Monday, April 30, 2012


One of many massive, beautiful trees to climb in Taiping
Before we got sucked any further into Georgetown (again), we left for the Cameron Highlands. On the way, we spent one night in Taiping, which is a smaller city about 60 miles south of Penang, with a beautiful park and zoo. The Lake Gardens Park was developed on an old tin mine in the late 19th century and has a series of ponds, massive, moss covered trees, and all sorts of gorgeous plants and birds. Walking paths wind through the park, with gazebos and park benches placed along the way, making it a really pretty place to stroll. The Taiping Zoo is adjacent to the park and is our reason for stopping in Taiping. At 8:00pm, they reopen the zoo for the Night Safari, with a select few lights on which simulate the light from a full moon so you can see the nocturnal animals when they're up and about and to see what the rest of the animals do at night.

The Lake Gardens in Taiping
We arrived in the early afternoon, found our way to the old Peking Hotel, checked in, and then walked out to get some lunch. We ate at Bismillah, a small restaurant which has been in operation in the same spot for nearly a hundred years making some of the best chicken biryani imaginable. After lunch, we walked to the Lake Gardens for a stroll among the greenery. Taiping is reputedly the wettest place in Malaysia (it's not a question if it will rain, rather when during the day it will rain, and there's some sort of “rain gambling” scheme among the locals) and all the plant life in town is lush and large. As we walked, the sky grew darker and darker. Unfortunately, we realized that we neglected to bring our rain jackets, so when the rain began falling, we decided to take to one of the many gazebos to wait it out. It started as a light shower, but soon, the rain came down hard. We watched as the lakes seemed to expand in size, and many of the birds hunkered down in the grass, with the exception of a vivid blue kingfisher on the hunt that kept swooping from a nearby tree to the wet ground and back. We sat and waited for about an hour for the rain to taper off to a sprinkle, talking more about the possibilities for life post-trip. When the rain finally stopped, we walked the mile back to the Peking and dried off.

Beautiful kingfisher
Before we went out again, we made sure to put our rain jackets in the bag. Later on, we went out for a banana leaf dinner at Chetty Nad, where we had an excellent meal on our last visit. This time, it was good, but not anywhere near the spectacular one we had before. And they overcharged us. Disappointing. By the time we were finished with dinner, it was nearly 8:00pm, so we started our amble to the zoo. We got there, paid our entry fee, and followed the paths through the zoo. It was actually a lot of fun, since we had an opportunity to see many of the animals that are usually snoozing during the day out and about. The tigers were all out roaring, the lionesses were playing hide and seek, the owls were wide awake, and the general effect was kind of spooky. The bad news was, the rain returned when we were abut three-quarters of the way through. The good news was, we brought our rain jackets with us this time. The rain wasn't so heavy that it stopped us from finishing the tour, but we were a bit damp by the time we made it back to the hotel at 11:00 pm.

Friday, April 20, 2012

G-town, Part II

Unrelated pic, but temple lantern at night
Once the racing was done, our next question was, where to from here? Our initial plan was to head for Malacca, but upon some further thought, we found ourselves asking why. We've been there before, we saw virtually every museum, garden, temple, and ruin in the city, and although we enjoyed our time in Malacca, neither of us felt a strong pull to visit a second time. After briefly considering several other options, we focused on the Cameron Highlands, which is a region in the mountains toward the center of the country. The climate's supposed to be more temperate, the scenery different, so since we skipped the Cameron Highlands last time, we decided to make for the hills and some cooler weather. 

The ride leaving Nilai was easy, the highways open and smooth (as usual), and we made it around Kuala Lumpur with no problems. Unfortunately, north of KL, the sky began to look rather ominous, with very low, dark clouds replacing the fluffy white ones we'd seen until then. Soon, large, heavy raindrops began to fall here and there. We pulled over to zip our jacket vents and install our custom Hefty daypack covers and continued on. Then, within the next few miles, somebody pulled the lever on the one-armed sky bandit and hit the water jackpot. It rained buckets. The wind whipped the trees around, and the rain was torrential. I will say, Malaysia is very thoughtful of their motorcycling citizens, because under many of the overpasses are breaks in the guardrails with a path leading to a paved, protected area to shelter riders caught out in a storm. In areas without an overpass, there are even free-standing shelters for riders. Quite considerate of them; you might even say, civilized. We took advantage of the first one we came to and waited for the storm to pass. While we waited, we discussed the wisdom of going to the Cameron Highlands at this point. The road is twisty and reputedly dangerous in good weather because of the high volume of farm trucks. The entire area appeared to be socked in, and hiking mountain trails is much less fun when they're muddy and slick. So as we stood there, we decided to nix the hills for the moment and instead, return to our home away from home, Georgetown. The rain slacked off after about 30 minutes, so we got back on the road, passed the exit for the highlands, and headed to G-town. 

The rain did stop, the temperature remained cooler, and we had a very pleasant ride back home. By the time we reached the bridge to the island of Penang, our gear had completely dried! We got back to the Star Lodge, parked on the sidewalk, and asked Robert, who was standing on the front porch when we arrived, almost as if he was expecting us, about a room. They had one, so we checked in for five nights (we just wanted to take a break) and carried our gear to our room, and then walked out to find that our dim sum spot was (gasp!) closed. Not a problem, we went for wonton mee instead.

