Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Friday, 30 April 2004

Amazing Thailand : Part 6 - Durian ' the king of fruits', and the night in Ayutthaya

As promised, my Durian tasting.

So after our night market meal and drinks with the British travellers, and Ray's tales of his experience with Durian, I was determined to at least TRY it. I'd seen it featured on Ripley's believe it or not for being the most foul smelling thing on earth, so I was duly cautious. The Brits went off in the direction of Tony's Place leaving us to hunt down this notorious fruit.

I was acutely aware however that we'd actually seen Durian's on sale virtually everyday and I had not noticed any particularly vile smell at any time. So off I went to a nearby Durian vendor and started indicating that, No I certainly didn't want to buy a whole one. I asked to smell it. The lady cut a v shaped nick in the flesh and folded it down, revealing the pale yellow nutty looking flesh inside. I smelled it, and to be honest didn't smell much. What I then realised is that the smell I HAD been smelling all the time thinking it was just general fruit market smell with some over-ripe and possibly rotten fruit added in IS the smell of Durian. So basically it smells like a combination of any fruit you can imagine all combined and left out too long. It's not putrid at all, just very complex and aromatic. To me it has a strong element of Papaya to it too.

So although I had been warned that I might heave and even vomit on eating it I wanted to try some anyway. I gestured to the lady that I wanted just a *small* piece. Meaning a pea sized piece, she nodded and grinned gleefully and cut out a piece about the size of a large dried pear. She declined any payment, she just seemed oddly thrilled that I was going to try it.

I braced myself and bite off a small nibble. Expecting time to stop, or hallucinations to start or some such. But I found it fairly easy to palate. I took another bite and slowly chewed tasted and swallowed. I smiled, the Durian vendor beamed delightedly, and we walked on.

The best way to describe this fruit to me is very complex. It's very fruity, but does not have one specific taste, it does taste like a blend of all sorts of things, butter, nuts, melon, paw-paw, mango etc etc. It taste like everything and nothing all at the same time. It's actually quite mild, and is not pungent, but the flavour is incredibly detailed.
It was certainly edible and fairly easily edible. Did I actually like it? Well. No not really- but I didn't hate it. I was actually half disappointed at how easy it was to eat though. Richard who is often less amenable to trying new weird and wonderful things than I am even had a nibble and agreed that he also didn't *like* it, but it's not that bad. I kept at it bravely until at least 3/4 of the piece were eaten, and then decided I had had enough, and feeling very guilty I threw the rest behind a tree.

Having actually tasted Durian however, and now knowing what that smell was, we did feel more repelled by it after that. Did you know that Durian is banned in a lot of indoor venues, hotels and on transportation? Because the smell is so strong and permeating and once in an air-conditioning system it is hard to remove.
"In Singapore the fruit is widely consumed, yet banned on public transportation. This past January, durian made the news when a Virgin Blue flight from Brisbane, Australia was delayed because of the overwhelming smell of the fruit coming from the cargo hold. Virgin Blue boss, Brett Godfrey was reported saying, "This wasn't a safety issue, this was a gross issue -no one wants to fly in a plane that smells like that.""
I have been wondering about the fact that the experience was easy for me and yet other people claim it as an almost near death experience, I found a similar description to mine by a girl on the internet: "People are fascinated by paradoxes, and I am no exception. How can a fruit smell like compost, yet taste heavenly? How can a fruit that is pollinated by bats and has a thorny exterior, have such an enthusiastic even worshipping fan base? There are many accounts of durian experiences from the nauseating to the sublime. However, what draws me to a discussion of the durian is precisely the fact that I have never delighted in its taste nor been repelled by its smell. I have never been overwhelmed by it positively nor negatively. "
I guess it's just perceived differently by different people, and I was one who could tolerate it easily, but not necessarily like it. So there you have it...

After our Durian dessert we set of back on the walk to Tony's Place and then decide to take a stroll around the town instead. Unlike Phuket and Bangkok, this place was largely deserted and shut down apart from the night market area, which seems to be the hub of night time activity. There were some people sitting and having a drink in a door way to a pub or shop, but there was no real night life to speak of.

We frequently came across dogs, many of which seemed to be partaking in strange sexual antics. It was like dog orgies. Funny, but more than a little disturbing! Being somewhat afraid of dogs myself I was not very comfortable when a dog would notice as and aggressively bark and come out menacingly from where it had been hidden with teeth bared. I was very aware that we must have smelled very different to the locals, plus that if one dog went for us, I'm sure another few dozen would follow! My other thought was that there was a distinct possibility that some of these mangy skinny dogs could be rabid. Richard urged me to stay calm and to just keep walking straight and confidently, AND to stop looking them in the eye! Apparently that's an aggressive gesture to a dog, and if you want to be non-threatening you should avert your eyes, and not try to stare them down.

After a much longer walk than anticipated and getting quite lost, and needing to ask some people how to get back, we finally made it back to Tony's Place where the Arsenal/ Tottenham game had just started. The Brits were ardent Arsenal fans and were well settled in for the footy game, they though Arsenal winning the Premiership was a done-deal (it didn't happen though). It was still stiflingly hot and I decided a cold shower and bed were what I needed and I headed off. Even with the shower running on cold water only it was quite warm, and I simply couldn't cool down. This was when I started regretting getting the non-air-conditioned room. I was walk more than asleep that night and was hotter than I remember being during the whole rest of the trip. I was sweating and actually felt like I had a fever. I remember wondering if it was possible that I would die during the night from being over-heated. It was really unpleasant. Even though we went to bed well after 12, as we had become accustomed to, by 6am when the heat of the new day started intensifying I couldn't take it anymore and decided to get up. After another tepid shower, we dressed as light as possible and went out in search of the ruins.

We walked and walked and did find some. Inside a closed gate. We were told by a 'security guard' that the gate only opens at 8am! Damn. He suddenly said he'd open it for us but there's an 'entrance fee of Bt30 each'. It seemed like a con, and the price was higher than the Bangkok temple entrance price, but we gave him Bt30 for both of us, saying it was all the money we had, and he agreed to let us in. The ruins were interesting, but are very much 'ruined', they don't have any of the intricate and ornate detailing of the newer temples we'd seen, and they are made solely out of bricks and cement work. Some sections had sunk right into the ground. The park we were in did not seem that well maintained, and I think there are actually much better sites to visit in Ayutthaya, but we never found them. I think it's advisable to take a guided tour if you really want to see and appreciate the place. Anyway there was some charm and 'spirituality' at being there so early in the day and the light of the rising sun was beautiful.

After leaving this historical park we decided to walk on and see if we could find some more of the postcard depicted sites and places. After a while we found ourselves walking down a quite road. It seems to be heading in the direction of the night market we'd been at the night before, so we continued thinking it would be nice to go there and get something for breakfast. We walked and walked and walked and walked. We found a weird run down temple and cemetery, with bizarre 'pet cemetery' dogs lying about. They were very strange creatures and I was more than a little weary of getting close to them, although they looked half dead and not really capable of much action. By now we really didn't know where we were or where we were going, or how to get there. The road was getting quieter and quieter and more and more rural. We were also tired and hungry and were not enjoying ourselves anymore. We were deliberating whether to walk all the way back the way we had come, or continue, risking just getting further away from town if we were on the wrong route, or take a further detour, but then who knows where we'd end up?!

