Thursday, 30 December 2010

Christmas in Singapore

Thursday 23 December: Accommodation in Singapore is expensive so I'm staying in a fan-cooled dorm at the wonderfully named Cosy Corner Backpacker's Hostel.
Friday 25: I buy myself a new camera as a Christmas present, the old one is held together with duck tape. After a simple lunch I find myself spending a small fortune in The Long bar in Raffles Hotel where, avoiding the bright pink Singapore Slings, I savour the draft Tiger beer, eating peanuts and littering the floor with their husks. This is the only place in strict Singapore where littering is actually encouraged. No littering, No gum chewing, No jaywalking, No graffiti - all these granny state restrictions make you want to spit, but of course, you can't do that either. That said, despite the cost, I do like Singapore for its cleanliness and order but could I live here, I'd rather not - it's a cross between Milton Keynes and Canary Wharf.

Monday 27: Having searched malls and precincts for a few days I finally buy myself a lap-top computer, a major expense on my budget. After all, this is what people do in Singapore - shopping, and gadgets here are tax free. Not so alcohol, so it's time to look for a duty free enclave to celebrate the New Year.
Photographs of Singapore.

Monday, 27 December 2010

The voyage to Malaysia

Friday 17 December: It's an early morning goodbye to the Bandas as I board the Pelni liner KM Ciremai for the six-day cruise westward to the port of Kijang on Bintan island, a short hop from Malaysia and Christmas. Arriving at Ambon at 3:00pm I jump ship to send Christmas e-mails and I'm lucky to get back on board just before she sails at 5:00pm (I was told 6:00pm). Three young lads don't quite make it ashore in time and have to throw their mobiles to catchers on the dock, plunge in and swim ashore. I just love it.
Saturday 18: My first-class cabin is comfortable and I have it all to myself. At noon we dock at Bau Bau on Sulawesi, this time in daylight. I would like to go ashore but dare not risk it - one hoot is an hour to departure, two is half an hour and three is ten minutes - I must remember this.
Sunday 19: At 6:00am Makassar too is in daylight and a tug shoves us into place. In the afternoon the ship's alarm sounds off. The crew go through the drill but all the passengers, except one, ignore it. My life jacket fits but the light and whistle are missing.

Monday 20: At midday we reach Surabaya on Java and as usual the porters are the first to scramble aboard, fighting and shoving to be first.
Tuesday 21: At lunchtime we arrive in Tanjung Priok, the port of Jakarta. It's a seven-hour stop over so I take the number 14 bus into the city centre for a chicken tikka lunch and an ice cold Bintang beer, yes! There is no alcohol on Pelni ships.
Wednesday 22: We finally arrive in Kijang just before midnight where I get a bemo or shared minibus to Tanjung Pinang, Bintan Island's main town and fast-ferry port for Malaysia.
Thursday 23: "Sorry Sir, all of today's ferries to Malaysia are full . . . "
Fortunately, a few seats are available on the fast two-hour ferry to Singapore, so that's where I'll spend Christmas. There are worse places in the world, but few more expensive.
Photos of the voyage to Singapore.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Banda Islands

Thursday 9 December: An eight-hour cruise on the Pelni liner KM Lambela takes me to Ambon where I have a three-day wait to board the KM Ciremai bound for the remote volcanic Banda Islands.
Monday 13: Finally the Ciremai docks at Bandaneria, Banda's main port, and I head for the Dutch colonial style Delfika Guesthouse.
Tuesday 14: Very quiet, very colonial with a Dutch fort and, I'm told, great snorkeling but my foot's too painful to put on flippers so I give it a miss, pity.
Until the mid 19th century the Banda Islands were the world's only source of nutmeg and today nutmeg jam for breakfast is a real treat.
Friday 17: All too soon the Ciremai returns and I say goodbye to Bandaneria.
Photos of the Banda Islands.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Maluku Islands: Ternate and Tidore

Saturday 4 December: Today it's Christmas in Manado, well actually it's St Nikolas Day eve, but this is when local folk (Indonesia's a former Dutch colony) swap gifts and celebrate. So it's a public holiday with lots of carol singing and good will, cars decorated with merry spray-can slogans trailing ribbons of tinsel. Many people in the street say Hello Mister, shaking my hand and wishing me merry Christmas. This seems particularly strange in a Muslim country.
Monday 6: I'm told that there are no cabins on the ferry to Ternate, it's dormitory only. Okay, I can live with that. So, as I climb aboard the small KM Theodora, via three gangplanks and two other ships, I'm surprised to be offered a basic cabin on the upper deck. I take it, this may be a rough 16-hours, it's been stormy here for the last two days but I do need to get to Ternate to link myself in with onward monthly sailings of Pelni ships. Stranded for a month on a tropical island does have an appeal, but not if your visa has expired. The Theodora's a shallow-hulled rust tub with no litter bins - everything goes over the side. Worse still, there are no life-jackets - but I sleep soundly.
Tuesday 7: In the morning when I awake we can see the volcanic cones of both Ternate and the neighbouring island of Tidore. Together these two rival Sultanates were part of the original Spice Islands, growing, highly prized, nutmeg and other spices. The blue sea glistens in the morning sun like a Roman mosaic splashed with water, it's a slick of multicoloured plastic garbage swaying back and forth in the tide. Despite my guidebook's recommendation, apart from the impressive modern mosque jutting out into the sea and the views of Tidore, Ternate is a disappointment. My hotel's rules clearly state "No illegal goods - drugs, drinking alcohol, firearms or explosives". Not a beer in sight.
Photos of Ternate with views of Tidore.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Sailing to North Sulawesi

Saturday 27 November: Walking up the gangplank of Pelni's KM Tilongkabila at Lembar, Lombok's main harbour, I'm aware that she's already four-hours late, and she has only come from from nearby Bali. As darkness falls we head east, along Sambawn island, towards the port of Bima. This will be a long seven-day cruise, a voyage I do hope to enjoy.
The Tilongkabila (1994) is a German-built, 6,400 ton, 327 foot, vessel with capacity for 970 passengers: 14 first-class, 40 second-class and 916 in economy. First-class cabins are two-berth, second-class four-berth and economy has communal dorms - bench-like wooden platforms for beds, mattresses are extra. Initially there are only a few passengers and I have a two-berth cabin all to myself, this won't last.

Sunday 28: Pods of dolphins and small flying-fish are an entertaining diversion as the Tilongkabila sails past the Komodo and Rinca islands where their world-famous inhabitants, Komodo Dragons, attract tour groups and travellers alike. We reach Lubuan Bajo on Flores at dusk. This is where I originally intended leaving the ship in search of dragons. But, I stay on deck watching as sacks of red onions and throngs of heavily laden passengers bustle their way aboard. The Tilongkabila is now vastly overcrowded - this monthly crossing of the Flores Sea to Makassar on Sulawesi is popular. I've changed to second-class and now even this four-berth cabin is full.
Monday 29: It's a smooth overnight and sunny-day crossing with good food and a band playing at lunch-time, but I'm irritated. Despite signs to the contrary and litter bins every few yards the locals just chuck their rubbish anywhere, mostly non-biodegradable plastic and polystyrene, mostly overboard.
At dusk we tie-up at Makassar - the ship empties and, once again, the cabin is my own. I'm the only
westerner and the only cabin-class passenger aboard.
Tuesday 30: I start reading Paul Theroux's
Ghost Train To The Eastern Star (2008) which I've been saving for a long journey. It's a rerun of his earlier Great Railway Bazaar (1975) book journey, so he must be running out of ideas. I'm hoping it will help me plan my route back to Europe next year, but he makes most places sound so awful.
Patches of plastic rubbish litter the sparkling blue sea and at dusk we dock at
Bau Bau, a small port on Sulawesi's southeastern leg.
Wednesday 1 December:
Slowly port-hopping up the east coast of Sulawesi we reach Raka in the early hours and Kendari early in the bright morning. To my astonishment a crew-hand slings six large plastic bin-liners full of emptied litter-bins into the sea. They slowly disappear to small black dots in the ship's wake.
Thursday 2:
We dock at Kolondale during the night. Next morning more patches of plastic flotsam appear depressingly frequently but in the afternoon a large pod of about 40 dolphins follow the ship for a while. These cheer me up and in the early evening we dock at Luwuk.
Friday 3: We arrive at Gorontalo early in the morning and in the evening I disembark at Bitung. At 11:00pm it's a dark sprawling industrial port complex with no onward public transport. Ripped-off by an ojek motorcycle driver, who I'm too tired to argue with, I spend the night in an expensive hotel.
The cost of this full-board but alcohol-free, six-night, seven-day Pelni voyage is just over two-million Rupiahs (£142), it's above my daily budget, but only slightly.
Saturday 5: A very inexpensive local bus takes me to Manado, a comfortable everyday town with shopping malls, beer shops, restaurants, reasonable hotels and small vessels of differing shapes and sizes, many heading east to far-flung islands in the Maluku Sea.
Photos: Lombok to Manado
.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Gili Islands