New favorite dessert, Ais Kacang (Special ABC)
Our five nights in Georgetown turned into seven glorious, food-filled, do virtually nuthin' ones. We started every morning with roti and coffee from Yasmeen. My new friend, Mohammad, makes them. Each time I arrive, he greets me with a wide smile, asks what I am doing that day, and often, shares an apom (they're sort of like crepes, made with ground rice, a little sweet, thin and crispy at the edges, thick and spongy in the middle) with me while he makes our roti. Every morning when I say goodbye, he shakes my hand and often gives me a hug. We ate our way from one end of Little India to the far side of Chinatown, with a stop at McDonald's for a burger somewhere in the middle. We returned to all of our favorite eateries for dim sum (they were only closed for a day), banana leaf lunches, tandoori chicken and naan, curry mee, Hainanese chicken rice, and more wonton mee, among other nummies.  We walked the esplanade along the waterfront and stopped for ais kacang, or special ABC, which is one of the strangest desserts we've found.  It's shaved ice with palm sugar syrup on it, bright red and green gelatin strips, sweet corn, kidney beans, all with sweetened, condensed milk drizzled on top, then, to make it special, a scoop of ice cream.  It is a very, very, odd combo, but it actually tastes good, and the multitude of textures is nice as well.

Duck definitely worth waiting for!
We did find a new (for us) place for lunch though. Jit Seng Duck Rice is apparently famous nation-wide for its ubiquitous duck rice. When we arrived at noon, they were still setting up for the impending lunch crush. We stood and admired the rack of whole ducks, hanging in the window from their necks, with skin, crispy and brown, and drops of fat dripping slowly from their tails (like Chinese water torture- just gimme some duck!). We sat down at a table and waited. When the man set the platter on our table, it was heaped with a combination of the most perfectly roasted duck and roast pork I have ever seen. It came with a plate of rice, sliced cucumbers, plum sauce, and homemade chili sauce. It was heaven. In our excitement, we neglected to ask what the price was before we ordered, and when the bill arrived, it was a bit higher than our typical lunch outing, but for what must have been 12 ounces of delicious meat, accoutrements, and drinks, it came to a whopping 8 USD.

View from the esplanade in the evening
In between meals, we did manage to squeeze in a couple of movies. The Hunger Games was entertaining. Neither of us had heard of the movie or the books upon which it is based, but it was pretty good. The Wrath of the Titans, however, was utter dreck. Somehow, we managed to sit through the entire movie, but when it was over, I wanted to ask, not for my money, but for my two hours back. The acting was stilted, the dialogue could have been penned by a ten-year-old, and every word was yelled. The special effects were alright, but the movie actually had less plot than a porn flick. Colin and I both really just wanted our time returned in full.

The very old cemetery in Georgetown
Every day was not fun and dandy, though. Colin spent one day in the room with the lights off, fighting a terrible headache and intermittent ocular migraines. He woke with a headache and got back into bed after breakfast. Mid-day, he felt better, so we went out to get some lunch, but his headache returned with a vengeance shortly thereafter and was accompanied by scintillating stripes through his vision. While he rested, I walked to the very old cemetery (the remains of Francis Light, the British founder of Penang, are there) to try some sketching. I used to enjoy drawing when I was much younger but have been missing the desire to do it for many years. I picked up a cheap sketchbook and colored pencils in town and sat down among the headstones and drew some of them. Even though the finished product wasn't great, it was nice to try it again for a couple of hours. By the time I returned to the room, Colin was feeling better, so we spent some time talking about the rest of our trip and beyond.

The City Hall building at twilight
From our discussions of late, we have decided that we are not going to continue to Indonesia and Australia. The roads in Sumatra will be too challenging (which is saying a lot after riding in India), and the ferry service between islands is infrequent and requires careful timing. If we go all the way down the island chain as far as East Timor, we are pretty much committed to going to Australia unless we want to backtrack at least a couple thousand miles to ship out, depending on where we would turn around.

We decided to scratch Australia simply because of the expense. After crossing paths with many Aussies on our trip and hearing just how radically expensive goods and services are there, we just don't want to afford it right now (and as one of our new buddies from Melbourne said, wait til the Australian dollar drops in value again, it's bound to happen). We will instead, go back to Thailand to get some quality time on the beaches there, and then we will return to Malaysia for a while and ship out of Kuala Lumpur. 

