Borneo, Hidden Under the Jungle Canopy
Sunday, April 12, 2004 9:40 pm
So starts a new journey deeper into the unknown than I’ve journeyed before. The check-in procedure now required that I unlock the duffel bag in which the backpack was tucked. After an X-ray scan the porter carried my bag to an area retained for such purposes. I joined another, not so long line. The ticket agent, a young chubby Iranian woman, spoke curtly asking for passport and ticket. I surrendered both to her. She handed me a boarding pass and pointed to the security point established to review carry-on luggage. I had anticipated numerous flight checks of my shoes so I wore slip-ons. No buzzing! That means I can proceed through this stations to my gate.
Although the limo driver charged $77 to take me to the airport, I was glad that I used him. Leaving Marcy for three weeks is difficult to do. My first leg of the flight is to Taiwan with an hour stopover, and then the plane continues on to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The flight should last, start to finish, 19 ½ hours. I decided to get to the airport LAX early, to let Marcy sleep on Sunday night, Easter. Michele’s wedding to Anthony Head was on Saturday so our house was busy with relatives. The wedding itself was a huge other story to be told elsewhere by others. My original departure of April 1 was quickly changed when I learned of the wedding. A good friend, Bryan Brannan, was hoping to leave with me. He bought the tickets, got his passport, took his pills and shots, but wasn’t able to extricate himself from the purchase of a new home, or leave his lawyer practice in comfortably reliable hands.
Marcy is eternally my first choice for travel partner because of so many reasons but not the least important is that she trusts me and will boldly follow me even when I without a plan. She is very smart. Some of her ideas turn out to be the best way to go; I trust her. Unfortunately, she too is not going on this trip.
Traveling to the airport took over an hour. After going through the gate I sat and got comfortable. It was 11:30 pm, and the flight wouldn’t be boarding for over two hours. The board plan was orderly, not what I expected. I thought it would be like the Chinese and Cathay Pacific. They pushed and shoved to jockey to the front of a semicircle. It could have been the early hour too, that softened the competitiveness of the heavily ethnic Malaysian passengers.
I noticed all the stewardesses were young shapely women and one guy. The plane is a Boeing 747-400P. It seems to be a big plane. I had the entire center row of four seats to myself and I brought the CD player with me so I could listen to entertainment while I slept. Once the flight left I spread out, still with a hacking cough. I was not the quietest passenger.
A caricature on the wall screen shows us cutting north by Oregon then looping around over Japan. We’re doing over 500 mph often ground speeds reach 800 mph.
How This Trip Happened
Back in mid 2002 I was considering another Asia trip because so there are so many Asian countries I hadn’t seen. I looked at the Cathay Pacific cyber traveler plan, but I saw a competitive plan from Malaysia Air that listed unfamiliar destinations at about $1000, like Cathay. I discovered I was obligated to arrange the flight through a travel agent. A woman at a Thousand Oaks office helped me for a fee. She put the towns together and I bought the ticket in February of 2004.
Marcy and I were on a cruise in February with Paul, Karen, Ross and Lee. We took The Princess to the Panama Canal for ten days. Marcy could not go on another trip so soon. We have laid the basic plan for our February trip to Jerusalem. I took a picture of Marcy and me with me, but no other photos. I don’t do that. I miss my entertaining wife. Somehow the distance increases with the feelings.
The plane ground to a halt in foggy Taipei Chang Kai Shek Airport Tarmac. I listened to the pilot spoke in Malay first, and then repeated the information in English. “Those that wish to stay aboard and are continuing to Kuala Lumpur may do so.” A pleasant stewardess informed me that the layover would allow for crew change and a thorough cleaning in the interior. Since the stop is anticipated to about one hour, I still had a little more sleep to do. I slept well and long on this 19-½ hour journey. In the morning in Kuala Lumpur, I e-mail Marcy. It will already be over a full day, so she may still be at work. When I reached into my bag for htelp filling out a form, I pulled out a small a white note. It was a sweet note of love from Marcy. It gave a wonderful little zing. Less than twenty hours and I already miss her just as I accepted I would. She is someone I always love being with. I still have hours of flying to go, and I have to make a plan once I retrieve my luggage at KL airport. I am tired even though all I did was eat and sleep.
*This is part of how I got here
So I chose the itinerary from Malaysian Airlines because they were in unusual places I have not been to before. Religious sites and monuments of ancient cultures have always attracted my interest. They seem to abound here in Bagan Kutching . How I actually get to them it is yet to be known.
So I got my shots, bought a few Lonely Planet books, sadly I didn’t know people who had been there before, until I talked briefly with Dave Kaplan. He had done this before. I was not feeling well when he called, so sadly his good information is forgotten.
The arrival at KL airport was smooth and well organized, as they should be. I am at the lost luggage station because my one bag, the green duffel, didn’t make it. Instead it was checked through to Yangon. Where I will be going tomorrow. So either I trust the system and just go on without my bag or I wait for it. I requested that it be brought up to me. This, I am told, will be at least one hour. So starts the nefarious forces determined to prevent me from doing all that I could. The marred yellow walls and plateless electrical outlets set the tone. It’s just this kind of stuff that creates an interesting battle. The clerks were busy with everything but my bag and I am the only customer. As promised within an hour my bag did arrive, and not as I had feared disheveled and ransacked. I have noticed that the greatest number of problems follows the very first and very last bag to be delivered.
Now with my duffel, I was ready to get into KL. My options were to take the bullet train into KL, or the bus/train service. The taxi cost 80. The bullet was 35 ringets. The exchange rate is 3.65 ringets to one dollar. The airport is spacious and super modern. I wandered outside the area for arriving international visitors. Like all international airports, there are many people just waiting for the likes of me. So a guy in a nice suit asked are you form Canada?” “No, America” “Do you have a hotel yet?” he asked. “Not yet.” Let me show you some, come this way. So I followed him.
The standard chatter followed. “What city are you from?” I answered “Blah blah” “Oh that is very far away.” It’s pretty set- everyone says the same pattern. KL sits close to the equator, so after a long forty-mile ride in fairly heavy city traffic (during the latter part of the trip) I was delivered to the three-star hotel, Corona. It was close to the main sites of the city. The KL tower, a needle shaped building, sat adjacent to the twin towers. The lower part of the twin towers were easy to visit. There is shopping on the bottom six levels. To go above the fiftieth floor, you exit the elevator, pay 15 ringet, and then board one of four special elevators to take the spectators to the observation deck 102 stories up. I bought a cell phone for international use. A simple Nokia cost about 120 US dollars. But it works worldwide, not like our phones.
