Thursday, April 30, 2015

Day 61 - 29 April 2015 -- Chumphon to Bangkok

With rescheduling of the expedition programme it is just another three weeks to touchdown in Cochin. The expedition had been fine this far. Except for the major disappointment of not being able to drive in Vietnam and missing the huge opportunity for sightseeing in that country and the non-availability of a ferry to Batam, the rest went pretty much to plan. The biggest gain of the expedition has been the many new friends I have made on the way and the renewal of older relationships.

The accommodation in Euro Boutique Hotel had been more than adequate for the price. For about Rs. 1000 the location, the facilities in the room as well as the breakfast was fantastic value for money. One of the things I have come to accept is that the booking sites describe quite accurately what you can expect in the hotels. The photographs are not window dressing. Moreover, whatever the price in the hotels the facilities are invariably clean and neat. That has never been a concern right from Myanmar through all the other countries. In fact, it is part of the culture in these countries. Garbage is regularly collected and disposed off, streets and buildings are cleaned and their upkeep is ensured, rules and regulations are followed on the road, individuals are given respect and politeness is a ‘national value’.
In the large room that doubled up as a restaurant for the buffet breakfast the women first smilingly folded their hands and greeted in the normal sing song manner. The elder of the two asked if I am from Malaysia and then made it a point to tell me that the sausages were made of chicken. Besides the sparse continental fare there were many local items like conjee, noodles and rice cakes. I had toasts with eggs and plenty of orange juice. When I returned the key at the reception and mentioned that I was checking out the ‘key deposit’ was returned.

Google Maps was to be the guide yet again. The distance to Bangkok was more than 450 km. However, the road condition, the signposting of routes and the disciplined rod users combined to make the driving experience pleasant and hassle free. Nearly 50 km short of Bangkok I encountered humongous traffic jams. Traffic came to a standstill at many places. However, save the delay, I reached Jasmine Grande Residence on Rama IV road in slightly less than 6 hours. Once I reached Bangkok I was convinced that I could have done the journey from Phuket to Bangkok in one shot, about 850 km, without having to break journey in Chumphon. The road condition is quite good and it does not wear you out.
As I drove into the hotel I was greeted at the entrance by a bellboy who loaded my luggage into a cart and asked me to report to the reception. The check in did not take much time. I was told that they were upgrading my accommodation for the four night stay at the hotel. When I was taken to the room I was surprised to be given a suite room with fantastic views of the port and the neighbourhood. For less that Rs. 4000 a night this was more royal than it could be. It was as big as a serviced singe room apartment. The balcony of the large living room was locked. At the reception I was told that I had to give an undertaking if it were to be opened. The printed form had questions like, “Why do you want the balcony door to be opened”? Once the undertaking was given the door to the balcony was opened and I had lovely unhindered views. I was also happy that I had covered car park for the four days that I would be there at no extra cost.

Moncy Thomas works for Alsthom in Bangkok. He and Reji Mammen, my colleague in Trans Asia, had been classmates in college. When I shared my travel plans with Reji he had put me in touch with Moncy, who offered to put me up in Bangkok. He was in regular touch to monitor the progress of the expedition. A week back the dates for Bangkok were confirmed to Moncy who said that accommodation would be fixed suitably. It was only when I was in Phuket that I got a mail from him about the hotel accommodation. I felt bad that I was imposing so much on him; I had expected to share the accommodation at home. He explained that his family had moved back to Kerala and hence, he was in a smaller rented accommodation. The hotel was not very far from the office he worked in as the Group CFO. He has been with Alsthom for over a decade and managed the financial services of the three verticals of Power, Transportation and Energy Infrastructures.
I called him up after I had checked in and he said that he would send his son, Thomas, to take me around till he could get free from the office. Thomas arrived within the hour and I was instantly struck by the confidence of the young man and his knowledge of the city. The 9th standard student, who studied and lived in Kottayam with his mother, was encyclopaedic about the places to visit and what one could get where. I felt as if I had a ‘wired’ companion. He said we should visit the MBK Centre to find if some of the stuff I wanted to pick could be had there. But we made a mistake of taking the car to the shopping mall. The traffic hardly moved and we spent more time sitting in the car than driving. It is not so wise to drive in the city due to the density of vehicles as well as the number of traffic lights and major intersections. The best way to move around, I realised later, is to hire a bike taxi or the BTS, which linked almost all shopping centres in the city.

