Monday, December 21, 2009

Three days in Siem Reap

The flight from Ho Chi Minh city to Siem Reap was just over an hour - a pretty short flight on Cambodian Angkor Airways/Vietnamese Airlines and I was looking forward to reaching Cambodia and staying put in one place for a few days, after the constant movement of the past 4 days. The air hostesses in their lovely ao dai offered the usual cold towels before the take off. After take-off, they came back once again and started handing out snack boxes - nothing for the vegetarian though, which was disappointing for my vegetarian friend. As it was a short flight, it was alright. Midway though, the plane started behaving like a train with loud noises and bumpy motion. Turbulence? It gradually settled but within a short time after having crossed into Phnom Penh, the plan started nose diving down or at least that was what I imagined it was doing as we started dropping altitude very fast and my ear started hurting a lot. Fifteen minutes more and we would land. I told myself as the ear pain worsened. Finally, the captain announced the approaching landing and again nose-dived down as the altitude reduced rapidly. Everyone in the plane, within my view, looked concerned and in some pain or discomfort. In the same rapid speed, the plane touched down on the ground and sped across the runway. We were thrown forward but the seatbelts held us back. The plane then continued on its crazy speed on the runway and I was becoming alarmed that we were not reducing speed and that we would hit something soon if we didn't. Finally, after some tense moments, the pilot brought the plane to a slow pace and sighs of relief could be heard throughout the plane. The drama didn't stop there as the plane then turned and twisted on the runway like a car going through loops. This continued till the plane reached close to the arrival terminal. We then disembarked after glancing angrily at the pilot's cockpit and made our way to the terminal. Health forms were handed out at a table placed outside and all passengers were requested to fill the forms and hand it back in before proceeding inside. So, in the middle of the night at about 8.30p.m., we filled up our forms in the open space and then handed it over and got a yellow paper with information on H1N1 virus before we were allowed into the terminal. There were two sections - one was a visa upon arrival counter and the other was the immigration counters. We proceeded directly to the immigration counters as we had already obtained our visas in Vietnam. A uniformed official stopped us and asked, 'India? visa?'. We said we already had visas and proceeded to the counters where we were amongst the first in line. One of my friends went up to the counter first where she was rudely told to go and stand at the side. Surprised, we protested that we already had visas. Another uniformed official came and asked for our passports and took all three and went into a room after telling us to stand at the side away from the queues of western and south east asian tourists. We waited for several minutes as other passengers passed us and giving us quizzical looks. My friends decided to go to the visa on arrival counter and ask about the passports while I went back to the officer who had taken our passports and asked him when we would get it back and that we wanted it back very soon. He pointed to the side and told us to wait there. Finally, a man came out and gave us back our passports and we proceeded to the immigration counter. I went first this time and as soon as the man there saw my face and colour of skin, he immediately started saying something in his language and was about to return my passport and tell me to go back and stand on the side. I was fuming by then and told him, "I already have a visa and your people have already checked our passports." Luckily, the person who had checked our passports was standing nearby and he affirmed what I had told. Still, grudgingly, the official looked at each and every page in my passport and then finally, asked me to come infront of a camera. I was in no mood to be obliging and felt that if they wanted a photo, they could take it but I was not moving from where I stood. I guess he sensed my mood because he decided to turn the camera to me and took my picture before stamping my visa. After this process was repeated for each one of us, we finally went to the baggage belt, got our bags and walked out of the airport venting our anger at the discourteous and unfriendly staff at the immigration control desks. The pink signboard of River Garden stating, "Welcome, Ahila Thillainathan" greeted us.

We went forward and the hotel staff took one of the bags and led the way infront to the carpark. We found ourselves walking towards the area where motorcycles were parked and wondered where our car was when he stopped infront of the tuk-tuk. Our baggage was loaded on the front seat and the three of us squeezed into the main seat and trying to hold our luggage in place while the tuk-tuk sped into the night. We passed many resorts and hotels in the touristy part of the city and made our way into a less touristy area. Actually, it seemed to be the poorer part of the town. My friends were wondering where we were going and as I had been the one who had found this place on the net and booked it, I was beginning to be slightly concerned. However, soon, we stopped infront of a gate that seemed to lead into a nice environment. Some of the River Garden staff came our and greeted us warmly and helped us with our bags and led us into the reception area. The hotel policy required that 100% of the room payment plus the refundable room key deposit (USD 20/ room) be made upfront upon arrival. After making the payments, we were given our keys and taken to the rooms. My room was a cosy, little single room with a bed on one side and a semi-open bathroom and washbasin on the other.

As the hotel restaurant closed around 10p.m., we decided to have our dinner first before we unpacked. The open kitchen and dining space at Oxcourt, the hotel restaurant delighted us. I ordered some Khmer style vegetable soup as it was a bit late in the night for a more substantial meal and I was in need of something hot. My vegetarian friend was delighted with her food for the first time since we started our travel as she ordered a vegetable patti with fries. After a satisfying meal, we went back to our rooms to rest and looked forward for the next day's trip.

Just as we finished breakfast, Pech Mony, our guide for the three days arrived with his van and after introducing each other, we started off on our small circuit tour of the Angkor temples.

First, we went to the Bayon temples - the complex with enormous faces carved at each of its entrance doorways and also within the main temple. The ruins of a sleeping Buddha was placed at the entrance with offerings of flowers and incense before it.

The gallery of carvings on the Cambodian life back in the days of the temple was interesting as daily life of people going to the market or travelling with their families and livestock was depicted. One scene that the guide pointed out to us was that of a woman taking a rest in the market place with her basket of ware while a thief lifts the basket lid and steals something. The animals, the forests all are carved into the long wall. It seemed as if the carvers wanted to preserve their Kingdom's history in stone.

After the visit to the enormous Bayon temple, we stopped at a little informal place selling water and fresh coconut. We rested a bit drinking some iced coconut and water while children and women tried to sell souvenirs. They were not annoying as the touts in India or even, Sri Lanka and one felt sorry for the kids. After our little break, we walked around the back to the ongoing renovation project of a humungous sleeping Buddha which had disintegrated and was being restored stone by stone. We proceeded to the terrace of the leper king/ Yaman (as it is disputed as to who the terrace was dedicated to - the God of death or the King who is supposed to have suffered from leprosy) and the Elephant terrace before we again became tired. It was difficult walking under the blazing sun of Siem Reap and having the dry heat scorch you.

