Travel Travails - ५

The end of my S E Asian sojourn was fast approaching. Where had all the time gone?? About 2 weeks before I was to leave Singapore, a few friends suggested we take a trip together. They'd been hankering to get out of the city/country for a while but weren't able to follow thru on their plans.
But this time, things came together and we decided to head to Melaka, located on the west cost of Malaysia. The plan was to cross the border (hah! first time ever I crossed the border between 2 countries - by road anyway) into the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru and then hire a car and drive about 225 kms to Melaka.

First things first, the roads in Malaysia are fan-freakin-tastic! I love to drive but Bombay as a city doesn't let you truly soak in the pleasure of the experience. No such thang on the drive from JB to Melaka. We took turns driving the 2.5 hour journey. The lush greenery of the Malaysian countryside was soothing and pleasant company all thru the ride.

Once in Melaka, I was hit by the same feeling I got when I visited Simla the first time. A quaint almost village-like atmosphere prevailed in many parts of the town. The roads were barely big enough to allow two-way traffic but everyone seemed to manage just fine. In Melaka there is a canal with a bridge going over it. It splits Melaka into the new part of the city and the older historical section of town. We were staying in this older side in an area called Jonker Walk.
Jonker Walk is this one road that closes off after 5 pm every weekend for the evening/night street market. There are plenty of lively food stalls, bars and cafes. This particular time of the year was even more festive as the 70th birthday of the head of the ruling Royal family had just rolled by. So every evening there was this carnival like atmosphere that prevailed starting from early evening till the wee hours of the morning.
As you can see, the colour red was in abundance in the streets. Lanterns and pretty lights gave a warm red orange glow which added to the celebratory feeling of it all. There were mini parades that went up and down the street. School kids who looked like they were some sort of marching band, dancing lions and various rituals were being conducted at what looked to be temple like structures.

We even saw some Bollywood-style dance classes being held in a few of the buildings along Jonker. Probably has something to do with Shahrukh Khan being recently conferred the title of Datuk (similar to the British knighthood). Apparently they love Hindi films out there - with Shahrukh, Salman and Saif being the hot favourites amongst the Malays.

The following day we decided to take in the sights of the city. Melaka is primarily known for its museums. There's like a dozen of them within a one square KM distance. We saw a couple which was nice enough but after a while (for me anyway), its case of "seen one seen all". But it was quite lovely walking around the town. It was slightly misty in early half of the day. Weather was nice and cool. Quite a pleasant walk along the canal watching the occasional tour boat passing by with kids laughing and waving frenetically and you just can't help smiling and waving back yourself. Walked some more thru the town visiting the famous Christ Church, the replica of the Sultan's palace, and seeing so many of the afore-mentioned museums (from only the outside of course).
We stayed in Twenty Guesthouse (an unusual and abstract name, I initially thought - turns out that's the plot no. on which the building is located). When we'd booked our rooms, I was slightly apprehensive becoz 20 seemed a tad too backpackerish for my liking, what with common shared bathrooms but heck I was on vacation and we wanted to stay in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Turns out the place was actually pretty cool.
It was basically a home whose various rooms were converted into guestrooms. Very basic rooms - an almost big enough bed (I'm 6' 1" so most beds for me are almost big enough), A/C, and no TV. But it suited us just fine. The majority of the house was made of wood so every so often those wooden floors would creak loudly when someone climb the stairs which were located near our rooms or if people were walking on the floor above. One night, I think the group living above us probably decided to play catch or something, coz the floorboard were creaking like a mofo! Fortunately that lasted for only 15-20 mins.
Someone in their review on one of the travel websites had mentioned about staying in 20 which they liked a lot. Their only gripe was the loud sounds of Chinese karaoke being belted out from a nearby building. I laughed heartily when I read that article. Sometimes these things have a karmic way of getting back at you.

So of course both nights we heard some dude who obviously thought he was the Chinese Richard Marx singing with truckloads of passion and sorrow (or maybe that was just me). Which I wouldn't have minded as such other than the fact that he was a bit tone deaf! Fortunately we walked into our rooms at about 2am and the singing got done in some 30 odd minutes. But it bloody well woke me from my sleep at like 10 am the following.
I mean I'm a karaoke fan but maaaaan this guy took the cake!

And so this glorious journey comes to end. I will leave for Bombay in less than a week. Saw so many new places, met so many new people, took in the sights, sounds and culture of different countries.
I feel weary from all my travels. But it's a good kind of weary...