Tuesday 23 November: My minibus or bemo drops me in Pemenang and a 'Lombok Ferrari' - horse and cart (76th mode of transport) bumps me along to Bangal beach where I buy a green public ferry ticket to Gili Trawangan. The ticket collector refuses the more expensive white 'open' tickets sold by travel agencies (they have not paid their bill) and chaos ensues among some very upset French tourists who are stranded but still refuse to pay again. The fare is 10,000 Rupiahs (about 80 pence). I wade and hobble aboard the crowded ferry, leaving the French behind, and soon we pull up on the soft white-sandy beach of Gili Trawangan, party island.
Wednesday 24: The island is beautiful but I'm immobile and spend most of my time in the hotel or in the nearest bar, a Rastafarian joint, which in addition to liqueur also sells magic mushrooms - "return trip to the moon, no transport necessary". Each night, shortly before I retire, a choir of barmen sing out a Bob Marley chorus:

" . . .No, woman, no cry . . . No, mushrooms, no fly . . . "

I don't think Bob would have minded.

Thursday 25: A day for decisions. First, to sail to north Sulawesi rather than going overland. I'll miss the island's sights but it will rest my foot. Secondly, to return to Britain from Australia across Asia rather than continuing to New Zealand or South America. My freighter passage to Freemantle, Perth has been pushed forward by the shipping company to mid-February so by the time I'd arrive in New Zealand the weather would be chilly. And finally, when I return home, I'll take a long walking holiday in Scotland and England. The British government's Open Space initiative gives me access to 1:50,000 scale Ordnance maps so, somewhat bizarrely, on a tropical island with an aching foot, I spend two-days planning detailed walking routes in Britain.
Friday 26: In Lombok I discovered that the singer Micheal Jackson is dead (June 2009!). No great loss, I know, but macabrely I search the net to find out who else has expired since I started travelling. Icons from my youth include poor old Norman Wisdom, easy rider Dennis Hopper, author DJ Salinger, musicians John Martyn and Mary Travers, and every boy's dream date
Farrah Fawcett, to name but a few. According to the wonderfully irreverent website Deathlist, Margaret Thatcher is still with us.
A few photos of Gili Trawangan.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Lombok

Saturday 13 November: I'm staying in Mataram, Lombok island's administrative centre. I need to extend my visa and also try to get a Pelni shipping timetable - their website is not the best. Both offices open on Monday.
Sunday 14: Day trip to Sengeggi, a nearby seaside resort but it's expensive compared with Mataram's convenient shopping mall, cheaper beer and internet, and good inexpensive restaurants.
Monday 15: The visa procedure is complicated with forms in Indonesian and a local sponsor is also required. There are no set fees - this is negotiable officialdom (I think my sponsor is the Muslum cleaner!) and I have my passport stamped and returned within 20 minutes - easy. The Pelni office assistant is as helpful as she can be and gives me a telex print-out of shipping routes for November and part of December.
Wednesday 17: Before heading for the Gili Islands I hire a motor scooter to visit the stunning beaches at Kuta, Lombok's Kuta, not Bali's. But, disaster strikes - I have to stop abruptly to avoid a jeep that cuts in front of me and then breaks sharply. My front wheel locks and skids on the sharp gravel - off I come - the bike lands on my foot (I know, at my age I should know better). I'm lucky to get away with a crushed foot and a few light grazes and continue a couple of miles to Kuta to clean my wounds. The beaches are reminiscent of north Cornwall''s spectacular coast but my foot's too painful to enjoy it.
Thursday 18: Today, despite strong medication (Diclofenac 50mg pills trice daily) I can't walk - my foot is badly swollen and I can only hop painfully as far as the Opey's beer shop in the garden - life could be worse . . . Oka Homestay is going to be my home for a while.
Opey is well educated Lombok Hindu of Bali extraction with a beautiful wife and two pretty daughters. He believes strongly in Karma - if you behave badly in life you will be reincarnated as a lower form of existence - Insect, Rat, Dog or a higher animal which serves humans - Fish, Sheep, Goat, Chicken (all food) or a disabled, retarded person paying the price for indiscretions in a previous life. This is why, he explains, he doesn't overcharge his customers, even tourists - his large bottles of Bir Bintang are 20,000 Rupiahs (about
£1.50), a keen price. A nice guy, I like him.
Friday 19: Sitting on the porch of my cabin at Oka Homestay, to my left a German guy is deeply grazed along the full-length of his shoulder and arm from a motorcycle skid. It's lightly bandaged and not healing - I was lucky. To my right a Swiss girl, in the care of her boyfriend, is diagnosed with dengue fever - she's lucky too, it could be malaria. We call it "Oka Hospital" much to the amusement of Opey and his family.
Saturday 20: In the morning sun the younger of my two landladies keels over in the gritty courtyard-garden banging her head on a plant pot. Jumping up I hop painfully to her side - what can I do, I can't even bend over? Hopping to the reception area I grab the older woman, who's English is not so good, and point to her colleague. Slowly she saunters over, kicks the injured woman's legs a few times until her eyes roll in their sockets, ". . . ill, epileptic . . ." she declares and walks away. Bad Karma.
Tuesday 23: Finally, with a Pelni ticket for Saturday afternoon's monthly sailing of the 'big ship' in my bag, I limp to the end of the road and head for the public ferry to the Gili Islands.
Photos around Lombok island.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Bali

Thursday 4 November: From the luxury of the Palm Hotel in Bondowoso I take the local bus to Jember's pretty little station, a train spotter's delight, where the 1:12pm Mutiara Siang express takes me to Banyuyangi for the ferry to Bali. Young boys dive for coins worth a pittance - overnight stop in Gilsmanuk, Bali.
Friday 5: On to Lovina for a few days rest
in Puri Mandara hotel, by the coarse gritty-black volcanic ash beaches of Bali's north coast. Colourful boats with outriggers, many with hulls carved-out from a single tree, bob by the shoreline. The seafood is delicious - Tuna, Barracuda, Squid - Mahi-mahi grilled in banana leaf is my favourite.
Wednesday 10: A self-drive motor scooter day-trip inland to Munduk waterfall, Lake Buyan, the rice terraces of Jatiluwia and the remote temple of Pura Lahar Batukau is a good day away from the coast.
Thursday 11:Various minibuses to overnight at Padangbai ferry port.
Photos from Bondowoso to Bali.
Friday 12: Ferry to Lombok and minibus to Mataram, the island's capital.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Sulphur Mines of Mt Ijen, Java

