It’s getting to the end of the year and I am short of my mileage quota to requalify for airline status. I need someplace far, cheap, and, preferably, warm. So it’s destination: Singapore (again).
The fare I snagged requires an overnight in Atlanta. I find bargain room at an airport hotel. Normally, I never watch TV in hotels, but this one boasts 42” flat screen hi-def monitors. Flipping quickly through the spectrum, I note a couple of HD channels. Their programming is plotless, but features lots of bouncing bikini-clad babes; of course I watch. The room price includes breakfast: they have have Froot Loops but no waffles.
I plan to make my way overland to Bangkok up the eastern side of peninsula. What is popularly called “The Jungle Train” leaves at 5:30 AM. After my plane lands at 1 AM, I kill a couple of hours in the airport and take a taxi directly to the train terminal. Technically, you leave Singapore as you enter the art deco station because it sits on the property belonging to Malaysia, but they wait until the train makes its first stop at the regular border station to stamp your passport.
The main line goes to Kuala Lumpur. This line train was not completed until the 1930’s and goes through previously impassible jungle. It is not a tourist route; the other passengers are all locals availing themselves of cheap transport. The ride is comfortable and the scenery pretty good, but not great. I expect it to end about 3:00 P.M.
According to the schedule, the train ends in Gua Musang, where one can pick up the mail train to the end of the line. Not knowing whether I will make the connection, I might be spending the night. Three German tourists who boarded a couple of stops ago tell me in that the express train we are on will continue as the local train, so I need only remain aboard. But I need to buy another ticket and do not have any Malaysian currency (they took Singapore dollars on the “previous” train). Gua Musang is a small town without a moneychanger, so when we reach it I race from the station to the main street in search of an ATM. I find one, get some cash, and race back to the station and buy my remaining ticket (<$2).
My destination is Kota Bharu, the main town in the region and a center of Malay culture. It’s not directly on the rail line --the nearest station is several miles away. By the time we pull in at 8:30 PM the buses have stopped running, leaving us at the mercy of the taxi mafia. Plus, it’s pouring rain. By splitting a cab w/ a kraut, I manage to halve the damage.
I am dragging along my iBook, so my minimum requirements for a hotel have expanded to include free wifi. Finding one that is also clean and cheap proves to be no problem. I left Atlanta Sunday morning and it’s now Tuesday night, so after a bite to eat I fall right to sleep..
The thing most immediately noticeable about Kota Bharu is its torpor. The Malaysian economy is almost entirely controlled by ethnic Chinese whose industry lives up to the stereotype. This remote corner of the country is a region of Malay and Muslim purity. As I walk through the commercial center of the city at 10 AM shopkeepers are lazily beginning to open up for business. The central market is a bit busier, but clears out when the call to prayer is sounded.
The region was formerly a sultanate that became princely state under British aegis and then incorporated into post-colonial Malaysia. The reigning Sultan and his Rainsinette no longer wield political power but are still quite full of themselves. Their trappings of wealth increased greatly once the British arrived and they emulated their royal “cousins” in Europe. Their Malay-style palace and 1930’s European-style villa are now museums.
A WWII museum is housed in the former HQ of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police cum intelligence agency that enforced the occupation. The R.A.F. airbase here was attacked just after Pearl Harbor and a seaborne invasion begun. By the end of the next day the battle was over. A little-know fact is that in 1943 this part of Malaya (as it was then called) was ceded to Thailand by Japan pursuant to a friendship treaty. Schoolchildren sang songs of praise to both the king of Thailand and the emperor of Japan. Unfortunately, level of bilingualism on the captions plummets for these exhibits, and a section which appears to be devoted to collaboration with the occupiers is captioned only in Malay.
Although I like Malay cuisine, I find the food in town disappointing. Maybe the poor fare is due to a combination of a dearth of tourists and lack of Chinese enterprise.
One full day in Kota Bharu is enough. The Thai border about fifteen miles away. I get up before dawn to catch the first bus and cross on foot without hassle or delay. I then hop on a motorscooter taxi for the mile trip to the center of the town of Sungai Kolok for transport north. There are a couple a trains a day, but the line does not go all the way to where I want to go. Instead, I catch the 8 AM bus to Krabi for the nine hour ride.
