Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Cameron Highlands: Tea, Flowers and a Creepy Bus Driver, 12-15 June 2011

Tanah Rata
A minibus pulls up at the hostel, the driver gets out and asks whether we are going to Cameron Highlands.  We confirmed and climbed aboard the unusually empty minibus.  What a fantastic trip we had just the three of us and the minibus driver.  We stopped at Father’s Guesthouse which sits overlooking the town of Tanah Rata, the administrative centre of Cameron Highlands.  Already we felt the relief from the heat as the Cameron Highlands is one of the highest points in Malaysia which means the temperature drops significantly.  I loved it as I had been in this humid heat ever since Saigon back in April and it was time to get some nice refreshing cool air.  The dormitory in Father’s Guesthouse was massive and took up the whole ground floor.

Our stomachs were grumbling a little so we headed down the hill to get some Indian food which Barbara and I had been wanting all week.  As we sat there ordering we were joined by the minibus driver that had brought us from Penang.  He’s quite an interesting fellow as he sat there declaring himself as a great short term lover to Barbara and Maggie.  Awkward!!

The bridge which Maggie did not fall through
The Cameron Highlands has some magnificent scenery and is home to the biggest single bloom and smelliest flower in the world.  Being stubborn and not wanting to throw money at an organised tour Maggie, Barbara and I were going to get a taxi and make the walk ourselves but the manager at our guesthouse sincerely warned us against that as there is no way we would be able to do it by ourselves.  Within the next thirty minutes a rather beaten 4 x 4 arrived ready to take us and a couple of others to see the flower.  It was definitely the right call as the initial drive along the main smooth highway ended as we turned off and headed up on a rough dirt road which had us all shaking and being thrown side to side.  The battering journey ended once the track became too inhospitable for the vehicle.  It was time for a trek.  The humidity in the jungle was high and a layer of sweat enveloped my body.

Rafflesia Arnoldi
The flower is called Rafflesia Arnoldii and is commonly referred to as the Corpse Flower as the smell it produces is akin to decaying flesh.  The manager of Father’s Guesthouse was quite right, we would never have found this flower on our own as the hike took us along a path to begin with but then off the beaten track through the bushes and over fallen trees to find one single flower in bloom.  I didn’t find it smelly at all, but that is maybe because I have been travelling for a while and my sense of smell has dramatically decreased. 

On the way back to Tanah Rata we stopped at a village full of recovering cannibals who had just recently stopped eating humans.  They did however have a selection of monkeys which were to be eaten later.  One small monkey had taken a liking to Maggie and clung onto her finger through the cage.  We finished by learning how to effectively use a blow pipe.  I think years of playing woodwind had helped me reach the target.   We then stopped for a bite to eat whilst watching a wedding party go past with their fantastic display of celebration.

Our driver, Barbara and Maggie in the plantation
The Malaya peninsular was a colony of the British Empire up until 31 August 1957 when it gained independence.  In 1963, Malaya joined together with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia, although Singapore was expelled from the federation two years later in 1965.  Malaysia is a democratic country, is described as megadiverse and although the main religion is Islam, they pride themselves on freedom of religion.  The other trip we did in the Highlands was to visit the Boh tea plantation which was introduced to the area by JA Russell in 1929.  Our taxi driver, who we luckily found by a street side food stall, originally came to Malaysia from India with his parents back in the 1930’s.  He related some fascinating stories of how he lived on the plantation and how the company’s owner looked after the families extremely well.  He also told us how he would enjoy playing football and cricket with British troops based in Tanah Rata and said that they were the best days of his life.

Time to work....
On the way to the plantation we stopped to buy some strawberries as the region is rich with berries and other delicious food.  Maggie told us that she had to be careful as she is allergic to them and within ten minutes and half a punnet she was complaining of a numb face.  Never before have I heard of someone being allergic to strawberries.  It was mildly humorous.  The view from the tea plantation was amazing and being with a man who had grown up here and knew how things worked was invaluable as he took us through the factory telling us how tea is processed and ended up in the café sharing cakes and coffee.  The man’s sister also baked some of the cakes that are sold in the plantation’s café.  What an amazing day, shame we had to say goodbye to Maggie who headed off to Kuala Lumpur that afternoon.

