October 4, 1990: Where should I start? I guess it would be a good idea if you, as a reader, knew with whom you were traveling. There is me, Mark Leeper, frustrated mathematician and film and science fiction fan. There's Evelyn, my wife and even more frustrating than the math career. Steve Goldsmith used to be Evelyn's supervisor. He recently moved to another project because he, no doubt, found working with Evelyn frustrating. Then there is Binayak Banerjee. He used to be Evelyn's office mate but he got frustrated and left the project. Finally there is Barbara Iskowitz. As far as I can tell Evelyn has not yet frustrated Barbara, but the trip is young. Barbara works in the local bell Labs Product Center and that is connected to Evelyn's area. Barbara and Binayak are good friends and often swap cats.
Actually this whole trip came out of Binayak's comment that he thought Americans travel wrong and that they need to have the whole way prepared for them when they travel, that they need to have a hotel reservation for every hotel before they leave the United States. Also he claimed it is more expensive to travel that way. His sort of travel is more flexible. "Fine," I said. "Let's try a trip your way. Where shall we go?" Originally we were planning on going to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. We did a fair amount of planning on that trip before we learned that Bhutan was going through a period of anti-foreigner policy. Nepal also was having internal problems. So we had a style of travel but no place to travel in that style. I think it was I who suggested Southeast Asia since my parents had gone there and enjoyed it and also suggested it was very inexpensive, especially Malaysia. Eventually we decided on Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Of course, this requires considerably more planning. Binayak, Evelyn, and I were the original group. Steve wanted to come. He wanted to bring two more people, but they canceled. Barbara and Sameer Siddiqui also thought they wanted to come but then said no, they wouldn't. They were each sort of on again, off again. I offhandedly called them Schroedinger's members. This was after the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment in which it is indeterminate whether the cat is alive or not until the experiment ends, you look at the cat, and in the terminology of the physics "the wave form collapses." I am not sure what that means, but I said we would only know if they were coming when we sat on the plane, looked around to see if they were with us, and the wave form collapses. Sameer eventually decided he did not think he could afford even so inexpensive a trip. We expect to do twenty-four days for roughly $2400 a person. I have to say that the greatest share of the planning was done by Evelyn and Binayak who are out two fastest readers so could assimilate information the most quickly. Ironically it was Binayak who was least anxious that we plan in advance. He did not want to spoil the spontaneity. There was some friction between Binayak and me since I wanted to get people thinking in advance what sites they wanted to visit. To Binayak's way of thinking this endangered the spontaneity. Finally I was able to point to a book Binayak likes, Asia Through the Back Door, that recommends you do have a very complete plan before you travel--just don't believe it all. It is like at work you set up a schedule for when a task will be done. You don't believe every milestone but you have a better idea of how you are allocating your time and have a better appreciation for what effect slippage has on the overall plan. We finally compromised. Less than two weeks before the trip we made up an itinerary, at least of cities. And even that required a few changes of plans.
Speaking of plans, this will be my first opportunity to see if my jet lag cure works going west. Generally the night before I travel east I stay up all night. Then I sleep on the plane. At least going east this is good for jet lag. Our first morning in Amsterdam I felt pretty fresh. Dale and Jo, our traveling companions, were still very bleary-eyed. I admit I did doze a couple of times last night, but I got under a half hour of sleep in all. I have dozed several times on the plane (but I am getting a little ahead of myself). I stayed up almost all night and was ready to leave by 7:30 AM. The limo was scheduled to arrive by 8 AM. Steve showed up at 7:40 and I would have felt more comfortable if Binayak and Barbara had also. At about 7:50 AM the limo was there but still no B&B. They showed up about 8:10. That seemed to be cutting things a bit close. It seems the three guys are each bringing suitcases that double as backpacks. Actually Steve's is a backpack, pure and simple. My backpack/suitcase is set up to be used with a handle or a strap or as a backpack. It is borrowed from Dale Skran, and it seems like the right sort of idea, particularly for a trip like this. Evelyn has a nylon suitcase with a strap which will make things a little more difficult. Barbara has more traditional suitcases. This will give us an opportunity to compare. I slept what I thought was only a little in the limo, but it must have been more than I thought since I was surprised when we got to Kennedy.
We checked some of our bags and went to sit in the cafeteria. I was not hungry but the others got food. I walked around a little. I reflected that I was happy to be going to countries where I expected the locals probably knew the local currency. This is not the case in the United States, of course. Education is starting to fail in the United States even in such basics as understanding our own currency. There was a big sign up in the cafeteria that said if you bought an entree, you could get a salad for just ".99 cents." This was in an international terminal. I pity the poor foreign traveler trying to figure out our money when so many Americans say ".99 cents" when they mean "99 cents" or "$.99." I would imagine some wonder if there is a hundredth-of-a-cent coin. God help us if ".99 cents" becomes an irregular but accepted expression of "99 cents." It is like saying this coat costs $5 when it really costs $500 "and you should know we meant hundreds."
We must have boarded about 11:30 AM. No sooner did Barbara step on the plane than the wave form collapsed in front of everybody. It could have been embarrassing, but I seemed to be the only person who noticed.
We were supposed to have contiguous seats in row 52, but there are only three seats on each side of the plane in row 52. B&B are off to the right. I can just see them around the back of the kitchen. Steve, Evelyn, and I are on this side. We started taxiing about 12:15 PM and took off about 12:30 PM which now becomes 12:30 AM Hong Kong time. Unless I miss my calculation they are twelve hours ahead so you turn AM to PM (or vice versa). So we left home about 8 PM on October 4 and will be landing about 9:30 PM October 5. The air part of our travel is about 20-1/2 hours (including three hours in Narita, a suburb of Tokyo, which does not have its own international airport). At this instant we have remaining only sixteen hours and eleven minutes of that twenty hours. Oh, boy!
Another disadvantage of sitting this far back in the plane is that at meal times you get whatever nobody else wanted. They had chicken, beef, or green lasagna. Guess which one we had? Well, I guess it was healthier to eat vegetarian. The audio program is not too bad, but I suppose any audio program will wear think on a really long flight. Still, the fact that they have two classical stations is nice. Unfortunately there is no electrical jack for Walkman earphones. Plane earphones always irritate the insides of my ears.
Well, they've started the first of their three movies, Bird on a Wire. I saw that just a few weeks ago coming back from Europe. Well, on one channel it's dubbed into Japanese. That's fun to listen to. On the English channel you can just barely turn the sound up enough to hear. At least beside the kitchen you don't see it projected; you see it on a television monitor above head level.
I have been making goo-goo faces and waving at a cute little Japanese boy in a nearby seat. He must be about two. He just came over to say hello and to wipe a slobbery hand on my pants.
The film turned out to be a triple feature. The second film was The Secret Life of Ian Fleming. It was an okay World War II spy story with touches of where Fleming got ideas he used in James Bond stories. In fact a big piece of the story is very much like Casino Royale. One rather suspects it played a little fast and loose with the truth. The third film was The Pink Panther. It put me to sleep. It is the best of the Inspector Clouseau films but the series does not do very much for me. Blake Edwards's slapstick comedies with Peter Sellers usually seem forced. One exception is The Party, which I still find very funny.
October 5, 1990: I have been napping off and on, walking around the cabin occasionally, drinking lots of orange juice. (Supposedly drinking fluids helps fight jet lag. Orange juice also helps against colds for me.) I read Evelyn's Holland and Belgium log and passed it on to B&B.
Lunch was chicken pot pie, fresh melon, and banana bread.
At about 2:45 PM we landed in Narita for the layover. Binayak said he thought we might be able to get a quick tour and be back in time for our next flight. "Oh, sure!"~I thought to myself. "Sure, if you can arrange it. But we have to be back well in time for our flight," I said. I figured that was effectively saying, "No."
Well, not only are there no such tours, they herd you into a sort of quarantine "waiting area." There are a few small stores--perhaps stands is a better word and you can't really leave it. This was a break from the plane, but it isn't much of one. I had a grapefruit soda, wrote some in my log, and slept a little. Evelyn and Binayak started planning the trip to the New Territories for Sunday. I tried to get in but couldn't get close enough to the book they were reading, The Hong Kong Survival Guide. Instead I pulled out the Southeast Asia Handbook which is also a very good reference. At least that way I could take some part.
After a short snooze when that discussion was over they called our plane for the last leg, short compared to the 13-1/2 flight we'd been on (I think that was the longest single flight I'd ever been on). This one would be only about 4-1/2 hours. Actually things were very disorganized in the way crowds were handled. They took three queues for this plane and made one mob out of it.
But eventually we were all on and they started counting luggage or something. I started experimenting with the air nozzle. I like cool air and I used to point the nozzle directly at the top of my head. Of course that is a bit like Chinese water torture and it makes you crazy really quick. Now I point it at my lap.
We finally took off about 5:30 PM Hong Kong time. I put on earphones and once again they really irritated my ears. I actually looked at what was irritating. There is a white foam cylinder over a gray plastic tube. As often happens when they press plastic and have a little too much plastic it leaves a rough edge where the plastic sprayed out of the mold and hardened. It leaves little sharp spurs. The spring action of the headphones pushes the spurs past the foam right up against your ear.
Dinner was fish, but not very good fish. The movie was Back to the Future III. I read rather than watching the movie. We landed about 9:50 PM. The crowd control for Customs was much like it was when we arrived in Hong Kong eight years ago. There are something like twenty queues and people rush into them. Now people are coming from jumbo jets all the time. People who have found themselves in a slow line are line-switching to bet on what they think will be a faster line. Spouses are picking different lines to see who gets to the front first so they can let the other spouse in. In general you have chaos. There is more chaos at the carousel. Then the actual Customs check is just a wave-through. We got out, exchanged enough money to pay for the room, then grabbed a bus to the Peking Guest House, part of the Chungking Mansions. I wasn't sure what it meant that our hotel was part of another building.
The bus has a pre-recorded message telling you what hotels you were getting to so the driver didn't really need to know English but he knew enough so that when we got to our hotel he could call out the name.
What we could see from the bus made Hong Kong look a lot like Manhattan, but it was after 11 PM and a lot of stores were still open.
When we got off the bus a Mr.~Ng was waiting for us. The Chungking Mansions is a sort of dingy building in the downtown of Hong Kong. Many of the floors are just like big apartments a floor big. They will have living space for the proprietor's family and four or five spartan rooms for guests. The room is about 7-1/2 feet by 12 feet with an adjoining shower stall that has shower facilities, a sink, and a toilet. There are two beds, one about 2-1/2 feet wide, one 3-1/2 feet wide, with about a foot and a half corridor between them. At the foot of the narrow bed is an inexpensive Formica-covered cabinet. At the foot of the wider bed is a television facing the cabinet. There are two folding chairs so you can watch the television. There is a floor lamp with no bulbs. The walls are done in off-white, glossy lunchroom tiles with fluorescent lighting. There is an air conditioner and a ceiling fan. The mattress is three inches thick and very firm. This goes for US$34 a night in the heart of Hong Kong. The value isn't great, but it is okay. The place is clean. At about twelve minutes after midnight a baby started crying, but was quickly quieted. Last time we were in Hong Kong we were pampered at the Shangri-La, which was really fancy and probably very expensive. This time we are going spartan and saving.
The hotel is, incidentally, listed in all the tour books. It is a good place to stay is you want to meet an international clientele.
October 6, 1990: I woke up about 6:15 AM without any trace of jet lag; unless I really zonk out later I will declare my formula a success. We started planning the day. At about 7:30 we found a note from Binayak saying that he and Barbara were up and inviting us to walk about 7:30 AM. We were ready about five minutes later and had to find them. Barbara's room was very little bigger than a double bed and a bit of floor space.
We wanted to leave a note for Steve whom they did not have a room for last night and had a room for him about four floors up. The proprietor, still in his underwear, took us up to his brother's hotel. We couldn't get in so we left him a note and the proprietor--still in his underwear--took us down to the street level. There are two elevators, both slow. One goes only to odd floors, the other goes only to even ones. The group decided when they were walking that they really needed COFFEE and RIGHT THEN. I will swear you to secrecy on where we went. I won't even tell you but the place was red and had two big yellow arches and we could have gone there at home.
The streets of Kowloon--we are actually in Kowloon, not Hong Kong--look a lot like Manhattan. They will be more densely packed with more signs, but that is pretty much like what they look like. Then suddenly you see a big marble mosque. This is melting pot, like New York, but the mix of nationalities is different. And this area certainly leans more to the fantastic and wondrous. After this coffee we returned to the hotel. Steve had shown up and went out again. We waited for about ten minutes and he returned. We went out, stopped by a tourist agency to pick up info, then went on for dim sum breakfast. Steve had never had dim sum before. The building was sort of posh and I was expecting a big bill. With tip it came to about US$5 a person. We were all pretty much amazed.
Then back to Nathan Road (where our hotel is) and environs to find a place to change money. We did that, changed money, and found a place to buy a city tour. Lots of little things followed: returning to drop things off at the hotel, going out to a very tight little grocery one flight down from Nathan Road. Most of the group bought cans of soda. I bought a bottle that I could take on the city tour and take hits off of. Walking on crowded streets one thing stands out. You find a lot of people trying to sell you a watch. Fake Rolexes seem to be the most popular.
Our next locale was Kowloon Park. This was just a walk-through, but it was worth seeing. It is broken into areas. There is a sculpture garden; there is a children's playground complete with a maze. There is a turtle and fish pool. There are gardens with Chinese architecture; There are sleeping Chinese hobos. There is a bird garden. But for a city park it was very nice.
About 1:30 PM we went to where we were to pick up the city tour. We were being picked up from a sort of combination hotel and fancy shopping center where we'd booked the tour. It's the kind of place where everybody has kicked into the Hong Kong Merchants Association. If you are a member, you supposedly fork over a certain amount of money and agree to a code of ethics to be a part of the merchants association. I think the code of ethics includes "Never give a sucker an even break" and "Never steer a customer to a non-member store." Anyway, if you belong you have an official sticker in the window. It is a big red circle and in the center a picture of a Chinese junk. This is so you can tell the world you are officially a "junk shop." Generally the sorts of stores that sport the sticker have leather goods, jewelry, etc. Nothing I would want to buy. A couple have tried to sell me suits. The code of ethics does not include restrictions against standing in your doorway and making a pest of yourself to passersby. Anyway, most of the stores in this expensive mall had junk stickers and very little to interest me. One rather supposes used book stores do not generally join. We waited in a sort of fancy sitting right in the shopping center. It was clean and had Chinese statues of men riding dragons and the like. Very impressive. Of course you couldn't have something like that in the malls in the United States. The first day people would be spilling Orange Julius on your fancy chairs and putting out cigarette butts on your statues.
But looking around the streets I see again that whether Americans are thought to be boorish or not they have created a cuisine that is popular the world over. I am speaking, of course, of American junk food. You look in the streets and you see signs like "The Spaghetti House--Home of American Pizza," "The American Cafe," and the ever-popular McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And lest you say it is just Americans who are going to these places I will point out that McDonalds is doing pretty well in Moscow where their prices are two or three times the United States price and in a really strapped economy people are lining up to buy their product. Like many Americans I used to feel guilty about exporting junk food to the world. But if they really like it, who am I to tell them "no"? I've never heard of someone Chinese saying it's too bad there are so many Chinese restaurants in the United States. I love Chinese food but much of it really is not all that healthy. Do Chinese worry about the cholesterol Americans get from Beijing Duck? We're not talking really healthy stuff in either case. I prefer to avoid McDonalds both at home an abroad, but if the world really wants it, I don't think Americans should feel guilty about it. If McDonalds does well in the Soviet Union they must be making someone happy.
Anyway so the bus picked us up for our city tour. We'd had a city tour when we came here with Travelworld in 1982. This was sort of a test of the contention that you can get the same sort of service if you just buy a city tour yourself. In fact it was a mild failure in my estimation. The thing is with a whole tour from an outfit like Travelworld there is end-to-end accountability. You've paid them a large sum of money and they want you to do it again real soon. They want you to finish the tour happy. When you buy a stand-alone one-shot city tour by its very nature you are unlikely to represent much chance at return business. Now in Edinburgh the city controlled the city tours and they were really fine, as Evelyn points out. The city tour for Hong Kong was pretty bad. The first and best item was the Aberdeen fishing village. They told you a couple of paragraphs of information, then you could either take a junk ride and see the colony closer at a fee of just HK$50 (about US$6.45) or you could sit waiting for the people to get back from the junk ride. The second stop was to see a jewelry factory and actually get a chance to buy their jewelry. (Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!) The next stop was Stanley Market. And the final site was Victoria Peak (and souvenir stand). Each stop was a real K.O.~(that's a kickback opportunity). We were also supposed to see Repulse Bay, but it was a sort of "If you look quick out of the right window" sort of thing.
Well, I should say something about the sites. The Aberdeen boat people are the Tankas. These are refugees from Fukian Province in China who came to Hong Kong but were not allowed to come on land. Instead they could harbor off Hong Kong Island in Aberdeen. At times up to 40,000 of them lived their entire lives on boats, most never knowing what it is like to walk on land. They were ethnically different from anyone else in Hong Kong. They had their own religions, holidays, and rituals. Now with times becoming more enlightened Hong Kong authorities are going to get rid of the sampans and try to assimilate the boat people. Our guide, ever-sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate, told those of us who took the sampan to go around the boats, "Look quick and you may see one taking a bath." Well, at 3-ish in the afternoon most of what you see is people working: maintaining fishing boats, working on nets, etc. We saw one boat that had several hundred squid drying in the sun. Some of the boats were fancy, some only very simple sampans. Steve said that on one hand he thought we were intruding into the lives of the boat people voyeuristically, but on the other hand, that is what photo-journalism is all about. As we were getting off the sampan a photographer took our pictures for souvenirs. As long as he had B&B posed, I also took their picture. I tend to steal pictures other people are photographing? How else can I learn?
Jewelry is the fourth biggest industry in Hong Kong. Third is tourism. Second is electronics. Number one is fashions. Our next stop was a jewelry "factory" to see jewelry being made. We didn't see much being made because it was Saturday afternoon and they were off having a good time some place. I was somewhat distracted because the strap of my camera decided to let go and the camera fell on the hard floor, breaking the lens over the flash. First day of the trip and I am having serious camera doubts. Does it still work? Does the flash? Well, it turns out it is mostly okay though the flash may not be lighting right. I took a flash picture and will have my first roll developed here. Surprise of surprises, the factory jewelry store was fully open. Evelyn, Steve, and I were off to the side talking about the camera when a salesman came along and ...~asked us to go over and get a drink. They had a soda dispenser with very cold soda which they dispensed in eight-ounce glasses. That is a little underhanded since we were all hot and dehydrated and they knew we would be abysmally grateful. I grudgingly admit it tasted about as good as anything I'd had all week. And right there were some Chinese carvings in ivory, very small. I told a saleswoman that the style was much like Japanese netsukes (NETS-kees). She said she had never heard of netsukes. The next shelf actually had a collection of Japanese netsukes and I was about to point them out to the saleswoman when she said, "Those are Japanese net-SU-kees." I would have told her that the "u" is just very lightly aspirated or silent, but I wasn't entirely sure of my facts so just remained silent. They did have a nice set. I don't know if they were authentic, and there were some rather tasteless erotic ones mixed in. I just don't know if those are authentic themes or not. Netsukes are small ivory carvings maybe an inch and a quarter high. Rather than put pockets in traditional Japanese clothing they would take a small box roughly the size of a cigarette case (called "inro") and tie it by a string to their belts. At the other end of the string was a small weight which over time became carved more and more ornately. These toggles became netsuke. They are on all sorts of subjects: demons, animals, peasant life, and perhaps even erotic, though if so this is the first time I've seen them. The best I ever remember seeing was a small puppy looking with true amazement at a horsefly that had landed on its back.
Next stop was Stanley Village with the famous Stanley Market. Fashions are supposedly bargains there, but we had half an hour to shop (too much for my tastes). I got two scarves for people back home. We looked for something for our souvenir table, but found little.
Finally we hit Victoria Peak, 1305 feet. Going up by bus is considerably less interesting than the funicular railway. The view at the top has been hazy both times we have seen it. On the way back the photographer offered us the photo he'd taken getting off the boat at Aberdeen. He had cut it in a circle and glued it to the center of a souvenir plate of Hong Kong. It was a little off-center. I let him keep it.
We dropped off some pictures to be developed near our hotel to be sure my camera was still working. We got back to the hotel about 7 PM; I wrote in my log while most of the others napped. At 8:25 PM or so we got together again, picked up our pictures (my camera seems fine), and headed out for the night market. This is much like a cheaper version of Stanley Market and it runs till midnight or so. Restaurants come out and serve on the street.
It was unclear what we wanted to eat and how. Binayak was for the point-to-order scheme. I think Barbara wanted to order off a menu. We went in one place that could not serve us outside but wanted to put us in their "VIP room" inside. It was not very clean-looking and much of what we tried to order was not on the menu so we left and went to a pointing sort of place. Even there we could not all agree what we want. I guess this place bothered me a little in that they kept the fish you could order on a table and they kept dumping on these things that looked like centipedes. It turned out these were scampi and they kept trying to crawl away. (Did I say they were fresh?) I think Binayak wanted to order entirely by himself. I thought the shrimp would be the easiest to divide up and eat. Binayak eventually relented. The shrimp, as it turned out, were the easiest to eat and went the fastest. We also got the scampi (which may have been a relative of the crayfish though they looked more like lobster tails with heads). Their shells had sharp points on them so you had to be careful opening them. Even then it was pretty tough. We also got crab in ginger sauce and periwinkles. These were in tightly closed shells a half to three-quarters of an inch wide. At first they were hard to open, but we got the hang of it. The most common comment was, boy, what would people at home think if they could see what we were eating.
Also we planned the next day's trip to the New Territories. Also the first day turned out to be more expensive than any of us had planned and there was some concern over having enough money. Thailand and Malaysia are reportedly cheaper but things are pretty high in Hong Kong. Maybe not compared to home--I bought myself a battery-driven hand-held fan for HK$5, bargained down from HK$7. That includes two AA batteries and it cost about US$0.65. Thinking about it now I should have gotten three. We need the batteries. I am kind of sorry I didn't get a hand-held sewing machine for what would have been about US$5. I can't imagine it's real quality, but I am willing to gamble for that price. We were, however, strapped for cash. Evelyn and I walked home after. We went to sleep about 12:30 AM. We did not sleep at all well and at 3:30 AM I woke up. After trying to sleep I decided to try to catch up on my log. I must be waxing too verbose. I am almost a tenth of the way through my logbooks I brought and have covered only the trip and my first day.
October 7, 1990: Well, today we head out to visit the New Territories. We decided there wasn't time for dim sum so we headed for a restaurant recommended in the guide book. This must always be a mistake. We found a sign for the restaurant but the restaurant itself was not there. I am very reticent to tell you where the group decided to have breakfast. It wasn't my idea. The place was red and had two yellow arches.
We took the train to the New Territories. This works by a stored-value magnetic card which costs a fixed fee and then deducts the cost of train rides. I'd seen the technology before, but it was new to Steve. Our first stop was the folk museum at Sam Tung Uk. This was a village of Hakka people who were resettled to planned communities and instead of their village being knocked down, it was restored to an earlier state and became a museum of their former life style. You see clothes, farm implements, and furniture, all in buildings that were in the original symmetric village. You can walk only a few inches or feet into any room before a rope stops you but you can see into the rooms. Most interesting to me was the room of recordings of the Cantonese opera. Chinese opera is an art form vastly unlike just about any other sort of performing art in the world. It is very unapproachable by Westerners, at least I find it so. As a result I have taken it on as a challenge to learn more about it and to learn to appreciate it. I have heard two or three, mostly of the Beijing style; Cantonese is different, but I do not yet know the differences. (One of the marvelous things about writing and publishing a trip log is that unanswered questions tend to get answered.) In any case, I have seen one Beijing opera about the Monkey-King Sun Wu Kong causing Chaos in Heaven by disrupting all the old gods. The story comes from the old Buddhist novel Pilgrimage to the West. It has become a more popular opera since the current Chinese government has cast itself in the role of iconoclast, disrupting old religious values.
