Kuala Lumpur fun (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Paul is sleeping peacefully so I head out for a short run. Bukit Bintang is quiet and peaceful as I jog through the streets towards the Petronis Towers. Day has only just cracked her head out of night’s darkness and already it’s hot and sticky. I find my way to the KLCC Park. There’s other joggers here making rounds of the dedicated running track. I do a lap before heading back home. No phone. No camera. No music. No distractions. Just an easy jog.
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Paul is awake now so we chat a while before hitting the streets. I saw a busy local restaurant on my run and it doesn’t disappoint.  We order Chinese chicken noodle and wonton soup, fried noodles with pork, and Malaysia style tea and coffee. It’s the breakfast of champions. The bill comes in at 13RM ($AU4). That’s less than a single dish at the food street and this meal was fantastic. Paul asks whether the restaurant is open tonight. The lady looks at him blankly. “Buka malam?”  (“Open night”) I ask. Ten o’clock she signals with her hands. We’ll try something else on the memu tonight.

Bukit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s most modern commercial hub. Think neon signs, glittering shopping malls and suited up businesspeople. The shopping malls are connected by air conditoned subways and overpasses that save pedestrians from mingling with street traffic or the city’s humidity. It’s the easiest and most scenic way to walk from Bukit Bintang to the Petronis Towers. You can also shop in the most vast array of specialty stores along the way from dedicated Marvel Comic stores to Michael Korrs’ high end sunglass shop. You can stop at a shop that only sells brownies or a shop at which you can indulge in popcorn.  It’s all still so Asian in style despite the American influences.
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We promenade in KLCC Park. It’s an oasis. A rest from the busy streets, construction work and retail marketing noise. A place where children can swim in a man-made lagoon or play on a huge playground (security didn’t like me doing same). A place where banyon tree roots plait into knots. And couples sit close together deep in conversation. At night the fountains will dance with lights and music as tourists flock to photograph the famous twin towers.
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The heat starts to become more oppressive as we end our promenade. Continuing our international cinema habits seems quite sensible. The Mummy is about to commence at the TGV Cinema Suria. We settle in. It’s 21RM ($AU7) per ticket. The screen is massive – far larger than at home – and the surround sound really does surround us. The movie is great and I leave satisfied with the whole experience.

We meander back to our guesthouse to refresh. It’s sweaty work exploring Kuala Lumpur on foot. Not that I’m complaining.

Before long the massage street calls us. We decide to go back to the same place as last night with the uniformed staff who show no inclination to offer unwanted extras. That’s the thing about being a man in Asia – it’s not a question of whether you will be offered “ladies” but when. I hate it. It makes me feel cheap and dirty. I don’t care that prostitution exists nor that people use these services. However, I do hate that old men sidle up and offer ladies while bent over old women blatantly offer sex. Particularly in a country where one third of the women are covered. It plays into the fundamentalist stereotype.

It is a little late when we return to Restoran Beremi Meng Kee where we ate breakfast. We eat fried rice, noodles and stir fried vegetables. It’s the simple honest food I love most. It’s the flavours of my childhood: garlic, ginger amd sweet soy sauce. The flavours Mum cooked with at home from the flavours my Javenese grandmother must have cooked for her.
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It’s only 9.30pm. We walk some more and find ourselves at Berjaya Times Square.  It’s peak hour now as thousands of shop workers head home for the night. It’s like 5pm rush hour at home but just later. Streets are clogged as shutters descend on the day’s toil. Despicable M3 is playing at the Gold Screen Cinema. We buy tickets and create some minor chaos by sitting in the wrong seats. Allocated seating in KL means allocated seating. Even when there are other vacant seats one row in front or behind people actually want their seats. They don’t ask. They glare until you move. We just moved to one of the sixty odd other free seats. Note it depends on culture too: we noticed Chinese Malaysians had no difficulty asking people to move. A faux pas perhaps but what’s travel without a little cultural learning.
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And so, it’s after 1am by the time we’ve navigated our way home, declining countless offers of “ladies” on the way.

Ready for Vietnam 

It seems like a lifetime since our last trip to Asia but, finally, we are within a week of our next foray into the Orient.  It’s just six more until we board our Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur then on to Ho Chi Minh City a few days later.  

Our trip to Vietnam is unlikely to be a traditional tourist expedition. We fly into HCMC and will be there two nights before heading inland. Our entire trip is based on a Couch Surfing host’s invitation for us to stay with him in Pleiku. It’s a town well off the HCMC-Hoi An-Hanoi tourist race. And along the way we will stay in some other quite random places well inland from the coast. 