Can't forget our steamboat meal!!
Although we weren’t short of other people for long as that night we were joined by Reut, Nikolai and their friend Rudie who had just arrived from Langkawi.  Rudie was a Frech Canadian and had been injured during a motorcycle accident on Langkawi as a car hit him.  It was a shame that we only had one night with them as Barbara and I had organised our onward journey to the Perhentian Islands the next morning.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Penang, Those Damn Bedbugs - 8-12 June 2012

Wonderful sailing weather

What is there to do when you have an hour to wait for your ferry?  There’s either an overpriced Starbucks or a reliable quite cheap KFC.  I personally hate eating in KFC back at home because everybody that works there seems to be challenged.  I’m sorry if you work in KFC but it annoyed me to the point where I have now refused to go in.  Once I went into a KFC in Cambridge and was greeted with “Sorry, we’ve only got chicken left.”  This statement made me stop dead in confusion.  It’s a chicken restaurant and they’ve only got chicken left, there doesn’t seem to be an issue there.  Have they run out of drinks?  No.  Have they run out of chips?  No.  Have they still got chicken?  Yes….  Still have no idea what that person meant.  Every time I seem to go in there, there’s something wrong with the order.  “Sorry, we haven’t got any more corn on the cob.  I’ve swapped it for gravy instead.”  How is that a fair exchange?  Anyway, back at Langkawi port I decided to grab a KFC and quickly use their free wi-fi whilst a monsoonal storm battered the island.

Red Garden
All my hopes for the storm going away had faded as I briskly walked avoiding the rain where possible and hopped aboard the ferry bound for Penang.  On board, I sat behind a girl whom I ended up travelling with through the entirety of Malaysia.  Barbara was a German girl who had been living in London for many years and had been travelling South East Asia for a few months.  The ferry journey was actually quite calm despite the storm and a couple hours later we arrived in Georgetown on the island of Penang.  Of course I hadn’t booked any accommodation and followed Barbara to where she was going to be staying.  She may have thought I was one of those creepy stalker travellers.  Unfortunately there was no room left in Old Penang Guesthouse where Barbara was staying so I checked in next door which was slightly more expensive but was a really nice place, although I soon discovered that you had to pay extra for a bed sheet which I thought was ridiculous.

A lot of effort went in to this celebration
Barbara and I went on a walk around the city to find The Red Garden which is where a group of hawkers sell a fantastic variety of food.  Talk about multicultural, Malaysia is a fantastic example of many nationalities and cultures forming one country.  Food is by far the biggest attribute to a multicultural nation which Britain also offers.  That evening I had Chinese, Italian and Malaysian dishes.  Of course not huge dishes as they would be a bit too much.  Walking back to our guesthouses we became area of some rowdiness.  What the hell was going on?  Music was blearing extremely loud, it was as though we were in Kavos.  Next to our guesthouses was a piece of wasteland usually used as a car park, but tonight it had been transformed into a concert arena.  Stage, lights, smoke, loudspeakers; everything you’d expect, however, there weren’t many people watching the show.  There were only a few middle aged people and a crazed man dancing (stylised stumbling) around whilst sniffing glue.  It was a fantastic show though, although some of the singing wasn’t entirely desirable.  It was in celebration of the local Chinese temple so all the singing was in Chinese.  An unforgettable and random thing to happen led us to meeting Reut, a Canadian who we’d end up meeting again further down the road a few times.  As Reut was hungry, we thought it was a good idea to go back to the Red Garden for more to eat.  This time I just stuck to an ice tea albeit a gallon! 

Time for bed me thinks.  I’m not sure how I was going to sleep without a sheet over me but a friendly Australian man in his fifties who was in the same room lent me his blanket for the night.  I brushed my teeth as per normal (every night I promise Mrs Dentist!) and climbed into bed, selected a soothing album to put me into a good night’s sleep.  An itch appeared suddenly on my lower right leg and I scrapped it to relieve the itchiness.  Another on my left upper leg and then on my arm.  I itched them and thought nothing of it for a few more minutes until I began feeling them all over my body.  I turned the torch on my mobile on and looked around and saw nothing but when I laid back down I saw something crawling over my pillow in the corner of my eye.  I quickly redirected the torchlight and to my horror saw an adult sized bedbug scuttling away from the light.  Once I saw one, I saw another crawling up the wall which I squashed leaving a smear of what I believe to be my blood on the white washed wall.  Shit!  Bedbugs are no joke.  The bites and irritation they cause are the least of your problems as bedbugs like to travel.  They hitch rides in backpacks, clothes, towels and bed linin, and are extremely difficult to eradicate.  Having said that, I sprung up from my bed grabbed my belongings and evacuated the room.  Nobody was to be seen.  It was in the middle of the night and I resorted to sleeping on the hard wooden floor of the common area.

