Total Pageviews

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Recent Travels and Reunions

Just a few lines to go with some pics I took of our recent trip east, and meetings with old friends and family.

As much as I love surface travel, flying is an unfortunate necessity which has to be considered when time is short, and destinations too distant for any other 'style' of travel. Please, one day soon, let there be convenient rail travel across the barriers of currently war-torn nations, so that catching a train in London bound for Kuala Lumpur won't just be a dream. Imagine watching all that geography and culture slowly change before you, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes as they morph from uptight, self-conscious but historic Northern European, across the ancient sights / flavours of Asia Minor and eventually get drenched in the torrent of sensual input that South East Asia showers on you.

When in KL, our adopted neighbourhood is pretty unique and special - just far enough out of 'big town' to have the beginnings of 'small town' street life, and right on the edge of what was once a densely forested hill. Across Bukit Gasing (Spinning Top Hill), the patchy remnants of forest are an oasis-home to tribes of monkeys, wild-dogs, iguanas, squirrels, and an amazing array of birds and butterflies. From their shrinking refuge on the hill, they look out, through the hazy pollution, over 360 degrees of housing development gone crazy - hemmed in by flyovers, multi-story condominiums, terraces of low cost 2 story building estates, Light Rapid Transit rail systems and slowly moving ribbons of traffic jams for as far as the eye can see. They are happy prisoners in one of the few shrinking paradises skirting a 21st century city which is growing at a tremendous pace. The old virgin forests and surviving rural landscapes surrounding the city are now only 30 miles away, but to escape the urban hillside they can only rely on long drainage channels which run across the city, or ribbons of vegetation running down roadsides and between back gardens. Which way to go, and how to break free - what sad victims, living in a 'doomed by tomorrow' green heaven.

Local eating is just wonderful with good informal neighbourhood eateries of all types - you can enjoy eating from breakfast to supper without travelling more than half a mile. For a more intricate spectrum of tastes, there's no need to trundle more than a couple of miles, and with the best of the best within half an hour's drive, it is really a cross-cultural gourmet's dream come true. The cost of eating good food in KL is very, very reasonable........even incredible, if compared to eating out in the west, and that's after factoring in the exchange rate!!

Street markets next to huge glitzy shopping precincts for those with a yearning for holiday retail therapy, and no shortage of drinking holes and plush ultra modern bars, from cheapo to the classy end for the thirsty, make KL a holiday destination which is hard to beat. So, that's covered food, drink and shopping.

After a week in KL we headed for the islands - usually we go to the gin-clear turquoise sea off the north east coast, but this time we went to the deep green muddier waters in the north west, at the northern gateway to the Straits of Malacca - Pulau Langkawi is just south of the Thai border, and the 4th largest island in the archipelago - larger than Penang (the 5th largest) and is surrounded by 99 smaller islands - I'm sure its the site of an old volcano, but nothing I've seen in the blurb seems to cover that possibility.

Visiting Langkawi is a bit like stepping back in time, but not to the extent that visiting its nearby neighbour Pulau Pangkor would be. There are a number of high end resorts and hotels on the island, and a few 'themed' developments to lure in the local and foreign tourists. Generally though, its a quiet island and offers a laid back lifestyle to those looking for a hideaway from the demands which hectic life imposes on much of humanity. We had a wonderful experience on the 1st evening there - Rex Hu, an old childhood friend turned up unannounced having travelled halfway across Thailand by train, bus, motorcycle taxi and ferry, walked onto the beach, shed his clothes at the water's edge and jumped into the sea where we were swimming - an amazing surprise, instant lump in the throat and the rekindling of a uniquely deep friendship which covers 50 years, mostly from halfway across the world. Old friends are one of the most valuable gifts that life has on offer. More so as the years fly by, and with my 3rd quarter well in progress, I find that maybe only a handful of old friendships continue sparkling - defying barriers of time, distance, culture and social status.

Our stay in Langkawi was a richer experience due to meeting with old friends, and another mini reunion happened a day later when, by chance, Bob, another dear friend we have known since childhood turned up on his beautiful boat, and invited us all to share time on board. We temporarily turned our backs on 'normal' holidaying, and sailed away in the utterly tasteful, plush efficiency of a well run, floating heaven which would put any boutique hotel, anywhere, to shame. Gliding silently through the maze of islands and rocky outcrops surrounding Langkawi is so beautiful. I've done this before on a little motor boat, but this was a special experience. We were lucky coz the sundown was like something out of a painting, and the next day we had heavy clouds and a storm at sunrise. The low level beams of sunlight shining through the clouds like a cracked up teastrainer. Drama on the little dense green island outcrops as the mist coming off the forest got caught in the strong breeze and whisked away through the rainstorm..........then the storm cleared, brilliant sunshine, like another stage set. Later we ate freshly landed fish and crabs. An anchored heaven in the midst of a magical maze of islands.........we swam off the boat and the water was just below body temperature - not even a slight shock when you jump in. Just a very salty and cosseting mega jacuzzi.