I have heard another opera that I do not remember well, but it is about how the citizens of a besieged village co-operated in some sort of deception--I don't remember what--to defeat the invading army.
I have read the story of other Chinese operas including the famous "White Snake" in which the religious forces are again portrayed as bad. A devil or a witch turned herself from her natural form as a snake into a woman to woo a human. They get along well until a religious person decides this love is unnatural and he is going to break it up to the point of bringing floods to drown the lovers. It is sort of "The Little Mermaid" with a twist.
In any case I already had some interest in the Hakka people. There was for a while a Chinese restaurant called Hakka Villa. My Chinese office mate told me it was an odd name because Hakka was not a Chinese name. I looked through my histories of China and did find references to the Hakka centuries ago. Later I heard from my parents that they had seen something about the Hakka (probably this same museum) in their travels.
The next item was the Chuk Lam Sim Yuen, or so we thought. It really turned out to be a sort of "you can't get there from here" sort of situation. For about an hour and a half we tried various sets of instructions, all incomplete, on how to get there. One set did suggest taking a bus and a sub-adventure turned out to be just figuring out how to cross a busy highway to get there. We found an underpass finally but then the line for the bus was a city block long and after about a ten-minute wait we decided that approach wouldn't work. This was a very frazzling period in a hot sun. I still claim it was also one of the more interesting things we did since we really saw a broad segment of people in the New Territories. In this part of the world, if you look around you, you will find enough of interest that no time is really wasted. You see a spectrum of people from stylishly dressed people carrying video cassettes (and Walkmans--I have never seen so many people with Walkmans in their ears!)~to old women carrying bags of lentils (or some such) in two baskets at either end of a long bamboo pole. That has a much more traditional look. Then there was the woman sitting near a street slicing a carrot that must have been three inches in diameter. It was a fairly interesting time, though I admit exaggerating its interest just a bit to try and make people feel better about the frustration.
We decided to go on to the Mui Fat Monastery. We grabbed a double-decker bus and Binayak suggested we go up to the top level. The front windows are open and locals almost never sit in the seat right in front because of the wind problem. After standing around in the parching sun--it was really hot--it was a powerful blast of cold air. I opened the window further and soaked in the cool refreshing air. I loved it. In about four minutes the view went from big city to hillside next to a big bay with hills sticking out and ships. Just beautiful. It turned out we screwed up our instructions again and went one bus stop far. It was the luckiest accident of the trip so far. We ended up having to walk through a street market with a big indoors farmers' market. Binayak suggested we cut through the farmers' market and suddenly we weren't in Kansas any more. Huge arrays of vegetables, rows of hanging mean. One place sold big fish heads. Ducks and chickens in cages squawking and complaining (as well they might considering their situation). One stand had what I think were chicken livers laid out in a row. We were still talking about it over dinner. Then outside was a street market, but not one with a lot of plastic tourist goods. It was household goods and local clothes and roasted chestnuts, that sort of thing. We were the only Westerners, though they get enough that we didn't get any stares.
A policeman, whom somebody suggested would probably not speak English, turned out to speak it reasonably well and gave us directions to the LRT line. It was a long walk in a hot sun but we got there. This appears to be a tram but Binayak insisted it was really a train. It was only one car, so I am not sure what the distinction is. You buy your tickets from a vending machine that has fifteen buttons. They are broken into adult, student, and child, and have a button for each of five regions. You press the button and it tells you in a liquid crystal display window how much to insert. You do and you hear a printer inside printing your ticket. Then it drops down to a window.
We took the train to the Mui Fat Monastery, or at least the tram line running through the town it was in. We stopped at a small store for soda. You really need a constant input of water when walking around in what must be 95-degree heat. That first sip of soda is a pleasure sex doesn't even approach. I know this isn't like Saudi Arabia, but it is amazing how fast your body absorbs fluids and puts them out as sweat. I got a Schweppes Pineapple-Grapefruit, but in the future I may stick to distilled water. The sugar gets too cloying after a while. We sat in front of the monastery replenishing fluids.
The temple building itself cost HK$60 million. It is three stories high with Chinese architecture and dragons curled over the front. There are statues out front of the Imperial Foo Lions, the male with his paw on the orb, the female with her paw on the cub. Originally they represented the Emperor and Empress of China. Flanking them are two statues of six-tusked elephants. Inside, the walls are decorated with pictures of Buddhas. On the second floor is a lunch room. At the top floor is the real temple room with three huge statues of Buddhas, twenty or thirty feet high. In front, priests (monks?)~chant and try to ignore the steady stream of tourists (many from tour buses). Around the back there is another Buddha in front of which prefect pieces of fruit are placed. They were apples and oranges. There are several other shrines.
From there we walked around the grounds for a little while. They make the place like a little campus complete with schoolrooms and a laboratory. I said that they were looking for the perfect gong to chant to in the laboratory. It was a Bell Laboratory.
Well, after some of our members made powder room stops at less than perfect restrooms, as one might expect, we returned to a line of small markets and restaurants. We chose one where it looked like somebody was eating what looked like fried squid. We tried it. At first we had trouble communicating. We had no Chinese. The proprietor had very little English. We asked if the dish we'd seen was squid. He didn't know the word and asked if we wanted sweet and sour pork. I tried writing squid in Chinese. I think the hook at the top of the fish radical did not have all three strokes and the ink radical looked more like an English script 't'. He didn't recognize the word. Evelyn showed him the words in the phrase book in Chinese ideogram. He said, "Lamb?" Finally he said yes, that was what it was. Then he brought out a large plate of fried squid. He suggested, "Roast pork?" Sounded good. It was. It was served with peanuts. Binayak suggested it was "kung pao." I told him I didn't think so since "kung pao" to me means not just peanuts but peppers. It was good anyway. We were very pleased with the meal and it came to about US$3 per person (actually less--I think it was HK$20 each).
After lunch we walked back along the same street. Barbara bought a pomelo at a fruit stand. It was expensive, about HK$20.
Next we took a tram to a bus to two old walled cities, Shui Tau and Kam Tin. The first of the two was the more authentic or at least less touristy. It was a long walk in the heat. There wasn't really a lot to see. It was some fairly rural houses from the 18th Century behind a wall. I almost felt we were intruding. The second walled village was more touristy. We were flocked with old women in black wearing the same hat, a sort of a straw disk with a circle missing in the center and a black veil under it. They made something of a fuss over me since they apparently had never seen opaque wraparound sunglasses. These things fit all the way over my regular glasses. They were given to me by a traveling companion in Africa. The women were anxious to have us buy their souvenirs and to pose for us--at a nominal price. I think I later heard that Steve had bargained about six of them to a total of HK$2. That's about US$0.26.
After, we walked down the street to a modern grocery and bought more soda and distilled water. It is an odd sensation to have been bloated with soda just a short time before and to be this thirsty this soon. In the future I think I will try to cut down on soda and drink more distilled water. I feel like I am just filtering all the sugar out of the soda. What you really need is not soda but what you are losing, which is water. This could turn out to be expensive. Luckily you can get by without buying water. If you add four drops of iodine per liter to clear tap water, shake well, and wait a half-hour, it is safe to drink. The flavor is a little like band-aids and things like mercury aren't fixed by iodine but it is still a good way to make tap water safe. There are probably places (like Hong Kong) where the water really will come safe to drink, but the safest policy is to assume all water really needs to be treated.
After this there was a long but uneventful trip back to the hotel by bus, tram, and mostly on foot. All the walking is pretty painful on the feet. In fact, I think I am going to get myself pads to cushion my feet. (Well, that sentence is dishonest. I am writing this two days later and have already done so.) Perhaps the worst part of the trip home is getting to the room. Something more should be said about the Chungking Mansions. It is an economic structure like I have not seen in the United States. It is on a piece of prime real estate. Nathan Road is to Kowloon what Fifth Avenue is to New York. In New York you have to be very rich to own real estate on Fifth Avenue. Not so here. There are lots of people just barely getting by who jointly own and mostly reside here. Mr.~Ng owns a large apartment which has been turned into a guest house. That means his part of the house is a tiny room about 7-1/2 feet square and a tiny kitchen that is common area usually. Even that he has rented out right now. There is a guy sleeping there. His wife and baby live there also. His brother lives the same way/ Our room is really what would be the master bedroom. Steve's, Barbara's, and Binayak's rooms are smaller than ours. With the exception of tiny ants in the shower stall the place is kept operating theater clean. You can watch the overhead fan by looking down and seeing it reflected in the tile floor. The place is not fancy but what is here is somebody's prized possession and it is supremely maintained. Walk into the corridor and you could be in a Turkish prison. Filth. Cockroaches. Leaking pipes. Some of the stairwells in some of the towers reputedly have rats. Garbage often carelessly thrown around. This is neutral territory and nobody cares for it. There is often a ten-minute wait for the elevator going up or down. At the base there is usually a long line of people waiting of an interesting international mix. Some you wouldn't want to meet, however. Some clear their nose and spit in corners. The hell with not passing judgement on different cultures with different customs, there are people in the halls of this building who are nauseatingly disgusting. The juxtapositioning of this "hotel" as well-maintained as it is, and the hallway just a few feet away is amazing. What a contrast! I suspect that China, or at least people from the mainland, have the concept of a nice house but not of a nice neighborhood.
Binayak wanted to try Chiu Chow cuisine. No, that's not fair. He just suggested it; I think we all wanted to try it. Anyway we had to find the place. There was a sign on a nearby block but no sign of the restaurant. We asked at a local store and they thought the restaurant was over in the next block. There was a lot of searching. It took about an hour, I think, but we found the restaurant, and it was full. We went instead to a Shanghai cuisine restaurant nearby. We wanted to try that cuisine also. We had squid in a hot sauce, eggplant in a hotter sauce, drunken chicken, and abalone soup. Shanghai cuisine is much like the food we had in mainland China. Chicken cut, bones and all, as if it were a loaf of bread. The restaurant was moderately unfriendly. When we ordered soda and beer they picked up the teacups. Well, we wanted tea with the meal. Every other table, even with drinks, had tea. The bar drinks like soda were expensive. We asked the waiter why they picked up the teacups and he said to make more room. However, we asked the waitress for tea and she brought back the cups. I watched a sort of mini-comedy that took place behind our table. I think I was the only one who saw it. A young waiter was given a baby's milk bottle, clearly to warm it. He kept looking at it quizzically and asking other people how to warm it (I assume). Finally he went over to the bar, got an ice bucket, filled it from the tea machine, and dropped the milk bottle in. He carried that off to unknown parts. A few minutes later he brought the ice bucket back to the bar with a satisfied look on his face.
October 8, 1990: Breakfast was another disappointment. There is a bird market nearby and the guide books said that there was a restaurant where bird owners hung up their birds and had breakfast. The birds socialize with each other. We found the place but it was closed. Instead we tried a restaurant a few doors down. They knew no English. I pointed to a dish and four of us had it. It was like a bowl of Japanese ramen with two fried eggs on top. The whole breakfast for five people (four noodle dishes, Barbara had pastries) cost HK$40. That is about US%.17, including tip.
From there we returned to our hotel and Barbara cut the pomelo she had bought the day before. It is much like a grapefruit and tastes a little sweeter. Binayak claims it was the ancestor of all modern citrus fruits.
From there Evelyn and I set out for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. There after some hassle we found the bus to Tiger Balm Garden. Aw Boon Haw was a sort of razzle-dazzle man who built an empire selling a liniment-like ointment medicine called Tiger Balm. He built behind his house his own park (later opened to the public) filled with garish statues from Buddhist lore. Many mythical characters are rendered in brightly colored cement with considerably more enthusiasm than either imagination or taste. Most are larger than the people visiting them. There is a whole structure of cement mountains with an intricate network of cave paths. In all there must be miles of pathways and steps. You visit dragons and phoenixes, and humanoid animals, and statues of wise Buddhists and foolish generals. There is also a priceless collection of jade that we didn't know about and missed. Then there are scenes from the ten hells that look like scenes out of Dante's Inferno. One is the hell for sellers of false medicines. In this hell the inventor of China's "Absorbine, Jr."~might have had a special interest. Presiding over the whole sorry affair under a palatial canopy is a bronze statue of Aw Boon Haw, successful businessman, devout Buddhist, paragon of human wisdom, megalomaniac, and laughing stock. And a spirit very much akin to many we find in America.
On the way back we talked to another couple who had been traveling in Singapore and Indonesia, and were finishing in Hong Kong. I asked them what was the one thing they wished they'd known a month before. "If a town looks at first like a hell-hole, don't stay. It won't get any better." They also had had some interesting adventures I will leave to Evelyn to relate. We returned to the hotel with a minor diversion by crossing on the Star Ferry three times. Once we went first class, twice we went economy. You get a very nice view of Hong Kong from the Star Ferry. If you go economy, it costs about US$0.13 to cross. First class is about three cents more.
On the way we saw them selling in a store "Rice Paddy Dolls: Short Grains"--plush cushion-faced dolls who were supposedly recent immigrants from the PRC. Each came with its own passport. The line between homage and parody is thin.
The afternoon was somewhat wasted, I think. We wanted to see the historical museum in Kowloon Park. It was very small and only mildly interesting. It had one exhibit on the history of Hong Kong and another on art motifs in children's clothing and toys. We also stocked up for Thailand and shopped a little. We made a reservation at the restaurant we could not get into the previous night, the Golden City.
We went back to the hotel to write but we each fell asleep. We have been waking up early, unintentionally, and writing in our logs (a constant battle to keep up to date when we travel). We woke up at 7 PM, when we'd agreed to meet the others for dinner. They'd come knocking. Barbara had a big lunch but the rest of us went, little knowing that we would be taking part in the Battle of the Turtle Soup.
We got to the restaurant and they started to put us upstairs. Steve and Binayak followed somebody up. We thought we should tell them that we'd had a reservation. So I did and they said in that case they'd serve us down on the lower level. The hostess used a walkie-talkie called the waitress leading Steve and Binayak upstairs and told her to bring them back down. Steve said it was nicer upstairs, but we ate in the lower and more hectic section. Very quickly the waitress brought us menus and little cups of Iron Buddha Tea. We ordered dishes mostly with an eye toward trying different animals. We had goose, pigeon, cuttlefish, and turtle soup. While we were reading the menu the waitress had picked up the Iron Buddha teacups. I hadn't even gotten a chance to taste mine. The portions were small and we almost had to fight the waitress to keep her from taking them away as soon as you could possibly interpret them as being almost finished. She took away the pigeon when there was still a piece of meat on the plate. Steve asked if we thought we were getting the "bum's rush," which, of course, we were. Then came the last course, the turtle soup, which came only about twenty minutes or less after we first sat down. The waitress came and distributed the small servings, not even distributing everything from the serving tureen before taking it away.
The natural and most efficient way to drink a fluid is to put the source to your lips and drink it that way, but of course in a nice restaurant that simply isn't done. Using a spoon takes a lot longer. Also, it is very hard to get all the soup out of a bowl with a spoon. At some point you start getting diminishing returns in the amount you are able to pick up. To really thoroughly eat soup from a bowl is a long and time-consuming process, particularly if you want to savor every spoonful. I suddenly decided this soup was good enough to savor every spoonful. The others finished their soup while I was only about one-quarter done and appreciating the smooth texture of the broth. The waitress took their bowls away when they were not quite finished. Steve reassured me that I should take my time. While I was still enjoying the texture of the meat, the waitress decided to see if she could rush me out and asked if I was finished. "No, I'm still working on it," I said, stating the obvious.
I was trying to appreciate the subtle interplay of the flavor of the broth and the meat when the waitress decided to embarrass me by removing every item from the table but my soup. She went to grab for the dish the pigeon had been on but stopped herself mid-grab when she saw that I was now gnawing on a bone from the pigeon. I went back and forth between the pigeon and the soup, trying where I could. Truly each dish brought out nuances of flavor I had not noticed in the other.
Finally the restaurant capitulated and brought out glasses of tea for each of us and another tray of little cups of Iron Buddha tea. At least I think it was a capitulation. It might have been just a new strategy. It was at this point that I began to notice that I was becoming nauseated by the very thought of turtle soup. I set aside the nearly empty bowl of soup--as empty as if I had picked up the bowl and drunk it. I drank my tea and asked for the bill. They brought it very quickly. On the way out I resisted the temptation to make a reservation for the following night, just to see their reaction. The whole meal took about seventy minutes.
We went back to the hotel to pick up Barbara and then walked around, ending up down at the Star Ferry where there is a nice walkway. Then the group stopped for a snack at .... No, I'm sorry. I refuse to tell you where they stopped. I had a chocolate shake.
October 9, 1990: Well, things had been a little adventuresome till now. Hong Kong is, after all, reasonably exotic for us New Jersey-ites. But Hong Kong in general is reasonably tame. It was a preparation for what was to come. The real adventure starts with Thailand. And this was the day it was starting. We were interested in dim sum breakfast and so was Steve, so the three of us went to the same place we went the first day in Hong Kong. The selection was not as good as it had been on a weekend day but we managed to get what we wanted.
After breakfast we went back to the promenade where we'd been the night before. We looked over water to Hong Kong Island; we shot pictures of the water traffic. One little boat seemed almost on the verge of capsizing every time a large boat came by, though I assume the man standing in it and guiding it knew what he was doing. Several of the boats seemed to have whole families on board, including pets. One dog angrily barked at other boats in the hopes that they wouldn't realize there was no possible way we could be a threat. The dog was ignored. After a while we decided just to walk in a more or less random direction and ended in a Chinese neighborhood in which we were the only big-noses. (On our trip to mainland China we'd referred to Westerners as "round-eyes." Since Westerners sometimes refer to Chinese as "slant-eyes," we figured that if they had a similar term for us, it would also refer to the differences in the shape of our eyes. I later heard they did pick out a physical feature but it wasn't the eyes. Chinese think Westerners have large noses.)
There were meat shops with the strong smell of hanging meat. There were herbal shops. There were street hawkers selling things as familiar as underwear or as unfamiliar as frogs. We'd see a sort of writhing stringbag and inside would be a pile of frogs. Buyers could choose to have their live frog "cleaned" as you'd clean a fish. One scene quite grisly by our standards was the snake merchant. He had a basket of live snakes. If you wanted one he would flay it and leave it whipping around in a box until it died. This has sort of put me off eating snakes.
From there it was the Metro back to our neighborhood, then to the grocery to pick up some final goods and to our hotel to settle the bill and to grab a bus for the airport. There is nothing particularly remarkable to report about leaving Hong Kong or Thai Airlines except that I thought the orange juice was particularly good. The meals were okay and made better by a chili sauce you could get to put on them. The Thais seem to love spicy food and you can easily get something spicy at every meal. We were laid over for an hour or so at Bangkok getting a flight to Chiang Mai. (As an ironic omen the airport at Bangkok had background music from West Side Story and the actual piece of music was "I Like To Be in America.") Things were pretty uninteresting until we got to Chiang Mai. Then they started to pick up. Coming off the plane, those who'd come from outside the country were sent to Customs. There they had all our luggage. Evelyn, who always carries on her suitcase, checked it this once and, guess what, they lost it. Clearing Customs was a grueling "Anything to declare? No? Okay." Then we figured out by process of elimination which was Evelyn's check slip. She went off with someone and came back in a few minutes with the news that her suitcase was found in Phuket. It would be in Chiang Mai the next day. Now the adventure really began. We had to navigate in a country with a foreign language. I mean really foreign. You go to Europe, even Russia, and at least the language is like something you've seen before. The Thai alphabet is an incomprehensible (to me) set of squiggles. If you saw the same word two different places it would take a fair amount of effort to verify that it was the same word. It is easier to recognize the same Chinese ideogram two different than the same Thai word.
It was 8 PM and we needed a place to stay so the next step was to go looking for a phone. The second step was to tell a taxi driver we didn't want to go anywhere yet. Third step was to find our list of hotels. Fourth, fifth, and sixth we told taxi drivers we didn't want to go anywhere yet. Then we called a place. We discovered that their rates had gone way up. We spent a couple of minutes shooing away taxi drivers and we tried the Montri Hotel. They gave us a good price. We told them we'd be there shortly. Next was the question of how to get to the hotel. As it happened there was a taxi driver right there. How much to the Montri? For five people, 20 baht per person. Binayak said, "Too much." He tried to bargain the driver down.
When I am negotiating prices, Evelyn occasionally used to jump into the argument on the other side. When we were trading in our last car to get the current one we'd agreed on a price, then the dealer claimed he'd found something wrong with the old car and he would not give us the agreed trade-in value. I said we'd agreed on a price. I had heard of this strategy being used before. Evelyn argued that if there really was something wrong they should pay us less for the old car. With Evelyn arguing against me I lost. This was a problem more than once and finally I got Evelyn to agree to a rule. If someone is negotiating for your side you support them or remain silent.
A baht is pretty close to four cents American. The driver was asking for eighty cents apiece for a fifteen-minute cab ride. Considering all the luggage we had that sounded like a fair price and the driver would not budge from it. I decided not to enter the negotiation on the driver's side and just clammed up. I think Binayak eventually realized that he was arguing over a very small sum of money, less than a dollar, and we were off. The one problem is there was seating for only four passengers so Evelyn sat on my lap.
Driving to the hotel the difficulty of our position became more obvious to Barbara. She said we cannot speak the language or even read a menu. We are in seriously foreign territory. My father worked with some Japanese at one point who spoke and read no English. (Well, there were members of their group that was true of.) They learned to go to the grocery and get along quite well. They were, however, warned that in the grocery they should not buy any cans that had pictures of dogs or cats.
In the dark it looked like I could make our someone at a bar who looked of European descent, so I was not much worried. I saw an American sitting there. There must be a way for us to get along. The hotel was quite comfortable and encouraging. We settled into our rooms, turned on the air conditioning, and were home, at least for a while.
First thing we wanted to do was to see the night market. We got instructions and headed out. We passed tantalizing, fascinating-looking Buddhist temples and, yes, a few more Americans.
Then we got to the night market and my heart sank. The first analogy that came to mind was "Southern California," but later I changed that to "Tijuana East." There were more Americans (or Europeans) than Thais. There was rock music blaring from stands selling cassettes. No Thai music, all American rock. Most of the sellers were Thai but everybody walking around looked American. I told Barbara if she was worried about how we could read the local menus we could ask one of the teenagers passing by. Or maybe someone in a local restaurant we saw with the quaint name "Burger Hut."
I don't know where they all came from or what they were all doing here. Barbara said she'd heard that a lot of American hippies liked Chiang Mai. They are attracted by the proximity of the Golden Triangle and cheap drugs, perhaps. You see a lot of tourist agencies offering treks to the Golden Triangle region. I'm not sure if they are mostly for drug runners or not. And I am not sure how many really were Americans, as opposed to Australian or other people of European descent.
There really is a bordertown feel to Chiang Mai with things ranging from just nice to just a little sleazy. You get a lot of Americans throwing around money and a fair number of Thais who are willing and happy to stock whatever is necessary to make Americans feel comfortable.
After looking around at what was being sold, we bought some bottled water (about a third of the price of what it was in Hong Kong) and headed back to our hotel.
October 10, 1990: The first thing I did when it got light was to look out the window to see Chiang Mai by day. Most of it looked like inexpensive housing and a few high buildings. Off to one side was a chedi, a spike Buddhist spire. To another side I saw a temple with three red parallel roofs decorated with nagas (serpents). Yeah, this was the real thing, all right.
Breakfast was at the restaurant next door to the hotel. They could accommodate the most prosaic American taste but they also had Thai breakfast food. I had boiled rice and cuttlefish. There were two or three piquant condiments to choose from. Good stuff. And I had a couple of glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice.
After that we set out to change money and find the local tour situation. It was, admittedly, already very hot but it was a nice wet heat. Real steambath weather.
Street crossing seemed a real problem. The traffic never seems to let up. You can wait a long time for a gap. Later in the day a German who lives here saw us having trouble and showed us the secret. You have to be careful of the motorcycles and mopeds who often don't yield the right of way to pedestrians. But vehicles with three or more wheels seem perfectly happy to yield to pedestrians. You just start to cross the street and make shooing motions with your hands and the cars stop for you. The German says he's been living in Chiang Mai for years and he's never had a problem. It was pretty good advice.
