Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Journey's End

Last Stops in Asia

We arrived in Singapore in mid-afternoon via two buses from Melaka, with a bit of trudging around with our packs to a money-changer in the heat of the day, then to a subway we didn't take, and finally back to a hotel next to the money-changer for a taxi that dropped us here at this quaint and a bit grand B and B, L Residence, that we'd learned about from Jeanne and Ross and finally managed to book after several unsuccessful attempts.

Kuala Lumpur

We had enjoyed our two nights at Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur City Center, with its big-city five-star luxury at reasonable Kuala Lumpur prices.  We had a view from our room of the Petronas Towers and the lovely park where we did some bird-watching.  We spent our first evening people-watching in the nearby shopping mall that was decorated for Christmas, and crowded with shoppers, most of the women wearing colorful robes.

The next morning we headed to Chinatown on the subway.  The stop was near the beautiful Masjid Jamek, where we were warmly greeted and required to don a robe with hood (me) and a skirt (to cover his bare knees, Kent).  We had a lovely conversation about Islam with a young woman volunteer who had studied in Terre Haut, Indiana. This oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur was one of the friendliest I've ever visited, and obviously has a mission to enlighten visitors about Islam.

Chinatown was hot and chaotic with street markets.  We didn't stay long, then decided to walk to the botanical gardens: a mistake!  We went back through Merdaka, the central square with its engaging mix of Tudor-style timbered buildings on one side and Romanesque arcades and buildings topped by Arab domes on the other.  The gardens were quite a walk up hill, and with the heat and humidity we were soon hot and sweaty.  The tourist information had said there was a shuttle to take us around the gardens.  But, we walked and walked, and there was no sign of a shuttle.  The butterfly house, we were informed, had been replaced by a parking garage.  We gave up, took a taxi back to the hotel and went to Harrod's for tea.  Not a full-fledged Harrod's by any means, and the tea was nowhere near as extravagant as those at Albuquerque's St. James Tea Room, but nevertheless it was a nice break.  From there we went to the Sky Bar at Traders to watch the sunset from cushioned seats next to a window.

After awhile an older Western man arrived with a beautiful young Malaysian woman in high heels who sat very close to him.  He studied the menu, and then she took many pictures of him posed against the windows with the towers behind him.  I didn't think she was his daughter.  Before we left I asked if they'd like me to take a picture of both of them together, but they said no.

The following day, sorry to leave our posh hotel room, we nevertheless hoisted our backpacks once more, walked to the subway, and took the train to the long-distance bus terminal, which was absolutely the cleanest, most modern and sparkling bus terminal I've ever seen.  We bought tickets for a bus leaving for Melaka in 15 minutes, so there wasn't much chance to explore the terminal.  We had good views from our seats near the front, of miles and miles of palm plantations.  The roads were modern freeways, the traffic smooth and fast.  We were definitely not in Cambodia any more.


There isn't really all that much to see in Melaka (Malacca) despite its Unesco World Heritage status, but we enjoyed the city, especially the river, and the views from the top of the hill with its ruins of St. Paul's Church, a statue of St. Francis Xavier with his right hand missing (there's a story there), and the Porto de Santiago and the Straits of Malacca below.  A free guided walking tour of the historic areas was very well done and a nice contrast to the more commercial elements that seem to be taking over the town.  One of the oddest and most amusing sights was the crazily decorated bicycle rickshaws, many with Hello Kitty or Winnie the Pooh, or Disney themes, also wildly lighted at night.  It was fun to see traditionally garbed mothers and their children enjoying these colorful rides.

Written from home

Singapore:  Singapore provided a great transition from the chaos of Southeast Asia to the U.S.A., to California, and finally home to New Mexico.  Staying at L Residence was like staying in a family home, and we were very comfortable there.  On our first morning, Kent left yesterday's sweaty clothes lying on the floor where he'd left them the night before.  When we returned after a long day of sightseeing, they had been washed and folded and left in a laundry basket outside our door.  We took a boat ride on the river, ate lunch at a riverside restaurant, then walked to the legendary Raffles hotel where I had a Singapore Sling and Kent had a beer at the Long Bar where the drink was invented.  We asked about the display on the history of the hotel, but we were told it had been removed.  I enjoyed a few minutes in St. Andrews church, where a display of sheep, wise men and shepherds was being set up in the yard.  We had a two-day transit pass, so hopped on a bus to get out of the rain, and eventually ended up we didn't know where.  Back again, in search of Orchard Street, where to my delight  I found another bridal wedding shoot. We decided to come back when the lights were turned on, and ended up accidentally taking the MRT the long way around to our Botanic Garden stop.  When we got there, rain was pouring nonstop.  So, after waiting awhile, we went back to Orchard Street where we had dinner and saw the Christmas lights, so odd to us in the rain and heat.  