After the boat, getting back to the luxury hotel felt a bit like slumming it, but we managed. The hotel was surrounded by jagged mountains covered in jungle and the beach was nearly empty - I guess the South Pacific atolls must be a similar setting but with blue, clear water. I know many who will not even consider a visit into the heat and humidity of South East Asia. Among those are even folk who were born and spent their early lives in the Far East. For some, the climate is an invisible barrier to the East, and it's such a great pity. Swimming in the ocean here was the closest thing to paradise - empty sea, empty islands, wonderful food, and no rush at all.

Headed back to KL and prepared for Su Yin's flight back to London - saw more old friends in KL and some drove up from Singapore. Reunion season - I love having a beer and catching up with old buddies, especially when its friendship that goes back to early school days. Its rare that friends stay friends for 50 years, and those that do, despite the differences between them in terms of wealth, position and pursuits can count themselves amongst the luckiest, for what else can transcend true and deep friendships? Perhaps only deep love, and the spiritual and religious peace that comes from that other form of true devotion.

Living in an air-conditioned environment is taken for granted by many (who can afford it) in South East Asia. Unfortunately, this has turned from a luxury into an imprisonment, especially visitors from the West, and one meets people who will not do anything if it needs venturing out into the sunshine and humidity. Its easy to fall into this trap, and a trap it is, as it turns a large percentage of the visitors and local population into 'shopping mall hikers'. The huge malls in Asian cities are built to keep shoppers cool, and many just visit to keep cool and not to shop - that's fair enough, and the same applies to restaurants - no air conditioning means its off the list of possibles, regardless of the quality of cuisine. Westerners visiting Asian cities miss much of the streetlife and smaller regional towns and activities for the same air conditioned reason - returning with a partial view of the East, censored by air conditioned luxury.

Bangkok is the world's 22nd largest city by population with approximately 8 million residents............... and it feels like it!! The energy and activity everywhere one looks is intense, and while I found it to be rather off putting at first, it requires a mindset-shift to settle into it and appreciate it from a local standpoint. Reconstructed in 1782 on an existing village, it was given the ceremonial name " "The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarm" take a moment to listen to the name in Thai here:

We are very lucky to have such good friends in Bangkok who know the'REAL city' and not the 'sex, drugs and rock&roll' side which is so publicised in the west. When you do get into REAL Bangkok, it starts to be overwhelmingly addictive, and I couldn't wait to see what was round the next corner. Coming in from KL, a city where life is lead at a 'quieter pace', although the colour smell and noise is similar, there is a distinct ratcheting up of adrenalin when stepping onto the streets of Bangkok. It's tempting to compare it with Hanoi in terms of the sheer buzz on the streets, but its a rather dubious comparison because Bangkok is a modern, international city, and Hanoi feels distinctly 3rd world, and like a 'Heath Robinson' device, its ancient pedigree is there to see in the buildings, sidewalks and colonial atmosphere of the charming French Quarter. Bangkok also has an extremely charming face - take a long ride on a river taxi up and down the wonderful Chao Pharya river (240 miles from source to sea, but you don't have to do it all) which winds north/south through the heart of Bangkok. The river is well used as a major transport artery, as are the network of Klongs (canals) which run through Bangkok's 50 districts, and the banks of both river and canals have evolved for trade as the symbiosis has developed for centuries. As you cruise along its easy to see the historical track of development through the ages - Pagodas, old wooden river settlements, Portuguese and other colonial style buildings and then the modern international skyscrapers all mixing and sharing frontage on the banks of the Chao Phrya. There is no better way to get a potted view of this city - also prices for the river taxi trips are extremely reasonable.

Bangkok is literally teeming with life on every level, wherever you go at whatever time of day or night there is unceasing commercial activity from the neon lit skyscrapers to the back streets of restaurants and family shops and businesses. Of course the infamous traffic jams are a constant source of 'Essence d'Exhaust', and one has to be wary when crossing the road - most motorists only show care for monks, the elderly and the blind. That is being rather harsh, as in most respects the people are extremely polite and always welcoming. If the street was this crowded and intense in London, there would be angry and short tempered people waiting to lash out at all and sundry for no good reason. In Bangkok, the opposite extreme - smiles, softness and accommodation. I'm sure that the soft surface is due to a culture which is based in a long history of Buddhist awareness, and due to this, people can live at this pace without the 'jagged edges' showing, and a high degree of awareness of each others needs and plight.

