Day 09 – Phetchaburi

Finally a good sleep, punctuated by barking dogs though.
Ray is still here and I help him plan his trip to the south. We decide to do some things together: first to the station to get the tickets for our next destinations, then I get a banana pancake and a fresh pineapple. After Ray has checked out, we head for the park at Phra Nakhon Khiri. It’s a hot day, no clouds but I am well prepared for the sun.
There is a steep path (and monkeys) up to the park, which contains a royal palace and a number of temples, flowering frangipani trees, rows of potted flowering bonsais and amazing views.

Each structure has a magical setting and is a little journey in itself.

Each has a view and at each point we end up taking things in and reflecting on some aspect of life. There is hardly anyone there, which makes it all the more wonderful. yet, the noise of the city drifts up and in particular the PA system of a van advertising I dont know what, but punctuating its announcements with blasts of Wham’s “Last Christmas”. Inappropriate? Just wrong!

A drink seller calls out to me “I love you” and pulls out her guitar and sings a beautiful Thai song. Later when I return to buy a green tea and she shows me the bites she has had from the monkeys. They are quite scary.

After a peaceful 3 hours we descend into town where the market is setting up. Fried insects…grilled squid…. sunglasses with Thai and Farang prices….piles of junk..cheap clothes.

And all the kids are coming out of school and calling out hello , then giggling shyly. Thai kids are so good-looking. Well proportioned, lovely skin, rich dark hair, smart and well behaved. Road workers  (women) covered from head to foot in the back of trucks going home. Boys on motorbikes with their girls behind on side saddle cruising through the traffic.

This feels really Thai. Nothing put on for show. People just living and doing their regular thing. Courteous, friendly, offering us food only to try in the market. The atmosphere is so genuine.
Back to base to eat and chat and…wow..this blog is now up to date.
Chang beer to celebrate!

Day 08 – Into Thailand

Dawn is breaking as I pull open the curtains. Thailand is waking up. Wooden houses on stilts, taller, bendier more gracious clusters of palms.
At 7.30 I get off at Phetchaburi and walk into town. past hawkers selling green coconuts, along the street with the municipal buildings lined with displays commemorating the life and passions of the king, who recently turned 85.
The guest house (Rabieng Rimnum Guesthouse) is on the river and an old dark dusty teak building with an airy restaurant which opens directly over the water. Leonard Cohen is playing and the lady owner is on the phone and chatting to whoever appears at the same time. I never saw her finish a conversation. She could be an old madame, or a Chinese opera singer. On the walls are faded album sleeves of Andy Williams and other 60’s heart throbs.
The room is bare, wooden, basic, dusty, but surprisingly comfortable, even if the thin wooden walls allowed sound to penetrate from outside with relative ease.
I chat to Thomas, a German, now living in Israel, who is in the middle of a long cycle through Thailand. We talk about politics, corruption, the Indo-China war, his scrape with the Laos police, which involved him paying them $500 for something he had nothing to do with. Well, that or prison….).
I rent a bike myself and cruise the sleepy Sunday town where everything is in Thai and there are no Farangs to be seen.
I go to 2 temple sanctuaries. Each involves a journey through tree-lined roads full of monkeys. They have no fear and snarl and attack for little provocation.
Khao Lung cave is amazing. It’s roasting outside and the cave give me shelter and most astonishingly after the hurly burly of KL and SP silence. Utter silence and it’s so beautiful. The cave has a number of temples with a central hall with the walls lined with Buddhas. The light breaking through a chimney in the roof. Stalactites and the growing sing-song sound of Thai voices as a few more visitors arrive. Each shows respect. Wai-ing, hands clasped in a bow, then buying a handful of jossticks. Kneeling and wai-ing clasping the sticks. Lighting the sticks from a flame on the altar and repeating. The joss sticks are planted in an urn on the altar and the praying continues. They then gild the Buddha, sticking small strips of gold leaf on the Buddha statue. Offerings are also made. I watched a woman take several bottles of drink out of her bag. open them, put straws in the bottles and leave them there…for Buddha to drink? I also saw cans of coke left in the same way.