We stopped at a modest temple and made a small contribution, and saw a not very well-made Buddha. This was a fairly ornate sanctuary (a "viharn"). We continued on to the Tourist Agency of Thailand (T.A.T.). We picked a couple of tours we wanted to try. Both were recommended by the T.A.T. One was to be that afternoon, one the next day. The walk to the T.A.T.~had completely washed us out in the heat so we took a seelor back to the hotel. A seelor is like a small pickup truck converted to a minibus. In the cargo section there are two parallel benches running lengthwise. Then there is a roof over it, but the back seems dangerously open.
Back at the hotel the elevator was out of order so we climbed the stairs to our room. Four flights in this weather is no picnic. Evelyn called the airport and they had her suitcase.
We took a seelor to the airport. On the way I looked at my situation. Plain old Mark Leeper is here in the back of a pickup truck being bounced around roads decorated with amazing Buddhist temples. Yeah, I can dig it.
We got to the airport. Evelyn went to Customs and they got her case. The Customs agent asked her, "Anything to declare?" She said no. He felt the side of her bag and said, "Okay." For that ritual we had to come back.
We rode our seelor back to the hotel. The others had been able to sit around the hotel when we had to drag out to the airport. I think our ride was more interesting than what they did. You've picked a good trip when all your bad luck keeps turning out better than the good luck.
Binayak picked a restaurant from the Lonely Planet book that he could actually see from his window. For once a restaurant description was of a restaurant still around. It was pretty good. We got chicken curry, a fish in hot sauce, a minced pork dish, and a couple of others. We paid maybe US$1.25 each.
Then we returned to our hotel to await the 1:30 PM tour that had been arranged. This was the Temples and City Tour. This was billed as four temples:
Wat Pra Sing is the Wat of the Lion. The lion is the symbol of strength. There are several statues of lions. They are even more stylized than Chinese lions. You see many snake images at Buddhist temples. These are Naga, the mighty snake who brings the rain. Like the Chinese dragon he is a good fellow in spite of his fierce looks. And unlike the Chinese dragon he is as fierce and ugly as the artist can manage. Often he is portrayed as if he were being eaten. In fact, it is just the opposite. He is being spewed by Mogala, the dragon who gave birth to him.
The Wat Chedi Leung has a massive chedi that was at one point three hundred feet high but was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1546. It is now being restored to its original magnificence--assuming they have some record of how it is to look. In England they preserved the spot in Westminster Abbey where a bomb fell in World War II; that is a piece of its history. So is the damage that the earthquake did to Wat Chedi Leung. And that damage is more a part of history since it has been that way for almost four and a half centuries. But the Buddha deserves a perfect chedi and it will be restored.
Wat Chet Yot should have been next. And it is the most important in the area. Instead we were taken to a rather dull open-air wat called Wat Suan Dok. It is distinguished by the open-air construction and by the vendors out front. Up till now the tour had been pretty good, but this substitution, which we only later realized had been made, was a bad touch. At this point, about ninety minutes short of the projected tour length, the guide said the tour was over. This did not go over well. The brochure said we'd be going to a market and we hadn't done that. For me the market was not a big attraction. The others seemed to think it was a major part of the tour. I am not sure what "seeing a market" means. The guide appeared not to know either. Essentially it was interpreted as "you're supposed to go shopping with us." So for an hour the driver parked the car and the guide went shopping. When we had shopped we found our van and then came the difficult task of getting our van out of the parking lot. It is like a block puzzle. All the regular spaces are filled and the aisles are also filled with cars that are locked but left in neutral. If you need to get out, you push cars out of your way ...~often as not right into another car. Getting out was a real mess.
From there it was back to the hotel to freshen up and then out walking. Binayak chose a place from the guide book and we walked for about ninety minutes. The place was closed and a less promising restaurant had taken its place. We took a seelor to get back toward things and picked a restaurant we passed. I think the waiter was illiterate. He would take one person's order, go and get that dish, then move on to the next person. I was hot and in the heat not very hungry so I just had a pineapple fruit snake and a banana split. Nice cool energy.
Evelyn had the Spicy Thai Salad. She found it was too spicy for her. I took some and it seemed okay. After eating for a while I realized my mouth was really burning. It was too spicy for me, which is rare in a dish I don't make for myself. Binayak tried some, had no trouble. Five minutes later Binayak too found his mouth on fire. We established the culprit was a tiny green pepper about a quarter of an inch long and fairly narrow. It was a killer. Over dinner we discussed how bad things were going. I still don't know what they were talking about. Other saw serious personality conflicts and bad organization. I actually had thought things were going well. I think we were all tired of long pointless walks. I suggested that rather than picking a place to eat out of the guide book, we keep track of where we see a choice of restaurants. Binayak said he was tired of leading. My contention was that he kept choosing to lead and we acquiesced. We often also ran things by democracy, easy to do in a group this size, and things work out fine that way.
We also decided to do less city-hopping. That cuts down on the organization necessary. We'd planned to stay in some hotels just one night. That was going to be a lot of arranging. Instead we will stay in two or three base cities per country. Then we will take day trips.
We were eating at a hotel's restaurant. We thought we'd see what trekking tours they had. They had one we liked. The problem was, could we book our train to Bangkok if we were out trekking the next day? I suggested we use the next day for booking and both trek and travel to Bangkok on the same day. Sure enough that was the best plan. Ah, democracy in action. We returned to our hotel.
October 11, 1990: The morning was spent taking a seelor tour of local industries. (We first took the seelor to the train station to book a sleeper to Bangkok.) Silk, celadon, umbrellas. Lots of shops but we did little buying. American spending very welcome.
For lunch we decided to go back to the same place as the day before. It was, after all, the only restaurant recommended in the guide book that hadn't been closed. Today it was closed. We ate at the hotel coffee shop. It actually was not bad as a restaurant. Lots of Thai dishes. We'd been having breakfast there each day and I'd had boiled rice with cuttlefish. Very nice. This time I had what turned out to be a mediocre shrimp croquette ("shrimp patty in plum sauce," they were called, I think). We took a seelor to the previous night's restaurant and booked our trek for the next day. On the way back Evelyn and I took a side trip to try and find a wat I had seen from our hotel window. We had to do a little wandering but it turned out to be two blocks away and one of the most beautiful of the wats I'd seen. Looking at the map I think it was the Wat Pan Tao. If you look at the illustrations on the walls they are all demons fighting each other and monsters. Yet the feel of being on the grounds is one of incredible peace and serenity. The main building had a Thai triple roof: a long roof, then a shorter roof above it, then a shorter roof above that. The walls below the roof are white and look like stucco. Inlaid are carved wood panels covering the windows. Somewhere there is a bell rhythmically tinkling. Here we are trespassing within temple grounds and the monks just look as if we were clouds.
From there it was back to the hotel for a rest, then about 5:30 PM we took a seelor to the night market. Barbara got all tied up in a negotiation over a bedspread that was claimed to be king-sized but wasn't. We found a restaurant by the side of the river and I ate light. I had egg and meat with fried noodles. It turned out to be like Beef-a-roni made with chow fun noodles with a fried egg on top. It was a good place to eat. We weren't the only ones who thought so. A bunch of mosquitoes thought so too.
Through and after dinner I was not feeling well. I had sweat, chills, and a stomach ache. After dinner we walked back to the night market. We stuck with Steve, who bought sandals, then Evelyn, Steve, and I bought water and returned to the hotel. I went straight to the bathroom where I was entertained by a gray lizard (a gecko?)~who'd stopped in our bathroom on its insect-eating rounds.
October 12, 1990: Up early to pack and check our luggage. Breakfast at the coffee shop. Then we were picked up by Noy, our guide for the day's trek. We packed into the back of his seelor and headed out for the hill tribe area. Our progress was soon stopped. The street was blocked by a police parade. This was Annual Police Day. I later asked Noy if this would have been a good day to stay in town and rob a store.
I think it was Barbara who commented how very easy-going and laid-back the dogs seemed to be in Thailand. It may be the climate is too hot and humid for them to get into much mischief. But they don't seem to bark or fight. They just seem to take it all in their stride. We saw some from the seelor. The seelor had a speaker system and Noy played dull American music. When we stopped at one point I asked if he had Thai music and he did play us some.
We stopped and got some candy to hand out at the village. I got a bag of candy bars and a bag of Bi-Po Jelly Cones. These are plastic cones about two inches long, one inch wide at the top, filled with Jell-o. Technically Jell-o is candy, I suppose. Barbara saw Steve getting two bags of candy bars and told Steve that it was going to run into big bucks. The bags of candy bars turned out to be about 15B (or US$0.60) each. In the rural areas of Thailand there are no big bucks.
As the seelor got to more rural roads we saw more rice paddies and brahma bulls and even a water buffalo or two in the field. When we got to unpaved road the seelor slowed down and we took turns hanging off the back. The scenery changed from farm to jungle.
It is easy to hear "jungle" and let your imagination run riot with images of lush tropical plants, snakes slithering in the trees, humidity dripping off of things. That was sort of what I expected in South America. Those jungles probably exist someplace, but I haven't seen them. I guess they are called rain forests. Aside from some broadleaf plants, the jungles we saw in Thailand look not a whole lot different from the jungles of Massachusetts, only thicker. A jungle is just a thick forest.
As we were slowed down on a bumpy road a man jumped onto the back of the seelor. He was an old man missing most of his teeth. We smiled at each other. He made signs with his hands that he had been to a doctor (at least he showed us a hypo and some drugs) and that he had a bad knee. At least he kept holding it. I have read enough science fiction in which people try to talk to aliens and Neanderthals that I had the procedure down pretty well. You start with "My name is ..."~in sign language and build up to "Help me repair my space ship/time machine." First things first. I put my hand on my chest and said, "Mark." I pointed to Binayak and said, "Binayak." I pointed and said, "Evelyn." Then I pointed to the old man. He grinned in incomprehension. I started over naming people. Same grin. Communicating in sign language is harder than it looks. We tried Thai, but the hill tribes don't speak it. We ended up smiling a lot at each other. Eventually he jumped off.
We stopped to see a waterfall. This turned out to be a few hundred yards down a slope on which a path had been cleared. Places there were actual steps that had been dug, but others there was just a mud slope. Since I have a small foot size for my weight and not much tread on the shoes I brought, steep mud embankments were a real problem. Going down it was mostly just keeping my balance and at one spot I just slid down on the seat of my pants. Better my pants get a little muddy than my face. At the bottom there was about a forty-foot waterfall. There also was some trash strewn around so this place had been discovered. Going back up sliding became a serious problem and I needed a hand once or twice. By the time I got to the top I was really sweaty. The trip log was pretty wet on the outside from sweat. The most valuable thing I take on a trip is my passport. It is always with me. The second most valuable thing I take is my trip log. It often goes through a lot but it is nearly always with me. B y the time I have finished one notebook (I go through one a week or so) the cardboard of the cover is pilling and a layer or so has been rubbed away. I could even feel the first page was wet from sweat. Of course it isn't just the jungle that makes us sweat. Just about everywhere we go is over 90 degrees and very, very humid. I have been turning up the air conditioning in the hotel just to get away from the heat. Poor Evelyn practically freezes at night.
We took the seelor a little way down the road and stopped at a Red Karen village. The Karen are a hill tribe. These were called Red Karen because red is a color that married women tend to wear. Unmarried women wear white. Karen are a peaceful agricultural people. All the hill tribes were heavily into opium production. When the government told them to stop growing opium they had a real fight on their hands, with pretty much all the hill tribes but the Karen, who were peaceful enough not to want trouble and who were good enough at farming that they could afford to give up the lucrative crop. There are six major tribes representing about a half million people but more than half are Karen. When I say the Karen are good farmers, that strictly speaking is not true. All the hill tribes are semi-nomadic slash-and-burn farmers and the government tries to teach them better styles of agriculture. We visited a village of about seventy Karen. We walked down a side of a hill from the road and the path led past a stream in which some children were playing, some clothed, some naked. We crossed the stream at a bridge that was little more than long bamboo stalks, cut in half lengthwise and tied together by cable. There is very little support, the whole bridge bounces when you walk on it, and the bamboo shifts. Very tough to cross for one so unsurely-footed as myself. The village itself looks extremely poor and ramshackle, with wooden shacks loosely built on stilts. One of the bigger buildings did, however, have a television antenna. They had some home-built machines, including a big lever-like device for pounding the rice and separating it from the husk. Most of the adults were out working. There were only about ten or fifteen people in the village when we visited. One old man saw us passing from the side but when he saw my face he gave a big grin. It was our nameless friend from the seelor. He had us sit down and we smiled at each other while the guide talked to him. His lips were bright red, having come back from the doctor and sitting down to chew betel nuts. We saw a very young calf and Barbara was able to call it over to us but a grunt from mother called it back. We handed out candy to the children and talked to two or three families before heading back to the bridge--a little easier to cross the second time--and the seelor.
We drove a little way, then we stopped and were told to leave everything on the seelor and climb down an embankment. There were four rafts made of bamboo (what else?). They were not very wide, about twelve feet by three feet, and when you stepped on them they sank below water level--so much for the one pair of shoes I brought, traveling light. They put us on two of the rafts (Binayak and I shared a raft), each with a steersman at each end, and sent us down the river. Warning: this ride gets wet. Very wet. But in the heat it felt good. Generally the water was calm though there was some white water and a couple of times we hit rocks pretty hard. A couple of times we tipped at about a 30-degree angle though, of course, it felt like a lot more. Early on we hit a low branch and a green spider fell onto my leg. It was about an inch and a half across though, of course, it seemed a lot bigger. Now the problem was how we could get the spider back some place where it could survive. We considered flipping it to shore but we were never really close enough. I am pretty sure at this point that it was the spider's last day, but I thought if I could keep it isolated from the water long enough we could put it ashore when the trip was over. Then came a big drenching splash and no spider. Well, as Binayak pointed out later, it had jumped to my head. Well, I don't know which spiders are dangerous around here. Binayak asked if he should flick it off and I told him yes. I expected a light flick to the boat but instead it was a heavy flick into the water and suddenly the number of legs on the boat dropped from sixteen to eight. It was all over for my little green friend.
The trip lasted about thirty-five minutes. Then we climbed a bank to the "Elephant Ridding Camp," as the sign described it. They had a bunch of box lunches. They included a chicken drumstick. The batter was good and spicy but the meat itself did not taste very good so I gave it a miss. There were also salami sandwiches, tasteless brownies, an orange, and a banana. While I was eating a warm, wet vacuum cleaner snuffled my arm. It seemed I was being panhandled by 500 pounds (or more?) of baby elephant. We fed him some orange slices provided by Barbara (mine were gone already). The baby went over to have a drink from Mama. This did not fit into one of the elephant handlers plans and he hit the baby with a bamboo switch. Baby made an angry half-charge on the handler but stopped himself. We also saw an old bull elephant being walked around camp with his two front legs chained together so he could only limp. Lined up near where we were eating were the three elephants we'd ride. I tried to feed one grapes and orange slices but he could not seem to get them to his mouth.
Eventually came the time to ride the elephants. There was a W-shaped wooden frame with seats placed above it. This is placed on the elephant's back. A rope goes from it around the elephant's neck; another goes to a ring around the elephant's tail and is cinched up tight. We climbed to a high platform, stepped on the elephant's head, and stepped into the seat.
I had ridden well-trained horses along a path and they had been reasonably co-operative. That was not what this was like. An elephant, and an Asian elephant in particular, is a very intelligent animal, much more than a horse. (An elephant who sees a monkey trapped in mud will pull the monkey out and set it free, which implies to me a high order of intelligence.) In any case, the elephants were not co-operative as horses would be, so they had to be driven by five or six drivers.
The drivers would hit the elephant with bamboo switches. One stood on the ground and repeatedly threw a rock bigger than his head at the rear flanks of the elephant. The same rock was thrown at the elephant's face several times. All this was done with all the force the boy could muster. Our elephant kept wanting to leave the path so was singled out for particular attention. Even when he seemed to be behaving, as far as we could tell, the driver kept hitting the elephant. Then our driver got the hook. It was a device about the size of a hammer that looked like apiece of climbing gear. It had a big metal half-crescent. Our driver hit the elephant on the top of the head and the side of the neck with this tool, sometimes with the stalk of the tool, sometimes with the pointed end. He also poked the hook in the elephant's ear. They were blows hard enough to kill a man, but of course an elephant isn't a man, is he?
Riding an elephant sounded interesting in the brochure and once we were strapped on the elephant we were pretty much captive ourselves for about seventy-five minutes. I found myself wishing I could demonstrate to the driver how to use the hook. I wouldn't have needed an elephant. I was looking forward to the elephant ride and it turned out to be a low point of the trip. We were offered a trip to an elephant show a day or so later and Steve's response was, "No more elephants." I quite agree.
From where we got off the elephants we were only a short walk to the Meo village. The Meo are descended, it is claimed, from Genghis Khan's Mongols. Premarital sex is actually encouraged as part of courtship and when a couple decides to tie the know sex temporarily ends and the prospective husband gives five silver ingots to the girl's parents. The village was nearly deserted. In fact, the only ones who came to see us at first were a couple of dogs. I fed them a little candy to win them over. Binayak suspected that it might not be taken well by the villagers that we were giving candy to the dogs and not people. At this point a few of the villagers made their presence known. We did not find them as communicative as the Karen but they were happy to take candy.
Then we started the walk back to the van. We started about 4:05 PM. I asked the guide how far we were walking and he said about twenty minutes. After about five minutes of walking he pointed across the valley to a tiny red spot that was our seelor. We all had the same thought: This is not a fifteen-minute walk. That sucker was a long distance away. I guessed it would take another forty-five minutes. It turned out to be about eighteen minutes away from that point, meaning I am a very poor judge of my own cross-country speed. I guess a lot of the trek was downhill.
As if we were not already dusty enough, the trip back was through clouds of dust. It got so that even when we sneezed, we sneezed dust. We sucked the warm water we had with us.
Back at the hotel we rented two rooms for half an hour and showered. We had a quick dinner at the coffee shop. I had another banana split to cool me off and to rebuild my sugar level. If it was what my body needed, I felt it best to oblige it.
After that it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then find a seelor to take us to the train station. We had not been able to get an air-conditioned car for the night run to Bangkok. There was only a second-class car and we were not sure what to expect. One thing sure was that it was hot in the train station and we were afraid it would be even hotter on the train. The train that pulled in didn't reassure us either. It was dusty and not very comfortable-looking. Barbara pointed out that they were unloading chickens. Steve went to look for our car and discovered it wasn't even on the train. They would be adding more cars later. They did. We boarded. Not too surprisingly the cars were very cramped and quite warm. Otherwise they were comfortable enough. The car was about half tourist and half Thai. We had been able to get four uppers and one lower. Three of the uppers were near each other. The other two were isolated. The two women got two of the three nearby uppers (I am not sure of the reasoning) and we had drawn tickets for the other three berths. I had drawn the isolated lower. Actually, that berth might have made sense for Barbara, who is the only member of our group traveling with multiple pieces of luggage. We guys each have essentially backpacks, Evelyn has a piece of luggage with a strap, Barbara has two pieces which she tends to strap onto a luggage trolley. That is an inconvenient way to travel because she has to keep setting the thing up and disassembling it. That slows things down a bit.
Barbara has a different approach to travel than Evelyn and I do. Hers is more the grand tradition of travel. She travels in style, or at least tries to, while we travel in more a vagabond, utilitarian manner, everything on our back, that sort of thing. We tend to look for ancient and historic sites; Barbara likes market places. We each like some of the other, of course, but it is a different mix. Prior to the trip Binayak talked about half about just being among the people, one quarter about seeing the historic culture, and about one quarter about marketing. However, on the first day in Chiang Mai he said he was "watted out." From that point his tastes were closer to Barbara's, which to some extent made things a bit easier. While Binayak and Barbara are doing the same sort of thing, we can have Evelyn and I doing historic things. Steve can choose between them if he wants, or do a third thing. But it makes things a bit easier with a bit less planning while their interests are in common as they are. I referred the this at one point as the "Barbara-ing of Binayak." Bad choice of words since Barbara still seems to think we look down on her marketing, but it is really a good thing since it is better than fragmentation.
But I digress.
The berths were small but there was a rotating fan for each group of four and when the train was moving they were sufficiently comfortable. I settled down to write in my log when I heard Evelyn saying, "Where's Mark?" I stuck my head out. I had the shortwave and she wanted me to get the news. Somebody on the train had heard a rumor that war had broken out in the Middle East. She wanted me to find the news. It took me about an hour to establish that there was nothing I could get in the train car on any of the shortwave bands and the local AM and FM stations did not have English news. I reported that to Evelyn and went to bed.
October 13, 1990: The sleeping was not as good as in a hotel room, but not bad either. The bed got shaken a bit. I used foam earplugs and the noise didn't bother me. I woke up about 5 AM and wrote for a while. At a little after 6 AM Binayak woke up and came to sit in the seat opposite me which had remained empty. He suggested that we open a window which had an opaque screen over it. I was not sure it opened, but it did. In the pre-dawn light we could see rice paddies going past the windows.
We saw a mix of fields and towns going by. The towns were drab and some even ramshackle. When we pulled up to a town people would come by the train window selling breakfast. I got a sweet bean paste bun. More Chinese than Thai, I thought. But there is, of course, a strong Chinese influence on the culture in Thailand.
There were some spectacular views through the morning. Some limestone formations were impressive and reminiscent of China. Then one place there was a tall stand of trees and peering over the top was a huge head of the Buddha.
We were due to arrive in Bangkok at about 10:30 AM, but were better than half an hour late. We went to a phone booth and started calling hotels and guest houses in the cheap range. A rotund gentleman came over and asked if we wanted a cab. We told him we didn't need a cab. He seemed to find that funny. We found a guest house--not our first choice--that did have rooms. We started looking for a cab. The rotund fellow was still there and we bargained a price with him. It turned out he was not a cab driver at all. He either managed a fleet of cabs or was some sort of self-appointed expediter. We said we really wanted a seelor because there would not be enough room for all of us in a cab. He assured us it would be a very big cab. It turned out to be a little compact. The trunk had to be roped down to hold all our luggage. I sat in front with the driver since I happen to have a wide skeleton and am a bit wider than the others. (Evelyn constantly confuses having a big frame with being fat because she has a little wiry frame and does not fill it out as well as I do.) The other four sat in back. One leaned forwarded, the next leaned back, in sort of a snaggle formation. Now the driver really was fat. And on top of that he was on a program to lose five pounds a week by the clear-your-throat-and-spit method.
We arrived at the Central Guest House. To get to it we pretty much had to crawl over a trash heap. The place looked very run-down. Barbara said what I was thinking: "Have you lost your mind?" The three guys went up to see the rooms, not expecting much. We didn't see the rooms; all we saw was the public shower and said, "Sorry, no." So here we were in Bangkok dehydrating ourselves carrying around all our luggage. We set up a base in an open restaurant, had lunch (I had fried noodle with beef), and planned what to do next. It turned out we were right near the Royal Hotel. It was in the moderate range, a little over 1000B a night. Steve and Binayak went off to scout it. At the price they thought it was okay so we took a taxi and settled into our rooms. It is a big hotel that was probably very nice once. There were big mildew stains on the ceiling. The toilet did not completely flush. Our room was cavernous with a big wooden closet. I turned on the television to see if I could get some Middle East news. Instead there was some sort of a martial arts film in which a young man was fighting an old man who looked like a Chinese version of Takashi Shimura. In spite of leaps that defied Newtonian physics he was losing, then a book or amulet he was carrying (I didn't catch which) started acting strangely. It had a picture of four women in white-face with white tights, red-orange lips, and matching fright-wigs. They came alive and grew to full size and started beating up on the old man. At one point the boy was in a pose with curbed hands and one of the nixies tapped him on the shoulder and told him to straighten his hand. With five-against-one odds the old man was quickly trounced. Cut to end title. I must say that martial arts films don't do much for me.
After a while of getting rested up the five travelers set out for the T.A.T.~(Tourist Authority of Thailand).
I am used to walking around in places in which the drivers are mild, courteous, and sane--like Manhattan. I guess what is most unnerving is the speed of the traffic. You really feel you are taking your life in your hands when you cross a street. On some streets the crosswalks are controlled by lights that stop the traffic for walkers, but the cycle is very long and you can stand there a long time if you don't take the risk. When you do take it, you really have to run across the street the first gap you get.