With patience wearing thin, and still undecided I saw a green pinafored motorbike taxi, and darted in front of him to flag him down. He stopped and we begged him to take us back to civilisation, asking if it was possible for both of us to get onto his little bike. He nodded so we squeezed on and the bike spluttered on. It was quite a long ride, and I am so glad we didn't need to walk it! He took us all the way back to Tony's Place, which I was very happy to see. He then proceeded to try to rip us off and charge a ridiculous price for the ride, I think it was Bt140! We tried haggling but he wasn't happy. I went in to speak to the receptionist and find out what a reasonable price would be, we paid him that, it was about Bt75! Odd that a single bike ride can cost way more than a 1.5hr bus journey, but there you go.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the shops and street markets near Tony's place, especially the air-conditioned 7Eleven. We had some lunch in a food stall alley, where we again bumped into the Brits. After that we went back to Tony's and I had a short sweaty nap on a day bed. Our flight back to Phuket was only at 8pm that night, but by 4pm we were on a bus back to Bangkok's Don Muang airport, where we arrived at 5.30pm. Our main goal was to cool down, and we decided spending a few hours in the airport would be a better way to spend the time before the flight than sweltering miserably back in Ayutthaya.

I'd like to back to Ayutthya one day, because I really don't think we did it justice, but we learned quite a lot there...

The time passed quickly in the airport, where we had a meal. In the surprisingly reasonably priced Thai food-hall we found, as opposed to the other fast-food chain vendors with extra-inflated airport prices. Then we were jetting of back to Phuket. It was great to be back there and it felt like home. We were also ready to be back in the relative luxury of our hotel room. We slept very well that night.

Thursday, 29 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 5 - Chatuchak & Ayutthaya

After our Kao San Road evening and our second night at the Suk11 hostel we packed up all our belongings, and headed off on the Skytrain to Mo Chit Station, which is the end of the line, and also the location of the Chatuchak week-end market. Being a Sunday it was in full swing, and teaming with people.

It was by far the hottest day we had experienced while there (between 43-45 degrees C), and lugging our backpacks around in the congested and tiny isles between the stands became quickly uncomfortable and just downright impractical. Here's description of the extent of the market:

"Though there are many throughout Bangkok, Chatuchak Weekend Market is still pretty much the undisputed king of them all. The scale of it is pretty unbelievable - it covers an area of 35 acres, contains more than 15 000 shops and stalls, has over 200 000 visitors each day, and they spend an estimated total of 30 million baht (approx R5 Million!). The range of products on sale is extensive, and includes household accessories, handicrafts, religious artefacts, art, antiques, live animals (which unfortunately are frequently caged in cruel conditions), books, music, clothes, food, plants and flowers etc..."

In fact pretty much anything you could think of! Having heard this was the BEST place to shop for literally anything I was quite keen, but I found it harder to bargain here than nearly anywhere else, and some vendors refused to budge on there prices at all. Odd. Richard gave up quite early and opted to sit at a food stall with our bags, while I headed off solo and unencumbered to search for the plain vest tops etc that I was after.

Being as huge as it is it's nearly impossible to take it all in, and with the oppressive heat, we soon decided that shopping wasn't really what we wanted to be doing. I was keen to see the pet section though, which is often mentioned, so we found a map and started heading in the right direction. Trying to stay under covered sections and out of the heat of the mid-day sun. We eventually found the pets. I was both fascinated and saddened slightly as there were dozens and dozens of stalls with hundreds of tiny fluffy bunnies and chipmunks stacked in cages not much bigger than they were. They were clearly over heated and not comfortable and seeing 2 tiny rabbits crammed into their small water bowl in a feeble attempt to cool themselves was quite heartbreaking. They were all oscillating rapidly and unison as they panted. It was unclear if these animals were really meant as pets of food, but I think they are pets. Strangely the dogs were treated very well and mostly had air-conditioned stalls with glass sliding doors. We became very interested in the dogs, when we realised we could also be air-conditioned while 'admiring' them ;)

Eventually we couldn't take the heat and heavy bags anymore so we decided to leave. Easier said than done, as by now we had wondered right into the middle of the market. We bravely fought our way through several thousand thronging shoppers and made our way to the exit. Note this place is not recommended if you are claustrophobic! I marvelled at one man I saw on crutches and with only one leg. I have no idea how he managed survive it - presuming he did!

Once we made our way onto the street we started focusing on finding a bus to Ayutthaya. Only problem was there were NO signs in English anywhere and no one we spoke to could speak English either. Loads of buses were passing but we didn't know where they were going to, or even how to go about catching them, or how and where to get a ticket. We also soon realised that saying 'A-yu-tay-ya' was not correct or understood, and were told by a policeman that it's 'a-u-ta-yaaa', with the focus on the last long 'yaaa'. After probably half an hour or more of bumbling around we decided to accost the next bus that stopped. It turns out there is no bus station, you simply stand in the road and hail a passing bus and then get on, if it's the right one! Simple when you know how ;) So we boarded and paid the Bt35 fare each (R5.85), for the 1.5hour journey. Considering it's greyhound type air-conditioned bus, this is amazing. I wish our public transport was that prolific and affordable, you can get from anywhere to anywhere in Thailand for virtually nothing.

We got the fare-taker to assure us that he'd tell us when to get off and we relaxed in the relative coolness. Just as I settled in and was almost asleep, we were told it was time to get off. Which we duly did, under a freeway flyover. We had no idea where we were, or where to go from there. This was probably the most unsettled we felt the whole trip, it didn't help that we were exhausted too, and didn't know where we were staying or anything. I had made no reservations, and hadn't even remembered to print out the list of possible accommodation options. Perhaps the planning was better after all. But I had wanted to do something on the run, ala The Amazing Race... stupid in retrospect. I am too much of an organiser to really enjoy that. *grin*

We saw a shopping centre across the pedestrian bridge, so we made our way there. It's a new centre called 'Ayutthaya Park'. I think it's meant to bring the town into the 21st century, but it hasn't happened yet... No one here spoke English at all, and trying to convey successfully that we wanted to go near the ruins, but more importantly find somewhere to sleep for the night, was just not working. I was pleased that my phrase book was finally really needed, but in the heat of the situation it wasn't actually much help. Although I must say pointing to the Thai text for HOTEL did seem to illicit some response, we're just not sure what... since she couldn't talk back in English!

Anyway we decided to leave the safety of the shopping centre, and found some busses. We got on one, without really knowing where it was going, but at Bt2 each getting anywhere was a bonus. During the trip the lady next to me realised we didn't know what the hell we were doing, and in broken English started trying to figure out what it was we were doing there and what we wanted. Note that we had not seen a single other Westerner since we left the market... She conferred with another passenger and they decided they knew where we should go and would tell us when we were there.

The town itself is not very pretty or scenic and is very old and run down looking. It was the capital city for a long time, and was once the largest city on earth. It doesn't seem like anything has happened there since though. I was quite disappointed as I expected it to be magical.