We decided to have our lunch at one of the eateries facing the temple complex before proceeding to our next temple visit - the Ta Phrom temple which our guide jokingly referred to as the Angelina Jolie temple after the movie Tomb Raider had been filmed there. As we walked through the woods to the temple complex, traditional live music played by the land mine victims at the entrance floated in the air mixing with the trees. It was a lovely effect. The deep, dark pools with trees looming over it as we crossed the bridge to the temple and the huge, gnarled roots that covered the walls of the temple were very beautiful. At some point, it felt as if the trees surrounding the temple had decided to undertake their own carving and had twisted and formed themselves into various shapes and forms around the temple. The trees were as much of an interest as the temple itself.

We crossed the bridge over the moat and entered the temple complex. The apsaras carved at Angkor Wat were more detailed and refined than the ones at Bayon temple. The story from Hindu mythology of the demons trying to get the elixir of life by tugging at the serpent Adisesham wrapped around Mount Meru was the inspiration for the temple. The main temple with its five towers was likened to Mount Meru and all around the temple, the serpent was carved with Naga heads reaching out to the sky at intervals. The guide said that the naga entrances along the path was also used as a traffic control with people entering from the east and leaving through the north in a one-way human traffic. A huge statue of Vishnu was within the temple complex and many incense sticks were being burned as offerings.

The galleries along the walls depicted the story of Ramayana on one wall, mainly focusing on the final war of Rama with Ravana in Lanka and the story of Mahabharata on another wall, again mainly focusing on the final war where Lord Krishna delivers his discourse to Arjuna.

After our day of temple visits, which involved around 7 - 8 hours of walking, we just wanted to go back to the hotel and rest. Our guide was keen on showing us some of the other smaller temples in the small circuit but we had had enough.

We went back to the hotel and rested for at least 2 hours before we decided to go to the Old Market area for some dinner and shopping. The hotel tuk-tuk dropped us infront of the Grand Cafe and we agreed that we would be back at that drop-off point by 9.30p.m. As we were famished, we decided to first have dinner and walked along the streets lined with restaurants and cafes and shops until we decided to eat at a place called the Soup Dragon Cafe. We went upstairs and found a table overlooking the street. I had a delicious dinner of sticky rice served with amok tofu which was beautifully served in a hand-woven palm leaf container. After the dinner, as we walked back towards Grand Cafe towards the old market, we passed lots of reflexology foot massage places. As my feet was hurting a lot after the intense day of walking, I felt like trying out a foot massage. The other two also decided to accompany me and we went into a place opposite Grand Cafe for USD 15 for foot massages for the three of us. The massage was alright but did not quite reduce the pain or strain in my feet. As our tuk-tuk had arrived, we decided to postpone our shopping for the next day and only browsed through the Senteurs D'Angkor shop where I found some really lovely silk shawls which were gift wrapped in hand-woven palm leaf envelopes. The tuk-tuk drive back to the hotel through the night was one of the highlights of the Siem Reap trip.

The next morning, I had wanted to visit Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. The guide had agreed to come at 5a.m. and as I didn't want to miss it, I had set my alarm to 4a.m. on my mobile phone. When the bell went off, I hurriedly got ready and just as I was about to leave the room realised that my mobile phone had been still in the Sri Lankan time which was 1 1/2 hours behind the Cambodian time so it was actually 6 a.m. as I walked to the entrance of the hotel. The guide was upset and said that the sun had already risen and if I wanted to cancel the morning visit. I replied that I still wanted to go as it was a lovely morning and I loved morning drives. So, we went to Angkor Wat and there was less people than in the afternoon and I appreciated the beauty of the temple and the surrounding moat and trees more in the cool morning breeze before heading back to the hotel for breakfast. The lovely plate of fruit which was carved prettily by the kitchen staff tasted delicious that morning and after breakfast, we started our trip to the next highlight of our visit, Kbal Sbean. There was a change in our guides as Mony had an exam to sit for that day and introduced us to his uncle Vith. His uncle was very sharp and open in his observations of daily living in Siem Reap, some of which were really amusing.

After an hour's drive, we reached the base of the 1500m mountain, which we had to climb to reach the temple carved in the riverbed. As I was the one with the walking problem, my friends agreed to take it slow and we climbed slowly taking frequent breaks along the way. However, the path started becoming more steeper and difficult for me and by the time, we reached 1400m, it became very difficult. The last 100m seemed very steep and though I was confident, I could have managed it with the help of an experienced climber, I was not confident of the support of my two tiny friends and they themselves were not too confident either. After a woman who went ahead of us slipped and fell and the path seemed to become more steeper, I made a decision that I would stay at that point while my friends went ahead. It was a difficult one to make because Kbal Sbean had intrigued me from the minute I saw pictures of it on the internet, much more than photos of the Bayon temple or Angkor Wat had done. I had felt that it was the biggest highlight of the Siem Reap visit and to make the decision not to complete the last leg of the climb to see the temple directly was very hard. I went back to the 1400m point and sat on a rock while the others proceeded. My wait was not too bad as I was kept amused by the scores of travellers climbing up the mountain. Different nationalities, different greetings... some just went by without a glance, some nodded an acknowledgement at seeing a fellow human being seated in the midst of the path, many smiled and said 'hello' and some even ventured to ask why I had given up and not attempted the last 100m. My friends returned and confirmed my feeling that the riverbed temple was indeed the biggest highlight of the visit to Siem Reap and they had absolutely loved it. We made our way down the mountain without a break and decided to have our lunch at a restaurant close by. I had a delicious lunch of garlic rice with chicken satay and peanut sauce, while my vegetarian friend's curry was served in a huge coconut shell.

After lunch, we visited the Banteay Srei temple. It was really hot by then and we were beginning to feel drained so we decided that it would be the only temple we visited before heading back to the hotel. The temple was smaller than the temples we had visited the first day but was more exquisitely carved and better preserved. Here again, the carvings reflected Hindu mythological stories and especially a lot of carvings of Hanuman and the monkey warriors of Rama's army. Ravana seemed to have captured the imagination of the temple carvers of Angkor and here too, Ravana was depicted in a scene carrying away Seetha to Lanka while Rama and Luxman fight him.