Rain comes often to KL. It is close to the equator. Although only a few drops fell at first, each drop was large enough that two drops might fill a coffee cup. The temperature was still in the 80s or 90s. Steam rose off the asphalt streets. Large puddles would form quickly, from four drops striking in proximity of each other. Loud, reverberating thunder punctuated the drone of city sounds with such a sharp crack that I could not believe no lightning was visible. The sky began to darken- in the midst of the storm. Not as one might anticipate, since most darken prior to the rain falling.
The cabbie explained that it is unusual for rain to last more than one hour at a time. This was not the exception. Umbrellas folded, pedestrians who had detoured into shops and cafes were back on their mission. KL has many Muslims. The flag of Malaysia resembles the red and white stripes of the US, with the blue quadrant is replete with Islamic crescent and stars. Women frequently, but not always, cover their head with a black scarf. The airport and public buildings have prayer rooms. No overbearing presence of police or military. Malaysian KL seems to be a city of people who can follow rules and issues of civility like any western metropolis.
I went back to my room, showered and fell asleep immediately. After a few hours I woke and tried to call Marcy at work- successfully! She was happy to get my call. She has my cold. That is bad. To hear her voice was worth the cost and effort to get this phone ten times over. I’ve taken a few cipro antibiotics to get beyond the cold or whatever and it seems to be working.
Kuala Lumpur to Lyangoon
Because I knew I had a 40-mile drive to the airport and I suspected early morning work traffic would prevent my arrival by 8 am I decided that I had to be at the airport two hours early to check in. I woke, sort of rested, at 4 am. I showered and dressed quickly. The air conditioning was on all night, yet the room was still about 74 degrees Fahrenheit. I finished packing and went downstairs to a sleeping clerk. I said I want a taxi to the airport so the bellman scurried out to find a taxi. It was still dark but I was sure he knew where to find one. The bellman came in with the sad news that the driver wants too much because it is still early. The clock says 4:30 am. Eighty ringits (same as I paid to get here). Once in the cab the driver explained that he had to give the bellboy 20 ringits to get my fare. The driver wasn’t happy about the 20 but that’s how biz works in this neck of the woods. I watched his meter click away to 45 ringits. I still paid as arranged. I ate some nasm goring then walked to where my flight would leave. The food was too plain to be bad- just not worth the effort needed to consume it.
I walked to a small café modeled after the one at Harrod’s in London, or so they claim. The coffee was very good and the cinnamon caramel Danish was super hot but very tasty. The woman at the counter helped me get the phone working again. I couldn’t reach Marcy.
After a time the plane boarded, taxied and a couple hours later it landed in Yangon, Union of Myanmar. I had a computer visa which was acceptable, but it was one of the very first issued and used. They brought me into a small office-there they asked me to confirm birth date and asked if I had brought any contraband very nicely.
Everything here looks like it was new in the early eighties but now needs refurbishing. Most people wear flip-flops and males are dressed in a t-shirt. I bought flight tickets to Banyan. The counter to buy flights is a long walk outside in the hot sun, at least a mile. I bought tickets costing $98 US one way. They wouldn’t take kyatts, only US dollars for the flight and the money receipt for what I exchanged was stamped in big red letters “NOT REFUNDABLE”. The driver and his mute assistant were chosen because they could speak English. Later I’d learn that almost all cabbies had English as a second language. A visit to the Golden Pagoda was the first stop. The ill kempt taxi had a light blue blanket inauspiciously adorning the rear seat on which I sat. I was noticeably sweating, which showed up on the t-shirt I wore. Today was the second of five days set aside to celebrate the Buddha’s achievement of nirvana. This is a very popular holiday, especially college students who are allowed to throw water on passing vehicles or pedestrians. Huge buckets, high-pressure hoses, whatever means possible to deliver a cool drenching to all eligible- that’s everyone. Open windows of cars, especially attractive young women, were popular targets. In the dizzying heat I found it refreshing.
Adjacent to the stupa complex around which the town was built is a plaza on which tons of water was. The town has great golden Buddha’s. The one was covered with thousands of pure gold plates and contained thousands of carats of diamonds, including a huge 72k stone.
As the driver moved toward the center of town we were pelted with water from every point that students congregated. The Burmese University of Yangon was on this street. After looking around Yangon I was ready to move on to Bagan on Air Malay, the only flight available today. It made two stops, Mandalay and one other which I cannot recall, before reaching Bagan. I was anxious to get to Bagan today so I wouldn’t wait for a non-stop flight tomorrow. The Lonely Planet Guide mentioned the lack of cell phones and uncontrolled Internet, which is not commonly available. The only Internet I’ve seen was at the airport and it was one computer locked up and not available.
The heat was getting to be too much I could barely stand it with the humidity I was sweating profusely. I could feel little river lets of sweat glide down my belt. The flight began in the typical fashion for small town airports. After three hours we arrived in Bagan, which is a very small airport. I went to retrieve my backpack, then moved on out of the airport where touts waited impatiently. I had little choice. I picked one who spoke English and had him drive me to a hotel I had chosen based on Lonely Planets recommendation. $15 US a night. Nice clean rooms, no phone, pool, TV, but a hot shower and good bed with AC. I made arrangements with the driver, he calls himself “King” to meet tomorrow and he’ll take me around. He wanted $35 US for all day (Seven hours of tour guide) I offered $25 US but with promise to tip if he’s really good-he liked that. King said he’d return at 9 am. I washed my t-shirt, underpants, and socks in the shower and washed myself. Then I turned on the music and fell asleep.
April 15, 2004
Day 2- Bagan
Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, toast with a cheesy butter, and good coffee. I noticed while eating that a huge golden stupa is across the street from this rest stop. I observed trucks filled with young men cruising by. The water holiday is in day four or five. Several women have large squares of yellow paint adorning their cheeks. This, I am told, is commonplace. The yellow is made from a talcum like substance that is made by grinding a branch into fine dust. It is worn like western women wear lipstick. I visited hundreds of stupas and temples today. The difference between the two is that a stupa has no interior, and it is meant as a phallic monument to the Buddhist Gods. Burma is largely Buddhist, over 90%.