Moncy met us at the shopping mall and we walked around the many floors of the mall that had food stuffs, textile, electrical and electronic items, footwear and much, much more. After I had picked up a few things we went to the food court in the mall. Various stalls offered cuisine from all over South East Asia as well as Continental dishes. I chose to have a seafood green curry soup with a couple of beers. The portion was huge and I was grateful that I had not ordered steamed rice to go with it. Over dinner Moncy and I exchanged notes on work, family and friends. It came as a pleasant surprise that Moncy and Sam Manipadam, who was my colleague in DP World and a dear friend, were thick friends from their CA days in Mumbai. The world had shrunk. I was even more surprised to know that Moncy and Reji had met only once in the past 30 years since their salad days in college. The fact that Reji could depend on Moncy to host me in Bangkok brought home to me the quality of their friendship.
I had one more visa hurdle to cross before returning to India. Myanmar embassy in India had given only a single entry visa stating that the return visa could be had at the border ‘on arrival’. When I was exiting Myanmar in March the Silver Hills representative had confirmed from the border authorities that they do not issue visa at the border. That was a major shock at the time. However, the remedy was to get the visa issued in Bangkok, they said. I have been apprehensive about this arrangement, but Silver Hills was confident it could be done. They sent me a couple of documents to be presented to the Embassy in Bangkok and gave me the contact details of the Minister Counsellor, in case I had any trouble. To say that I was comfortable about the visa when I went to bed would be far from the truth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Day 60 - 28 April 2015 - Phuket to Chumphon

When I was contemplating the alternative routes to Chumphon Simon chipped in with his suggestion. One of the routes went directly eastwards, on the more used highway, via Phang Nga. Simon said that the route via Ranong is more scenic and less used. He warned that it could be a lot slower than the first alternative. I did not have much to do in Chumphon and therefore, I had time to spare. So, it was to be via Ranong.

I packed all the stuff I had offloaded from the car and stuffed it back. I had a light breakfast of bread and jam with a large mug of coffee. As I was finishing the breakfast I saw a woman moving rapidly through the rubber plantation with a tapping knife in her hand. I was curious to see how tapping was done in these parts of the world. In Kerala the tapping table and the coconut shell are cleaned first, the scrap collected and then the bark is tapped. Here, the woman just cleared the tapping table with her knife, nothing that resembled what is used in Kerala, and tapped the tree. The shell scrap remained in the cup and sap started to drip into the half full cup. Evidently, either the sap had not been collected from the previous round of tapping or the process was to convert the scrap I not sheets! I could not ascertain it because the woman only spoke Thai and Simon did not know anything about it.
The B&B had been a fantastic experience. Simon had looked after every detail in the landscaping of the small facility from placing sculptures and paintings to water feng shui and even a pond. The room was quite comfortable and premises were kept neat and tidy. Simon was proud to say that the B&B is ‘totally safe’; the rooms were seldom locked. There was in house arrangement for breakfast while lunch and supper could be ordered from the hotel nearby – which belonged to one of his ex-wives. Moreover, Simon was wonderful company and his wide range of understanding and knowledge of Thailand, in particular, and the region was an added benefit to the curious traveller. After the two days there I understood why the B&B received such a high rating on travel sites. Before leaving I asked Simon if ever he takes a break, for he is such a hands on guy and looking after the facilities would require him to be on site all the time. He had not for more than three years! He wants to close down his B&B during the rains for a fortnight to travel. But I doubt if he will because he is so passionate about what he is doing right now.

The route suggested by Simon turned out to be more ‘lively’ than the highway. It took me through thick vegetation, forests, roads lined with konna and ashoka trees, incredible blind summits and beaches. I passed by Khao Lak, which had been devastated during the tsunami in 2004. Views from the car gave a glimpse of the lovely water front. The many resorts, spas and restaurants on the way indicated how popular it still is with tourists. Driving through the city I could not see any vestiges of the immense destruction and havoc that had been caused here in 2004. Flashes of videos showing beach front hotels being razed and people being engulfed by the massive waves crossed my mind then.
I reached Chumphon, nearly 400 km, in five hours of relaxed driving – there were many police pickets en route, perhaps due to the Myanmar border - and lavish stops to refresh en route. I had been for an oil massage when I visited Patong the previous evening. My limbs were a bit loose and I was overcome by sleep. Therefore, whenever I felt the eyes closing I would stop, wash my face and towel down. Besides, generous food supplies on the passenger seat and many bottles of drinking water kept the concentration going. When I was within 2 km of the Euro Boutique Hotel, where I was to stay, Google Maps went haywire. It took me through such small roads that I felt the car would get jammed. I figured that I had to cross the railway track somewhere and that the one on Google Maps had been blocked some time ago. I kept asking for directions and all the response I could get was, “No English”. It was frustrating – so near, yet so far. After nearly half an hour of wandering I decided to look for a police station and came back on to the main road. Suddenly, Google Maps showed me a different route and I reached the hotel in no time. Even Maps can be told to behave, or else!