Colin's sister is planning a family reunion for July 7th, so we may attempt to be around for that, but who knows? We hate to commit to anything. If you haven't figured it out yet, our moods and opinions change like the weather.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

F1 in Malaysia

The E1 in Ipoh
Since Nilai was almost 300 miles from Georgetown, we got a relatively early start. After another roti and coffee breakfast, we hit the road. Instead of taking the ferry back to the mainland, we opted for the five-mile bridge. It was a still, hazy morning, and as we crossed the Straits of Malacca, the water looked like glass. Once we were back on the mainland, we hit the highway for the ride all the way to Nilai. The scenery as we began the ride was mainly industrial, but after we left Butterworth, it changed to oil palms and pineapples. About 120 miles south, near the city of Ipoh, the landscape changed to limestone mountains and very lush greenery. Then it changed again, back to oil palms, all the way to Kuala Lumpur. One of the real environmental shames of Malaysia is that the vast majority of its jungle and rainforest has been replaced with oil palm plantations, which of course has wiped out habitat for all the native wildlife. We did unfortunately see what must have been a dead leopard cat (small, beautifully spotted wildcats, not much bigger than the average housecat) on the side of the road when we exited the highway in search of fuel. I know animals everywhere get hit all the time, but it's still hard to see exotic roadkill. We made it into Kuala Lumpur, taking advantage of the motorcycle only paths and tunnels under the roadways through the downtown, and out the other side.

We arrived in Nilai at about 6:30 pm and, miraculously, found the Nilai Budget Hotel, where we had booked in for four nights, sight unseen. Oh dear. The hotel was in a strip of auto repair businesses and was located above a muffler shop. Yay. While I watched the bikes, Re went in to see what was going on. She returned a few minutes later with kind of a frozen smile on her face. I asked how it was, and she said, “Well, it's not as bad as Shea's Motor Lodge.” (Shea's is quite possibly the worst place we've ever stayed, and there've been some doozies in our travels) We decided that we would try it for one night and see how it would be. The people were very friendly, but the room was not very good. Unfortunately, I deleted all the photos from the camera, but it was bad. The highlights include: no sink in the bathroom, the room was the width of the bed, the walls were plywood painted pink, but the deal breaker was no wifi. I know they tried their best to silk purse-ify their sow's ear of a “hotel.” Although the bathroom had no sink, they did include toilet paper and soap (neither of which is often given without first requesting it), and the sheets and towels were brand new, good quality cotton. The bed was well-made, the pillows were nice, and the manager said if we needed anything, anytime, to please just ask, but, I was planning to go to the track tomorrow for Friday practice, while Re was going to work on blog posts in the room. We were not going to be without wifi for four days, not when we were paying more through Agoda than the rate card on the wall.  I went into the hallway/reception area to speak with the manager about our predicament.  We really aren't choosy, the place was clean enough, and they really did seem anxious to help, but I did need internet access.  I explained that the Agoda website shows free wifi, and that was one reason we booked there instead of a different hotel.  The manager was apologetic and made a phone call.  I waited, unsure what was going on, and when he got off the phone, he said he had called one of their other hotels in Nilai (they have three).  The New Wave Hotel, which had wifi, would have a room for us there at the same rate.
Since this hotel was not in my GPS, we navigated from the simplified map on the back of their business card, and after a few wrong turns, we found the New Wave Hotel. This was actually a much nicer hotel. The room was clean and new, the A/C was cold, there was a sink in the bathroom, and the wifi was reasonably fast. Yay. By now, it was nearly 8:00 pm, and we hadn't had lunch or dinner yet, so we hopped back on our bikes and rode up to the McDonald's I had spotted when we were trying to find the hotel. We got a burger fix followed by ice cream sundaes for dessert and then rode back to the room.

Before Colin got going on Friday morning to the track, we walked down the row of shopfronts to Al Nazim for breakfast, where we had...roti canai, curry, and coffee (mmm, our favorite way to start the day). The Friday of the race weekend is the practice day and it's possible to go virtually anywhere in the track, so Colin spent the day watching from the grandstands (which are too expensive for our budget- we got hillstand tickets for race day). I stayed in the room and wrote. Colin returned at about 5:00, having had a great time at the track. He hadn't eaten anything all day and came back talking wistfully about the smell of cheese wafting off the pizzas being sold. So we walked to Pizza Hut and got a pepperoni pan pizza with gobs of oozing cheese on it, which quite satisfactorily quenched our desire de fromage for the next while.