While I am certainly not an expert on these places I've written about, I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.


Travel Travails - Quattro

So our early morn flight from Siem Reap to KL, was then followed by a late afternoon flight from KL to Bali. Stupid bitch at the Air Asia counter in KL refused to make allowance for one… repeat ONE measly extra kilo on our bags. As the Madman would quite eloquently put it, “Saali ****, AIDS ho jaye tujhe!!”
Denpasar airport was quite chaotic when we got in. It seemed like there was several flights that came in at the same time and there was a long ass line for Immigration.

Ahead of us, was this newly-married Gujju couple from Baroda that were on their honeymoon.
Kaycee had whispered to me when we were in the line that we Indians almost refuse to acknowledge the presence of our country-men when we’re abroad and this was not cool.
So she initiated some small talk and I think our sheltered Gujju couple were mildly perturbed to see K and I traveling together. I believe certain assumptions were made in their mind about our “relationship” despite the fact that we told them we were just friends who were traveling together. We were giggling about it as we headed to collect our bags.

The giggling abruptly stopped as we got outside and realized there was no pickup from the hotel waiting for us. A few phone calls later, we were told that there was a miscommunication from their end and after profuse apologies, the lady said she would have a car there in 15 minutes.
We headed shortly to Febri’s which is where we were to spend the following three days.
Unfortunately we were so knackered with our journey, we eventually decided to spend the evening in the hotel itself having a few drinks and a peaceful dinner.

We were staying in Kuta which is the party area of Bali with lots of restaurants and clubs. Kuta is in fact where the bombings of ’02 took place. While the ’02 and the subsequent ’05 blasts have taken their toll on the tourist influx to the island, people are still coming in to soak in the stunning beauty of this island paradise. The largest number of victims in the ’02 bombings were Aussie tourists specifically a whole lot of surfers. But it hasn’t really stopped them any. We saw tons of the typical blond surfer types carrying their boards while we were in the airport as well as in the city.

We lost the following day to the weather. It had started raining late the previous night and kept up right thru the next day. So our final day in Bali was going to be a jam packed affair with us trying to squeeze in as many of the sites as we could.
The day started with us catching the famous Barong dance depicting scenes from the Ramayana at one of the local cultural centres. We followed that with a visit to the local Batik shop.
Our next stop was a place called Ubud. If Kuta is where you wanna go to party, the Ubud is the area where you can stay for the peace and quiet.
On the way to Ubud, we passed through several villages which were famous for different types of artifacts. So there were stone carving shops, wood carving shops, gold and silver jewellery shops as well as shops selling paintings and crafts.
We stopped at one of the wood carving shops. Man these people are obsessed with phalluses. We saw everything from tables to ashtrays to chairs to key-chains which had phallic attachments to them. I mean there was just so much dick in that shop that even neutral me got a wee bit homophobic.
We finally reach Ubud and the must-visit place there is the Sacred Monkey Forest. Since these monkeys are so used to human contact, they pretty much do as they please. So you are duly warned about keeping your sunglasses, cameras etc on a tight leash coz given a chance these lil buggers will even start rummaging your bags for something to nibble on.
As you can see in the pic, one of the simians got extra friendly and rode with me for a bit. Kaycee of course who’s not a big fan of the Vanars, kept freaking right thru the time my long tailed friend hitching a ride on me lol

We then grabbed some lunch before we headed to the Uluwatu temple. I cannot even begin to describe the beauty of this place. I’m putting up pictures of the views from the cliff top and the sunset that we went to catch. If you think the pictures look good, trust me, the real thing is a 1000 times better.
We stayed at Uluwatu for about an hour and just took it all in as much as we could. I don’t think I could ever get tired of that splendid view, the blue water, the waves crashing on the rocks below and the wonderful orange-pink glow that came with the sunset.
We ended our trip with dinner at one of the many seafood restaurants on Jimbaran beach. The sea breeze blowing, the soft sand between our toes, a few drinks, fresh catch cooked for you and of course music on request by the band that went from table to table. Those guys would ask you where you were from and then play a song in your local language. We of course didn’t encourage any Hindi songs but they did do some GnR and Beatles for us. All in all a satisfactory end to the trip.
Bali was a wonderful experience in more ways than one. I will definitely visit this place again and stay there longer. You need atleast a week here to truly enjoy and have a chilled out time.
That I thought pretty much ended the great SEA trip but there was one last destination in store…