"Before Bangkok was the Capital of Thailand, formerly called Siam, Ayutthaya was the Capital of the Kingdom. This was in the period between -say- the 14th Century and 1782. The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was very prosperous. It was a Kingdom of 34 reigns, covering about 400 years. The period ended when General Taksin built a new Capital in Thonburi, after Ayutthaya has been destroyed by the Burmese in 1768. Taksin became King, but he was removed by General Chao Phraya Chakri, the later King Rama I in 1782. This King Rama I was the founder of the Chakri dynasty, of which the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a descendent. Therefore you might also say that the Ayutthaya period ended with the founding of the Chakri dynasty. "

Sure enough after a while, our lady called to the driver who promptly pulled over and there was 'Tony's Place'! A name I recognised from my list, safely stored on my PC back at work, and there were tourists and westerners. It's silly but I was happy to see even Americans. I think we were just relived that we had found the place we were meant to be, and Ayutthaya wasn't going to be a complete write-off. We thanked our friendly local lady with many a 'Khorb Khun Kaa' (which means Thank-you in Thai), and happily ran into the lush tropical sanctuary of the patio area.

Establishing our respective priorities Richard befriended the motley crew of British tourists and wasted no time ordering a beer, while I attended to the important task of securing accommodation for the night. My shrewd bargaining skills were honed, and along with the news that the Brits had got a stunning room for a tuppence I negotiated a clean double room, with shower for a mere Bt250 (R42)! Ok it was non-air-conditioned, but I didn't think that mattered. I now know it DOES.

After a shower and change I was keen to explore and look for ruins, but Richard was content to socialise with the Brits, so we chatted to them and met a colourful French chap, and an equally odd older Thai man. Both pretty much likable bums, with well established drinking habits. Before long night time had arrived and people started getting hungry. The Thai guy gave us directions to the night time market, with warning to beware of the dogs. Odd. But 5 of us set off in search of the market and food...

Sure enough after rounding the first corner we saw a collection of scary looking dogs. We kept together and walked quickly. They barked but left us mostly alone. We came across several groups of dogs, but managed to avoid any incidents, and I think it helped that we were in a group.

The night market was in a open lot along the river. Prettily lit up with lights. Locals were busy shopping and eating, and generally socialising in the market.

The food here was very much by locals for locals and some things looked a bit odd, but the regular fired noodle dishes were available too. Our new British friends had travel a fair amount and had sampled most things, so recommended the Thai chicken noodle soup, which did turn out to be simple but very tasty. We also tried some chicken satays with peanut chilly sauce. Very yum.

After the meal I sampled a fruit shake, I had a big glass filled with a delicious blend of Pineapple, evaporated milk and crushed ice, costing only Bt10 (R1.66). You can select a range of fruits, syrups or even jelly type sweets to make your shake out of. Most people in Thailand don't buy a can of coke, they'll buy a small plastic packet with handles filled with crushed ice with coke (or the drink of their choice poured over it) and with a strew stuck in the top. It looks quite strange at first, but after a while it makes a lot of sense. You see people with their ice drink hanging off their bike handle bars etc. Crushed ice is big commodity there.

Eating is a very social thing there, and with the food being so cheap, even in Thai terms, and freely available virtually everyone eats food from vendors. In fact apparently in Bangkok most apartments don't even have kitchens. Watching the vendors chop and prepare the food is amazing, they are very skilled, and all dished are served to look nice, with pretty garnishing. The food is simple but incredibly tasty and with strong but complimenting flavours. Limejuice is used a lot, for instance.

Having heard so much about the much maligned Durian fruit, I was determined to taste it.

Here's some of what's said about it:


Q: What fruit is shaped like a hedgehog and smells like compost?

A: Durian.

Durian, the infamous tropical fruit, banned in hotels and public transportation because of its foul odour, but craved by many who have become accustomed to it. "Like eating custard in a sewer."

Imagine the best, most delicious, and sensuous banana pudding you can imagine, add just a touch of butterscotch, vanilla, peach, pineapple, strawberry, and almond flavours, and a surprising twist of - garlic??!! Like many of life’s greatest experiences, eating durian cannot be adequately described with words. Durian has a characteristic delicious flavour, creamy texture, and tantalizing fragrance that is just... durian! - the king of fruits, Nature’s most magnificent fruit gift.

The durian "dilemma"

  • On one hand ...

  • "Durian (--n.) : The fruit of the DURIAN, having a hard, prickly rind and soft pulp with an offensive odour"

  • "Some people would rather die than to smell the STINK of a durian."

  • "Like eating custard in a sewer."

  • "Overripe cheese, rotting fish,..."

  • The smell from hell, the taste from heaven."

  • On the other hand!!

  • "Give me durian or give me death."

  • "... the pale yellow flesh had an appealingly creamy, custard like texture and a very sweet taste."

  • "Durian, the infamous tropical fruit, banned in hotels and public transportation because of its foul odour, but craved by many who have become accustomed to it. "

My experience and impression of Durian next!

Wednesday, 28 April 2004

Amazing Thailand : Part 4 - 'One night in Bangkok'

The song goes: " One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster, The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, And if you're lucky then the god's a she I can feel an angel sliding up to me "
After our first Skytrain transit we easily found Patpong Street, the center of Bangkok's 'Naughty Nightlife' District. There's a night market trading all along the street, where all the regular vendor wares can be bought. Here vendors also hold discreet folders displaying their sex DVD titles, which they flick open as you walk past. One tried to entice us by saying ' I have sex DVD filmed in SOUTH AFRICA!'. That makes it special in some way....?

The go-go bar touts are everywhere, and you can't walk more than a few steps without being approached by a few holding up small laminated menu cards, advertising the shows on offer. 'Ping pong sex show, Banana Sex show, Open Coke Bottle Sex Show' etc. It's quite amusing actually. After hearing and reading so much about these, we knew we had to see it first hand, so we selected the Queen's Palace II, after negotiating the terms with the relevant tout. There's no entrance fee, but you have to buy at least one drink each, and surprisingly the drinks there are charged at the regular price of Bt50 for a Singha Beer (R8.40). Some places are known to charge magnitudes more. Maybe that's why this place has a better reputation than many others.

So in we went, wide-eyed in anticipation. The place was fairly cozy, with a boxing ring type design, with patrons seated around the walls, facing into a central raised oblong stage with a pole on each corner. The place was full of naked and near naked women. All wearing high-heeled thigh-high black boots. Some wearing a bikini or part of one, a few not wearing anything. They were all local Thai girls ranging from young and beautiful with gorgeous bodies, to some fairly old and dumpy. We were also convinced that some of them were katoeys. I think being a couple allowed us to sit and observe on the sideline without drawing much attention. The single men seemed to be targeted a fair amount. The girls would sidle up to them and ask to be bought a drink etc, and you sometimes see a man sitting with one or more girls, getting lots of adulation.