Steve stopped to exchange some money at the window of a bank. The transaction ahead of us took at least fifteen minutes. When Steve got to the window the teller said, "Just a minute," and walked away. After about another five minutes in the heat we gave up. People seem less friendly here than in Chiang Mai. Finally we found an ATM that would accept Steve's card and he got some money. Steve was the only one on the trip who remembered to bring his Personal Identification Number for the cash machines. He has found three categories of cash machines. Some do accept his card, some reject it as if it were a library card he'd inserted by mistake, and some say, "Welcome, Steven Goldsmith," and then "Sorry, your card has been damaged." Steve figures that the protocol is similar but part of the encoding is different so that they can read his name but not some of the other information.
The walk to the T.A.T.~was a long one in the heat and frankly the scenery of Bangkok is just not as interesting as that of Chiang Mai, other than the occasional temple. We see big white buildings that are hotels and government buildings, and you see a lot of ramshackle buildings that use corrugated metal a lot. There isn't much exotic architecture. It is just a big hustling city.
We walked past the Democracy Monument with its four big wing-like pylons. We also walked over one of the khlongs. Near the center of the city the smell of a khlong is really pretty bad. It smells of what is at best garbage and is probably cloaca.
After a great deal of walking we found the T.A.T.~in a big official-looking building, though the T.A.T.~itself was just a small part. We picked up some brochures but didn't really use too much of the service. Then we went out to walk to a local market. Actually the main thing we saw in the local market was a huge department store called New World. The thing is ten stories high built around an empty atrium like a Hyatt Regency. On one side parallel diagonal escalators take you up, on the other they take you down. We took the escalators up to the food court on the ninth floor. There you buy tickets at a ticket booth and then take them to dozens of stands serving food. You pick the food you want, pay in tickets, then sit down to eat in areas that give you a commanding view of Bangkok. The stand with fruit had a line of ants crawling over it. Where do ants come from nine stories up? We also tried some of their ice cream, but it wasn't very good. Barbara got a sundae, but instead of whipped cream it had popcorn to create the right look. Instead of cherries it had fake cherries made from gelatine. The latter seems to be a common substitution made in Thailand.
After dinner we went up to the top floor which was supposedly an amusement park. They had two movie theaters, a tiny zoo, a pet store, a toy store, some penny arcade sorts of concessions, etc. Saddest sight I saw was a rabbit cage in the pet store. There were two rabbits. One was dead and lying with his eyes open, the other shocked and perhaps sick backed into a corner of the cage. On the way down I stopped at the complete working supermarket and I bought a little candy. It is a Japanese brand popular in Thailand. Superlemon is lemon candy covered in a citric acid powder that makes it taste very sour. There seems to be an international mix of brands that show up on the shelves here, though United States and Japanese seem to predominate. This store has a big market for their numerous stands of Dunkin' Donuts.
By this point it was past dark so we went back to the room to freshen up a bit. The television was showing a Thai cartoon of how the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. The Thai vision of Dayton, Ohio, made it look a bit like a town in China. I used to live in Dayton and it did not look like the Thai cartoon artist thought, even given the time difference.
A little later we all got together in the bar for a drink. The service was very slow. Rather than a drink I got baked Alaska, never having had it before and being pretty sure that I would never see it so cheap again. There was live music with about seven different women signers taking turns. Five were mediocre. One was actually very bad and one was really very good. The good one wore a mini-skirt she didn't really need and gyrated to songs in an artificial way, but she also really belted the songs and while the songs were all in Thai for each of the singers, hers had the most interesting melodies that changed meter and were the most interesting to listen to.
October 14, 1990: Binayak, who'd been in Thailand a couple of years before, had a recommendation for breakfast, a restaurant across from the hotel he had stayed in. They turned out to have only Western breakfast and I had a roll, juice, and "lassie," which I usually see spelled "lassi." It is an Indian yogurt drink.
Not too surprisingly our first stop was to be the Grand Palace. We started walking, became unsure of where we were, started drifting, and all packed into a tuk-tuk. That's like a motorcycle converted to be a cab. It is one of the styles of samlor (literally, three-wheeler; a seelor is a four-wheeler).
Walking in the front a guide offered to take us around for 300B. That isn't cheap for an hour or so of work, but the group agreed.
Our first stop was the coin museum on the grounds that also gave us a thumbnail history of Thailand and the two great kings, Rama IV (born Mongkut) and Rama V (born Chulalongkorn). Prior to the rules of this father and son, Thailand wished to be left alone to do things her own way. Rama IV understood as no king before that the West was going to come to Siam and things would be very different. The West knows him best for hiring an English governess, Anna Leonowens, to teach his children and himself about the West. Leonowens turned around and wrote a one-sided book about her experiences, taking credit for many of Mongkut's improvements. This, of course, is Anna and the King of Siam, which was filmed with Rex Harrison as Mongkut, then was adapted into the Broadway play The King and I which was also filmed. The films have never been shown in Thailand because of their vast inaccuracies.
The two kings brought in bold reforms, but stopped short of democracy. In 1932 a bloodless coup ended absolute monarchy and turned Thailand into a democracy. Siam was renamed Thailand. Thailand nominally sided with Japan in World War II to regain lost territory the French and English took. They, however, did not take an active part in the war and the Americans in return treated them as an occupied country. The whole political situation is still in some ferment with military and civilian politicians running the country with some democratic reforms. The King is now a sort of figurehead ruler of the country and of Thailand's Buddhists. He was born in the far-off land of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a jazz musician and composer, an award-winning yachtsman, and still does work for the country. One of his daughters gave up her title to marry a commoner from Puerto Rico whom she met going to school in Southern California.
The coin museum has coins from Thai history, weapons, vestments for the Emerald Buddha, etc. Curiously, the windows are sealed with sealing wax that is stamped with the Royal Seal. My guess is that this is to foil attempts to break in and replace items with counterfeits. If an item is missing you wouldn't need a broken seal to tell you. From there you go into the wat area. The first thing you see are fifteen-foot statues of Yaks, Indian demons from the Ramayana (here called the Ramakien).
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha was built in 1783 by Rama I and houses a Buddha made of jade. Among the other sights are murals depicting scenes from the Ramakien. One shows a demon sleeping in a place where he is damming up a river. A heroic demon fights him in the next mural and we see the water flowing by. Later we saw buildings done in a more European style. They really stand out as not being as interesting as the classic Thai styles. In the palace there are Nagas on the edges of the roofs and at the peak is a point supposedly representing "a phoenix," according to one guide, but I suspect it was really another bird.
When the tour was over we went on to the National Museum. This is actually a fair-sized museum by Asian standards. You begin be seeing exhibits of Thai pre-history. Included are nice dioramas of incidents of Thai history. There is a portrait of Mongkut, who looks nothing at all like Rex Harrison or Yul Brynner. He is a thin wizened-looking man. B&B decided that was all they wanted to see and the other three of us went on to see the main museum. First there was a viharn containing an image of the Buddha and with the complete story of the Buddha told in paintings on the walls. Out front there are guards that look to be part man and part rooster.
Continuing on there are rooms with royal insignia, rooms with weapons, exhibits of Thai music, elephant tusks--just a heck of a lot of aspects of Thai culture. One of the strangest things was a small cannon. Picture a revolver out of the American West, but scale it larger so it is about eighteen inches or two feet long. Now take off the handle and mount it on wheels. The gun was just a giant revolver used as an artillery piece. It had about room for twenty bullets, but other than that it seemed just like a big version of a smaller gun I'd never seen. We saw an exhibit of pre-Thai sculpture, but it was all Buddhas, or just about all Buddhas. Well, just about all the Top 40 songs in the United States are about love. It is understandable that a lot of their art would be representations of the Buddha.
The Red House is the former residence of Princess Sudarek. It seems a bit spartan by Western standards. Whether it was moved or whether the museum was built around it, I am not sure.
We met up with B&B again at the hotel and set out for the weekend market. It is a big bustling pushy flea market with the Thai equivalents of what we would find in American flea markets. And a lot of American equivalents also. In addition to phony designer imitations one finds a lot of phony non-designer imitations. There are T-shirts advertising American brands that do not exist. Some have slogans in the English language but which make no sense. Most were cleverer forgeries, but I did see one professing to be from "Cololado State University." Another spelled "State" as "Staty." There is a tremendous thirst here for American culture. It isn't just to serve the American tourist. It is tough to recognize words written in the Thai alphabet but the tourist who does not recognize the words for "Coke" and "Sprite" has been traveling with his eyes closed. A street peddler, to get on my good side, said he wanted Thailand to become the 51st American state. Sure, he was just snowing me, but it is not so hard to look around Thailand and imagine it has already happened.
And guess who else is jumping into the American system? On the way over on the plane we saw ads for the spectacular new floating hotel in a place called Ho Chi Minh City. And the Vietnamese are asking the United States for help in entering world markets. A recent U.S.~News & World Report had a photo taken at the first Vietnam beauty pageant. The real tragedy of the Vietnam War was that nobody realized what a spectacular winning hand the Americans had from the beginning. Economically and politically we were destined to win without ever firing a shot. The North Vietnamese were like a wave breaking on the shore. The wave is impossible to stop. It floods the sand. Then some recedes and some sinks into the sand and soon you cannot tell the wave hit at all. By 2010 if you look at Vietnam's economic system you may not be able to tell which side had the military victory.
Anyway, we were walking around this market and we decided to get something to eat. There was a stand with a wok and some tables and chairs and we walked into it. Now the rub. They spoke almost no English, we spoke less Thai. A young woman offered rice. Then she pointed to hard-boiled eggs. Not quite what we wanted. We pointed to the wok. That didn't help. Both sides were giving up when we got an audience, someone who was just watching the goings-on while she ate her plate of beef and fried noodles. I smiled and pointed to the plate of food. Steve held up three fingers. The server smiled and showed us to a chair. We each had a dish. They had only one Coke, so we had two Sprites and a Coke. It was a meal for three for 54B. That means we each paid about US$0.72. And the food was good.
A lot of the prices were similar. You could buy a terrycloth washcloth for sixteen cents.
A stand was selling video cassettes and showing a movie which I identified immediately as Godzilla '85 Well, it was the combination of color and an ugly Godzilla.
We were walking around with Steve and his attitude was very much that he wanted to experience the culture. If I said I wanted to try the "squid on a stick," he did also. I haven't said much about Steve this log but he has turned out to be just precisely the kind of person you want to take on a trip like this. He is very uncomplaining and open to any experience that comes along. He is also very organized. We have put him in charge of taxing us in the local currency and paying for things like cab rides and dinners.
We did get squid satay. It was three pieces of squid (really three small squid) on a brochette dipped in a spicy sauce. The price was 3B or US$0.12. Good eating. A soda costs 7B. It is served in a plastic bag so you don't have to take away the bottle.
When the five of us got together again we tried to find a cab back to our hotel. We found one but the driver spoke no English and did not know our hotel. We showed him the area on the map and he took us to within a block or two of the hotel. There we were in sort of the American quarter. People were really an international set of Europeans (including Americans who are generally considered to be Euros since they are of European descent). A lot of them were what Barbara calls "aging hippies." Prices are a little higher here but we supplemented our dinner with grilled beef-on-a-stick at 5B and grilled chicken leg at 10B. We shopped a little, then returned to our room.
October 15, 1990: Evelyn, Steve, and I arranged for a trip to Ayutthaya. This area had Burmese-style temples already when in 1378 Ramatibhodi, a Thai prince, moved his capital there from Sukothai to escape smallpox.
Ayutthaya became the capital during a period when Thailand was a strong military power. Thailand controlled territory from Malacca to Angkor. The Burmese fought back and seized Ayutthaya in the 16th Century but they could not hold it long and the Thai general Naresuan the Great recaptured it. In 1763 the Burmese put together a huge army and set siege to Ayutthaya. The siege lasted two years and when the Burmese finally captured Ayutthaya they smashed the city flat. Everything flammable was burned. The citizens became Burmese slaves. Some has been restored, but the city that Louis XIV's contemporaries called larger and grander than London or Paris is no more.
Many of the wats have been restored and much that was stone stands there, impressive and ageless. There are some beautiful Khmer prangs. While chedis are concave up like horns, prangs are phallic, shaped more like cucumbers. They are majestic, like the pre-Columbian ruins of Meso-America.
Traveling with us were two other Americans, Ted and Sheryl Truske of Albuquerque. The ride out was a couple of hours. We stopped and I bought some prepared taro fish strips. The fish is dried and salted, then cut into thong-like strips about an eighth of an inch wide. In the United States we get cuttlefish cut that way in Chinese groceries.
The trip was about ninety minutes or so. Our first stop was Wat Ya Chai Mongkol. This is a Thai-style chedi, but unlike many we have seen it is not solid but has an internal chamber you can enter by climbing some steps that appear more treacherous than they really are. This chedi is in the middle of a pavilion surrounded by figures of the Buddha. People contribute money to the monks, who buy cloth and drape it on the Buddhas. I find the custom a little confusing. Presumably when the statue is made the Buddha is represented clothed. But the local custom is to assume that Buddha looks better wearing real cloth and not statue cloth. Yet surely they do not subscribe to the belief that it is the clothes that make the avatar. You would think that they are drawing attention to the clothes and away from the Buddha. More logical would be to leave the statue with the clothes the statue-maker gave it but to hang human flesh on the flesh parts. This might pose other philosophical problems, but, hey, philosophical problems are at the heart of religion. I think they just decided that dressing up the statue is really the way to go.
As we were climbing around, Evelyn started to feel faint. The guide and I tried to help her down the stairs. Next to the chedi is a small Buddha hall called Uposaka Hall. Like most viharns its center is a Buddha statue--as if there were not enough outside. There were joss sticks burning in front of the Buddha. On either side of the Buddha were two large standing clocks. Certainly that is an unusual decoration.
Coming out we decided to get Evelyn a drink that would restore her blood sugar and electrolytes. Luckily there was such a thing there formulated for athletes. I had a more ordinary soda. From there it was back to the van when we realized that Ted and Sheryl were missing. We'd last seen them at Uposaka. The guide and I went looking and found them.
Next stop was Trai Rata Nayok. It is another temple. You walk in the front door and it is dark. In an instant you see a huge Buddha looking down at you from the darkness. The statue is 26 meters high and 37 meters wide. As I walked around the base I could see the shell cracked. The interior of the statue is very unimpressive stuff. It looks like cheap concrete. Still, I cannot deny that the overall effect is dramatic.
We then saw a reclining Buddha statue that used to have a building around it, but the building was destroyed by the Burmese siege. The Buddha has a silly vacuous grin on his face. The guide book says the image of Buddha was heavily restored in 1956. A second huge Buddha awaited at Viharn Pra Mongkol Bopit. This is Thailand's largest Buddha.
The final and by far the most impressive stop of the morning and perhaps the while trip was Wat Pra Ram, a Khmer-style prang and a magnificent ruin, ranking with some of the most impressive we have seen on our travels. It was built in 1369 to be the final resting place of Ramatibhodi. We climbed over and around it for half an hour taking pictures.
After that, back in the van and we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. Usually on these tours, lunch is the bare minimum they can get away with giving you. The box lunch on the Chiang Mai trek was out and out bad--worse than was necessary for its portability. Here they stopped at a very nice-seeming restaurant, on a river, marched us through the restaurant to the river and across planks to a long boat docked at the front of the restaurant, and we ate on the boat a multi-course meal that was quite tasty. I think it was mostly seafood. There were several dishes. The final dish was pineapple quartered and sliced. Ted was in a playful frame of mind and stuck a small pillbox on one of the pineapple rinds and two skewers in and it looked a bit like a Chinese junk. We put sugar packets on the skewers for sails. Ted said we should fold a bit of origami for some part (I forget which). I wasn't able to do that but I did fold an origami crane to sit on top. Apparently Ted had played with origami in the past. I told him on the trip back I would should him some of my own figures.
We then headed back for Bangkok and for our next stop which was Bang Pa-In. Chulalongkorn, trying to convince the Western powers that he was enlightened, built this summer palace/park. It is built in European style for all but about two of two buildings. Much of it looks like Versailles. Frankly, that makes the palace much less interesting than sites built in purely Thai style. There are subtle reminders, however, that Thailand is not the West. There are two memorials for very Eastern sorts of deaths. Chulalongkorn's first wife drowned in full view of her entourage who could have save her but for a law that said on pain of death no commoner could touch someone royal. The second memorial was for a boatman who was carrying Chulalongkorn when his boat his a bad current and slammed into a rock. Nobody was hurt but the law said that he must die for the accident. Chulalongkorn offered a pardon but the boatman always believed in the importance of the law and refused the pardon, said good-bye to his family, and was executed.
There are two non-Western buildings in Bang Pa-In. One is a Thai-looking building in the middle of a lake that houses a statue of Chulalongkorn. The other is a building provided by the Chinese to cement Thai-Chinese relations. If you know what to look for there are subtle insults. All the dragons are four-toed; whenever they use a dragon in art, it is a four-toed dragon. Imperial dragons are five-toed. In China you could put five toes on a dragon only if the art was intended for royalty. Curiously, there is something else wrong in the architecture. There are Foo Lions guarding the building but they have two Emperor lions and no Empress lions. Generally you get one of each. The Emperor has his food on an orb; the Empress has her foot on a cub. There are two orb lions and no cub lion.
This whole area would have been peaceful and idyllic but for the sounds of motors running. There were speedboats running on the water and the lawn was being mowed. Mowers here look like carts with two big bicycle wheels on the side and smaller wheels toward the front. Inside the cart is a gasoline engine.
On the way back, to demonstrate my origami, I folded the Truskes my nicest origami invention, the bat with the moving mouth. They showed it to the guide. Apparently the guide knew some origami also. He liked the bat and said he had not seen the figure before. I explained it was my invention and he said I should patent it. He also said he would take it home and try to figure out how to fold it himself. The bat always gets a good reaction. It even seemed to impress Lillian Oppenheimer, who runs the Origami Society in New York.
The guide wanted to take us to a lapidary factory to see stones polished (a very transparent kickback opportunity), but we were less than interested so we skipped that. We threw in a little extra tip, however.
We were going to try another Lonely-Planet-recommended restaurant near the hotel when we met up again with Barbara and Binayak. Leaving the hotel is always a bit of a bother. You run a gauntlet of people asking you, "Taxi?" I don't understand why a driver who has just seen you turn down four taxis has to ask you, "Taxi?"~a fifth time. I suppose you have to be an incurable romantic in that job. You have to hold out hope that you will run into the right tourist, the one who will say, "Yes. Yes. I have just turned down four taxis because it is your taxi I have been waiting to ride in all my life." Then Mr.~Right Tourist enters the cab and cabbie and tourist would ride together happily ever after with the tourist forking over incredible sums of money. I suspect it doesn't work out that way very often. We were walking.
The restaurant was not there any more. No surprise there. We ate instead in the same cafe we ate in our first day in Bangkok. It had been fairly decent.
After dinner we walked to the tourist night market. This was the same street we had "grazed" on the previous night after the weekend market. This is all touristy stuff. Every half-block or so there is a sand selling cassettes at 25B each. These look from the outside to be the same cassettes sold in the States for many times the price. They are, however, rather obvious pirated copies. You open them up and the label on the cassette doesn't even tell you want is recorded. It just says "High Precission [sic] Cassette." Many are in fact low-precision cassettes that play with an obvious wow-distortion. But what do you expect for a buck a cassette. I paid US$3 and got three volumes of the score to Amadeus. I figure Mozart would make good listening. And I figured that the music was in public domain so the cassettes might have been a tad more legal than some of the others being sold. We also got a couple of postcards at the surprisingly low 2B each. 3B was usually considered a good price. There was even a used bookstore but their prices were high. We repaired to our room to write in our logs and to listen to Mozart. Amadeus I had distortion, but II and III plated fine.
October 16, 1990: Our last day in Bangkok. Several pieces of administrivia to take care of this morning. The others are putting together a box of stuff they are mailing home rather than carrying. There is also the perennial quest to change money at a good rate. And, of course, there is breakfast.
Walking through the streets there are a number of observations I might make (not all observed this walk, but this might be a good time to mention them). Traveling in Asia you are bombarded with sensory input. Generally you report what you see, hear, and taste. Not much coverage is given to what you feel and smell. Feeling? You feel hot. Just about all the time during the day. It is hot and humid. The sun is merciless. You walk someplace a few blocks away and you are drenched in sweat. I sweat more than most of the others, in fact. Then at night you freeze. I am not sure what it is but we have not been able to find air conditioners we could adjust right for the night. Turn them to the lowest setting and it is darn cold at night. If you turn them off it is too hot to sleep. Smell? Smells are interesting here. Some are very nice; many are unpleasant. The khlongs smell of raw sewage. There is garbage in the streets and in the heat it rots quickly. There are lots of insects in the air and often in the food. I was served soup at one point with an ant in it. Little hexapods add protein to the rice.
Other things that seem to take Westerners aback a little is nose-picking. Here it is just at about the same level of acceptability as scratching your head. It is not at all uncommon to see industrious nose-picking on the street. Hairy moles are a point of pride here. You see people with hair six and eight inches long growing from a mole on their face. The proprietor of the Shanghai-style restaurant in Hong Kong had a long proud tuft of mole hair.
The guide books told us that sandals and thongs are considered rude in Thailand. Actually it is not true. You see them worn on the street a lot by Thais as well as by foreigners.
A very popular beverage, Vitagen, is a vitamin tonic sold as a soft drink in a little rectangular amber bottle. I can't imagine vitamin tonics being sold as a soft drink in the United States. I mean, it's like seeing cold Geritol being sold next to Coke and Pepsi. I asked around our group if anyone remembered the name of this drink and apparently I am the only one who noticed that it was even being sold. There were even television ads showing a jock exercising relaxing with a refreshing bottle of vitamin tonic. I wonder what the stuff tasted like.
One of the books told us that shorts and sandals were both considered low-class in Thailand. That certainly doesn't seem to be the case any more. That seems like standard apparel. A little more about standards. The most common tour book used is the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand. You see about five or six of these little devils for every other tour book you sight. I have not looked in detail at the Lonely Planet Thailand guide. We carry the Southeast Asia Handbook which is heavy and covers a lot of places we don't need on top of the ones we do, but otherwise I like it a lot.
One more observation. Esperanto was invented to be the universal language that everyone would speak as their second language. Very nice, very regular, very easy to learn. The one problem is that everyone would have to learn it because nobody spoke it as their first language. The experiment may yet succeed, but I have my doubts. One reason is there already is a very widely used second language. That is, of course, English. We have traveled reasonably widely and only in China eight years ago could you not get along in English. I suspect you can now.
Any country that seriously is trying to attract tourists teches a lot of English. You can get along on English. We've head Germans who speak German and English talking to Thais who speak Thai and English. Neither speaks or understands the other's native language. They use English. Barbara's fears the first night in Chiang Mai were groundless. She has never really had a language barrier that was insurmountable.
It is plain rude to go to a country and not be able to say "Thank you" and "hello" and a half-dozen phrases like that in the native language. Also, you lose a lot of the friendly contracts you make when you show the respect of learning the native pleasantries. But you can travel to any tourism country without fear that there will be an impossible language problem. (Note: the above statement may not be operative in France.)
The Lonely Planet listed a good place to have breakfast and it wasn't there any more. We picked a place called the Nat though perhaps the Gnat might have been a more accurate description. It seemed to be like most places, decent but perhaps not perfectly clean. Barbara looked at one of the three people sitting in the restaurant and identified her as an "aging hippie." One certainly wonders what these people who have been living off Thailand's low prices are going to be doing with themselves when they are 40 and the money starts to run out. This lifestyle does not prepare one for much.
The Nat is associated with a guest house. Look through the back of the restaurant and you see a doorway that has a Buddha shrine and a sign that says, "Residents are requested not to bring Thai ladies up to their rooms."
The breakfast was not really very good. Barbara, who had ordered Muesli, was not happy that there was not enough muesli in the fruit and yogurt. She end up talking to a waiter who had little English. "Where Muesli? There fruit. There yogurt. Where muesli? Just a little bit of muesli."
From there we went to the post office where the others were packing boxes to send home. We had acquired only very little, so we borrowed a corner of one of the other boxes.