The girl at the reception was polite but not quite able to explain what I could do in half a day in the city. Finally, piecing together what I thought she meant and a few scribbles on a map, the night market and food market that were in close proximity of the hotel were the only ones to ‘explore’ there. I relaxed in the room a bit over a couple of Chang beer cans and switched on the TV. I was appalled to see reports on the Nepal earthquake; the destruction and disruption that had been caused to human life and property was huge. I was proud to see how India reacted to the humanitarian crisis, as it had in Yemen recently. I came to know that borders were sealed except for international aid and workers. After shocks were still being felt in many parts of the Himalayan country. Locals and tourists were lining up to be evacuated from Kathmandu.
After concluding the South East Asian expedition in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh I had planned to do a 14 day Himalayan Expedition. The route prescribed by Limca Book of Records passed through Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, West Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. The massive earthquake and its aftermath in Nepal meant that I would have to recast my plans. So I went back to the original plan of concluding the South East Asian expedition in Cochin. The Himalayan Expedition had been an add on so that I would not have to, at a later date, make a long dry run to the starting point from Kerala. Anyway, the force majeure condition meant that I would have to plan the Himalayan Expedition later.

For lunch I tried KFC chicken – the first time during the entire journey that I tried out something western. The idea was to experience how different it is from what I had in India. It was quite different in that it was very much less oily, crispier, pieces more fleshy and served with some outstanding sauces. As I was having that my eyes fell on what was being served in the shop opposite – mango ice cream in a wide variety of ways! I would not let go of that, of course. Mango Supreme was a large helping of delicious mango ice cream topped with caramel and cream. When the waiters saw this elder tipping the cup to tease out the dregs of caramel they knew that they had had me hooked!
The night market was an ensemble of food stalls, souvenirs, footwear and clothes. Great bargains were on offer. I was not in a mood for a solid meal and the smell of street food made me nauseous. Then my eyes fell on a stall selling fresh cut fruits. I was amazed by the low prices of guava, mango, sapota and melon and picked up a kg of each; some for supper and rest for the journey the next day. The melon and mango fell prey easily and the rest I put into the car.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Day 59 - 27 April 2015 - In Phuket

Through the night the crickets and frog kept up an orchestra. When one paused the other would begin and thus, the two teams went on without any let up. I had woken up quite early, done the blog and updated the expense account over a few cups of coffee. Once that got done a few slices of bread and berry jam filled in for breakfast. Then I felt a touch lazy and lay down for a while. I do not know if it was the Phuket effect, as I am not used to the morning snooze. It is a bit cooler in the plantation, during the night and even as the day wears on.

Simon had suggested a visit to the Mai Khao Beach in case I wanted to be some place not crowded. Moreover, it was not very far from the B&B. I dressed for the beach in T-shirt, shorts and sandal. I also packed a towel in case the urge to have a bath overcame me. I have always been petrified of water, primarily because I did not know swimming. I reached the beach following directions of Google Maps, which was longer than the one Simon had told me. When I parked the car and got out I was stunned by the colours of the water and the absolute calm. The beach was completely deserted; I could not find anyone there. Just another car and a motorbike were parked some distance away. The straight, long stretch of beach was enticing to take a dip. I succumbed. After many years I ventured into the sea to bathe. I had forgotten how salt water felt on your body. The eyes smarted and I felt sand all over. Pockets of the shorts became sand bags anchoring me to the ground. Even though the sea looked calm the waves that lashed the shore got bigger and I was thrown around a couple of times, grazing my knees and elbows in the bargain. Mai Khao means ‘white wood’, and the sand in this beach is considered to be the coarsest in Phuket. Swimming in this beach is considered dangerous between May and November because a short distance from the shore there is a sharp drop off into the Andaman Sea. Even close to the shore the drop from ankle height to waist is just a couple of steps.
On the way back to the B&B I chanced up a 24 hours shop, which claimed to be the cheapest price store. I dropped in with the idea of picking up some beer, which I did. But, the store was had a lot of bargains going. I picked up coffee powder and a few other stuff that I would need for the rest of the expedition. It was a large plate of chicken noodles and a can of Chang beer for lunch.