The second temple, Khao Bandai It, is west of the town. On the way I buy a whole chopped fresh pineapple from a roadside hawker and chat a little with the woman there. The temple entrance is at the top of a hill and among a number of temple buildings. The inside is less spectacular and less atmospheric, but the silence and coolness is a relief. Outside again I climb to the top of the hill where there is an enormous Buddha statue but unfinished, and by the looks of it abandoned for the time being. The view is amazing.

Cycling back across town is great. The town is awakening from the heat of the day. The many many temples, though are quiet, and the monks almost invisible. The ones I see are sweeping the yards and watering plants. Dogs are everywhere, many mangy, lounging in the sun or strolling across the roads. The shop houses are in evening mode, tvs showing boxing and football, shopkeepers packing up…but the hairdressers, of which there are a disproportionate number are busy. Children call out hello, men are chatting together, some playing chess, and the women are preparing noodles or barbecue on their stalls. Everyone looks content, beautiful, simple. There are pictures of the king all over town, whole families on motorbikes and everybody obeys the traffic lights.
I dont have the language skulls to negotiate the night market with its myriad of dishes and eat at the guest house. Noodle omelette and spicy morning glory. Some beers, some football (Liverpool 2 Villa 0), and I meet Ray from Holland, a well-travelled German couple and 2 very drunk Norwegian guys. Bedtime is late, around 2pm.

Day 07 leaving KL

Waking at 5.30 is hard. Cyrus has to go to work and I have to leave with him. Neither of us wants to go. By the time we have got outside night is beginning to end, but there is no bus. As usual. In fact hardly any traffic. Finally a taxi. This drops Cyrus at his hotel and takes me on to Pura Central, an airport-like bus station, which looks more efficient than it really is. In spite of my insistence on rock-solid answers, the bus which I had booked, does not leave on time. They wait to see if any latecomers will fill it up. It stops almost as soon as we have crawled out of KlL for some petrol and the driver disappears. I’m already looking at my watch wondering about the likelihood of making my train in Butterworth, again, which I had reserved. After a couple of more stops, a traffic jam which ground us all to a halt for a round an hour and more frantic huffing and anxious staring at my watch we make it to the sprawling transport hub of underpasses, fly-overs, hawker food stalls, abandoned buildings and intense heat of Butterworth. With 10 minutes to spare.

I use my fledgling Malay to get directions, but am met with shrugs and disinterested pointing by the first older guys when they see I’m a foreigner.

Cyrus calls me when I’m at the station worried about my near miss. Worried about my lack of food.

Anyway…and I should have predicted this…the train isn’t even in the station. 30 minutes after schedule a 2 carriage train pulls in, I find my seat and we pull off. It’s more like a rural service, speed-wise, but the rhythm is relaxing. There are no compartments, but pairs of seats either side of an aisle face to face, which convert into 2 bunks, privacy provided by blue curtains. My lower bunk is about 1.5 times the width of the top one and only $2 more. When I finally sleep later on, it’s very comfortable, except for the aisle light which stays on all night. During the ride I read, watch the perfectly planted rows of palm plantations roll by, limestone cliffs and mountains, rice paddies, and begin to chat with 2 French guys, loaded with juggling props who are opposite and next to me. The other guy is Malay and is going to BKK to bulk buy t-shirts to sell back in Malaysia. Half the price in BKK….

The journey is relaxing. For the first time this trip I know I don’t have to move or make any decisions for the next 17 hours.

Crossing the border is very relaxed. Through one office out of Malaysia and through another on the same station into Thailand. Visitors’ visas used to be for 1 month, I notice that now it’s only 2 weeks.

As soon as we enter Thailand the atmosphere of the train changes. There is a whole procession of uniforms….railway police in dark grey with red braid, ticket collectors in smartly ironed white shirts with a buddha hanging from his shirt pocket, a hostess who shows me an on-board menu, a young guy who sweeps the train clean (finally- it was dirty when it left Butterworth) wearing a smart yellow polo, which when only on closer inspection you noticed the red and green trim and the miniscule Bob Marley logo. At the station as we creep into Thailand there is a police officer photographing in detail the train. I’ve heard that there are flashpoints her and it can be dangerous here. Could be this is a security check. There are a group of kids who look hostile, but no stone throwing, as I’d read about.