***Warning - don't read the next few paragraphs if you are sensitive, or offended by sexuality***
One the stage there would always be 6-8 girls dancing and preening to the music supplied by the house DJ. These girls seemed mostly quite shy, and rather than putting on bold aggressive acts, seemed to be giggly and a bit shy and mostly interacted with each other - sometimes dancing together too. The nudity quickly became blasé and seemed very natural. It was also nice that these were natural real girls and not all perfect pin up models. Although some WERE gorgeous. Every 15 minutes or so, the DJ would ring a bell, and the naked girl who would have appeared on stage just before would begin her act. Each girl had her specialty. The first girl danced a little, and then produced a piece of ribbon, which she proceeded to pull out of herself over the next few minutes. Eventually she had about 10 meters of neon coloured ribbon trailing out of her! I found this bizarre, rather than erotic. It's also interesting to note that the girls seems to find it a bit absurd as well, although they seem to find it all in good fun too. Once the entire ribbon was revealed, the girl disappeared off stage and into the back. The dancers would then also leave the stage and mingle with the crowd, making way for the next 6-8 to take the lime light for a while. After another 15 minutes the DJ would again alert everybody for the next act.

Following acts included:
- Shooting ping-pong balls across the room - to be caught by another girl with a net
- Opening a bottle of shaken soda water with a bottle opener.
- Shooting banana past the audience and into the wall
- Blowing a horn
- Drawing a picture, by 'gripping' a felt tipped pen
- Those were the ordinary ones, then there was:
- Popping balloons with blow darts!
- Pouring half a bottle of water in, and then producing 'coke' to fill a empty bottle with (that' must be achieved using colour crystals or something!)
- Inserting a tomato and producing tomato pulp out of it!

It's amazing, and just a little frightening to see what they can do! After a while it becomes fairly routine, as there are only so many variations on a theme.

So several beers later, and feeling like I need to practise my kegels a lot more... ;) We left to see what else we could find.
We soon came across a banana fritter vendor, and since that was on MY list to sample, I handed over my Bt10 (R1.70) for a packet of deliciously oily banana fritters. Yummy. The banana actually had very little taste (I think cooking plantains are used) but the batter is lovely, and strangely the overall taste was more like apple crumble than anything else.

While I munched away, we ambled down another bustling neon lit alley, and came upon more touts, but the flavour here seemed different. More professional, more organised, more classy or something. It turned out that we were in gay show territory. None-the-less the touts were keen to get us to enter the shows. On enquiry we found that at these place the condition is also to purchase at least one drink each, but here a beer cost Bt250. We decided not to bother as it was late. Being close to 12am though and closet o closing time, they were in the mood for bargaining though, so the last club offered us entry, with 1 drink to share at Bt150, so we agreed in the spirit of adventure and new horizons.

I must say this show was very slick and professional and the boys were stunningly gorgeous!
The stage was also slightly raised, but here the audience all sit in rows in front of the stage. When we arrived a fire juggling display was just finishing. The next event was 3 guys, wearing nothing buy white hot pants and slathered in shaving cream, undulating and slithering very seductively. After a while they turned on an overhead shower and continued under the cascading water. At one point they all got shaving cream in their eyes - which I found quite amusing, as they suddenly rushed under the shower and tried to rinse it off quickly, forgetting to be alluring for a short while. This was followed by a swimming display. A curtain open to reveal a fish tank-like swimming pool. Where several men took turns to swim. I likened it to a lobster tank at a restaurant, where you can view and select the lobster of your choice.
Interestingly once each act was finished the guys would wash-up and appear in fresh white and tight hot pants and vest, with a numbered badge pinned to their chest. They would then sit on a bench next to the stage. I'm sure that's to make the selection and order process easier later ;)

The final act was a drag show - similar to the Pricilla Queen of the Desert, cabaret style. A man appeared wearing full traditional Thai female garb and with a fully painted face, except the make up was all skew and distorted. 'She' had 2 semi-naked male aides, waving palm fronds. All very regal. A traditional Thai song started, with the theme of 'welcome to Thailand, the land of smiles'. Then what started as the usual drag show with lip synched song became a satire act. The song started warping, going faster and slower, and scratching and stretching, and would then return to normal. They were illustrating the contrast and conflict between the beauty and innocence and splendour of Thailand and it's culture, and the deviant darker underbelly of the sex tourism industry and katoeys and such like. It was brilliantly put together, and was both very amusing to watch and very thought provoking as well.

We got back to Suk11 at around 2am. Passing 'Charlie's Bar' just outside, with a sign displayed which caught our eye. ' Now available - ladies toilet. For piss only, no shit please' !!! *hehehe*

*** Ok that's the nightlife over, should be safe again from here***

For some reason you don't get tired there, or very hungry. Perhaps both are attributable to the heat. We quickly adopted the local style of waking at around 9am, and going to bed at 2am.

The next day was Bangkok sightseeing day.
We headed to the river, via sky train. After getting off at the correct station we wondered up a road and then caught a bus to find China Town. We found a lovely colourful Chinese temple. Everything there is very bright. I was wondering how it stays that way, as everything in SA fades in the sun. Either the sun is not as harsh there, or they have better paint, or they touch up often...

We went past funny quaint shops. A chemist, followed by a greasy engine repair shop, followed by a Chinese food shop, with whole roast ducks - head and all, hanging up. This section did stink as the drains were being cleared and there were piles of back sludge lying down the length of the road. Still people sat and ate right next to them!
We kept walking till we decided we'd seen enough of china town and odd types of food, and ventured on to find the river. We had got slightly disoriented, so asked a local where the river was. Non compredo. After several tries the penny dropped, and he exclaimed ' oh, the LIVER'. After which we were given the correct directions.
The R thing is a real problem there. They actually don't understand if you as for rice either, you need to say LICE.
We even saw a printed sign advertising 'Liver Rafting'.

Once we found the river we boarded a river taxi and headed up to Wat Arun.
Wat Arun is a big temple on the riverbanks of the Chao Praya River. The scale and detail is absolutely amazing. The original temple was built in the old cemented style, and King Rama III had the temple decorated with porcelain. There are whole plates and shaped ceramic pieces following detailed patterns repeating probably thousands of times over the thing. It's incredible to see.

After Wat Arun we crossed the River and walked on to Wat Pho, ignoring the Tuk-tuk drivers who tired their best to tell us it was closed, and we should rather go to the special 'Lucky Buddha’, which is open 'today only'. Wat Pho was of course open, and FYI there is no temple of the Lucky Buddha. Incidentally if you are caught by these people it seems that all that happens is you waste a lot of time being taken to shops, tailors and jewellers where you are enticed into buying things you didn't want for more than you wanted to pay. They work in groups so you can get one guys story substantiated by the next until you believe them, but they are just con artists.

“Wat Pho covers 20 acres, and includes the famous Reclining Buddha. "The highly impressive gold plated reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, and is designed to illustrate the passing of the Buddha into nirvana. The feet and the eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, and the feet also show the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha. "

We spent a lot of time wondering in this extensive temple compound, and apart from the reclining Buddha which I found very awe inspiring, I loved all the cement figurines scattered around the gardens, and took lots of photos of these.

By the time we had finished there, we realised it was already nearly 5pm, and we had missed the Grand Palace! We were quite 'templed out' by then though, and it's only now that I feel quite a bit of disappointment about it. I shall have to go back :)

Instead we walked to a nearby large field near the Victory monument and watched a kite festival. Many Thai families had come out to buy and fly kites in the sunset. Very pretty. We bought a small kite for each of the boys there.

