Sunday, July 29, 2018

London Calling

Dateline London. After 18 interesting and entertaining months I am now out of Asia. I found myself in an English Pub, The Black Swan, sipping a Guinness and reflecting on what was, what is and what will be. A 14 hour flight and a 20 hour day will do that to a person.

The trip to Singapore took closer to 15 hours. It was Sunday night crossing the border and it was busy. There were hundreds of buses coming from Malaysia and there is a slow process to get into Singapore with every person from every bus having to get off the bus, grab their luggage and go through customs and immigration. Was it worth the effort? Well aside from the incredibly cheap flight to London, not really. Singapore is about as sterile a place as you could possibly find.

Yes, it is very clean and safe and yes there are some interesting areas like Clarke Quay, Chinatown, the Harbor front and little India but the place really lacks a soul. There is some history but it seems to be whitewashed in the Governments effort to move steadily into the future. It was interesting enough to manage the subway which was cheap and extensive. In the end Singapore is in the books and I am glad to have been there. Unless you're working in Singapore I would only recommend 2 days, 3 at the most. The great news was I was off to London, the polar opposite of Singapore and a place I have not been to in a long while. I was ready to leave Asia and London is the perfect place to land.

Aside from costs everything in London is a snap. Trains and bus routes are easy to understand because they are all in ENGLISH!! Yeeee Haw! Throughout the entire centre core there are "you are here" maps that are crowded with gawking lost tourists and friendly city helpers in blazing pink shirts ready to answer any questions. London tourism has it going on.

If you do not want to sleep in a hostel dorm, accommodation in London can be savage. I discovered that there is a huge travel rental market at all the Universities in England. University Room offer discount dorm rooms that are vacant during the non-school months. I decided to give it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. I found the Pembridge Gardens which are a part of the University of London near Notting Hill and it was simple to find. My flight landed at Gatwick and I took the local train to Victoria Station. From there I found the Underground, jumped on the very busy Circle Line and 5 stops later I was in Notting Hill.  For those who complain that the TTC in Toronto is expensive you would pass out at the price to ride the Underground in London.

I had just come off a 14 hour flight and was working on a 20 hour day. With the time zones going backwards my day started at 6:30 am and it was now 3:30 pm on the same day. I could have easily gone to bed but that was not an option as there was a pub to find and a pint to enjoy.

 As an aside, for those who remember the horrible Grenfell Tower fire from June of 2017, that was in Notting Hill district. A morbid curiously wanted me to go and have a look but common sense prevailed for a change.

The next morning it was time to explore. I looked at the city map and figured my trip around town was about 15 km, easy enough really considering all the parks and places to stop, so off I went. First stop was only about 15 minutes away, Kensington Palace and the Sunken Gardens. You could go inside for a visit if you wanted to pony up $40. I chose to grab a decent coffee and sit in a cafe between the Castle and the gardens.

My walk continued past Albert Hall, Harrods Department store, The Diana Memorial Fountain in High Park, Speakers Corner, Marble Arch and down to Buckingham Palace. I was surrounded by all the clichés, Double Decker buses, black cabs and red phone booths. Unlike Canada and the USA the emergency vehicles, especially the police cars/trucks did not blend it, they stood out which makes complete sense. These vehicles are to help and should be easy to spot. They are not supposed to blend in. (do you hear that Canada/USA?)

I wandered through various gardens and parks, each containing statues and monuments to London's Royal past. There are also more statues, memorials and gardens dedicated to everything WWII, including a monument to the Animals of WWI and WWII.
"This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time."

I managed to find Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister and it goes without saying that security was ever present and not hidden. Downing Street led up to Trafalgar Square where I picked up some food at a shop and found a shady place to eat. I found myself reminiscing back to when I was here last, which was a long time ago. I needed a pint to recharge and came across the St. Stephen's Tavern which goes back to 1873 but the pricing was definitely 2018.

After a few delicious pints and a chat with some other travelers it was over to Westminster Abby, The Churchill War Rooms, Big Ben (which is hidden by scaffolding) and the mighty River Thames. I tossed a camera into that river many years ago because it was not working properly. It's funny the things you remember. There was the London Eye(sore), the river front and finally Tower Bridge.