And money got changed.
Binayak suggested I but some tamarind since I like sour fruit. It was interesting and certainly sour enough but the flavor was not that good. The seeds come cleanly away from the fruit in your mouth and look like they are made of mahogany.
Back to the hotel, we packed up our luggage, observed that the trip was now just about half over, and grabbed cabs for the train station. We dropped off our luggage at the train station and headed out for our last day in Bangkok.
Bangkok is very much a Thai Los Angeles. For one thing, the title means "City of Angels." But it has the vitality, the crazy traffic, the pollution, and all the strange architecture. It was founded in 1782 on the Chao Phraya River by Rama I. He called it Rattana Kosim.
So that was the city we were seeing the last of. Our first stop was Wat Trimit in Chinatown.
In 1932 Wat Trimit, a modest temple, got permission to move a plaster Buddha from Sukothai to Bangkok. It was a cheap plaster Buddha statue and if the truth be know a rather ugly one. But they needed a Buddha statue and this was the one they were getting. Somebody at the time probably noticed that the statue was also a real son of a bitch to move. But nobody really commented on it.
In 1953 they were again moving the ugly plaster Buddha. Again it was a real pain to move. The crane had a chain around it and lifted it, but it slipped, fell, and it cracked.
In the 16th Century the monks of Sukothai had a real problem. Invaders were coming. And the first thing the invaders would steal would be their precious Buddha. They could hide their Buddha, but where do you hide a Buddha? And Buddhas should be adored, not hidden. The best place to hide a Buddha is in a Buddha. That way believers could still stand before the Buddha. Only a few people would know the secret.
Perhaps they were killed by invaders; perhaps they could not pass the secret to anyone they trusted. Nobody knows, but the secret was forgotten.
In 1953, workmen were looking at an ugly plaster Buddha that had slipped from their crane and was now broken. There was metal inside. Inside an ugly plaster Buddha was one of the great treasures of Asia. It was a Buddha, three meters high, five and a half tons. It was solid gold.
We saw US$83 million worth of Buddha in a wat that had surprisingly little security. I am now sure how they are protecting the Golden Buddha, but it must be something non-obvious. I frankly would have been happy with a few fingernail parings from the Buddha.
Well, after seeing the Golden Buddha of Wat Trimit we headed off for lunch. Walking into the heart of Chinatown we asked directions. Someone told us there were restaurants in the direction we were going, though we might have to eat with chopsticks. I think four of us said in unison, "No problem."
We went off in that direction and eventually did find a restaurant. The restaurant we found was not all that good unfortunately. Not that we had problems communicating, though we did. To get chopsticks we had to hold the knives and forks like chopsticks. But the food was only mediocre with small portions and not a very auspicious final meal for Bangkok. Barbara and Steve went off to see the local zoo. Evelyn, Binayak, and I went to see the Royal Barge Museum. That involved walking a fair distance through Chinatown to the river and there catching a ferry up the river a way. The Chao Phraya River is sort of a rapid summary of Bangkok. You see some skyscrapers, but a lot more you see corrugated metal shacks and every once in a while you see a beautifully ornate wat or a Burmese prang. The ferries come up to the piers for just a moment or so and passengers jump on over what is often a widening gap. The deck is generally crowded so you have to jump fast and aim well.
We docked at the proper place and from there did not know the proper way to get to the Royal Barge Museum so inevitably 1) went the wrong way and 2) were better off for having done things wrong. What they were expecting is that, like most tourists, we would take a water taxi to the museum. We could not figure out how to do that so instead walked the distance the narrow back way through a poor Muslim neighborhood. The community lives in moderate poverty in what are basically shacks. There were dogs who looked a little sick running semi-wild.
We found the barge museum and it looked a little like a submarine pen with ten or twelve parallel barges dry-docked. Each told when it was used. They would have decorations like fierce-looking Naga snakes at the front of the barge. They each were very long and narrow, maybe sixty feet long but only eight or ten feet wide, rowed by muscle power with oars. They gave the impression of water serpents. Several were equipped, incongruously, with a cannon sticking out of a hole in the figurehead. I am not sure what sort of battle these boats were expected to get in, but they were hardly maneuverable to be much of a threat to any attacker. It was like giving a ninety-year-old woman brass knuckles. The concept of a boat aimed mostly by oarsmen maneuvering about is not going to strike terror into too many people's hearts.
Apparently it is a family that runs the museum and lives at the back of the barge pen. We could see that there were rooms back there that I at first took for being part of the museum but someone was cooking back there. At one point two kids came out and walked around carrying a puppy who was still very young. On this trip Evelyn and I are the only people who do not own cats. There are few mammals I don't like and I like cats, but I am not as fond of them as many people are. Dogs, on the other hand, I both like and respect (I don't respect cats) and through some biological glitch I am fonder of puppies than of human babies. This was an unexpected place to find this little ball of fur and it really upstaged the Royal Barges of Thailand.
We came out of the barge museum and found Binayak was in the process of bartering with a water taxi driver. The deal he struck was for one hour of taxiing around the khlong. So we hopped in and got a chance to see what it life is like on a bangkok khlong.
The khlong seems to be all water but drinking water to these people. At one point we saw a child sitting over a hole in a dock using the khlong as a toilet. Further on we saw a woman washing her hair in the same water. While none of the houses on the khlong will ever show up in House Beautiful, some looked quite comfortable. Others seemed very poor. The people were all pretty friendly. Many of them waved. We started experimenting with waving and seeing who waved back. About two-thirds of the American boats going by would have at least someone wave back but 100% of the groups of Thais would wave back. The Thais are a very friendly people.
Actually we saw the least sanitary usage of the khlong was furthest from the Chao Phraya but it smelled the worst as you got closer to the main river.
The taxi-man's tip-maker is to take passengers downstream of their actual disembarkation point and past the Grand Palace and the Wat Arun, an 86-meter Khmer-style prang across from the Grand Palace. The taxi-man then guns his engine and speeds past these majestic sites giving the passengers a cool ride and a most impressive one. It is really essence of Thailand in one short dose.
Well, it's now about 4:15 PM and we'd agreed to meet the others at the train station at 5:30 PM which was a full hour before our train leaves. We have better than an hour to kill. SO what does Binayak suggest but that we take the ferry all the way up the river to the end of the line and then turn around. Evelyn is game so I am too. I am a little concerned about the time but I figure my pals know what they are doing so I keep my mouth shut. We go quite a ways upstream and it starts getting to be 5-ish and Evelyn suggests we had better forget about getting to the end of the line and go directly to the train station. We get off and wait a while for the boat in the other direction. Binayak says the other direction will go faster since it is downstream. By now everyone is concerned about getting back in time. By 5:20, it is clear we ain't gonna make it. The ferry is taking about three minutes between stops and at this rate it will be 6 PM when we get to our stop. Gee, I wonder how Steve and Barbara are taking our absence? Probably not so good, huh? The trip drags on with the smelly fumes and the noise of the engine only making things worse. I re-estimate still 6 PM before we get to dry land.
5:54 PM we dock at our stop and jump off. We start to run toward the street. The back of the pier is flooded. There is only a narrow board to walk and people coming in the other direction are carefully edging their way. We jump sideways, splash a little, and come by another route. The three of us run to a tuk-tuk--a converted motorcycle--and jump in the back asking to be taken to the railway station. Something in our tone must have conveyed some urgency to the driver, perhaps more urgency than we really felt. The race to the station can best be described as "madcap." The man had incredible control over his vehicle whether it was on the right side of the street or not, whether it was cutting into lines of oncoming traffic. The man could see an opening and take advantage of it. It could be that he was just trying to have a good time for himself. Maybe he just wanted to scare the tourists. Maybe he just enjoyed proving that there could be lanes in the road where one doesn't conventionally think of them. Suffice it to say that we went a fair distance in ten minutes. And I got a lot older.
When the ride was over I suggested Binayak run and tell Steve and Barbara that we had arrived. Evelyn paid the cabbie. My natural inclination was to kiss solid ground. Apparently Evelyn, who had not paid sufficient attention to the ride, was more concerned that we might miss our train than in giving thanks that the taxi ride was over.
We rushed to the left luggage area where Steve and Barbara had just hit panic mode. It a wild struggle to get the luggage ready to go, the elastic rope on Barbara's luggage carrier came lose and popped her a good one right in the mouth. It put her in a bad mood. We rushed to the train and were in our seats a good ten minutes before the train started to roll. They came by with menus but the group decided instead to stroll over to the dining car. How was this a mistake? Let me count the ways. This was a long train, we were at one end, the dining are at the other end. It must have been at least twenty cars away. It was a hot and unpleasant walk. It was interesting in that you saw the inside of other cars. You saw people stretched on the floor under their seat on a piece of cardboard. You saw a lot of people very uncomfortable. There were no first-class cars; we were in a second-class car but it looked far more comfortable than the third-class cars with four seats across. We got to the dining car and it was a counter with stools and the food did not look very good to the group. We ended up going back to our seats and ordering from the menu. Even then it took a very long time to be served, probably because the food had to be carried the length of the train. Barbara was not happy. It also took a long time for the porter to set up the beds. They seemed to give us service an hour after everyone else in the car. We finally got bedded down however.
October 17, 1990: I always wake up early on sleeper trains. While we traveled the topography started having a lot of limestone karsts. I had heard karst formations occurred only in China and Yugoslavia, but here they were in Thailand.
Karsts are limestone formations. Pressure on a limestone bed causes it to buckle and to force up what looks like huge limestone teeth. They can easily be 100 or 200 feet high and often green with trees or bushes that somehow survive with what little nutrient they can pull from rock. We passed rubber plantations and the occasional water buffalo. When they came around and offered us breakfast the choice was American or Continental. I would have liked the Thai breakfast, which I saw later, but they did not offer it. I wish they would not assume American tastes are so narrow.
We had been told that we should bring toilet paper which would not be available most places in Asia. That time has passed. Every bathroom we've seen has it and in addition it seems to be in common use as table napkins and Kleenex. Breakfast this morning included a couple of sheets of toilet paper as if they were napkins. I think it was in Hong Kong that all the truck drivers had rolls of toilet paper on their dashboards. I assumed it was because they did not want to be caught in a bathroom without, but now I think it was just there for general cleanup.
Our next destination was Krabi. This is a provincial capital. It is near Phuket. Actually its claim to fame is as a resort area where the karsts hit the water. The result is giant limestone outcroppings sticking out of the water. The effect is very pleasant.
One of the train attendants talked to us a while to find out about us. We told him about ourselves. Eventually he started to ask about how much we made. I was willing to tell him in general figures but the others said I probably should not tell. It created an awkwardness and he walked away.
The train arrived at our disembarkation point, Trang. We tried calling to reserve a place near Krabi but had problems making the phone call. We decided to go ahead and bus to Krabi. The bus was four seats across with an aisle down the center--nothing unusual there, but the seats were numbered with tags as if they were six across. Sure enough, they packed the bus with three people in each pair of seats. On the hot bus it wasn't pleasant.
As we were loading the bus, we bought some chicken and rice from a hawker. They sell it in a tetrahedron wrapped in palm leaf (or banana leaf). Someone also asked for a soda without ice. It was clear they thought the Americans were nuts to drink warm soda, but we were afraid of the water. You hear rumors that the water is safe in Hong Kong, in Malaysia, and in Singapore. You even hear water is safe in Thailand. I guess the real question is whether you are willing to risk your vacation on a rumor the water is safe. From the beginning of the trip I have been assuming that the water is safe nowhere.
Trang, we are told, is the perennial winner of the cleanest town in Thailand award. In the heat and dust we were a little afraid we might lose that award for Trang this year.
It is a long and dusty ride from Trang to Krabi, but some of the vistas with the limestone outcroppings as background are worth it. After about 150 minutes we pulled into Krabi.
Though you could not tell it from the first views, Krabi is a prosperous town and right at the moment in the throes of election fever. Trilors go up and down the streets with billboards on each side painted brightly with political messages and a loudspeaker on the truck carries the message to all the people. It is really tough to get away from these noisy nuisances. You pass one on the road, you find another. By calling we found there were rooms at a little beach resort called Ao Nang Villa in the town of Ao Nang about a half-hour away by seelor. It is right on the Andaman Sea, which is a beautiful setting even if beach resorts aren't really my thing.
There are bungalows with three hotel rooms each. There are a few problems with the room (so what else is new?). There is a constant line of tiny ants in the bathroom up the wall of the shower. Also the toilet does not do a really great job of flushing, but then few toilets seem to in Southeast Asia.
The food is pretty good and pretty cheap and the service occasionally borders on slavish. After dinner was a walk on the beach. Barbara walked around looking for shells. Binayak and Steve went off exploring. Evelyn and I just walked. After that we went to the bar attached to the restaurant. Everyone else was watching The Package with Gene Hackman. We were having a spirited discussion of politics and I think one of the workers came over to quiet us down, though ostensibly it was to meet her. He name was Kuhn (Thai for "shrimp"--Thais all have nicknames, she said). Kuhn likes going into Krabi for the disco. She undoubtedly is popular there. She is very attractive.
October 18, 1990: We were up well before the projected breakfast time. I suited up and went out for a morning swim. The water was already warm and while sunrise was blocked by a karst, seeing the sun rise over a karst is nothing to sneeze at.
For breakfast I had boiled rice and seafood, which was nice with chili and vinegar. I tried to ignore the ant that was floating in it (or more accurately, to forget about it after I fished it out). By unanimous consent the morning's activity was to be swimming. If the truth be known, the water is not all that clear--it is a bit murky--but the scene is still beautiful
It was with some trepidation that I go swimming when the sun is up. I always burn badly. Either I cannot put on the lotion uniformly or it gets washed off but if I swim in the sun, I will burn.
We lay down two bamboo beach mats we bought for the exorbitant price or about US$1 each. I carefully painted myself with #15 suntan lotion and went in swimming. After about 45 minutes I came out, lay down on the mat, and once again applied lotion. As I was lying there Evelyn asked, "What did you do to your leg?!" I had felt no pain but there was a huge red welt covering most of my leg. It just matched the colors of the temple painted on my new one-dollar beach mat. On that the picture was now less distinct. The paint was water-soluble. Nifty. I jumped back in the water and got at least some of the paint off my leg. I think at the same time I washed off the second application of suntan lotion. I lay back in the sun and without realizing it gave myself a nifty burn. Steve also got a good burn that morning.
Lunch was in the local restaurant. There were some dishes in Thai that were not translated into English. I ordered one and the waiter told me I didn't really want it. He suggested another. I let myself be switched. However, he came back and said they couldn't make the second dish. I said I would take the first dish. "It has chilis," he told me. "Fine," I said. It took forever to get the forbidden Thai dish. Everyone else had finished. Finally it came. It was boiled rice, fried peanuts, and a dish of a purple garlic and chili sauce. Pretty deadly spicy. I ate it all and told the waiter it was "a-roy" (delicious). It felt as if someone had flayed my tongue with a potato peeler. It was just okay and too hot for me, but a macho guy like me doesn't admit that.
We went our separate ways that afternoon. I had a lot of log writing to do. Evelyn napped. It turned out there was a power failure so writing was neither that easy nor that comfortable. The sunburn was starting to hurt a bit. That is one problem the Southeast Asia. The rooms are either hot or freezing. Almost every night the rooms are too cold.
I expected I would get all caught up in my log, but no such luck. There is just too much to write about and the whole afternoon I didn't get a full day covered on the log.
We had decided to meet and go into Krabi for dinner. We did so and grabbed a seelor into town. It was pretty much dark by the time we got there. Steve wanted to see if he could get Listerene. We picked a place for dinner recommended by the Lonely Planet and it was still around. It was a restaurant owned by a Chinese. He was impressed that we wanted local dishes and that we ate everything that he served. I found that I was coming down with a cold (probably the same cold Evelyn had a couple of days before), but I still gave a good account of myself at dinner. We had, among other things, fried tofu, seafood in oyster sauce, and clams in the shell.
After that we walked around town. There was a night market where we got some sweets. I got some cookies to pass around. We passed a movie theater and looked at the posters. Both films looked like they had something to do with lost civilizations in the jungle with sexy women. One had ten warrior women in brief leopard-skin outfits. The other looked like a rip-off of H.~Rider Haggard's She.
We went to some stores. In one Steve bought a bathing suit. Getting back to the hotel proved to be more of a problem than we had expected. The seelors stopped running at 6 PM. Most of the possible rides we found were more than we really wanted to spend. We eventually decided we had to pay a bit extra. We went back to the hotel, freshened up a bit, and had a drink (I had a fruit shake). Then we went to the office and arranged for a tour to Phang Nga for the next day. While we were in the office I noticed that a newspaper had an ad for the UNIX operating system with a Philips Electronics product. But UNIX has come to Thailand. A woman in the office couldn't figure out why we were so interested in the ad. We told her it was our company's invention.
October 19, 1990: After a quick breakfast we grabbed a seelor for Krabi and the tour of Phang Nga. Only four of us went. Binayak had rented a motorbike the day before and had to return it, so decided to meet us in town. He did.
The rip to Phang Nga is a long one on bumpy roads. It is most likely getting dull hearing about karsts, but they were there in abundance. There was lots of farmland. I guess this is as good a place as any to note how they tether a cow in Thailand. They apparently drill a hole between the cow's nostrils. To tie up the cow they thread a rope between the nostrils and tie a knot in it. Must be painful for the cow.
We got to Phang Nga about mid-morning. This area is supposed to have the most impressive limestone mountains in the area, many growing right out of the sea. The tour takes you to so-called "James Bond Island." It is called that because it was used as Scaramanga's island in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.
The minibus pulled up to a small town with lots of hawkers offering Coke and Sprite and beer. You file into a narrow boat where you sit two abreast. It takes you into a mangrove swamp that looks like something out of Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the background you can see distant limestone out-croppings.
Eventually you get to a karst with a natural water tunnel under it. It looks like something out of Land That Time Forgot (okay, last film analogue for a while, I promise). It opens out onto an open waterway punctuated with dozens of karst formations rising right out of the water, with little or no beach. As the boat continued we started to see the tops of some of the karsts shrouded in clouds. It had been a hot two weeks and a little rain might feel good. In another few minutes it did. A cool rain blew through the boat. Just when it was becoming too much of a good thing we got to James Bond Island, really three karsts including one only a few feet across at the base and maybe twenty-five feet high. It was called Nail Island though it was really part of Bond Island. On Bond Island were a horde of souvenir hawkers with their wares covered with cloths to keep them dry. More tourists stood huddled in the protection of indentations and caves in the limestone. Some of the hawkers walked among the tourists trying to sell their goods. Boys carried monkeys and hawks for those who would pay to be photographed with the animals. Most of the tourists were waiting out their sentence on the island. We had been given a half an hour which under normal circumstances might have been too much and with the hiding from the rain was considerably more than we wished. I bought some dried squid while we waited and handed it to the group. When our half hour was over it was back into the squall. By now the rain and cold had become unpleasant and in fact the cold wind blowing through the boat was becoming very unpleasant. I had a cold and a light cotton shirt with nothing under it. Everything was getting drenched.
Cold and miserable, we stopped for lunch at a Muslim fishing village and had a mediocre lunch of seafood. More bugs in the rice. There was a soup, some fried shrimp, a whole boiled fish, and pineapple for dessert.
After lunch we were given a half hour to walk around the souvenir stands (providing kickback opportunity to the tour company).
After our half hour we boarded our boat with dampened seats and enthusiasm. I think that they probably cut the sight-seeing a little short because none of us were really in the mood to see more karsts in the rain. They returned us to the dock and we reboarded the minibus where we were told we would be seeing a reclining Buddha in a cave. There was a fence in front of the cave and monkeys climbing around the entrance shaking down the visitors for peanuts which could be had for a modest contribution. Now it is bad enough when you see a lone adult monkey putting out his hand for a peanut. What really frosts my cupcake is when a mother monkey comes along with a baby hugging her chest and a plaintive look on her face. I don't know how monkeys ever learned to mimic human plaintive looks. Anyway, the monkey comes complete with sad plaintive look. So you fork over a peanut and--guess what--the mother eats it. You ever see one give the pender to the papoose? No! If you ever see the mother give the peanut to the baby you can call me to tell me about it ...~collect.
Anyway, we get into the cave and there is a big reclining Buddha. Big Buddha, maybe twenty feet long. Overhead you hear a noise like a bunch of pulleys that need oiling. Every once in a while you see a shadow flutter across the ceiling. Still, I could not see what it was that was living up there and it was driving me bats.
There are sections of the cave to climb on rough-hewn steps and generally they lead to a statue or two. Sometimes they don't seem to lead anywhere. I don't know. There seems to be a natural affinity of Buddhists for caves. Tiger Balm Garden also had fake caves to explore. Maybe there is some symbolism I am missing.
On the way out, I bought a bag of peanuts for the monkeys and paid with 10B; the woman shook her money box to show she had no change and gave me my change in peanuts. I thought that was very sneaky. It was worse than that. Before I had fed half a bag to the monkeys the van started to go. Worse yet, when I asked about the peanuts a day or so later, Evelyn had eaten them. And I didn't even get a chance to see. I'd have been willing to feed them to her, but she ate them behind my back.
Next we were told we would see a waterfall. In fact, that was not really what was advertised. It was a sort of a park built around a small stream. There was a small fall in the stream where the water dropped about eighteen inches. The others seemed somewhat disappointed but it was a sort of pleasant park to walk around. It seems that just about any attraction, no matter how minor, will have an assortment of food and drink hawkers outside. I think we got fruit.
Next came for me what would have been one of the more memorable incidents of the trip. On the van Evelyn asked for some water. Steve started to open a plastic bottle of filtered water for her. You will undoubtedly be happy to learn that "easy-opening" containers in Thailand are just as frustratingly difficult to open as "easy-opening" containers are in the United States. The water bottles had a quick-pull tab to unseal the cap. The easy-opening cap really required needle-nosed pliers to remove safely, but generally tourists who bought the water worried about local microbes would take this tab that, God only knows where it had been, put the end in their mouths and, risking dental mayhem, tear at it with their teeth like a dog tearing at a chew toy.
Steve started this dignified operation but I stopped him. I didn't have needle-nosed pliers but I had the next best thing ...~the orange peeler on my Swiss Army knife. It was perfectly designed to cut open the tab as I had demonstrated to myself earlier that day. As I tried it now with one quick slice the bottle was one-quarter open. Another quick pull and both my left index finger and the bottle were half open. I found myself losing interest in the bottle and becoming more concerned about my finger. It, in fact, had my undivided attention since it was leaking fluid faster than the bottle was. I jammed my finger into a facial tissue which magically changed from white to red to maroon. There had been better moments on the trip.
Our next stop was a rubber plantation. Actually a small farm would be more accurate. Holding the tissue over my finger I got out of the van. They brought us over to a rubber tree. My finger still hurting and bleeding, they showed us how they slice open the trunk of a tree and let the sap drip out into a collecting bucket a drop at a time. It's an odd sensation, feeling sorry for a tree.
You can recognize these rubber farms as you drive along because they seem to have what look like diapers hanging in nice even rows in front of the farms. How they form the rubber into such nice even forms I don't know, but they take the collected rubber sap and dry it and roll it on rollers, forming it into these sheets. The sheets are about fourteen inches wide and maybe thirty inches long.
That was our last attraction of the tour. The trip back to Krabi was picturesque but it was scenery we'd seen that morning. Actually the trip from Krabi to Ao Nang was more interesting. We had grabbed a seelor. Now picture this: a really small pickup truck with two six-foot bench seats in the back and a roof over them. This was rush hour and we discovered that the truck would carry pretty much as many people were willing to pay. This one hit a record of twenty-two people. There were four in the cab, five hanging off the back, and six people on each of the bench seats, including a mother with a child in her lap. I suspect that if six more people wanted to come, the seelor would have stopped for them. The limiting factor is only how many are willing to try to squeeze on.
We talked to a couple and asked what country they were from. "West Germany." "Oh, you know it isn't there any more?" Yes, they acknowledged, there was no more West Germany. I asked if they were not sorry they were not home for the re-unification. Yes, they were a little sorry to miss it. But they had been in Berlin when the Wall came down. The guy had been one month old when it was put up. There were parties on every corner with food and drinking. East Berliners were coming through and just staring at everything around them in wide-eyed amazement. Some from the West bucked the current to go into East Berlin but there was less to see. There was, however, not all that much fraternization between Easterners and Westerners. They did not really mix.