We will travel from HCMC to Hoi An and Hue via this random countryside route on scary bus rides before flying home from Danang. 

We have our letter of invitation for visa on arrival, some clean US dollars, passports and flights. We’ve booked some cheap but well reviewed accommodation so just have to pack and get ourselves to the airport. 

Stopover in Guangzhou (China)

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We land in Guangzhou after a long thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam. It’s 6:30am and we don’t depart until 9:30pm tonight. Fortunately, as Australian passport holders we are among the nationals of some fifty countries who can enter Guangzhou visa-free for up to 72 hours if he hold a boarding pass or ticket for an onward flight. Our baggage has been checked through so all we need to do is walk to the customs counter, handover our passports and boarding passes, and obtain the necessary entry stamp into China.

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I thought I would feel discombobulated at the sharp transition from Western Europe to China. Perhaps it’s a sign of the way I’ve adapted over the past few years of travel because I feel immediately at home. We easily navigate the metro into the city and find our way around without any hassles. It does help that Guangzhou is a tourist-friendly hub where signs are often written in both Chinese and English. But still, I would have anticipated some sense of momentary discomfort being in China. That said, we have now spent a lot of time in Asia and many things that we see, hear, smell and taste are consistent across Asia.

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We take the Metro to Yuexiu Park and turn right out of the station to walk to Liuhuahu Park with its massive lakes. It’s Saturday morning. The perfect time to watch local Guangzhou residents socialising and practicing their hobbies. Tai chi seems to be a favourite. It brings back memories of my previous visit to China in 2009 when I would sit and watch the locals practice tai chi in Shanghai.

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It’s not just tai chi that’s getting a run here though. Badminton and table tennis are also incredibly popular. Just as we have basketball courts, football fields and cricket pitches in Australia, Guangzhou has table tennis tables and badminton courts in the park. The matches look serious. Shuttlecocks and ping pong balls zoom through the air at barely perceptible speeds. No wonder the Chinese perform well in these sports at the Olympic Games given that this is just amateur hour on a Saturday morning.

There’s plenty of ballroom dancers in the park too. They cha cha, rumba and waltz to music blaring from boom boxes of all shapes and styles. I feel happy just watching them. It’s like going to a dance concert for free in the park. And the dancers all look happy.

The most captivating group, though, is the choir. It looks almost impromptu but obviously the group comes together here regularly. The choir mistress guides the singers through a long playlist written on large sheets of paper that she turns over as each song ends. Each time we pass the choir (for we do go back a few times), it grows in size and volume. One man near the back (off camera) is always the loudest. He has the biggest smile despite not having the most tuneful voice (to my ears).

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The park isn’t just for organised recreation. It’s also a place of relaxation and beauty. People walk, play with their children and sleep in the park’s different “rooms”. There’s open areas, bonsai gardens, tall tree lined paths and pagodas. You just need to chose what you feel like experiencing or walk through the whole lot.

Half the park is closed during our visit in preparation of the Lunar New Year celebrations later in the month but still there’s enough here to keep us occupied for about four hours.

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We retrace our steps to the Metro and travel into the heart of Guangzhou, changing lines to travel to Beijing Road Station. Beijing Road is the main shopping and pedestrian street in Guangzhou. It’s busy but calm. And it’s where life takes place. Tourist buses mingle with motorcyclists carrying heavy loads. Shoppers mingle with tourists. Traditional eateries meet Starbucks.

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We start with lunch at a small restaurant packed with Chinese people. It is just one of a small row of restaurants in a lane way of Beijing Road. We chose it because there’s not a seat nor white tourist in the house. That’s always a good sign. There’s a large menu but a small selection of items are described in English on a wall in the back of the shop. A table leaves as we order. The food is delicious. And at $3-4 a serve it’s also easy on the wallet. We eat and watch the goings on around us.

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Beijing Road turns out to be a good choice. We walk around just watching people, taking in the lanterns and posing for pictures with the statues. The Astro Boy is in front of a whole shop dedicated to the cartoon series. Children laugh and play in the mall. Parents talk together. Elderly men and women sit watching. There’s a few touts trying to sell tourists fake Rolex but for the most part we are left alone to wander.

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The Big Buddha Temple is a stark contrast to the city around it. It’s old (900CE from memory) and peaceful. We have arrived for a prayer festival but still can walk around to experience the grandeur. It’s different from the Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s less gaudy in decoration being mostly wood and stone, rather than bright gold and mosaics. That said, there’s still incense sticks (you may not light them in the temple though – they have to be burned in a specific area off to one side). We love temples so this is a good find.