Then after hearing so much about Kao San Road, and realising we were pretty close we made our way there.
For a road that is SO notorious, it is really hard to find, and not very impressive.
I think everyone who goes to Bangkok has heard of it, it's the first street mentioned when asking about accommodation in Bangkok. It's considered a back-packer's Mecca.
It's also offered referred to as the 'gateway to SE Asia', and every single taxi driver in Bangkok reportedly knows where it is. Incidentally it is also where Leonardo De Caprio's character was staying in 'The Beach' while he was in Bangkok. A lot of people are very disparaging about it now, claiming that it's a hippie hangout and where drop-outs loiter, not daring to try anything else, and then claiming to have 'done Bangkok'. It's also apparently a place where hair braiding, cheap trinkets, tattooing, fake IDS and degrees and general knock-off good are a dime a dozen. So good or bad I wanted to SEE it.

As mentioned it's damn hard to find. In fact we only found it by spotting and following several sets of 'Farangs' (What Thai's call westerners -we speculate it's from the word foreign) walking to and from that area. Amazingly the street is only some 200 m long. But that 200m is filled with pure energy. It bustles with VIBE.
It's like a carnival. People are eating, drinking, getting their hair braided, dread locked, hair extensions, henna tattoos, buying cheap clothes, cds, DVS, you name it, and DRINKING. There was a greater concentration of 'farangs' here than anywhere else, and I actually didn't like it that much. Yes it's fun, but I agree with the critics who say it's not really Thailand. But hey it is what it is, and we took it as such.

I found and bought a lovely blue skirt and top set, both for Bt300 (R50). I had previously seen the same stuff at a flea market in SA for R90 for each. We sat and drank beer at a pavement cafe and watched the activity on the street. On leaving, we again wanted to try a tuk-tuk, but here too they were disproportionately expensive, and one claimed the cost was 50USD! Chancers. Fortuitously we bumped into a seasoned kiwi tourist who knew how to 'tune' them, so we soon found ourselves sharing an air-conditioned taxi for a fraction of the original price, ending another adventure filled day.

Next: Chatuchuk week-end market and Ayutthaya

Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 3 – The Mega-city of Bangkok

After 2 nights in Phuket we packed a small bag and headed back to Phuket airport to see Bangkok!
Our original idea had been to catch a bus to Bangkok, but after finding out that while cheap, this takes some 15 hours each way, we quickly abandoned that idea. Instead, I searched the Internet and found a new no-frills airline called Air Asia, and managed to get 2 return flights for less than the price of one on any of the other airlines I had checked out. Bargain!

It was exciting looking out of the plane window and seeing the interior of Thailand, a country which I was already feeling very fond of. We saw farm lands and rice paddies stretching way into the horizon, all very green and with no shortage of water around. On approaching Bangkok the view changed to urban sprawl, with roads and buildings emanating everywhere. The city is huge, and has an estimated population of around 8 Million at the moment. The Chao Praya River is wide and lazily winds it's way through the centre of the city and onwards to the nearby sea in the Gulf of Thailand. For some reason I was very excited to be in Bangkok - I think the city radiates energy. People in Phuket had incredulously asked us why we were bothering to go to Bangkok. I think it's similar to the Cape Town - Johannesburg debate. Some people just love a vibrant busy city. I was certainly keen to at least see it, even if we ended up not liking it much...

I had researched a lot on the internet before our trip, and had learned a few Thai phrases, and even put together a booklet of common phrases, listing words in English, phonetic Thai, and actual Thai font. So I could attempt to say a few words, and if necessary point them out to locals to get understood. The Thai language is difficult for English speaking people to master, as it is very tonal. The same word can be said 5 different ways, and have 5 distinct different meanings! So you really have to be careful. The tones are: low, middle high, rising and falling. Luckily the Internet has some good interactive sites where you can play recordings of some common words to get an idea of how it all works. The written language is just so very different to our own that without committing to learning it, I think it's impossible for us to even vaguely understand. It's largely based on squarish symbols, with various embellishments around them.

I had been expecting a language barrier from the start, but up to that point in the trip and managed to get by easily, with most people in Phuket speaking reasonable English. However this wasn't the case in Bangkok, where it is not uncommon at all for people to have little to no understanding of English at all. Luckily in my trip preparation I had a print out in Thai and English of exactly how to find our hostel accommodation, and detailed instructions for either taxi or bus routes. We opted for the bus, and soon enough Airport bus 2 arrived and we climbed aboard. We sat and watched in fascination was we headed through the city. We passed building after building, and were struck by the dichotomy between large buildings and skyscrapers and the multitude of interspersed shanty dwellings. It makes the place very colourful and real. The shanties are generally quite higgledy-piggledy, but have such character and charm.

The building architecture in SE Asia is spectacular, as a lot of attention to detail seems to be given to shape and form. Buildings are never just plain monoliths, and while they are often large spectacular, they all seem to have an overriding sense of style and elegance. Everything is finished off with nice lines, which are pleasing to the eye. A range of very varying styles are used, so it's difficult to convey, sometimes a stylised Chinese roof line will be used, sometimes a simple taper, the overall result is beautiful harmony.

Our bus deposited us on Sukumvit Road, under the Sky Train's 'Nana' Station.
We were slightly overwhelmed by the magnitude of Bangkok, but with notes in hand we walked the 2 blocks or so and found our oasis, behind a 7Eleven off Soi 11, a little place called Suk 11. Suk 11 is possibly the most charming and character place I have ever stayed in. It is styled on the old shanty buildings, which we had found so endearing on our ride through the city, and is quite vast and ambling. It's big and has grown organically to overtake most of the small crescent road it nestles in. It occupies the 3 top floors of the building lining the crescent, and the walls, which used to separated the separate apartments have been roughly knocked through to create a quaint passageway along the entire building. This style is often emulated in modern designer studio buildings, but this is the original concept! There are little hidden wonders all over and the place is decorated again organically. On venturing upstairs we found an exquisite roof garden, which looked like a 'Garden & Home', or Top Billing shoot location.

The amazing thing is that a double en-suite room, with breakfast only cost Bt600 (for both of us). That's R100!
The entire place operates on a trust basis. You get 2 bottles of drinking water per day, included in the price, plus you get coffee etc with breakfast. There is a fridge with water, soft drinks, beers etc, as well as post card racks, sarongs, shirts etc for sale. If you want any of these things you simply take them, and put money in a moneybox. It would be nice if we could instil that same sense here in SA.

It's amazing that the money and all the goods are just left there, and yet everyone seems to abide by the system and respects it. We found lots of situations like that, where a street vendor will go off for lunch and leave his stall unattended, or at night just cover it with a cloth, and I think it's attributable to the Buddhist culture, and karma. There doesn't seem to be any theft. Well actually apparently there is some in the tourist markets and there are pickpockets operating there. But in our experience Thailand is very big on scams and cons, and price inflating, but not on theft. So a street vendor will attempt to get you to pay an inflated price, but at the end of the day you hand your own money over willingly, they would not steal it from you, and I think there's a marked difference, and the result is that you feel much much safer there, and not physically threatened.

Many people there are after a quick buck, but they'll get it by gaining commission from somebody by convincing you to use a service, or by getting you to sponsor the 'restoration of a temple'. Or negotiating a service with you, and then selling you to someone else at a cheaper cost - this seems to happen a lot with the taxis. I think they have worked out that if they can speak a bit of English, they can get by quite easily just be being shrewd and a bit deceptive. The rule of thumb is don't trust anyone who is overtly friendly with no due cause, or without being asked is suddenly wanting to be really helpful, or tries to tell you the temple you want to see is closed, and they know a better one which is open today only!

