A Travellerspoint blog

May 2007

The Indonesian Consulate


Though better than most, the real benefit of the dormitory at the 75 Travellers Inn was that perversely the large uncurtained windows and street noise always ensured you woke suitably early and so got stuff done. My mission for today was to hit the Indonesian consulate, ostensibly to ascertain whether a double entry visa was obtainable, hopefully to also surreptitiously establish whether they enforced the complicatory ticket out requirement. A short bus ride away past some excellent architectural wonders such as vast mansions and churches, it was a cinch to track the place down, and though busy enough it transpired that the throng of locals were apparently there on different business. It was most unexpected certainly that the visa window was devoid of a queue and the clerk even beckoned me over. It took all of 2 seconds to discover that a double entry visa was a thing of fantasy in Indonesia and that yup, I would need to show a ticket out. Taking 5 minutes to consider all the considerable pros and cons then, it was almost whimsical that beyond expectation I ended up going for it and making an application there and then. Though it was possible to receive a visa upon entry, only 30 days were issued and a consular application would net me 60. It was imperceptible whether my tentative plans of travelling from Banda Aceh to the Sarawak border were feasible in a month and bagging 60 days would afford me peace of mind and a gentler pace. The other thing which crossed my mind was that if I had 60 days and therefore had a ferry ticket for the same duration, I could use the same ticket to back up a second subsequent visa application as was my intention after visiting Malaysian Borneo. I had had to nominate my intended date of entry and not even having established the processing time I played it safe and gave myself a few days grace. Remarkably the guy said to come back the very next day with proof of a ticket out and that would be it. Apart from having had to hit an ATM for the not unreasonable 170 Ringit (about 27 quid) it took literally minutes to lodge the application, fortunately having had the foresight of bringing along passport photos and photocopies just in case, and a fated Starbucks just across the road was the obvious reward for a super efficient morning. It just remained for me to bus it back to Georgetown centre and then leg it to the ferry agents near the jetty. Wary of another reputed scam reported here, I still somewhat dubiously trusted the advice of the official tourist office and another pricey 220 Ringit later had my return ticket secured. I'd also managed on the way to find some soon to be depleted surgical spirirt too, I couldnt be sure whether such stuff would even be available here but it rounded of a successful day nicely.

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Penang (again)


After unsettled sleep due to the heat I rose very early and so decided to use the day to full effect. I bussed it down south to the Snake Temple, a Chinese place of worship where the altar was allegedly inhabited by Pit Vipers. They were supposed to be doped up to the eyeballs on all the incense there and so considered fairly benign, some folk even draped the snakes over themselves as a photo op. It was a tad underwhelming then upon arrival to find the main temple building in the process of reconstruction, a secondary shrine boasting vendors not worshippers and not a snake in sight. They were actually housed in a separate enclosure out back which together with all the souvenir stalls outside gave the game away as being a tacky tourist trap more than a pilgrimage site. The one snake on view at the entrance to the enclosure convinced me that one snake is pretty much like another so I resisted the 5 Ringit rip off to see any more.

Onwards then past the airport and it took another 2 buses to get me to Batu Muang at the most south easterly point of the island. I had come here to catch the War Museum which had eluded me on my previous visit. It was actually a 1930s era British fortress, the largest fort the Brits had ever built anywhere outwith the UK, planned with a foresight to the growing Japanese threat. Sited on a hilltop to provide a panorama around the south eastern quadrant, it took 9 years to complete with many underground tunnels and chambers being incorporated, and included advanced features such as a bombproof command centre, anti-radar chemical coating and the ability to recycle air in the event of gas attack. Crucially though, in parallel with Singapore, the supposed attack from the sea meant that the main gunnery couldnt be brought to bear on the ensuing Japanese land assault. With barely a shot fired the Brits evacuated the base over 16 hours on 16th December 1941 through another tunnel leading to the sea. The Japs seized it unopposed and used it as an interrogation and propaganda centre, I saw one cell still with bullet holes in the walls where prisoners had been shot or terrorised. Upon the Jap surrender the fort was abandoned and lay neglected in the forest for 70 years before renovation in 2002. The Brits had dubbed it Bukit Punjab (Punjab Hill) after stationing 1500 Indian Imperial troops here. Armament included 2 15" calibre guns with a 16.5 metre long barrel, they weighed in at all of 100 tonnes each, which were destroyed upon the Brit evacuation.

