After much procrastinating, I am finally able to come up with a summarised account of how I spent the last month, or rather the main highlights.
WARNING: Read on if you have lots of time on your hands!
Majority of my time was spent in Shah Alam, Selangor, the state bordering Kuala Lumpur to the west, where my friend Louisa lives. Selangor could be considered a suburb of Kuala Lumpur and theirs is a plush green neighbourhood. We visited Kuala Lumpur on two occassions, first one during the day. Visited the Petrona Twin Towers, KL Tower, Chinatown, Little India, and generally strolled around the city, shopped, ate... and another time to check out the vibrant KL nightlife.
Next we visited a charming little historic town situated South West of Kuala Lumpur, on the coast called Malacca. Malacca was founded by a prince from Sumatra in the 14th century, and turned it into a major port city for ships from India and China. Later in the early 1500's the Portuguese conquered it, then the Dutch in teh mid 1600's, and finally much later the English. We made a day trip there by road and visited the Stadthuys (official residence of the Dutch governor, now converted into a museum), A'Famosa (the fortress built by the Portuguese to defend themselves, of which only the entrance wall remains today), St Paul's church, the site where St Francis Xavier was buried before his body was moved to Goa... everything about this town was old and quaint, which was brilliant. Malacca was probably my favourite of the places I visited in Malaysia.
The next day we made a visit out to Batu Caves, home to a highly revered Hindu shrine, the entrace of which is adorned with a beautiful gigantic gold statue of who I think is South Indian God Murugan. Next up was Genting Highlands. And was it "up" or what! At 2000 metres above sea level, this place takes a while to get to. As you're driving up through mountain passes, you have the opportunity to admire little Malay towns and villages, lush greenery and life in the countryside. Once up at the top, we left the car and visited the actual Genting Resort area by cable car, the fastest and longest cable car in the world. Below us was rainforest, more rainforest, and perfect calm. Once we were inside Genting Hotel, Louisa's parents headed up to the casinos, whereas Louisa and I went for a walk around the premises. We did briefly hang around in the casino and I must say I didnt like the look or feel of it one bit. It was amazing to see the hordes of people that were arriving with every cable car with their suitcases and bags packed for the weekend (it was a Friday when we visited, those arriving then with their luggage were planning to spend the weekend there, gambling ofcourse). I don't understand casinos, but thats just me. Someday when I visit Malaysia again, I'd like to check out the Northern region, and the islands.
I have to say I have a soft corner for this place. From the moment I arrived to Phnom Penh, to the time I left Siem Reap (marking the end of my time in this magical country), I was so absorbed by the place; its people, the roads, the buildings, the trees, um, you get the point. What I first noticed was that it wasn't as green as Malaysia, rather it was brown and dusty like India. However, my first "vibes" from Indo-China were very positive, I was struck by its similarity to India, putting me at ease and making me feel at home immediately. I had a great guesthouse - Top Banana, that I had found on the internet and confirmed with before getting there (I recommend it to those who are planning to visit Phnom Penh, but don't count on too much comfort: plus is that this GH is at a good central location and great for meeting fellow travellers, minus is that there is no AC and no hot showers). It is run by a sweet guy called Soby. His elderly dad came to pick me up at the airport, and once at the guesthouse I met people who were with me for the rest of my time in Cambodia (two French guys and a girl from Hong Kong - thanks to them I never had to flag down a moto taxi or a tuk-tuk :) Top Banana has a nice terrace where there is a row of miniature flags hanging, and noticing that there was no Indian flag on the line, my goodbye present to the guesthouse was an Indian flag I found in the market. I had initially only planned to stay three days (two days in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap), but everyday I said, "alright, I'll stay one more day," and I ended up staying almost a week.
