29 December 2009

Sometimes I miss...

...a washing machine that washes at 60 degrees (celsius).
...a shower that doesn't transform the entire bathroom into a puddle (which stays there until I go to the toilet half an hour later so I have to roll up my trousers).
...real coffee for breakfast.
...an oven and good ingredients to make a really nice chocolate cake.
...an oven and good ingredients to make a really nice bread.
...a friend that I can phone and say "let's meet for a drink in half an hour".


This is the account of buying a train ticket at Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station.

We arrive at the ticket counter. The man who gives out the numbers asks where we want to go.
We: "Singapore, tomorrow 24th december."
He: "No more tickets to Singapore until the 29th."
We: "You sure?"
He: "Yes."

We don't quite believe him (one thing we learnt during our trip: never believe anything anybody tells you until you have a 100% proof).
We go to an Internet Cafe. We check the Malaysian train website, which takes about half an hour as it's so slow. We see that there are around 30 first-class tickets for the train we want (they are actually cheaper than most bus tickets). We go back to the ticket counter.

We: "There ARE tickets to Singapore. First class."
He: "I told you! No more tickets EXCEPT first class."
Hmmmm..... do WE have a hearing problem?
He gives us a number. We go to the assigned ticket counter.

We: "Two tickets to Singapore for tomorrow 2 pm please."
Ticket lady: "No more tickets for tomorrow."
We (trying to keep calm): "Yes there are. First class. Please."
She sells us the tickets (halleluja!).
Miguel: "Is there a dining car?"
Ticket lady: "Aahhh.... sometimes."

WAAA! Is this a joke?

27 December 2009

Christmas in Singapore

As initially planned (or tought) we spent our Christmas in Singapore with Ray, a Singaporean traveller who had spent his 2008 Christmas at my place in Geneva. Last year Ray had given us a Trans-Siberian book which we carried back to him by land.

Singapore is a mix of people, there are four official languages - English, Malay, Tamul and Chinese -, corresponded to as many groups of people you find in the street. The organization and cleanness of the streets allow us to breath again after the pedestrian unfriendly Kuala-Lumpur. Unfortunately in Singapore this comes at the expense of lack of freedom of speech and tighly controlled citizens, with cctv cameras everywhere and heavy fines (from 250euros for eating in the metro and up) when you get out of the line (crossing the road less than 50m from pedestrian cross, spitting or litering, cycle the bike where it says you should push, connect the laptop to a plug you find in the metro station, etc). And this fines are enforced as it reports in the newspaper today.

Christmas in Singapore, even if a good part of the population is Christian, is very laic. There is decoration everywhere but much less than in europe; the people do shop but at same time is the sales period and end of the long "summer" holidays, preparing to be back to school. The dozens of shopping centres (even more dense than in Porto, Portugal) are not full of people (or there are not enough people to fill them all).

21 December 2009

Strange signals

This is another one of the strange signals we cross on this trip. This one was in Georgetown, Malaysia and was just meaning that you can't cross the road but you should take the cross-over.

20 December 2009

Changing money - different countries, different experiences...