I had a great wander and was ready for dinner. Happily I was meeting my friend Antonia near London Bridge. We go back to our volunteer days with Global Vision in Guatemala. We last saw each other a few years ago in Nicaragua and I have to say she is arguably the best travel researcher I have ever met. We jumped on a river boat/taxi and sipped Coronas while working our way downriver for dinner near the London Eye (sore). Dinner and the company was excellent. As anyone who has gone on an extended trip knows, meeting up with a friendly face from your past travels, who themselves have traveled, is about as perfect a moment as you can have while on the road.

Three days in London brought back memories of my past trip. It also gave me a refresher of how fantastic this city really is, both historically and in the modern world.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Finally! A No Sweat Zone

Don't settle: Don't finish bad books. If you don't like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you're not on the right path get off it.
   -- Chris Brogan

Ever since I left the cool confines of Nepal in mid April I have done one thing consistently, that is sweat. To many times I have had to change shirts during the day and a few times a third shirt comes into play. This is SE Asia, it is the muggy wet season and that's just the way it is. If ever I needed a break from something it is that. Welcome to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

The 5 hour bus ride from Penang was easy and the views were lush and green as we headed into the mountains. There are two main towns 5 KM apart in the Cameron Highlands, Tanah Rata and Brinchang. Both are small and have what you need but Tanah Rata is where the bus stops, so that was my choice.

As I have had a few stumbles along the way with airports and ticketing it was time to have an issue with a booked hotel. I reserved 2 nights at the Wild Orchid and would book 2 more if it was good. I never got the chance. Checking in the woman at the desk say "oh, we have had trouble with our booking and we will put you into a dorm" When I told her no that was not going to do she looked really confused like nobody has ever disagreed with her. I made a reservation for a single room and it was confirmed (showing her my confirmation, but not being a dick about it).  As Seinfeld said "the idea of the reservation is that you hold the car (in my case the room). That's the reason for the reservation.

I had no time to argue as there were hotels up and down the strip flashing off season discount rooms. Ken:We are going to cancel the reservation and I will not be charged, so go ahead and do that
Clerk: I don't know how to do that, I am very scared you are angry and will yell at me.
Ken: Call Booking and cancel the reservation. I can get on the phone if you need me to.
Clerk: Are you angry
Ken: Internally (holy fuck, I have never met a more insecure people in my life). I am not angry, please call
Clerk: First call, wrong number, second call and she can not explain what she wants. I get on the phone, tell booking what happens and they say "you will have to work it out with the hotel, it is their issue" 
Yes sir, the great game of pass the responsibility to the other party has begun. It took a bit of time and more patience than I can usually muster but we got it done. I cancelled the reservation from my confirmation and when it came through she confirmed and clicked the "no fee" button on her screen. I will see what happens when I check my credit card bill in a couple of days.
At least I was not sweating.

I need a break from and found the Mentigi Guesthouse on Orbitz. Here is the rub. I have been staying in cheaper hotels/hostels along this journey. My rooms have run me from $6 a night for a bungalow to $18/$20 for a room with private bathroom. As my time in Asia is winding down I splurged and treated myself. My room at the Mentigi was $30 a night, discounted from $35 because I am an elite member of Orbitz, whatever the hell that means. I actually don't want to be an elite member of anything. Two double beds, small balcony, desk and dresser but oddly no air conditioning. Reason being this is the mountains and it's not needed. I opened the sliding door to the balcony and was bathed in the cool air all night. I am living like rockstar with a rucksack in the hills of Malaysia.

There are various reasons to come to the Cameron Highlands. In no particular order it's the cool fresh air, huge tea plantations, strawberries, jungle hiking and the mossy forests.

There are a series of easy to follow trails in the mountains around the town. Naturally I chose trail 10, the longest and highest. The guidebook said to give myself 6 hours so I packed up some supplies, charged my phone, told the hotel manager where I was going and off I went. It was exactly as advertised. Deep green jungle forests that, if you took the time to look, supplied the trek with various colours and shapes.