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By the time we get to Gongyuanqian Station we are quite tired. We only manage a short foray into the People’s Park with it’s pretty flowers, tai chi, badminton, music and dancers. We decide to catch the Metro straight back to the airport.

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Poor Paul is so tired he sleeps standing up despite the crowds of people entering and exiting the carriage. Guangzhou’s Metro is the sixth most used Metro network in the world. Fortunately, today is Saturday so it’s probably relatively quiet compared with the weekday rush.

Our day in Guangzhou has made me hungry to explore more of China. I went there for five weeks in 2009 but I was younger and less experienced at travel back then. I still took group tours so would love to come back as an independent traveler.

Two lazy days in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

We wake to an eerily quiet day in Kuala Lumpur. The city has been shut down due to a political demonstration that will take place today. It’s a good excuse to avoid public places and take it easy. The online news reports that most locals will stay home and maybe catch a movie to avoid the rallies. We decide to do the same.

Housekeeping comes to our room at 12:30pm so that’s when we finally get up. We watch The Accountant at Gold Screen Cinemas Pavilion. 

Downstairs at Pavilion is a massive Christmas display. At home thise who are overly politically correct try to dissuade us from celebrating Christmas in schools and shopping centres for fear of discriminating against Muslims but here Muslim families are quite happy to take photos of the children with Santa and to ride the Christmas themed merry-go-round. I think perhaps we’re creating unnecessary division at home. Rather than minimise Christmas, why not add Ramadan to our calendar like we do with Lunar New Year. 

We wander through the covered walkway to Suria Mall at the Twin Towers for a massage and dinner before catching Hell Or High Water at the Suria TGV cinema. You’re not supposed to bring in outside food but I had a hankering for M&Ms so we smuggle a packet in our pocket. They’re checking bags and taking items off people so we are lucky. 

On our second day we take it easy again. Our flight will depart at 11:10pm. We check out about five minutes before the midday cut off. The monorail takes us to the NU Sentral Mall where we watch Shut In at the Gold Screen Cinema. That makes for movies in three days. 

We’re both traveled out so eat McDonald’s for lunch before catching the bus to the airport where we laze in the movie lounge until our flight. 

Here’s some random photos from our last two days in Kuala Lumpur. 

It’s been an awesome trip. We’re ready for home but are looking forward to our Holland and Belgium trip at Christmas, just five weeks away. 

Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

The tuk tuk driver rouses himself from his slumber. It’s the slightly rude man who took us to the market last night. He’s probably just worn down from his labours in a hot and hectic city. To him we’re probably rich foreigners who sleep in a bed rather than a hammock strung across a tuk tuk. We’re not a prospect for repeat business so he doesn’t have to care. It’s understandable but still unpleasant. I resent having to pay him at the end of my ride. If he’d been friendly I would have given him the last of my Riel as a tip (about $US1.50 on top of a $US7 fare). But I don’t. I take them home because I cannot bring myself to encourage his approach. 

The streets of Phnom Penh are now less alien than when we arrived. I no longer feel as anxious as I did just twelve days ago. I had read so much bad press about Cambodia and its people. So much that turned out to be so untrue. Our bag was not snatched. Our pockets were not picked. Our belongings were not stolen from our guesthouse rooms (we didn’t stay in dives though – we paid $12-$25 per night for places with excellent reviews). I don’t know why I read up so much. Usually I don’t. Perhaps I’d lost my touch being back on our large island continent for ten months. I wish I hadn’t and I won’t in future. 

We experience the last of our Cambodian snow. That’s what Tony called the dust kicked up by traffic on the gravel roads outside Battambang. Next time I see snow I hope it’s the real stuff in Belgium or Holland at Christmas.

Airport officials make us reprint our boarding passes. Ours have bar codes but don’t look like the airline ones. Flexibility will take a little while to ease into officialdom here. 

It’s a short flight to Kuala Lumpur. Forty minutes over Cambodia, forty minutes over the sea and forty minutes over Peninsular Malaysia. Our captain plays tour guide. He clearly loves his job and it passes the time for us. 

We’re both quite tired and have both picked up stomach bugs in Kampong Chhnang. So we have a lazy afternoon in our room then catch a movie.

We eat at a local restaurant.

And have a short walk around our hotel before calling it a night. 