Shortly after arriving we decided to sample some street vendor fare. We were off the main roads, and chose the closest one that smelled nice (which was how we ended up selecting nearly all our food). However there was no menu or price in English. We attempted to speak to the lady manning the cart. She clearly had no clue what we were saying. Out came my little book - which still wasn't helping. At this point Richard still wanted to CHOOSE what he wanted to eat. We had to change tactics, as now suddenly here we were in Bangkok, and feeling slightly out of our depth. We crossed the street, where a young smartly dressed girl was ordering food. On enquiry we found that she speaks a few English words, so we asked her to order the same as what she was having for us. This was done. We got our plate of Thai noodles (pad Thai) and pork and perched at the table - which they place literally right on the side of the road. We avoided the water, which the local were scooping out of a bucket and drinking, didn't look very clean at all! The food was delicious, but the car fumes not so much!

I must say I was under the impression that Bangkok would be:
1) Huge beyond belief - it is, but it's easy to get around, so that's not a big problem.
2) Stinky - some people claim there's a stench all over Bangkok, yes there's some drain smell in places, and yes there are lots of intermingled food and garbage smells, but mostly nothing you haven't smelled before though.
3) That the food would make us sick - we were not sick even once, and we ate or drank pretty much anything.
4) The Asian Toilets with hand showers would be a problem, and that there's no toilet paper. I only had to use Asian toilets 2-3 times (thank-you yoga for giving me strong thighs!). But I've had to use them 2-3 times in SA too. Plus there was toilet paper everywhere, and where there wasn't you could buy it outside.
5) Hotter than we could bear. Yes it's HOT. It was 35-43 degrees everyday. But hey we have had temps in the 40s here, and there's far more air-conditioning there. 7Eeleven was one of my favourite shops!
6) That the Traffic jams are endless and continual - I didn't see very much traffic at all. But maybe that's because we were there over the weekend.
7) That we'd see elephants walking in the streets - didn't see one in Bangkok, only Phuket
8) That the pavements are notoriously uneven and walking on them is a nightmare - didn't seem any worse than the pavements back home.
9) That you can't touch tap water anywhere, ever - you can get cheap bottled water for less than R1 and were eventually brushing our teeth using tap water anyway
10) Dirty and polluted - yes in places, but no more so than any other city, and in fact cleaner than some I have seen
11) That no one speaks English - partially true, but if in doubt go into a shop and someone will understand you, and they have 'tourist police' now as well who can help.

So while it does have some aspects of all of those, nothing was that bad, and we found we managed just fine. Perhaps is just the Americans who are xenophobic and can't handle anything slightly different and/or that we have such a diverse and extreme upbringing here in Sa that we can easily adapt to anything, and nothing is THAT different to what we have seen before? I don't know, but while we found it all exciting and stimulating, it was by no means overwhelming or too intimidating.

So we were in Bangkok on Friday night, and the first thing on our list (well the first thing on Richard's list) was to see a Girly-show, aka Sex show, and the place to do that is Patpong Street. So we headed for the Sky train station, quickly figured out where to go and headed off. The Sky train is great. Fast, clean and quite cheap. I am sure Bangkok was far more daunting to traverse before this was built.

Monday, 26 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 2 - Phuket the Pearl of the South

Phuket is technically an island of the South West of Thailand. It's joined to the mainland by a bridge though, and it's pretty big, so it doesn't really feel like an island.

We were met at the airport by a mini-bus and a tour guide to transfer us to the hotel, so no taxi haggling was needed. We were staying at the 4-star Andaman Seaview Hotel at Karon Beach. Phuket turned out to be bigger than I expected and the journey from the airport is over an hour long. It was dark already when we arrived so we didn't see very much scenery.

On arrival at the hotel we were given a warmed hand towel to freshen up with and a glass of cool and sweet green tea, which I thought was very refreshing. We were made to feel like welcomed royalty. We were then escorted to our room, which was on the top floor in a prime position overlooking the pool area and out to the sea.

What lovely is that staff in Thailand are very friendly and helpful, but do not (generally) expect to be tipped. They treat you well as part of their jobs, rather than to get money out of you, and it certainly makes a big difference, and everyone behaves very professionally and courteously.

The room was complete with fluffy bathrobes, and slippers, a full mini-bar (but very expensive), satellite TV, hairdryer, safe, and a bathroom with shutters opening onto the bedroom etc. All very lovely.

We went walking around our new beach town and found 2 elephants on display almost immediately. Not sure what they were doing there, as we didn't see them again, but there are elephants all over Thailand, and there is an Elephant trekking spot just a few Km away from there. I think they were being shown off at the Dino Bar that night. They walked off down the road with their owner/trainer a few minutes later.

Everything about Karon is beautiful and lively, but at the same time tranquil. The hotels are lovely and very tastefully and stylishly designed, and remain understated rather than gaudy. The little Buddhist temples all over (almost like bird feeders) are also beautiful, and are decorated with fresh fragrant flower garlands daily and small food offerings, which the birds seems to think are for them, so they actually do become bird feeders.

The local town folk stay up well into the night and parents and children alike man the shops and stalls till at least 12am (later during peak season). If the children are tired they simply curl up and go to sleep where they are, but the family seems to stay together all the time and the children are very well behaved and quietly play and converse rather that demanding attention as ours seem to do constantly.

The shops run as follows: massage parlour, laundry, travel agent, tailor, curio shop, clothing shop, convenience store, pub, motor bike hire, internet cafe, back to, massage parlour etc etc on and on. Some shops are combinations of a few services. There are dozens and dozens of each and then clusters of restaurants and hotels. There are also a several tattoo parlours, who provide real and henna tattoos and piecing etc. And some artists who make amazing and life like pictures from photos and near perfect reproductions of classics.

It's hard to decide which shop chose because there are so many people offering the same services, all with a friendly, encouraging person manning the shop door/stall hoping you'll purchase something from them. We quickly learned the smile, hand up, 'No thank-you' and walk on routine. If insistent resorting to 'Mai ow ka'. Meaning 'I don't want any.' in Thai. See I did my homework before hand!

That first night Richard settled on a little cluster of beer garden style pubs to relax in with a beer, while I decided a foot massage was more to my liking. So off I set for an hour of pure bliss. Sitting in a reclining lazy-boy being skilfully de-stressed and pampered for a full hour at 11:30pm for only R34! Heaven.

We woke the next morning and went down to our first 'American breakfast'. I was still unsure what that implied and was very pleasantly surprised to find that far from the coffee and toast I half expected it meant anything anyone on the face of the planet might ever consider eating at breakfast time. It was a huge buffet of exotic fruits and fruit salad, cereals, yoghurts, 6 juices, cold meats, cheeses, egg 'any way you want', bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, breads, muffins, Danishes, croissants, tea, coffee. That's just the normal stuff then there's: Boiled rice, stir fried noodles, Thai style steak/or chicken, black pickled eggs, fried rice, etc. The minute bananas were my favourite, little cocktail sized bananas the size of chipolata sausages.