I headed into one of the Mossy Forests the are scattered throughout the area. Any combination of trees and branches dripping with mosses could have been pulled from any one of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The science behind the moss is nothing I will look up but the forest was cooler than any part of the jungle and it provided a natural sound proofing. I stopped and sat for lunch and listened to...nothing for about 30 minutes. It was playing games on my psyche that's for sure but escape was not an option. I loved the absolute solitude way to much. After a bit of time the trees stared moving like the Wizard of Oz and I got out of there as fast as I could.

On my second trek the next day I ventured up and through the BOH tea plantation, tea being a huge part of the culture in the Cameron Highlands. The plantation was massive and the beauty of the rolling hills filled with tea plants was mesmerizing. There was a production plant that was worth the visit and naturally a shop for us tourists to buy a cuppa and enjoy the views. Most of the tea in Malaysia is for domestic use and not exported. The deep black tea was strong but smooth and I enjoyed about an hour overlooking the sprawling estate.

The town itself had some nice food stalls and of course an Irish Pub. After so much time spending so little for beer throughout SE Asia, the Cameron Highlands gave me my first "back to reality sticker shock" pricing. I am heading to Singapore which will be more of the same. It will be the 3 weeks in the UK and Wales where I am going to be welcome back to western pricing for everything. I am not looking forward to it but as always I will adapt. I just won't eat for three weeks. Some will call it starving, other may call it a hunger strike. I will say it is fasting, that way there is a spiritual tone to it thus justifying it.

The Cameron Highlands was a nice find, something that happens as you move from place to place. As I said, it was great not to profusely sweat for 4 days and nights. I found a few books at the hotel book swap. The one that really caught my eye was Shantaram, all 933 pages of it. The true life story of Gregory David Roberts. I read the first 5 pages and was hooked. The road does provide ample reading time and I am knocking back books like shots of tequila during Cinco de Mayo.

Asia is winding down and with that tomorrow I am catching a bus for the 10 hour ride, including border inspections, to Singapore. No cheap rooms there so I will be holed up in a 8 bed dorm for 2 nights. Using my Orbitz bucks it will be $7 a night so I expect room service, a welcome drink, free breakfast, maid service to turn down my bed, a mini bar, big screen TV, a quality hotel bar and access to sporting events. Wait, that was my previous life as a National Technical Operations Director with a large corporation. I sometimes think about a great hotel room with a fantastic view but the realize that my soul is freer without it.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Bang Bang Penang

If there's a more thrilling cocktail of eastern cultures than Penang, we've yet to find it. Penang has long served as the link between Asia’s great kingdoms and an important outlet to the markets of Europe and the Middle East. At its heart is diverse, cosmopolitan George Town, Penang Island's main city and an urban centre that delivers old-world Asia in spades, from trishaws pedaling past watermarked Chinese shop houses to blue joss smoke perfuming the air. The freshest aspects of modern culture are present, too, in the exceptional art scene and free-spirited carnivals, all fed by an infectious local enthusiasm for Penang's long history and kaleidoscope of cultures.  -- Lonely Planet

Someone at Lonely Planet can knock off early and go have a pint.

Today our hero walked confidently into the KL airport towards the Malindo Air with his C$20 ticket for the one hour flight to Penang. Sliding his passport across the desk to check in the service guy hits the keys on his keyboard and instantly looks confused. "What time is your reservation sir"? he inquires. Penang at 2:10 I respond losing the cocky swagger I had when I entered the airport. Then he asks for my confirmation code which I supply and still nothing. Shit.

He motions over to his co worker who after a few keyboard clicks, sadly looks at me and meekly says, "sir your ticket is for August 16th not today" You got it, today was July 16th..stop laughing. Through all my hotel and flight bookings for the next  month I got lazy on this one and booked the wrong date. Yippee.