After the visit, the guide was keen on showing the other temples in the bigger circuit but we were too exhausted and insisted that we return to the hotel. He agreed and said that we could use the van to drop us off in the market area in the evening, if we felt like shopping. So, we agreed that we would be picked up at 6.30p.m. and went to our rooms and promptly fell asleep. I awoke in the evening with my throat feeling a little sore and having a slight headache. I felt like resting that evening indoors but decided to pull myself together for the night out. We visited the night market which was filled with stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs and bought a lot of gift items before heading to the Old Market area to have dinner with some friends of one of my fellow travellers. We met at the Banana Leaf restaurant but as it seemed full, we walked further and decided to try Le Tigre du Papier cafe which had a more Italian-based menu.

After dinner, my friends wanted to browse through the shops around the old market area whereas my tired feet required rest. I spotted a nice looking spa called Bodia Spa near the pharmacy opposite Banana Leaf and Soup Dragon Cafe and decided to try out another foot massage. This place was lovely with huge reclining seats and lotus tea and cold towels served as we sat browsing through the folder of packages offered. I settled for the foot massage. The ambience was really nice with lotus ponds along the way and the sound of birds chirping softly in the background. I fell asleep in my comfortable leather chair as the 22 year old masseuse from Phnom Penh gently massaged my tired feet. I was offered another cup of lotus tea and a cold towel before leaving the place and my friends who had come to pick me up, decided to try the place the following day.

The third morning, I woke up sick - my throat had worsened and I felt that I was developing a cough. I decided to take strepsils, vitamin C and panadols so that I would not fall sick further.

Mony came to pick us up around 8 a.m. and to take us to the floating villages. After discussing whether to go to Kampong Phluk or Kampong Khleang, we decided to go to the latter as it was less touristy. After a drive of more than an hour passing villages and interesting Khmer cottages, we reached the dock where we paid USD 15/ person for a boat cruise on the lake. We were led to a rickety little boat where the captain seemed to be a teenager. He struggled with getting the boat out of the dock and required the help of another person who seemed more experienced. As we did not want to take chances, we requested our guide that we wanted the more experienced person to be our captain. This was communicated and the man agreed while the boy went back to the dock, disappointed.

The boat cruise was an interesting experience and I wondered at the existence of the community living in the floating villages. To go about their daily living over the waters and hardly coming onto land.

After the boat cruise, we returned back to Siem Reap and stopped at the Old Market area for lunch. Our guide recommended the Khmer kitchen which was located on the road parallel to the Pub Street where Soup Dragon Cafe and Banana Leaf was located. The Khmer kitchen was a more simpler cafe located on a quite street and I enjoyed the ginger and lemongrass chicken soup that I had as it felt good for my worsening throat. After the lunch and a little shopping at Senteurs D'Angkor, we headed back to the hotel for some rest. By evening, I did not feel better so decided that I would skip the evening trip into town and to stay indoors at the hotel and rest and slowly pack up as we were flying out the following morning.

In the morning, our guide for the three days came with the van to take us to the airport and we left the cosy little hotel. The guide took us to the airport via the road passing Angkor Wat and we stopped for a final time to take a few photos of Angkor Wat in the early morning light before leaving Siem Reap and Cambodia.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Malaysian Holiday - Kuala Lumpur

We reached 41 Beranggan, our guesthouse for the last day of our Malaysian holiday just before noon. After checking in and dropping off our bags in the room, we decided to go out and have some lunch and then to go to the Mid Valley mall for some shopping.

The guesthouse staff suggested Nagasari cafe just around the corner for lunch and we walked to the cafe. After the lunch, we took a taxi to the mall and my friend was most in her elements as she was a shopper. I, on the other hand, disliked shopping and usually only undertook to shop for essentials. So, we decided that we would go our separate ways and meet up at a central point. By the time we finished shopping, it was around 7p.m. and we decided to go down to the basement court and get some refreshment or dinner before returning to the guesthouse. My friend opted for Subway while I decided to try an interesting restaurant where one had to take a note-pad and mark the dishes one wanted by looking at a picture board of the dishes and then pay for it, if one wanted a take-away. And, one could watch the chefs through the glass windows as they prepared the steamed dumplings in bamboo containers. I got some takeaway noodle soup with chicken and spicy chilli sauce which was one of the most delicious meals I had eaten during my entire stay in Malaysia.

We came out of the mall and tried to hail a taxi when one of the men at a desk by the doorway came hurriedly and asked if we wanted a taxi, he would call for the blue taxis. We had come across a blue taxi earlier that day but found that their meters ran at double the rate of the normal red taxis so rejected the offer. We tried to hail a passing red taxi but the man said that the taxis were not allowed to stop at that point. Meanwhile, the red taxi had stopped a little distance away and she said that he had stopped for us so we quickly went and got into that taxi. The taxi driver was having his dinner sandwich so I am not sure whether he did stop for us or whether he stopped to have his dinner.
'Where you want to go?'
'41 Beranggan'
'yes. Beranggan, near Jalan Raja Chulan and near Jalan Ceylon.'
'Ah.. Jalan Ceylon.'
Then, he started the taxi and while we were driving out of the mall, I asked how far away was Petronas towers and whether we could drive past it on the way to the guesthouse. He asked, 'Petronas? What Petronas?' We said, 'KLCC', 'twin towers' and then he said, 'ahh... twin towers...' 'yes. twin towers. we would like to drive past it on the way to the guest house.' He replied that it was too far so we decided to give up and just return to the guesthouse.

After a few minutes of silence, he asked again, 'why Petronas? it is closed now' I replied that we knew but as we were leaving Kuala Lumpur the next morning we would like to see the highlight of Kuala Lumpur before we left. He asked, 'you are leaving tomorrow?' My friend replied, 'yes that is why we would like to drive past the towers.' He immediately asked, 'drive past. what do you mean drive past?' We had to rephrase it and say that we wanted to go to the towers, stop outside, take a photo and go onto the guesthouse.

Eventually, he understood what we wanted to do and agreed to take us past Petronas. Having come to an agreement, all of us relaxed and enjoyed the drive. He stopped briefly infront of the immense towers and I couldn't resist taking a picture of the immense structure looming above me. After a couple of pictures, I was ready to go on to the guesthouse.