Unfortunately this place had an inflated foreigner price of an outrageous 4 quid, I ended up paying it in the end but the fact that it was a private moneygrabbing venture left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I walked round. Clambering over massive gun emplacements and peering into tremendously deep lift shafts used for hoisting ammunition from fortified magazines, I could see now why it had taken so long to complete. There was a separate block comprising a cookhouse, dormitory and ablutions for each ethnic group, with the Brits and Punjabis later being joined by Malays and Gurkhas. The rudimentary explanatory signs would have been better done as storyboards and the internal displays were a mishmash of blown up photos in the main, notably of Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya" who commanded the Japanese campaign here. He subsequently received the British surrender of Singapore before ultimately being executed for war crimes upon its end.

Perhaps they had priced themselves out of the market, but certainly the location was not convenient for Georgetown, I saw only a lone elderly couple here who could have been British on my walk around and a chatty local Tamil woman I met waiting for the bus at Batu Muang had never visited it.

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Escape at last!


In final preparation I sold a surplus book that morning and also had a few bob from my key deposit to splash out with. So after tipping my regular captivating waitress Am, refreshingly distant and unsmiling, I stocked up on food for the trip, also Tiger Balm and a rare find, cotton wool balls. It was a toss up which way to go with my last 100 Baht and perhaps regretably I plumped for a Starbucks in favour of one final Chang beer at the Gecko Bar. The train materialised comfy and clean enough and very quiet and spacious, you got a 2 seat bench to yourself which would later transform into half of a very wide bottom bunk. The "Special Express" initially immitated a commuter train with the regularity of its stops but soon we were streaming south past lush greenery and rivers lined with houses on stilts. It was ridiculous that I was passing this way for the third time and yet would still not be stopping to see it in any detail. The constant carpet of ricefields was reminiscent of Bangladesh, though perhaps the palm trees were taller here, it seemed I was seeing Thailand much better than I had done from the road. More karst mountains rose to the west and we got treated to the fantastic spectacle of a surreal sunset over them, with dotted clouds looking like a scattering of islands across a golden sea, eventually tending towards raging crimson like a nuclear storm. Nature mirrored it incredibly with a rainbow the other side. I foolishly stayed sober and so didnt sleep so well but I couldnt fault the train, as well as starchy sheets you even got an inexplicably white blanket prewrapped in plastic. Just past Hat Yai the border was a one minute doddle, with this crossing marking some more immediate changes. Suddenly there was Latin script again and darker, burlier women in robes and headscarves, some ethnic Indians too. I had squared away Thai women in my head to the extent that I was now sad to see them go, and true to form the last one I saw was a babe beyond compare. Strong cultural differences were apparent too, together with a very contrasting change of tongue I would now have to remember to give up the instinctive Wai (hands raised in greeting buddha style) and mind what I did with the left one from now on. Eye contact with women couldnt be so casual anymore and dress had to be considered a little more carefully. Very relaxed though all the same, some young chicks who joined the train wanted photos with me, unfortunately we were also joined by showers. Ah the monsoon, I remembered it well. The rain hadnt been that bad in Bangkok of late but even the locals were sweating so you knew it was really hot.

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I'd invested in a half bottle of whisky whilst over at Thonburi in a futile attempt at saving a little money, but late hours chipping away at my diary meant that I was still out half the night. Though still frequenting the same joints for the want of better options, I tried to stand at the sidelines these days and it was surprising how I didnt get hit on by Thai women anymore. Maybe my face was well known now and I wasnt considered gullible enough? I struggled to believe that but it was a welcome relief anyhow. The last week had turned into such an impromptu blowout and I had come to realise that obviously I had needed it. I paid too much for my room, drank like a fish and dozed till noon but it didnt matter, it was like for a short while I was on holiday. If you cant beat them, join them eh? Now a little bored and vaguely ashamed of it, accidentally it proved to have been just what I needed to inspire a new refreshed sense of impetus, I needed a challenge back in my life. I accepted Sumatra now as inevitable and just wanted to get on with it.