Patong beach is the main tourist destination in Phuket, which is known for its nightlife, shopping and entertainment of all sorts. Phuket became a major tourist attraction with the development of Patong in the 1980s. It has retained its share of tourist interest despite the emergence of Pattaya. As I was leaving for Patong, Simon good naturedly said, “Be good”. When I got to Patong I realised the import of that advice, for if one has the inclination to indulge the wildest wild side Patong has the wherewithal to cater to it. The months of April and May are part of the low season but the line of cars that crawled ahead of me to get to the beach made me shudder what the traffic would be in the peak season from November to February. I had to make two rounds of the Beach Road before I could find a slot to park. The 3.5 km long beach was incredibly crowded with people having fun in the sea and on shore. Parasailing, water scooter rides and snorkelling lessons were popular off shore activities. Serious sunbathers and swimmers had their time there too. Patong was one of the most affected areas during the tsunami of December 2004, when it caused large scale destruction of property and loss of lives. However, the most affected was Khao Lak, a neighbouring area. But the areas recovered soon. Prominent signages near the beach point out the tsunami evacuation route.
On shore, Bangla Road and Paradise Complex are lined with bars, discos, money changers, massage parlours and shopping stalls. I find that tourist locations such as Pattaya and Patong fetch better exchange rates for currency. In Patong the rates varied quite dramatically from outlet to outlet. Hence, one has to walk around and compare before making the deal. Major hotel chains and other world class facilities are available in Patong. Entertainment caters to women, men and transgender. Massage parlours range from the erotic to the therapeutic. I found one which explicitly mentioned “No sex” and “No Happy Endings”! the Christin Massage does not have anyone soliciting in front of the parlour as in most massage parlours. The ‘parlour’ is one the first floor. As I walked up I found a glass enclosure behind which many women were seated with numbers on them. Apparently one has to make a choice soon to be escorted to a private chamber for the massage and whatever else.

It got dark by the time I returned to the B&B. As I alighted from the car I got a message from Maya that George Jacob died this morning in Bangalore of a heart attack. He was a close friend of many years. He was introduced to me by MC Tom, another dear friend, when I was working in Container Corporation of India. George had a skill that was in demand internationally. He was an expert in marking granite. I would say that he was one of the major forces that broke the back of established interests in movement of granite blocks from India to western countries. Tom and he containerised the blocks which led to ‘piecemeal’ movement of blocks, eliminating the need for bulk transportation over sea. However, the death of his Italian business associate reversed his business fortunes and he, I must say, really never recovered from it. Since 2012 he had been experimenting and trying to market two products with tremendous commercial potential in North India and countries with harsh winters. I was involved with some part of his efforts to professionalise the venture. His was a totally centralised method of control and decision making. I had suggested that he let go of his obsessions and bring in an investor who would provide him a proper channel to launch his products into the market. In fact, I even suggested that he part intellectual company with the products and monetise it to settle his financial commitments. He was far too attached to his ‘creations’ and clung on to the notion of potential revenue string.
George was in Leh when I reached there on the Record Drive between Kanyakumari and Leh. He had insisted that I stay in his room, despite the inconvenience of having to share a bed. Those three days gave me adequate rest to do what I did on the trip from Leh to Kanyakumari, when I broke the existing record handsomely. He introduced me to the Asparagus Soup in the hotel, the like of which I have never had since then. He made friends easily and hence, it was no surprise that senior army personnel gave him all support to test out his products in Srinagar, Kargil and Leh. He could never say no to any request, however outlandish, and that tested his commercial skills.