I wanted to visit to the Ijen Plateau to see the stunning turquoise lake set in a yellow-rocky landscape, but I left immensely more impressed by the endeavours of hard-working sulphur miners.
Tuesday 2 November: Walking up to the 7,769ft peak of 'Lonely Mountain' the surrounding volcanoes, ringed in cloud, are a fantastic sight. From the rim of Mt Ijen the miners look like a trail of ants toiling with their bright yellow loads. The view of the crater lake is not good, through the haze.
For me it's down into the crater, into the bowels of the earth - this is the stuff of 'fire and brimstone' sermons -
preachings of damnation (brimstone is the old name for sulphur). Acrid yellow gas pumps out from fumaroles - do I really want to go in there?
At the working-face men stuff their mouths with damp cloths to absorb the choking fumes, piping-hot liquid sulphur,
like melted candle wax, pours out - cooling to a solid slab on the floor. Yellow-orange stalactites cling to the condensing pipes only to be snapped off when the miners, harvesters really, gouge out chunks of the concrete-like sulphur to load into the waiting baskets of their beasts of burden - men. These are very tough men, in worn-out rubber boots with rags for socks, who struggle up the slippery paths under their incredibly heavy loads, which I struggle just to hold still. Up, up through the burning-hot breathtaking fumes, to the crater rim, this is slow work involving many stops, and then gently down a winding path, via the tally station, to waiting trucks just a couple of miles further on. Many workers leave their baskets here to tackle the 'easy' downhill stretch later in the day. One of the 'beasts' stumbles shortly after I take his photograph, badly cutting-up his knee. I spray-clean his wounds with antiseptic and give him a sterile bandage (I only have two) - what more can I do?. He hobbles onward under his load - there is no sickness benefit here. This is a hard way to provide for your family.
Each miner has two sets of baskets which he runs in tandem, leaving one basket-load perched by the pathside while he fetches the other, staggering his work to allow a respite from the toil. This is the work of men, 300 or so, with thick bulging calfs and shoulder pads only of muscle, no women are involved.
From this sulphur we get medicine, cosmetics and fertilizers. A load weighs around 15 stone, often more - workers are paid 4,000 Rupiahs per stone (about £4 for each twin-basket load). I will never again whinge or complain about any job I ever have - I will place a Mt Ijen photograph carefully on my desk, just a reminder.
Staying in the valley - in the
guesthouse of the Keburn Kaliset coffee plantation in Sempol, I enjoy free aromatic Arabica coffee all day and Sweet Charlie strawberry juice, also from the estate, with breakfast.
Pictures of Mt Ijen.
Lungs still raw from inhaled sulphur, I take the afternoon minibus back downhill to Bondowoso.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Java: Mt Bromo

Saturday 30 October: A long day travelling - executive-class sleeper (eight hours) to Surabaya for breakfast, business-class train (two hours) to Probolinggo, small yellow minibus to the bus station for lunch, and (after a three-hour wait) large minibus uphill (two hours) to Cemoro Lawang village on the lip of a one-million year old super-volcano caldera, Tengger crater. At six-miles in diameter it's huge, with three volcanoes at it's centre, but everything is invisible through a curtain of cloud and rain. Local tourists buy hats, scarves and gloves which they will only wear once, on top of their tee-shirts (it's not all that cold). For me bedtime is at 8:00pm, beneath a snug woolly blanket.
Sunday 31: Rising early, by 3:30am I'm hiking up to the summit of Mt Renanjaken
(9,088ft, twice the height of Ben Nevis) poking-up high on the outer crater rim. It's a difficult slippery, wet and muddy ascent through the damp and misty moonlit-darkness, but I'm hoping for clear dawn views across the caldera over the billowing Mt Bromo to a distant Mt Semaru (12,060ft), Java's highest peak.
Dawn breaks quickly over the eastern skies but the clouds remain. Teasingly slowly Mt Bromo's streaming cone emerges above the blanket of cloud, barely visible through the wafting sulphurous haze. Disappointingly, this is as good as it gets, but the trek down, off the mountain, to Cemoro Lawang past a patchwork of potato, onion and cabbage plots - this makes the effort worthwhile. The fragrant, but highly-toxic, ochre-yellow pendulum blossoms of the aptly named Angel's Trumpet
Brugmansia are a fantastic sight in the early morning light.
After breakfast, I cross the caldera's gritty black floor and, with hordes of locals (it's Sunday), climb to the rim of Mt Bromo's crater to take a peek inside. Puffing and growling as it goes, the roaring vent spews gaseous smoke upwards in an ever-changing bulbous cloud.

An oil painting in the visitor centre shows the scene on a clear day.
Photos of Cemoro Lawang and Mt Bromo.
It starts raining again - time to leave. Minibus back downhill to Probolinggo, local bus eastbound to Bondowoso.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Java: Prambanan

Wednesday 27 October: Prambanan is a large 9th century Hindu temple complex now a World Heritage Site and since the 2006 earthquake has been mostly covered in bamboo scaffolding or fenced off.
Thursday 28: Television coverage is dominated by news of the Mt Merapi (Fire Mountain) eruption. Five villages have been destroyed, many animals and 29 people are dead from breathing hot winds and ash from the volcano. The air temperature at the cone is 600°C and plumes of volcanic ash are settling up to 100 miles away to the west. I'm still based in Yogyakarta, about 20-miles to the south - Borobudur, where I was on Tuesday, is now coated in thick layer of grey ash and is closed to visitors.
Photos of Prambanan temple.
Friday 29: The Mentawai tsunami, with a death toll estimated at 400, and the Mt Merapi eruption remain very much in the news, Son of Krakatoa has also sparked off. Merapi erupted three times today - lava and hot gas pyroclastic flows are pouring down the upper slopes, ash billowing upwards - hospitalised cases have burns and breathing problems - the death toll is now 36.
It's time to leave, the
Bima sleeper train departs Yogyakarta for Surabaya tonight at 12:47am.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Java: Borobudur

Tuesday 26 October: Borobudur is a glorious Buddhist temple, with seven levels of carved stonework, built around 800 AD. The site is ringed by volcanic peaks and the temple lies in the shadow of Mt Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Now a World Heritage Site, for many centuries Borobudur lay overgrown and buried under layers of volcanic ash before Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of Java, cleared the site in 1815.
Lunch at the Lotus Guesthouse is a delicious bowl of Soto Resah, chicken and shredded vegetables in a rich yellow coconut-milk soup. The chef has won awards for this dish and it is now, deservedly, the restaurant's most popular meal.
Nearby, the small but delightful Mendut temple has a living Buddhist community and a wonderful 15-foot high stone Buddha, unusually, sitting in the upright position, western style.

In the evening, an alert from the Foreign Office tells me:

Mt Merapi in Yogyakarta, t
he most active volcano in Indonesia, started to erupt on 26 October. The mountain is now closed to climbers and people living within a six-mile radius have been evacuated. There have been a number of fatalities.

I wanted to climb Mt Merapi (at 9,813ft when last measured, it's twice the height Ben Nevis) from the south, Kaliurang side, but now the whole area is an off-limits disaster zone.
Photos of Borobudur temple.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Java: Yogyakarta

Sunday 24 October: Arriving at Yogyakarta's (pronounced Jog-Jakarta) fine art-deco station at 5:00am, I'm surprised to be served an early breakfast on arrival at Tiffa Losmen (guesthouse) - my home for the next few days. Settled in, I grab a map from the tourist office and head for the old Dutch barracks, Veredeburg Fort, now a museum of local Indonesian struggle for independence.
Monday 25: Now I have a full-day sightseeing. First is the kranton or Sultan's Palace completed in 1790 and still in use, then the secret Water Castle or Taman Sari meaning 'fragrant gardens' where sultans were once entertained, in their towered bedchamber, by females bathing in the pools below. The bird market nearby is the nearest I'm likely to get to caged females.
A British Foreign Office e-mail alert tells me:

On 25 October, a powerful 7.5 earthquake hit the Mentawai islands off the coast of Sumatra resulting in a tsunami which killed over 100 people.