Its true what they say about the majority of the country's population being only young people. Pol Pot (the dictator of the Khmer Rouge regime) killed almost half the country's population in the 70's in what what many say was worse than the Jewish concentration camps in Germany. The Tuol Sleng prison, which is a former high school, has today been converted into a genocide museum, where one can still see the skulls of thousands of people (including babies) that perished there. It didnt particularly call my fancy so I didn't go visit Tuol Sleng, although most tourists don't miss this museum. So, point being that I saw a lot of young people. Also, in Cambodia (as in Malaysia, Laos and Thailand), I noticed that the women are very up-to-date fashionwise.
On the right: Kunti and I. She worked at the restaurant next to my guesthouse. Right now at home, I'm listening to a mix mp3 CD which was playing at this restaurant, which they were nice enough to let me copy, with Indian, African and Latin fusion music. Which reminds me, I heard bollywood music playing in all of the countries I visited.
Spent most of my days hanging out around town, going swimming by the riverside (Mekong), getting massages, and visiting places of interest. Phnom Penh also has a vibrant nightlife and there are a lot of foreigners that actually live there. My friends had all been there for atleast 4 months, one of them for a year. Another interesting thing I noticed was that there were a lot of "happy" things. Happy Pizza, Happy Shakes, Happy Resturants :) My favourite was Happy Pink Pizza Restaurant. I'm talking about regular food and drink; didn't have enough time to try anything happy, hopefully on my next visit ;)
Siem Reap is obviously a must-see and must-visit for anyone that is in Cambodia, but I have to stress that Phnom Penh deserves a visit too. At Siem Reap, the undisputed thing to do is to visit the Angkor Wat. There are a series of temples, and they are all geographically spread out, making it impossible to visit them all in one day. So if you want to do a through visit of the Angkors, you need two to three days. I however, didnt have that much time and so I visited the main one, which was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and it is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Over time, it has turned into a Buddhist temple, following the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. And I found this in my guide, the literal translation of Siem Reap in Khmer is "Siamese Defeated," which makes it a strange name for the city home to one of mankind's treasured architectural wonders.
I can't say much about Thailand that hasnt already been said. Majority of my time in this country was spent on KohTao Island, in the Gulf of Thailand, north of Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan. Took a lot of effort to get to this place, but in the end it was all worth it. For me, it was about the sun, sand and diving (actually my side of the island was mainly pier, so sun, boat, and diving is more like it). I stayed on Mae Haad Beach, on the eastern side of the island, in Easy Divers Resort.
Koh Tao is a divers paradise. I hadn't decided on getting a certification earlier, but once I got to the island I realised this is one of the best places I could do my advanced and jumped straight into it. The island is littered with excellent dive sites. Whats more is that people on the other two neighbouring islands Samui and Pha Ngan travel by boat to access the dive sites at Koh Tao.
On day 1 Ana and I (the girl I met on the bus) arrived there and moved into our bungalow (which was actually more of a bamboo hut). We were invited onto the dive boat (just to snorkel), so off we went to Japanese Garden, a beautiful site located off the northeastern bay of Koh Tao. Saw hordes and hordes of Zebrafish (?), so much so that we had to swim away from them, there were just so many... and I'm quite certain I saw a seahorse too.
The next day my course began. I was pretty excited about all that I'd get to see, having seen all the stuff I did the previous day, and only just snorkelling! Instructor was a 21 year old Canadian guy called Adrian and it was me and Andrew, a Kiwi who were the students. Blue-eyed Olivia, a 19 year old American/Argentinian girl was our assigned Dive Master. Brilliant. One professor to two students is a ratio I like. Started off with Peak Performance Bouyancy Dive (Japanese Garden) which was real fun as we were playing ball underwater, going through hoops without touching our fins, and walking upside down on the boat! Then we did the Navigation Dive (also at Japanese Garden) which was boring and always leaves me slightly confused.