Afterwards, the constant assault of street vendors and more passive temple vendors compounded with dirt clouds and automobile exhaust had me ready to sleep at 5 pm. A shower is of necessity even for me. I paid “King” $30 US. He seemed stoned towards the end of the day and his teeth were framed at the gum line with the dark red juices he’d spat. He looked younger than his 30 years that he professed to. He had a pregnant wife to whom he had delivered some money to this morning. He said he also had a girlfriend with whom he wanted to spend the last day of the water festival with. Since I wanted a driver today he said he’d have someone who speaks English come tomorrow at 8 am to drive me to the Mt. Popu, then around Bagan. I was too tired to eat dinner. I showered then fell asleep. I could hear western style music sung karaoke fashion. You can make out a melody and you hear a voice singing but when you listen closely the syllables don’t usually relate to what words are supposed to be sung. I put on headphones, as there is no radio or television. Phones are a rarity. I want to reach Marcy to let her know I’m okay but until I get out of Myanmar, I am not able to do so. I was told possession of a cell phone is illegal.
The morning was fine, until I stepped out of my room. At that moment the humidity and overcast from a cloud-filled sky reminded me immediately that I am close to the equator. I walked the fifty steps to the open dining area. Dry scrambled eggs, white bread toast with a cheesy butter and strong coffee, an exact repeat of yesterday’s breakfast.
I walked across the street to the temple grounds. Outside the grounds was a long hallway lined on each side with dozens of merchants. Each, amazingly selling almost exactly what their neighbor had-and at exactly the same prices, of course. Each vendor would try their best to lure me into their area but there was no draw to one booth or another. As I walked through the marketplace, I was reminded of Marcy’s proclamation that I am a “bum-magnet”. My next few minutes were spent ignoring their entreaties to buy their wares. The Buddhist monks were mainly youths in orange or rust colored robes with a small bowl, and a flat polished plate. I had to be back at the hotel at eight to meet my new driver “Kycho” (spelled phonetically). He is the guide and has a driver with him who speaks no English. We shook hands. We discussed the financial aspect of $30 US for the day. He was trying to rein in the length of time, but he knew $30 was the price. He’s an official guide, having earned and paid for a certificate, which he showed me promptly. I was impressed.
Our first stop was about 70 miles from New Bagan, the city in which I am staying.
In the seventies, the government moved everyone out of Old Bagan and had them rebuild in New Bagan. Now the government is selectively allowing certain businesses, primarily related to the tourist trade, to go back to Old Bagan. I enjoyed the long, rugged drive. The taxi is on old black Toyota sedan whose seats have been recovered several times, never professionally.
Both the driver and “Kycho” chew beatlenut, staining their teeth and gums black-red. Women do not usually chew that but they may smoke especially large cigars. Usually women, but occasionally a man, will take pumice and make a powder made from grinding the limbs of some sort of tree. It leaves a pale yellow palette on the cheeks but it may be smeared elsewhere on the face.
As we approached the mountain, we see the site of a former volcanic eruption and monastery that was built on the volcanic plateau. A bustling village at the base was enjoying the festivity of the water festival. Young men had put on bizarre costumes and continued the spraying of water limitlessly. How I witnessed no accident is amazing itself. Buckets would be thrown on speeding motorcyclists with passengers. So the town was in a wet flurry. Women would usually choose an attractive young man to drench. We drove just outside the business center about two blocks through a dirt road. Kycho went to visit his girlfriend and then I began to climb the steps to the top of the monastery. It is necessary to go up more than a thousands narrow steps to reach the top. I needed the help of the rail on the side. Lots of people were climbing too. Since most were Asian, their feet were much smaller, so it was easier for them to ascend or descend on the narrow steps a big-footed Caucasian.
Fortunately, the weather cooperated and it was not as hot and humid as other days. I walked around to see everything I could. I could see for miles. We drove from Mt. Popu to a small village where the farmer grow peanuts then grinds them to obtain oil. They feed the ox peanut remnants. They also fermented dates and distilled it into palm wine. The old woman of the farm smoked a big fat cigar around her wrinkled, toothless smile.
We left, and drove to a Myanmar restaurant. The food is laid on the table in ten small bowls and one large bowl of steamed rice. I sniffed and tasted ingredients of each bowl. Pickled vegetables, meats floating in fat. I had some fried fish and soup too. I was getting hot- no air conditioning in the taxi. The dropped me at the taxi stand in front of the hotel. Back in my room I was soon asleep.
Saturday, April 17, 2004
I hired a horse and buggy at 7000 kyat. I talked with the 38-year-old driver, Bobo, who told me his story. He has four full grown children, one daughter and three sons (one of the sons is a driver, like him). He drove me to many stupas, pagodas, temples, etc. I saw a huge reclining Buddha. Worshipers would buy a small stamp of gold leaf then press it on the Buddha. I was missing Marcy quite badly today. Quite often I think of how much she would have enjoyed this. Moreover, I wanted her company. Since there is no email or phones here, I will have to wait until I get back to Kuala Lumpur. Bobo knew of a place that I might be able to call. There was a group of four people waiting before me. They wanted to call somewhere. After a wait of twenty minutes, I was invited to talk on the phone. He told me I could talk on the phone for one minute. The connection wasn’t clear but I heard Marcy’s voice. Quickly I explained no email or phone service and that I’m okay and love her.
Bobo asked if we could stop by his house because as he put it, “my brother is finished”. I didn’t understand this until we stopped at his house. Women were sitting quietly along the front porch holding their knees. He walked over to a young man lying in a bed. He looked over quite ill and his complexion was ashen. I was outside the low fence looking in when I heard Bobo wail. His brother had died today. I was shaken by all of this, and when Bobo came out, wiping his tears from his face, he was ready to go back to work, and take me to another temple. I couldn’t go on. I paid Bobo and left him with the promise that he returns to his family. He had agreed to be with me for the full day but this event has changed the entire day. The heat of the afternoon and the scene I just witnessed brought me down off the high I was on after speaking with Marcy. I went to my room; it was only 5 pm and cried briefly for Bobo’s loss. Sadness, too, transcends language.
