Our Second Trip To Southeast Asia: 1995-96
Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia segment

Wednesday, December 13th. Our friends, Leslie and Vince, picked us up at the house for our flight to Detroit, "Gateway to the Orient". We had a smooth flight to Detroit and we visited with my Aunt Louise at the airport while munching monster cinnamon rolls. Ominously, our pilot didn't show up due to a blizzard. Don't they plan for snow? So, our jet sat on the runway for six hours with all of us confined onboard for "security reasons". I passed time peacefully enough memorizing schedules in my Rail Guide to Thailand and Malaysia while the other passengers became increasingly restive by the hour. The desperate steward shoved one video after another at us, including "First Knight", "Wild Pandas", and "Clueless", the last of which seemed like the right theme for this particular Northwest Airline flight.

Thursday, December 14th. We lost this day entirely on the way to Tokyo, for reasons having something to do with the international date line, but, after hours of dehydrated stasis and back-to back movies, anything is possible. After the missing pilot incident, I suspect that Northwest Airlines misplaced the day over Alaska and was afraid to admit it, but it is explained to me that I will get this day back on my return flight. It sounds like somebody is making money on it in the meantime, but I can't prove it. The lady sitting next to me was going to catch a connecting flight to Bangkok, like us, and meet her son in Pattaya. He'll have a long wait. It doesn't seem quite real that we are flying thousands of feet over the Pacific, but then I'm not sure that I want it to feel real.

Friday, December 15th. With the initial delay, we missed our airline connection in Japan, but Northwest Airlines paid for our food and lodging at a fancy airport hotel with firm beds in Tokyo that would have cost us $200.00 per night otherwise. It's cold in Japan, so I'm glad that I brought a sweater. The other Thailand-bound passengers are pretty under-dressed for this climate in shorts and sandals. The hotel courtyard has a spidery Christmas tree outlined with individual strands of tiny Taiwanese lights attached to each bare branch. It was probably intended to be festive, but It looks like a blinking skeleton's hand. Japanese TV has fantastic and funny commercials and a high resolution picture. An automated wake-up call at 6:00 a.m. in Japanese and English got us to Narita Airport just in time for our Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok. This is absolutely the airline to pick for smiles and for excellent food and drink - chicken pa-naeng, sauteed sea bass, cognac, brandy, and wine. We landed in Bangkok at 3:30 p.m. after seeing "The Santa Clause", "Above Suspicion", and broadcasted clips of the Southeast Asia games from Chiang Mai, Thailand. I'm glad that we got to see a little bit of Japan and I wonder if that lady ever connected with her son. As soon as we stumbled into the lobby of the airport in Bangkok, we were greeted and accosted by "official" guides who sold us a hotel room and a tour at once. The room at the hotel worked out fine, fortunately.

Saturday, December 16th. We woke up in exotic Bangkok right across the street from the Immanuel Baptist Church. We did some shopping after our guided tour of the Grand Palace. We bought a CD of pop Thai music since we generally look for pop music in every country we visit. We also do some upscale slumming at the fancier hotels which we can't afford, one of which (the Arami) we "adopted". I called my sister Barbara to ask about my dad who had to be admitted to the hospital. He is quite sick. Clyde tries to cheer me up and we go for a walk across the bridge to admire the sunset. There are some cottage industries here with Buddhist shrines for sale alongside neoclassical garden sculptures. We spent time trying to buy railway tickets to Surat Thani.

Sunday, December 17th. Even in the heart of Bangkok, you can hear unique bird calls, and, from our hotel window on the 5th floor, we also spotted plenty of white and rainbow-colored butterflies looping above the trees in the sunshine. As we watched, we also planned our rail journey for the next five days, all the way down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. There are a small group of Dutch tourists in the lobby but they're timid and don't socialize much. I believe that the Thais invented their unique written language in the 19th century to prevent being assimilated by Europeans, and it works. All the Europeans and Australians we've seen look dazed and confused. I suspect that our hotel is actually owned by a travel agency (this is called "infrastructure") which explains a lot of the hustle. We hailed a tuk-tuk and chugged across town to the Hualamphong train station to get tickets for our excursion south to Koh Samui. After assuring our tuk-tuk driver that we didn't want to see any precious gems (more infrastructure), we scooted into the local Singapore-styled shopping plaza where the local rock climbing group was putting on an exhibition by scaling a two-story "mountain" in the lobby. Outside, we encountered a march of young people against AIDS, complete with very graphic posters depicting how the disease might be contracted or prevented. Meanwhile, cross the street, a cheerful uniformed children's choral group was singing Christmas carols for the shoppers but were all but drowned out by the Bangkok traffic. Truly a land of contrasts. A restaurant was setting up for a "Winter Festival". This town is not nearly as slick and dull as Singapore, and is full of back-to-back surprises.