The passing away of my mother in January 2001 had left a deep emotional gash in me. I decided to spend Christmas alone in Ooty that year. George and his wife, Anne, invited me to break journey en route in Bangalore and have dinner with them. I remember having a most glorious evening with them and Tom. It helped soothe the emotional trauma I had been feeling at the time. I still have the gift they gave me – a set of Euro coins that were being introduced then to launch the monetary union.
George Jacob, I will not be at your funeral in Manimala, but will always remember you for being a dear friend. The line from the John Denver song “Starry, Starry Nights”, ‘This world was not meant for one as beautiful as you’, rings in my ears as I wish you a safe journey to the shores that you are off to. And when you meet Tom, give him my love.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Day 58 - 26 April 2015 - Koh Lanta to Phuket

I was ready early, but that I had a short journey ahead of me this day to Phuket delayed me to be up to date with the blog. After many days I had caught up. There was a huge sense of relief because, to me, the blog is one way of communicating with family and friends. At the time of check out the elderly gentleman, who was a bit short with me yesterday, was all smiles and pleasantries. I guessed it was the pressure of work that made him behave the way he did yesterday. I found him doubling up to serve breakfast to guests who were departing early.

There were no delays at the ferries. Vessels were waiting as I approached both the ferry landing centres. In about an hour I reached the point from where the drive to Phuket began. The drive from Krabi to Phang Nga was glorious, to say the least. Thickly forested limestone cliffs and rock formations virtually lined the route. Some of them arose suddenly from the side of the road. It was easy to be distracted by such ‘pieces of art’. I had a huge problem of multi-tasking – responsibility behind the wheel driving consistently over 100 kph, admiring with respect what Nature had to offer and capturing digitally what I could on the move.  Krabi is considered to be one of the oldest continued settlements in the world, with human habitation dating back to nearly 35,000 years. The southern part of Thailand is full of natural beauty – beaches, national parks, limestone cliffs and caves and waterfalls. Hot water springs, fossil beaches and bays are added attractions. Water sports, diving, snorkelling and rock climbing are favourites with tourists. All along the way tourist attractions are signposted prominently. Infrastructure that has been built in Thailand to support and promote tourism is admirable. The roads are outstanding, road signs are clear, facilities at tourist centres are developed along with private enterprise and tourism promotion is ongoing. This has provided employment to the local people, promoted local crafts and skills, fostered entrepreneurship and sustained growth. I understand that Thailand has zero unemployment! Tourism is big in all the South East Asian countries I travelled to this time, but all factors considered, I feel it is Thailand that takes the numero uno position.
While approaching Phang Nga I saw a lot of huge tourist buses taking the diversion to Phang Nga Bay, which was only 5 km from the highway. I took the diversion and followed the buses. Phang Nga Bay is in the Melaka Straits and Ko Tapu, or the James Bond Island, is the most prominently promoted attraction there. I thought I could drive in, see the natural beauty and then get back on to the highway. As I reached the bay area I found many tour operators promoting boat rides. A round trip would take an hour and cost about Rs 5000. I would have done it had it not been for the large number of tourists waiting their turn. After spending a short while there, taking in what I could, I continued the drive to Phuket. The large number of limestone cliffs I saw on the way between Krabi and Phang Nga made me compare it to what I experienced during the boat ride in Halong Bay, Vietnam. One was on land, the other in water.

I was booked to stay at the Phuket Airport Bed & Breakfast. The four room facility is located inside a rubber plantation with a narrow access road. As I parked in front of the B&B I saw a ‘white skin’, who I thought was a tourist staying in the property. As I approached the gate he said, “You must be Suresh and you have a booking today”. I was floored when I found my name written on a small white board near the gate. That was how I met Simon, the owner of the B&B. He took me to the room and showed me the facilities in there and in the common areas. The room rent for two days, 2600 THB, was paid up front, so that he would not have to ‘chase me’, as I overheard him telling a couple of other guests.
Simon turned out to be an absolutely fascinating person, with a lot of experience ranging from a family in Britain, where he hailed from, and three in Thailand,  business interests in Phuket, teaching experience in Myanmar and a volunteer policeman. He unabashedly claims to have excellent business instincts and administrative capabilities that have seen him migrate seamlessly from a software professional in London to an entrepreneur in Thailand to being a school headmaster in Yangon, Myanmar.