On Saturday morning, we both rode to the track to watch another round of practice, a couple of Malaysian Super Series races, a GP2 race, and finally, the Formula 1 qualifying for the race.They don't allow people to bring in food or drinks, even water, to the track, and yesterday, Colin chugged a 1.5 liter bottle before entering the track rather than pitch it. He said it gave him a funny feeling in his tummy, and I imagine that he sloshed when he walked for much of the day. Today, we decided to smuggle about 3 liters of water in one of our Dromedary soft water bags into the track. This morning we jammed it in the bottom of her daypack, leaving the black fabric side visible. We then put a number of small things on top of it and pronounced it good. Re also stashed a bag of peanuts under the water baby with her trademark, “Fuck The Police” sneer. It worked, nobody confiscated our water (or peanuts) at the entrance, and we went to the hillstand, where we spread out our tarp and got comfortable on the ground to watch the festivities. During the lulls in track action, we discussed our options for our future. It is really difficult to know what the right choice is, since what sounds good one week sounds not so good the next week. Our two basic options are to either return to the US in some semblance of our previous lives until we are financially able to get off the merry go round permanently, or muddle our way through, living and working overseas, trading financial security for the possibility of adventure. It's a tough call. At its root, it's a known vs. unknown question, but it's unfortunately complicated by familial concerns (such as, our parents ain't getting any younger). Once the action ended for the day, we rode back to Nilai and walked to the Chicken and Duck restaurant (yup, that's what it was called) for dinner. We had wonton mee, each of us trying one avian variety. It was good, but the pork version is still better. After dinner, since we both felt kind of antsy and weren't looking forward to sitting in our room, we walked to the Tesco to find some fruit. Re went into the Tesco to look for fruit and batteries for the GPS, and I waited outside and watched the crowd go by. Parenting styles around the world are certainly different, and I will say that virtually everywhere we've been, children are cherished. But they're also punished in ways that would raise eyebrows in the US. While I was waiting for Re, I saw two women pushing a shopping cart out of the store, and in and amongst the bags in the cart, were two small boys, maybe about three years old. As the cart went past one of those little rides you see outside grocery stores or Kmarts in the US, the one young boy pointed at it, and I honestly didn't hear him make a sound. What he got in exchange for pointing was a crisp smack across the mouth. Mom then looked up and made eye contact with me and must have seen my dropped jaw, because she immediately grabbed the kid out of the cart, put him on the ride, and put some money in the slot. He looked a little confused, but eventually, enjoyed the ride. I guess that was my good deed for the day?! After that little spectacle, we walked back to the room to find that the internet no work.

Sunday was the big Race Day. The internet still didn't work in the morning, and the woman at reception said that a line had apparently been cut, so their phones weren't working either. Oh well, no posting. Since we enjoyed our Al-Nazim roti the previous two days, we returned again this morning. A different young woman waited on us this morning, and she was very animated and spoke English extremely well. She offered us a different type of coffee, one which had some type of mushrooms in it (“very nice, and good for your health,” she said). Being game, we agreed to try it. It tasted a bit odd, vaguely musky, but good. While we ate, she came over to ask if we liked the coffee. It is apparently quite unusual to see farang in Nilai, so she was curious why we were there. We told her we came for the race and that we are riding round the world on our motorbikes. We explained a little bit about our trip, at which time she inquired if we had any kids. When we responded that we did not, she assured us that maybe we would some day. Not having children in Asia is usually seen as a tragedy. Re mentioned that we'd been married nearly 23 years, and that it hadn't happened yet. The woman leaned in close to Re, with bright eyes, and asked quietly, “was yours a love marriage?” Re assured her, it was, and the woman broke into the biggest smile we've seen in a while. In this context, I assume that love marriage means a marriage that is not arranged by the parents. In certain cultures, these marriages are kind of scandalous. After the young woman left, Re got up to pay as I waited near the front of the restaurant. A minute later, Re beckoned me to join her at the register, where the young woman took our photo with the package of coffee. As I stood at the register to pay, the young woman asked again whether we enjoyed the special mushroom coffee. I assured her, quite honestly, that we both thought it was very good. She beamed as she thanked me, and then she asked if it would be alright if she took our picture with the bag of coffee. I have no idea why, but I wouldn't be surprised if we appear on a billboard in Nilai or even in India somewhere advertising the increased vitality, vim, and vigor effects of Tiger Mushroom Ginseng Coffee. I'm just sorry we will miss out on the royalties... . I still don't know what it was all about, but some days are just like this. I didn't feel any major health benefits from my coffee this morning as we walked back to the room, maybe they'll come later. 

confidence inspiring...
After breakfast, we walked back to the bikes and got out the tools, a spare tube, and one of the new front tires we bought way back in Namibia. My front tire has been losing quite a bit of pressure every day, so we decided it was finally time to change the tire. The spare tube was unfortunately one that we purchased in India, of the Nandi variety, which let Colin down after only 2,300 miles when the valve stem ripped out (we put the original one back in, which for comparison's sake, now has over 20,000 miles on it). But it was what we had, so in it went. While I was examining the tire for a directional arrow or balance mark, I did notice that it said it was , “Specially made for hot wearther.” Confidence inspiring. Next, we refilled our batteries again, since Colin's was very nearly dry, and mine was also low. Maintenance complete, we packed up the tools and went to clean up ourselves. Since it was now around noon, Re cut up the watermelon we bought yesterday for a snack, and we watched a little TV. 

We headed for the track at about 2:00 pm, since the race was to start at 4:00. The traffic around the track was much heavier today, and we had to make one complete circuit of the exterior roads to finally find the one parking lot where motorcycles were permitted. From there, we jumped on the shuttle and rode it around to hillstand C2, where we unrolled our rain jackets and sat down. Once again, we smuggled our water baby past security and a roll of Mentos (queue Judas Priest's “Breakin' the Law”). 

Almost on schedule, the rain started seven minutes before the race. The cars completed a handful of laps before the safety car came out, and then the race was red flagged. The stoppage was less than an hour, and then the racing got underway again. It was a fantastic race, and Re and I had shouted ourselves hoarse by the end. The bummer of the rain delay was that it meant it was dark by the time we got back to our bikes. We battled our way through traffic and eventually back to Nilai. By now, it was well after 8:00 pm, and we were hungry. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday night, many things were closed. But not Al Nazim. We stopped in for some excellent chicken biryani before heading back to the room for the night.