My first choice route from Sumatra to Jakarta was via Padang and I had planned to spend a few days relaxing on the Mentawai islands while waiting for the ferry but Pelni had taken the ship out of service. This disaster is big news here taking up much television time.
Photos of Yogyakarta.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Java: Jakarta

Thursday 21 October: The Kelud docks at Tanjung Priok, Jakarta's port, eight-hours late - I'm now in the southern hemisphere, south of the equator. I've missed my onward train south, away from Indonesia's sprawling capital. At Tanjung Priok and in Jalan Jaska tourist strip, despite carrying a rucksack, I'm importuned constantly, and my hotel of choice is full. It's late and dark, so I stay in a nearby flop-house but save my evening with several cold beers in this lively hotel-bar back street.
Friday 22: It's the start of the weekend and fast trains inland are all full, so I reserve a seat on Saturday's night sleeper south from Gambir station. Central Jakarta is dominated by Monas column, started by outgoing president Suharto and completed in the mid-1970s, it's
known locally as Suharto's last erection. Clad in imported Italian marble and topped with gold leaf it's a 430-foot high public extravagance that towers over Jakarta's shorter, privately-funded skyscrapers.
While moving to the pleasant Hotel Tator for the night the skies open and
Jalan Jaska becomes a river - remarkably it's bone dry the next morning.
Saturday 23: The National Museum has more human sculls than you can wave a femur at. In the pretty colonial courtyard a Sumatran king's colossal statue tramples enemy sculls - the sculls of ancestors make unusual household ornaments, hello grandad what beady eyes you have! - a tiny 'Flores hobbit' scull and the scull and femur of Java man look very much like reproductions.
I can't leave Jakarta without taking the lift (75th mode of transport) to the top of Monas column with views over the large Catholic cathedral, the massive mosque that dwarfs it, and Cambir station where, at 8:45pm, I take the
Taksaka first-class sleeper train to Yogyakarta.
Photos of Jakarta.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The voyage to Jakarta

Tuesday 19 October: Pelni, Indonesia national ferry operator's, ships depart from Belawan port, 17 miles north of Medan. This is where I board the KM Kelud bound for Jakarta (74th mode of transport) and take tea in my cosy first-class four-berth cabin. At midday a lunch of roast chicken, battered fish, spicy vegetables and mango is served, plus hot water but, sadly, no alcohol. At 1.00pm, pilots in place, we cast-off.
The Kelud is a fairly new (1989) German-built, 14,655 ton, 480 foot, vessel with capacity for 1,900 passengers, of which I am one. Decks 2 to 4 have economy-class dorms (1,398) plus a cinema, deck 5 is second-class cabins (364 passengers) and deck 6 is first-class (124 passengers). Deck 7 is the sundeck plus the mosque - the largest cabin on-board. The class distinctions on Pelni ships are thus: 1st class 'A': two-berth outside cabin with window, hot-water, en-suite bathroom and shower, TV and a complimentary hot-water thermos flask, 1st-class 'B' (which I'm in) is as 1st-class 'A' but it's a larger four-berth inside cabin with no window. 2nd-class 'A' and 'B': six-berth outside with port-hole and eight-berth inside cabin respectively, both with shared bathroom in the corridor.
Joy of joys - I have the cabin all to myself - in fact there only 24 first-class passengers aboard - great.

Wednesday 30: We dock at the Batam islands, just off a misty Singapore and cargoes are off and on-loaded by various means - walking, steel box-container, cargo-net, strap-and-pallet and humped by an army of dockers, the old-fashioned way - it looks like an IKEA forecourt on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but it's imports from Malaysia. I just love the hand-signals to coordinator uses to the crane operator: index-finger waving skyward - up, thumb pointing to the deck - down, fingers and thumb opening and closing, imitating a woman nattering - fast, imitating a man talking - slow, clenched-fist - stop.
Joy of more joys - I still have the cabin to myself - there are now only 14 first-class and 12 second-class passengers at dinner. The Indonesian passengers mostly stay in their cabins watching TV - the sun is shining, the sea is calm and I have a whole cruise-ship to myself - wonderful.
Photos of the voyage to Jakarta.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Sumatra: Lake Toba

Thursday 14 October: Ringed by high volcanic mountains Lake Toba, the largest lake in southeast Asia, remained inaccessible until late into the 19th century. So, unlike the coastal areas, avoided conversion to Islam from the sea-going Arab traders. But missionaries from the expansionist Christian religions found it - the early ones met their end in a cooking pot or on a spit-roast - at least they were of some use. I'm staying at Liberta Homestay in Tuk-tuk and have a split-level three-bed Batak-style house all to myself, it's nice.
Tuk-tuk is a small peninsula town, almost an island itself, on the eastern shore of Samosir Island and I spend the whole day strolling the three-mile coast road circuit around town. I just love the traditional Batak houses with their little short doors and splendidly elegant tin-roofs, all corrugated iron rather than the original palm-thatch.
Unlike the coastal Muslim folk, the Bataks like a drink so there's beer-a-plenty, 'arak' distilled from palm sap, 'jungle juice' palm wine and also 'magic' psilocybin mushrooms, which are legal here, sold fresh, frozen, dried or simply scattered across your pizza. I stick to Bintang beer, served cold and slightly sweet.
Friday 15: Hiring a mountain bike from the craft shop I set off to see the 300-year old stone chairs at Ambarita were the Batik community once held court before punishing the guilty by inserting garlic and chili into their sliced-flesh prior to decapitation and perhaps the pot - shame to waste all those cloves and peppers. Behind the chairs, Protestant Batak-house style tombs shelter the dead.
It's a hilly ride south to Tomok's pretty church and King Sidabutar's stone tomb, the Batak ruler who first adopted Christianity, duped by a successful seasons harvest.
Batak's love guitar music and a dinner of lemon-steamed carp from the lake covered in a tasty peanut sauce is served at Jenny's restaurant (somewhat bizarrely) accompanied by Ralph McTell's greatest hits, a beer and a conversation with Jenny - a good day.

Saturday 16: To see a bit more of Samosir Island I hire a motor-scooter (73rd mode of transport), it's automatic with no insurance. I take all day to drive slowly round the northern tip of the island and back by rough boulder tracks over the hilly inland plateau. Full-size Batak houses, little multi-level tomb-houses and small lakes litter the landscape - lakes on an island in the middle of a lake on an island in the Indian Ocean. Coming down off the escarpment there are great views over Lake Toba and back home towards the Tuk-tuk peninsula.
Photos of Tuk-tuk and Samosir Island.
Sunday 17: Boat back to Parapat and minibus to Medan (5 hours), for a two-night stay, to reserve first-class passage on the weekly, Tuesday morning, Pelni ferry to Jakarta and Java.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sumatra: Berastagi

