Sunday, June 27, 2010

Animals Grooming

Here is an entertaining pair of photos I forgot to post earlier. Took these in Songklha, near Hat Yai in southern Thailand. It's a pity I couldn't get them all in one photo - they were no more than ten feet apart!

I like how the cat seems to be the only one happy to groom itself.


Yesterday I felt well enough to travel so left the island of Tao to Chumphon, just an hour and a half by boat. From Chumphon I was intending to go to the train station and catch the 12.46pm train to Bangkok but there were buses at the dock going to Bangkok so it was easier to get on of them. The bus trip was a fairly comfortable seven hour journey. Most of the other passengers were western tourists who all probably had a better time on Tao than I did.

I spent the day today looking at wats in Bangkok - Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and Wat Pho. A tuk-tuk driver took me on a tour for a very cheap price. I think the idea was that I was supposed to buy things at shops he took me to in between wats, but there was no pressure and I thought it a worthwhile service rather than a scam.

A reclining buddha statue in Wat Pho. Those are his toes nearest the camera.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dengue fever

I was still unwell yesterday so went to the doctor who took some blood for tests. The results came through this morning and the diagnosis is that I have Dengue Fever, a disease spread by mosquitos and the symptoms of which in my case are muscle and joint pain, fever, fatigue, and headaches. It's present in most of South East Asia but especially in the islands of Thailand and especially in the months of March to July. My bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (though I may have got the mossie bite before I arrived in the islands). There's no treatment for it, just rest and paracetemol.

My main worry is that my Thai visa runs out at the end of the month. Unlike arrivals by air who get 30-day visas, arrivals by land only get 15 days. So once I'm feeling well I'll have to rush to the border to cross over to Cambodia.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Still on Tao

I'm still on the island of Tao because I've fallen ill. The first day I was here I felt achy all over but thought nothing of it. The following day, yesterday, the achiness all over was worse and I was completely drained of energy. I could barely get up off the bed and when I did was very feeble. Feeling a lot better today though so will probably stay another day or so to get fully better. I think it's just fatigue perhaps combined with catching a flu-like bug rather than anything more serious like malaria or dengue.

Being alone and ill in a foreign country is pretty miserable but I'm in a good place to recuperate: a hut by the beach, weather is not too hot, food nearby, and there are no mosquitoes. I've been able to read books and watch films on my laptop.

In my most delirious state I had some crazy dreams and here is the best one. My girlfriend and I are in New York and are going to an opera. A grey-haired Liza Minnelli is there and my girlfriend knows her and is going to introduce me later. I've brought a cat from my childhood, Polly, with me. As the opera starts Polly jumps off my lap and runs under the front row of the seats making a noise. The opera is stopped while I try to get Polly out. I'm so embarrassed that once I get the cat out I'm going to just go home but then I think about putting Polly in the car and coming back to watch the opera and meet Liza. Then I woke up.

Interpretations please.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ko Tao

I'm sitting on the beach on Ko Tao writing this. The day before yesterday I caught the train from Hat Yai and got off at Surat Thani, spent one night there and then got on a boat to the island of Samui to have a look at some of the popular islands in the Gulf of Thailand. I ended up in a very quiet area of Samui, away from other tourists and it was great. I didn't do much except swim in the pool at the resort where I stayed, which I had all to myself. There was a zoo nearby with animals in cages that were much too small and I thought about releasing them during the night.

Here on Tao I went to one of the closest places to stay and have ended up at a backpackers with lost of obnoxious young British people. I'll see if I can get away from them. Will stay here one night, then catch a boat either to Chumphon to board the train to Bangkok or see if I can get a boat direct to Bangkok.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hat Yai

Made it across the border and through the deep south okay and am now in the relatively safe province of Songkhla. Crossing the border was easy. There were plenty of vehicles going through and only a few people on foot like me. I got my passport stamped in one building for leaving Malaysia, crossed over a bridge that seems to mark the border, and got my passport stamped in another building to enter Thailand.

I walked to the train station and only had to wait an hour for one that was heading north. There were soldiers with guns patrolling the station and the train but it felt pretty safe - none of the locals seemed at all worried. I think lonely planet have overstated the danger in this case.

Tomorrow I'll visit a nearby beach and then the day after that I'll continue my journey north towards Bangkok.

Postscript: the 'nearby beach' was Songkhla where I got some entertaining photos:

Last Day in Malaysia

Tomorrow morning I’m going to cross the border into Thailand. This involves catching a bus from Kota Bharu, where I am now, to the border town of Rantau Panjang and walking across the border to the town on the Thai side, Sungai Golok.