Sunday, April 18, 2004
Bagan to Yangon
I awoke early, as is my practice. I go to sleep early, so it follows that I shall arise early. I walked through the temples across the street from this hotel and found most of the street vendors very predatory. The children monks were out in full force too. Everyone tried their best to make me surrender something of value to them. Ballpoint pens seemed to work well. I ate a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee at the hotel. Bobo was not at the agreed spot, but I was reluctant to use him anyway because he must still be lamenting the loss of his brother. Fortunately, he wasn’t there. I was told by another buggy driver that Bobo would not show up because of family sorrow. This I understood. I had the driver take me to buy a bag and we stopped along the way at the vegetable market. There were red onions, squash, peppers, potatoes, cauliflower, soul fish, strangled chickens, plucked and otherwise, and bamboo baskets of spices. Sandalwood branches are sold by the inch and thickness. Women adorned with sandalwood paste on their cheeks are as common as women with lipstick on their lips back home.
Since I’ve covered most of the major monuments of Old Bagan, I used today to repack and travel around the town. I had “Schwen” drive me to the village to buy a bag and make another attempt to call Marcy. The post office was vacant except for one clerk and us. For $12 a minute, I could call, but for $2 I could accept incoming calls and talk as long as I want. My good fortune was that Marcy was home. She sounded sick- from me I’m certain. She confirmed it was my cold. Otherwise, her charming voice made me feel warm all over except that the temperature was close to 100 already. Nonetheless, seeing her in my mind was a great pleasure. We drove in the horse drawn buggy down to the river, where I was brought into someone’s house. I met a young man as I walked along the riverfront. All over people looked at me as an outsider, which I was. For the most part I just wandered around looking and enjoying sights.
I arrived at Bagan Airport two hours before the flight. I was the first. Most other people came on hour later. The propjet took a couple hours to complete the flight but a meal served of fish of chicken, I’m’ not certain which, helped the time go by. We landed at Yangon Airport, and porters hungrily grabbed the pieces from flight tickets to retrieve passenger’s luggage and earn a tip. Now I had two bags. Although I’m trying to stay light, I am acquiring stuff.
The taxi ride was communal so it cost $4 to go about 30 miles- quite a bargain. Tomorrow I have to leave at noon for Kuala Lumpur. I arranged for a taxi to pick me up and drop me off at the airport by 10 am. It was leisure trot for his horse to get me to the airport. Then he had to stop outside the airport because porters had qued to carry my bag to the check-in counter. I didn’t like the way “the system” worked but I’m not here to change it, only observe it. I paid the man 300 kyat, about 15 cents, to lug out the heaviest of my bags. The stale heat in the waiting room was oppressive. Only half of the ceiling fans were spinning, and these were at various speeds. The fans had little effect on the heat and uncomfortable condition. We were called en masse to check through customs. I was asked my nationality in a bizarre way but I answered “American”. I was allowed to pass on. The next waiting room had a huge Mitsubishi refrigeration unit on the front wall blasting cool air as we sat in the chairs. I had to put another shirt so I wouldn’t catch a new cold. A bus brought us out for a short trip on the tarmac to the mobile stairs leading into the plane. “Sit anywhere” were my instructions. Other than a fifties couple from France or Italy, three were no other Anglos on this flight. At the airport, porter hustled to get the tickets for luggage. “Gorden Smice Hostel(?)” was supposed to be centrally located and I’m told it is a“downtown city center”. But the air conditioning stopped during the night, and there was only a communal bath and no toiletries. The low price of $5, including breakfast was not worth it due to the lack of air conditioning. I showered, but the heavy heat made me feel as though I needed another only minutes later. The time was 9 pm. I fell asleep quickly.
Monday, April 19, 2004
Yangon to Kuala Lumpur
I woke at 5 am, dressed and walked to the main room to have wonderful tea. It is always more fragrant and full-bodied in comparison to the tea at home. Bananas and eggs with toast complete the breakfast.
I made arrangements to meet my driver at 8 am to drive me around, and then get me to the airport by 10 am for my flight to Kuala Lumpur. I’ll be able to use my cell phone again. I still need access to the Internet. If I am to meet Bryan, which I hope to, then either he’ll have to meet my incoming flight somewhere, or we’ll have to hook up on the Internet. If he intends to come, he’ll have to leave soon to get here. The trip’s a third over with (12th-19th=7 days). Later today I should be in KL, but I hired a taxi to take me to the airport. The guy I had made arrangements with yesterday night didn’t show up at 8 am and I can’t afford to wait. Finding another driver who spoke English was very easy. He brought me to a synagogue on 28th Street, then to the golden temple. I was forced to pay 30 kyats for parking, and then all the foreigners had to pay $5. I paid it. A young Burmese man, Thant, stuck to me like the bum magnet I am. He wanted to practice his English and be my guide through this complex of temples and shrines. Not only was this the place that holy relics of the Buddha and enshrined, but it is also the spot where an anti-British revolt was fomented. My Muslim driver brought me to a small teashop. I was told that this shop has the best tea in Yangon. I spoke with the shop owner who was brought over to me after my driver introduced me to him. Rather than sell a bag of tea, which he does not do, he gave it to me as a gift. He said he was flattered that the driver would say many kind things about his shop. There were many customers in the small shop and they all watched partly because I was the only non-Myanmarese. I packed the bag of dry tea carefully. I hope to get that to Marcy along with special tea candy made for the Burmese New year celebration. We continued on to the airport. I paid him a dollar more since he had to pay a toll to get into the airport. It was crowded and damp to go with the heat, but it wasn’t too badly uncomfortable. I paid the exit fee of thirty US dollars after I finished a lunch of fried rice and tea. That meal had to be paid in foreign currency, US $2.00. The flight was full and I was pinned in against a window with a sweaty old German and his wife next to me. Seats were designed in this plane for smaller bodies. A saucy seafood and noodle dinner was served and after about three hours we landed. I made arrangements with ‘Ken’ to drive me to town and back. We struck a deal of 180 ringets, or approximately $50 to get me to town and find a photo store that will do developing. I would be unable to take more pictures if I couldn’t clear them off the microchips inserted into the camera. Fortunately, I could get everything I neededone in Kuala Lumpur. I was able to get a cash advance and get the photos handled easily and without excessive ‘fees’ added because I’m a tourist. After a half hour, the photos were handled and I was on my way. Ken brought me to an inexpensive hotel; it turned out to be good in the golden triangle downtown area. I showered and prepared for tomorrow’s flight after I returned from a short walk to a local Internet shop that had cost 4 ringets an hour. Then I bought a different bag to carry since somebody had sliced the black bag open trying to steal from me. I don’t think they were successful, but it now was an open invitation to the next thief who sees the ripped bag.