It was an easy enough fix considering I only paid $20 for the ticket. I walked over to the ticket counter, changed the flight for $25 and was back in line in 20 minutes later. "Can I have a window seat because I am a dumb tourist?. "Of course sir, but your not angry. Usually people are very angry and yell at me? says the female agent, who originally diagnosed my stupidity. "If I got angry every time I did something dumb or silly I would always be angry a lot". With that I was given my ticket for my  flight to Penang and walked straight to the gate giggling at my stupidity. I was going to take the 7 hour bus but this flight was the same price...until I F**ked up that is.

Penang is jammed packed with sights and sounds. There is a large Muslim community here with a couple of gorgeous mosques. There is also quite a large "Little India"..does that make sense? A large little India? The British influence is obvious with colonial buildings plus the remnants of Fort Cornwallis. There is an attempt at a "bar street" but it was lame and over priced. Having a picture of Bob Marley on the wall with a pot leaf on your sign does not make you a Reggae Bar. I do think that all of these Bar Streets, Irish Pubs and Expat Bars have run their course with me. I have a new philosophy on extended travel but that will come in a later post.

Penang is a great city to walk. However there were two things that I wanted to do. First, I needed a hike and second was to devour street eats and look for the famous Penang Street Art.

Penang National Park was about an hour by local bus and is the final stop on the 101 Route. The ride went through the city and along the coast through various towns and villages so it was not unpleasant. There is no charge to enter the park but you must register with the park wardens and they give you a permit to enter. The trails are well marked and thankfully not all to easy. I needed the exercise and plowing up and down gorgeous jungle trails that opened up along the ocean, crossed deep streams and ended at a beach was just what my spirit needed. If I go long periods without being in nature I start to get jumpy.

At the beach there was a turtle sanctuary and who doesn't like that. I wandered the beach front and chatted with a few boat captains that were ferrying tourists who did not want to hike. The first hike took about an hour and there were two others to explore. Sadly, the main trail to monkey like was closed but you could see and hear black monkeys in the trees. I don't know what kind they were but unlike city monkeys or the little bastards that hand around temples or tourist sites these dudes kept to the trees and did not bother me.

I had a good three hours in the jungle and was heading back along a trail I liked. It crossed a small stream where it gave me a chance to rest and take in all the shades of green and the incredible quiet. There were pools of small fish under the bridge so naturally I crumbled up my chips and was feeding them, minding my own business when I heard a huge splash. I though "oh shit I am dead in a Malaysian jungle". I looked up I caught the back end of something huge swimming away from me. At the entrance I was reading about the various creatures in the area and I figured this was a Monitor Lizard and these suckers are carnivores and can grow to 3 metres, nose to tail. Sure enough my suspicions were confirmed when I found Godzilla swimming in the open water where the jungle river emptied out. He was swimming towards the shore, and directly at me. It was time to find my bus.

Penang is also a draw for its food and street art. Malaysian food with Indian influences made me eat even when I wasn't hungry, which is another reason I needed a good hike. Costs here are a bit higher but it is Penang (tourist town) and Malaysia. Not every place can be Vietnam and Cambodia cheap.

As I said, this is a walking town and while I was wandering from food stall to restaurant to cafe I came across what I was looking for, some of the most interesting street art I have ever come across on this trip. The artwork itself was brilliant and many of the images had a real 3D quality. It was how it was presented that made it so unusual. Kids riding a bicycle where the bike was real and embedded into the wall. The same a child playing basketball, kids on swings, a vendor selling produce and a child reaching for an apple. Incredibly creative and a huge tourist draw.

If a town is looking for something creative to get people to their under developed downtown core (I am talking to you Niagara Falls) this is an idea that works. Go see the street art along side streets and in alleyways then stop for a drink or lunch. People need a reason to go somewhere and the simplest are usually the ones that work.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Maylay, Maylay, Maylay

I had a bit of a travel day to get from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur and timing was going to be essential. First there was an 8:40 am flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. My afternoon flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumur was at 1:30 so there was no rush once I arrived at Don Mueang International Airport. The challenge I discovered was getting a taxi from the Mapping Hostel in Chiang Mai to the airport, 15 minutes away.