Upon our return, we walked through the garden in the dark, feeling a little nervous, but there were an amazing number of people walking along the paths.  When we came out the other side of the park, we had to ask for directions.  It turned out to be a fun stroll (something I'm not sure we'd try in an unfamiliar American city), but even in the relative cool of evening we were dripping wet when we got to our house.  I took off everything -- elephant pants, t-shirt, and underwear and washed all in the sink.  In the air-conditioned room everything was nicely dry by morning.

We spent our final morning exploring the entire Botanic a Garden, had lunch in a nearby deli, and headed back for final showers and changing into the traveling clothes that would take us from sweltering Singapore to 50 F San Francisco.  I put on leggings and gray skirt and put socks and my merino pullover in the small under-seat pack.  It turned out that I got so cold in the air conditioned Changi Airport that I put on all my layers and even got out one of the shawls I'd bought in Malaysia, before we even got on the plane.  

A German Fairytale Christmas Castle in the Check-in area in Changi Airport

San Francisco

I cried when we set down in San Francisco.  We'd been gone so long, had made it through the entire trip with no major mishaps, and now it was finally almost over.  We were safely back in our home country once again.

Psyche and Saad were there to meet us, and we spent the next day and a half with them before the last short flight to Albuquerque, where Mike and Susan met us and had the heat on in the house.  It had snowed that morning, and has snowed again since.  We've bought a Christmas tree and are trying to get ready for Christmas and the arrival of Kent's son and three teen-aged granddaughters.  Ah, Lazy Beach, you are so far away! 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Paradise with Ants: Last Afternoon at Lazy Beach

Paradise wasn't perfect.  Of course we do live in a fallen world, but the beach here is probably the loveliest I've  ever experienced.  Clean sand, clear water, gentle waves, no crowds, and perfect temperature of both air and water.  A little trash floated up each day-- there is trash everywhere in Cambodia -- and staff and visitors picked it up.  The beach, the privacy, and the reefs for snorkeling at each end were all wonderful.  Our bungalow was the next to the last one, and a good walk along the beach from the bar and restaurant.  It was also one of the most private, meaning we could hose off at the outside faucet and remove our bathers there, and even sit on our porch and be hidden from all but a small patch of beach where few people passed.  Hornbills ( a new bird for me), flitted through the trees and one perched for a long time.   We also saw a black squirrel with white-tipped tail -- almost like a skunk!

We had a metal box with padlock in which to put our valuables (money, credit cards, passports, binoculars, camera, iPad and phone and Kindle, camera, and a bottle of gin.  We needed no money, just gave them our room number at the bar.

What wasn't perfect?  I was often hot, and longed for air-conditioning, especially when it was humid and no breezes blew.  Our bathroom was full of ants.  Also our porch.  After yesterday's rain, there were mosquitoes.  There is also a resident mouse -- probably several.  We did have an electric fan to blow after sundown when the electricity went on until just before sunrise, but it was hard to adjust  to be comfortable. To reach the bathroom we went down two steep ladder-like steps, a bit of a challenge.  The toilet flushed with water dipped from a large tub we refilled from a faucet above it.  The shower was all in one with the room, so everything in the bathroom was always wet.  There was cold water only.  I much preferred to rinse off at the outdoor hose, although it wasn't long enough to make a decent shower.  We had resident mice, and there was a leak in the roof when It rained, plus fine yellow dust constantly sifted down through the thatch.  The floor was wide boards with wide spaces open to the ground a couple of feet below.  For $60 a night (fairly expensive forCambodia), this was more like an expensive campground than a beach resort.  No credit cards, a website, but no online booking.  We had to get someone to call, then call again two days before we arrived to confirm,. The sheets on the bed feel more polyester than cotton, and are wrinkled, scratchy, and hot.  When one of us moves, the whole bed shakes, and we've done a fair amount of tossing and turning.  We pay for drinking water.  We brought a large bottle with us.