Streets of Penang
In the morning, I went straight to the front desk and politely informed them that they had an infestation of bedbugs and needed to sort it out.  The man who seemed to be the maintenance person around the guesthouse took my complaint extremely personally and began raising his voice in an angry tone.  “We do not have bedbugs!”  He protested.  “You say we’re dirty and we’ve got bugs.  We have not got bugs!”  He repeated.  I calmly explained to the man that I wasn’t saying the place was dirty.  Far from it, it was actually one of the cleanest rooms I’ve stayed in and bedbugs don’t care about how clean the place is as they could be in a five star hotel.  “We do not have bedbugs!”  The man repeated.  By this point I was getting thoroughly annoyed as he was basically standing there calling me a liar.  “OK, please come with me now.”  I requested and took him through to the room to show him unavoidable proof that they do, in fact, one hundred per cent have bedbugs.  “There!  Look at that!  What is that?!”  I firmly argued whilst pointing to the dead bug I’d splattered on the wall that night.

The man’s tone changed as it was obvious proof he could not defend.  “It was that dirty backpacker that came in a week back.  Bites all over him.  We asked him if he had bugs and he said no.  Now I have to do…….”  He continued obviously not in that good English but I had to stop him as I really didn’t care about hearing the back story.  “That, I do not need to know my friend.  You have bed bugs.  I slept on the floor.  I want my money back.”  I said.  It didn’t work even though I threatened to write bad reviews on Trip Advisor, Hostelworld and any other website I can find including this blog.  I angrily gave up as I really couldn’t be bothered with their lame excuses anymore and moved next door to the Old Penang Guesthouse where Barbara and Reut were staying.

Kek Lok Si
The manager of the guesthouse was an extremely accommodating and friendly man.  Although there was no room in the dormitory until that evening, he let me leave my bags with him and gave me a locker to secure my valuables.  Barbara and Reut were sitting in the common area of the guesthouse where I met them as we had already planned to head for Kek Lok Si, a temple a few kilometres out of Georgetown.  On our way to the bus stop we randomly met an Australian man called Norrie in the local 7eleven and he ended up taking us on a mini tour of some temples within the town centre.  They were fantastic little temples hidden in narrow alleyways that we would never have found without him.  For some reason, probably sleep deprivation, I didn’t have my camera with me to take any photos but just to be in these working temples was an interesting feeling.  There are differences between the tourist temples which are streaming with foreigners taking photos and being sold tack to these temples being used day in, day out by regular everyday people.  It reminds me of when Matthew Duncan and I were in Hong Kong after visiting the giant sitting Buddha, we found a small, modern temple where no tourists were but one lady was on her knees reciting prayers in a rhythmic fashion accompanied by intermittent chime of bells.

That wish better come true
Before returning to our main purpose of getting to Kek Lok Si, I returned to the guesthouse to get my camera and met Nikolai who I convinced to join us on our small excursion.  Kek Lok Si is arguably the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia and sits high above the island overlooking Georgetown and its surroundings.  Just because it’s perhaps the biggest temple doesn’t mean it’s the best as Kek Lok Si is positioned on multiple levels but with each level are multiple gift shops selling the usual tack to visitors.  The weather was unfortunately dismal for our visit which meant we needed to dart between openings avoiding the rain.  One of my favourite memories of the temple was the ornately carved hall to one of the temples which has such fantastic detail.  Above the main complex stands a Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy statue standing on the hill.  To get there you can use a cable car which seemed the most desirable option giving the weather and my fatigue.  After waiting for a few minutes, we boarded and was soon pondering the point of the cable car as it only travels about 50 metres up a relatively mild slope we could have walked up easily.  On the way back down we stopped in a local restaurant for a nice spicy bowl of Laksa. 