I woke at 3 am, then again when I had my 5:30 wake-up call. I quickly dressed. Ken called from the lobby to say he’s waiting for me. I grabbed my stuff and hurried down stairs to meet him and recover my 40 ringet deposit for the key. Ken stopped along this route at a place along the side the freeway where I had a curry noodle soup for 60 cents. At the airport, everything was handled with usual efficiency and courtesy. The flight for two hours was uneventful other than my good fortune to have three seats to myself. I met a widowed woman, Pat, who is headed to Penom Pehn to assist with education here for ten months. The landing was usual and the two forms necessary to get through customs took less than five minutes each. They were courteous to all foreigners and, as the measure of how they really are, courteous to citizens returning from international flights.
As always, a driver stopped me-what look is it that I have? So the fixed price for a taxicab ride into town is $7.00 to ride on the back of a motor scooter is $2.00. Once someone realizes how chaotic and irregular the traffic is you can understand why a cab is a necessity, besides the need for a luggage space.
The driver, ‘Cameron’, is a 38-year-old with four children. His three boys go to English school. Although, the teacher makes a fair wage of $80 US a month, he wants $120, so he requires students to pay that supplement by way of a daily fee. We chatted as he drove me, first to the hotel, and then on to other places. I told him about my wonderful wife, our children, and our terrific grandchildren. His marriage wasn’t happy but it was “good enough.” At least, that’s how he described it.
The hotel Marakah gave me has a nice room on the first floor (really the second flood, outside the US bottom floor is called the ground floor or equivalent. There’s no view but there is A/C, and a hot shower. Back in the cab I told Cameron where I wanted to go. He brought me first to killing fields about twelve frightening miles outside town. The toughest part of travel is navigating through the unregulated, but exceptionally busy traffic intersection. The heavy rains are due soon, but right now rice paddies are dry, brown, and dead. Poor people congregated in outlaying lowland that reeks of human waste. Produce, especially a long green stem onion and leek used in many dishes are grown here in abundance. The plant, grown in this ten square mile region causes many illnesses and exacerbates the tenuous health of people unable to afford health care. Beyond this was the Genlidal Museum at the killing fields. It costs $2 for admission, and $3 for a guide. The story has been told many times but it is important to preserve this memory of Kymer Rouge, and of Pol Pot, its leader until his death in 1998 and the cause of rampant destruction in Cambodia’s rich history.
Next was the jewelry mart. I looked for something for Marcy, but all the fake stuff was being sold as real, even though everything was fake! The silver pagoda charged $2 entrance, and $3 for a camera. It was nice to see but not worth five dollars (I only paid $2). I wasn’t that impressed. Next stop, another market. At this market I bought four tee shirts. The heat and humidity have me sweating tremendously, so the need for showers and change of clothing happens twice today. It began to get dark around 7:30 pm. That’s when I walked to the local dial-up Internet about one kilometer away and tried to contact home. The computer jammed several times requiring a reboot. I could read, but not reply. I paid a dollar, and then ate some soup with noodles, tofu, and (I think) pork. Very tasty. I bought some water and watched television for an hour, then off to sleep.
April 21, 2004
I was met by ‘Cameron’ after I walked in this central neighborhood. The streets are usually strewn with bouquets of discarded plastic bags and other colorful trash. I visited the national, which housed some of Anghor Wat’s treasures that were hidden from Pol Pot.
I took a small boat along a short stretch of the Mekong River, which runs through this city. While it is a wide river and very deep and navigable to the mouth in Vietnam, along this stretch the river it is barren of everything except for trash. Foaming along the shores on both sides with the occasional can or bottler moving past me in a motorized canoe of sorts. I had talked with ‘Cameron’ who said “Not spensive”, but I found that he wanted 4,000 real-about a dollar for an hour that’s more than- well it’s too much for going out into the muddy water. The river is low now. Rainy season starts soon and it will be very hard rain torrential, especially in May and June.
Stepping back onto the rickety dock I paid for the hour. Then went to a center pagoda, which preceded the town and was only partially destroyed during the 80’s. I walked around the pagoda, seeing plenty of beggars attractively disfigured, often by self-infliction. Begging is a profitable business in Wat. A man had an elephant with a platform atop the beast. Children could feed beets to the elephant for a small fee. Also near the base of the pagoda are a number of vendors of yellow-headed finches. These birds are set free as a wish of good luck- and a small fee. I assume the “good luck” that released finch is supposed to bring may be related to the fact that a huge casino built by the Chinese (and off limits to Cambodians), and primarily used by the Chinese. I saw no Anglos inside the twenty story structure, only well dressed Chinese men and women were happily plating slot machines for ten cents or twenty cents US for one pull. I saw a man excitedly win $500. The posted jackpot Roulette and other games, which I didn’t recognize, were being played. ‘Cameron’ pointed to a ship out into the river that was a casino ship, and in fact still is a casino ship, but it gets much fewer customers now that this joint venture between King Sianouk of Cambodian, and a group of Chinese investor built this casino, and are now building an adjacent one just as big. I escaped the oppressive Texas- like heat and humidity in the air-conditioned taxi. I had Cameron bring me to the jewelry mart where I searched for something authentically Cambodian and found 24k gold earrings for Marcy. Then I went to a marketplace where I bought a bunch of items, nothing terribly expensive, sadly real craftsmanship is abandoned for quantity. Few things showed fine workmanships, especially because labor is so cheap here, I’d expected something better. I went back to the hotel after I sweated a enough to fill a bath while walking through the unventilated, un-air-conditioned market. Smells of cooking and un-refrigerated poultry, fish and meat, laying on large wooden or aluminum platters all visited by families of flies chased by an occasional swipe of a fan, which merely blew a few of the easily defeated pests onto the next vendor. Soups were brewing the air was rich with curry and incense. I could smell the lacquer fumes nearby, as a carver was coating some small wooden figurines representation of Angkor Wat.