Back at the hotel we had grilled fish for dinner (everyone but me--I ordered off the menu). This was our last night in Thailand.
October 20, 1990: Today we were taking a van to Penang. It might have been nicer to take a plane, but as yet there is no air travel to Krabi. It is very isolated. When they build an airport in Krabi, it will bring more tourism to the area.
Steve was up early wanting to call to the United States. They had promised him there would be someone in the office at 6 AM but it was locked and dark. We were going to be picked up at 6:30 AM by the seelor and as 6:30 drew close, he became more steamed. Finally at about 6:30 he found someone to complain to. She smiled. In Thailand a smile has many meanings but apology is one. "She just smiles," Steve said angrily. The woman went over to the office door and banged on it. Inside a sleepy clerk woke up from behind the desk. Well, they did have someone there; Steve just didn't know the rules. Well, it was too late now. The seelor was not nearly as crowded this morning, perhaps because it was so early on a Saturday morning. We had only eighteen people. By the time we got to Krabi it seemed in full swing with a crowded morning market. I think Barbara was surprised to see so many people up so early and shopping. In poorer countries, I told her, you don't waste daylight hours and then spend money to light the night. Our country is more geared to never getting up while it is still dark out and always getting up at the same time, so our standard awakening time is the latest dawn in the year, even though that wastes a lot of daylight in the summertime.
We got to Krabi and had a few minutes before we left. I got a small yogurt drink for breakfast, figuring that we would probably not be stopping again.
That turned out to be only sort of true. After about an hour we did stop for gas and at the gas station they had a case of hot food. We got steamed buns that had a sort of mincemeat pork filling--very tasty. There was also sticky rice with the same filling wrapped in tetrahedrons of leaves. We also got some packages of prawn chips and caramel corn.
On the road we saw fewer and fewer of the limestone karsts. There were more of the flooded rice paddies with people working in them, often up to their waists. I tried to get pictures of water buffaloes.
Around lunch time we stopped in Hat Yai, apparently for lunch, though they told us to take everything off the van. Sure enough, we were changing vans. We were to wait, we were not sure how long, in a combination restaurant and travel agency. Now when I refer to a restaurant in this part of the world, perhaps it is conjuring up inaccurate images in the reader's mind. We are used to something called a restaurant here that is enclosed and has a kitchen someplace out of sight. That kind of restaurant is quite rare in Thailand and is quite touristy. First of all, there is a roof on this kind of place but no walls. You walk into this place and your first reaction might well be that it does not look particularly clean. In fact, these places are not very clean by Western standards. You often see flies lighting on uncooked food. Luckily I have come prepared. As it happens, I have a staff of antibodies who are on my payroll for no other reason than to fight off bacteria and contagion I might ingest. I would prefer not to tax them and overwork them too much, but I have them there so I don't have to worry too much about eating in Thai restaurants. The place was really what we have come to call "shop-houses": the upstairs is a house; the downstairs is a shop or restaurant.
Anyway, we sit down at a table with stools around it. There are four or five people cooking at various places around the room. Most have glass cases with food like pre-cooked noodles on the shelves. I point to the kind of noodles I want and they drop them into the soup they have cooking there. I am not even sure that all the people cooking in this room are not in competition with each other. I had a point-to-what-you-want sort of meal. It was sort with rice noodles.
I finished the meal and walked around Hat Yai. Next door was a video store. The films all had titles in Thai and English, but the films were all American or English. Things like James Bond films or old adventure films. I was really looking for film, but could not find it in three adjoining blocks.
A new van picked us up. The passengers were just the five of us and someone new who looked Chinese. About an hour later we got to Malaysia. We stopped at a checkpoint on the Thai side. The driver took our passports and went off with them. It seemed we were waiting there a while. To pass the time, we sweated. Another group came along and was waiting also. They asked us how long we'd been waiting here. I fought the urge to tell them "July" to see their reaction. About that time our driver came back and we crossed the border into Malaysia. Almost immediately there was a Customs check. We had to carry our suitcases in. They were less friendly toward Americans here. I was at the front of our group and I started to put my bag up where the locals were having their bags inspected. They told me rather curtly to stop holding up the line. I guess it was silly of me to think they might not trust me.
On the way out of the shed I looked at a vending machine that had cans of the standard U.S.~sodas and something called "Sarsi." I guessed "Sarsi" might be sarsparilla. The Chinese passenger asked if I'd like a can of soda. I thanked him but told him no. He got two cans of Coke and offered me one anyway. We passed it around but it broke the ice and I started talking to him. His name was Tee. He was an engineer for office products.
We talked to him about the local politics. As it was in Thailand, we were arriving in Malaysia just before an election. One of the major parties was the National Front, whose symbol was a pair of balance scales. I guess there is basically a two-party system with the other party being in this election a coalition of two parties, the Sun Party and the 46 Party. The symbol of this alliance was a yellow square with a white circle inscribed and a '46' inside the circle. The National Party is also called the New United Malays Nation Organization, or UMNO Baru. It essentially represents the Malay people. 46 is a Muslim unity movement. DAP--the Democratic Action Party--represents the Chinese more. (Notice the acronyms for the parties' names are rendered in English. English again is the common language shared by the various ethnic groups.) Their symbol is the rocket.
Malaysia seems more prosperous than Thailand. At least the roads are smoother. It looks a little more like home, at least on the roads.
Butterworth and Georgetown are sort of twin cities separated by a narrow (two-mile) strait of the Andaman Sea. Georgetown is the city on the island of Penang and people often call it Penang. Butterworth is the closest city on the Malaysian mainland. It looks fairly modern and sports an air force base currently used by the Australians.
We pulled into a gas station, and while the tank was filled the driver got out and vigorously shook the van back and forth for three or five minutes. We speculated that it helped to get more petrol in the tank, but that is just a guess.
The ferry to Penang is reminiscent of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. The city on the far side looks modern, perhaps not so modern as Hong Kong, but with a few skyscrapers. The air as you cross is not as cool as we'd hoped, but it was better than being in the van.
At the far end we drove into Georgetown (a.k.a.~Penang). Penang was once a pirate island, the base of pirates who preyed on ships carrying goods to and from Malacca. The British wanted it as a base, leasing it from Sultan Abdullah of Kedah, though supposedly both sides knew he had no claim to the island. The Brits were anxious to lease the land from someone and the Sultan obligingly accepted their money, anxious to be paid for something.
Not far from where we were dropped was the Cathay Hotel listed among the moderately-priced hotels. Mr.~Tee helped us find it.
The place was run down but clearly was some sort of a showplace in the 1920s. Binayak told Mr.~Tee to wait while we got cleaned up because he was going to show us where to eat dinner. Tee, seemed obliging enough, though Evelyn and I were concerned we were taking too much of his time.
Our room was sparsely furnished but cavernous. It looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. At some point the place had been electrified but all the wiring was external. You entered the room through a big double door with two feet of window above the door. Just outside the double door were bar-room-style swinging doors. In previous days, you would open the double doors and the swinging doors still afforded a modicum of privacy. The room was post-fitted with an air conditioner and a ceiling fan to keep it cool now.
Mr.~Tee patiently waited for us to take us to dinner. When we were all together we went out on the streets. We found a street where there were several vendors. They seemed to share some common sitting space. We went to their carts and ordered soup and noodle dishes and fishball dishes and a duck. For some of the dishes Tee tried to pay, occasionally succeeding, but we managed to head him off for most.
We had a whole feast spread out on the table under an overcast sky when we saw the first bolts of lightning. "No, it's just bluffing," we thought. "What possible motive would it have for raining on our meal?" It found one. As our soup became weaker and our duck turned to duck soup, we rushed to find a protected table and to move our food onto it. We found a table just under the roof of the restaurant. We all ordered Pepsi and tee ordered Coke. "I thought Americans like Coke more than Pepsi," he said. "Some do, some don't," we explained. This led me to ask him, "Do people in Asia think Americans push their own culture too much onto Asia?" We'd seen a lot of American brands around and a lot of American restaurant chains. "Many Americans are sorry to see so much of their culture exported to Asia."
"Japanese people push a lot harder than Americans," he said, diplomatically leaving the question unanswered. We talked a while longer. Tee's parents were from Kuang-chou--the city we call Canton.
Eventually we bid farewell to Tee. I told him it had been our good fortune to meet him.
Steve wanted to find the telephone office so he could complete the call he failed to make that morning. We found the office. Both he and Barbara called the States. I thought of calling my parents but it would have been too early. It was 9:45 PM in Malaysia, so it was 9:45 AM in New York and 6:45 AM in California. We killed thirty minutes on the street. People were still coming up to the open restaurants. Some people eat late. I tried calling my parents but they must have been out for the weekend. I left a message on their machine and we headed back for the hotel.
October 21, 1990: There were noises in the walls. Perhaps it was a Chinese ghost but at 4 AM we heard some very active sounds above our heads. We were on the top floor so there were no rooms up there. It was a little mysterious but the racket whatever it was made was amazing. It was something pretty vigorous, making all that noise.
In the morning we went out on the street for breakfast. We had a Muslim roti. This was sort of like a thin layer of bread over meat and onions. It was okay, but I wouldn't want to have it too often. An ad on the wall informed us in English that Lucky Strike is "an American original"--whatever that is. It did not appear to be a tourist restaurant--they just get the same advertising we get in the United States. I wonder how many of the locals are impressed that Lucky is an "American original." While eating I read a newspaper which reprinted a New York Times editorial suggesting that Israel had been duping the United States. Sentiment here is strongly anti-Israel, not surprisingly.
It was election day in Penang and so many of the shops were closed. Steve found a place to change money. We next had to go to the train station to get tickets for the sleeper the next night. We could not find a cab that would take all of us so Steve and Binayak took a trishaw--it was like a bicycle with a carriage at the front. Some say that is politically better than a rickshaw because of the mechanical advantage. It still bothered me to have someone slaving in the sun to transport us. Later we would ride a trishaw; for now we rode a cab. We rode faster than a trishaw can travel and we were riding for a while. I was sure we were well and truly separated from Steve and Binayak. There is a sort of market by the train station and Barbara went to check it out while we watched from Steve and Binayak. It was a good two or three minutes before their trishaw pulled up to the station. I cannot figure out why their trishaw got there so much faster than we would have expected. Our cab was not metered and we'd determined a price before the ride. There was no advantage to the driver to take a roundabout route. Apparently he must have anyway to save us from a long wait at the station. We bought the train tickets from a woman clerk in full Muslim apparel, covered so we could see most of her face but that was about all. Nonetheless she seemed happy and smiled at us. In Egypt the women dress in much the same way but dourly avoided foreigners. Perhaps Allah is not quite so strict in Malaysia as He is in other parts of the world.
From there we walked to Fort Cornwallis. It was Captain Light who negotiated the lease of Penang Island from Sultan Abdullah and he did that in 1786. He built a wooden fort to defend his leased island. Between 1808 and 1810 convict labor was used to rebuild the fort i stone so that the Big Bad Wolf, who at that time might have been Napoleonic, would have a harder time huffing and puffing. The Big Bad Kangaroo, however, would have less trouble because the walls were only about waist-high. A number of cannons still stand, including one that local women put flowers into for fertility. It was here that I first became aware of the alarming numbers of cats in Penang. They were all over everywhere, but their numbers were particularly great in the fort. I think there is a secret in Penang that nobody wants to talk about that the cats are in control. We saw the contingent that held the fort. Penang Island is now run by and for the cats.
Incidentally, in both Thailand and Malaysia we noticed that the cats all had docked tails. The tails were of various lengths but usually they were cut short to some extent. Some had bulbous tails, possibly from a docking that went wrong. We later read of a local belief that a cat with a docked tail cannot jump over a dead man. And you don't really want cats jumping over dead men. Kitty jump over dead man, dead man get up and walk around. And one thing that transcends the culture barrier is that none of us wants dead men getting up and walking around. It leads to all sorts of negative complications.
From there we took trishaws to Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese clan house. It was considered too ornate for mere mortals, decorated in the ancient Chinese style with statues and carvings and lanterns all over. It was a bit too ornate for my taste but then--though it has yet to be proven--I suspect I am a mere mortal. Across the way from this ornate building was a stage used to put on Chinese operas.
Next our fleet of three trishaws visited Sri Mariammam Temple. There most of the ornateness is reserved for the roof but that is also garishly ornate with statues of Hindu deities. It is dedicated to the goddess Mariammam, whose architectural taste was suspect. Notable are statues of Ganesha (?), the elephant-headed god. I have to say one aspect of the Hindu religion is unique. From what I heard it rarely or never has a concept of a different religion. If they find a god someone else prays to, they adopt it as a lesser deity. It is just a sect of Hinduism. So we all are already Hindus without realizing it. If another religion took the same approach, each religion would subsume the other and you would end up with a very strange structure. I wonder how Hindus would treat a religion like Scientology.
It being excessively hot and approaching the hottest part of the day, we went back to the hotel to rest and sort of siesta. The streets are fairly empty and most things closed due to election day.
About 3-ish we went out again in the hot sun. We walked around the shop-houses of Muntri and Stewart Streets. Most were closed. We saw the Malay Mosque, at least from the outside. Non-Muslims were not permitted in.
We ended up back near Sri Mariammam Temple and had lunch in a shop-house across the street. We tried to order Indian dishes; the owner kept trying to steer us to his version of Western dishes which he apparently wanted to try out on us. "If you don't like it, you don't pay." He ended up serving us an unordered plate of fried chicken on that basis. It was not as good as his Indian food but it got eaten. We stayed there a little longer than planned because the rains came. Afterwards we wandered the streets a bit on our own, but this was one dead city. The combination of the Sunday afternoon and the fact it was election day meant things were pretty dead. We ended up at the Komtar Centre, a shopping mall in the tallest building in Penang, a fair-sized skyscraper. It was well air-conditioned, which meant it was a blessed relief. Being about the only thing open in Penang, it was a beehive of activity. There were a lot of Western chains serving food that was guaranteed halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher). There was A&W, White Castle, McDonald's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not very exotic, but it was at least cool. Afterward we went back to our rooms to write. The others went out to a bar for a drink but Evelyn and I did not go.
October 22, 1990: Overnight I think we established our Chinese ghosts were playful cats living either on the roof or in the attic above our heads. They were very noisy. Apparently they were above our room only. Nobody else heard them.
This was another day that Barbara and Binayak were going a different way that we and Steve were. The three of us had breakfast in a Chinese place. Our lack of local language did sort of get in the way. When we thought we were asking for three seats we were requesting three bowls of seafood with noodles. Well, so it goes. It was tastier than yesterday's roti.
After breakfast we headed out for the local botanical gardens. This is a 75-acre valley. As we got out of the taxi there were kids selling bags of peanuts to feed to the monkeys. The gardens are mostly jungle. Not jungle like we saw in Northern Thailand that looked a lot like a North American forest. This was more rain forest with broadleafed plants and exotic creatures. There were a number of nature trails into the jungle. As we were walking I saw a four-inch green scorpion walking in a gutter. I started to take a picture and Steve jumped in front and got two or three shots. Then he moved out of the way and I started to get the picture. "Buzz," my camera told me I needed a flash. I popped up the flash and waited for the light to come on. And waited. By the time the flash was ready the scorpion had hidden himself under a cement block. I considered asking Steve to pull him back out but decided it wasn't any use. We walked a nature trail but saw no animals. Most of the animals we saw were in the concrete gutters. We saw a small and harmless snake. We saw ants at least an inch long and daintily articulated so you could see every part. It was sort of like seeing "The Visible Ant."
The big attraction was the monkeys who were smart enough to come out of the jungle into the more park-like areas of the gardens. We had peanuts but could not compete for their attentions with some Japanese tourists who'd brought the local bananas, which were about four inches in length--just about the right size for a monkey with a sweet tooth.
When the Japanese had gone, some of the monkeys stayed around to take our peanuts. There were young monkeys, and mothers with babies clinging to their chests, and some of the braver males. We soon discovered that they would pretend to be interested in the peanuts we were handing out but would grab for the bag and pull at it with unexpected strength. I was the first to be so mugged by the monkeys and I only let it happen once. I warned the others and Evelyn never got mugged. (That's not surprising for anyone who knows her.) Steve was mugged at least twice. Once he was taken by a surprise attack in spite of my warning. Once he knowingly left a bag of peanuts in the open to watch the monkey take it. First he stole my scorpion picture; then he contributed to the delinquency of a monkey. In his defense I should also point out that he yelled at some local school boys who were throwing rocks at the monkeys. They stopped until we moved on or they thought we weren't looking. We might have thrown rocks at the boys, but were a little afraid the law would be on their side.
After the botanical gardens we took a taxi to Penang Hill. This hill is about 2800 feet high overlooking Georgetown--the city of Penang Island. There is a funicular railway going up the side. I got a soda when we arrived and in that much time we missed the railway up and had to wait for the next one about a half hour later. We sat down to rest.
After while we were on the railway. There are really two trains that meet halfway up the hill. In this way they can have a train leave each half hour for what is a half hour trip. As you go up the railway you get increasingly better views of Penang island. For the first stretch we talked to a Malaysian of Indian extraction who'd been up three times and was taking a friend up for the first time. Somehow I found I felt comfortable talking to him and only while talking did I realize that in spite of being Indian he looked a great deal and had many of the mannerisms of my cousin Aaron. He was more darkly complected but he really looked a lot like he could have been from my cousin's family. Anyway, he was affable. He asked how we liked the local food. I said we liked it. He asked if it wasn't too spicy. I said that at homer I had a reputation for liking food spicy but in Thailand I'd had a couple of dishes that were too spicy even for me. For the sake of my honor I ate them and pretended nothing was wrong. He thought that was funny.
On the second stretch we found ourselves sharing our car with, among others--there were about ten to a car--an older British couple from Derby. He had been stationed at Butterworth during the war when it was an RAF base. He was, as he said, a cryptographer. He broke down under questioning, however. He did not actually get to Malaysia until after the Japanese surrendered. He was not exactly what I would call a cryptographer either. He decoded what were then increasingly rare encoded British messages. He decoded them by formula rather than by actually trying to break any encoded messages from the enemy.
At the top of the hill it was supposed to be several degrees cooler and it probably was about ten degrees cooler, but that wasn't enough to make it comfortable. We took some shots of the city below. There was also a small mosque at the top of the hill. On the way back I talked more to the Derby couple. He had been an accountant for the British Railway and talked about how precise and exact he had to keep the books.
After this we headed back toward the city. We took a cab and talked to the driver about the elections. To nobody's surprise, the National Front had won. As I later read about the election, the DAP party--which represented local Chinese interests--was in disarray. A popular young politician whom everybody expected to be the future of the DAP had just resigned. With our government, the leaders have to look like the best alternative to the people every four years or they get voted out. In Malaysia's parliamentary government, the prime minister just has to have his party look good over a fairly long interval, like thirty years. When he thinks he looks good, he dissolves Parliament and holds new elections. With the DAP floundering suddenly the Prime Minister decided it was a good time to hold elections. All over Penang we saw political ads and cartoons saying, "This is our only chance to vote out the National Front." Well, DAP did make gains in Parliament, but to nobody's surprise the Prime Minister won the election. Penang tends to feel they get very little of their tax money coming back from the government since they tend to back the DAP rather than the government.
Our next stop was the Penang Museum, a museum of the history and culture of the island. We had saved this for the hot part of the day since the guide book said it was air-conditioned. It turned out to be a small museum with some rooms air-conditioned and some not.
You start with a display of the founding and political history of the island. Then you go to a section that still has some history, like a newspaper reporting two rival Chinese gangs, the Teh and the Ghee, fighting and putting the whole island under siege. One of the guide books said there were displays of the Tong Wars and if there were any, this was it, but if so I am not sure these could be called the Tong Wars. The Tongs, if I remember right, were a single secret society, like the Mafia. Today the Tongs are still around but they are more generally called the Triads. In some cases, Triad societies are only fraternal; more often they are a criminal syndicate featuring Mafia-like loyalty ordeals. The same newspaper had an article claiming that Jews were trying to lead believers away from the true Islamic faith. This was in the 1800s. I did not realize that ill feelings between Muslims and Jews went that far back. I thought it might have happened considerably earlier and somewhat later, but I would have thought there would have been no reason why 19th Century Malaysian Muslims hated Jews.
If one of these two gangs represented the Tongs, there was no such indication. Other exhibits included a Chinese opium bed, a section on Chinese opera, a display of railway history, and another on building the funicular railway up Penang Hill. They had the Rolls Royce that one of their dignitaries was assassinated in. One room upstairs was devoted to the kris, a Malaysian style of dagger. The kris is a very special sort of dagger as important in Malay culture as the samurai sword is in Japanese. Its odd shape makes it look inconvenient to use when, in fact, its shape has been described as being ideal for its function. It is generally twelve to sixteen inches long and highly decorated. It is bound up in mythology and mysticism. Tradition says each man must have several, including one he inherits from his forefathers, one he is given by his father-in-law, and one that is his own. They are ornately decorated. There are whole rituals for how a kris must be made. Each kris must have a wooden hilt, also highly decorated. Some krises have straight blades, others have wavy blades. There is a great deal to understand about the kris and all its features, and very few real experts. The kris room would have been one of the major attractions if the museum had we known we were going to see it and had sufficient materials to study the kris beforehand. There was, however, insufficient information at hand for more than modest interest for us. (The new "golden" dollar coins show a picture of a kris and its scabbard, incidentally.) There was also a modest art museum.
Because most of this museum was actually not air-conditioned we were quite hot and getting hungry, so we decided to head out for a haven of cool air, the Komtar Centre. Sad to say, we had lunch at A&W where cold root beer tasted surprisingly good. We also had chili dogs. After recharging our batteries, Evelyn and I went our separate way from Steve to see some of the shop-houses of Penang. I got a good price on a stick puppet to decorate the house. Evelyn went into a used bookstore and found a very rare piece of Sherlockia, one of the Mycroft Holmes novels of H.~F.~Heard. This one was nearly impossible to find. This would be a good area to look for used books. Since they have much slower supply and slower demand they might well have some low demand books that have become rare in the United States and have sat on the shelves a long time here.
Some of what is sold in the shops is as common as toothbrushes and razor blades or dinner. Some is more exotic. One store advertises "4 DIGIT NUMBERS FORECAST." Where else could you turn a random number generator into a business? Kind of like the old cartoon of a bum with a pocket calculator and a sign reading, "Square roots--5 cents."
We returned to the Cathay. We'd kept one room for a half-day so we could all get together and clean up. Steve got back first, Evelyn and I second, and Barbara and Binayak about an hour later. We shared another pomelo. Binayak was anxious to try the local dish "Chicken rice" so he led the way for dinner. We found a restaurant shop-house that boasted "Famous Chicken Rice." It turned out to be a fairly uninteresting dish. It was just what it said without any interesting sauce. Binayak, who led the way, was the greatest critic, in fact. We also got some pastries at a local bakery, checked out of our hotel, and taxied to the ferry to Butterworth.
We'd been looking forward to the ferry ride after sundown as being a relief from the heat. No such luck, as it was very hot on board and I drenched myself in sweat. Barbara complained of bathroom smells, but I didn't notice.
At the other end you get to a station in Butterworth that is both a bus and train station. There was a little kid, maybe eight years old, a lot of personality, asking people where they were going and directing them how to get there. We said we were taking a train and he gave us very complete instructions on how to get there. We set up camp in an open train station, little relief from the heat. Most of our group walked around. There was a grocery and some shops over in the bus station and B&B went off that way. I bought a bottle of filtered mineral water. In Malaysia you cannot get distilled water very easily. You can get mineral water. I think the assumption is that tap water is safe, but I still try to drink only bottled water and the carafes of drinking water in our hotels. I use the water bottles we got in Hong Kong as canteens. They have twist caps rather than the ones we have gotten since which once you pull off the plastic caps, you have what are basically plastic stoppers. I also bought an issue of Asia Week that had an article on Malaysia's elections.