With a lively main-street and fruit market, Berastgi is a convenient base for climbing Mt Sibayak, Sumatra's most accessible volcano, and Mt Sinabung, Indonesia's most recently active one. I'm staying at the helpful Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse which offers free local maps and friendly money-saving travel advise.
Monday 11 October: A blue 'Kama' minibus drops me off at the ticket office from where it's a three-hour hike to Mt Sibayak's 6,873ft summit (one-and-a-half times higher than Ben Nevis). Foreigners climbing alone have got lost and perished but I decline a guide. It's mostly a steep winding track, then up steps to a path past powdery-yellow fumaroles hissing-out hot sulphurous steam. The small water-filled crater is unexciting but the views to Mt Sinabung make the climb worthwhile. I bump into, Juha Jarva, a Finnish traveller who has taken the Trans-Siberian Express route to Vladivostok then through China and down through Vietnam by Russian-made motorbike, which he as since sold and bought a local one in Sumatra to ride through Indonesia. We take the more tricky steep-slippery route down, both happy not to be climbing alone, and soak away the pain in the hot sulphur springs at Semangut Gunung village a short bus ride from home.
Tuesday 12: Both Juhn and I have been strongly advised not to attempt the ascent of Mt Sinabung (8,041ft) without a guide - it erupted on 29th August and on 3rd September, and again on 7th (the most violent) - it had been dormant for 410 years. But it's a perfect morning for walking and we arrive at the trailhead at Lake Kawar at 8:30am. A light noodle breakfast and off we go, only to be stopped by a heavily-armed police unit who are investigating terrorist activity in the area - they strongly recommend a guide. We decline (I tell them we are not going to the top - just half-way up - they let us through) and we head past vegetable fields and onto the steep jungle trail. On-and-on the muddy path goes through hanging greenery, over knotted roots and fallen trees, always up.
After a couple of hours, past a Dutch climber's grave, it's up a slippery, near vertical, rocky gorge - a steep valley - another boulder-strewn gorge - then the vegetation clears to a flat rocky ledge overlooking the jagged-steamy crater, it's a new crater - just five-weeks old. We've made it - this is not an angry volcano, just a grumpy one. Silent wisps of steam suddenly change to noisy hissing belches. Whiffy clouds of sulphurous fumes engulf us then disperse, just as quickly as they appeared, to an eerie silence. My feet ache (I've been wearing sandals for six months) but I keep my boots on, just in case.
It's 2:00pm, the mountain is in cloud and the terrorist police are not happy - they have seen us on the summit. After a few anxious moments they smile and then give us a lift to the main road in the back of their serious-looking police wagon (72nd mode of transport). I'm sitting opposite a young officer in jeans and tee-shirt who is totting a menacing-looking assault rifle - I don't think this would happen at home.
Photos of the ascent of both volcanoes from Berastagi.
Wednesday 13: Minibus to Kabanjahe, 'Sepadan' bus to Pematang Siantar (3 hours), minibus to Parapat (2 hours), MK Carolina across Lake Toba (40min) to Tuk-tuk on Samosir island.

Sumatra: Bukit Lawang

Friday 8 October: Bukit Lawang is a cheery riverside village in the Sumatran highlands where the happy, smiling faces of both adults and children beam a welcoming "Hello Mr" as you walk past ("Mr" is a term of respect). Following the river path north the last guesthouse is Jungle Inn where I'm in an en-suite room with a rustic four-poster and balcony - at 50 Rupiahs (£3.50) a night it's a bargain.
Just strolling along the river and across the swinging footbridges
is fantastic - locals and visitors alike have fun shooting down the river in inner-tubes rigged with knotted-rope seats. Walking along the canal is an even more fascinating insight into village life - teeth, clothes, bums and whole bodies are brushed and scrubbed in the clear fast-flowing water. The main reason people stay at Bukit Lawang is to visit Mt Leusar National Park, but the village itself is a joyful place with a happy simplicity missing from western lifestyles.
Saturday 9: The National Park is all about primates - long and pig-tailed Macaques, Baboons and, more importantly, the big shaggy-orange apes we'd all love to hug, Orangutans - the planet's largest tree-living mammal.
Across the river by dug-out canoe (71st mode of transport) is the park entrance and a short hike uphill is the feeding platform from where a bland but nutritious diet of bananas and milk is fed to semi-wild Orangutans twice-daily. These are mostly rescued or hand-reared animals finding the transition back to life in the jungle difficult. A richer more varied fruit and fibre diet can be found under the forest canopy.
First a male appears high in the trees but keeps his distance, then a female with a youngster. She leisurely swipes aside bothersome Macaques who try to steal her bananas.The male watches on as the two feed before swinging down onto the platform to grab a few bananas for himself. This is a magical experience and I feel very privileged to see these wonderful animals in their natural habitat. All too soon they quickly disappear back into the forest.
Photos in and around Bukit Lawang.

Sunday 10: Minibus to Medan's Padang Barsi terminal (3 hours) and quick change for local bus to Berastagi (3 hours).

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Sumatra: Pulau Weh

Monday 4 October: Indonesia's most northwestern island, off the most northwestern tip of Sumatra. This is where I planned to start my journey down the vast Indonesian archipelago, and finally I'm here.
Tuesday 5: Raining all day. Hitting Indonesia after Ramadan, I'm travelling southeast in a weather window, hopefully in front of the sweeping monsoon (I had planned to be here a fortnight ago).
Wednesday 6: Pulau Weh's best scenery is not the landscapes or seascapes but the undersea views and I spend the whole day snorkeling in the gin-clear waters. In the morning, close to shore and in the afternoon I swim over to the reefs at Pulau Rubiath, the island opposite. The shoals of multicoloured fish and corals are specular. Unfortunately my camera doesn't work under water but my video camera does, after a fashion, when it's taped to my mask - the colours are no match for those in reality.
In the evening a huge lizard, about a foot long, appears on my hut wall
, crunching mouthfuls of insects - I like lizards.
Thursday 7: It's an early start to catch the 8:00am slow boat KMP BRR Aceh back to Banda Aceh to begin the long-haul southeast. While Pulau Weh escaped the worst of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Banda Aceh did not - 170,000 people in this province lost heir lives. Poignant evidence of this is the 2,500 ton fishing boat carried by a colossal wave more than two miles inland and wedged in the first-floor of a house - remarkably this saved the lives of the 59 aboard. Most of the town's infrastructure is now repaired - new ferry port, roads, homes, mosques - but hearts and minds take longer.
Photos of Pulau Weh and undersea videos of Iboith Bay (to follow when I find a fast internet connection).
Overnight bus (15 hours, it broke down) to Medan's Padang Baris terminal, 11:00am local bus (3 hours) to Bukit Lawang.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Indonesia: North Sumatra overland

Indonesia is the only country in the world privileged to be named by a Scotsman, James Logan. In 1850, Logan from Berwickshire, editor of the Penang Gazette, shortened 'Indian Archipelago' to Indonesia and the name stuck - what a great claim to fame.
Thursday 30 September: The 10:00am Indomal Express
(three hours) arrives at the port of Dumai in east Sumatra and I'm nodded through immigration in minutes. Motorbike taxi to the bus station, 3:00pm local stopping bus to Pekanbaru (6 hours), and taxi for an overnight stop at Poppie's Homestay in this dull, oil-rich administrative centre.
The most important form of transport in the east Sumatra is not the train, nor the boat, not even the bus or motorbike - it's the pipeline and oil pipelines criss-cross the landscape, more numerous than the bumpy pot-holed roads. This is not a good introduction to Indonesia but I'm heading north and I know that overland travel here is tough. Sumatra's a big island, the world's sixth largest.
Friday 1 October: A two-hour wait at Pekanbaru's new bus station to catch the 7:30pm overnight bus to Medan's southern bus station at Amplas (13 hours). It promises much - reclining seats,
toilet, air-con, karaoke. I read this as cold and noisy so pack a fleece pullover, but actually it's pleasantly cool with a subdued music video, blanket and pillow - it's comfortable and I sleep well.
Saturday 2: Motorbike sidecar (70th mode of transport) to stop overnight at Angel Guesthouse in central Medan and see the old colonial Tjong A Fie Mansion and the Deli sultan's Maimoon Palace.
Sunday 3: Rested and ready to go again it's a 6:00pm motorbike sidecar ride to the northern Pinang Baris bus station and the, much less comfortable, 7:00pm overnight bus to Banda Aceh (12 hours).
Monday 4: Motorbike sidecar west to Banda's harbour at Uleh-leh for the 9:30am fast Pulo Rondo (one hour) to Pulau Weh's ferry-port, then minibus to the island's main town of Sabang, and motorbike taxi 15 miles to the little sandy-rocky beach strip at Iboih (pronounced ee-boah). Phew.
Photos: Medan to Pulau Weh.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Melaka