Sweet Home, Georgetown

Chinese Temple detail
We slept in late this morning, and Re let me stay in bed while she walked out to Yasmeen (another excellent Indian restaurant nearby) and returned with roti telur (egg roti), some curry, and coffee. Roti from Yasmeen is our usual breakfast in George Town, and it was as good as I remember. After breakfast, we cracked open the books, maps, and laptop to work on plans for the next several days. We made the stupid ride to Malaysia specifically to see the Formula 1 race this coming weekend outside of Kuala Lumpur. The race itself is actually at the track near the Kuala Lumpur airport, which is 30 plus miles from the city, so we wanted to find a hotel closer to the track than that. After looking over all our resources, we had a few ideas, but decided to go to lunch instead. 

Banana leaf lunch
Another one of our favorite Indian restaurants (especially for lunch) in George Town, is Sri Ananda Bahwan, which is a short walk from the guesthouse. At lunch they serve delicious and inexpensive banana leaf thalis, and that's what we had today. They put a section of banana leaf on the table, a big scoop of rice in the middle, then three scoops of different vegetarian dishes, add a couple of crispy papadams, a dal, and a sambhar, mix it all together with your right hand, and throw in the general direction of your mouth. They do provide silverware for the timid, but if you're gonna eat banana leaf, you really have to do it with your hand. With our banana leaf we had limau ice to drink, which is a sweet and salty drink made with calamansi limes. For dessert, we each had a piece of our favorite Bombay sweet, soan papdi. The total bill came to a hair over 5 USD, and it was delicious. Since the afternoon had gotten very warm, and there were a few sprinkles of rain, we decided to head back to the room to work on some ride reports. 

Later in the afternoon, we walked out to the movie theater at Prangin Mall to see “John Carter.” Another great thing about Malaysia, is that since English is widely spoken, they get many first run English language movies, and the theaters here are everything they are in the US- cold A/C, stadium seating, THX surround sound, but at a third of the price. I know this movie has been pretty much, universally panned, but we both enjoyed it (it was good summer blockbuster adventure fluff). After the movie, we hit the grocery store for a pineapple and some cat food. There are many street kitties in George Town, and we like to stop and give them a snack occasionally. 

Wonton mee in an alley off Chulia
By the time we made it back to Lebuh Chulia, all the evening hawker stalls were open for business, so we stopped for some wonton mee at our favorite. The setup of the hawker stalls here is kind of funny, in that they line the roadside, but down a small alley, a drink vendor sets up tables and chairs each night. You order your food from the hawker stall, and then your drinks from the drink vendor, and sit at his tables, where your food is delivered. For drinks, we each had a glass of tangerine juice with sour plum, and soon our wonton mee was delivered. Wonton mee is a noodle dish that is served with sliced pork, pork-filled soft wontons, and fried wontons, deep-fried fatback, water spinach, and pickled peppers in a dark soy sauce. We each ordered the large bowl,and it was delicious. Walking back toward the room, we picked up some apom (crispy coconut crepes) and a big bottle of Diet Coke. Back at the room, Re decided that since our pants were now so clean, that she needed to give our jackets the same treatment.

The next day, we repeated our roti and coffee breakfast, followed by more research on where to stay for the race weekend. After searching for information on the nearby city of Nilai, we booked a room at the Nilai Budget Hotel for four nights. We both have reservations about making reservations, especially for a place we've never been and a hotel with sub-par reviews. But we needed a room, and since cheap ones, with wifi, near the track are hard to come by, we booked on Agoda. 

Yes, we eat all the time.  Pork and rice at Sky Hotel
Once that task was done, we went to the Sky Hotel for lunch. The Sky does one thing- pork (well, they also cook ducks, but they may as well only make pork, since it's better than cake). It's always packed to the gills, so Colin grabbed a table and got us lime juice with sour plum, while I waited to order a plate of bbq and roast pork with rice, greens, and soup. It was no surprise how delicious everything tasted. The pork was tender, perfectly cooked, with a crisp edge, the soup was pork broth with tender meat and sliced lotus bulbs in it, mmmmm. Better than candy. We spent the afternoon wandering around town, doing some errands, and some writing. 

Tandoori chicken and naan at Kapitan
When dinnertime rolled around, we walked to Kapitan, on the edge of Little India, for tandoori chicken and naan. As soon as we stepped in, one of the waiters actually recognized us! We haven't been here in two years, and he remembered us. Clearly, we have eaten there many times, as our usual waiter from two years ago recognized us as soon as we sat down. He doesn't speak a tremendous amount of English, but he was either trying to say that I had lost weight, or that I was huge. I'm not sure which, but it was nice to be back in a place where people know your face. As usual, our meal was excellent; the chicken moist and spicy, the naan chewy, the dhal perfect. We followed it with coffee and a roti tisu for dessert. The tisu roti is a very thin piece of dough that is cooked on a hot griddle, and before it sets, it is pulled or rolled into a tent-like shape and then drizzled with sweetened, condensed milk. It's a dramatic looking dessert, and apparently, a pain in the ass to make, since every time we ordered it, our waiter would get a little smile, and a few minutes later, you can hear him chiding and laughing at the roti cook. 

