Thursday, 31 January 2008

Malaysian memoirs

6) Meeting Peyshan at Kuala Lumpur Airport (4th January). Ant and I landed at the airport late in the evening. Something had put us into a bit of a strange mood, possibly a combination of sleep deprivation (we stayed up late the night before playing guitar hero), food deprevation (it had been at least 6 hours since we'd eaten), and excitement at seeing Peyshan. As we sped back to her parents house in search of food she must have been wondering what she'd let herself in for. The six days in Malaysia were probably the most fun-packed and energetic of my entire trip...

7) Seeing a proper beach in Penang. Reading my Asia travel guides had left me with images of beautiful tropical beaches, with perfect white sand and lined with palm trees. Unfortunately my visits to the sea in Korea and Taiwan failed to provide such an environment -- through a combination of bad weather and poor beaches -- so it was a real relief to walk down to the seafront once we reached our apartment in Penang, and to swim in the warm sea (in spite of the jellyfish).

8) The first time Peyshan let me drive her car. Our trip to Malaysia involved a lot of travelling by car, so Peyshan had asked Ant to share some of the driving. However, for some inexplicable reason she was reluctant to let me drive her precious car -- even though I have a proper international driving licence, which Ant does not! After a lot of persuasion and sulking though she eventually agreed to let me have a go. I remember how tense she was as I got into the drivers seat, and seeing her arm trembling (especially after I tried to drive away with the handbrake on...). The first few minutes were a bit shady as I tried to remember what all the levers do and which side of the road to drive on, but I was soon in total control (really!). Peyshan was very good after that and allowed me to do a couple of hours drive on the way back to Kuala Lumpur as well (but thankfully not into the city).

9) Discovering the wonder of Chinese Tea houses in Penang (and then again in Kuala Lumpur and Krabi). Everyone knows what a great thing a cup of tea is, but the Chinese take it to a whole new level by shaping a whole environment and ceremony around the cup of tea. The process of making a good cup of chinese tea is multilayered and requires timing, patience and concentration. First water is heated to just below boiling (it's bad for it to actually reach boiling for some reason, so standard electric kettles are out), and then it is poured into a small clay pot containing the tea leaves. The first brew is only left for a few seconds (to 'wake up the leaves'), and is then used to warm up the drinking cups (which are small enough to only hold a mouthful of tea each). Subsequent brews are left for longer and are first poured into a second (usually open topped) receptical, which allows the tea to cool slightly before it is tasted. As each cup only holds a mouthful of tea, one can get through about a dozen brews in a single sitting, and the flavour and aroma of the tea change subtly with each brewing. The whole experience is very relaxing and rejouvenating. Now back in Korea I intend to buy myself a proper set as soon as possible.

10) Seeing the Twin Towers light up at night in Kuala Lumpur. This is best explained by a photo. The towers may not be as high as the Taipei 101, but they have done a really good job with the lighting!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Back to Korea

On Wednesday I bid farewell to Bangkok and catch the plane bound for Seoul. This morning I went to the Korean embassy to collect my passport complete with the new visa which allows me to work in the country for a year, so now I am all set. I am not sure how much I will enjoy the icy Korean winter after the intense heat of Thailand (there's a 40 degree difference!), but I am looking forward to going back -- to seeing Jin again, and strangely, to starting work. The last 41 days of plane flights, sightseeing, reunions, weddings, ceremonies and food, food and more food have been an incredible experience and given me many unique memories (which are still jostling around in my brain trying to get themselves into some sort of causal structure). However, during all the excitment of the last few weeks I feel as though I have been living on a limited reserve of time (I have certainly been living on a limited reserve of money...) -- to do this travelling certain aspects of my life have been put on hold, and now it is time to return my attention to them. Fortunately my sub-conscious seems to have taken up the challenge, and I am filled with motivation for creating a more settled period of life with Jin in Korea. Perhaps in a strange way my time having fun in Thailand has been a good preparation.

How best to document the experience of my travels on this blog...? I have decided a two-pronged strategy. First, I will upload a pictorial diary of my stay onto the Picasa album -- given that I have taken more than 500 photos that should provide a fairly comprehensive guide. Secondly, I will write here some descriptions of the experiences which have proved most memorable for me during my time in Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia. For anyone thirsty for more there is Ant's blow-by-blow account of our travels on 'The ice-skating Gecko' (linked in the previous post). Since he arrived on the 2nd I spent almost every waking hour (and most sleeping hours) in his company -- those of you who know Ant will be impressed I am still of sound mind. In any case I doubt I can improve upon his excellent essays, especially after yesterday when I managed to loose the notebook in which I'd kept a record of what we did each day (as well as everyone's phone number in Thailand, the address of the Korean embassy... :P). Anyway...

1) Twilight at the Chih-Shan garden of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Jin and I decided to visit the garden after seeing the museum earlier in the day. The sun had just set and it felt to me just like an early Autumn evening in England, which brought back fond memories. After spending two visually-simulating hours touring the busy galleries of the museum, the quiet beauty and half-light of the garden hit me like a sledgehammer of tranquility. Jin and I spent a pleasent time sitting at an open-air gallery overlooking the garden's silent pools, before heading back to our hotel.