ABC....  Mmmmm
That evening we headed for an Indian restaurant somewhere in Little India, however, we ended up at another Hawkers’ joint which was grubbier than The Red Garden and looked as though it was where most of the locals hung out.  The food was unremarkable.  Following the main course, we were recommended the ABC (Air Batu Campur), also known as Ais Kacang which Nikolai and I excitedly went to order.  Back at our table we looked at each other with intrigued looks in our eyes and not really knowing what to think of the dessert dish lay in front of us.  The ABC is a traditional dessert with the main ingredients being shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, jelly and ice cream.  For me, it was not the nicest thing I’d ever tasted.  It wasn’t the worst and was most likely the thought of all the ingredients together rather than the taste but I would not be ordering another one.  I ate as much as I could, leaving the beans and sweet corn but enjoying the ice cream. 

The next day all four of us headed out to the Tropical Spice Garden which was a short bus journey from Georgetown around the coast a little, it was a fantastic place full of colourful and interesting flowers and spices.  Our guide took us around and passionately told us about the different kinds of spices, telling us stories and picking things for us to taste.  I found the magical sweet tasting stevie that I would have loved to take with me, however, I was heading to Australia in under a month and knew they would not approve of me bringing in anything like that due to their extremely strict quarantine rules.

Reclining Buddha
Through conversation about how to get to Snake Temple we ended up in our guide’s car as he said that he was heading back that way to his home and he would take us there for the cost of the bus, which was ridiculously low anyway.  What a great man who was now retired and worked part time at the Spice Garden where he took tour groups around.  Not only did he take us to the Snake Temple, he took us to a couple of temples too, a traditional Malaysian style Buddhist temple and across the road to a Burmese temple to see the subtle differences before heading to the Snake Temple.  Between the temple was a chance to see the magnificent bridge that connects Penang to mainland Malaysia, unfortunately we couldn’t get to a decent spot to take a photo. 

Was it worth getting to the Snake Temple?  Short answer is no.  The temple wasn’t crawling with snakes as we had imagined and only a few were being carelessly handled by their owners trying to get money from people holding them and taking photos.  We had seen enough and chose to head to the bus stop to get back to Georgetown for some Dim Sum and a couple of beers.

Our last day was an exciting one as the annual Dragon Boat Festival was on.  Posters and flyers were everywhere and so we thought we should go along.  This time we were joined by a new person, Maggie an American journalist.  We finally got to the dam where the races were to take place following a couple of bus journeys and were immediately struck by the lack of people there.  I expected something amazing, bustling crowds surrounding the shores but most of the people there were other participants.  It was a nice though, watching those participants getting ready, cheering their teammates and celebrating or commiserating.

That was it for Penang, Barbara, Maggie and I bought tickets to leave the next day on a bus to the Cameron Highlands.  Penang is a fantastic island full of multiple cultures and accompanying delicious foods, just a shame about the bedbugs!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Welcome to Malaysia and the Golden Island of Langkawi, 5-8 June 2011

BANG… BANG….  “Welcome to Malaysia”  the immigration officer said as she stamped my passport and exit card.  On the back was a strict warning that any drug smuggling will result in death.  OK, thanks for telling me that!!  As I entered the arrivals hall to the port, I was struck by the westernised feeling of Langkawi.  I stepped outside the building where a barrage of taxis wait to take the new arrivals anywhere on the island as there is no public transport.  “Oh great!”   I thought as I pictured the taxi driver taking me for a ride and taking all the money from me.  However, they had got it sorted.  You had to go to the taxi desk first where they would give you a slip telling you how much the journey will take and allocate you a taxi driver.  This certainly limits the chance of being ripped off and I liked Malaysia already.

Sunset on Cenang Beach
I was heading to Cenang, the main tourist beach town where most people head.  I had no idea where I was going to stay as per usual and I was dropped off in the centre of the strip to begin my search.  I checked a few overpriced places first and finally came across the Shirin Guesthouse run by Ebrahim, an ex-Iranian soldier and his Japanese wife Hiroko.  My room was a small single hut with air conditioning and an ensuite bathroom.  That evening I met Jay, an English man who was heading back to Australia to work.  His first bit of advice was, “at no time should you mention politics in this guesthouse.”  Later on I saw why as Ebrahim got incredibly irate with the news.  As a retired Iranian army officer, his views are extremely strong and unwavering and any story with regards to the recent uprising in Libya and other North African / Middle Eastern countries made him extremely irate.  He wasn’t ashamed to tell us that he was a Col. Gaddafi supporter.  Also I have no idea how or why the couple are still together as they bicker all the time! 

