Kuala Lumpur

My failure to plan again led me to the bus, this time from George Town in Malaysia 300 km south to Kuala Lumpur. This bus was tarted up with red and gold paint, gold curtains, and big comfortable seats. It left Penang at 1:30 with only about 10 passengers.

The roads are good, three lanes each way. Malaysia is oil rich and it looks like P1000111the money has been spread around a bit. There were quite a few newer cars on the road. We ran into a huge thunderstorm with drenching rain. The scooters and motorcycles took shelter in covered areas just off the highway, which must have been built for them for when it rains.

Another reason I prefer trains: nobody talks on the bus.

I hadn’t made a hotel reservation in Kuala Lumpur, so ended up staying in the first place I happened across, which was the Mexico Hotel in KL Sentral. It is just as you are probably picturing it – old, run down, not clean, heavily lived in, a bit moldy. Like all hotels will, they hit me with the walk-in price and I was only able to get it knocked down 20 ringgit. Still the bed was OK and it had strong free wi fi. I had an absolutely filthy curry at a shop around the block full of local people also enjoying it, and then slept well.

This morning I switched to a better hotel. The YMCA near the Mexico Hotel runs a disabled person’s workshop that takes in laundry so I dropped mine off there. Then I moved my pile uptown to the Federal Hotel on the KL Monorail. P1000132This hotel is right next to the Plaza Low Yat mall, which bills itself as “Malaysia’s Largest IT Lifestyle Mall.” It is similar in style to the Pantip Plaza in Bangkok, but is air conditioned, cleaner, and doesn’t sell stolen intellectual property from the United States under the goofball image of an American-born pirate King.

Which reminds me of something. When I was in Hanoi there were roaming vendors selling books and maps. They all had the same map of Hanoi and the same Vietnamese phrasebook for sale. The also all had copies of only two novels: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and The Quiet American by Graham Greene. The Greene book was easy to spot as a bootleg given the crudity of the cover printing. The Heller book was either original or a very good copy job.

It’s obvious why The Quiet American would be a popular book with tourists in Hanoi, but I never did figure out why the only other novel the sellers offered was Heller’s.

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Nasi Kandar in Penang

You can always depend on a cabbie to keep your feet on the ground. When I told my driver the story about the young women in headscarves who rescued me at the ferry terminal, he responded, “Do you want one, lah?” and laughed raucously. No, I said, I want to see if I will find the same hospitality everywhere in Penang. How about a free ride? More raucous laughter.

This was Mahmud, who operates a Penang taxi service. He took me past the Little India section of town and kept up an entertaining travelogue, describing the racial mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian that make up Penang. Mohammad, on the train, told me that the local cuisine to try was Nasi Kandar, a mix of cuisines featuring different curries. I had showed him my picture of the Hanoi banana lady and he said “nasi kandar” translated as “hanging rice,” a reference to a person holding cooked rice in one flat basket and various types of ethnic toppings in the other. George Town, Penang, MalaysiaStreet food.

Mahmud knew exactly what Mohammad meant and was excited to show me his favorite place. I made an appointment for him to pick me up at 6:45 then cleaned up at the Paradise Sandy Beach Resort, where the staff are comically deferential while at the same time slyly letting you know they are acting a Kiplingesque role of sorts. Think Billy Fish in The Man Who Would Be King.

We drove through the beachfront neighborhoods of George Town and Mahmud recounted the devastation that the 2004 tsunami caused in Penang. I told him I remembered it well, and thought that Americans, led by Bill Clinton, had contributed large sums to the relief effort. Things seem to be back on track with large resorts being built in the damaged areas.

We ended up in a place I could never find again. It has no sign and no name and can’t be seen from the street. We parked and walked down two alleys to reach the outdoor Ferries operating between Butterworth and Penangeatery. The food was carefully displayed and you had the choice of white or brown rice. Mahmud asked that I note how clean and bright the white rice was, which is his measure of the cleanliness of a place and probably a good one. They had about nine different curries, with side dishes and soft drinks. There were no menus and though you could get a fork or spoon, no knives are available. The tables are covered in aluminum. I asked for a variety of beef and chicken curries and wound up with four plates of extraordinary food, very unusual spices and rich dark fragrant curry sauces. There was a lot of lime in one of the best of them, with sides of cucumber and fresh tomato.