Sunday 26 September: Train to Tampin, bus to Melaka and local town bus to the old colonial square and Eastern Heritage Guesthouse's spacious attic dorm, which I have to myself. First stop is the Indomal Express ferry office to secure a return ticked to Dumai in Sumatra. That done, there is just time get passport photos taken (with a red background - I have a stack with a white background in my bag) and explore the port a little before dusk falls.
Monday 27: Bus back to KL.
Tuesday 28: I arrive back at Melaka's out-of-town bus terminal late, at 6:00pm, but can't resist the superstore opposite. Surprisingly, Tescos makes me feel a little homesick so I go on a spending spree - new sandals, salt (most Asian restaurants don't have it), Australian Cheddar cheese, compact SD memory card reader, travel toothbrush, plastic file-wallets (mine have long since split) and a few beers - yes, now I feel better.
Wednesday 29: Having recced the old port on Sunday, today I stroll around the town in roughly historic order. Melaka was captured from the ruling sultan by the Portuguese who built a fort in 1512. Of the original, only Porta de Santiago gateway remains. The Dutch enlarged the fort and added an inscription in 1670. In 1807 the British blew-it up. The Portuguese also built a chapel, Our Lady on the Hill, from where St Francis Xavier's corpse was dug-up and moved to
the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India (see my Old Goa entry). The Dutch arrived and renamed it St Paul's. When the British arrived in 1795 it was used as a warehouse - well, they needed somewhere to store all those gunpowder kegs.
The Dutch also built Christ Church and the town square. The British topped the bell-tower with a weather-cock and consecrated it as Anglican. Today, the centrepiece of the square is a fountain built by the people of Melaka in 1904 to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria.
Over the river in Chinatown there are pretty streets, decorated shop-houses, ornate temples - some burning incense sticks as big as your leg, and a mosque with a pagoda-style minaret. The riverside is pretty too and I finally see a Water Monitor slow enough for my camera - it's a small one, about 5-foot long. I'm told they're carnivorous but harmless to humans. Even so,
I'm convinced that, if angered, even this one's jaws could take your leg off.
More of a exhibition of finely-crafted boats, the Maritime Museum is housed in a replica Portuguese galleon.
Behind the museum the Indomal Express-2 passenger ferry is moored - I'll board her tomorrow morning to cross the Strait of Melaka, Indonesia bound.
Photos of Melaka.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Kuala Lumpur

Wednesday 22 September: Outside Kuala Lumpur's modern Sentral Station (local spelling) is KL's Monorail (68th mode of transport) which takes me to Bukit Bintang and the nearby guesthouse strip of Tengkat Tong Shin. I'm staying at Trekker's Lodge a little to the north of this.
Settled in, I immediately e-mail the ferry operators in Melaka and ask them to send me a copy of a return ticket to Dumai in Sumatra so that I can present this to the Indonesian Embassy's visa section with my application . . . and wait. If they send it quick, maybe I could have my visa before the weekend? A tandoori set meal and a cold Tiger beer finish off the day.
Thursday 22: In the afternoon, to get an overview, I take the KL hop-on, hop-off open-top double-decker bus (69th mode) around the city. First hop-off is lowly Chinatown with skyscrapers and the monorail towering above, then the Grand Palace with it's spit-and-polished guards, British fashion.
Friday 23: I continue hopping on and off the bus - KL Tower is impressive and is actually physically higher than KL Twin Towers, but only because it's built on a hill. KL Twin Towers is more majestic and impressive backed by ornate gardens with an asphalt running track used by joggers of all shapes and sizes, very civilised.
Saturday 24: Picking up a useful city map from Malaysia Tourist Centre I'm off in search the old colonial district and little India, both of which I have seen from the bus in the rain. The British designed, Moorish style white-domed, old railway station is fantastic.
Fluttering from Merdeka Square's 310ft British flag-pole is the Malaysian 'Stripes of Glory' flag. Skyscrapers old and new overlook the grassy square, St Mary's Church and the Selangor Club.
It's on to Little India's Masjid Mosque and a thali lunch in one of the strict vegetarian Hindu restaurants nearby.
Sunday 25: No e-ferry ticket has materialised so this means a return trip to Melaka to buy one, three hours by train and bus then back on Monday morning, well that's the plan.
Monday 26: My early bus back from Melaka arrives at 10:30am so I take the light railway from Bukit Jalil bus station straight to the Indonesian embassy, undated return ferry ticket in hand. Photocopying is free at the embassy, this helps. I hand over my passport, ticket and passport photocopy, passport-sized photographs and 170 Ringgits (
£35) in payment.
Tuesday 27: Yes, I have a 60-day Indonesian visa! Plus, I still have an extra photocopy of my undated ferry ticket up my sleeve - I can use this again if I need to do a visa run - great.
Photos of Kala Lumpar.
Bus, from Bukit Jalil, back south again to Melaka.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Malaysia: Georgetown

New country, new currency, new language but, like the Thais, Indians and Australians, Malaysians also have the good sense to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Friday 17 September:
Georgetown is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia, established in 1786 by Captain Frances Light, whose son later went on to found Adelaide. Fort Cornwallis was build where he made landfall, first a bamboo stockade then, in 1793, a moated brick and earth bastion in the shape of a star. Only the cells, chapel, powder-room and battlements remain, together with a string of cannon. Like most defences against the French it was never used in anger, not even when the Japanese arrived did it see action. In the evening I order a chicken meal from one of Little India's restaurants and I'm rewarded with a large portion of rice, three-ladles of vegetables and spicy dip-in sauce, all served on a banana leaf, plus a side dish of dhal and a main dish of tandoori chicken, but no cutlery. This is authentic, so I wash my hands and get stuck in - it tastes great, worth writing home about.
Saturday 18: In the port area posters on travel agent windows tell me that the next ferry to Medan (Sumatra, Indonesia) is on Monday morning - good, I have time to explore the old colonial town. I just love the porticoes of the yellow-ochre Town Hall, white City Hall and gun-metal powder blue of the Victoria Memorial clock-tower, built by a rich local Chinese trader to respectfully celebrate the monarch's diamond jubilee.
Sunday 19: Georgetown is now a World Heritage Site, not just for it's colonial architecture, but also for the building styles that the East India Company workforce brought with them. Within a short walk there are Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, Chinese clan temples (each extended family of the same name built one), Buddhist temples, Christian churches and a Protestant graveyard. I try to book my boat ticket to Sumatra - I'm sorry Sir, the ferry no longer runs due to competition from cheap flights, it was cut to three days a week and still they couldn't make it money - the last sailing was on 14th June.
In the evening, dressed the part, I saunter into the cocktail-bar of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the precursor of Raffles in Singapore. I'm disappointed, apart from the white-jacketed waiters and slender pilsner glasses - I've tasted better beer in plusher south-London pubs. In fact, the whole hotel has a tacky British holiday-camp feel about it - piped
country & western music, with all the edge and grit taken out, what I call shopping-trolley music, doesn't help.
Monday 20: I move to Stardust Guesthouse where the breakfasts are better and in the morning visit the Indonesian consulate - perhaps I can get a sixty-day visa here before I leave. Sorry sir, you need a valid British passport (okay), passport-size photo with a red background (I only have blue, but this can be remedied) and a return ticket (which I can't get because there is no ferry!) - try the Kuala Lumpar (KL) embassy the smiling official suggests. So, I get my sandals fixed (glued this time) again and explore Chinatown.
Tuesday 21: Having slept on it, I reserve a sleeper to KL. The nearest ferry-crossing to Sumatra is further down peninsular Malaysia at the old Dutch port of Melaka, south of KL. Yes, I could enjoy a few relaxing days in Melaka waiting for a boat.
I've chosen today to see the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and I like it on several levels. In the centre of Penang island, outside Georgetown, it's not huge but nevertheless it's delightful, with lots of little temples, prayer halls, statues, gardens and a pagoda linked by cable-car to the highest level.