We discovered that we were staying on a perfect pristine beach, where the sand is so soft and clean it actually squeaks under your feet. It sounds weird, and apparently has something to do with the silicone content. The sea temperature, in the 30s for sure! I wish Cape Town sea felt like that!

We were met at our hotel by our air-port transfer agent, as she was giving us a free tour of the island. I think she does it as a free service, but then gets commission if you spend money anywhere she has taken you. We were wise to all the tricks though, and she was very nice and seemed quite genuine so we didn't have any bad experiences.

We first went to the Elephant trekking site. Being fairly used to African elephants the Asian ones are not that new or different, so we decided not to spend to much time there, so didn't ride on them. Instead I bought a basket of bananas and fed them –which was quite fun.

We then went to Wat Chalong (a big Buddhist temple compound). This was or first temple and I was enthralled. It's quite new, but very ornate and the attention to detail is often breathtaking. we also saw our first Buddhist monks there, which thrilled me as I find them very inspirational. They are so calm and collected and 'enlightened' for want of a better word. I was careful to keep out of their way though as monks never talk, interact or deal directly with women at all. So although I wanted to get photos of them I tried to stay respectful and kept my distance.

We then got taken to one of the 'Duty Free' shops, full of stunning jewellery, but again we weren't taken by it, and though it was gorgeous stuff and at good prices, it was just not on our budget. There are also too many stories of 'gem scams' in Thailand, so we didn't bother.

After that we went to a t-shirt shop, where we got a few souvenir t-shirts and then on to Patong beach, the main tourist Mecca of Phuket. It's a busy bustling beach town, albeit a bit run down and dirty. Not quite as pristine and stunning as Karon, but certainly more of a party town. It is also known for the infamous 'katoeys' or lady-men.

The katoeys range from quite stunning to rather masculine and aggressive. We found then fairly easy to spot as most have the give-away protruding Adams apple. They dress and act very seductively, and can come across as a bit scary I thought. We were warned that the modus operandi of some of them is to get you alone, after which they take out a knife and mug you, so we steered clear for the most part. We reckoned they probably go unchecked for the most part, because who is going to report to being mugged by a lady, who actually turned out to be a man, when they are married in any case! A bit of a pickle.

The sex trade there is quite amazing. It's very prolific and out in the open, but I think it's largely more holistic than here, and dare I say is healthier in a sense. Because the girls make themselves available as companions and accompany the fellow while he enjoys his holiday. Enjoying meals, swimming in the sea, island cruises, sight seeing, cocktails etc with him, and I am sure he gets whatever he wants in return. I am not sure if, or how much, money changes hands though. I do know that often the women claim to be poor and wanting to go to university and 'fall in love' with the guy, and really work their magic on him, managing to fleece him of half his life savings to 'better her life etc', and promising undying love to him. She of course moves on as soon as he has to go home. Apparently some of these guys return late, but either never find their great love again, or just fall deeper into her money grabbing deception. Sad and pathetic I think. Another thing you see is big, fat, ugly, hairy, sunburned men (normally Brits) with gorgeous little Thai girls (about the size of the 13 year old SA girl). Men, who would probably never even get a date in their home country, can pick and chose between little Thai beauties.

At one restaurant bungalow we went to one night we realised that out of the 8 occupied tables we were the only 'normal couple', all the other tables were western guy - Thai girl couples. So it's very prolific.

At Patong beach you can get henna tattooed or get a massage right on the beach. There are also hundreds of tuk-tuk taxis vying for business. But oddly the tuk-tuks are really expensive, in fact the only really expensive thing in Thailand and they refuse to bargain. They have a set price and they remain largely empty. You can actually bargain a little with a car taxi, so you can get a comfortable air-conditioned car, and pay less than for a bumpy tuk-tuk ride. There's simply no logic to it...?

While the actual beach at Patong is nicer and sportier, we felt it was a bit crowded and spoiled, and with the jet skis and speedboats around the water was emanating a distinct diesel smell. Detracts a bit from the idyllic image. All in all we found Patong interesting, and might have been a good nightlife spot, but we were glad we weren't staying there. In fact we decided we couldn't think of anyway to improve our spot, which was just perfect for us.

We had walked and walked so much by then that my blisters were starting to get blisters. So I quickly found a sandal shop, and I luckily found some simple leather sandals that miraculously fit comfortably *and* avoided all my blistered areas. I simply had to buy them, and pretty much lived in them for the rest of the trip. Richard got a size 11 pair of 'Diesel' slip-slips too. Both cost R120. I would have paid much more though :) We were getting quite good at the bargaining thing too.
About half the locals speak a little English, but every single vendor has a calculator so you simply bargain by putting a price on the calculator. They laugh at you and then put their price in. This goes on until you agree to a price somewhere in the middle - or you walk away when the price can suddenly drop by magnitudes!
Depending on how ridiculous their starting price is you can get 40-80% off their original price with a bit off effort. I found that shopping around a bit allowed you to get an indication of how much things should cost, and then you decide what you are prepared to pay, and go with that.

We found you can bargain all bought goods and services except, food, massages or tuk-tuks, and taxi's only allow slight bargaining, and there are some fixed price shops. So if items are properly price tagged, than that's the price. But at all the stalls they look at you, suss up how much money they think you have and how gullible you are and how much they think you want something, and you get your very own personalities inflated price *LOL*.

Examples of general prices to expect (converted):
Can of coke R2.15
Plate of Thai style fried noodles and chicken R4 - R8 - from street vendors/bungalows.
Beer in a pub R8 - 12
Beer at 7Eleven R5.8
T-Shirt R16 - R30
Sarong R16 - 25
Men's T-shirt R20 -R35
Full day trip to an island (by speedboat with lunch, snorkelling, and hotel transfers) R270
Coconut cooler cocktail served in the pool at the pool bar R16
125cc motorbike hire for 24hrs R25
Tuk-tuk ride from one beach to another R50! <--- See what I mean?

It's actually amazingly affordable once you are there.

Saturday, 24 April 2004

Amazing Thailand Holiday - Part 1

Part 1 – Cape Town - Kuala Lumpur

Richard and I recently turned 30 and 40 respectively (on April 30th) and decided to celebrate this with a trip to Thailand, which is a place we'd always wanted to go. We decided to make the trip alone, as we'd never had a proper holiday together before, and the children aren't really old enough for the sort of trip we were planning (in lots of ways) ;) So they stayed home with their nanny Tiny, and we had had schedules and shifts of friends and family on stand-by. In fact planning the children's holiday took far more work and effort than ours, and once I'd planned that I REALLY needed a holiday!

So on the morning of April 19th we set off for Cape Town international airport, where we bid our friends, and children good-bye for 2 full weeks. However The first thing I did after going through to the 'international passengers only' side, was go into the book shop to buy a postcard for the kids! In fact while selecting the card I was called by name to please go to the gate for boarding 'immediately'. We posted it at JHB airport where we stopped for an hour, so it could reach them quickly.

We flew Air Malaysia, and I enjoyed it. The plane was comfortable (ok I am not 6'3", Richard wasn't actually that comfortable) and the air hostesses were all pretty, friendly and helpful. Each seat has it's own TV, and we could chose between several movies, TV sitcoms, PC and Play station games, In flight trivia challenge, music stations and a GPS system which showed the route, progress, altitude, temperature and relatives times throughout the trip, which was very interesting. The food was also very nice, and varied. In fact the flight went by so quickly with all the entertainment that I didn't even get a chance to read my magazine. Can you tell I don't fly a lot? The last time I was on an international flight I was 12!