Langkawi is a lush island with plenty of green jungle and beautiful beaches.  I took a stroll down the beach on my first evening to watch the sunset and experienced my first sight of Muslim ladies in the sea dressed in their burkas.  It is an interesting alternative view as many in the west believe ladies wearing burkas are not allowed to enjoy themselves and are completely supressed.  Jay came to join me as the sun was setting over the horizon.  A beautiful sunset reflecting of the sea as the last jet skiers and para-sailors were enjoying their trips.  Later that evening I devoured a delicious kebab and had a couple of beers back at the guesthouse.  The island is also a tax-free haven which makes beer incredibly cheap.

The highlight to my time in Langkawi must have been my motorcycle journey of discovery.  I set off on my little scooter which I hired from the guesthouse and stormed out of town.  Up ahead, I noticed there was a police checkpoint and I had actually no idea what the rules were here.  In the other South East Asian countries anyone can ride a motorcycle without a licence.  I’m now in Malaysia and stupidly didn’t check before I hired the bike.  The police officer flagged me down.  Crap, I thought as a million ‘what if…’ questions raced through my head.  “Turn you lights on.”  The officer said to me.  That was it.  He didn’t want documentation or anything which relieved enormously. 

My rescuers...cheers guys
STUTTER… SPLUTTER….  NOTHING…!  The engine stopped and I rolled to the side of the road.  I attempted to restart the motor to no avail.  I was now around 10km out of Cenang in the middle of nowhere.  I didn’t have a telephone to call help and despite many attempts at starting the bike failed.  Thankfully I had come to a stop outside a warehouse called FAMA.  I pushed my bike into their compound and was greeted by a man who turned out to be the manager of the centre.  He had a quick look at my bike and invited me inside.  The warehouse is actually home to the weekly farmers market where traders across the island come to sell their goods.  The manager took the business card to Shirin Guesthouse and phoned Hiroko.  He explained what had happened and she said she would come and get me.  I sat down at a table with three other guys, all in their early twenties and spoke with them for an hour or so waiting for Hiroko to come and get me.

Langkawi from the top...
An hour went past and there was no sign of Hiroko.  The guys got fed up and decided they’d take me and my dead bike back to Cenang.  We walked outside and one of the men got onto my bike whilst the other two got onto theirs.  I was asked to climb on the back with one of the men.  Within a minute we were heading back towards Cenang in a convoy, two of the working bikes behind with my lifeless one in front being pushed along by the other two men’s feet.  When we arrived back at the gueshouse, Hiroko was surprised to see us and was saying that she couldn’t find us.  We sat down and I treated them all to a drink before they headed back to work.  This was another example of human generosity I had received during my trip.

A long way up...
I said goodbye to my new friends, quickly got back onto another bike and hit the road again for take two.  I had lost almost two hours of my day because of the breakdown so there was absolutely no time to waste.  My first destination was the cable car that led up towards a sky bridge high above the jungle below.  The cable car has one of the world’s longest and steepest spans.  The cable car journey was incredible with such beautiful scenery of the island and being suspended high above the jungle below was awesome.  At the top was the bridge which was suspended high above the ground below giving you a spectacular panoramic view. 

The bridge.
Back down on earth it was time for me to shoot off and do a quick tour of the island.  First stop was the Seven Wells Waterfall which I stupidly walked all the way to the top whilst being terrorised by the monkeys which loitered on either side of the path.  At the top I got the chance at bathing in the cooling waters flowing down the mountain.  I then took off further to the north coast where I met Irish Mark whom I had met on the sky bridge and had exchanged each other our photography skills.  He was on his way back to Ireland following some time in New Zealand.  We decided that we should continue along the road together as we were going the same way.  We really wanted to go to a beach on the North of the island but the majority of the coastline is owned by private resorts.  We tried getting into one but were caught by a couple of hotel staff driving around in their golf buggy.  They asked us to go to reception as Mark quickly said that we were here to meet a friend, Bill Emerson, who was staying in this hotel.  The hotel was very up market and we obviously looked out of place.  The lady returned after checking their database to tell us that surprisingly there was no Bill Emerson checked in.  We gave our excuses and left.