We passed roads that seemed a bit familiar from the early afternoon drive so we knew we were approaching our guesthouse. He entered Jalan Ceylon and stated, 'Jalan Ceylon.. now where?' I replied, 'Jalan Beranggan' but that drew a blank on his head and in the dark, I was not sure of my bearings. We tried to fish out names of streets we had passed earlier when my friend remembered the cafe we had lunch earlier and mentioned, 'Nagasari cafe'. That immediately struck a cord with him and he said, 'Ahh.. Nagasari..' and drove us onto that street. My friend luckily remembered that street and was able to direct him from there to the guesthouse. He asked if we wanted a taxi to go to the airport in the morning but as we had already booked a taxi through the guesthouse, we said no and got out.

We had our takeaway dinner in the dining room where a fellow guest joined us. She had been scuba diving and snorkeling in Indonesia and had come to Malaysia to get her visa extended. After dinner, we decided to complete our packing and get a little sleep before the taxi came to pick us up at 3a.m.

We took the flight back home ar 6.15a.m. and the return flight was a contrast to my outgoing flight. During the flight out to Malaysia, I had a friendly and talkative neighbour who kept me awake during the entire flight while on my return flight, I had two silent neighbours so I was able to catch up on my sleep.

We reached Colombo around 7.15a.m. and I was happy to be returning home though I had a lovely holiday in Malaysia.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Malaysian Holiday - Melaka

We took the taxi to Medan Gopeng bus terminal in the morning to catch our bus to Melaka. As the experience in the few days of bus travel in Malaysia showed us, there were several bus companies with varied services plying the roads of the country. The bus terminal was like a market-place with bus companies having booths and calling out for passengers to the various destinations. Once you bought a ticket at a particular counter, there would be a person using a walkie-talkie confirming with the bus driver and who would point you the way to the said bus. Also, the bus registration number was written on the ticket so that you would check and get into the correct bus. The prices and times for these various buses was slightly different So, we decided that we would check out a few counters before we decided which bus to take. The first counter person stated that the bus to Melaka left at 9.30 and she was pushing us to buy the ticket. However, we said we would get back and we split up and inquired at several other counters. There were a few missed calls as some said that their buses were leaving at 9.30a.m. as well but when they contacted the bus, there was only room for one seat. We went back to the first counter we had approached and requested for tickets. The woman at the counter didn't even turn around. She simply said, 'no tickets. full'. Guess she was angry that we didn't buy the tickets from her originally.

The next set of buses to Melaka seemed to leave only at 11.30a.m. and the Transnational bus only left once a day at 1p.m. As we wanted to have the whole afternoon and evening for exploring in Melaka, we decided to go for the next best option: taking the bus to Kuala Lumpur and from there another bus to Melaka. We found a bus leaving within a few minutes for KL and bought the tickets and got into the bus without even asking around for other buses. However, this bus seemed to be the least comfortable of the buses we had traveled till then. Anyway, we settled for the 4 hour drive to Kuala Lumpur. The bus was supposed to leave at 9a.m. but we were still at the terminal at 9.15. So, my friend went up to the driver and the conductor and asked when the bus would leave and also about connecting buses to Melaka. They responded that they would leave in another 10 mins and by 9.30a.m., we did indeed leave for Melaka.

Midway, the conductor who was an Indian Malay spoke to us in Tamil and asked if we wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur or directly to Melaka and we replied 'Melaka'. So, he said that it would be good for us to get down at Klang Central without going into Kuala Lumpur and that there was a bus going from there to Melaka at 13.00. This would save us time so we happily agreed. There was a long and protracted conversation between the conductor and the driver after which the conductor promptly went off to sleep. So, I was a bit unsure whether the outcome of that conversation was to drop us at Klang Central or at the stated drop off point in Kuala Lumpur. The inter-city buses didn't seem to make stops on the way so I was doubtful till we approached the highway area with signboards stating 'Klang', 'Cyberjaya', 'Putrajaya'. True enough, the bus made the detour while the conductor woke up and launched into a lengthy and loud phone conversation with someone after signing for us to get ready to get down. The bus took us right to the terminal and to the Melaka bus stand and the conductor told us to go to one of the terminal staff he pointed to from the bus and said that he would help us with showing us the right bus etc. He was very kind and even helped us with unloading our bags and wished us a good journey and the driver also smiled and asked, 'Sri Lanka?'.

We went to the person that the conductor had waved to and he led the way through the shops within the terminal to the Transnational bus counter and got two tickets for the bus leaving at 13.00. We had a few minutes left so decided to try a snack from the snack stalls in the terminal - waffle with blueberry jam.

The Transnational bus started off at sharp 13.00 and we reached Melaka at 15.00p.m. as per schedule. From the Melaka terminal, we took a taxi to Baba House located in the old heritage part of the city. By the time the taxi reached the guesthouse, the rain which had started as a drizzle was now pouring. As we turned narrow streets, my biggest concern was how do we get down from the taxi and transfer our baggage to the guesthouse without getting drenched.

Finally, the taxi reached Jalan Tan Tun Cheng Lock and stopped infront of the Baba House cafe on the other side of the road as there were cars parked on the side of Baba House. The taxi driver complacently stated the price and expected us to pay and get out in that pouring rain. We asked if he had an umbrella and then it seemed to strike him that we might need some help. So, he got down and quickly ran to the doorway on the side that the taxi was parked in and tried to catch the attention of the Baba House cafe staff and to signal umbrellas were needed. We also got down and stood in that narrow doorway. There were some tourists seated in that tiny covered verandah of Baba House but they didn't bat an eyelid or pass the message to the cafe staff inside. Finally, the driver gave up and opened the trunk and took out our luggage in the pouring rain and put it in the doorway, took the payment for the drive and drove off. We were debating as to whether to wait awhile in the doorway till the rain reduced a bit or whether to just go ahead and cross the road and get drenched, baggage and person in all. At this point, a young Chinese Malaysian opened the doorway of the place we were standing in front of and invited us to sit inside till the rain abated. We found that it was a cafe which seemed like a nice and cosy place but as we decided to ask for an umbrella instead. The young man brought us two umbrellas and said that we could keep it till the rain stopped and return it later. So, with the huge World Vision umbrellas, we crossed the road and went into the cafe. One of the staff told us that the hotel reception was a few doors down and took us through the inner passageway to the reception. We checked in and were told that our room was located on the first floor, up the staircase in the second house. That was it. No further help. No bellboys or doormen or anyone to show us the room location. We went to the middle house and looked at the stair case which looked pretty steep and I didn't want to be climbing up and down the wrong stair cases with the bags so went up to one of the reception staff and asked which was the correct staircase. She was at least helpful and she came and showed us the correct staircase and told us that we could use the lift, if we wanted to. We said we preferred the lift and she took us to the tiny lift and decided to come up with us to show the room.