I pre-ordered a taxi to pick me up at 6:30 am which would give me loads of time after I check in and get my boarding pass. Tick tock 6:30 no taxi, tick tock 645 no taxi, 655 the hotel calls and the company says they will be there in 5 minutes. Tick tock 710 no taxi. Come on man! I head out to the street and hail a taxi. Tick tock 7:20 get in taxi for the airport...and my travel day has a less than stellar start.

I got to the airport in 15 minutes, checked in, went through security and was at the gate by 8:00. Yes, I am one of those guys who always goes to the gate first before anything else, always. Yes I understand they go in order and yes I understand there are big signs with the gate numbers on them but you could not stop me walking to my departure gate before I do anything else. The rest of the day included surprise added baggage charges on my "discount tickets" twice. Yup, airlines get you one way or the other. My flight from Bangkok to KL was $79, the cost for my bag was $59. I think I should have upgraded my bag to business class, maybe he could have met a real cute Coach or Versace.

The Kuala Lumpur airport is gorgeous, modern and efficient. There is no visa requirement for a Canadian so after I had my photo taken plus my retinal (no, not rectum) and finger scans I received a smile and a 90 days visa. I took the airport bus into the city centre to Pudu Sentral (yes with a S) which took over an hour. The airport is a long way out so be prepared. My hostel was the Step Inn which was a 10 minute walk fro Pudu Sentral. The quirky name of the hostel only dawned on me on the second day I was there.

It did not take long to notice that where as Thailand was Buddhist and Hindu, Malaysia was Hindu and Muslim, well as far as Kuala Lumpur is concerned but I suspect that is the case for the Peninsula. There is also a large population of South Indian and Sri Lanka and those effects were felt immediately, especially in the food. I could see restaurants serving up garlic and butter Naan with Chicken Briyani and the smells brought me back to India. KL was going to be alright...or was it?

KL is the only city that I have ever been to where I was completely turned around, even with a map. No we will not compare it to trying to navigate my home town during my high school daze! But seriously folks the streets are laid out mostly in a grid pattern with the exception of a few major arteries. Each had a reasonable street name written in English and the map I had showed landmarks in cute little pictures. How could I get confused? Well luckily I was not alone. I counted 11 times where I had stopped, started looking at my map, then up at the street and down back at my map like an idiot. Then a random tourist would come by and either offer help or were asking for help. Some were happy to find someone else turned around and confused and other who had been but sorted it out and were paying it forward. The Malaysians just knowingly ignored us as they walked by.

The Batu Caves were a nice half day getaway from the high rise metropolis that is KL.  The subway is a breeze to navigate, modern, fast and any ride was about C.50. I found the line I needed and after 30 minutes I got off at the Batu Caves stop. You see, a travel genius.

The first cave was right off the subway but only after your ran the gauntlet of food and trinket vendors. I failed in my attempt and ended up feasting on incredibly delicious cold potato and curry dumplings being hand made by the happiest lady on the planet. I sat with her for 20 minutes munching and chatting but mostly allowing the masses from the subway excitedly pass. Another vendor from across the aisle came over smiling and handed me a coke. I said " Wow, Thanks Mean Joe" she didn't get it and you probably won't either. I asked how much and she just smiled and said "you like my sisters food so the drink is my gift, enjoy". I bought 12 more dumplings and 2 cokes when I passed through on the way back to KL.

The Batu Caves are another fine example of the religious passions that grips a society. These are the best religious caves I have experience and they are not just monuments of history. They are working temples that were going through renovations or general upkeep and repairs. The great draw for travelers here is to be able to carry buckets of sand plus a few bricks up a series of steps to assist in the building. I love the passion and caring, I really do but I am curious, would these same people help if they could not use their phones to document their "goodness"? Much like the GAP year student who heads out on their summer of "volentourism", would they still do it if they could not document it all on social media?

OK, enough being a crotchety cynical old dude (but your thinking about it right?). People are doing good things, leave it at that? I guess I am just grumpy because I am suppose to be an experience traveler and I got lost wandering the streets of KL while using a detailed city map that included cute graphics. Stupid cute graphics.