Clyde remembered going to the Bangkok movie theaters when he visited Thailand as a child, and, after pestering the concierge at our "adopted" hotel for a local movie listing, we picked out a movie called "Fluke" at a grand old movie palace nearby called "La Scalla". Clyde thinks he may have gone to this theater with his parents when he was a boy. It was still in operation, complete with a platoon of uniformed ushers who escorted us to our reserved seats. Americans don't know what they're missing at the cinema, but I don't know if they'd be willing to stand for the national anthem and the tribute to the King: quite mandatory before the film starts. I called Mom that evening to check on Dad, but his condition hadn't improved much.

Monday, December 18th. We met an Australian gentleman of Turkish heritage at breakfast who was going through a bad case of culture shock on his first visit to Bangkok. His main complaint seemed to be that Thailand was not enough like Australia. He couldn't understand the people when they spoke, and they were much too pushy. He was on his way to Turkey for the first time where he hoped to feel more at home, in the winter, no less. Folks expect to feel at home in the most unlikely spots. We listened to him gripe about Thailand and wished him well. We didn't rush and had a leisurely morning before checking out of our hotel and heading down to the Hualamphong train station. We stowed our bags there and trekked around the neighborhood to see the Golden Buddha, and took an unescorted walking tour of the industrial area full of metal-working shops. We stopped to look at a temple (someone left the door open) and after buying some drinking water and coping with the heat, we decided to adopt yet another hotel and ducked into the Bangkok Centre Hotel to enjoy the Chinese decor and AC. At 6:30 p.m., we boarded our train with a horde of backpacking young Westerners intent on scuba diving and living on the beach, and took off south through the jungle to Surat Thani. I couldn't see much from my upper bunk, but Clyde could see the crescent moon and stars over the jungle as well as modern hotels poking up through the trees like temples where no other habitations were apparent. I think about my Dad a lot and feel very far away from home.

Tuesday, December 19th. This morning we arrive in Surat Thani and take two long bus trips to the coast to catch our ferry out to the resort island of Samui (Kho Samui). We were the last off the boat and had to plow our way through folks trying to board the ferry. Meanwhile, the last of trucks carrying tourists to beach had departed, so we loitered around town, had some lunch, and eventually hailed a counterfeit jeepney, settled on a fare, and rode out to Lamai Beach. It's a quiet and beautiful resort, full of coconut palms and clean white beaches. I am told that the chief cause of sudden death on this island is having a coconut fall on your head, so not even paradise is perfect. Still, the $25.00 bungalow suits us fine, even without a telephone or television or air conditioning. At night, the little lizards on the wall (geckos) bark, just like they do in the Philippines - it's a reassuring tropical sound.

During the day, the resort is swarming with huge yellow and black butterflies - so large that they could be mistaken for birds. The surf is clear and turquoise, so Clyde and I just played around in the warm water and chatted. Most of the other tourists are French or German, but they don't crowd the beach since everyone prizes their privacy here.

Wednesday, December 20th. Still struggling with jet and train lag, we got up before dawn to go down to the beach and watch the moon and the stars - including the constellation of Cygnus the Swan. The sky is spectacular out here in the Gulf of Thailand. We go for a walk down the beach and out to the shoals, and picked up some sea shells for our niece, Andrea.

We commented on the monkey tracks in the sand and the starfish and crabs scurrying in the low tide. Even after traveling half way around the world, we can still be entertained by dirt. We had dinner in a nearby restaurant but it was hard to get Clyde to come out of the water. He's never quite evolved into a land animal.
He sensed that a tropical storm was approaching, and it fell instantly in sheets of water as he swam right through it, unconcerned. It passed after a few minutes. During dinner at a "German friendly" restaurant called Thongbai, the electricity went out, leaving the island in absolute tropical darkness. I brought my high school German into use, asking for "mehr licht" (shades of Goethe) which encouraged an elderly German couple to strike up a conversation. In the candlelight, they explained that they had visited the U.S. for six months and had seen Disney World, but that no Americans had conversed with them in German. I stretched my conversational German till it snapped, but we had a good chat all the same. It turns out that they had visited Indonesia as well, just as we planned to. They wished us a "Gutte Reise" (good trip).

Thursday, December 21st. We got up early, packed our bags, and flagged down a Toyota pickup truck on the road to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We bumped into a family of French tourists (Father, mother, son, and daughter) who brightened up when I asked "Parlez-vous Francais?". The son is a swim coach and said that he and his family had just been to the Southeast Asia Games in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) and that they had some difficulties with the Germans at the resort (does Europe export all of its problems?). We joked around and chatted in French and wished each other a good trip. The dogs on Koh Samui don't look as well-fed as they do in America. When we got back to Surat Thani, we found the Queen's Hotel (Queen Sirikit?) for U.S. $10.00 per night and got a shower and some sleep before catching our 2:00 a.m. train south to Butterworth, Malaysia. This town isn't exactly a tourist destination, but the little restaurant we found had good food and we did some shopping and bought an alarm clock. The train station had the kind of folks you expect to see in the middle of the night, either exhausted or cruising for romance.