We arrived at Kuala Lumpur international at 5:30 the next morning, where we were going to spend a night. KL airport is big and slick. After following people around for a short while we figured out that you have to catch an express train to another terminal to collect our luggage and go through customs and immigration. The express train was fully automated with a firm but polite female voice recording telling you what to do. We found the female Moslem ground staff to be very serious and quiet and not at all friendly - but it was before 6am, so maybe they were just tired...

After emerging through customs unscathed (even though Malaysia is very strict and has loads of rules i.e. No chewing gum, no spitting, no jay walking, no public affection, no littering etc, and drug trafficking has a mandatory death penalty), we made our way towards the various transport. A thousand taxi drivers and touts approached us. But we remained firm about wanting to catch the airport express train to town, as recommended by our hotel. However one gentleman convinced us that we should let him drive us in his taxi as he'd charge us the same price as the express train, but get us there quicker and take us right to our hotel doorway. We finally, reluctantly and with due skepticism, conceded and started following him into the still dark Kuala Lumpur morning. Where the thick hot and humid air hit us, it must have been at around 30 degrees Celsius already!

We stood on the pavement and he said 'wait here'. He then make a cell phone call and started walking away into the still darkened morning. As we saw him start running and go around the side of the parking building we decided he certainly didn't seem to be a legitimate taxi driver. We thought that at best he was chancing his luck posing as a taxi with his private car and at worst would possibly abduct us or mug us, or drive off with our bags, or who knows what...? We quickly agreed we didn't like the feeling we were getting about the situation, and rather than risk a bad experience right at the start of our holiday, we went straight back into the airport building and disappeared into the crowd. We soon found the airport express train and caught it into KL central, it is a quick, quiet and a smooth journey. About an hour long and we had a lovely view of the sunrise on the way.

The countryside from the airport is covered in Palm tree plantations, which harvest palm oil, one of their main produce items. By about 7am and another train ride later we had found our hotel, 'The Heritage Station Hotel' which is right on what was once the main city train station. It's huge and I'm sure it was spectacular and majestic once - perhaps 50 years ago. Now it's rather run down and dingy! We had opted for a budget room, and that's just what we got. But there was a clean bed, and aircon and that's all we needed. The fact that we didn't really have a window and the entire bathroom floor operated as the drain were beside the point.

KL has 4 different train companies operating 4 different lines, so you often need to use more than one line to get somewhere and have to get 2 tickets and pay separate fares for each leg of the journey - a bit confusing.

After a quick shower we hit the streets to discover what Kuala Lumpur was all about. It was probably about 8:30am. We found nothing but closed shops and markets and very few people. It was already well over 35 degrees. We walked all over and didn't find much of anything except dirty and smelly streets. Having not slept the entire day before and with the heat it felt like we were in a ghost town. All the food we saw was weird looking and strange smelling, and worse most food vendors seemed to have positioned themselves next to stinking drains. Needless to say we were not at all hungry!

We discovered that no one wakes up early there and most shops and markets only get going at around 10-11am. So we kept walking and watched as the city

By the afternoon things were buzzing along and we managed to explore some markets and bustling streets. We ventured into the Jelan Petaling Street China town market where we saw fish, chicken, meats and vegetables of all shapes and forms.

There were live chickens, dead chickens, plucked chickens, de-skinned chickens, cut up chickens and strangest of all BLACK chickens. We asked the vendor what they were and he jokingly said ' those are African chickens'. We told him we were from Africa and had never seen anything like it. Apparently these things have white feathers but their skin and meat is a dark grey/black colour. Not very appetising at all...

In the early evening we caught 2 trains and made our way to the landmark Petronas towers. Which are very spectacular. Richard who loves asking for directions asked someone where the Petronas towers were, when we were standing right under them! An easy mistake I suppose... but really we hadn't looked up yet ;)

Anyway we did the obligatory photos in front of them and then hit the shopping centre, which is between the 2 towers. It's a FABULOUS centre. Much like Cavendish/Sandton etc. Though obviously rather pricey and with all the designer brands well represented. It was just great to be out of the heat and in an air-conditioned environment, and in civilisation. We window shopped a fair amount, and then found a grocery store, and the first food that looked really edible and safe all day. I was determined not to eat anything too ordinary though so I got Malay spicy rice and beef dish served on a banana leaf from the cooked food deli section, while Richard decided a regular Cadburys chocolate was all he was ready for. The food selection in the shop were really diverse and interesting, and just the number of varied beverages you can buy in a can are amazing! I am still trying to figure out what 'yoghurt flavoured water' is though, as it sounds quite vile to me...

After our small dinner we went out the other side of the centre as night was falling and found some beautiful fountains. The nightlife was starting up and all the city lights were lit and looking beautiful. We were starting to really settle in and get to grips with the many wonders and differences of South East Asia.

We sat in the warm evening heat and watched dark clouds forming, with some thunder rumbling and then huge drops started falling, which soon became a proper thunderstorm. So we headed back into the centre for some more window-shopping. We found an Italian Ice-cream parlour, and after the heat and not much other food all day I chose a delicious Pistachio nut ice cream. Very yummy!

After the brief downpour we ventured further a field and walked around the neighbourhood. We found lots of bars and restaurants etc. After walking for quite sometime we decided to have a drink and rest at a roadside pub. This was staffed by Chinese looking girls, as opposed to the reserved and formal Moslem girls seen in the rest of the shops. These Chinese girls were overtly friendly, and seemed to be offering more than just drinks. Which I am sure they were! We ordered a beer, after thinking the bar lady had said it costs 1.40 Malaysian Ringitts. (About R3), considering a coke costs Rm1, we thought that was pretty reasonable. Luckily we only ordered 1 initially. Since it actually cost Rm14 (nearly R30!). We decided one was enough and nursed it for a while.

We were exhausted after that and very ready for some rest. We figured out how to get back to our hotel directly, without retracing our steps, and using only 1 train and a short walk, with a detour through the Chinese market to see it at night. It was much more vibrant and colourful, and quite a contrast from our first impression in the 'early' morning. After that we tumbled into bed and only woke up at 11:30am completely missing breakfast.

We hit the streets looking for something to eat but were still finding the food near our hotel a bit dodgy looking and smelly. Eventually we settled on a good old McDonalds coffee and I found some Malaysian Style croissants at one of the uncommon bakery shops. Everything there is different! We were still wary of stomach ailments and weren't yet ready to really dive into more authentic South East Asian cuisine.

We then found a 6-storey indoor flea market with everything you can imagine and spent a few hours there just looking at everything, and then went back to China Town to get a last look.

Sadly our time in KL was over, just as we started adapting and we had to go back to the hotel to leave for the airport. We were met by a friendly (and real) taxi driver, who took us from our hotel doorstep to the airport for the same price at the express train, but with lots of intelligent and interesting conversation on the way. He told us our previous 'taxi driver' was most likely after a quick buck, and no harm would have befallen us... we are still not sure about that.

Once back at KLIA we boarded our plane for Thailand - the Land of Smiles.