Hindu temple in Little India, Georgetown
After dinner, we walked through Little India, admiring the colorful scenery in the beautiful light of the sunset, stopping to even take a few photos on the way.

More Long-Ass Days in the Saddle

20,000 miles and still going!
It took us another two days of riding to get to Malaysia. From Chumphon, we rode all day to get to Hat Yai, which we reached, again, after dark.  On the way, we did stop to take the official 20,000 mile picture. We got a room at the Park Hotel, walked to the night market for some more khao mok khai, walked back to the hotel, did some laundry, and went to bed.

The next morning, neither of us really wanted to hoist ourselves out of bed to do it again, but we did. 
Three full days of riding wreaked some major havoc on our butts and the backs of our thighs, both in the joints (the poor knees and hips) and the skin (I had an extra nasty rash), but we couldn't stop- places to go, races to spectate, and all that. We hobbled around the room as we repacked our stuff, and thanked the gods of cheap accommodation that the Park Hotel had an elevator to carry our bags to the ground floor for a change. 

Pong and me in Hat Yai
We were on the road by about 9:15am, working through the morning city traffic, when we stopped at a light along with a pack of other motorbikes. The rider to my left smiled and asked where we were from. I told him, and he smiled again and pointed at the ADV sticker on the front of his bike. It was the same oval sticker I have on the front of my leg shield! Before the traffic light changed, he gestured for us to pull over for a photo op, so I hollered to Colin to stop once we got through the intersection. When we stopped, we met Pong, who is a motorcycle enthusiast, a fellow ADVrider (hence our matching stickers), and is (he peeled a sticker from his bike and put it on my top case). We chatted for a few minutes, took some photos, and Pong took some video of us before we said goodbye and rode for the border.

Welcome to Malaysia!
We made it to the Thailand/Malaysia border before 11:00am and completed the exit process from Thailand. We rode past the Welcome to Malaysia signs and pulled into the drive-thru Immigration lane, where we handed our passports through the window to be stamped and returned to us. I expected to have to at least take off my helmet, but the officer didn't even make me raise my face shield. We rode through the border, looking for the Customs office in order to get our Carnets stamped and never saw it. About a half-mile down the road, there was a checkpoint where I asked the guards about Customs. They gestured back to the border complex we'd just come through, and indicated it was in building A. We made a u-turn and headed back to the complex, where it soon became apparent that the Customs building was on the far side of Immigration. Hmmm. We parked our bikes and spent the next ten minutes explaining to various border officials that we weren't crossing back into Thailand, had already been stamped into Malaysia, didn't need to go through Immigration, we just needed to find Customs. This was all complicated by the fact that we only speak about five words of Bahasa Malaysia, and none of them really applied in this situation. We finally found the building (which wasn't building A) and an agent who spoke excellent English and could point us to the office that would process our Carnets. We stepped into the blissfully air-conditioned office, and in less than ten minutes, were walking back to our bikes. The error was ours, in that we rode through the lane for ASEAN motorcycle riders. Even with this confusion, we still cleared the Malaysia side of the border in about 30 minutes. The whole process only took about 45 minutes and cost exactly 0 dollars. I love Malaysia. One of the reasons I love Malaysia is their highway system. We were now on a limited access, modern, four-lane, divided highway, complete with wide, paved shoulders, excellent signage, and even rest areas (with fuel). Many of the highways are toll roads, but once again, since we were on motorbikes, they are free for us.

Talking to the locals on the ferry about our bikes
We covered the 80 miles to Butterworth in about two hours, since it was easy to maintain a 40 mph average. The scenery here was still relatively flat, but everywhere was the dark green of oil palms and mixed jungle. I know that oil palm plantations are and environmental disaster, but they sure are pretty. We were heading for Butterworth because that's where you get the ferry to the island of Penang. We followed the crazy, circular ramp over the water and around to the ferry, where we paid our two ringgits and joined the queue of other bikers waiting to get on the boat. The ferries here are huge, two level affairs, with passengers on the upper deck and cars, trucks, and motorbikes on the lower. After all the four-wheeled vehicles boarded, we joined with the 75 to 100 other motorbike riders and rode onto the ferry. The ferry ride only took about ten minutes, but it was a fun time, since each of our bikes drew a small crowd, and everyone wanted to know about our trip. The other cool part of the ride was that Re found herself parked next to another SYM underbone. Malaysia gets a variety of SYM models, but not the Symba. This makes Malaysia the only country we've visited that has SYM badged bikes. India had a few SYM models, but they were sold under the domestic Mahindra brand. Actually, there were some older SYM motorcycles in Cambodia that were used as moto remorques, but they were all old and shitty. Riding down the highway from the border to Butterworth, we saw several billboards advertising a variety of SYM underbones, scooters, and motorcycles. After we disembarked from the ferry, we found ourselves on the streets we walked so many times on our previous trips to George Town. This was nice, because we knew exactly where we were going.