Sunset from the opposite side of the island.
We travelled further on and ended up on a beach on the north-east of the island where we watched the sun set.  This was great but we didn’t think about the forty five minute journey back to Cenang in the dark.  It was all worth it though as we came across a night market at a small town just outside of Cenang.  A fantastic discovery, especially as we were pretty hungry by this point.  Having narrowly escaped a collision with a reversing vehicle and enjoying some delicious street food, we finished the loop of the island and celebrated with a couple of drinks at the reggae bar on the beach.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Puppets and Terrorists, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Hat Yai - 31 May - 6 June 2011

Krabi Town's traffic lights are a highlight...
Following a one night stop in Krabi Town, I grabbed a bus to Trang not knowing what was there.  I arrived an hour or two later but had the urge to move on further as the town really didn’t get me excited and I think I was becoming impatient and wanted to keep moving.  I asked around at the station where a couple of friendly happy ladies approached me to ask what I needed.  I told them that I wanted to get to Nakhon Si Thammarat and pointed to the map.  They told me that I wasn’t able to get there from this bus station and told me where I needed to go.  It was quite far across the other side of town, which meant I had to get a tuk-tuk.  I ran across the road where I saw one parked up and asked the driver who, unsurprisingly, requested an obscene price for the journey.  I saw the ladies still standing on the other side pointing and laughing.  I managed to get the price down and was happily on my way with the ladies and me exchanging energetic waves.  I got to the bus station where I had to wait for all of twenty minutes until my minibus left, time enough to grab a bite to eat.  The driver’s assistant approached me, invited me onboard and within no time at all the minibus was travelling east towards Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Nakhon's walls... interesting....
My first observation of Nakhon Si Thammarat was the distinct absence of PUTs and I was really looking forward to spending some time in real Thailand once again.  I spotted the sign to the hotel which I was staying at from the minibus and managed to get the driver to pull over so I could jump out.  When I entered the main entrance to the hotel I thought I had made a mistake as the place was rather up market to what I was used to.  I asked at the desk what their cheapest room was and it was not too bad so I accepted.  I was then taken to my room and it all made sense.  My room was in another adjoining block, where you had to circumnavigate several passage ways, through the service area and then up the lifts.  Again, the room was actually really pleasant with a double bed, tv, fan and an ensuite shower/toilet. 

Suchart Subsin, Puppet Master
The city plays host to the grand master shadow puppet maker and performer, Suchart Subsin, which was my main reason of visiting the place.  So early on my second day I made took a short bus journey and the map in my hand, walked around a kilometre to the Shadow Puppets house / workshop / theatre.  Unfortunately, I was the only person there at the time and despite my pleading the lady told me he wouldn’t perform to any less than three people.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was.  I absolutely enjoyed the visit to his workshop and saw how he made the puppets and came away with my third souvenir of my trip.  The first being a bottle of Russian Vodka and second being the flute I bought on Christmas day in Beijing, although this souvenir concerned me as I wasn’t sure whether it would actually fit in my bag.  Shadow puppetry was an enormously popular art form throughout South East Asia but is now mainly confined to art festivals and national celebrations.  The coloured puppets, made from leather, have been made with moving limbs and jaws and are in my opinion extraordinary pieces of art themselves.  

Wat Phra Mathathat
On my walk back to the main centre, I stopped by the Wat Phra Mathathat which is the largest wat in Southern Thailand and is an beautiful temple accompanied by a museum full of ancient artefacts and religious memorabilia.  There’s not much more I could tell you about the wat as at this moment in time I was pretty much ‘templed out’.  The rest of the walk back into town was done at a relaxed pace, stopping in every 7eleven on the way as it guaranteed ice cool air conditioning to cool my body down a little.  On my walk I was confronted by a mass of school children leaving their respective schools.  The shouts of ‘hello’ was frequent and I had missed such treatment and it proved that I was finally back in a place where little tourists come.

Songkhla from above
The next day I decided to move on yet again.  This time to Songkhla.  The motorcycle taxi took me and my bags along the a few kilometres to the bus station avoiding oncoming vehicles to within an inch.  Once I arrived in Songkhla I was shocked by the difficulty to get a lift into the centre of town.  I asked one man on his scooter to take me, he had no idea where I was asking for.  I pointed on the map.  He took the book and walked over to some other men and discussed amongst themselves whilst looking upon the map as though it was a small baby alien.  I finally managed to get one man to take me to the guest house, however when we got into the centre of town he pulled up at another guest house, not on the street that I wanted.  There was no room anyway, so I persuaded the man to drop me off at the address that I had asked for.  Finally, I arrived at the address just as the heavens opened and the streets of Songkhla became inner city streams.  I looked up at the name of the guest house, it was different but was still a guesthouse.  A lady came out and told me that she was full.  Crap, I thought as I looked back outside with the prospect of walking in the monsoon rains.  A British guy sitting at the table invited me over to join him whilst I wait for a dry spell. 
“Why are you here?” the man asked.
“What do you mean, why am I here?  I’m travelling.”  I responded.
“Nobody comes here anymore.  Not since the terrorist attacks.”  The man retorted. 