Mahmoud ate in the traditional way, using his right hand to scoop up the rice, curry and cucumber mix on his plate. He talked about his life and the difficulties of raising four children, one of whom was giving him fits. Although his kids are largely grown we both rued the fact that a father can never stop worrying about his kids. I changed the conversation to soccer and learned that his team is Chelsea and I told him I was related to a Bolton fan, who was slowly bringing me into the world of football. He likes football but is absolutely crazy for American professional wrestling, and the Undertaker is his favorite character. Historically, we both favor Brett Hart. Total cost of the meal: about $8 for the two of us.George Town, Penang, Malaysia

I should note that the ambience of the eatery was about what you might expect of a busy back alley restaurant in Penang, and a big rat showed himself just across the way. The neighborhood tailless cats wanted no part of this beast. Mahmoud saw me notice the rat and said not to worry about it, again noting how snowy and pristine the white rice was.

On the ride back to the hotel Mahmoud, unprompted, launched into a discussion of polygamy. I loved to hear him talk because of the Malaysian tendency to end sentences with “lah,” which I remembered from Anthony Burgess’s great Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes. It seems that if the first wife is thoroughly immersed in Islam and devout, she will recognize the correctness of plural marriage and sign the document necessary to permit her husband a second wife. How many wives do you have Mahmoud? “Only one, lah!” I said it didn’t matter how many times I got my wife to read the Koran, she would never sign that document and he laughed and said neither would his. I then realized that he was trying out his arguments on me in advance of another round of a long-running debate going on under his roof. Still I was impressed in a professional way with the argument that a wife’s devotion to Islam can be measured by her willingness to permit her husband a second (or third) wife.

If you ever find yourself in Penang and want to enjoy the terrific street restaurant mentioned, I have no idea where it is or how to get there. But I do have Mahmud’s number and he’d be happy to take you there. I am not recommending Mahmud for Team America at this time – he is too important to us right there in Penang.

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The Bangkok to Butterworth Sleeper

I caught the 2:24 pm train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station, construction of which was finished in 1916. It’s done in Italian style and is quite pretty. It is also in heavy use and passengers use all the available seating and then spill out onto the floor. Mine was train 35, and I was in car 2, seat 19 with the upper sleeper. Passengers sit facing each other and at bedtime the stewards break the seats down into upper and lower berths.

Seated across from me was Mohammad. He was returning home to Malaysia after visiting a friend of his who lives near Pattaya in Thailand. I immediately got interested when he mentioned that he worked as a third engineer onMohammad, Third Engineer a Malaysian line operating a tanker fleet. He is 26 and working his way up by study and on-the-job training. He attended a Malaysian maritime academy after high school to break into the trade. He has been around the world though his trips to America have mostly been to the Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal. His English is fair to good and when I mentioned this he said he struggled with it in school but, once out in the working world of international shipping, where English is the lingua franca, decided he had to make a greater effort since advancement is dependent on effective communication.

He was interested in my experience on the Baltimore and we compared notes about the differences between German and Indian officers. He is unmarried and living with his parents since he is at sea up to 6 months at a time. He is saving for a house although he did confess to being a car nut. He doesn’t own one because he is away so much but we played “name your dream car” and he wants a Camaro, mainly because of the way the engine sounds in the Transformers movie. He also loves the Audi TT.

Like other engineers I’ve met, Mohammad believes that each ship has a spirit located in the engine. I remembered the great scene in The Sand Pebbles when Steve McQueen’sButterworth Train Station character, a chief engineer, first walks around the engine room of the gunship to which he has been billeted. “Hello, engine” he says, “I’m Jake Holman.” Mohammad felt that rang true: “That director must know about working on ships,” and I wrote down the movie name so he can look for a copy. We talked until late and then picked up again first thing in the morning.  If I were a scout, I would recommend to INS that we recruit him for Team America.