We made our way up Chulia to Love Lane, then left on Muntri, to the Star Lodge. It was a bit like coming home, since we spent over six weeks here in the past. Robert, at reception, remembered us, and we were soon unloading our gear into our room. Since it was now nearly 4:00 pm, we decided to walk over to Komplex Komtar for a treat for our sore butts. In the mall they have what we refer to as the “executive chairs.” These are the massage chairs you see in various malls around the US and were all we could think about for the last couple hours of the ride. We walked the half mile through familiar streets and into the mall. We soon found a bank of executive chairs, sat down, and fed them a one ringgit (.33 cents) note for a three-minute massage. When our three minutes was up, we did it again.

Feeling suitably pummeled and refreshed, we walked around a bit, checked out what was playing at the movie theater, and then made our way back onto the streets and up Lebuh Cintra for dinner at our favorite dim sum restaurant. One of the very best things about George Town is the food. The island of Penang is on the Straits of Malacca and has been an important trading port for hundreds of years. It was a major port and stop off on the journeys between Asia and Europe and the Middle East. Consequently, there is a large Chinese population here, and also, a large Indian population that mostly arrived during the British colonial period. While this creates a fascinating multi-ethnic society, the real winner is dinner. The variety of food here is unmatched by any other place we've been. Everywhere you look, there are small restaurants and hawker stalls selling delicious food for cheap. Really cheap. We grabbed a table at the dim sum place. A pot of tea arrived, and then the same three ladies as two years ago wheeled up their stainless steel carts full of goodies. We chose two of the rice, chicken, sausage, and egg wrapped in tea leaves, one of the taro cakes, a curried potato “egg roll?” a couple of different prawn-filled dishes, and a vegetable filled omelet roll. We stuffed ourselves silly on the delicious food, and the total bill came to 7.66 USD. I love Malaysia. For comparison purposes, each one of these seven dishes would be between 3 and 5 USD in Portland.

After dinner, we went back to the room, where Re scrubbed our Darien pants on the floor of the bathroom, while I caught up on the internets. Our Dariens are absolutely filthy after our time in Laos and Cambodia, and the difference that a good washing made was dramatic. They smell horrible, feel greasy on the outside, and the armpits of my jacket are actually discolored. I realize I am no petunia, but you know it's bad when you can sweat through a shirt and a loose-fitting, tight-weave jacket. I am one nasty gal.

One reason I don't love Malaysia is the incredibly high tax on alcohol. Malaysia is a Muslim country, and so high sin taxes are the rule. For example, a 650 ml Chang beer in Thailand is 1.33 USD or so, whereas, in Malaysia, the same beer is at least 4 USD. But after our long rides over the last several days, we both wanted a beer, so we walked out to our favorite corner bar for a cold one. We jokingly refer to it as the Corner Bar, because it's on a street corner. There are more traditional bars aimed at the large number of tourists who visit here, but they are more expensive (and nowhere near as interesting) than the little local bars. The corner bar's clientele is almost exclusively Indian and Chinese, and rarely sees any farang. It's down a bit of a back alley, and there are a few beer coolers and a small bar behind a rollup door. You choose your beers from the cooler, pay at the bar, and then go sit in the plastic chairs next to the folding tables out in the road. Plus it has some great shows going on in the gutters and alleyway. Between the herds of robust rats looking for morsels to gnaw on in the garbage, the scrappy dogs looking for something to scratch against, and the bar owner on the lookout for the police, it's quite an entertaining venue.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Elephants and a Very Long Ride

My new love
Ayutthaya is a beautiful place, filled with the atmospheric ruins of the old capital of Siam. The old part of the city is surrounded by a natural moat, formed by the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pa Sak rivers. As it's about 50 miles north of Bangkok, it was a good place to overnight without having to fight our way through the metro traffic. Oh, and they have elephants. The very best, most excellent thing about Ayutthaya, in my opinion, is the Elephant Kraal. Elephants we used in battle, and the kraal was historically,where they were captured and trained. Since going to war on the back of an elephant is not de rigeur anymore (although I am quite sure it would actually be a terrifying sight and would make me reconsider any plans of world or even local domination) they now use the kraal to care for and train rescued or retired elephants. 

Knowing we'd have a very long ride ahead of us today, tomorrow, and the next day also, we got up and were on the bikes before 8:00 am. And our first stop was at the Elephant Kraal. We rode up the path and past a large group of bull elephants having breakfast, past more elephants enjoying their morning ablutions, and parked next to the fence. 