We usually don't change money a lot. We prefer to use ATM's which is safer, especially in countries where there's false money around (like China).
Sometimes though, we have some leftover currency that we have to change. In Seoul, we wanted to change some leftover yen. We went to a shopping centre where there was an exchange counter, and our yen were changed into won. About 30 seconds. Freshly off the boat in China, we had some won left but no yuan. Changing the (ridiculous) amount of won on the black market in the street took less than a minute. Waiting at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, a woman carrying a big wad of money changed our leftover dong into riel, a matter of a few seconds. And yes, I did change some dollars into baht at the Cambodia-Thailand border at a very bad rate...
So, usually, not very time-consuming. Except the one time we went to a Chinese bank....
Nanning was the last Chinese town we visited before heading to Vietnam. We had quite a few yuan left and wanted some cash in dollars (which is the unofficial second currency in Cambodia and also widely accepted in Vietnam). So we went to the Bank of China. The big main branch was closed for lunch, nobody there except a sleeping bank employee. We found a smaller branch that was open. Changing money should be quite straightforward in the biggest bank of China, shouldn't it?
At the first counter the accountant told us to go to the next counter (probably she didn't speak english or was just too shy to speak english). Her colleague was nice but got a bit nervous when we said we wanted to change yuan into USD.
First, I had to show my passport. He copied some data down, then asked what country I was from, apologizing and saying that he wasn't used to exchanging foreign currencies. The amount of yuan was worth about 130 USD. I had to show a proof of where the money had come from. I went tense just a fraction of a second... then I remembered that I always keep my ATM receipts, and I did have the last one. I gave it to him and he gave it to his colleague who went to make a phone call (to verify whatever the Chinese always want to verify... probably just showing that they're doing something). After this, I had to go to a table in the hallway to get a photocopy of my passport and to fill in a document in 3 copies (which I had to fill in twice because I got it wrong the first time...), saying where the money came from (I just wrote "ATM"). With all this I went back to the counter where he did some typing on a computer and some printing. This had been going on for about 40 minutes... fortunately there was airconditioning!
And finally (I couldn't believe it) he opened his big money drawer and took out the dollars.

The Chinese definitely love paper...

19 December 2009

Arrived to Malaysia

We found the following poster on the Thai part of the Thailand-Malaysia border. Fortunately we were all leaving Thailand, as I think half of the queue would get into the "Hippy" category and not be allowed to get in if they would apply the rules.

11 December 2009

Closed for holidays?

Or stuck in the paradise?

Or stuck in the paradise?

Update from the beach

Seems we're getting lazy about our blog... as always when we're in a nice place. Here's just a quick update...
We're in Ko Lanta, one of the many islands in Thailand. Quite a lot of resorts here, but still quiet and nice, beautiful beaches with still a lot of free space, families and relaxed backpackers who are not looking for a non-stop party. The weather's perfect, the sea is blue-green transparent... part of the paradise chapter. We're staying in a small bamboo bungalow, simple but nice, with a semi-open bathroom (open to the sky,with lots of plants growing inside), getting a breakfast of home-made bread and fruity muesli. We rented a motorbike one day and went around the island. Little traffic, nice views, an old town inhabited by locals getting their income mainly from fishing and living in stilt houses. Swimming on a deserted beach with maybe 3 other people. The next day we went on a snorkelling trip. A speedboat took us to Ko Rok, even more paradisiac, with fluffy white fine sand and blue waters (and warans waiting to receive the leftovers from lunch). We snorkelled in 3 places off shore, saw all kinds of tropical coloured fishes and beautiful corals. In the evening, we "splurged" on cocktails (for less than 5 chf/3eur) while watching the stars appear. Today, after going into "town" (basically just a few shops and a market) for those necessary things (contactlenses-liquid, nivea cream...) we played at lazy beach-potatoes, sitting in the shade, walking 10 steps to a small beachside eatery for lunch and 20 steps to go swimming from time to time.
Tomorrow we're off to Ko Libong, an even more quiet island (it only has 3 resorts on it's beautiful beach), to do more exploring, snorkelling, swimming...
I'm happy to see that there are still nice spots in Thailand, the tourists haven't taken everything over yet!

10 December 2009

Lettre depuis le paradis

T'es là mais tu sais qu'un jour il va terminer. Le voyage de ta vie. T'es au paradis, au paradis de ta vie et au paradis de la plage avec des palmiers. Tu bois une bière devant la mer pendant le coucher de soleil et tu réfléchis quand sera la fin. Mieux réfléchir au prochain arrêt: où?

03 December 2009

Something about tourists in Thailand

This post is the result of my observing other tourists in hotels, cafes, buses... in Thailand and Cambodia.
Warning: this post is full of stereotypes and prejudices. Take it as seriously or un-seriously as you like!

Tourist No 1
We are sitting in a cafe, belonging to one of those cheap-ish hotels that one finds all over South-East Asia. Actually quite nice, sitting in the shade, writing postcards, sipping watermelon-shake. The place is called "Tony's Place".
Arrives a minivan. Exit a Brit, blond, white, age close to retirement. Exit another Brit, blond, white, fat belly, age close to retirement, wearing a cowboy-hat. Followed by two big suitcases. Followed by two golf bags. Followed by two Thai women, age about 20 years younger than the Brits.