In spite of no change in latitude the clock go back. 7pm becomes 6pm. It is now dark. Damian (the French guy with 3 diabolos) challenges me to some chess, which to my surprise turns out to be quite even, although I havent played for maybe 15 years. He runs out beating me 2-1 and I eat my meal of soup, rice and 2 veg dishes.

Sleep to the gentle rhythm of the train and Mogwai on the i-pod.

Day 06 – KL

Waking up and keen to go out, but blasting sun at the bus stop at Merdeka Villa and no shade. It takes 40 minutes to arrive. I go to Petaling Jalan and have the veggie buffet meal I’d been longing for since last year, then some soya cincao drink and a pineapple guava juice from the hawkers.
I sit on the steps of a now derelict hotel, which last year had given me a wi-fi signal. I watch the stall holders in action. The guy at the perfume stall trying all his charm in vain to get his products shifted. The teenage boy trying to sell his KL t-shirts to a German family with 4 awkward-looking, too tall teenage girls, who then come and sit on my steps as the rain comes. He bangs his stool with his fist in frustration as they walk away. Business is slow today.
The boy and his stall-holder mate (family? friend?) sense the rain even before it falls and he springs about the stall of t-shirts and minature twin towers to roll down some plastic sheeting. Back under cover he pulls up his t-shirt to pat his fat-less perfect slim stomach, flashes it to the girl who is working with him who pats his ass. She looks too old to be a girlfriend and I ponder their flirtatious relationship. About who they are, their education, their background, but there are no clues.
As the rain persists I seek refuge in the Guandi Temple with its burning incense coils and worshippers buying their offering package of incense sticks and coloured paper to throw in the brick oven in the courtyard. You would think the joss sticks and candles offered at the altars would be left to burn to the end, but there is a cleaner type person systematically stripping the altars and dipping these items in a plastic bucket of water before binning them.
Back at the market I buy reluctantly an umbrella, as there seems no likelihood of an easing up of the rain. later finding out when walking with Cyrus through the park behind the twin towers that it is barely water-tight let alone waterproof.
Cyrus finally meets me inside the mall at 4.30 and we go to the gallery but the exhibition doesn’t grab me: it’s about art and fashion. Cyrus asks me if I understand a painting there and I try to prompt him to ask questions: does it make him feel happy/sad/angry? does it remind him of anything he has seen before? do the colours make him react in any way? does he see shapes or randoms? what are the shapes? would he like it on his wall? does he like it?……
At the mall I think I have found the toilets, and nearly charge in desperate for a relief, ready to open my shorts…but warned at the decisive moment that those are the prayer rooms. The toilets are next door!
We head out to the Thean Hou Temple, which according to Lonely Planet is a monorail ride and brief walk away. The first part is right. The second part is at least 20 minutes along a busy dual carriageway and up a steep hill in extreme humidity. My head is boiling. Smog humidity headache. Getting across town at that time is hell. So many people everyone moving….
The temple is modern and has 5 floors. The ground floor is hosting some kind of contest with teams of young girls wandering around in brightly coloured silk uniforms. Up the steps to the first floor there is some kind of concert. We go up to the temple, which is being renovated and the inner hall is partially hidden by scaffolding. The temple area is empty and we go to the top level of the pagoda, eye-level with the dragons and peacocks on the corners of the roof. We sit shoulder to shoulder and I tell Cyrus about my dream and how scrambled my mind is, and how I don’t know what is out ther or what I may become…maybe a buddhist monk (half in jest). He sits in silence. I know I have affected him and I see a tear drip from his eye. He is scared of losing me, as I am of him. He had told me of his dream of going back to UK to do a masters, but it wouldn’t be in Brighton. This makes me feel lonely too. We walk back to the monorail as dusk settles in furtively hand in hand.
We change the mood and I take him to the Blue Boy Vegetarian Centre, which actually is hidden away under a block of flats, and you would never find unless in the know. We have some vege versions of some typical Malaysian dishes (laksa and fried noodles). Cyrus is impressed that they are so good without the meat. We pick up some fruit which has unnecessarily some spices strewn upon it. Mango, apple, guava. Down comes the rain as we walk through Bukit Bintang, where I’d earlier struggled to find anywhere prepared to sell me Thai Baht, through Pavilion Mall, the poshest one in KL, with an unbelievable display of Christmas decorations, matching the austentatiousness of the shops within. Designer and London prices.
Another long wait in the rain for a very packed bus, which gets stuck in a stream of traffic. When we get back for our last night together for a while I need to pack. Sleep comes quickly but is short……