Travel Travails - III

I reached the hotel near the KLCCT where I was to spend the night and fly out early the next morning to Siem Reap. My companion for the Cambodia and Bali leg of the trip was the very delectable Miss Kaycee who I know from back home. We were staying at Molly Malone's, located in the heart of the Old Market area of Siem Reap. Run by a couple that's one half Irish (the wife) and the other French (with some Cameroonian thrown in there), MM's USP was its location. It was within walking distance to all the happening and not so happening food and drink joints of the area. Me and Kaycee had done some research prior to each leg of our trip courtesy our travel Bible - Wikitravel. Considering it was a first for both of us visiting these places, we'd decided that we were gonna do mostly typical touristy things in terms of visiting the known places, monuments et al rather than do the whole off-the-beaten-track type of traveling

So our first visit on the day we reached there was the Chong Khneas Floating Village located on the Tonle Sap Lake. We were warned by our research that this was a well known tourist trap but we decided to go visit it anyway. For us terra firma type, Chong Khneas was quite an eye opener. It was life as you'd see in any small town - people going about their lives, working to earn their bread, kids studying in school or playing basketball on the nearby court, places of worship like churches, grocery shops, the police station and the legal courts but the key difference being that ALL of them were afloat. Hah! We even saw a karaoke boat which had a bunch of men sitting and guzzling their wine and beer with the local music blaring out of the stereo and lyrics scrolling up the TV screen.
That evening the plan was to roam around the old market area where we’d have a few drinks and try the local Khmer cuisine. So to begin the evening right, we headed to the bar downstairs in Malone’s for a drink or two before heading out. Almost as soon as we were done with our first drink, the lights went out! Apparently the whole of Siem Reap was blacked out. So the initial plan got converted just like that to an evening at the bar itself.
It turned out to be one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in a long while. The French-Cameroon owner Thierry kept us company and even gave us a free round of drinks while talking about life in Siem Reap. I tell you these Frenchies can charm the birds out of the trees with their accent alone. “Aai travel the world and ‘av ‘ad some wundearful experiences but now I come ‘ere and settle down in Siem Reap where I meet my beautiful wife and we open zis place… Ees a good life no?!”
Hell yeah! I mean all three evenings we saw the man come in around 7pm, have a quick chat with his manager and then sit down with some of his customers and drink and smoke at the bar till about 10pm after which he’d head home. C’est la vie indeed! Also met a Brit Italian gentleman called Count Paolo Grazini along with his Cambodian fiancée who was called (and I kid you not!) Pumpkin. The Count regaled us with stories about his life in the army, travels around the world, working with the Mafia in their drug trade(!!) and how he finally landed in Siem Reap and was now a journo with a Phnom Penh newspaper writing mostly lifestyle articles and stories about Siem Reap. All in all a most (unexpectedly) entertaining evening.

The following day was temple visiting day. We decided to wake up early and catch the sunrise at the main temple complex of Angkor Wat and follow that with visits to the other temples. So off in the early morning cold which we experienced even more coz Kaycee decided we must do as the locals do and travel all of that day by motorised tuk tuk. Now as you can see in the picture, the weather was kinda muggy so we really didn’t get to see Angkor bathed in early morn sunshine. The funny thing is (and Kaycee later echoed similar sentiments) that I didn’t really see what the fuss was all about with regard to Angkor. I mean it was a huge temple complex alright but I didn’t really feel that sense of awe that I expected to feel when I came to see this place. Perhaps the weather had something to with it as well but honestly I have visited some smaller temple complexes in India which were much more impressive and awe-inspiring than Angkor was. By the way, there’s tons of references to the Ramayana and Mahabharata in these temples. We saw so many walls depicting scenes like Ravana kidnapping Sita, the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas, the churning of the ocean by the Gods and Demons and lots of others.
So after Angkor we caught some breakfast before heading to visit the remaining two famous temples of Bayon and Ta Phrom.
Bayon was a temple we both enjoyed visiting because there was so much character to the place. There was a sense of gloom and doom to the whole place and had it not been for the many tourists who were around, I think it would felt a whole lot more spooky. There were so many faces cut into the various walls in and around the temple that I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being watched. Almost creepy in some ways…
The last temple on the list was Ta Phrom. Again a temple with much character to it. If Bayon felt a tiny bit spooky, then Ta Phrom positively reinforced the feeling. This temple has gained fame primarily due to the fact that the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider was shot here.
We even later visited the Red Piano bar, which was located pretty close to our hotel, where AJ and the Tomb Raider crew would hangout after their shoot. They even have a cocktail that she apparently concocted, the name of which is of course The Tomb Raider.
After getting all templed-out, once we came back into town, Kaycee decided we should get a massage to get some (bas?!) relief. So we snuck into the very aptly named Dr. Feet Massage parlour where we surrendered our feet to the capable ministrations of the massage girls. After they spent a fair of time giggling about the size of my feet, they got into action. I don’t know about y’all but a foot massage always makes me feel a little awkward, atleast initially. It feels a little too servile having a woman wash and press my feet. But damn! these women were good. I mean 30 mins into the hour-long massage I literally slipped into a coma. To the point that Kaycee had to actually nudge me hard (more than once I might add) coz I had started to snore… loudly! The massage girls of course loved it. It is a matter of pride for most masseuses if their massage has induced their client to fall asleep.
Aah Kaycee... you should’ve listened to the girls and let me snooze away.