After I had settled into the room Simon told me that he is off to the laundry as he made sure that every room had fresh linen every day. Sometimes you do not know why you do something when you do it. The purpose of it becomes clear only much later. It is more so with me because I am an instinctive person; I do things on impulse and I enjoy the consequences. All my drives are examples of this – I dare say that most of my life has been thus. I asked Simon if I could accompany him to the laundry! He may have been surprised, but he didn’t show it. On the way he told me how he had established four hotel properties in Phuket and that he had handed over three of them to his former wives. He seemed to have taken a sabbatical from marriage to manage the B&B as well as the properties for his ex-wives. He also showed me alternate routes to the B&B, shops I could get beer and stuff like that. On return to the B&B I got Simon to order me a plate of Thai noodles with chicken and vegetables. The food comes from the kitchen of one of his former wives, who lives a stone’s throw away. It is such an interesting arrangement, how he could be estranged and at the same time be such good friends with his former wives and family. The only child, a son, from his Thai connections is a student in Bangkok. The most interesting part of his life story is how he came to leave London for Phuket. The cold and damp of winters in London made him sick in the lungs. The only solution was to migrate to a warmer clime. He hit upon Phuket 14 years ago and his British wife refused to relocate. End of family number one. He came to Phuket, banked on the growth of tourism in Phuket and started his hotel business. His facilities are all located in close proximity to the Phuket International Airport and it is that segment he woos. He told me that his B&B rooms are taken every night, all through the year!
Simon told me that the majority of tourists to Phuket are Chinese – more than 50 percent. When I woke up from a short snooze after lunch I found two young Chinese couples in the premises. They were looking up the menu on the wall. They watched me for a while and one of the girls asked me for “flench flies and flied noodle”. When I told her that I was a guest there she was profuse with her “sollies’.

Later I drove to the Nai Yang Beach, which was not too far from the B&B. Patong Beach is the showpiece of Phuket, which is almost an hour away from where I was staying. Hence, it is reserved for tomorrow. The casuarina fringed Nai Yang beach is a favourite with local tourists, where they come to relax over the weekend. Part of the beach is in the Sirinath National Park. I have been to many beaches during the expedition, but I never ventured out to even wet my feet. This record was corrected today. More importantly, I was dressed for it; shorts, t-shirt and sandals in hand! I had not done this in a long, long time and it felt absolutely lovely; the receding waters almost pulling you into the sea. In one part of the beach there was a large gathering of people in an enclosed area. There I found turtles being released into the sea, a charity event. It was fascinating to see how the turtles approached the water and swam away once they caught a wave. Every inch the turtles moved was supported with terrific enthusiasm by the people watching the event. The cheering almost resembled that at a sporting event.
At the end of a long walk on the beach I came to a clearing where a huge fish was been skinned. Apparently it had just been brought in from a fishing trip by one of the tourists. It caught the attention of many tourists who arrived there to witness the ‘event’.  The fish was so large that the hook could not be taken out. It was late evening by this time and shops had become active. Lights had gone up in the restaurants and menus were being screened by prospective customers. I walked into a massage parlour for a one hour foot reflexology session.

When I was driving back to the B&B police diverted traffic from the route that I had to take. I was flustered initially, but then the route that Simon had showed me in the morning came in handy. I detoured and without hassle reached the B&B. The reason behind the impulse decision to ride with Simon to the laundry in the morning became clear then. On the way I found a lot of people with lights on helmets and long poles in hand walking around in the rubber plantations. Simon told me that they were Myanmarese construction workers out on frog hunting expeditions! He explained that the spurt in construction activities in Phuket had brought in large number of Myanmarese in search of job opportunities and that nearly 1000 of them lived in a camp nearby.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Day 57 - 25 April 2015 - Kuala Perlis to Koh Lanta

However familiar I may be with the route and the place I have a habit of checking it out the evening once again before I travel on that route. As far as Krabi was concerned I had never travelled there and the route linking Kuala Perlis through the borders of Malaysia and Thailand was absolutely new. When I keyed in the name of the hotel in Koh Lanta, Krabi in the destination on Google Maps it repeatedly threw up the message “Route not found”. Initially I was a bit amused, but when I zoomed in on the hotel location I found that Koh Lanta was an island not connected by a bridge. To make matters worse it looked as if I had to cross waters twice. I doubted if I had made a terrible mistake going for budget accommodation. A few more tries later I messaged Shrey Bansal of Lifestyle Services, who had been helping out with booking in hotels. He spoke to the hotel and was told that it was connected by road. I wondered why Google Maps was not able to guide properly. I contemplated booking another hotel instead of taking a chance with one that may take me avoidable extra time even if some kind of connectivity was available. Panic was about to set in when I zoomed on the map a bit more and saw the Krabi-Lanta island ferry marked on the map. I checked Maps with that as destination and I got a proper route. I was somewhat assured, but I did not know the ferry facilities for the crossing. That, I decided, could be experienced as I got there. Therefore, before I went to bed I set the destination on Google Maps on my phone to Krabi-Lanta island ferry. The distance was shown as 320 km and possible time to destination as 4 hours and 34 minutes. I slept assured that I had some place to motor to in the morning.