One complicating factor had been that I had an appointment to catch in Australia in mid July and that wasnt so far away now. A trek I had wanted to do in Queensland was restricted in numbers to the point that you had to book it 6 months in advance to secure a place, it was the only prior reservation I had made before leaving home. Accepting now that short of curtailing my Asian odyssey once again and just flying, I knew I would never make it in time. Liberated from that restraint then and finding new resolve, I now accepted that even if it took 3 months to get to Oz then I would just take a deep breath, grit my teeth and get on with it. One perverse consideration though was that with only just over 6 months remaining until I had to start work again (as a postie in Scotland in January, for Christs sake), I had to make sure of preserving at least 2 months for New Zealand. That meant that although returning to Australia had been the original inspiration for the whole trip, I might not now be able to afford that land much time at all.

All the more reason for not hanging around then, and I endured another sweltering rickety bus ride out to the main train station today in order to asceratin availability for the international service to Butterworth. On my previous visit with the same intention, some 8 weeks ago now, I had been dismayed at waiting in a queue for the best part of an hour, only to learn that the train was booked out for the next 12 days. Imagine my disbelief then when I entered the booking office to find it deserted to the point that I presumed it to be closed. I recognised the same clerk from my previous visit though and expecting disappointment I said I just wanted to go as soon as possible. That proved to be the very next day and without even any time to fully contemplate it I amazingly had a ticket in my hand maybe 20 seconds later. Wow! It was a little pricey and for just a little more I had considered treating myself by flying down to Hat Yai and then minibussing it again over the border, but this was less complicated and a trip also of interest. The only real downside was that my first journey on Thai Railways was going to be a whopping 22 hours. After my experience of arriving in Bangkok from Bangladesh I wanted to be careful of not giving myself another culture shock again, but conceivably I could be in Indonesia in just 2 days.

It was at the train station that I also chanced upon a board bearing photos which had been put up for public display. A local explained that the photos were of atrocities which had been committed by separatists in Thailand's southern border provinces. I knew that the area around Satun for example had only joined the Thai federation in 1923 and had always retained a distinct local indentity, reinforced no doubt by Islam. This particular hotspot had only come to my attention post 9/11 and I wasnt sure of the legacy, but suffice to say the photos showed gruesome scenes of random killings and Thai Army operations. 2 guys passing by on scooters and a pizza delivery guy lay shot in the street as did a few terrorists, and a buddhist monk was now just a yellow robe and a big red smear. I couldnt resist taking a few snaps of them despite appreciating what a bloody tourist I must have looked, I was politely asked to promptly delete them by an Army attendant. Later I learned that Pattani Darussalam, an independent Sultanate of which 80% is Malay speaking was annexed by Thailand, and Narathiwat and Yala are the 2 other troubled border provinces. Rebel action is spearheaded by a group known as the BRN Co-ordinate. The subsequent days proved to be a daily litany of bombings, with 7 explosions in Hat Yai and 2 women and 2 kids killed in Songkhla.

Upon leaving the station I then spotted the Metro entrance and realised I hadnt ridden it yet. Upon checking my map I could see that it would take me to Sukhumvit district, an allegedly upmarket quarter where some travellers preferred to stay, and so on a whim I went there. First impressions were not favourable, with especially bad traffic and pollution, giant testimonies to 1970s architecture and barely a sight of note. What I had not expected was a strip of full on girly bars, thankfully still relatively dormant, a fish and chip shop, and a British style pub called the Ship Inn. I treated myself to a mini splurge of a pint of Heineken in a mock Dutch pub with European prices (where I wrote this!) before heading back underwhelmed but curiosity satisfied.

Another point of note was that after searching on and off for weeks in vain, importantly I finally managed to track down some quality mosquito repellant, all of the local brands were inexplicably lightweight and ineffective. It was left to Boots the Chemist (thankyou globalisation) to oblige me with some 50% DEET preparation, expensive but crucial for Indonesia. Even in Bangkok they had been a persistent menace.