Friday, December 22nd. The train trip was rainy but interesting. It wasn't air conditioned, so the windows were open as we traveled through the jungle. A giant bright green grasshopper decided to jump through the window past our seat right behind the engine and into the aisle. He was as stunned as we were, so we redirected him off the train. We tried some chicken satay and noted that the majority of our fellow passengers (who appeared to be of unique ethnic heritage) got off the train at the Malaysian border and jumped the tracks rather than go through customs. I guess not everyone is eager to meet customs officials. We went on through and got on a Malaysian train which was a bit nicer than the Thai one, and, once across the border, we began to see fewer Buddhist temples and more mosques. Once we pulled in to Butterworth, we boarded a ferry and sailed over to the island of Penang in the Adaman Sea. We took a taxi up into the hills and found the Palm Beach Resort at Batu Ferringhi which discouraged guests from buying food elsewhere from "unlicensed and unhygienic vendors". Sadly, when I called my sister, I received the news that my father had died, so I didn't feel much like staying at this resort with its loud Christmas entertainment and nonstop jet-skiing. You can see the mix of Chinese, Malays, and Tamils here on Penang, which is interesting. However, we both felt that it was time to move on.

Saturday, December 23rd. We decided to spend Saturday night down in Georgetown at the Waldorf Hotel, with the Waldorf Health Center conveniently located in the same building. I wasn't clear what kind of "health center" is was until the Chinese proprietor made it unmistakably clear with hand gestures that this was no Gold's Gym.

As alternative entertainment, we went to the local year-round tropical Butterfly Farm which is a fabulous combination butterfly aviary and garden for caterpillars. It boasts of being the first in Asia.

We also located St. George Church which is the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, after which we toured around the back streets looking for dinner which we found at a local Indian restaurant.

Sunday, December 24th. It's a sunny day and we got an early start on the ferry over to Butterworth so that we can board the train to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Almost everyone on the dawn ferry looked tired, bored, preoccupied or distracted, except for a saffron-cloaked Buddhist monk who was completely calm and at home during the entire crossing. Our six hour trip took us through mountains, jungle, and past waterfalls and plantations so we didn't have much need for the "Discovery Channel" being broadcasted on the train's TV monitor.

We stopped briefly in Ipoh with its imposing neoclassical marble train station and "Lucky Strike" kiosk. Liggett-Myers has obviously been here. We arrived in KL that afternoon and discovered that many hotels were booked for Christmas, so we ended up at the Hotel Shirhaz. That was our worst hotel choice on this trip, but then who would have expected so many places to be booked on Christmas Eve in a Moslem country? They were almost full too, so we got a tiny marginally clean room on the 5th floor with air conditioning and a T.V., to be sure, but also a combination bathroom/shower that didn't drain and had real stalactites in the ceiling. We were determined to find a church that night for Christmas Eve service, but the Hindu hotel clerk was not interested in our religious quest ("Malaysians don't go to churches"), and the Moslem cabbie was downright hostile about it. We finally asked to be to taken to any big church and he took us to St. John's Cathedral - an open-air Catholic church. We struck up a conversation with a young Burmese man who was working construction in Malaysia and wishing that he could get a visa to the USA. The place filled up fast with hundreds of worshipers from all classes, races, and walks of life - Westerners, Chinese, Malays, Filipinos, Indians, some of whom had to stand outside under umbrellas in the rain during the service. The choir was grand but had to compete with the booming bass of a disco across the street. We slogged back to our hotel in the rain late that night.

Monday, December 25th. We bailed out of the Hotel Shirhaz and went to the Chinese-run Hotel Malaya recommended by our friend, Irving. Like many other Malaysian hotel rooms, ours has a "kiblat" on the ceiling - an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca - but it also had "The Little Drummer Boy" playing in the elevator. Though it was quite a bit nicer than the Shirhaz, the hotel laundry service was closed for Christmas Day, so we hunted around, and despite our hotel taxi driver's strategic detours, we located a good Chinese laundry (75% cheaper than the hotel laundry), adopted a local hotel for lunch, and shopped around the neighborhood. We went over to Merdeka Square and found shops underneath it in a mall-like area.

You see plenty of Proton Sagas in KL which is a small car manufactured in Malaysia. Although many Malaysians are quite proud of this homegrown technology, one of our taxi drivers complained that it was too small for hauling around Westerners. However, if you don't want to be hauled around, KL is also a great city for a walking tour - clean and compact.

Tuesday, December 26th. We visited a few spots that we especially enjoyed on our first trip to KL, such as the Bird Park. We also found another Butterfly garden and an astronomical park full of scale replicas of ancient observatories. We sat down and watched families of monkeys dine on fruit and Cheetos while entertaining the tourists. We talked and listened to the afternoon prayers chanted from the minaret nearby.

Martin standing in front of the S & M shopping arcade which at night has an illuminated "Mural Komputer", which evidently changes on computer control. This is in downtown Kuala Lumpur (KL never seems to have any smog).


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This page last updated on 7 February 2002.

Original Photographs, Artwork, and Literary Compositions Copyright © 1997,2002 Clyde Zuber and Martin Fowler-All Rights Reserved.