Day 05.5 Dream KL

I had a very disturbing dream, and Cyrus tells me I cried out in my sleep.

The details now escape me, but they focus around the fact that I have killed someone, a woman, and buried her body in pieces under a building. In the dream there is an investigation and the on-going mood is one of extreme fear that I will be discovered.
My mind is scrambled. I think I have had this dream before. Or, is it a dream that I dreamt it before. Just like in the dream I “know” that I have killed someone. In the dream things get confused but I wake up believing that I have understood everything. That I do not actually “know” if I have killed someone. It could be true and I have just chosen to shut it out of my consciousness, and that only when I dream my sub-conscious becomes active and these memories become knowledge. Isn’t this a common thing with people who suffer trauma? That the shock pushes it out of their active mind. Then I “realize” that this “truth” is not about me now, but of a past me. A previous incarnation. Yes. I wake up and I understand everything. I don’t like my life an who I am and I have failed and lost because of karma from this previous cardinal sin and I am now paying. Can you be convicted and punished for the wrong-doings of your previous “you”?
Buddhism. These are things I have never really considered. Cyrus has left for work by the time I reach these conclusions. Lying for half an hour it all makes sense. I feel I know nothing and what I “think” could be anything but it certainly doesn’t mean it is true. I lost control of my mind then. Or maybe what we usually do is try to control and refuse to explore different ideas and ways of thinking. Denials.

Day 05 – KL

So this blog has fallen by the wayside due to lack of internet, tiredness and distractions, but I’ve been keeping notes in my little book which looks like a Thai passport.

I woke up on day 5 with a headache and the fan in Cyrus’s room makes me feel like I’m inside a washing machine. And it’s hot. I have to sit in the living room and close my eyes. It begins to rain and I can hear it drumming on the tin roofs below.

Cyrus and I deliberate on where to go and settle on the Batu caves, which he has never visited. We don’t get out until 4pm and it’s wet still. The bus we have to get leaves from the centre and immediately it gets stuck in immovable traffic. Later we find out that there is a direct train link there, but it isn’t in the Lonely Planet and it wasn’t there a year a go when I last went there.

This time the enormous 50m statue is cloaked in scaffolding.

Our banana leaf curry at the Indian Veggie restaurant at the foot of the steps going up into the cave temple is cold. Climbing the steps in the rain we are observed by monkeys. Suddenly a scream and I turn round to see a terrified girl retreating from a snarling monkey who has snatched her carrier bag of jasmine flowers intended for a Vishnu statue. He shoots up onto a pillar to eat the flowers.

Inside the cave at the 2 temples it is the time of day for blessings. At the top temple I light a ghee candle and am blessed by a sadu who asks my name then daubs my forehead with a red dot. His friend photographs us. Cyrus is reluctant to enter the temple. At the foot of the hill there are 3 more temples. At one there is a lavish wedding. At the next, which is a new one there stands a towering green statue of the god of health, who is ripping open his hear to show Vishnu and Shiva. In the temple is some kind of informal gathering and eating. A holy man notices me and invites me in to share some food: idli, chick peas, sweet potato, rice. After a bit of persuasion Cyrus joins me to eat. But, we are already full.
Back in KL at the twin towers it is strangely hot at 9pm. We join the throngs of tourists to take some nocturnal illuminated shots of the towers. My camera mists up in the rain and gives some interesting ghostly haloes to the pictures. We have no idea what to do next and walk in circles. Cyrus doesn’t know the city and can’t suggest what we can do. So, we head back to Ampang and spend half an hour at the food court. I’m the only white person there and still have my red dot on my forehead. I have a beer and a lime juice, which turns out to be slices of lemon in iced hot water.