It seems as though the city had been subjected to multiple bombings which killed a few people and having retrospectively looked on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, I discovered that they advise against all but essential travel to that region.  Oops, I thought to myself as I walked on to find another guesthouse which the Englishman recommended.  It is true, I looked around and there were no foreigners to be seen.  Fantastic!  That’s exactly what I’ve been wanting!  My guesthouse, was a comfortable, single bed and fan with shared bathroom and was inhabited by several bats which squeaked at night time.  

There was a cultural museum a few kilometres out of Songkhla that I was very keen to go and see.  I got on a Sangthaew and asked to be dropped off at the museum.  It was actually some distance from the town and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.  The museum had quite blatantly seen better days and the drop off of tourism to the area has obviously affected this site.  I was, in fact, the only tourist there which is a shame because the museum offered a wealth of diverse information from prehistoric to the current culture of Thai people.  It was actually one of the best museums I’ve been to. 

Back in town, I headed further up the road to the temple that sits upon a hill which overlooks the city and surrounding beaches.  There was the same threat from monkeys which I had become accustomed to, although they still scare the crap out of me.  Instead of walking up the hill, there is a lift which takes you effortlessly up to the top.  Such a wonderful little temple with moral sayings which offer encouragement and a better society.  That evening I was lucky enough to be able to have a wonder around the Friday night market which takes over most of the town.  Local traders hit the streets selling their wares, cooking up delicious food and school bands entertain shoppers whilst they browse.  It was an unforgettable evening wondering around, watching the locals get excited over their purchases and enjoying their freshly made Pad Thai.  I, myself, found myself a wallet.  My short time in Songkhla was wonderful, the people I met were friendly and extremely welcoming, it’s a shame that they are being financially affected by the recent terrorism and the subsequent decline in tourism.  

My wonderful dinner
I now had a decision to make.  Do I go against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice and continue travel south along the east coast, or do I go the safe/boring route via Hat Yai?  Although Hat Yai is still amongst the towns listed not to travel to.  I decided to go the boring way via Hat Yai, where I would stay a night and get a connecting bus and ferry to take me across the border onto the Malaysian Island of Langkawi.  The short bus journey to Hat Yai was uneventful like the majority of my journeys through Thailand.  Hat Yai is a large trading city on the southern frontier with Malaysia.  I found an odd little guesthouse to stay in with massive corridors and padlocked doors which secured extremely sparse rooms with a bed, a hose for a shower and a squat toilet.

Beautifully made puppets
I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot once again and enjoy the Saturday market of Hat Yai.  Markets are one of the awesome opportunities that you get to see the locals at the best.  That is, as long as it’s not a tourist market selling only souvenirs and complete crap that, for one reason or another, the moronic side of us thinks they’re so good that we’d like to buy them and will be on our mantle pieces for ever after.  I was actively looking for some new T-shirts as mine had seen better days but the problem with being a ‘large’ in Asia is that the size is extremely hard to find as everyone is so petite.

The next day was my last in Thailand.  I had got to the bus station slightly late as the bus to the small coastal town of Satun where I would catch the ferry into Malaysia had already departed.  There was no real need to panic as the lady in the ticket office telephoned the driver and persuaded him to turn back to pick me up.  Absolutely fantastic lady, giving a service that you would definitely not see in the UK as they’d say ‘You’re late, too bad… next bus tomorrow.  Unlucky’.  Within five minutes, I was aboard the minibus and on my way towards the port.

Thailand had had it’s ups and downs.  Arriving after a couple of months in Laos and Cambodia provided me with instant relief with them firstly driving on the correct side of the road, something I hadn’t experienced since Hong Kong.  Secondly, you had your own seat on the buses which seemed to run on time and there estimated travel duration was largely correct.  Travel was so much easier and relaxing.  The only thing that ruined it for me was the PUTs and the awfully disgusting sex trade.  My faith in Thai culture was fully restored with my trip through Nakkon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Hat Yai.  Absolutely fantastic places.