While passing through Malaysia, the scenery is mostly jungle and plantations,
and the walls of greenery press close to the train. After passing into
Thailand and to the East coast of the peninsula, the scenery opens up to
rice paddys, rural towns, and backyards with their family shrines. I caught
glimpses of rock formations jutting from the landscape, decorated by wispy
clouds hanging low around them. The South China Sea in background, the
emerald green rice paddy landscape, and these mysterious rocks made a memorable
picture. The picture remains in my head however since photographs through
the train window were not successful.
Bangkok is a huge city and in our short stay barely scratched the surface. It took us a while to learn how and when to get around. For instance, it's best to do one's touring early in the day. It gets unbearably hot later and the river shuttles disappear about 3PM. Also, the road traffic is regularly gridlocked during commute hours.
To get back to the hotel one afternoon, we negotiated with one of the independent non-metered taxis. The ride got off to a bad start when a piece of rusted metal projecting from the door frame tore Ronda's pants. It got exciting later when the driver abandoned city streets and began driving through the dirt roads of a large construction project (possibly rapid transit) in the center of town. I wasn't clear where we were headed but he seemed to know his business (scaring the … out of the tourists) and we arrived at our posh hotel in less than style. The hotel mended the pants at no charge.
It turned out later that Charles from the train was staying at our hotel
in Bangkok so we arranged to meet for drinks. With his medical background
he was very interested in the AIDS epidemic in Thailand. He speculated
on a possible plot for a medical mystery. 'Man from small English village
comes to Bangkok, has brief encounter with local prostitute, returns and
becomes patient zero among his villagers.' We did observe a pair of white
men in our hotel pool 'being attended to' (fawned over…) by two local working
girls. They appeared scrawny and unattractive to me, and the prospect of
disease would certainly dampen any enthusiasm for such sport.
The highlight of Bangkok for us was the Grand Palace. It is a photographer's
dream or nightmare. The buildings are decorated with amazing style.
The palace, a complex of perhaps 100 structures, was built about 200 years ago, relatively recently by some standards, but has been maintained in polished condition.
Many of the buildings arecovered with mosaic from ceramic pieces and many are covered with gold leaf. There are several temple areas within the palace grounds and we saw orange-clad monks going about their monk business.
Besides the grand palace, Bangkok has several hundred other temples
(wats) and one sees them tucked away throughout the city. The Chao Phraya
river winds through the middle of the city and many of the hotels overlook
it. River freight traffic moves up and down day and night. We hired a long-tailed
boat (so called because of the long propellor shaft) at the dock near the
E&O hotel and cruised through some of the canals (klongs). We saw more
temples at the sides of the canals (wats by the klongs).
Jim Thompson's house is a popular tourist destination. Jim is credited
with making Thai silk the international industry that it is today. His
house is a traditional Thai dwelling which he bought in the mountains,
disassembled, and had rebuilt on his property in Bangkok. It was interesting
to see the architecture and style of furnishings and artifacts within the
building. He is also reputed to have been a CIA agent. In any case a few
years ago while visiting Malaysia he disappeared without trace. His heirs
have opened up the house as a museum.
The E&O Hotel in Bangkok has suffered some of the same fate as the
Raffles in Singapore. The original building is still there, but towering
over it are high-rise blocks of new guest rooms. The gardens and public
rooms are nicely done, but the hotel has become rather large and doesn't
have a cosy feel to it. We went there for a drink and had a pleasant time
in a rattan decorated room overlooking a garden. The E&O faces the
Chao Phraya and its dock serves as a hub for tourist water transportation.