Photos of Georgetown and Panang Island.
The 9:00pm ferry to Butterworth gives me plenty of time to catch the 11:00pm sleeper to KL.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Thailand summary

Water: Bottled drinking water is readily available.
Drinks: Wine - local rice wine or Mekong is a cheap, if oily, substitute for white rum but is okay with Pepsi and ice. Beer - Chang (6.4%) or Singha (5%) pilsner style lagers taste the same but Chang is a little cheaper, take your pick. There is also a light Chang. Tea - Black Lipton Yellow Label and 'English' brand teas in tourist areas. Coffee - Strong and black but Nescafe with milk is also served in tourist areas.
Toilets: Mostly upright in hotels, guesthouses, cafes, restaurants with both styles in trains. All mostly with a Thai style 'flush' - a bucket of water and a plastic scoop and maybe a douche.
Currency:
Thai Baht (currently £1 = 48 bhat, say 50 for ease of mental arithmetic).
Language: Just about everyone in popular areas speak a little English.
TICs: Friendly and keen,
Accommodation:
Variable can be B&B, en-suite, simple room with shared facilities. All normally adequate - you get what you pay for.
Food:
Delightful lightly spiced flavourful dishes think lemongrass and coconut, plus a lot more.
Supermarkets:
Seven-elevens are ubiquitous, on every street corner with cold beer and most everything else you might like. Tesco Lotus, a great marketing name as the lotus flower is seen as pure white beauty growing out of grime (and has strong associations with Buddha), are fewer but are larger and have a wider range.
Transport:
All are cheap but trains and boats are an interesting experience whereas air and land buses are just a boring, environmentally unfriendly, if quick way, to get from terminal to terminal.
Medical: No problems if insured - Thailand has a wealth of medical, dental and cosmetic tourists.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Special Express Sleeper to Butterworth

Thursday 16 September: This time I enjoy lunch at Hua Lampong station, take some photographs and board the 2:45pm 'International Express' to Butterworth, Malaysia. I opt for a forward-facing window seat and a wider, more-expensive, lower berth. There is no restaurant car just a galley-kitchen that will be unhooked at the Malaysia border, so meals are served at your table. Dinner is simple - soup, chicken with cashew nuts, mixed vegetables with rice, plus pineapple slices as desert. It's good but beer is expensive.
Friday 17: I wake at 6:30am but my breakfast has already arrived - orange juice, ham sandwiches, cold French-fries and pineapple slices, hot tea arrives a little later. This is okay.
The border crossing is reasonably painless and my passport has a free ninety-day Malaysia visa stamped in the corner - quick and simple. The engines are changed, carriages unhooked and we continue to Butterworth arriving at 3:30pm where the handy ferry takes me to the island of Panang, and Georgetown. The whole journey, including the berth, food and one beer costs 1,620 baht (around
£34).
Photos, for train-spotters and the like, of the Special Express to Butterworth.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Bangkok revisited

Monday 13: The Indonesian embassy is closed today. I'd forgotten about, Idul Fitri, the two-day holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan - no doubt, much eating, drinking, smoking and frolicking goes on around the Muslim world.
So, I take the canal bus to Golden Mount temple with views over Bangkok. I can stroll back to the Merry V from here via Wat Ratchanatdaram and Bangkok's iconic Democracy Monument. At night, Kao San Road is alive with people eating, drinking and being entertained. Locals come in hoards to look at foreign tourists, who themselves are the main tourist attraction for the visiting Thais.
Tuesday 14: The Indonesian visa section tells me I need proof of entry and exit (tickets, in short) in order to get a sixty-day visa - it would be far easier for me to get a thirty-day visa on arrival, then extend it as and when. I knew this, but I really wanted a sixty-day visa that I could further extend rather than a thirty-day one. No matter.
In the afternoon I take in the whitewashed Phra Sumen Fort and The National Museum. I've not been in the museum before (probably because inside photography is not permitted) but it's better than expected and does pull a lot of the historical sites I've seen together as a Siamese whole (and I squeeze in a few photos).
In the evening an e-mail alert from the Foreign Office reads:


" Thailand . . .There is an increased risk of violent incidents, including further bomb attacks around the time of the anniversary of the 2006 coup on 19 September. In response to this, security has been boosted in Bangkok with troops positioned at key locations, including Skytrain and underground (MRT) stations. Riot police will also be deployed in Bangkok to control events commemorating the anniversary.
"

Probably a storm in a tea cup, but I'm off . . .
More photos of Bangkok.

The River Kwai and Death Railway

Wednesday 8 September: My local bus arrives here in Kanachanaburi, a dormitory town, once during World War II, for enslaved allied PoWs, forced-labour coolies and their Japanese persecutors. Now it's for tourists of every shape, size and complexion. I book into the Jolly Frog - reasonably priced and cheerful with movies nightly, western food, cheap beer and river views from the balcony - what more could a man want? It's in the hotel and bar strip, a microcosm of Bangkok's nightlife areas. There are backpackers bars at one end, with names like "No Name Bar", "10 Bhat Bar" or, my personal favourite, "Get Shit-faced on a Shoestring". At the other end, just a couple of hundred yards away, are neon-lit girly-girl bars (and one boily-boy bar) with names like "No Money, No Honey" or "Love Nest". As you walk past, the bar-girls howl and scream, some run out and squeeze your bum or pinch your midriff . . . this is how it starts. Bizarrely, some of the satellite TV sport bars on the strip are run by fat bald-headed Londoners with tattoos, who also give you a, much gruffer, cry of "ello mate - cold beer". I walk past them even quicker.
My pace speeds up again - chin up, stomach in, chest out - and I march two miles north of town to see the famous bridge. Now, I defy anyone who has seen the movie Bridge over The River Kwai (1957), to do this in the mid-afternoon heat, and not to start whistling "Dhara, dhara da da dee - dhara, dhara da da doe . . ." - I couldn't stop!
The curved end spans of the bridge are original - the two central spans, shattered by allied aerial bombing in 1945, were later replaced by Thai State Railway with angular sections supplied by the Japanese as war repatriations. Nearby, original locomotives, including a Japanese truck converted to run on the railway line, are gradually decaying in the moist tropical atmosphere.
Several historical errors appear in the movie - conditions were worse than the film-makers could show -
the main bridge was steel and concrete, dismantled in Java and reassembled here - a temporary wooden bridge was built but it was primarily used just to aid construction of the main bridge. The pronunciation of 'Kwai' is as in 'way' (not as in 'why') - the movie pronunciation means Buffalo in Thai, Thais would never call a river that - also, the Alec Guinness character would have been quietly removed by his men (in actuality there was much subtle sabotage).
Thursday 9: What I didn't know, were the words that the British soldiers put to the Colonel Bogey March tune and why the PoWs whistled it as they marched past Japanese officers (and fortunately, for them, neither did the Japanese) - "Bollocks . . . and the same too you". This, and more, is explained in the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, which is also a free research resource for bereaved families seeking closure. Adjacent is the war cemetery where many of the 13,000 PoWs who died building the railway were reburied (the 100,000 or so forced-labour civilian coolies, from all over Asia, who also died, lie buried beside the railway). Alex Salmon, the First Minister of the Scottish Government, had also recently paid a visit to the cemetery and left little tartan-ribboned poppies at the end-of-row headstones.
The JEATH War Museum (Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland) is in bamboo huts of the sort the PoWs were quartered in during the war - it's very realistic with real fungus growing on the decaying exhibits.
Sunday 11: Today Ramadan ends and I've reserved my seat on the Death Railway heading north towards Burma, then back south to Bangkok (to get a visa) before heading for Indonesia. Nowadays, the remaining 'Death Railway' stops-short of
Hellfire Pass and Three Pagodas Pass on the Burma border, so I leave from Kanachanaburi's pretty little station, trundle over Kwai Bridge, and get off two stations short of the end of line at Thamkra Sae Bridge. Built by forced-labour during WWII, trains still run over this original wooden structure. The ride back south is slow, rickety and bumpy but I arrive at Bangkok, only three-hours late, at 8:35pm.
The River Kwai and Death Railway photos.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Ayutthaya