We bought a bottle of white wine and some Sapphire Blue gin and tonic water before getting on the boat, but how to get ice?  We ended up putting the wine bottle in the dipping tub, which at least made it less than hot, and got ice from the bar in glasses on the first night, as there were none in the room.  It was mostly melted by the time we walked back here.  The next evening we brought a ziplock bag.  It also didn't last long enough.  Finally, last night we asked if there was a thermos or ice bucket, and bartender Matt offered us a whole bucket of ice, which we wrapped in the clean towels we'd just asked for, and finally had more ice than we could use.

There is no room service, and in fact little service of any kind.  You order your food at the bar, although it is brought to your table.  Everything costs extra: breakfast, all meals, drinks, mask and snorkel rental, and the boat ride to the island and back.  The bar/dining/lounge area has books and games, and there is a ping pong table in an adjacent thatched roofed building.  One disadvantage, which we've found everywhere in Asia, is that there are a lot of smokers, so we are always trying to find a place upwind from someone.  The dining room is open from 7:30 a.m. Until 9 p.m., with no set mealtimes.  At the end of our 4th day here, we are ready for other food, although the food has been quite good. If you want your room cleaned, you have to ask before 10 a.m.  We have swept the floor ourselves with the little broom, easy since the sand drops through the cracks.  It would have been wonderful to have had a thermos of hot water to make coffee or tea in the morning, and to be able to sit on our porch to watch the sunrise with a cup in hand.

The staff, mostly young men, probably mostly from Australia, with a support crew of Cambodians is friendly.  I still don't know who actually owns this place, however.

The snorkeling, particularly at the far end of the beach closest to us, is quite nice. This morning we went all the way to the end of the point on this end, seeing some very nice coral and quite a few fish, with quite good visibility.

Yesterday morning, after quite a night of rain, lightning, and thunder, we took the path through the jungle for 20 minutes to a beach on the far side of the island.  There were many more people there, and several different resorts that did not look nearly so good as Lazy Beach.  The beach, although longer was not as pretty or open to the sea as this one.

We look out onto the Gulf of Thailand, toward the west.  Tonight just at sunset a huge cruise ship passed.  Otherwise we have seen mainly small fishing boats, some made of chunks of styrofoam bound together.

I have absolutely loved floating in the warm sea.  I would stay in forever, but tonight I'm feeling a bit hot from so much sun.  Now it is night and the moon is almost full, so maybe I can slip in for one last swim without having to struggle with my bathing suit.

Oh, no.  After a perfect sunny day, with perhaps somewhat lower humidity, I now hear thunder and see lightning flashes. I may have to forego my moonlight dip.

Tomorrow morning early is the boat back to the mainland (Sihanoukville), and then the bus ride back to Phnom Penh, where I've reserved a room at the old Bougainvillier Hotel on Sisowath Quay for just the one short night before our 8 a.m. flight to Kuala Lumpur where I haven't yet booked a hotel.  I suspect I'll have many moments of wishing to be back here floating in this lovely sea.

5:25 a.m. Friday, December 5.  I finally went to sleep despite continuously flashing lightning and loud thunder.  It is still lightning this morning as the sky begins to lighten barely perceptibly.  I remembered how the tide was out farther than we'd ever seen it when we walked along the beach late in the afternoon, and I thought of the tsunami that hit Indonesia over New Years a few years ago.  I suspected a tsunami would wash right over the low parts of the island and completely cover the area between us and the beach on the other side.  Would the boat be able to go in the morning?  Will we make it to the bus to Phnom Penh, and to your flight tomorrow?

The dark is lingering longer than usual.  I cannot see any details in the sky.