While Baba House seemed a tiny place from the outside with small doorways, the interior seemed to be extensive with several passageways and seating areas. The house was a very old house and must have been the home of a very wealthy family based on the number of rooms inside. We were showed our tiny airconditioned room which had two beds, a writing table, a TV and a tinier attached bathroom. The room was not one where one could stay in and rest as it had a very closed feeling because of the lack of windows. There was a tiny window but which had to be closed because it opened onto the passageway and was right beside the door handle so anyone could open the door from outside if we left it open and went out.

After a little rest, we decided to go out and have a meal as we were both hungry. We decided to go to the cafe in front as they had been kind enough to lend us the umbrellas earlier. The cafe was called the Coconut House cafe and it was a really cosy place with some lovely photos by Steve Chong adorning its wall. The cafe's inner courtyard was also very interesting with a tiny well and wooden tables in the midst and looking upto the quaint rooms upstairs.

As the Coconut house cafe was a place specializing in wood-fired pizzas, I ordered a pocket pizza called the 'little prince' and my friend, pizza margherita. There was a group of university students at the next table and who were clicking away at various nooks and corners of the cafe. It took a long while for our pizza to be served but finally, it arrived.

After our filling meal, we decided to go and find a money-changer's shop before we explored further as we had run out of ringgits by then. We walked up the street towards the town hall but couldn't find one. We asked a passer-by and they pointed to a little street. We turned into that street and true enough, there was a money changer's place but it was closed. So, we continued our walk along another street when I realized that this was the famous Jonker Walk street talked about in the travel websites. The street was lined with tourist-oriented shops but as we anyway, didn't have any cash on hand to buy anything, we skipped the shops and crossed over the tourist information office, opposite Stadshuys, the town hall. The tourist office was closed though it was written on the door that it was open till 6 p.m. on saturdays. While we were wondering how we would get some cash in the Malaysian currency, I spotted the elaborately decorated trishaws playing loud Bollywood music. I asked one trishaw driver how much it would cost for a drive around some historical parts of the city. He said 20RM for a half hour drive. I agreed with the condition that we be taken to a money changer's place along the way. He said that he could not leave as he was with some tourists but that one of his colleagues would take us and he called for another trishaw across the road.

We repeated our request of going to the money-changer's place and the rickshaw driver agreed but suggested that he would take us to the money changer's at the end of the tour rather than at the beginning. We agreed and climbed onto the brightly coloured and decorated trishaw.

The driver took us first to the ruins of the Portuguese fort and the Porta da Santiago and said he would wait at the entrance for us to walk about a little and return. He pointed to us the two Melaka trees in front of the doorway. He stated that the name of the city was derived from the name of this tree. Then, he drove us past the river cruise starting point, past the old ship museum and onto the more commercial part of the city, past the public buses and taxis. It was a bit embarassing and funny to be travelling in that garishly decorated, attention-seeking mode of transport but it was a mode of transport that was fulfilling our need to find a money changer's place. The driver proudly told us that the trishaw was the 'king of the roads of Melaka' as cars and buses impatiently blew their horns as our trishaw meandered slowly on its way to the next destination - the Newton food court. The driver said that there was a money changer's counter at the food court so we got down and went in but found the counter closed though there was an 'open' sign at the counter. We waited impatiently infront of the counter and one of the waiters came and asked us if we wanted to order food or were waiting for the money-changer. We stated the latter so he asked us to wait a little as the money changer had just stepped out but would be back soon. Sure enough, within a few minutes, a man breezed by asking if we were waiting to change money and opened his little counter. We changed the money and returned to the trishaw. We requested the trishaw driver to drop us at the starting point of the river cruise and we were dropped off in front of the counter, next to the old ship museum.

We paid for the Melakan river cruise and got into the little tourist boat. The river looked so dirty and was very smelly. We joked that it was like going for a cruise on Beira lake in Colombo. Despite the stench of the river, the cruise did give us an interesting view of the city - both its historical part with the ruins, buildings and churches and the modern cafes and buildings as well as the dwellings of the poorer inhabitants of the city and the traditional Melakan houses.

After finishing our cruise, we decided to walk back to Baba House cafe via the Jonker Walk street. As the weekend market on Jonker walk street was in full swing, the street was fully packed. I wanted to stop at the sweet house at the start of the street and try out some cendol which was a Malaysian dessert with shaved ice and jellied candies and red sugar. The cendol I tried had a taste of palm sugar in it and some kind of beans which was a strange combination to my taste buds.

We walked along the street browsing through a few shops before turning off the street that connected Jonker walk street to Jalan Tan Tun Cheng Lock. The connecting street was full of nice cafes with out-door seating and nice Portuguese music playing in the background. As we were not hungry after the pizza and the cendol, we decided to skip dinner and return to the Baba House. We booked a cab for the following morning through the hotel reception and decided to sit awhile in the little Baba House cafe before going to our claustrophobia-inducing room. As we sat there at one of the little white iron-wrought tables, a man who looked very Indian came in and spoke to one of the kitchen staff. Then, he looked at us and asked where we were from. I replied, 'Sri Lanka'. He asked whether we were staying at the hotel We nodded but as we found him intrusive, we turned to the TV in order to discourage further talk. He obviously understood because he hurriedly explained that was the driver and that he would be driving us to the station tomorrow and double-checked the time we wanted to leave for the bus station.

We decided to go up to the room and rest as we had been on the road a lot that day. The next morning, we packed up and brought our luggage down to the inner courtyard and left our luggage at vacant table and went to get our breakfast from the cafe. It was fully packed and there were queues and human traffic jams within that tiny cafe. It felt more like a school cafe. After weaving through the queues, we managed to get some breakfast and went back to the quiet of the inner courtyard table. The view from the breakfast table of the surrounding and especially, the view of the sky and the paintings on the first floor verandahs was lovely.