I again had the enjoyable experience of being tucked up in a small berth, curtain closed, reading lamp on, being rocked to sleep on an old train in an utterly foreign place.

We had to disembark the next morning at the Malaysia border with our luggage and go through Thai and Malaysian immigrations and customs. I like the formality of passing through an actual land border.

Mohammad got off in his home town, about one stop before Butterworth. I landed in Butterworth with only Thai baht for money, and the currency exchange window at the train station was closed. I could have traded currency with the Chinese man who went down the railcar that morning for that purpose but didn’t. I needed just enough to get me across to George Town on Penang Island but IPenang Ferries didn’t have the ferry fare in Malaysian ringgit. The ticket taker couldn’t take baht so I was walking away to locate an open currency exchange when a young woman and two of her friends who must have overheard me talking to the ticket window pressed the RM 1.20 fare into my hand. Two of them wore the headscarves favored by young Muslim women. They wouldn’t take anything in return, including the Thai baht I had plenty of. I was completely undone by their generosity and, after I take a minute to compose myself, would like to recommend that we recruit them hard for Team America as well.

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Perils of the Package Tour

Another reason to avoid tours: people get killed on them. While I was in Vietnam 12 tourists drowned in Halong Bay when their excursion boat capsized in the middle of the night as they slept. While in Thailand an elephant ride went wrong when oneThe Phuket Gazette - Elephant Rampage of the animals, a male, “went berserk” according to the newspaper, trampling the Swiss tourist who had been riding it to death and sending two others to the hospital.

You get the sense that the tour companies are shoestring operations that are not regulated in any meaningful way. People should not be put onto male elephants nor onto boats that are unseaworthy. Yet neither of the articles I read about these incidents made any reference to regulatory authorities. Both are handled as matters for the police. Nor is it clear that the rampaging elephant was put down. (Orwell famously wrote about shooting an elephant in Burma where he served as a colonial police officer. He shot it, he admitted, in order to avoid being made to appear ridiculous to the locals.)Thailand Elephants

The other thing about the tours is that you get thrown together with people you don’t want to be with. Yesterday I was a captive audience as my fellow bus passengers had an animated conversation about the shortcomings of toilets in the Far East. Sure they can be a little rough but what’s the point in repeatedly talking about it? An elderly woman from New York took it to another level, however. She said she always travels with toilet paper, toilet seat covers (“if they have a toilet seat!”), handi-wipes and, she claimed, a funnel. There was no explanation for this latter appliance and every time I saw her thereafter my imagination was troubled by images of the possible uses to which that horrible funnel might be put.

One section of yesterday’s tour offered elephant rides. There was a sign announcing that the elephant exhibit included free wi-fi, although it didn’t work for me. The loutish mahouts wear gaudy red and gold uniforms and lay around on top of the elephants, smoking and sleeping. You aren’t supposed to take pictures without paying. The whole thing had a “donkey basketball” feel to it. Nobody on the bus took an elephant ride.

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Bangkok Temple Tour

I broke down and hired on with a tour company for a temple bus tour and river cruise back to Bangkok on the Chao Phraya river. A van picked me up and 6:45 am at the hotel and, after stops to pick up a few more tourists, the van dropped us off onto a large bus for the trip to the temples. It is very hot, dusty and humid, and we had to wait an hour for a feeder van to deliver another group of tourists to the bus.

First up is the Bang Pa-In, which was a palace built over mostly between 1872 and 1889.P1000008 The overall design esthetic is elusive. Some of the buildings look to be colonial and are quite nice, some are gaudy temple-kitsch, and there are overtly Chinese buildings. There is poorly made Roman statuary and Babar the Elephant topiaries. A modern Catholic Church sits on the grounds, but our guide said it was for Buddhist services. There are sentry boxes with young armed soldiers in camouflage fatigues. Throughout are speakers posted on colonial lampposts blaring children’s music of a Disneyesque sort. Gangs of leering gardeners roar through the grounds in unsafe trucks disrupting foot traffic.