Postscript;  I did slip out for a dip in the early morning darkness but the sea was gray in the dark, not shimmering turquoise.  It was a long day of travel with a two-hour layover between boat and bus.  The Mekong Express VIP bus was much more comfortable than the Golden Bayon bus taken earlier, and it had free wifi on board that was actually worked most of the time.  Kent read his book, and I put on my headphones and listened to music.  We got stuck in Friday evening traffic once past the airport, making us an hour late arriving.  Tuk-tuk to hotel Bougaivillier, nice old place on the Quay with great bathroom and four poster bed.  Time there was too short.  After showers with hot water in a real bathroom, we drank up the last of our gin with a can of tonic from the room fridge, shared a small margarita pizza on the rooftop bar, then had a brief walk along the Quay.  All too soon, 6:30 a.m. departure for the airport, and farewell to Cambodia and hello to Kuala Lumpur.  

King of Cambodia

A bit blurry, but loved this scene from our final tuk-tuk ride to Phnom Penh airport.

Note: We have been happy with Air Asia, a no frills Southwest Airlines of Asia.  Clean new planes, on time, nice enough seats, especially for flights of under two hours, and easy to book online.   We've managed to be under their weight and carry-on limit without paying to check luggage.  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Battambang Surprises

On the bamboo railroad

We enjoyed bustling Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but sleepy Battambang quietly stole my heart.  After luxuriating in our deluxe room that first morning, and enjoying coffee on our terrace, I sent Kent down to find out about buses to Sihanoukville and figure out what there was to do and see, while I finished the Thanksgiving Day post and worked on the rest of our trip, 

We had been so tired after our all-day boat trip, that after a bit of wandering and a quick dinner in the nearby Eden Cafe (O.K., but not inspired food), we had fallen asleep at once, and we were still feeling a bit worn out.  Kent returned with Information about two bus companies, and he had made arrangements with a tuk-tuk driver to see some sights the next day.  Name?  He didn't ask.  Time? 8:30 or 9:30, he couldn't remember.  Cost? $20 (too much, I said).  Was it the rather hang-dog, desperate-for-more-business driver who had met us at the the boat?  He wasn't sure.  But, he did speak fairly understandable English.  Oh, well.

We booked our bus to Sihanoukville with Golden Bayon, $20 each.  Nine hours, they promised although the listing at the hotel said eight.  I read reviews of the mini-bus options.  All sounded like hair-raising trips, more or less so depending on the driver, and perhaps on the familiarity of the reviewer with Cambodian road trips. We looked at the colonial buildings, mostly obscured by sleazy storefronts, and I watched children playing at the playground in the riverside park.  We had a nice light lunch at Bai Jaan, a clean-lined white space with a whole bank of young western women engrossed in their MacBooks.  Later we had drinks at Madison Corner on Battambang's "pub street" -- nothing like Siem Reap's noisy, crowded one -- and dinner at Khmer Delight.  We would return to both of the restaurants the next day.  Most of the time in Battambang I was wondering, "Where is everybody?"  

I don't know what this man was doing with these green bottles of river water.

The next morning, Jack, our tuk-tuk driver was there shortly after 9.  I immediately recognized that he had been our driver from the ferry, so I wasn't expecting much.  Kent and I had had a conversation in Phnom Penh when Sam, a somewhat older and ugly fellow was our driver from the boat to hotel.  He left us his phone number, which we never called.  Outside the hotel were many eager, handsome, and charming chaps who called to us every time we entered the street (which was a lot of times since the door to our room was around the corner from the FCC's entrance).  I'd told Kent that I'd rather ride with one of them, but Kent said it was the Sams of the world who needed our business, and he was right.  Jack, with whom I'd been initially so unimpressed, turned out to be a real treasure.

He took us first to the bamboo railroad, partly by way of quiet back roads after a stop at a traffic circle where there was a huge statue where many people were leaving offerings.  Jack explained that it was the first quarter of the moon, so many people came to pray on that day.  I realized that it had been just eight days since we'd witnessed similar offerings and prayers on the Quay in Phnom Penh, which must have been at the time of the new moon.  I put a small donation in the Red Cross box at the altar.  

The bamboo railroad is unique to Battambang, and is well-described in the tourist literature.  It is used to transport freight, although I think it now exists mainly for tourists.  For $5 each we got to ride to a stopping point about 20 minutes away, and back again.  A tour bus group just ahead of us went only one way.  The cart, a bamboo platform on wheels is driven by a small motor.  When one cart meets another, the cart with the fewest number of people has to be taken off the track to let the other cart pass.  Both meeting drivers helped move the pieces of the cart, so all we had to do was jump off and on again.  It was a fun ride, the tracks were far from straight, and we bumped and lurched along through the pastoral countryside, at what felt like great speed since we were so close to the ground.  On the way back we had to dismount at least 4 times to let others pass, always an occasion for merriment. 