Our final day in Siem Reap was gonna be something we’d discovered as a must do on several websites. It was Quad Biking and maaaan I gotta tell you this was the funnest thing I’ve done in a long while. We found this place owned by a Frenchman (Ze French are taking over ze world, I tell you!) called Hervé who ran these Quad Bike tours. Since we weren’t sure about how much we’d be able to handle, we choose the Easy Ride option – a 17 km ride which would take us thru the surrounding villages of Siem Reap.
These machines pack some serious power and were a blast to ride around on. Hervé was on lead with Kaycee following him and me rounding off the rear. Every so often whenever there was a long stretch of empty road, I’d let the other two go on ahead and then gun the ATV across the terrain. Wheeeeee!!

That last evening we went out to eat some more of the local Khmer food. And something interesting happened… I’d been cribbing for the past couple of days that we didn’t get to hear any live music. So we’re walking back to our hotel after dinner, and I hear loud rock music coming out a joint nearby. So of course I get this big grin on my face and before Kaycee could finish returning it, I dragged her ass in the direction of the spanking new Café Central. When we got there, there wasn’t any place available to sit. Suddenly this huge, barrel-chested bald guy with a bunch of tattoos running up and down his heavily muscled arms and thick neck comes up to us and asks if there’s just the two of us. He obviously seemed to be the owner or atleast top management. After confirming that we would be OK with sitting anywhere, he quickly arranges for a table and a couple of comfy cane chairs that we plonk ourselves on. We order our drinks and settle down to enjoy the Filipino cover band that was belting out the latest pop and rock tracks. Soon after the big guy comes over and asks in his booming voice if we’re having a good time. I couldn’t quite place his accent but we do answer in an enthusiastic affirmative. He then asks us where we’re from and I say India. He then asks where in? and I reply Bombay. He asks where in? again which kinda confused me into thinking he hadn’t heard me the first time around. So I again reply, “India”. And then to both mine and Kaycee’s astonishment, this guy goes, “Arre haan haan, lekin Bombay mein kahaan??” This dude was from our neck of the woods!!! We got talking and I came to know that Charlie (that's his name) was from Mazgaon and that he used to play football for the same college in Mazgaon that I used to go to. Talk about a freakishly small world. So now that we established the Indian and Mumbai connect, Charlie made more small talk with us, introduced us to his blonde girlfriend who looks after the other famous nightspot in Siem Reap called the Angkor What? Between the two of them, they were running this pub and after 4 years decided to open up another spot which was of course the week old Café Central.
Once again we were sent a round of drinks by the proprietor of a joint. If I was cribbing about the live music, Kaycee had been cribbing about the fact that she wanted to indulge in some Sambuca shots since she’s not a big fan of tequila. Not 15 mins later, Charlie and his friends get a bottle of it at their table and he comes over and plonks down a couple of healthy shots of Sambuca on our table. Now Kaycee’s the one who has the goofy grin all over her face.
We then stayed on till the band got done with its remaining sets and then in super high spirits we headed to our hotel. It was a fantastic night to end this leg.
So that was Siem Reap. The next morning we were to catch a flight back to KL from where we’d fly to our next destination.

Next stop – Bali, Indonesia