The hotel tariff did not include breakfast, so I could leave any time I wanted. I had picked up a loaf of bread last evening from Kangar and made sandwiches with the Kisan jam I had. I collected the deposit and started out earlier from the hotel than I had intended at 7 am. Just as I was rolling out of the hotel, Google Maps started acting funny. It just would not start navigation. I tried and tried, but it just would not budge. Technology can be more obdurate than a human, I experienced. And there were no messages as to why it was ‘behaving’ the way it was. Later I found out that I had not enabled the GPS. In the past when that happened, the system automatically requested activation of GPS for more accurate location information. Anyway, when you are down on your luck, I guess, even software has a way of knowing that! Once I switched on the GPS the lady started squawking, and all was well.
Bukit Kayu Hitam and Padang Besar are the two most used crossing in north Malaysia to cross into Thailand. I was targeting Pedang Besar. However, Google Maps charted a different course for me. I noticed, as I followed directions of Google Maps, that I was consistently bypassing Padang Besar and going on in a north westerly direction. The route had rice fields on both sides at first and then I entered a dense forest that turned out to be the Perlis National Park. Doubts started surfacing all over again; was it an international border or was it only meant for locals who crossed over regularly for commerce? The apprehensions were genuine considering the documentation and paperwork required for the car. I continued on the forested route consoling myself that the worst that could happen was to retrace the route and enter Thailand through the Padang Besar immigration and customs post. A few km short of Wang Kelian, the border post, I parked at a Caltex fuel station to tank up. Diesel is almost 40 percent cheaper in Malaysia as compared to Thailand. The attendant at the fuel station told me that it would open only at 8 am since the border would also open only then. I did not quite catch the connection, but I waited in anticipation of the cheaper fuel. When it was 8 am the attendant told me that the accountant would be a bit delayed and he did not know for how long! I had enough fuel to reach my destination and hence, I drove on to the border.

The Malaysian side of the Wang Kelian border post is a very small facility and not crowded. As I was driving into the gate I asked a uniformed person if the customs office was anywhere close by. He identified himself as the customs person and took my Carnet for stamping. I was asked to complete immigration formalities, park the car and get back to him. Immigration formalities were completed sitting in the car and I parked to get back to customs office. By the time I reached there, two ladies were already working on the Carnet. One of them turned out to be a huge Bollywood buff and she hummed a few tunes, perhaps to reinforce the proclivity! In about 15 minutes I was through the Malaysian border. A very short distance away is the Thailand border. I parked and reached the arrival booth of immigration, were I declared that I was travelling in a car and required documents for the car too. He politely directed me to another counter where a taciturn officer kept asking for Thai insurance. I pretended as if I did not understand the language and kept on putting one document after another on his desk. The car registration, Indian insurance, IDP, passport, Carnet and a few more embellished his already busy desk. He handed me a “Arrival and Departure Card” and expected me to be happy with it. With the experience at the Thai border when I was travelling to Laos still fresh in my mind I insisted on securing the ‘Information on Conveyance’ document from Immigration. Through my persistence the officer kept on saying “Thai insurance” and I kept on thrusting the Indian insurance under his noose. Finally he blinked, and stamped the required document after I filled it up. With that I went to the immigration counter and completed what had to be done. The officer was only curious to know what I intended to do in Koh Lanta! Customs formalities did not take long. Apart from stamping the Carnet they also gave me the Customs paper required to be handed over at the exit. When I drove past the Thai border post I said to myself that this would be the last unassisted border entry of the South East Asian Expedition.
The rice fields in Malaysia gave way to rubber, teak and oil palm plantation on the Thailand side. I motored along merrily and reached the first ferry for Koh Lanta. I drove onto the loading platform and I was told that I had to purchase the ticket at another location. I went back to the location mentioned by the supervisor and was given two tickets that cost THB 170. I did not know then that they were for the two ferries that would take me to my destination. Enquiries revealed that the ferries operate from 6 am to 10 pm. I need not have worried at all. But that is 20/20 foresight. The ferries were a pleasant experience and hassle free. More than two Ro-Ro vessels were deployed and they tuned around in less than 30 minutes.