Colin getting "bumped"
It was early, and we were the only visitors. It's free to enter the kraal, you only pay a camera fee if you want to take pictures (of course, we did), so while Colin went to pay, I watched the group of young elephants with what I assume were their mothers. All but one adult and one very young one were milling about within a corral of thick, steel bars. Not wanting to startle or anger the adult (I may not know a lot, but I know enough to not run right up to a baby elephant and its mother and give 'em a great, big hug), I stood way back from them, watching the baby dance around. The next thing I knew, the baby trotted right over to me (I apparently looked like a suitable playmate). My first thought was oh crap, the big one's going to come and stomp me flat now, but when that didn't happen, I thought, oh my god, I get to play with a baby elephant!

all elephants love cucumbers!
Wherever I walked, the baby followed and bumped me. I scratched his back, rubbed his head and ears, and played with his trunk. If I stopped moving, he would back right into my legs. Colin, ever the smartass, thought he had an itchy butt and I looked like a likely scratching post. We bought a basket of cucumbers to feed to the elephants, and I did my best to divvy them fairly, but some of them had a much longer reach than others. When that basket was empty, I had to buy another one. We gave our baby friend, “Pachy Dave,” a cucumber. He took it with his trunk, put it in his mouth, and promptly dropped it, being more interested in playing and pushing me away from all the other elephants (it didn't go to waste- mama ate it instead). At one point, I offered a cuke to another young elephant of maybe a year old (?), who ate it and afterward, wrapped its trunk around my arm and put my hand in its mouth. Elephant tongues are soft, wet, and big. I laughed about it, but the very young mahout (elephant trainer) kept a close eye on the situation. 

One of the very old residents
We made the rounds of the other groups of elephants, admired the huge bulls with their very impressive tusks, and paid our respects to what looked like a very ancient elephant, and it was time to go. I could have happily bought all the cucumbers in the province and stayed until everyone went to sleep, but we had to move on. I gave "Pachy Dave" one more butt scratch, washed my arms, and we got back on the bikes and headed out.

shower time
Traffic was pretty light leaving the city that early on a Saturday, and we enjoyed the scenery as we passed the city's ruins and crossed the rivers. The first part of the ride was quite pleasant- sunny, warm, nice pastoral, green landscapes, and after about an hour and a half, we got to the outskirts of Bangkok. Our GPS routed us onto a highway. We rode up the entrance ramp, and at the top, found ourselves at a tollgate where a man looked at us and shook his head no. We were on another of the “no motorcycles allowed” roads. Dammit. 

Ayutthaya ruins in distance, Chao Phraya river
Instead of circumnavigating the city of Bangkok, we had to ride through the very heart of it. After a couple of hours of lane-splitting, stop and start, bumper to bumper driving, we found ourselves at the bridge we'd climbed around the barbed wire to get to a couple of months ago when we were trying to find the MBK mall and a new camera. We truly were in the very center of the city. What we'd hoped would be a 50-mile journey in about an hour, became an 80-mile undertaking that lasted four hours. We eventually did make it out of Bangkok and to the entrance to another highway, where we were greeted with...another no motorcycles sign. Instead of entering the highway, we followed it on the access road with all the other motorbikes, tuk-tuks, big trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles. 

 Sometime after 1:00 pm, I spied a McDonald's a few miles before Samut Song Khram, and we pulled in for lunch. I checked our mileage and determined that it had taken us over four hours to cover the last 90 miles. I didn't figure that we could safely make it to Chumphon, so we went inside and had a Big Mac extra value meal, super-sized. As we sat and enjoyed the A/C, I looked at the map and figured we could make it to Prachuap Khiri Khan before 6:00 pm, and maybe that should be our new goal. Re said, “Fuck no. They have khao mok khai in Chumphon.” She did make an excellent point. They do have excellent khao mok khai (KMK) in Chumphon. KMK is a Thai-Muslim version of chicken biryani and is one of our favorite meals in southern Thailand. The rest of the afternoon was the worst kind of riding for our little bikes. We were finally able to get on the 35, and then took it to the 4, where we turned south. This was all highway riding, and our bikes are underpowered for making time on this kind of road. The scenery was basically scrubby, deciduous trees, some palms, and fields. Not ugly, but not pretty either. In the middle of the afternoon, Re's bike made the bearing noise again, and once again, we were riding north of 45 mph. We swapped bikes for about 50 miles, but I kept our speeds around 43 mph, and we had no further problems. I need to investigate this, just not today. 

When the sun went down around 7:00 pm, we still had about 80 miles to go. I like many things about our Symbas, but our headlights are not one of them. I've been spoiled by the headlights on several of my previous bikes. The weak Symba headlights are made even worse by the fact that our jerrycans cut off the bottoms of the beams. Regardless, we made it to Chumphon by just after 9:00pm, and through sheer dumb luck, found the Suriwong Hotel, where we have stayed a couple of times. The KMK restaurant is just up the block, so while Re went inside to register, I walked up to see if they were still open. To my dismay, they were cleaning up. Seeing me standing in the doorway, a woman came over and asked what I needed. I asked what time they close and gestured to the clock. She said 9:00 pm. I must have looked sad, because she asked what I wanted. I replied, khao mok khai, and she gestured to the back of the restaurant where they were bagging up food and said they had it, and I could get it for takeaway. I happily ordered two to go and returned to the hotel with dinner in hand. Re had us booked into a room, so while I parked the bikes and unloaded the gear, Re walked to get some Changs, since as Re says, nothing goes better with a Muslim meal than a nice, cold beer. When she returned, I had everything in the room and we collapsed on the bed to eat. Our butts are killing us. It hurts to sit on the bed. The other news of the day is that we broke the 20,000 mile mark of the trip, but didn't want to stop to take a picture in the dark.