(Note: you can exchange the word "Brit" by "Swiss", it would be the same.)

Tourist No 2
Sitting in a bus leaving Phnom Penh. Half of the passengers are tourists, the other half well-off Cambodians. Behind us, two young women. Blond. Age around 20 years. One American, the other Australian. Both wearing spaghetti-tops and very short shorts. Telling their story about how they got sooooo drunk last night in that nice pub with so many nice Cambodian guys. Drinking a lot of whisky. Dancing on the tables. Getting robbed and having 150 USD stolen. Not remembering how they got back into their dorm beds. Had to get up early to get on the bus. Have a hangover.

Tourist No 3
Location: same as in the first story. Enter a couple, European, blond, in their twenties. The girl is heavily made-up, wearing a shirt and very, very short shorts. Don't know where they come from because didn't hear them talk.

To finish, and as a comment to tourist No 2 and 3, here's a citation from our guidebook to Thailand (yes, the one everybody has...):
"The Thais hold modesty in personal dress in high regard. Shorts above the knee, sleeveless shirts, tank tops and other beach-style attire are not appropriate (...) when outside Bangkok."

No other comment. I let you have your own thoughts about this.

01 December 2009

Comments about Phrae, Thailand

On our way down from Northern Thailand we decided to make a stop to visit Phrae, a village with an interesting description on our guidebook. The closest train station was in Den Chai, about 25km away and we were the only foreigners to get off the train. As indicated in the guidebook there was a pickup van for taking people to Phrae (a kind of shared-taxi).

In Phrae we were left at the bus station. We found a hotel, good price - 6euros for a double room including breakfast -, but rather basic. The corridors and room seemed like the Siberian hotels we experienced: large, no decoration, old and with lots of bad quality fixes. The same hotel in Russia would have cost between 30 and 60euros and maybe have shared shower!

(In the hotel grounds there was also a small museum about the Thai Resistance against the Japanese, which were invading the region. Thailand wanted to be neutral in the war but at some point they decided to declare war against the US, but fortunately (for them) the ambassador of Thailand in the US refused to deliver the war declaration, as he belonged to the Thai Resistance. Some complicated history and very lucky for the country.)

Visiting Phrae we tried to get some information and coffee from a cafe announced in the guidebook, but it was closed. An old American by bicycle just told that maybe the owner is not there today. Next we try to find a restaurant to eat. Either not existing or closed, the ones indicated in our 3-months old guidebook. It really started to feel like Russia. In the afternoon we went to visit a house-museum. While walking much more than expected (the scale of the map in the guidebook was wrong), we found the house with a possible restaurant outside, some people cleaning but no one interested on us. The house museum was closed, even if at the gate was written "open daily from 9-17". Definitely this was Russia like. For dinner we just went to a street market and said we wanted the same as next table. Too spicy and strange for us, we end up buying things in 7-eleven.

Next morning we went back to Phrae bus station and ask how to get to DenChai train station. They pointed us to a bus about to leave. The price was on the braket indicated in the guide book. We hop on. It was full of Thais. The bus was fully Thai style: lots of paintings in the exterior and inside you enter the bus and there is a second door and only then the seats. From the seat you cannot see the road in front of you. Many Thais get sickness and this does not help at all.

The bus drop us off at DenChai bus station. We said we wanted the train station. They say to take a motorbike. From the motorbike they ask us more than would cost to come by shared-taxi all the way from Phrae. We refuse. We try to convince the bus - still there - to take us to the train station. No one speaks much English, our Thai is nonexistent. We try to hitchhike while walk in the direction we suppose the train station was. One motorbike follow us trying to lower the price. We refuse. After some minutes he comes back with the price even lower. Eva does not believe that the driver can take us plus the two backpacks in his motorbike. We accept. He puts Eva's backpack in front of him, Eva seats in the middle and I in the back, which my backpack on. We insist to wear helmets. The train station was not in the direction we were going.