This vendor was such a good actor, I told her she ough
t to be in movies.  She was happy i paid too much for one scarf, but she had hoped to sell me six.

After the bamboo railroad we drove through more picturesque back roads to two suspension bridges for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles.  Jack accompanied us across the bridges and answered many questions for us, about the river's flow and what we were seeing.  A group of women, all conservatively dressed in long dark skirts and white blouses, were returning from the temple, carrying stacked tin dishes (some looked like they may have been made of elaborate silver) in which they had carried offerings of food for the monks.  They stopped to rest in a shelter by the bridge, and I was surprised to see one light a cigarette.  Nearby in the brush on the riverbank was something that looked like a mailbox with a cup of coffee or tea and a dish of seeds or nuts on the open door. A satchel of some kind was at its foot.  Jack explained that this marked the place of a serious accident or death, and people left offerings there as at a grave.  I was reminded of New Mexico's descansos.

We stopped to walk through a fishing village centered around a mosque, where many of the women wore headscarves, and the children played in the water.  We finished up at a couple of trees full of enormous fruit bats, and finally made a stop at a winery.  We paid to sample the wine, but the only one we really liked was the grape juice, which was very expensive, so we didn't buy anything.

Waterfront at Muslim fishing village

Fruit bats

In late afternoon after lunch and a rest, Jack took us to a bat cave and a mountain with a temple on top, and offered to climb the mountain with us.  It was quite a climb in that intense heat and humidity.  I was relieved that I wasn't the only one drenched in sweat.  

As we walked we'd pause to catch our breath and Jack told us mythological stories about the origin of the mountains.  At the first summit we came to a temple that had been used as a prison under Pol Pot, and nearby there was a chilling and somber cave, where men on one side and women on the other had been pushed through holes in the ground to their deaths, or killed and then pushed into the holes.  I hadn't known we were going to  see this. The cave had at one time been full of decaying bodies and bones.  Some bones remain in the lower regions of the cave.  We walked only a little below the temple with a reclining Buddha, now in a space that had once been a theater, and later the scene of massive and horrible deaths, now a memorial as well.  We shone our flashlights into the depths, but I had no desire to go much farther.  One tall glass box in the temple area held bones and skulls.  I felt compelled to pray there, in this place of suffering and death.  I took off my shoes, knelt, and made an offering before the reclining Buddha.  I lit a stick of incense, and the old man in charge tied a red thread around my wrist.  I was heartened to see that many more people followed after me, as there had been almost no one praying there when we arrived.

After we climbed back out, Jack took us through small overgrown paths to stand at the edge of the two holes through which victims had been pushed into the cave, one hole for women and another for men. We would not have gone there without Jack. I looked down and tried to imagine what it would be like to die there.  Higher up hill, by another Buddha statue, I asked Jack if he had lived through any of this time.  It was a bit hard to understand everything, but he told us he was born in 1972, so he had lived through the entire Khmer Rouge period.  Once when he was a child out selling rice, soldiers had captured him, but his father cried and pleaded and the soldiers had let him go.  Later his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.  Jack still lives with his mother.  I asked if he had never married, as one of his friends had been teasing him -- his Khmer names means banana, and they were joking with him, calling him Banana.  He said he had liked many girls when he was young, but they had not liked him, and besides his family was very poor.  They had been rice farmers in the countryside about 10 km from Battambang.  There was much more we talked about.  

We finished our climb to the highest part of the mountain, then walked down many many steps to the bottom and on to the mouth of the bat cave, which we reached just before the bats began pouring out at dusk, just as they do at Carlsbad caverns.  These were small insect-eating bats, not the large ones we'd seen earlier.  A huge crowd of people and tuk-tuks had gathered for this evening event.  Everyone oohed when when the bat stream widened and flew right across the half moon.

Our day with Jack had been well-worth $20, and we gave him $5 more, to help him afford a wife, I told him, and he laughed, $5 for a wife!  I told him not to give up, that some young women chose older husbands, and that I had done so once myself.  We were truly sorry to say good-bye.

Jack and Kent