After breakfast, we checked out and the Baba House driver drove us to the bus terminal. The hotel receptionist had recommended the KKKL line for the Melaka to Kuala Lumpur route as he said that it was the fastest. So, we decided to try it and it was a comfortable drive to Kuala Lumpur and we reached the city by 11.30a.m. However, as we reached Pudujaya, the bus seeemed to stop and people started getting off. As it seemed the middle of the road and as we couldn't see any taxis which was our staple mode of transportation for getting to the hotel in each city we visited, we were a bit flustered. So, my friend went and asked the driver where the bus would be stopping finally. He didn't reply and when she repeated the question, he impatiently responded, 'Pudujaya, Pudujaya' as if this was something that everyone should know.

As the minutes passed and almost everyone had got off except for one other passenger, I spotted a taxi close by and more taxis a bit further. We decided to get off the bus and asked the driver to open the luggage door for us to take out our bags. We took the bags and went to the nearest taxi parked nearby and asked to take us to Jalan Beranggan. The driver agreed and we got in and drove off, away from the long queue at the road leading to the Pudujaya bus terminal.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Malaysian Holiday - Ipoh

The drive over Penang bridge was nice. The bridge is the longest in Malaysia and among the top 25 longest bridges in the world with a length of 13.5 km. According to a travel website, vehicles were not allowed to pause on the bridge but some did stop for a few minutes to take some photos of the beautiful views of GeorgeTown that the bridge provided. The taxi driver mentioned that the bridge was also a popular spot for people contemplating suicides and recounted that one of his taxi driver friends had been driving a couple who had requested for a pause at the mid-point. Thinking they were going to take a photo, he had stopped but the couple had jumped into the waters and drowned. He said that his friend had been in shock for several weeks after that. Abu Bakar dropped us at the the bus terminal and requested us or any of our friends to call him when we next visited GeorgeTown. We got our tickets on the first counter that we came across which stated 'Butterworth - Ipoh'.

We got onto the bus and waited for the bus to start. We had to wait an hour or more as the bus waited to collect passengers. This also gave us a lesson in the Malaysian express bus systems. As we waited in the terminal, we saw that Transnational buses seemed to be going as per time schedule with or without all the seats being sold whereas other buses seemed to linger around hoping to catch more passengers. It was too late to shift buses as we had already paid 18RM for the ticket so we waited till the bus took us to Medan Gopeng bus terminal in Ipoh. The bus stopped for a break at around 3p.m. and as we were hungry, we decided to have some lunch at the food court. I had a 'nasi lemak' which was rice cooked with coconut milk (the Malaysian version of the Sri Lankan 'kiribath') and served with a little chilli paste in small, triangle shaped banana-wrapped packs and a lychee drink. The lychee box drink reminded me of my first days of schooling in Indonesia where the box drink was an essential part of my school snack pack.

From there, we took the taxi to Regalodge hotel which had a nice room with twin beds, bath, hot water, air-conditioning and a huge TV. As it was again raining, we decided to rest a bit and plan out where we wanted to go etc. As Ipoh didn't seem as inviting as it was during planning and as my friend was not too keen on visiting Gua Tempurung - the underground cave exploration tour which would require a half-day the following day, we decided we would skip the underground caves and leave for Melaka the following morning. We also decided that we would just go for a drive in the evening around the city and to the Sam Poh Tong cave temple and the vegetarian cafe in front of it.

We requested the hotel to call for a taxi and around 5.30p.m., we left for our drive around the city. The city had a very strong influence of the Middle East and the roads, the clock tower and several architecture in the midst of the city reminded me of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. When I saw streets named after the King of Saudi Arabia, it explained where the influence of the modern building architecture came from.

The taxi driver informed us that Sam Poh Tong would be closed at that time but we said we would like to go there anyway and especially to the vegetarian cafe. He said 'ok' and drove us beyond the city and to more rural areas - paddy fields surrounded by huge hills. It felt a bit isolated as the darkness of the night was spreading and I was wondering if we should just turn back. Anyway, he soon stopped at the entrance of a cave temple which was locked and I found was not Sam Poh Tong but Kek Look Tong. I took a photo of the entrance and then asked the driver to take us to Sam Poh Tong. He drove us back and showed us Thai temples on the way. As he was very much bent on Thai temples than Chinese temples, we asked if he was from Thailand originally. We didn't get an answer to that but heard about the Thai monks in the temples. Finally, he stopped at another cave temple where the gates were open. He said that this was a temple that he came often to pray and it was a Chinese temple with Thai monks.

As this temple was still not Sam Poh Tong, which had the vegetarian cafe in front, we were reluctant to get down but as the taxi driver had got down and was chatting with the monks, we decided to get down and walk around a little bit. I went into the temple entrance and the temple seemed very new with lots of statues along the sides and lots of dry food items and other supplies in the middle.

After a little time, we requested the driver to take us to Sam Poh Tong. We had to repeat the entire explanation as to why we wanted to go there even if it was closed at that time. We mentioned the vegetarian cafe and he asked if we were vegetarians and my friend said that she was. So, he drove us to the temple and showed that it was closed but there didn't seem to be any cafe in front of it. So, we asked him to take us to a place in the town where there was good vegetarian food and he took us to a chinese restaurant. That restaurant seemed to be packed with Chinese families. I tried the vegetarian fried rice with assam fish and chinese tea while my friend was content with the vegetarian fried rice.

After dinner, we requested the driver to take us to the railway station so that we could check if there were trains going to Melaka in the morning. We thought it would be fun to try out the train as well as we seemed to be trying out all modes of transportation in Malaysia. The Ipoh railway station is one of the most beautiful railway stations I have seen so far. I wish I had taken a photo but it was raining again and we quickly dashed into the terminal to check out the train info. The info desk was closed and someone told us to wait for 30 mins after which the counter would be opened. As we didn't want to wait, we decided to skip the train journey and to use our normal bus mode the next day.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Malaysian holiday - GeorgeTown

The speed boat ride to Kuala Kedah took about an hour and a half. It docked at a rural fishing village and the stench of the fish was the first thing that greeted us as we struggled with our bags up the steps into the fresh air.