Next day we did the Deep Dive and Naturalist Dive (at Chumphon Pinnacle and White Rock respectively). When we went down for the deep dive, my right ear wasn't equalising correctly, and I had a bit of a panic-attack as I touched bottom at 30.3 metres. Although I'm certain it wasn't a case of nitrogen narcosis, I did start out feeling a bit paranoid down there and coughed out my regulator at one point. The instructor had a few exercises for us to do, one of them was counting 10 with the fingers which Andrew and I had to do one by one, and which calmed me down as I focused my attention on that instead of my ear. Chumphon Pinnacle is where whale sharks are seen around Koh Tao, and we were hoping to see one, but no luck. The Naturalist dive was at White Rock, a dive site home to the largest variety of fish around Koh Tao. On the ride from Chumphon to White Rock, Adrian briefed us about different kinds of tropical fish, showed us underwater signals for these fish and other whacky facts (for eg. certain kinds of fish can became male or female as and when required!!! another one: Butterflyfish are always seen in pairs and if at all you see one alone, that means its mate has died and it will spend the rest of its life alone!! Now if only humans were that loyal!!!). Some of the stuff we saw here: Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Parrotfish, Moray Eel, Triggerfish, Pufferfish, Barracudas, Nemo, a Hermite Crab...and many others whose names I'm not quite sure of.
I was still a bit bothered by my ear that evening, so decided to leave the Night Dive for the next day. The next evening we did the night dive with about 12 people and thats when I really learned to be thankful to having had such a small class for the rest of the dives. The entire 40 minutes or so, we spent accidentally kicking each other, bumping into each other in trying to see what the instructor was showing, keeping track of our torches, remembering not to shine it in anyone's face, bumping into each other some more.... in short, it was a mess! The dive it self was magnificent, but the logistics were clearly not happening. However, I did manage to see a Blue-spotted Stingray (instructor pointed it out to us) but missed a large Barracuda that others apparantly sighted because someone got in my way! Darn it!
That brought the course to an end, but I decided to do two more fun dives the following day and also get a DVD filmed of those dives (it cost only 2,500 baht so why not!). Each evening, all the diving groups would get together at the Irish pub and watch the videos of the OWD (OpenWater) group that had just finished that day. Overall, I had a great time on this island, and would recommend Koh Tao to anyone who wants to dive in Thailand, and combine it with a small-town rural setting with loads of places to eat, drink and meet people.
Main highlights were the temples of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, a sleepy little town nestled in between mountains. Here I signed up for a full-day tour which took you to the Elephant Cave (a natural cave in which stalagtite and stalagmites have formed in the shape of an elephant), a long water cave which has an ice-cold river flowing through it and people get of tubes and paddle their way in with their palms. Next up was rafting on the river which we did for a good three-fourths of an hour if not longer, and when we were tired, we stopped at one of the many make-shift bar/restaurants on the side of the river. Ours had a trapeze too, to get on which you had to climb a ladder and that placed you at a height of about 18 metres up in the air, from where you swing off (much like Tarzan would) and land in the river which was easily about 12-15 metres below you!! I can't believe I did this one - twice!
Laos otherwise was simple and untouched, even more so than Cambodia. What shocked me about Vang Vieng is that the restaurants there show reruns of Friends and The Simpsons, and a lot of people sit down and watch them all evening!
Back in Bangkok, visited the Royal Palace where the Emerald Buddha is housed, more beautiful breathtaking Buddhist edifices, temples and monuments. On my last day I bumped into my Israeli friend on Khao San Rd who I'd first met on the bus from Cambodia two weeks earlier and met a girl from Barcelona who was on a one year round-the-world trip. Later, some other people joined us and it turned into a memorable last night out in Bangkok.
I already have a list of places I'd like to visit and things I'd like to do the next time I'm in South East Asia, which is a very good feeling to have when you're closing off a trip. After from re-visiting the places I did this time, I hope to visit Chiang Mai, Pai and other Northern regions in Thailand, Vietnam and perhaps Myanmar. Hope that day is not too far off!
Two favourite drinks on this trip:
Mi Bodeguita del Medio
While my blog is named after a restaurant in Havana I hope to someday visit, here you will find musings, rants, political incorrectness, thoughts on Indian Nationalism, strong straight-forward opinions and tid-bits.