The road is good but the progress is slow. We stop frequently at small towns, often leaving the highway to detour into the center. The journey is further slowed by the frequent army checkpoints. This is the Muslim south, which practitioners of the Religion of Peace have been bombing buildings, beheading monks, and attacking foreigners on a daily basis for several years now. It’s safe enough to pass through during the day, but in terms of visiting or lingering it’s a no-go zone.
Krabi is a major tourist destination on the Andaman Sea (to the left side of the peninsula; the Gulf of Thailand is to the right.) There are a several scattered beachfront tourist areas but I elect to stay in Krabi town, backpacker central, where a comfortable room only sets me back $9/day. For that you get free wifi plus a free library of hundreds of DVDs including the latest releases.
I arrive in late afternoon and get nothing accomplished. Still somewhat travelworn, I laze around the second day as well and sign up for a boat tour to “James Bond Island” the next day hence.
The part they don’t tell you is that the tour starts with a two hour van ride to get to the launch point where we board a “long-tail” boat for a ride through Phang Nga Bay National Park. The postcard view is of limestone outcropping and islets covered in emerald green vegetation against a turquoise sky and deep blue sea. Unfortunately, today a slight haze impairs both the scenic and photographic possibilities.
We enter a cove for a brief bit of sea kayaking among the limestone formations.
The most iconic image in the park is the island where scenes from The Man With The Golden Gun was filmed in 1974. It’s also the popular destination in the park and crowded with souvenir shops.
After lunch at a floating village, a visit to a monkey temple and a waterfall fill out the day.
There are dozens of day trips offered from Krabi but I have wasted so much time that, if I want to stick to my schedule I need to be moving on. My next stop is Phuket, an island not far from Krabi but three hours distant by road. There are ferries that run in the afternoon, but I splurge on the morning speedboat that makes the trip in 75 minutes. Luckily, the seas are calm as the 30’ cruiser powered by three monster outboard engines noisily pounds across the waves.
Phuket is the most popular destination in Thailand after Bangkok, but I don’t get to it until this fourth visit. I should have waited until the fourteenth. There are many resorts around the island but I decide on the full Phuket experience and elect to stay in Patong, tourist central. The area was almost wiped out four years ago in the big tsunami but has been rebuilt. They should wait for the next and try again..
I am staying on the fringe of ultra-sleaze district in a nice place, but at quintuple the price of Krabi. It’s a ten minute walk to Bazaan and Soi Crocodile where the ladyboys beckon. If you didn’t already know, they would fool you. No Crying Game for me!
Let me sum up the positive attributes of Phuket: the beaches are decent and the seafood is good. Everything else is horrid, yet this placed is packed with Europeans, especially Germans. (There are hardly any Americans.) During the day they broil themselves under the tropical sun -- while the itinerant vendors are covered from head to toe to protect themselves from skin-darkening rays – and at night drink overpriced beer in noisy bars. I guess they are attracted to crowded, expensive, traffic-choked cities – sort of like home with better weather.
Two nights in Phuket is my lifetime quota. Now I will try the other coast.
Ko Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, is, I am told, five hours away. I could fly there, but that seems like a hassle in comparison to door-to-door service. Hah! Between the time I am picked up to the time I am dropped off twelve hours have elapsed. First, we drive around for almost two hours picking up other passengers at various hotels. Then we drive to Surat Thani (that’s the five hour part). Then we wait around for another bus to take us to the dock, where we arrive just in time to see the ferry departing. The next one is in two hours. Finally, another transfer to reach my hotel.
I get a comfortable hillside bungalow overlooking the water in a small resort. Although there are only 24 bungalows, the place is amazingly self-contained with restaurant, a pool, and a private beach, all nicely landscaped. Because it’s only a few minutes walk to the main road with stores and competing restaurants, prices are reasonable – no “captive” pricing for which resorts are notorious. Its way nicer yet way cheaper than Phuket.