There is no social safety net, and yet you don't see or hear whinging, and most folk just get on with living by selling whatever they can, and that includes their bodies - the world's oldest profession is well represented here and it flaunts itself without hiding behind window shutters or curtains like in Amsterdam, or tiny labels on doorbells which lead up to dingy staircases in London's seedy Soho back streets. Here, visitors and locals who go to the right areas will find the full range of possibilities from female to male and everything to speak!! I was startled by the way certain areas in Bangkok celebrate sex when we visited Patpong to get an impression of what the western (especially) tourists flock to. Like ants on a colourful and noisy pile of sugar, western tourists flood the main street down which many of the bars and strip clubs are situated. I guess there are all the arguments about exploitation, and what the industry supports in terms of illegal activity, child abuse, spread of STD's and such like, but in this part of Bangkok its there, part of all the other trading that happens on the street - one doesn't HAVE to look in that direction if it hurts, but coming from London, its hard not to compare the upfront-ness of Patpong with the dodgy, dimly lit streets of Soho. I'm not in any way endorsing this side of commerce, but in Patpong, you can't miss its presence.

Unlike the sex industry which is confined to certain districts, the food industry is universally represented in every street and area of this city - you can eat all day and night, and get high quality meals for not much expense at all. The food is colourful, the tastes fresh and varied, and the lure of fresh cooking fills the air to such an extent that the tummy juices are tempted and tantalised at every corner. We often ate on the side of the street at night, under hurricane lamps and had an extended 3 hour dinner, with lots of excellent local Chang lager to wash it down for the unbelievable sum of £3-$4 a head. We also ate at restaurants and on the river - sea food is a Thai favourite, and crab, prawn, squid and fish is fresh and delicious. Siri, an old schoolfriend took us to the most amazing restaurant in a little village on the delta, close to the mouth of the Chao Pharya. It was primarily a wonderful reunion as none of us had met Siri since 1968, but also a great lunch!! The fish are even fresher here as they are landed just round the corner. We ate a mouthwatering meal and were so full that we could hardly walk out. Local knowledge counts for everything - no one would know of this superb eatery unless you had expert guidance. In many eastern cities where everyone cooks the best dishes, there are food gurus who will nosey out the best of the best, and if you are lucky enough to know someone with food savvy, you will never forget the 'taste heaven' that Bangkok is.

As I walked down the pavements, I eyed the food stalls, the Thai sweets and cakes and the fresh fruit - all the colours, and the faces of the vendors and the shopkeepers. 95% of them smiling and the body language was inclusive and positive. The people living on and beside the sidewalk were like a little roadside community. Without gardens, play areas, any visible heavy police presence, community support, and all the things that we have grown used to seeing in the west. Still there was no yobbery, no drunken youths, no friction or any sign of malice. Many races live cheek by jowl with the Thais. There is a large Muslim community living in a run down area by a Klong in a very harmonious way. They have their mosques, and have settled in Bangkok for hundreds of years. There are other communities of Indians, Japanese, European travellers /expats and most of the South East Asian races who have made Bangkok their home. Recently there has been much press coverage of the 'riots' between the supporters of opposing political views, and we have heard about the violence in the southern provinces bordering Malaysia. None of these events seems to have altered the mood on the streets here - I found calm, welcoming folk in Bangkok. The thuggish, threatening negative vibe surrounding the youth of London seemed a million miles away, very thankfully. Considering the hardships and hurdles the average Thai teenager has to overcome, one would expect them to be the aggressive ones, but not so. The politically correct social scientists and administrators in the west who make much of the slogan "poverty causes crime" should come here (and to other poorer Asian cities) to revisit their superficial theories instead of sitting in their blinkered local government throne rooms, throwing (OUR) good money after bad on supporting lost causes.

We loved Bangkok more than we ever have before, mainly due to our friends who showed us the side of the city that doesn't revolve around shopping malls, traffic jams and air conditioned restaurants - a BIG thank you to Eric, Siri, Rex, Aroontip and to Jeff and Jumm.

For those of you who are visiting this wonderful city, before you do, have a close look at Eric's great website:

We headed back to KL for our final week in the East, spending the time meeting relatives and old friends. I was amazed at how much we'd seen and how many nostalgic meetings we'd had. Having done this Far East trip every year for the past decade, and many times previously, the expectation is that we will soon get bored and run out of things to do. In fact, each time we return there's a whole list of new stuff to see - next time maybe Laos, Luang Prabang and a slowboat down the Mekong. Even the food keeps surprising us,and we cook South East Asian dishes in London at least 2 - 3 times a week. This part of the world is a traveller's dream come true - for me, it all 'came alive' when I took to the less travelled paths and places. There are always the air-conditioned malls and shopping cities, but you may as well stay at home, as most of the shops, chain hotels and restaurants will be clones of the ones in your hometown.

So, avoid the crowds and take to the back streets my friends, never mind the sweat and smell, for here lies the heart and soul of the country that you're searching for.