Back in Gullivers meat market that night I got approached by another dazzling Thai hopeful, and I had acquired enough by now to give her the knock back in Thai, at which she was very surprised. It probably would have spurred her on all the more but "Mai aow, khaup khoon" meant no thanks, and no meant no. To balance that, Sam, a Kiwi chick from Oz also decided to talk to me, she was a new arrival who laughably had 10 days to try to take in Bangkok and Cambodia. She had no idea it was the monsoon season, could not recall Angkor Wat, Cambodia's outstanding attraction, and at the age of 30 had never been outside of Oz/NZ in her life. Good on her for finally taking the plunge, but she was blissfully ignorant and re-affirmed that I really didnt belong here. Outside I was surprised to see for the first time a vendor cart selling fried insects and insect larvae and I couldnt possibly believe that he did much business but obviously did enough. Cockroach anyone? Next morning despite having spent a fortune at my longterm guesthouse they still wanted to charge me an insulting 5 Baht for the sake of leaving my bag with them for 2 hours. It all just re-affirmed what a bloody tourist I had become and I was so glad to be getting out of there.

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And again


After for once staying reasonably sober I still slept late after having to stay up half the night to watch the Champions League final. Liverpool couldnt match their victory of 2 years previous though. Still feeling apathetic and intimidated by the prospect of the sizeable challenges which lay ahead, I made tentative moves in the right direction however by getting more work done on the net, more reading, checking flights and heading off to Thonburi railway station.

The main rail terminus Hua Lamphong lay close to the city centre and would be a nightmare to get to in Bangkok traffic. I had been there twice before by way of the riverboat then hoofing the last K, but it was too hot for that game now. You grew tired of constantly washing shirts as they were saturated with sweat within half a day. Then I noticed that Thonburi station lay tantalisingly close the other side of the river just 2 boat stops away. Devoid of a guidebook now, I had a guess that that must be the station which served my desired southern destination (Butterworth in Malaysia again), but upon reaching it found it to be closed. It was more than just closed though, it had been abandoned. Having made the effort I thought I might as well check out the local area anyway and after viewing another temple sporting young would be monks jogging, was rewarded in spotting a small decrepit sign pointing to the real station. Sure enough, and god knows why, about half a K down the line a new spartan platform and ticket booth had been built, but it was not the major terminus with a booking office I had hoped for. I picked up a timetable anyway for its single route, this was the terminal for trains serving the notorious Death Railway using the bridge over the River Kwai. That was the one short excursion I thought that I really still wanted to muster in Thailand, no guidebook aside, and it was also great in that accidentally, I had stumbled upon a real living part of the city, devoid of tourists and reassuringly grungy. Several obviously honest living women proferred genuine spontaneous smiles, people lived in contrived "houses" squashed underneath a highway flyover, the carparks were a shambles and the number of wild dogs was unbelievable. Poverty, how I had missed it! It made me want to get out and see some of the real Thailand, with real people who at least occasionally might not just see you as a business opportunity. A massive stinking marketplace adjacent to the station was a breath of fresh air, where memorably a guy wearing only a pinny used a blowtorch to encrispen rolls of raw pork.

I continued the theme back over ther river by eating in a low key restaurant, me the only white face, simultaneously treating myself to the first steak I had had in months for a small fraction of the tourist restaurant prices. And there it dawned on me that I hadnt been hit on by any touts the other side of the river either, not a single "tuk-tuk" or "taxi" was heard. It bred hope that Sumatra was maybe just exactly what I needed. I had come to realise that I would soon get tired and ashamed of just getting hammered every night anyway, but I also now understood it was only to be expected. After what I had just "achieved" over the last 8 months (to the day), I realised it was only natural it was starting to show. I had not met a single traveller whose ambitions even came close to my own escapades. And I had forlornly tried to re-iterate a few times to women that sex was one thing, I could take care of that myself at the end of the day, but my body was screaming for a cuddle and no bloody wonder.

Perversely, the spicy food of the subcontinent, the only food to which I am trully allergic, proved to be much better for me than the greasy Thai/Chinese concoctions here which were screwing up my skin. And Sumatra was in the land of spices, the first link towards the root of the revered spice islands. I began to feel a certain rejuvenation at the prospect.

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