Kampong Chhnang to Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Sitting behind the driver is no place for the feint of heart. So it’s a good thing that Paul and I long ago relinquished our Western sensibilities and accepted the realities of travel. We rattle and bounce down a road built for lighter loads and slower speeds. Overtaking means hurtling headlong into oncoming traffic at breakneck speed. It’s just now it’s done here. As a passenger you just hold on an watch the world approach.

Arriving in Phnom Penh is a shock to the senses. It’s loud, dirty, busy and obnoxious after our ten days in quieter towns. I can only imagine what a shock it would be to young men and women who have left a farming community in search of big city fortune. Dust fills the air. Horns blast. Rubbish litters the ground. Advertising signs visually holler. It’s no better or worse than other global capitals. It’s just that here the contrast between the rest of the country and its capital city is so stark.

The bus station is tucked into the centre of the city. How the bus driver gets us there without squashing smaller road users is a mystery to me. The bus station is everything I imagined it to be. There’s more people waiting than seats available. It’s exposed to the elements and city grime so I feel for the German couple who will wait five hours for their connection for travel to the beach. Tuk tuk and moto drivers swarm us as we step off the bus. They don’t believe we want to walk. It’s their daily battle to make money for food. I don’t ever begrudge them this. It’s just that it’s tiring after a while.

We drop our bags at Feliz Hostel and Cafe. We have returned because we like it here. A short tuk tuk ride takes us to the Russian Market just before closing to buy a few items. A second hammock so I can take a friend camping. Some more paintings. Two cross stitches for me to make because they are one tenth the price at home and I enjoy it as a form of meditation. We haggle hard now. The prices start far too high. The goal is to get close to half the asking price or walk away. We manage to spend a few dollars.

We eat dinner at the Chinese restaurant where they make fresh noodles. Paul loves the beans there and me the noodles. We’ve remembered where it is. A massage follows. It’s the best massage I think I’ve ever had. $20 for a 90 minutes full body oil massage followed by $8 for a 60 minute foot reflexology. It’s our last chance at a cheap massage for a while.

And so we end our trip to Cambodia. Tomorrow we fly back to Kuala Lumpur for another two day stop over. It’s been awesome.

Kampong Chhnang (Cambodia)

Channy joins us at the breakfast table at our guesthouse. He quietly makes conversation. His English is perfect and he makes the dance gently. A quarter hour later, after first making relationships, we reach the point where a price can be discussed. It’s a fair price to which we all agree so Channy’s tuk tuk will become our chariot for the day.

More prices need to be negotiated at the waterfront. The skipper starts at $US30 for two hours. I’ve read online that the going rate for this type of boat (for foreigners) is about $US10/hour so I start at $15 hoping to settle on $20. We reach agreement at $23. Some might haggle a harder bargain but, as my father says, we give money to beggars easily but when someone is actually working for their income we haggle down to the last cent. Where’s the incentive to work then? Do we value the beggar more highly than the working person?

Our skipper motors the boat upriver for half an hour against the wind and tide. The engine splutters away behind us as we pass a workshop building composite plastic river boats, houses on stilts and mechanic workshops lining the banks of Tonle Sap, which is no longer a lake; it’s now a river.

Floating villages come into view and the engine is cut. Poverty surrounds us at every turn. Tin shacks, huts made of bamboo and leaves, children who should be in school and hardworking people. That’s what comprises the floating villages. Like all communities some people have done better than others. But modern floating houses are the exception not the rule.

That said, smiles abound. Children wave and call “hello”. It’s the only English word they know (except “one dollar”). Young men wearing nothing but underwear seem to be having a swimming race, diving from one boat and stroking quickly towards another. A boy rows from one house to another down a watery “street”. It’s not idealic but humans are resilient and this is home to them.

Back on dry land we travel out of town to a pottery village. It’s interesting enough to see the pottery being made but it’s the landscape I enjoy most. Rice fields are dotted with tall sugar palms. Skinny cattle graze on what grass is available in the cultivated landscape. Gravel roads stretch into the distance creating a contrast of orange and green.

We visit a mountain temple with yet more steps to annoy Paul. It’s peaceful at the top, though perhaps we were meant to walk further than we did. The instructions about what we were to expect were lacking. We are happy though to experience the temple and walk back down.

It’s 3pm by the time we return to town. We eat lunch then take a rest in the aircon. Our chariot departs again at 5pm.

Sunset over the rice fields is the icing on our Cambodian cake. Channy knows a place. He enjoys taking photos there. Words are unnecessary.

All that’s left to do is take one last walk through town, eat dinner, return to the festival to listen to some more music then head home to bed. Tomorrow we return to Phnom Penh on our long journey home.

Channy is a good guide and driver. His contact details are above.