I’ve only just discovered that the southern regions of Thailand are a little dangerous due to some militant Muslim separatists who occasionally bomb places and the police who are responding heavy-handedly. Crossing the border where I intend to will take me into these areas. I thought about traveling over to the west coast of the peninsular and crossing there where it is not dangerous but I’ve decided to go ahead here. After doing some research, it sounds as though its safe enough. There are travel warnings but then there were about Bali as well and that was fine. I’m going to reduce the risk by getting on a train in Sungai Golok and going straight through the three riskiest provinces ofNarathiwat, Yala, and Pattani without stopping until I reach the safety of the city of Hat Yai in Songkhla. Any points of interest in those three areas will have to wait for another time I’m in the region.

My lonely planet guidebooks have served me pretty well up to this point, although sometimes with vague or inaccurate information, but this time they’ve been really annoying. I have the Malaysia book and it has the information about how to cross the border from Kota Bharu, but don’t mention anything about troubles in southern Thailand. It was only when I read the Thailand book that I discovered the dangers in the southern parts. Perhaps lonely planet should say this in their Malaysian guidebook when describing the border-crossing at Kota Bharu.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kota Bharu

I spent yesterday on the jungle line railway from Jerantut to Kota Bharu. It felt better looking at the beautiful dense jungle from behind a moving window than it felt trekking through it.

Arrived late last night and had to settle for a fleapit to sleep in. Cockroaches on the windowsill next to the bed! Actually I slept really well but still left to find a better hotel. I tried ten places before I found somewhere that wasn't full, apparently due to school holidays but I suspect some anti-westerner sentiment (all those kids wanting hotels?).

It hasn't escaped me that today is the start of The Most Important Event In The Universe. Malaysians are fanatic about football and World Cup merchandise and places to watch it are everywhere. I love football too so I'm going to enjoy traveling through soccer-mad Asia watching it with everyone. Every four years I tell myself it's just a game and that national teams are not as good as clubs so it shouldn't be taken seriously, but I always find myself getting excited and watching almost every game. Spain are the favourites with Brazil and Argentina also favoured. I always hope England will win but can't see it happening. They seem more disorganised than last time. With some luck, New Zealand might make it through the group stage. I'll be watching the opening match between South Africa and Mexico tonight at 10pm at a local cafe with a big screen TV.

A cafe in Kota Bharu that I didn't go to.

The reception counter at Hotel Anda where I'm staying.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jungle Trek

Entry point to Taman Negara National Park

I went on a two day jungle trek yesterday and the day before, sleeping the night in a cave. I got to Taman Negara by boat (really just a big canoe) and for the trek we went further upstream by boat and then walked back towards the park headquarters. It was pretty hard going. The jungle is steamy and I was dripping with sweat within minutes of walking and remained wet for the rest of the day and the next. I was with four Germans and we were lead by two local guides. We didn't see any animals on the trek which was disappointing but I had read that it was unlikely. The cave was amazing. It was huge with many stalactites. Deeper in were many bats and we saw a giant frog. During the night some kind of wild cat came sniffing around the camp. I awoke with a start to see it standing close by where I was sleeping.

The next day we continued walking and I was really struggling. The guide set a cracking pace, ridiculously fast really, it was no wonder we didn't see much. Plus I have to get better footwear. We stopped to bathe in a shallow stream which was great. And we also stopped at a local Asri (the name of the indigenous people here) village. The people were very shy but I entertained the children making drawings in the sand.

Even though the pace of the trek was tiring, tackling the jungle itself was not too difficult. There was a trail though certainly not a well-trodden one. I grew up from the ages of 0-12 spending much time in the bush in Birkdale in Auckland and nothing in the jungle was more difficult than what I remember from my youth: logs to climb over, streams to cross, and so on. There were no leeches in Birkdale though! I removed about a dozen from me over the two days.

Now I'm back at the main settlement, recovering for a day. I'll take another walk this afternoon but it is a short one along a tree canopy walkway.

I don't have any photos because my camera stopped working but hopefully the Germans are going to email me some of theirs.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I'm about to leave Melaka and head into the jungle of Taman Negara National Park for a few days. First I get a bus to a place called Jerantut from where I can get to the park. Then afterwards, I go back to Jerantut and get on the 'jungle line' railway heading north. I'll end up near Khota Bharu in the north east corner of Malaysia where its possible to cross the border into Thailand.