Yesterday full day was wasted in traveling. My first full day in Samui is Christmas Eve. I engage in the usual activity for these kinds of places: hanging around, taking a walk into town, lolling on the beach, reading. The weather is in the low 80’s – no AC needed. My only complaint is that the wifi doesn’t reach out to my bungalow so to surf the net I have to stay near the reception/restaurant building where a short selection of Christmas songs sung by children is playing in endless loop. Enough already with Frosty The Snowman!
They serve a special dinner. The staff – slender maidens all – are wearing elegant silk gowns and Santa hats. Three little girls (their daughters) are in colorful native costume and perform a traditional Thai dance – a real-life March Of The Siamese Children. It’s The King And I meets A Christmas Carol. (I play Scrooge.) All in all, a very festive evening, enjoyed even by Scrooge.
The next morning, Christmas Day, it’s raining. I try to look on the bright side: at least they finally turned off the Christmas music.
I like Samui and would stay longer but I need to be in Bangkok tomorrow to meet up with my Canadian buddy. I have already committed to complete this journey by surface travel, so it’s back to the ferry, back to Surat Thani, and then to the train station to catch the sleeper to Bangkok.
Thai trains are fine but for one problem: the comfortable cars are all air-conditioned, and the temperature is kept near freezing. I finally figure out reason: it gives people a chance to wear winter clothes; I look around and see the locals bundled up like they were on the ski slopes.
I thought we would arrive on schedule because fifteen minutes prior we are at a station in the south of Bangkok. At that point the ride become surreal: the tracks run right through the city like a streetcar, so we move forward a couple of blocks, wait for the traffic lights to cycle us through a busy intersection, then advance a couple more until we finally reach the station forty minutes late. Not a problem; it’s still morning and I’m in no hurry to arrive at the hotel before my room is ready.
I have found a good rate at the modern, sleek, ultra-hip Le Fenix, operated by Accor, near the J.W. Marriott (out of my budget) where my buddy is staying. This is my fourth time here (and his umpteenth), so nothing touristy on the agenda.
Saturday we go bike riding. Bangkok is a pit of third-world pollution and congestion, yet just across the river is an almost unknown world of jungles and rice paddies. A Dutch guy runs bicycle tours there (at European prices). We start out not far from the hotel district and ride through the city (avoiding most major thoroughfares) to the Chao Praya river, where a longboat transports us to the other side. Our guide takes us past temples, farms, and markets. Much of the path is atop narrow dikes through the paddies. Lunch is at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere. They even make a brief video of the ride and post it on youtube.
I haven’t yet been to the crocodile farm, so we make that the Sunday ticket. It’s a “red in tooth and claw” kind of place untamed by western sensibilities or notions of animal rights. You can buy a bucket of chicken parts to toss to the hungry beasts or dangle a chicken carcass from a fishing pole to get them to jump. They have a crocodile wrestling show in which, after annoying the crocodiles in various manners and showing how fiercely their jaws snap, the daredevils stick their heads and other body parts into the reptiles’ mouths. There hasn’t been a beheading or involuntary amputation in years, but the crowds keep hoping.
And being free of the safety-Nazis means you can pose for a picture with a chimp or a tiger. The croc farm also features a zoo and a dinosaur exhibit, but the latter proves to be a disappointment — they don’t even let you feed the dinosaurs, much less wrestle ‘em.
My plane home leaves early Monday morning, so Sunday night I fly back to Singapore. My intention is to stay at the transit hotel inside the departure area and skip the entry formalities and security hassles, but my plans are thwarted when I find out that my bargain ticket on Air Asia comes with a 7 kg. carry-on limit and they won’t transfer checked luggage to another airline. I stay in the transit hotel anyway, and two hours before the next flight I go through immigration, claim my bag from the luggage office, check in for the flight, get my passport stamped again, and undergo security screening. Total time “in” Singapore is less than 30 minutes.
I get a pleasant surprise on the flight to Tokyo as a beneficiary of Northwest’s “secret upgrade” program. (They now have an unpublished policy of upgrading a few elite members on each international flight.) No such luck on Delta, but at least it’s the “short” way – west to east – only twelve hours.
I’m back in Jax before New Years, requalified and ready for some good trips.