Walking out of the small port, we heard a man on a loud speaker broadcasting taxi prices to various destinations. We went upto the stand and asked to be dropped at the inter-city bus station. 20 RM for a 20-30 minute drive. The drive took us past a developing village but which seemed to have a lot of scrap workyards. It reminded me of Panchikawatte in Colombo. Rows and rows of shops with vehicle parts and old, unusable vehicles.

Finally, we reached the bus station and boarded the Transnational bus to Butterworth. No help from the bus crew with our bags but fortunately a young boy who was putting his own luggage in the baggage compartment helped us with ours. The drive was around 2 hours and we were dropped at the Butterworth terminal. The taxis at the Butterworth end quoted high prices in the range of 50-60RM to get to our guesthouse in GeorgeTown so we decided to first use the ferry to get to GeorgeTown. The ferry was only 1.2RM and it was a novel experience. The first floor of the ferry was the walk-in area for people to sit or stand during the crossing. The lower floor of the ferry was the vehicles to drive in and make the crossing. It was raining heavily that evening, yet the waters seemed very busy with the ferry crossings. Ships were moored at different points and several oil rigs could be seen. I could see several high rise buildings as we approached GeorgeTown.

After arriving at GeorgeTown, we walked out the ferry terminal through the covered walkway which led to a marketplace. We directly went to the taxi stand and got a taxi for 10RM to the guesthouse.

The Old Penang Guesthouse was according to Trip Advisor the No 1 specialty lodging in GeorgeTown and having checked out their website, I found the place very appealing so I looked forward to staying at the guesthouse in the old quarter of GeorgeTown. Upon arriving there, we were greeted by a young girl seated at the desk at the entrance who informed us that the place was fully booked. I told her that I had already booked through the internet in advance so we should have a room. She smiled and said, 'clever to book in advance over the internet' and checked her charts and smiled and said, 'yes'. She briefed us on the regulations of the guesthouse - no shoes from the staircase upwards, make-your-own breakfast with the available supplies in the morning etc. As we didn't have sufficient ringgits, she was nice enough to say that we could pay for the room later that night.

The ground floor seemed packed: the computer near the entrance was occupied by a couple, the TV lounge area had about 4-5 people and the three tiny round tables with metal and wood chairs were also fully occupied. It seemed strange to have to remove one's shoes and leave it at the bottom of the stairway amongst numerous other shoes and to have to carry the bags up a steep wooden staircase and my friend was muttering at the prospect.

Anyway, we managed it to the top and were taken to our room - No 10 which was the corner room overlooking the backstreet. There were only two beds and a night table and a clothes stand in the little room but it seemed cosy and clean. The windows were unique as it was shuttered panels from floor to ceiling and which was covered with a bamboo shade which could be pulled up or down according to our needs.

As we had had a long travel and got a bit drenched towards the last bit of travel to the guesthouse, we decided to have a wash and change before we went out to change money and to have some dinner. We walked over the old, wooden boards to the shared bathrooms which had two shower cabins and a toilet.

As I tweaked the shower knobs trying to figure out how it worked, I heard the singing of some performer across the road. As I finally worked out the knobs and a cold stream of water hit me, the voice went a pitch higher and was so shrill. It sounded really funny from the shower room. My friend in the other cabin also must have felt the same as she also burst out laughing. The rain outside, the new surrounding, the cemented shower room with a skylight, the cold water of the shower and the shrill voice of the Chinese singer combined gave us the most funniest and memorable experience in Malaysia.

After the shower and changing into some warmer clothes, we borrowed the guesthouse umbrella and decided to walk to Lebuh Chulia to change some dollars into ringgits. After changing the money, we walked a bit further trying to locate a nice cafe for a dinner but the place looked a bit deserted and there was a police car or two patrolling the roads which we felt indicated that this might be a high crime area. An old man with a trishaw hailed us and offered to drive us around. I felt uncomfortable as the old man seemed frail and it was not fair to ask him to cycle us around. Nonetheless, we decided to try the trishaw for a very short drive around - 5RM to the Taton cafe suggested by the guesthouse and 5RM for the drive back so that he would also earn some money. The trishaw was a small contraption that could hold one person nicely but was a squeeze for two but we managed. As it was drizzling, the driver turned up the tarpaulin cover for some protection. I was more worried about the old man and whether the exertion would tire him or if he would get a heart attack. We passed a street named Jalan Tamil and then the trishaw driver turned a street. At one point, he pulled back the sheet and started telling us something in Chinese. It was drizzling and we were wondering why he had stopped. Then, we saw some police officers infront who were standing around their car. We didn't still see the reason why the trishaw driver stopped but as the street was brightly lit and I spotted a nice restaurant on the other side of the road, I suggested we get down and have some dinner. We paid 5RM and said that we would go and have dinner. He seemed a bit bewildered so I asked if he could stay till we had dinner at the restaurant opposite. He nodded and pointed where he stood so we went ahead to the Chinese restaurant.

The ambience was very nice with polished wooden tables and nice paintings. I decided to try out a mee hoon noddle soup with fishballs and steamed chicken mee and some Chinese tea while my friend opted for a glass of milo only. It was a lovely dinner for me at least and we returned by the trishaw. The old man however refused to drop us at the guesthouse and stopped at the point where he picked us up. He lowered the tarpaulin and suggested we walk the remaining distance. It was a bit difficult getting out of the narrow trishaw and the old man was highly amused at seeing my attempt at getting down and laughed. Though he was annoying, I found the old man very amusing with his toothless laugh.

We paid the balance and walked back to the guesthouse stopping at the small 7 eleven store at the corner of the street leading to the guesthouse. We got some canned nescafe and some buns with coconut filling for my friend who didn't eat at the chinese restaurant.

I decided to check my emails but the internet was very slow that I gave up after reading one email. I also did not feel comfortable leaving my Nike shoes at the bottom of the staircase so carried it in my hand to my room. The next morning, I forgot the 'no-shoe upstairs' condition and put on my shoes and came down for breakfast. So did my friend. As I was walking down the stairs, I remembered it and as it didn't make sense for me to remove the shoes at that point, we just continued down hoping that the guesthouse staff would not see us. Unfortunately, as we walked down the steps, the owner himself was at the foot of the stairs bringing in breakfast supplies to the side board. As we walked to a free table, he came up to us and sternly admonished us 'next time, no shoes'. We felt like a pair of school kids in a hostel as we apologized and went to get our toast and coffee.