At the room later, I felt refreshed once I had changed clothes after a cooling shower. The room was very warm since the air-conditioning only goes on when the key is inserted in a hole by the door. After an hour, I could notice that the small room was beginning to cool down. I watched the financial news in English, the news was about Alan Greenspan saying that “deflation is not a problem” so stocks plunged. I hadn’t examined my stock portfolio when I went to the Internet café. Still no DSL, but the computers were much faster than the last place I visited. To get there, the Internet café, I hired a motorbike taxi for 2000 real (that’s 50 cents) for a three-mile trip.
April 22, 2004
I woke late but I was totally prepared for the new day. I had repacked everything and just needed another shower. I brought some stuff down and someone took my bags to Camera’s taxi. He was waiting outside for me. I hope to get through to get customs like I did last time in Kuala Lumpur. The landing was standard, and I passed through customs quickly and efficiently. Kuala Lumpur is a grown up city on par with other major metropolis. For a fee of 70 ringet, I rode the bullet train to Sentral. Sentral is close to the city center. It is the only stop of the “Xpres” train. At this subterranean station, numerous eateries and shops plied their wares, everything from McDonalds and Kenny Roger Chicken to Pharmacies and a 7-11 mini market. I stopped in a cybercafe and ate some hot, spicy rice with a red glazing. Small flecks of chicken and three medium shrimp cost 25 ringets but it included a large glass of watermelon juice and use of the Internet. I asked to use the services of a photo shop, but their computer wasn’t working. I re-boarded the bullet train back to the airport. I watched news in English, in fact most of all advertising was posted in English. There was another bombing in Basrah, Iraq, where the political turmoil turns into military action headed by the US, who had captured Saddam in December of last year. The local newspapers decry the force of the US and are angered by its support of Israel. Malaysia is largely Muslim and so, supports Arab causes liberally. At the same time, this country embraces American culture in many respects. So deeply pervuasive are things American that the newspapers discuss how to stop English from altering the Malay language. Everywhere you look in Kuala Lumpur you’ll see the influence of America. After I returned to the airport, I found my gate and see that this is largely a Chinese crowd. Principally by the way the people are crowding to board, carrying large amounts of luggage and securely tied boxes and backpacks. It seems many have shopped in the big city and are returning home.
The flight was delayed for about two hours before it took off during the rain. The weather here is 30 degrees Celsius high, 23 degrees Celsius low, with rain and lightning. The report is the same for Kuala Lumpur and Kutching. LA’s weather was reported as 23 degrees Celsius and sunny. I’m hoping that my Indonesian phone will work in Kutching. I had made one last attempt to hook up with Bryan, but I never heard one word from him. At this point unless he calls, he’ll find me unreachable. So far, I’ve had good weather. A bit of rain last time I was in Kuala Lumpur, but after an hour it stopped. The prediction of rain might impede my hopes of jungle travel up the river here. The long houses and breakfast food like Laksa (which I don’t know what it is) lay before me. I hope that this leg of my adventure is the best part, but who knows? I could be surprised. It is evening time and dark. I hope to get a cab to one of the two hotels I picked out of the Lonely Planet Guide.
April 23, 2004
Today, April 23, is my first day in Kutching, Sarawak Borneo East Malaysia. I woke about 5 am and walked around town most of the day trying to sort out my impressions of the city and make plans. I had expected Kutching to be the trailhead going deep into the jungle, but found instead a vibrant city, although not of the caliber of Kuala Lumpur, nonetheless holding all components of a progressive city. The hotel I’m at, the Goodwood Hotel, is cheap and deservedly so. It is clean, but it lacks most amenities that show a level of comfort. For example, the bathroom had a shower hose, no stall; just the flexible hose and water would drain off through a vent in the floor. The weather, as predicted was hot and rainy. Some woman carried light umbrellas but few people donned rain gear, not even hats. I walked along the river and looked in a few handicraft shops. The rain continued for about an hour. I ate breakfast at an open-air street café called Green Hill Café. A resident of this city told me their “Laksa” is famous. Laksa is a Kutching favorite for breakfast soup with noodles and gravy. Spicy. I sat watching the rainfall and called Marcy. She sounded much better, having lost most of the cold symptoms I’d recognized in our previous conversations. She said that Bryan was in Kuala Lumpur and gave me the phone number and room he was in. I called and woke him, but he was relieved to get the call. He made arrangements to fly to Kutching this evening and we’d meet at the Hilton. Traveling alone, I decided, is hedonistically self indulgent, but sharing an adventure with a good friend is pleasurable too. The rain had ceased. I walked along the Sarawak River that bisects the city. Kutching means cat. The legend of the city name makes reference to the 1860 English man who pointed to the village of Sarawak and asked “what is that?” the guide, thinking he was pointing to a cat, said so. There are a few monuments scattered throughout the city mainly in tourist areas erected to honor cats and of course is the city symbol. I bought a few items of local crafts people the Iban and Dayan tribes live up river but they are heavily invested in tourism. The likely hood I’ll discover real stuff seems unlikely at the moment. I’ve been offered a three-day trip for about one hundred and fifty dollars. My dirty clothes were sent to a mechanical laundry where machines wash and dry my clothes. A weeks worth of clothes cost me about two dollars. The agreement was to meet Bryan at the Hilton at 8:30 pm. Tonight I had to get a room. After we met I showed him my current Spartan living conditions and assured him, after the three-story climb, that the new place is better. The Merdeka Palace is a five star hotel. I purchased one of the last available rooms at $90 a night for two nights. When we got into the room it seemed to be right over the dance hall, which was rocking loudly. The music vibrated through the walls Brian complained and they moved us to a full suite at the same price. Good move Brian!! We talked for hours. He told me of his time in Kuala Lumpur at the Ritz-Carlton for four days, and I told of my earlier travels. This was his first big adventure, and he loved it.
April 24 2004
I got up and went down the stairs for a buffet breakfast. There were few Europeans, and no Americans I could spot. At the Hilton yesterday it was almost all Asians and Malaysian people too, no Europeans or Americans. The hotel offers free access to a city trolley. Brian’s asleep in the room. I finished breakfast, and after I finish updating this journal we’ll make our plans. Today is Sunday in Kutching. We are getting prepared to go up the Sarawak River. 500x2=100 ringet for the three day, two night trip. I’ve packed, and Brian is packing. He mentioned that he’d prefer to have a sheet of Plexiglas between him and the animals. Insects haven’t troubled me yet, but they may be waiting for me up the river. Yesterday we explored Kutching mostly by foot. I expected a village at the edge of the jungle; it was a busy city of 750,000 people. We had an early dinner at a Chinese place called Tom’s rather that the abundant American franchises from KFC to Pizza hut. We stopped at a dive shop only to discover the only local diving is 45 min away and allows 6 feet of visibility and 60 feet of water around coral. We passed it up in favor of considering Sipyan when we return from the jungle adventure.