Day 04 Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

Getting the bus from SG to Johor for picking up a bus to KL was easy.  Crossed Singapore island and it’s striking how green and forested it is, just sliced apart by motorway and high rise. On driving out of SG city I realized why there was so much construction work going on: they’re  digging a new underground line. The scale of it is immense and hence the thousands of sub-continental Asians here, hanging out on the streets in Little India at weekends and tired sitting on the streets after work around the construction sites after dark. What else? Far more churches than I would have expected: neo-gothic, like little French churches, but washed in white and paradoxically dwarfed by the new buildings of religion: the malls and finance offices. Money is the new God, and the churches look like toys amongst the new towers of worship.Some tedious customs clearance: on and off the bus twice either side of the causeway, and having to run to make sure the bus driver didn’t leave without me (which he nearly did). On getting to Johor, I switched to a “VIP” bus to KL. Air-con, so cold it made me shiver and upholstered in garish red carpet with flouro yellow flowers, and heavy gold curtains fringed with tassels, more suited to a Persian restaurant.  I was promised 4 hours but precision is not a Malaysian characteristic. Neither was the destination accurate: for KL read city suburbs, which meant a train into the city.

But anyway the journey was a mere £7, and allowed me to compare SG with Malaysia: what immediately strikes you is the lack of refinement: Malaysia is battered grubby and the buildings and towns show no sense of planning or aesthetic. Cheap concrete houses, metres of advertising hoardings for haircuts, car electrics, phone packages, and Malaysian flags. In SG you don’t see this earnest outpouring of patriotism, and the advertising seems to focus on much higher value services and products. Brands, not deals. Lifestyle not products. Much of southern Malaysia seems to be taken up by mile upon mile of palm plantations, dense dark corridors disappearing in the distance between the surprisingly regular and neatly planted 10m tall trees. Muslims are more numerous here, with many women with covered heads getting on the bus.

When I finally make it to KL Sentral Stesen I have to get a new Sim card as my old Malaysian one stupidly was cut off after 3 months. Finally this enables me to make contact with Cyrus and meet him under the twin towers. When He arrives I’m engaged in a conversation with a Malay who now works in Vietnam who wants me to practice English with his cousin. The first thing Cyrus says is some comment about my legs (the red blotches that have now developed), which convinces me to get to a pharmacist and get a different cream.

By the time we get out of the mall we have a torrential downpour, which apparently happens like clockwork at 5 each afternoon. Cyrus lives in Ampang, so we need a bus which takes about 20 minutes to get there. He lives in a suburb, very Malaysian, on the 13th floor of a block with some great views and looking down onto the typical Malay kampong: wooden bungalows with corrugated metal  roofs , and yards with dogs. I’m the only foreign face there. There is a number of security steps some of which seem cosmetic like walking past a gate keeper. The flat is secured by a metal gate prison style and 2 padlock, and that’s before opening the front door. If there was a fire you’d never get out. The flat is bare, simple and has the feel of a store room in the living room, and of a place which isn’t really a home. Dormitory town accommodation. Finally behind closed doors we are able to show our affection for each other. It’s so nice to be together again.

We try to get a bus back to town but after 30 minutes waiting give up and get a cab, which actually in KL isn’t very expensive. We get off at China town, which feels very familiar only a year down the line. We pass the bar where the Burmese boys were working last year, but they seem to have left or been deported… The market is a bit too full on with waiters offering us menus and hawkers pirate DVDS, and stall holders T-shirts and leather goods. Plus the veggie restaurants were closed. I lead Cyrus in the rough direction of Little India where we take on board a huge biryani then have to sit out another downpour. The return bus doesn’t come, as we sit beneath a wet Twin Towers. Taxi once more and back to sleepy Ampang.