Bang Pa-In also has an obscure dress code. Women in shorts were required to wrap their lower halves in a sarong to enter some buildings, although men could be ourP1000026 usual slob selves wherever we went. We had to take off shoes to visit the Chinese building, I don’t know why. Buddhism here is tough to figure out, at least on a bus tour. All week people have been burning joss sticks and leaving soda pop offerings to the gold elephant-headed, multi-armed god stationed just outside one of the big noisy malls here in Bangkok, where you can also buy a Lamborghini. It’s hard to know what is sacred and what profane in Bangkok.

From there we visited two more sites, both ruins. The buildings had been build of flat red brick, but construction technique seems to have been developmental; its no surprise that they are no longer standing. The sites are dusty and hot and clogged P1000037with tourists like me. Of course frantic salespeople are everywhere. One guy takes individual pictures of everyone as they step off the bus. When you get back to the bus they have printed your picture on gaudy little plastic plates which they offer to sell. A guy on our bus was trying to wheedle the price down for one of these god-awful souvenirs and, when he failed, walked off in a huff. I needled him by saying now some stranger would be eating off his face when, for only a few more baht, his own family could enjoy eating off his face for years to come. They had the same scam at the next place and I did a “BACON’D” in honor of MP and would have bought it but they didn’t print it out.

Everywhere are lurid pictures of the American-born King, who resembles a Martin Short character. There are also hagiographic images of his wife and sons. P1000080The guide pointed out their numerous private residences, boat launches, shrines to a son because he studied in Switzerland, and other excesses of the royal family. Thailand has managed to block access to the Wikipedia entry for His Excellency from within Thailand on several occasions, so I assume he is not universally beloved. Public criticism of him can yield a 3 to 15 year prison sentence. He is also in ill health – on the river tour we went by the hospital where he is being treated and I noticed 3 medium sized gunboats and 4 smaller military watercraft idling in the river, forming a semicircle between Siriraj Hospital and the main river channel.

Oh, I learned that Thailand and Cambodia are currently at war, but that this has not interrupted commerce between the two countries. Sy and Elaine, incurious tourists from New York, flew from Cambodia to Bangkok just the other day with no trouble at all. I leave tomorrow and am glad of it. The Thai people have been kind but I can’t think of a single reason to ever return to Bangkok.

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A ‘Massage Parlor Economy’

Here’s what Theroux wrote about Bangkok in 1975:

When the American troops left Vietnam and all the Rest and Recreation programs ended it was thought that Bangkok would collapse. Bangkok, a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels, required visitors. The heat, the traffic, the noise, the cost in this flattened anthill make it intolerable to live in; but Bangkok, whose discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents, is a city for transients. Bangkok has managed to maintain its massage parlor economy without the soldiers, by advertising itself as a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid. So it prospers.

When he revisited Bangkok for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux found that the city had added sweatshops and outsourcing to its prosperous economy, but that the sexP1010149 trade continued unabated. I’m not inclined to update his research, but I will say that, at breakfast, I was made to witness a middle-aged garden gnome from Germany remonstrate with his young Thai companion (in a “Frankie Say Relax” t-shirt) that the companion only seemed interested in the gnome’s Deutschmarks.

When I woke up after crashing for 12 hours The Year of Living Dangerously was on HBO and I watched it all again. It is based in Sukarno’s Indonesia in the 1960s but elements of the movie resonate here. Curtis, the American reporter, views Jakarta as a backwater and longs for assignment to Saigon, where the action is. In the meantime he takes full advantage of the fleshpots and brags about the low cost of companionship. “Starvation’s a great aphrodisiac,” says Billy Kwan, the dwarf photographer, and Curtis responds by offering to nail Kwan to a cross. Starvation is not the problem in Bangkok, and companionship comes at a price, but surely nobody raises their son or daughter in the hope that he or she will find a career having sex with old farangs in Bangkok.

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