April 25, 2004
We woke early to check out and prepare for the trip. We stored all the luggage for our return. Our guide Edward met us at the lobby. I had the buffet breakfast, so I ate laksa and some other Chinese type dishes, skipping eggs croissants, waffles, and chicken hot dogs (called sausage). Dimsum had a cinnamon filling that didn’t appeal to me. We were driven to the office to pay the balance of the cost of the trip. Then to the Kutching Sunday market. Both Brian and I bought a few more shirts to change into. Edward brought us through fish chicken and meat quarter into the produce, which was abundant and colorful. There was a craftsman selling machetes. I bought one for 50 ringets. Onward we drove. Going over land about 200 miles in 4 long hours, the van Edward used had no shocks and the asphalt roads were poorly maintained outside of kutching or easily damaged by seasonal heavy rains which had just finished last month. We parked at a jetty, took our supplies and put our supplies and ourselves in long, thin low-lying longboats powered with heavy-duty outboard motors. The chocolate brown water showed little sign of life on its banks; tree roots were laid bare by the constant river. We docked at an Iban longhouse. Edward showed us around. He knows these people even though the Dayak tribe would want the heads of iban and vice versa 100 years ago, as proof of their strength as a warrior. We don’t have lights or electricity after a simple dinner of chicken pieces, greens, and rice. We were invited, as is their custom, into the longhouse. For rice wine and a strong rice whisky. Afterwards, they preformed some ritual dances in costume and opened a market of each member’s wares. I bought several pieces. This way the money goes directly to this tribe. They invited, no, forced us to dance and drink with them. I succumbed to their wishes in the darkness of night, lit by a few florescent lights powered by a generator. We slept in mosquito net covered stales. Jungle noises, punctuated by a random cocks crow, continued well into the mourning.
April 29, 2004
We‘ve returned from the jungle, and both of us went to Patay Beach, which was a 2-hour flight half hour.
So Bryan and I woke in the longhouse. Conditions, as we expected, were very primitive, however they had constructed a toilet bathhouse to European standards, but on a very modest scale. It was exposed plastic pipe, gray angular outlines along the wall and baseboard. Even though it was only 8am, it was to be another hot, moist day. It had rained during the night for twenty minutes, banging on corrugated aluminum roofing. It poured out a clear message that it wanted inside the longhouse. The bedspread kept dry through the night because the sweat-invoking climate felt consistently in the 90’s. There was little need for blankets. I could hear the tribe’s people doing whatever function was assigned to them. The women were cooking breakfast as a team effort. Younger women, who were overseen by one mature tribes lady, attended to babies. They live a lifespan slightly shorter than the average city dwelling Malay. These 57 years for men is much improved now that Malaria is more under control, more about that later. Women have better treatment during childbirth, so they now live four years longer than men. We ate a modest breakfast of chicken and fried eggs. We ate, washed a bit, and then watched a blowgun demonstration. After a few tries, I became an expert too. Real blowguns are about six feet long and made of ironwood, a dark, heavy, black, wood that is hollowed out of a long, straight branch of trunk. Then, the outside is cut away until it has a smooth, black, shiny finish. The shine is dimmed by application of a tree sap.
I bought some of their darts, and I bought some newly manufactured darts. All essentially the same, but the “manufactured” ones looked a lot better. A shiver of hard wood and a small cloth ball on the rear of the two-inch shaft gave ballast to the missile. I could consistently strike a large leaf target twenty-five feet away.
We took the boat up the river to go on a jungle walk. Edward pointed out the pepper bushes growing like vines on a wooden frame created by the tribe’s people. The pepper grows and when ripe turns black. If abraded, the black shell cracks and fall away.
The remaining seeds of pepper are hotter in taste and considered the finest Sarawak pepper is considered the best in the world, or so some Sarawakians told me. The walk, was tough, and very slippery since it involved going over stones and mud. Edward pointed out that if stranded in jungle, eat only what insects or other animals have eaten to avoid poisonous things. Edward spoke of tribal medicine just before we came upon a graveyard. This one is of jars filled with the cut up pieces of the corpse. The jar is covered and sealed with one item that was important to the deceased during their lifetime. Edward told me that now that the Dayak and Iban tribes are largely Christian, they don’t bury the dead above the ground any longer. He said that Chinese poachers sneak over and take the valuable jars to sell later.
We stopped the longboat on a stony outropping in the river’s muddle. Edward explained that the rest of the day was “free time” and we’ll return after tonight when we’ll camp out. The likelihood of another heavy but brief rainstorm was a extremely likely, certainty easily proven by looking skyward. With this said, I asked Edward if he was happy- he said he has had no “day off” in many months. We got back into the boat and five hours later, we were in Kutching. Eventually we went back in the same hotel. It was late, we were tired and sweaty, but we still went out to seek our last meal here. I had a pound of very large shrimp. Two pounds when it was weighed with shell on before being gilled deliciously. This cost me about six dollars, including two glasses of watermelon juice.
We arranged with a cabbie to meet us in the morning to go to the forest. Back at the hotel, we packed as we reflected on our adventure.
We had to leave early the next day since we had spent two extra days in Kutching, and we wanted to move on. We paid a hundred dollars to Malaysia Airlines to go to Phuket in Thailand. We spent a couple of hours spent walking around town. If we saw something in a shop, we hardly hesitated to buy it for several reasons. Kutching had low prices compared to other places. We’d also be unlikely to find most of these items elsewhere.
Our flight to Phuket was only about three hours, but because we had to go to Kuala Lumpur first, it cost most of the day. Our arrival in Phuket, Thailand was about 7 pm. The sky was getting dark with rain clouds. Before we left the airport, rain fell in big drops. There are only two main towns on Phuket Island, and they are Phuket Town and Patong Beach. Lightning and loud thunder blasted through the big sky. We opted to spend 150 baht on a bus rather than 700 baht for a cab. We rode in a minibus. I assumed the minibus would take us right to Patong but it didn’t. The roads were not straight, traffic was snarled and driving laborious. In the time it took to get to Patong, over one and a half hour, we’d have been settled in comfortably. There were many hotels to choose from. My guidebook said that at the end of the tourist season (right now) all rooms get discounted deeply. I asked at the counter of the Bahthai Hotel we were at. We paid for one night from a ticket agent. He charged us full price. By going to their web site, I registered for future nights at 2800 baht, not 4800 baht. A big saving.