I talked a bit with Steve while we waited. I can't say exactly what made me think so but I have slowly come to understand a little better why he is a supervisor and the rest of us are not. I have really come to have more respect for his demeanor and personality this trip than I had before. He is very well suited to dealing with different personalities. In a lot of very subtle ways he is a peacemaker.
Barbara came back laughing. Apparently she had been walking on the dark concrete walkway back. Some guy going the other way crossed over to her and asked her, "Where you going, Missy?" She gave him a stern look and said, "Don't ...~even ...~think ...~about ...~it!" He just sort of wilted and walked away.
Off we went to the sleeper car. The train was long and it was a long way down the platform. And it wasn't worth waiting for. We were all right next to the bathroom, which Barbara noted. She must have a more acute sense of smell than mine. The berths had no lights in them. The window was either all the way open so you got a wind blowing the curtain in your face or it was closed. There was no middle ground. Worst of all, the rotating fan did not rotate. A very important of your comfort was that rotating fan, particularly for the upper berths, which Evelyn and Barbara ended up with. We tried getting the fan to work, but it was to no avail. We pointed the problem out to the conductor. "Lucky," he said. "That's not very lucky," Barbara said. "You ...~unlucky." Thanks, guy. I opened my window and in doing so spilled a bottle of water on the bed. It may have helped a little but it looked embarrassing. By morning it looked like sweat. I tried to write for a while but the ride was very jerky. I tried to sleep, but that was really tough also. I kept waking up and checking my watch. I remember seeing every hour but 3 AM.
October 23, 1990: The conductor came around tapping his keys on the bed to wake us at 6:30 AM. At 6:50 we pulled into the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
K.L.~is a city with a wild if not particularly ancient history. It was established as a city in 1850 when two mining chiefs, Raja Jumaat and Raja Abdullah, founded it and persuaded Hakka miners to go get them tin. (Again the Hakka pop up in this log.) Eighty-seven poled up the Kelan River to mine tin; sixty-nine of them died in the first month. The Chinese never did have it very good in Malaysia. K.L.~remained a sort of wild mining town for several years. Then in 1895 it was made the capital of Malaysia. As a result it looks considerably more modern than, say, Penang. Most of the buildings are no older than those in Chicago or San Francisco. One difference is the Islamic architecture. You get some amazing combinations with the filigreed Moorish style on skyscrapers. It looks pretty weird.
Oh, so it is about 7 AM and we have gotten off a hot train into the hotter air of Kuala Lumpur. We dragged our luggage to the first platform and the waiting room which was air-conditioned, thank goodness. In Malaysia you get this feeling that you are walking into a wall of comfort when you walk into a building with air conditioning. Of course, when you leave it you walk into a wall of hot humid air that hits you in the face.
We had hoped to stay in the hotel at the train station, but we soon established it was closed, for renovation it appeared. Steve and I started looking through the books to find someplace to stay. We called one hotel, found it was no good for some reason that escapes me. We settled on the Puduraya. (To me the name still sounds like the Puta-rama, which is a great name for a hotel.) It had rooms in the appropriate price range and on calling they did have rooms. The downside was that it was over the bus terminal. It was kind of like electing to sleep in the Port Authority in New York, a less than savory prospect.
We grabbed cabs and headed for the hotel. It did very much look like a modern city in spite of the seemingly incongruous Muslim architecture. Some of the brand names we saw were also interesting. There were ads for Brylcreme. Now there is a company I thought went four-paws-to-the-moon long ago. Brylcreme was the original "greasy kid stuff." You put this stuff in your hair before you combed it and it held your hair in place and made it look greasy. I was still a kid when I saw the last ads for it. Yet here it is, alive and well. I guess some companies survive entirely on foreign markets. That's what the tobacco companies expect to be doing by the turn of the century.
The cabs that picked us up did so making an illegal stop so we had to rush in, so we had no chance to make arrangements where we'd meet at the far end. Our cab left the train station first so we waited at the cab stop for Steve and Barbara's cab. You could not even walk across the street to the place. There were walkways over the street because the traffic was so fast. After waiting a while I decided to scout for the others and left Evelyn and Binayak at the cab stand. The bus terminal was noisy and less than inviting. I had a bad feeling. I took the elevator to the fourth floor to get to the hotel. I was amazed. You walk into one of those walls of cool air and the hotel really looked nice. Steve and Barbara were there already sitting on the nice soft seats in the lobby. I decided I could live with this. I dropped off my backpack feeling relieved I'd found Steve and Barbara and the hotel was better than I'd expected. I went back into the heat and motioned the others in.
The rooms were perhaps not all that fancy but they were definitely comfortable, and after the previous night I told Evelyn that I could see there were definite advantages to comfort. Our initial philosophy was that we could save money on the rooms since you were only in them for a short time each day. Perhaps I am getting older but I can now see the advantage of having a nice place to retreat to and be comfortable.
After freshening up we went for breakfast. B&B had seen a nice buffet in the back part of the lobby. I was more anxious to try my luck on the street. Steve and Evelyn decided that might be a better approach so we split up. We found a nice Muslim place, basically a shop-house but nicer than most, right across the street. We had another roti, as I remember. It might not have been as palatable as B&B's hotel breakfast, but it was very probably more interesting. From there we met back at the hotel and then headed back to the train station, this time on foot, to make arrangements for the next night's sleeper car to Singapore. As we got to the train station, someone walking in the other direction asked us, "How was the fan?" It was our conductor of the previous night, though it took us a few seconds to recognize who he was.
It was bad news at the train station. We were all set to spring for first-class cars after our uncomfortable experience the night before. First class to Singapore was all booked already. "Okay, do you have air-conditioned?" "No." It turned out if we all wanted to travel together there were only non-air-conditioned upper berths. Well, it was out last sleeper ride. We could stand it one more night, but we were not very happy about the situation.
B&B were anxious to hear a musical group called "Asia Beat" which mixed traditional Asian music with modern jazz. There was a tourist agency right in the train station, so we went there and took a while, while they tried to find where the group might be playing. That was a dead end. Actually, not being a jazz fan I was a little relieved.
Next we headed out to find the National Museum, considered to be one of the best museums in Asia. Once again it took some wandering.
It actually was a fairly good museum, though somehow I found that I was not giving it the attention I would have liked to. First, I was extremely dehydrated from the walk and was kicking myself for not having brought water. In my imagination I may have been making myself more thirsty than I really was. Also, after nearly three weeks of constant stress and particularly after the previous night, I was just finding my energy running out. I gave some superficial attention to the exhibits but not what they deserved.
They had a collection of pieces of Baba culture. "Baba" is what they call the local Chinese culture. There was a nice exhibit of shadow puppets from each of the local cultures. Each seems to go in for shadow plays. On one side of a white cloth is an audience; on the other side is a light. Between the light and the cloth, flat puppets are manipulated. The museum also had typical Malay costumes, but what struck me as odd was that the mannequins displaying the costumes were all Caucasians. I guess there is not much local industry to make something like clothes mannequins.
The exhibit I am really sorry I did not get more out of was an optional exhibit with an admission price on the attitudes toward death in many cultures. There would be descriptions of funeral customs and death superstitions from all over the world: odd superstitions from places like the Pacific islands, the descriptions of a Viking funeral. (This is now quite familiar to me. I first heard the description on my Scandinavia trip, but it was based on the description by Ibn Fadlan that he wrote in 922 A.D. It is one of the eyewitness accounts included in John Carey's excellent anthology of historical eyewitness accounts, Eyewitness to History.) There were Eskimo burial customs and Incan customs. There was a big section on the Egyptians and mummies. Evelyn pointed out there was even a panel of posters and publicity stills from mummy movies. You exit via a reproduction of catacombs from ancient Rome. There is fodder here for a lot of fantasy and horror stories, but we had to move on.
After a well-appreciated can of Malaysian soda--which has a sour flavor that ours does not--we went to see the Central Market. This was something of a disappointment. The way to judge the interest value of a market is to look at three hypothetical shoppers:
A) a local grandmother B) a local hip teenager C) a touristYou now have a scale on which to measure markets. The gift shop in a hotel is obviously a C-market. You can have it. The market we saw when we went one stop too far in the New Territories of Hong Kong--that was an A-market. Walking through was a cultural experience. The Central Market was built in 1935 and was an A-market. It dealt in produce. As the city built up people wanted a more productive (read: profitable) use of the space so it was going to be torn down. There was a save-the-market movement which resulted in it being "saved." Saving here means it was gutted and downgraded to a BC- or a CB-market. You can get some traditional Malay food, but you are more likely to find ice cream and soda. We had lunch and found the same relation to Malay food that one of our mall pizza stands has to Italian food. I think we could have gotten better food had we looked a little harder, even in the Central Market. But at least it was better than going to the White Castle next door to the market. We drifted around the market, which still has the ambiance of a produce market rather than a mall for the most part, for what that's worth. Not quite so much polish, I guess. The Malaysian stick puppet I paid about US$8 for before would have cost about twice as much here. High prices are another aspect of B-ish and C-ish markets. The others bought T-shirts, a staple product in C-markets. I bought souvenirs: a couple of small carved wooden figures of demons carved by the Asli people, a local indigenous ethnic group. There was a booth run by two teenagers selling plaques of Quranic quotations written in florid Arabic calligraphy. We saw a lot of this sort of thing in Egypt. I decided that would make a good souvenir. I found one in plastic. This was a perfect "chatchka." A "chatchka" as I use it is a souvenir that is cheap, characteristic of the country, and something a local might buy for himself. The price was fairly cheap. There were two that were similar. "What does it say?" I asked my salesman. "They are quotes from the Quran," he said smiling. "I'm sure. But what do they say?" The smile fades. He consults with his girlfriend. She apparently knows or at least can fake it. I took the one that said, "In the name of Allah who is merciful."
We agreed what time we would meet for dinner and headed back to the hotel by different paths. On the way we passed what I can only guess to be some sort of a fortune teller. There was a crowd of people around him and he was speaking very fast in the local language. At various points, money seemed to change hands and not always in his direction. Also, pieces of paper were being handed out. Also pieces of paper seemed to be handed back to him. We watched for a while, but while I am sure there was a simple explanation for what we were seeing, nobody was explaining it to us. I sort of know how my dog used to feel. He used to see a lot of interactions in a language he didn't understand. He also used to watch a lot of hand motions that made no sense to him. My only advantages were that I could watch with an eye higher than seven inches off the ground and I wasn't burdened with the assumption that all human interactions have something to do with food.
Back at the hotel we rested and around 6 PM we met for dinner. In the interest of saving our dignity I will not give a detailed account of how we went looking for dinner. Suffice it to say that members of our party wanted to go for dinner at a place they'd heard was an artists' hangout. Then no taxi driver wanted to take us to this place for some reason we could not figure out. Finally we got to this place which was way the heck away through bumper-to-bumper traffic in really heavy rain. I asked our driver why nobody wanted to drive us to this place and he pointed out how heavy the traffic was. When we got to the place it was a hotel and restaurant and we immediately decided no artists were currently hanging out there. I mean, you can tell when you're hanging out with an artist, can't you? He has an easel up or something, doesn't he? "Aha!"~we decided. "It's 6:30 PM and artists don't start hanging out until about eight o'clock, we bet. Now where is a cab to take us back?" Are you kidding me? We were in the city bus terminal and could not find a couple of cabs to bring us through the traffic here. You think we're going to find two cabs willing to take us back? Good luck! Allah was at least a little merciful to stupid tourists. He shut off the water tap up in the sky. After that we were on our own using private transport involving shoe leather. In parts of Hong Kong or Thailand it might have been a nice piece of sightseeing. But the part of Kuala Lumpur we were in looked a lot like any other urban area. It was about a ninety-minute walk. Maybe more like two hours and we passed within about a five-minute walk from our hotel on the way to the Chinatown night market. We got there and I, for one, felt a bit foolish.
We hit a Western-style bookstore. I was hoping to find the Chinese novel Pilgrimage to the West. About the best I could find was a sort of "Classics Illustrated" version in four books and they were darn heavy in my luggage. We ate at a Chinese restaurant we passed where they jumped in front of us and pushed a menu in our hands as we were passing. Probably not the best way to choose a restaurant. However, the food was reasonably tasty. WE had fried noodles, squid in oyster sauce, and chicken in a clay pot. As with almost all our meals, there were no left-overs though some of the food did get fed to passing cats.
My big purchase of the evening was a Buddhist prayer wheel. It was probably more representative of Tibet than of Malaysia. It is a stick the size of a pencil and at one end is a cylinder about two inches long and maybe an inch and a quarter in diameter. There is a chain affixed to the cylinder and at the other end of the chain is a marble, or so it looks. You take the stick and swing the marble around in a circle as if you were holding a small mace. The cylinder spins on the spindle and a prayer is inscribed on it goes by. Tibetan Buddhists think each spin sends a prayer to heaven. You get the thing going and you can start sending out prayers. I can get the usually get the thing revved up to about 300 ppm. When I think how long it took me to do 300 prayers the old-fashioned way, the thing is really a good investment. After a little more shopping we called it a day.
October 24, 1990: Barbara ate breakfast in the hotel; the other four of us went out to eat on the street but ended up eating in the bus terminal. Bus fumes were a problem with the open architecture. We had soup with pork or chicken.
Our goal for the morning was the Batu Caves outside the city. After a little wandering around trying to find the right bus, we caught it next to the nearby McDonald's with a big "Halal" sign. I wonder if there are McDonald's in Israel with "Kosher" signs.
The drive gave us a good look at the city. I can remember seeing a film poster in Malaysian for 976-Evil. I wondered how many of the local people would understand the title. 976 is an American exchange.
Anyway, so we got outside of the town and saw a big limestone cliff. We saw more of the same sort of thing up north in Thailand. We were let off on the far side of a busy street from the caves. Crossing streets seems to be a problem a lot of places in Thailand and Malaysia. And there's rarely a traffic light where you want one. Cross the street and you go through a gate and there you see a long stairway in front of you a few hundred yards away. That walk is a gauntlet of hawkers all anxious to give you cold drinks at a modest price. (Beer? Jeez, it's ten in the morning and they're trying to sell me beer!)
Binayak thought there was some sort of trolley to the top and went to ask about it. Nope, not there any more. There is no royal road to Batu.
There are 272 stairs, so it is like climbing to the top of a twelve-story building. Except, of course, you rarely find monkeys begging on your way up in a twelve-story building. Evelyn still had two bags of peanuts, each with about fifteen peanuts--they weren't big bags. She gave one to Barbara with a warning not to let the monkeys grab the bag. Well, to make a short story even shorter, it wasn't long before a monkey climbed her leg to beg. "How cute!"~thought Barbara. A moment later the monkey was gone and so was the whole bag of peanuts. At least I was able to get some pictures of Evelyn feeding the monkeys. Well, at least she was warned!
At the top of the huge stairway is a huger grotto. I estimated it was roughly 250 feet high. This cave is sacred to the Hindus, who have shrines in the cave. At the back of the cave there is a natural room maybe one hundred feet high (or more) with an open ceiling that lets some daylight in. The strange limestone formations look almost biological. Everything looks like the inside of somebody's ear or pancreas or something.
The main cave is free but there are side caves with an admission, but it is worth it for amusement's sake if nothing else. This place is sort of a Hindu answer to Tiger Balm Gardens. You walk on a bridge over fetid waters. The water looks like pea soup but it is a slightly brighter green. Occasionally in the muck you can make out fish or the head of a turtle. There are plaster animals such as tigers and goats pretending to drink the green soup. One cave has just a shrine in it, but the other has plaster dioramas from Hindu mythology and folklore. There are dancing snake goddesses and elephant-headed Ganeshas. There are women with four faces or four arms. And they are all lined up so you don't do all the climbing you do at Tiger Balm Gardens.
After some confusion we caught the bus back to town. It's about a 45-minute ride back to the heart of the city. I smiled and made some pleasantries with some Muslims. In the United States you get the feeling that all Muslims are pretty militant. In Egypt we may have felt much the same way, but Egypt is right there next to Israel so there may be stronger political feeling there. Here people seem a little more laid back and friendly, less distrustful and maybe a bit more courteous about strangers.
We got off the bus near the Central Market where some of our numbers wanted to shop. I think Binayak wanted to get Kampung Boy, a cartoon autobiography of a popular Malay cartoonist. We were given time to wander around. A bookseller had a tremendous pile of romance novels from America. I had been told that romance novels were against the Muslim religion. Apparently that is not the case, or at least romance novels can be sold here. (There was a book drive for the soldiers in the Persian Gulf, but they did not want romance novels because supposedly the Saudi government objected on religious grounds.) I snapped a picture of the piles of romance novels and the store owner asked me if this was for an article. I set his mind at ease. No article. (I don't think he'd count this log as an article.) We got together again for lunch and after some looking around and disagreement we settled on the White Castle next door. My resistance must be really wearing down. After we ordered they told us to sit upstairs and they would bring the unfilled part of the order, including my two burgers, up to us. It took almost fifteen minutes and pretty much everyone else was finished.
When I was growing up, my mother used to make meatloaf. I hated meatloaf; so did my brother. My father ate it and from this I concluded that as you grow up either your tastes change or your discretion becomes stronger than your revulsion. Anyway, if my mother made meatloaf, I tried to avoid that side of my plate as if I'd seen ants crawling on it. My parents had an answer, though. They'd tell me to put the meatloaf on white bread and then it would taste like a hamburger. It was like saying if you put A-1 Sauce on earthworms, they'd taste like sirloin. I wasn't fooled. There is a big difference between what a hamburger tastes like and what a meatloaf sandwich tastes like. That's what I thought until I ate a White Castle hamburger. It wasn't quite the same but a White Castle tastes a lot like meatloaf on bread.
After lunch once more Binayak and Barbara split off. Steve, Evelyn, and I went off to see the National Mosque.
At the Mosque they insisted on giving Evelyn a blue coat that looked sort of like a lab coat. They also gave her a shawl to put over her head. This was to counteract the immodest ways Evelyn was sporting about. The Mosque has a circular dome and beside it a minaret. The minaret is 245 feet high and can be seen at quite a distance. As we entered we faced the narrow edge of a long walkway. At the far end was a mausoleum with marble coffins for dignitaries. There were some flowers but not much other decoration. Turning around on the walkway, on our left was a grand prayer hall. There was grillwork around it, but it generally was open-air. Though a sign said that it was off-limits for non-believers, we did see some tourists enter to look around. I stayed out but did use my pocket field glasses to look around from a distance. No pictures were allowed anywhere in the mosque, of course. Across the walkway from the great prayer hall were what looked like schoolrooms which appeared to be being renovated.
After the National Mosque we went to the National Art Gallery. In the front was a soda machine that dispensed cups. I got a Sarsi and had it half drunk when I noticed there was a dead ant floating in it. That took the edge off my thirst really quick, I can tell you. Evelyn is a practical girl. She took the cup and drank the soda in such a way that the ant stayed in the cup. I didn't feel like kissing her right away after that, but then I probably wouldn't have kissed her in the art gallery anyway.
I quickly found out what made this a gallery and not a museum. Every item had a year on it and every time the year was 1990. Frankly, after seeing so many of the classics on our Holland and Belgium trip two months earlier, these did not stack up. The first part of the exhibit was modern design. You know, the sort of thing: chairs and sewing machines made to look impractical or ugly but at the same time chic and modern.
In the upper floors we saw paintings. A couple were striking; the rest you could use the Evelyn Wood Speed Art Appreciation techniques on.
While we were walking around we heard a familiar voice coming up the stairs. It emanated from Binayak. He and Barbara wanted to see the art gallery also. They did. Then we all headed back to the hotel to rest up, none of us looking forward to another night on the sleeper car. Everyone but Steve had checked out that morning. We saved one room so there would be a place to crash. And crash we did. We all slept. We woke up about 6 PM. Meanwhile it had gotten really ugly outside. This was the worst rain and lightning storm of the trip. When the sky opens up here it can be impressive. We'd allowed plenty of time to get to the train station.
We checked out and asked the hotel to call us a cab. To my relief they did not respond, "Okay, you're a cab." Not to my relief, however, was the fact they could not find us a cab because of the rain. We sat in the lobby with our bags as they kept trying but no cabs. "Don't panic. Still plenty of time," we told ourselves nervously. The hotel kept retrying. We kept not panicking. After about an hour we decided there must be a better way not to panic. The way we were trying was not 100% effective.
We went down to the bus station and tried there. Yes, there were taxis there but they wanted M$15. Coming in the other direction it had been about M$7, Barbara pointed out. We started off to try to find other cabs. The Steve said we'd take it if we could get two cabs, not one. They agreed.
We went to the cabs. Barbara was still bothered that we were being gouged. I am usually the cheap one of the group, but I told her, "They are charging us each US$1.20 and the standard price is $US0.60. Should we go back to worrying if we can get to the train station?"
She said, "You're right. I'm thinking crazy." I thought that was a nifty response. It is tough to think about what these prices really are in American dollars.
For the extra US$0.60 we got to the train station in time to get dinner. But the moment I was dreading, and probably all of us were, was when we'd have to get on that sleeper car.
Our first view of the car was a pleasant surprise. There were small windows for the upper berths. They were about six inches by fourteen inches. These could make much of the difference. As it turned out, the weather may have also been a bit cooler. I was actually too cool and someone else was actually complaining that it was too cold. I think we all agreed this was our most comfortable sleeper and I was able to tell the others that I didn't know why upper-berth people had been complaining; based on a sample of one, upper berths were quite comfortable. Every couple of cars they even had storage space so I could get rid of my backpack.
October 25, 1990: In the morning I woke just a bit early, but I needn't have bothered. The train, which was supposed to have gotten into Singapore at 7 AM, was something like two hours behind schedule. I went over to where the others' berths were (Evelyn and I were separated from the others). We talked for a while. I was somewhat amused to see a Buddhist monk, orange robes and all, sitting there and listening to our conversation. I would have liked to talk to him, but do you just talk to a Buddhist monk? I wasn't sure. I knew they were not supposed to come in any physical contact with women. If they are to be handed something by a woman they spread a cloth between their hands. The item to be handed them is laid on the cloth without touching them. I more or less figured I should not push matters. Then Priya threw a comment about trains or something into our conversation. I figured it was "open season." I started a conversation with him. I asked where he was from and he said he lived in Malaysia and Singapore. Originally he was from Bangladesh. I mentioned that one of our party was from Calcutta. Binayak asked if Priya still spoke Bengali. He did and they talked a while. At some point I noticed that Priya had a large tattoo of a bird on the inside of his right forearm. I don't think I have ever seen a monk with a tattoo before. I asked Priya what his responsibilities were as a monk. They seemed to be just that he takes care of himself. Doesn't he have special prayers he must make? No. We told him some of our country. I remember telling him how much I dislike snow. I doubt if Priya had even seen snow, so I thought that would be something he would want to hear about. We talked about Singapore, which he said "was fine for fines." Steve thought he meant it was a nice place for nice people. No, he meant fines. There are warnings of fines all over. True enough, Singapore had a liberal dose of signs up warning about fines. Every minor infraction seemed to have a heavy fine posted. Littering, jaywalking, everything. Some even threatened caning. What 20th Century country still has whipping as a punishment? Who do they get to administer the caning? It is an anachronism. I asked Priya how long he'd been a monk. Three years. Was this part of a five-year compulsory monkdom. I am not sure he knew what I was talking about about five years. He said he was a monk for life.
I was a little surprised that Singapore's outskirts were as much like Malaysia's as they were. I suppose I was expecting a very modern city to have covered the island. Much of Singapore looks no better off than the poor parts of Malaysia or even Thailand. Of course, Singapore was once part of Malaysia ...~for about twenty-three months. It got un-annexed because of dissident opinions, much as Penang has a lot of dissidents. The Muslims and the Chinese really do not get along very well. Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia and had to fend for itself which it did rather handsomely. This abortive merger occurred from 1961 to 1963.