After breakfast, we walked up the street to locate a bus or taxi stand to take us to Penang Hill. We found some taxis parked infront of a mall and got a taxi for 30RM to drive us to Penang Hill. The drive took us through various parts of GeorgeTown and we reached the entrance to the funicular station. The taxi driver, Abu Bakar, gave us his number and asked us to call him on our way back so he could drop us at the guesthouse.

We went into the station and got tickets for the old-fashioned train going up the Penang Hill to its top.

The train ride up the very steep track took a long time and as it was clouded that day, the view of GeorgeTown from the top of the hill was blurry. After a brief walk around the top, we decided to come down.

As we came out of the station, we saw the bus 204 about to leave. As it was the bus which went past our guesthouse, according to one of the other guests, we ran towards it and got it. The driver was kind enough to wait and we got our 2RM tickets and settled in for a drive back passing through newer inner roads. As we felt we were nearing our destination and did not know where exactly to get down, I approached the driver with my map and indicated that I needed to get down near Lebuh Chulia. He immediately stopped the bus and said that we were on the wrong bus and that we had to go on bus 203. He asked us to get down there and that he would put us on the right bus. He also got out himself and waited with us for the bus. Luckily, bus 203 came within a minute and he told the driver of that bus not to charge us and to drop us at Lebuh Chulia. He was a really kind Indian Malay.

So, we managed to get back to the guesthouse a few minutes before our check-out time at 12p.m. and requested the owner/manager to call Abu Bakar, the taxi driver who dropped us at the Penang hill station.

The taxi was there on time and we left the quaint and endearing guesthouse for our onward journey. I requested the driver to stop at a sweet shop for me to get some Tambun biscuits and white coffee and then to drive over the longest bridge in Malaysia to get to the Butterworth terminal.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Malaysian Holiday - Langkawi

With the cheap prices of Air Asia tempting us, a colleague and I decided to go on a short holiday in the last week of October. After looking at the various destinations, we decided that Malaysia would be our destination for this October holiday.

We left Sri Lanka at 8.15a.m. and landed in Kuala Lumpur's Low cost carrier terminal airport around 2.25p.m. and transferred to the domestic flight terminal for the flight to Langkawi. By the time, we reached Langkawi, it was 5.15p.m. (Malaysian time). Nearly 8 1/2 hours spent in planes and airports. Taking the airport taxi, we reached the Langkawi boutique resort in the Pantai Cenang beach area. The drive from the airport to the hotel was about 15-20 minutes and we went past a lot of paddy fields and coconut trees and a lovely rainbow. I felt that I was driving past a Sri Lankan village, except for the fact that the roads were much better. The hotel had a huge entrance facade and after checking in, we were taken by the hotel van to the set of apartment blocks at the back where the rooms were located. The rooms were large but in poor shape either due to poor maintenance or because they were really old. It was dark and raining outside but we decided to go for a drive to the Eagle square in the south east coast of the island and back. We hitched a ride to the entrance of the hotel with a Malaysian family who were leaving our block and requested the hotel to call for a taxi. The rain had reduced and was drizzling by the time the taxi came and it was a nice drive to the jetty point. The square looked deserted though and there was hardly anyone else there as we walked across the lit square towards the eagle - the symbol of the island. As the area looked dead, we decided to head back to the hotel after getting a few snacks at a little supermarket on the way. Either because of the rain or because nightlife was unknown to the island, we hardly came across other vehicles or people during our entire drive back.

The next morning, we decided to go on the cable car to the top of Gunung Mat Cincang. So, we hired a cab after breakfast to drive us to the oriental village, wait for an hour and then drive us back. The drive along the south west coast was beautiful and gave us lovely views of the sea and the yachts. Langkawi was certainly a destination for the sailing enthusiasts who would no doubt love to explore the 99 islands of Langkawi in their boats. A unique feature of the island was the sea on one side of the drive and the lush, green paddy fields on the other side and the mountains and cliffs in front. A very scenic place. We reached the oriental village in 20 minutes or so and found that we had to wait till 10a.m for the cable car to start operations. So, we wandered around the souvenir shops in the oriental village, buying knick knacks for family and friends back home.

According to a local myth, Mat Cincang and Mat Raya were giants who were about to become relatives through a marriage alliance between the families. However, the groom's misconduct at the wedding party caused a fight between the two families and pots and pans were thrown around. Finally, peace was mediated between the two families and the two key figures turned themselves into stone in repentance and were harmonious since then. These were supposed to be the two mountains facing each other - Gunung Mat Cincang and Gunung Mat Raya with the mediator as a little hill in between. Many places in the island were named after where the pot fell, the gravy seeped through the ground etc. My version of the story is that there may have been a major volcanic eruption in the past, which the villagers may have construed as a fight between the two giant mountains, and the island has been quiet since then.

Around 10a.m., we got onto the car which allowed for six people to be seated and went up the mountain to the topmost point at around 700 m above sea level. The winds were blowing very roughly so the gate that led to the walk across the sky bridge was closed and even the viewing point at the top was to be closed again soon. We were lucky to have caught the right time to go up the mountain. The view was absolutely wonderful.

After the cable car ride, we returned to the hotel and checked out. While waiting for the cab, we decided to have lunch at a little cafe near the hotel. After looking at a few cafes, we decided to try out Man's cafe which seemed to have a nice eating area. I tried out the 'kampung' style rice and vegetables with fried fish while my vegetarian friend opted for the sandwich. My dish came within a few minutes while it took at least 10 minutes for the cheese sandwich to arrive.

Finishing the lunch, we took the taxi to the jetty point and bought tickets to Kuala Kedah. While waiting for our boat ride, we went through the duty free shops at the boat terminal. It was a long walk from the terminal to our boat and when we reached the boat, we found that we had to carry our luggage down the steps into the air-conditioned seating space. The boat people did not offer help with our bags. That is one common trait that was observed across Malaysia. No-one, not even the transport people like the cab drivers, bus drivers and conductors, boat ticket collectors, offers to help even if they see you struggling with your bags.