I've decided to go to Thailand despite the recent unrest there but I will simply pass through rather than look around. There's been no more trouble in Bangkok and it seems safe to travel through it. However, the government has issued a warrant for the arrest of former PM and red shirt backer Thaksin Shinawatra. Apparently he's hiding in Dubai but should for any reason he be captured things could get messy, with his followers probably rioting. So I'm not going to hang around Bangkok or Thailand generally in case something like that happens.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Some history of Melaka and Malaysia

I'm still in Melaka. The town is loaded with museums and sites of interest. As a result I've learnt quite a bit about the history of Melaka and here's a quick rundown. It was 'founded' by a guy called Parameswara around 1400 who had been a prince in Java and Sumatra but was forced out of both places by his enemies. I'm not sure how you found a city, maybe he just arrived here with soldier-friends and announced 'all right, I rule this place now' to the few fishermen who were here. Anyway the area became a sultanate with him as the ruler and it developed as a popular trading post and a centre for the spread of Islam.

In 1405 it was visited by Cheng Ho, a minister of the Ming dynasty of China, and given protection by the dynasty which meant lots of Chinese people moved here. There's a museum about Cheng Ho here that I went to yesterday. He made seven voyages from Nanjing as a representative of China, going all the way to Arabia and Mogadishu before China decided upon an isolationist policy in the 1430s. There's even a theory that he or some of his second-in-commands went to America, Australia, and New Zealand before Europeans did. (The book defending this theory is '1421' by Gavin Menzies. According to him, the evidence for the NZ contact are (1) the spherical Moeraki boulders on the Otago coast, which allegedly were ship ballasts, and (2) parts of ships allegedly embedded in the cliffs near the boulders. These got there, according to the theory, when a comet fell to earth nearly hitting the Chinese ships and the sea throwing them into the cliff where they became embedded in the cliffside! I was at Moeraki last year with Lauri-Lee and Richard and I remember them telling me about this theory, though they were skeptics as I recall. The theory also alleges something to do with Chinese DNA present in Maori.)

Melaka, valuable as a strategic point for trade, was conquered by the Portuguese in the 1500s and then by the Dutch in the 1600s. A lot of Dutch buildings and churches remain, including one central one called Christ Church. I was surprised to see souvenirs being sold in this church and almost told them that was offensive but then thought 'who am I to defend church values?' The British got Melaka from the Dutch in 1824, exchanging it for Bengkulu, the place in west Sumatra where I stayed a week or so ago and where I had to stay longer than expected to wait get sorted out after my wallet was stolen. Sir Stamford Raffles was involved here, as he was in Bengkulu and Singapore. He sounds an interesting guy who I'd like to read a biography about. The world's biggest flower, the Rafflesia is found around here and is presumably named after him. (I haven't seen one yet.)

Malaysia was occupied by Japan in the Second World War and then after the war there was a struggle for independence. It seemed to take a long time to achieve this, partly due to much disagreement about what form of government to have, according to a Museum of Democratic Government I visited today. Malaysia became an independent country in the 1950s, with Singapore part of it for only two years before going independent itself. An alliance of political parties worryingly called the 'National Front' (Barisan Nasional) has ruled with a large majority ever since then, though in recent times its support has declined slightly but it still has a majority. I couldn't quite work out the constitution from the museum but I know there are two houses of parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate), a monarch, and state governments, and elections are held every five years. Melaka is a city with the state of Melaka and there are twelve other states in Malaysia, plus three federal territories of which the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is one.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Melaka, Malaysia

Arrived in Melaka (Malacca) this afternoon (June 1) after a quick ferry journey that took only a couple of hours and I already like it here. I'm staying in the heart of Chinatown on a street called Jalan Tukang Emas which means Harmony Street. It's called that because on it close together are a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque, and a Chinese temple that combines Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The Chinese temple was the most impressive and has received world heritage of status from UNESCO.

Malaysia seems more economically developed than Indonesia. Its GDP per capita is twice that of Indonesia's. The streets are cleaner and more organised. It's also a pleasant change to be able to walk the streets without being constantly harassed by hawkers, taxi drivers, and rickshaw drivers.
The ferry by which I crossed from Indonesia to Malaysia

The ruins of Portuguese or Dutch church (I forget which)

How Malacca looked in the fifteenth century (according to a museum diorama).


May 31

I arrived here late last night, at around 2.30pm. The bus ride from Bukittinggi took 13 hours even though they told me it would be 8. The bus did break down but only took one hour to repair so I’m not sure where the other hours came from. I also had to change to a smaller shuttle at about midnight and I’m still not sure why. Maybe the bus driver had had enough. He hailed the shuttle to take me and one other passenger the rest of the way to Dumai. I got dropped at a seedy hotel which seemed to incorporate a brothel on the ground floor. Couldn’t really go looking for another hotel at that hour so had to stay one night there but checked out early.

On the way here I crossed the Equator. I was hoping for some indication to mark the spot but was none so I’m not sure just where the occasion took place, but I am now in the Northern Hemisphere.

I thought there was an afternoon ferry to Melaka but this turned out not to be the case so I have to stay another night in Indonesia and leave tomorrow morning.