2) Travelling through dense fog along narrow mountain roads on the way back from Sitou National Park, Taiwan. After Jin had gone back to Korea, I went with Big Sis and her family to Sitou, a National Park set deep in the mountains of Taiwan. The next day, on the way back a thick fog decended over the mountains. Travelling in a minibus around the sharp contours of the road as it wound its way through the mountains with typically only a few metres visibility was a nerve-racking experience, but also strangely captivating. Sometimes we would be travelling through thick fog and suddenly turning a corner the fog would lift, giving a brief stunning view of the distant valleys far below, before in the space of a few metres we would hit another wall of fog and be plunged back into a white, shapeless isolation. It was quite unlike anything I have seen before.

3) Taking a ferry ride along Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. On the day I visited the Grand Palace, I decided to travel by boat -- both my guest-house and my destination were close to the river, and given the famous traffic and noise of Bangkok's roads it seemed like a good option. I imagined myself drifting gently downstream on a quiet wooden barge, the wind blowing cooly on my face. The reality was rather in conflict with my imagination -- upon boarding the barge we were pushed down onto the hot and heavily crowded deck, if there was any wind it was dissipated amongst the sweaty bodies before it reached me, the noise from the boat's diesel engine drowned out all other sound, and the motor caused the whole boat to vibrate violently. Still, a good experience :).

4) Watching the sun set over Wat Arun, Bangkok. I enjoy evenings in Thailand -- probably because of the comfortable warmth in contrast to the stifling heat of the day. The sillouette of Wat Arun against the red evening sky was very beautiful -- there's a picture of it on the web album (after I took this picture a Thai lady on the jetty I was standing came up to me and demanded I pay her 20 baht per photo; I don't even think it was her jetty...).

5) Walking across the Bridge over the river Kwai. On new year's day I was in Kanchanaburi with Pie and his family. On the way back they made a brief stop so that I could go and see the famous bridge. Being New Year's day it was quite busy, and many people were walking across the bridge. The bridge was designed to carry trains, and was obviously built with the minimum necessary material, so that you walk along tracks just two feet wide, with six-inch planks on either side serving as walkways, and nothing else between you and the water below (except for a few well placed gurders for you to hit on the way down). With so many people crossing the bridge at the same time (in both directions), you frequently had to stand right on the edge of the platform to allow people to cross -- sometimes there would be some pushing and shoving for good measure. I'm pretty sure that if it was in England they would have added some pretty heafty railings alongside the track for safety (if you were allowed on the bridge at all), but then that would rather detract from the atmosphere.

More to follow...

Friday, 11 January 2008

Thailand Part I

The last post leaves me at the airport in Taipei on 28th December. The more sharp-witted reader will have realised this was two weeks ago... so let me try to relate all the things I have done since then (and we'll see how far I get...).

I landed safely in Thailand at midday on 28th December. Given my lack of knowledge about public transport in Bangkok, I decided to play safe and take the official airport taxi to my guest-house, which turned out to be a rather expensive mistake -- I was treated like a VIP but assumed to have the money to boot. Anyway, once I had settled into my accommodation and had a cold shower I set out to explore some of my surroundings. Bangkok has a rather different feel from Taipei or Seoul... for a start, there are many more western tourists. However, despite the abundance of westerners, Bangkok has retained a more individual character than the other two capitals (which seem to belong to a universal 'big city' mould - lots of high concrete buildings, men in suits, and people rushing everywhere trying to pretend the rest of the crowd doesn't exist). Tourists tend to be confined to certain areas of the city -- mostly around the old city where the Grand Palace and most of the historic sites are found. In particular, there is one street -- Khaosan road -- where western backpackers must outnumber Thais 3 to 1, and which is crowded with guest-houses, bars and fast-food restaurants (and lots of shady looking characters looking for naive tourists to scam). I was fortunate enough to choose a guest-house a couple of kilometers upstream of the main tourist centre, and in a much quieter neighbourhood. Whilst there were quite a few hostels on the street where I stayed, just a short walk and a ferry journey across the river away I was such a novelty to the residents that several stopped to stare at me or engaged me in broken English -- perhaps worried that I had got lost.

On the evening of 29th I met up with Noon -- one of Ant's friends from Warwick whom I mostly remembered for falling asleep during the 'Sponsored Meditation on Snowdon' which we had taken part in last summer. She took me to a very nice restaurant with one of her friends (a restaurant critic -- handy!). I was ready to gouge myself but unfortunately my vulnerable stomach had other ideas (it took me a while to get used to the new food in Thailand, but now I seem more or less alright -- and my belly is getting bigger... :P). On 30th I did the typical tourist thing -- no, not binge drinking and going to go-go bars... the other typical tourist thing -- taking my camera around the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha -- which were duly impressive, if a little too gold for my taste. The adjacent Wat Pho was my favourite, with a rather more subtle beauty, and more peaceful. I took loads of photos so I'll add some more description when I get round to uploading them.

On 31st December I left my lodgings and met up with P'Pie and his family at the airport. They looked after me for my next few days in Thailand, and they were really great at it -- even though they have a wedding to organise! We started the new year at Kanchanaburi (home of the infamous Bridge over the river Kwai), and in the morning went to a local temple where Pie's family often go for a merit making ceremony. The temple is well known in Thailand for it's community of tigers (and wild boar, deers, a leopard...) so I got to see them too, if only from a distance. On the 2nd of January we met up with Paradise -- who was as stylish as ever -- and then went to the airport together to meet Ant. After that things got rather more hectic for all concerned... Fortunately though, Ant is a much more conscientious blogger than me, and so you can read some beautiful and informative prose about our next 48 hours in Thailand, and our time in Malaysia with Peyshan here.