After parking our stuff, we decided to walk around. The rain had stopped. We bought a bunch of small items, looked around this area, and then went back to the room.
We woke early the next day and ate breakfast because it was included. We tried to make dive arrangements, with the shops, and there were several along the street, but they leave early in the morning. The rainstorms create a danger that they seem to overlook entirely, because it happens so often. Bryan and I stopped at a Starbucks next to the hotel and had a refreshingly good cup of coffee. We stopped at one of the many tailors, all are from Myanmar, many include in their name “Armani”. We paid for some clothing to be made in 24 hours. I had problems finding him again, because the Armani name was everywhere. Other tailors tried to dissuade me from returning to the right shop, but I got there eventually, and concluded the purchase. I also bought a tuxedo shirt for $16. The hot and moist air forced almost everyone to dress very lightly and casually to the extreme. Sandals, tee shirts were “de rigueur”. The bright bar lights and open solicitation by prostitutes and transvestites repulsed me. No doubt that the prostitutes by and large were attractive. There were so many reasons to turn away. I won’t bother to enumerate them here, not the least of which is the gold band I wear. In a bizarre way the scene was beautiful too. It was electrically charged. Music, lights, sounds, and the tactile greetings were all deeply sensual. I watched. I had thoughts of how strangely prurient my visit here would be if I accompanied by her. I escaped the magnetic pull exerted on me. Back at the hotel, I turned on the refreshing air conditioning and fell asleep. I fell asleep while the opening stock market dropped badly. I focused away from that, and I’m asleep in moments.
I have to get my gear together. As promised by the tailor, my shirt was completed and left at the front desk. Bryan left after we had breakfast at a Starbucks. I had manipulated a better deal by going to their web site and accepting a special offer for low season rates. 2300 bath instead of 4800 bath. 39 bath equal one dollar. I tried to reach Adrienne, but it was too late. Kelly and Nick were off to Malaysia. Although posted signs in the taxi said 600 baht to the airport, I chose to take a tuk-tuk, which would be 500 baht, but a bit of negotiation whittled it down to 300 baht. A comfortable airy ride at 10 am to the airport, nonetheless. It still took 45 minutes. I paid the departure tax of 500 baht, checked my bag, and I left to Kuala Lumpur. Once there, after a short two-hour plus flight, I had four hours to wait for the last leg to Singapore. A taxi ride from the Changi Airport to the Royal Grand Plaza Hotel took too much time. I opted for a minibus that wouldn’t leave for twenty minutes. That was seven Sing dollars, versus 60 Sing to take a taxi. The hotel was hidden in the evening darkness. I found them on the Internet, rather than the 250 SD, they offered at 165 SD, that’s about $100. I walked in the hot, moist evening air to Clark’s Quay, a refurbished street along the river, which used to be prostitutes and such. Now the city had transformed it into a high-class strip of expensive restaurants and American style bar. Singapore has only a few signs of its former beauty. Now I see they have adopted American fast foods, French brands, German cars, and Japanese electronics. The Indian and Chinese Malaysian infusion has been gravely diluted. The desire of Singaporeans to wear Levis or the best perfume has corrupted every aspect of their lives. English has pervaded the language. All advertising is in English. Only rarely was the advertising in their national language, which is Mandarin Chinese. More often, the second translation was in Malaysian with few other languages popped up. The travelers I met were commonly Australian, German, or British. There were lots of Asian travelers, but their country of origin was unclear. They always traveled very closely together under the guidance of a flag-bearing leader. The hotel room was very comfortable, really luxuriously fancy. It was more than what I needed. I figured out how to use the MRT, their subway system. It truly was easy to figure out, and the card they used to log usage of fees works well. I paid $15 but unused portions get refunded at the end. I fell asleep quickly, noticing that since the beginning of the trip I’ve taken no antihistamines to counteract pollen allergies.
I showered leisurely, taking over twenty minutes to do so. I looked out over the harbor from my eighth floor corner room and watched a quick rainfall start.
May 2, 2004
I was enrolled in a city tour. I needed to get a good overview of the city. Even though I anticipated being treated like sheep, it still is the most efficient way to cover much of what there is to see. $28 got a view of Chinatown, Little India, Raffles Hotel, and the downtown skyline, then the orchid gardens. I went afterwards to Clark’s Quay again for some chili crab. I also tried the fish head soup, both local delicacies. The soup looked bad. I could only taste the broth, which had a sour twang to it. It was hardly touched.
I walked outside, bought a Singaporean sim card for the phone, then called Marcy to remind her how much she is missed. Dodging the brief, but heavy rainstorms has been a dance of good luck. I’ve missed most everyone and never needed an umbrella. Just to loosen my muscles, I hurriedly went to the hotel gym and exercised for a half hour. The postage stamp sized pool was warm, but it could have been so as the result of the three children who were just in it. I felt good after working out the upper part of my body. My legs are exercised everyday to the extreme.
Senoosa Island, Little India, Chinatown, Subway moved to different house.
I’ve always vowed to avoid the Banal environment, afforded by the exportation of American business culture like Hilton or Holiday Inn. Eschewing the middle road, I enjoyed two nights at the Royal Plaza and from there I went to an $18 SD per night place where the small bed took up most of the space. No TV or radio or private bath. The contrast was vividly sharp. Right after arriving at Sandies Place on Sarkies Road by Orchard, I decided to make more use of the MRT subway system. I started to float through various neighborhoods defined by the label attached to them. Santosa Island was a popular destination for many Singaporeans, since the city sits on the South China Sea and is ringed by numerous tiny islands. This was a manufactured Singaporean Disneyland type attraction. The monorail, which circled the park, was constantly full because the open windows let cool air in, a relief from the oppressive heat. I rode a sky tower train, each dangling unit might hold four people, but the chance of rain or wind encouraged most people to prudently put off the aerial tram ride for a safer day. I couldn’t afford to miss this chance I did it. Trying to get back on the rickety tram with wooden state seats was going to take a long time. The bus made the journey too and there was only a five-minute wait.