By far the strongest party in Singapore is PAP, the People's Asian Party, which has been in power for over thirty years under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In the elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980, PAP won all the seats in Parliament. There are some signs of change. In the 1988 election, things went against the PAP party and they won only eighty of the eighty-one seats in Parliament. Lee still holds a lot of power. PAP is nearly a totalitarian party in spite of democratic elections. We pulled into the station 9-ish and got in a very long Customs line where we must have stood for twenty-five minutes. Of the Americans, I got the most thorough going-over--I actually had to open up luggage. However, Binayak seemed to get a very complete examination. I think they looked all through his luggage and asked him a lot of questions. They found in his luggage my copy of Asia Week and confiscated it. It was the first time I had ever seen something genuinely confiscated by Customs. I'd had a science fiction book confiscated by the Soviets going into Leningrad. I was told it was forbidden. Three or four border guards had handed it around until it got to one who looked as if she was about college age. She leafed through it, reading five or six pages and then without explanation said, "Here's your book," handing it back to me. I suspect what I was seeing was curiosity, not Cold War distrust. I did not begrudge them a five-minute confiscation.
This was a different matter, however. What got confiscated, even if it was only a magazine, was kept. And when we got to the train station they were selling Asia Week at newsstands. But these, as it turned out, had been approved by the government. Some issue of Asia Week had the audacity to criticize Lee Kuan Yew. So now only approved issues were allowed into the country. The incident left a bad taste in our mouths.
I will not go into detail about our search for a hotel, but it was the toughest of the trip. It was very hard to find unbooked hotels in a moderate price range. In the end, we stayed at the Bencoolen Hotel on Bencoolen Street. The staff was curt and unpleasant. The rooms were a bit better than spartan, but not very much. To make matters worse, the hotel had noisy construction going on.
From there it was out on the street to find breakfast. Actually it was almost close to lunchtime--must have been about 11 AM. After walking a while, we found a Chinese place where you pointed to food in a case. When the bill came and we figured the price in American dollars, it was a shock. Not a bad price for the United States but high compared to Thailand and Malaysia.
Next stop was changing money. Evelyn suggested we change US$200 to be safe. We did. Then we put a big chunk in the common fund and set aside a piece for departure tax. I looked at what was left and started wondering if we should start looking for a place to change money. Here I was still in the bank and wondering where to change money. We changed US$100 more. Prices in Singapore were high. However, after having worried if we'd brought enough money back when we were in Hong Kong, it had turned out to be a fairly inexpensive trip. I don't mind having a little extra in my pocket in Singapore.
The plan was to see Orchard Road, a posh shopping area. I was sort of two minds since it was supposed to be something unique to Singapore. On the way we passed a synagogue. Evelyn had been anxious to see it since they are rare in this part of the world. The building looked a lot like a lot of others but it had a Star of David on the front. I was less than enthralled.
We continued on toward Orchard Road, passing a row of used bookstores fairly close to our hotel. We went in one and I found a rare British science fiction play, Quatermass II, which I picked up cheaply, as well as an Edmund Cooper science fiction novel, Seahorse in the Sky. Since we left the bank the sky had gotten grayer and more ominous. As we walked we were pelted by drops of cold rain which I found a welcome relief from the heat. I knew, however, the rain would not be welcome for long. Sure enough, it let go in a very heavy torrent. We spent about forty minutes under the marquee of a theater. It has a whole wall painted as a giant ad for Total Recall. Here, as in China, most of the film posters are locally painted from a printed model. I got a good picture of Evelyn next to a giant Arnold Schwarzenegger face. Her feet are next to his chin and her head comes up to the bottom of his nose. I passed the time reading the Cooper book.
Finally the rain let up and we were moving again. It was still sprinkling and we ducked into a three-story mall, the Singapore Plaza. We ended up going through it and looking at the bookstores. Right in the middle of a bookstore a very unpleasant thought dawned on me. Due partially to circumstances beyond our control, and partially to circumstances within our control, we had already spent about a third of our time in Singapore doing things we could have done in new York City. Why come to Singapore and shop in American-style malls? I started getting "ootsey." Well, we were meeting in about an hour. I could wait until then. But then the group decided to go to Swensen's for ice cream and I got even ootsier. The service was not very good and we really didn't get what we ordered and I kept asking myself, is this the best use of our time? I suggested we forget about Orchard Street and go look at Chinatown. Evelyn and Steve agreed and the three of us took the Metro.
Ah, yes. The Metro. It has to be one of the most amazing in the world. They had the stored-value magnetic cards. The tracks are sealed off behind glass walls with doors that coincided with where the doors of the trains would stop. That made jumping on the tracks impossible. The train cars themselves were very modern and very clean. They were protected from litter by heavy fines. There were no dividers between cars so that it looked like you were in one long articulated car that ran the length of the train rather than many shorter cars.
And for people waiting for the trains, where the United States would have ads (London also), they had signs up with brain twisters. One was the old puzzle about the hunter who shoots a bear, walks a mile south, a mile east, and a mile north, and is back where he started. What color is the bear? (In fact, there are more points that he could have started from, but he might have had to bring his own bear. There are more points on the Earth's surface you can walk a mile south, east, and north, and be back where you started.) That was the easy puzzle. The harder one was five "complete-the-sequence" puzzles. I am pretty good with this sort of thing and figured out three of the five. Steve figured out a fourth. One none of us figured out.
In the United States if somebody puts brain twisters in a public place (as opposed to publishing them in a book), they are trivially simple. Generally they are aimed at children. HBO had a program called "Brain Games," but the questions were all aimed at an eight-year-old's mind. In the United States, the popular culture tries to send a message to people not to think quantitatively. People who do are usually portrayed by the media as weird or nerds. With very few exceptions, mathematicians are portrayed as people who are out of touch with reality. The sciences are generally shown in the media as being at best misguided and more often evil. The media have the attitude that we all know deep down that scientists are useful at times, but they are enjoyable to laugh at, particularly because they are not well understood. As of several years ago, we turned out twice as many lawyers as engineers in our schools, Japan turned out twice as many engineers as lawyers. I am sure the ratio has gotten worse since then. Asia has a much greater respect for the human intellect, or so it seems on first brush. Having no children, I can watch this whole situation with detached amusement. There is enough momentum in the economy to keep it from crumbling badly in my lifetime. Not that I won't feel the pinch, of course, but the next generation will feel it a lot worse than I do. At least I expect it will. Perhaps it is my values that are screwed up.
Much of Singapore still feels the influence of Sir Thomas Raffles of the East India Company who more or less founded modern Singapore. Raffles organized a Chinese section of town with different sections for each of the clans. In a sense it became like many ghettos closely tied together. People on a given street would be from the same part of China. Sometimes they would form into secret societies like the Tongs. As I mentioned earlier, Tongs were often fraternal but more often went in for the same sorts of things the American organized crime went in for: drugs, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking. They were sort of their own Mafia. Their power continued until the Japanese moved on Singapore and occupied it. By the 1950s there were just too dang many people trying to live on too small a place in Chinatown and the younger generation started heading out to the suburbs. With them went most of the money that maintained Chinatown and conditions went downhill. The government wanted extensive urban renewal, but found it was too expensive and let things go downhill.
We got off the Metro and pulled out a map to try to find our way. A young local stopped and asked us if he could help us find anything. Steve seems to think this is a relatively common occurrence even in Manhattan. My suspicion is that is not true.
The Southeast Asia Guide had a walking tour of Chinatown and I am not entirely sure why we did not take that tour. We probably just did not think of it. Instead we sort of wandered around. Much of Chinatown is made up of shop-houses. The bottom floor is a shop; the top two are houses. A city block will be one huge building with one roof, but it will be subdivided into shop-houses with a dozen or so on each side. Somehow in the middle of all this is an Indian temple. It is another Sri Mariammam Temple. The doorway is about twenty feet high but above it is a steep pyramid structure fifty or sixty feet high that is divided into five levels and a roof as if it were stories of a building, though exaggerating perspective to make it look even taller. On each of the levels there are statues of deities crowded together like a New York subway. On the lowest level they are life-size, or nearly so, assuming that Indian deities can be said to be life-sized. On the fifth floor they are about half scale. This whole thing is overlaid with chains of flowers. This structure is a gopuram. Then to the sides are roofs nearly as decorated with plaster cattle and with gods protected with halos that look like fancy bathtubs upended. This temple is done in a Dravidian style and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess Devi. Inside you find yet more plaster statuary brightly painted in little individual buildings, each a shrine. One we saw off in the distance had a head five or six feet high.
On the street we visited more shop-houses. We walked around Chinatown center where there are still lots of street merchants and the shops sell things like kites and brightly painted fans. On the street women sell vegetables from portable shops that are spread blankets. There is a large building actually called "Chinatown Centre" that is like an open-air mall with shops selling the inevitable T-shirts. I got one with an old Chinese poem (in Chinese; I had to have it translated for me):
Morning rains wets the dust A small hotel with young green willow trees My friend, let's have one more drink of wine Before you go West, beyond the wall to where you have no friends.
That is considered a very sad and sentimental lament by Wang Wei of the Tung Dynasty. When you were sent beyond the Great Wall you were in a different world with no communications back to anyone you knew before. Evelyn also got a T-shirt. It said "Singapore" and had a picture of the Merlion. This should set to rest any remaining questions about which of the two of us had all the class.
Steve got a coolie hat with a fake queue, a Chinese opera mask, and a silk robe. This was to be his costume at a party his first night back.
From there we left Chinatown and walked to Elizabeth Walk. This is sort of a park on the water. You look across the water and see the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore. It is a statue of a chimera, half lion and half fish. As twilight falls the eyes of the Merlion light up.
Somewhere about this time who should come along but Binayak and Barbara. We were on what was really our last full night in Singapore (if you didn't count the airport as really being in Singapore), and Barbara wanted to go someplace fancy for dinner. We really could not come up with a single idea that all of us liked, so B&B went their separate way.
We walked around the park a little longer. There was a section that was just satay vendors. There was some sort of memorial that looked like four chopsticks in a vertical position. On the way back we passed an upscale shopping s=center called Raffles Place. We went in to look around. They were having a camera show. Steve had some interest and went around to a couple of the vendors and picked up some brochures. We were interested in finding a place to have dinner. There was a Chinese restaurant there but it looked pretty fancy for sweaty tourists like ourselves. The manager was by the doorway trying to get us to come in so we obliged him.
We had seafood, pan-fried steak, and braised black mushrooms. The service was quite good. It may have cost a bit more than some of the other places we have eaten, but it was worth it.
We walked back to our hotel. I wrote for a while and turned on the television. They had a peculiar quiz show from Canada. But what sticks out in my mind is that they had ads for children. No, not ads aimed at children--ads for adults saying that nothing is as fulfilling as having children. They are concerned that they will be outnumbered by the Malays so they run the ads for upscale audience saying that richer television owners should have more children.
October 26, 1990: This is really it. We have now packed our bags for the last time. Next time we open our bags we will be home. Breakfast was at the hotel next door. We could have had it at the Bencoolen but the hotel was sos crewed up in so many ways, I don't think we dared. I was able to order Indonesian style, which was quite good. Very spicy, but I like spicy food in the morning, and we finished off with pineapple chunks that were quite good. Steve, Evelyn, and I then set off for Little India. The neighborhood looks like something out of old Johore. Like the Chinese were brought to the United States to build railroads and today are a major community, the Indians were brought to Singapore to drain the swamps and clear the jungles and today they have grown to be a major political force in Singapore. Like the Chinese they are also distributed on streets pretty much where they came from in India.
Serangoon Road in the morning is a feast of smells. The shop-house restaurants are serving breakfast. Big flat drum-like grills are baking bread. You pass by the noisy buildings and they are making and packaging spices and a variety of spice smells fill the air.
We passed the Perumal Temple. This is another temple with a big gopuram. That's the six-layer pyramidal structure over the doorway. The guide book says it is twenty meters high. We tried to go to the Gandhi Memorial, but it was closed. We might have kicked our way in and thrown rocks at the windows, but we decided to be non-violent.
In the nearby Arab quarter we visited the Sultan Mosque. This is a big mosque with onion-shaped doors. Again Evelyn had to don modest apparel by putting on a robe and shawl. It is an amazing sight to see Evelyn modest since it definitely is not her natural state. If they can perform miracles like making Evelyn modest, perhaps there is more to Island than I realized. Just kidding. Ha, ha, ha. Hey, I have the deepest respect for Islam. Yes, sirree! Great religion, Islam. That's what I always say. Besides I am just one little guy and hardly worth the efforts of anything like a death squad. Oh, yes. And Evelyn, I am just kidding too. You followers of the Ayatollah don't have to dispatch any death squads either. Sheesh!
We had to walk around the mosque to enter it. Of course, it is situated so that when you pray you face Mecca. I don't know how accurate that is. With mosques they are probably careful. At the Puduraya they had qibla arrows on the ceiling in each room. Extending the arrows in two of our rooms I calculated that the true location of Mecca was somewhere in the bus station downstairs.
Entering the mosque you see in front of you what looks like a clock with six digital times of different times of the day. Of course, these are times to pray. A Muslim prays five times a day. So what's the sixth time? We asked that on the way out later to a friendly man who was asking where we were from. Apparently there is an interval in the morning during which it is forbidden to pray. I don't really understand that, but it is close to being an explanation. The main sanctuary is for Muslims only but there is a second floor you can climb up to and look down from either side. It is funny to see a religious sanctuary with big clocks at the front, but presumably exact time is important. Leaving we stopped to look at the clocks and one of the believers asked about us and where we came from.
From there we headed back to the hotel to meet the others and to check out. As we walked the skies turned dark and we knew we'd probably not get back to the hotel before the rain let go. True enough, we had another torrential rain. We ended up sitting in the entranceway of a bank huddled hiding from the rain. Under the same shelter was a woman who talked with us about travel. She says she used to travel a lot but found it difficult. Now she finds it much easier to send her spirit traveling now that she has learned to share God's Holy Light. Apparently someone in Japan discovered how to share God's Holy Light and now the movement has over a million followers. I guess sending your spirit traveling would be a heck of a convenience. Each time there was a bolt of lightning she said, "Thank You, God." It was not clear if she was thanking Him for sending the lightning or for not hitting her. She gave us a nice brochure showing wholesome, successful people sharing light by holding their hands cupped like parabolic reflectors. If they were emitting light it was not showing on photographic film. Maybe it was a frequency that film does not capture. The woman said that she comes to Singapore several times a year to study the sharing of light. That is a problem because the Singapore government does not want to let her in that often. I am not sure why she didn't just come in spiritually and leave her body home. It is her spirit she wants educated and it is her body that needs the visa from the government. There probably is some very good reason, like the body was needed to carry money. With the weather as gray and ugly as it was, it would have been nice to have a little light, but she wasn't in a sharing mood apparently. Eventually she went away which, incidentally, was just fine with us.
Eventually we got a cab to the hotel, joined the others, checked out, and went to the noodle house across the street for lunch. We took a double-decker bus to the cable car station for Sentosa Island. This is a recreation island of about a thousand acres. It is supposed to be a very pleasant place to visit with a host of different recreations. There is a fort to visit; there is swimming, boating, jogging, roller skating, and tennis. There is a maritime museum. There is an underwater world with tunnels to watch the sea creatures.
To get to the island you take a cable car high over the water. The cable car goes in two directions from the World Trade Centre (not as impressive as the one in New York). It goes to Mt.~Faber in one direction and to Sentosa Island in the other. We took it and paid to get onto the island. We took a nature walk. There was lots of flora but very little fauna. Unlike the jungles of Northern Thailand, this really looked like what we think of as jungle. It looked a bit like Kong's Island from King Kong. From there we were going to see a butterfly collection that Steve was excited about. However, when Steve discovered the expensive admission price had an additional surcharge if you brought in a camera, he soured on seeing the butterflies. Instead, we took the monorail around the island. From there you can get a better look at the island. And what we discovered was that the island looks tacky. There is sort of a phony "lost civilization," there is a plastic dinosaur, there is a sort of artificial lagoon. Fort Sentosa is real enough but still quite touristy. We sort of soured on Sentosa and took the cable car back. Our ticket included a cable car ride to Mt.~Faber. That provided an okay but not all that impressive view of Sentosa Island and some of Singapore. It also had an overpriced souvenir shop. We returned to the World Trade Centre and took the bus back to Orchard Road.
A fancy hotel with the unfortunate name "The Cockpit Hotel" had a culture show of local dancing at 7 PM. We decided that would be a fitting final activity. Before the show we went out for dinner. We found an al fresco restaurant and decided to try it. They had a singer who sounded a lot like Elvis Presley. When we actually saw him he turned out to be Chinese. Binayak and I each ordered a local specialty, chili crab. It was crab served in the shell with a chili sauce over it. That made it a real mess, but it was tasty.
The show at The Cockpit included a drink. Presumably it was to be a Singapore Sling. This place claimed to be the home of the Singapore Sling. We had heard that the Raffles Hotel was the real home of the famous drink, but the Raffles was closed for another year or so due to renovation. Maybe they leased out their title for a year or two. I got a pineapple juice instead.
The show had Malay, Indian, and Chinese dancers. It opened with a Malay rice planting dance done to a sort of rock beat. Really disappointing. The steps may have been authentic but the music certainly was not.
Next some Indians came out and did an Indian dance. That was reasonably well done.
The two young Chinese women came out and did an excellent ribbon dance. I have seen the ribbon dance before. It looks not too difficult but on reflection keeping eight feet of cloth moving so it does not collapse and dancing at the same time is probably pretty tough. The two women had an incredible grace.
That was sort of how the evening went. When the Malay dancers were up, nothing was serious. They would play a traditional song on folk instruments and it would turn out to be "When the Saints Come Marching In" or a Japanese tune. They would have audience members coming up and dance with them and one apparently drunk Japanese tourist (though I don't rule out the possibility he was planted in the audience) would get up and clown around. They did a pole dance with bamboo poles slapping together. That normally would be impressive, but it should be noted that they slapped the poles only on alternating beats, giving the dancers more time to get their feet out of the way. The Malays were pretty amateurish.
The Indians did a good job, though I do not know as much about the nuances of Indian music. The Chinese, who unfortunately did only two dances, were very good. In fairness finding Chinese women who can dance their national dances well is probably not all that difficult. The Chinese take a great deal of pride in their culture and a high percentage of girls probably start learning the classic dances from an early age. In China we went to a kindergarten and young girls danced there with a grace you will not see in this country in children of the same age.
So that was about it. We walked back to the Bencoolen and got our luggage and grabbed taxis to the airport. We thought our adventures were pretty much over but fate still had one curve ball to throw us. Our plane was at 7 AM the next morning. That meant we had to check in at 5 AM. We could have slept at the hotel for 3-1/2 hours, but that hardly seemed worth it. Evelyn had heard there might be day rooms furnished with beds at the airport, so she called and sure enough, it was true. So our plan was to rent day rooms at the airport.
My worry as we headed for the airport was that we would get separated and not find each other. Evelyn and I were in one cab; the others were in another. That turned out not to be a problem. It did give me a chance to tell our cab driver, "Follow that cab." I always wanted to do that. That's supposed to be a cabbie's dream of adventure. Unfortunately, our cabbie hadn't seen the same films. He just went anyway he pleased at the airport and we arrived a few minutes apart. That was not a problem; it was fairly easy to find each other. Evelyn went off to verify they had day rooms.
Fortunately they did have them just a short walk away.
Unfortunately they were in the secured area. You needed a boarding pass to get to them.
Fortunately we were flying so we should be able to get boarding passes. We just had to get them a little early. Now where was the Northwest Orient desk?
Unfortunately there was no Northwest Orient desk or desks for any airline. They used common check-in facilities. One hour it would be Northwest Orient; later another airline would be there.
Fortunately the airlines do set up early at the check-in so we could get our boarding passes early.
Unfortunately that means getting them about 4:30 AM. It was now about 10 PM.
Well, gang, we've done it to ourselves again. Are there hotels in the area? Will they have rooms? Evelyn wanted to open the beach mats and sleep on the floor. I think Barbara was in favor of going to a hotel. I still believed in fighting jet lag by staying up all night before a long flight anyway. And Evelyn can sleep anywhere--she has no pride. The two of us said we would stay, but the others were free to go, of course. I guess they all decided that by the time they found a hotel and settled in, it would be too late to get any sleep. We decided to do a little final shopping and then find someplace to sack out for a few hours. Well, as it turned out, all the stores closed just as we were getting to them.
There was one cafeteria that stayed open all night. After a while we settled in that. The sign going in said, "No studies allowed in this part of the cafeteria." That was puzzling. I assumed they mean that no polls could be done. Not so, as we were to find out.
October 27, 1990: We settled into our seats and some of us grabbed some food. I got an oriental noodle soup with slabs of meat and fish.
Off to the side there was an area with a bunch of teenagers. I couldn't figure what high school kids were doing in an airport at 12:30 AM. It turns out they were studying. They come to the airport because there is food to buy and they don't have to be really quiet and they were there studying until about 4 AM on a Saturday morning. I took a look at their books and they looked very technical. I think what I was seeing was spherical geometry. I am not particularly confident that our students are anywhere nearly as well-educated or dedicated.
Well, the night went faster than I had expected, with various people sacking out at various times. I think I fell asleep for about fifteen minutes but I mostly kept myself awake.
There is not much to tell. A little before 5 AM we checked in and Binayak got another hassle from the officials on leaving. Our plane took off pretty close to on time. They served us a small breakfast, showed the film The Freshman, and gave us a very good lunch. It seems that flying from Singapore to Tokyo they figure they have a lot of Japanese on board so they offered two bland choices and something called mataguchi. That was a styrofoam bento box filled with Japanese delicacies. There were green noodles, omelet, pickled vegetables, wasabi, etc. I think there was also a shrimp ball. Good stuff. I think it was not going well and then five Americans seated in a row all ordered it. We had an hour or so layover in Narita. Back on the plane for the long trip from Narita to New York.
The flight back to New York was not greatly eventful. Lunch was fish or steak. Evelyn got the fish but thought it might actually have been chicken. I got the steak and thought it was terrible. Unfortunately, there was no mataguchi choice.
The movies they showed were Bad Influence, which I thought was pretty lousy, and Men at Work which was stupid and lousy and luckily I fell asleep on it. They also showed The Secret Life of Ian Fleming and Pink Panther just in case we slept through them on the way.
The flight was, of course, a very long one, lasting about fourteen hours. Toward the end someone came around asking Binayak to go with him. Binayak never returned. We looked around for him when it was time to get off the plane but no Binayak. The crew professed to have no knowledge about what happened to him. Evelyn wouldn't stand still for that. She asked how somebody can be taking people from their seats with nobody knowing. The stewardess, who was on our trip out as it turns out, said he'd already gotten off the plane.
They loaded us onto a van. There was a rather large fellow (not fat, but large) carrying a script for Fiddler on the Roof. I asked him if he was going to be in some production. No, he was the dance captain for the production that was soon to open on Broadway with Topol. We talked about the various versions of Fiddler. He thought that Topol was hard to work with. You could not tell him anything.
We were getting more concerned about Binayak. Passport control was for us a walk-through. We passed a guy who looked at our pictures quickly and checked that we were the same sex and race as the person in the picture.
Luggage was a struggle, as always, and while we were standing there Binayak joined us. It was unclear why they took him and put him in the front of the plane, but when we landed he just walked off. It gave him a head-start through the line. He had to go through a more difficult check and his head-start got us all out quicker, which might have been the idea. We piled all our luggage on a cart. Customs asked to see Binayak's luggage. We said it was at the bottom of the pile. They waved him through.
It was funny--everyone else seems to have fallen asleep in the limo on the way home. I was able to get pictures of each of them asleep. That was just after I woke up one of the times. It was the most comfortable place we had been in 48 hours. When we got home I kept myself up till midnight and slept till 7 AM, about the most normal hours I'd slept since well before the trip.
So what was the best country? Hard to say because we rushed so much through Malaysia and Singapore, but certainly we found the most of interest in Thailand. I would say this mode of travel is far more exhausting than would be a guided tour. It was, however, cheaper (the whole trip for two cost about US$4600 for absolutely everything including film and developing), and it is by our mistakes that we learned the most.
Second only to our trip to China, this was the best trip we've taken. There were minor conflicts, but considering how different we all were from each other, we ended up surprisingly friendly. We got home Saturday and Monday night we all went out for pizza. As I write this we have been back 23 days from our 24-day trip. It has taken that long to complete this log. Tonight the five of us again had dinner together and showed each other our pictures. For the last three and a half weeks, I had lived halfway between Asia and home. Half of my mind and thought shave been in this log. Now, at last, for the first time in seven weeks I am really home.