Saturday 4th September: An island at the confluence of three rivers, Ayutthaya was the royal capital for nearly 400 years, 1348 to 1767, and is now a World Heritage Site. Hiring a cycle for three days this time, I'm off again - map in hand. Northeast, off the island, to the Golden Monument of Wat Phu Khao Thong and it's little golden shrine. Adjacent is King Naresuan's statue, guarded by colourful fighting cocks.
Sunday 5th: Southwest on the island is modern Wat Suuan Dararam with a fine Buddha and frescos depicting scenes from King Naresuan's life. Then from Fort Pom Phet it's onto Wat Maha That, famous for it's Buddha head strangled in tree roots. Next door is the less ruined Khmer-style tower or prang of Wat Ratcha Burana. Off the island is the well-kept Wat Na Phra Men with a wealth of offerings stacked outside. Back on the island Wat Thummikarat's chedi has guardian lions around it and a Buddha head set in a lotus flower. Wat Phra Si Sanpeth is Ayutthaya's largest with three giant chedi in a row. I'm not far from the elephant camp and giggling Thai girls pose for photographs on top of these great beasts, saved and put to work carrying tourists around the phallic Wat Phra Ram.
After lunch, southeast of the island, I get caught in a downpour but Wat Chai Watthanaram's impressive prang looks great in the rain. Then it's further out of the city to Wat Putthaisawan - not even mentioned in my guide book, this one's my favourite - it has everything - large prang, Buddha gallery, several chedis, an exquisite orange-robed reclining Buddha and even a musician playing sweet music at the entrance. I return via St Joseph's Church, a Portuguese relic as old as Ayutthaya.
Monday 6th: Today I'm cycling off the island, first southeast to Wat Yai Chai Mongkol with a reclining Buddha, many sitting Buddhas and a chedi, all draped in orange. Then I head northeast to leafy Wat Maheyong and Wat Chang where elephants carry passengers over flooded fields. Cycling back, Phra Chedi Sri Suriyothai gleams across the river in Ayutthaya, but the day is not over yet . . . not by a measure.
Until you have seen elephants bonking, you haven't lived, it's extraordinary - the bulls huge maneuverable appendages feel for their target (and I don't mean their trunks!). Surprisingly it's over in just a few seconds. The female seems to enjoy it though and takes two big slimy bulls in as many minutes. What a great day.
Tuesday 7th: I cycle out to the Elephant Kraal and in the evening end my stay in Ayuttaya with a dinner, of crispy pork over rice, at the night market, and a few beers.
Photos of Ayutthaya.

Sukhothia and Si Satchanalai

Tuesday 31 August: From Phitsanulok station a lovely lady peddles me two miles to the bus station for a local fan-cooled bus (67th mode of transport) to Sukhothai. You can tell from the river level just how much it's been raining here - the water is above the bridge spans, which are backed-up with debris, and just inches below the river parapet. Homes, some on stilts, are a several feet below that.
I opt for a lovely bright and spacious (upstairs) room in the teak-built Garden House, near the river, in the new part of Sukhothia.
After dinner, an e-mail warning from my friends at the Foreign Office reads:
"Indonesia . . . volcanic eruption - Mount Sinabung, 40 miles west of Sumatra's main city Medan, erupted on 29 August 2010 after lying dormant for 400 years".
I can't wait to get there but it's still Ramadan and travel is difficult in Muslim countries this lunar month. It will be a while before I see my first active volcano.
Wednesday 1 September: for 200 years, from 1238 to 1438, Sukhothai was the capital city of the first Kingdom of Siam and I jump on the back of a truck to take me to the old city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sukhothia Historical Park is an extraordinary place.
Hiring a red cycle for the day, I grab a map and I'm off. I start with the central group of temples - walled and moated, Wat Mahathat is the largest with nearly 200
chedi and a range of Buddhas, including an exquisite gold finger-nailed sitting Buddha - next is Wat Sa Si, or Sacred Pond Temple, beautifully set on a lake island with it's own little lake within the island - Wat Traphang is just a small Chedi set on the banks of a moat filled with crimson lotus blossoms - Wat Sri Sawai's three Khmer-style towers dominate the skyline.
Hunger forces me to stop for a quick lunch of tasty red pork and rice, then I'm off again - this time to the northern group. Tiny Wat Sorasak is ringed with elephants - massive and moated Wat Phra Phal Luang towers above me - the Buddha at Wat Sri Chum seems to watch you approach, he has an elegant hand and tapered golden fingers. Now it's serious cycling to the western group which are mostly in ruins but Wat Sa Phan Hin, three miles out, is worth a stop and I climb to the wooded hill-top and take-in the view.
Thursday 2: More wats today, but this time with a blue cycle, to see the eastern group - moated Wat Traphang Thong, now a living temple, has been rebuilt and houses an important relic, Buddha's footprint - Wat Chang Lom is another bell-shaped chedi circled with thirty-six elephants. In need of a wat-break, Ramkhamhaeng National Museum brings the whole city together with treasures unearthed from all over the site including a blue-glaze figurine in a bowl shouldering a child.
Back on my bike, it's a pleasant countryside ride to the southern group and Wat Chetuphon to see what remains of the walking and standing Buddhas - but where are his feet?
I end my day, as always, sipping Chang beer in the Chopper Bar where music plays nightly and there are views over the town, my sort of place - and the only bar in town.
Friday 3: I'm on a minibus for a day trip, 30-miles north to Sukhothia's sister city of Si Satchanalai, also part of the World Heritage Site, and yes, another map and cycle - a black one this time.
Some of the bridge slats are missing so it starts with a daunting ride over the Yom River to Phra Si Ratana Mahathat with it's huge tower, ruined chedi, sitting and standing Buddhas. Nearby is Wat Chao Chan with a much smaller Khmer-style tower. A few miles west along the river is the main site - steps lead up to the wooded hill-top Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng with a seated Buddha - below Wat Chang Lom is another bell-shaped chedi but ringed with elephants - Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo has seven rows of chedi - and lastly Wat Nang Phaya is another bell-shaped chedi. The countryside ride back is pleasant with waving farm-workers at the end.
Back on the main road the cycle owner promises to flag a bus down for me - to look after me, he says. It's a huge Scania double-decker with soft reclining seats (68th mode) and it's a few bhat cheaper than the minibus, nice man.
Photographs of Sukhothia and also Si Satchanalai.

Next day, truck to the bus station - bus to Phitsanulok - pedicab to the train station - 8:59am Rapid Train (fortunately it arrives at 9:45am) to Ayutthaya - foot-ferry across to the island, Siam's second capital city, old Ayutthaya.