A tuk tuk driver helped me reach the DR Lanta Bay Resort. The low price of the room reflected in the service. An elderly gentleman, who completed the check in formalities, even suggested that I should not have breakfast there as it was not worth it! The room was quite okay and the beach front was glorious. Therefore, I presumed, customers even put up with indifferent service. All the hotels, resorts and spas either overlooked the sea or were beach fronted properties.

After changing money at the Siam Commercial Bank counter I sauntered around the waterfront scrutinizing menus. Finally I zeroed in on the Seaview Restaurant and it turned out to be a good choice, both in terms of service and food. Chilled Chang beer was the ideal accompaniment for the excellent Phad Thai chicken. As I walked out of the restaurant I saw a young man outside a 7Eleven store having an ice cream cone. He smiled when I asked if he were advertising it. I too went into the store and emerged with a Magnum ice cream stick. I sat on a bench outside the store and started a conversation with Oliver and Philip. Both of them Londoners, were school friends. While Oliver works with an advertising firm in London Phillip works in Singapore. The two childhood friends were spending a few days of vacation on the island. It is funny how it is so easy to make conversation with some. Oliver and Phillip fell into that category. I took leave of them once the ice cream was over and they were off to get a few shirts tailored in the adjacent shop.
 After a short snooze I went in search of a good massage centre and laundry service. The first was disastrous and the second successful. Halfway through the massage the girl apologised that she was new there and therefore, not very skilled. It certainly reflected in what she was doing. I went through with it though, not wanting to make a song and dance about it. Soiled clothes had accumulated because of the finger infection. I located an automated laundry service and, in an hour, got through the chore while having a couple of beers. Later I went to one of the restaurants on the water front, many of them had closed, and had fried rice and spring rolls.

I had very little time to explore the island. But what I saw was incredible. It has white sandy beaches with stunning sunset views, affordable accommodation, friendly people and good food. The island is supposed to be great for diving and snorkelling and many tour operators offer diving lessons and tours to neighbouring islands, as well. The island has become a traveller hot spot in the past few years with its picturesque Andaman sea coastline. Koh Lanta is actually two islands – Lanta Noi and Lanta Yai, both part of the Koh Lanta National Park. Tourist facilities are only on the second island. I drove through the first island from a ferry landing to Lanta Yai via a second ferry. I wish I had stayed a couple of days more here to take a few diving and snorkelling lessons. But, as scheduled, I have to move on to Phuket tomorrow.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Day 56 - 24 April 2015 - Penang to Kuala Perlis

 Marking George Town started as a competition initiated by the Penang state government. The idea was to physically brand George Town as a World Heritage Site. From among the entries in the international completion held in 2009 aimed at exploring innovative ideas in art and design for public places, sculpture work triumphed with its design concept of ‘voices from the people’. 52 unique and humorous illustrations in iron rod sculptures were installed against the city building walls. The sculptures have an element of Mario in them, or so I thought. The iron rod sculptures looked like Mario caricatures in Illustrated Weekly. The 52 locations marked in George Town are worth marking down in a walk because it gives one a walk down centuries of the city’s growth and history. I marked a few of them on my walk to Fort Cornwallis and back from the hotel on the day I reached Penang. Some of the interesting ones are:
1.       Mr. Five Foot Way – Five foot ways were meant to protect pedestrians from hot sun and rain. As the number of immigrants increased and work became more difficult to find, many old and unemployed began using these corridors to set up small business. The Hokkiens began calling these traders ‘goh ka ki’ or ‘five foot way’ traders.
2.      One Leg Kicks All – the Cantonese domestic servants from Guangdong multi-tasked all domestic chores and referred to themselves wryly as ‘yat keok tet’, or ‘on eleg kicks all’.
3.       Cheating Husband – the rich men on Muntri Street are reputed to have kept their mistresses in this lane, and hence the name ‘love lane’.
4.      Three Generations – Kimberly Street is famous for hawker food, where some stalls have a history of three generations.
5.      Cow & Fish – not only were hapless cows slaughtered here, fish were hung out to dry, which gave the place a peculiar smell.
6.      Waterway – Prangin River was a bustling waterway for all manner of goods shipped from all over the world to Penang.
7.       Too Salty – salt trading activities here gave it the name.
8.      No More Red Tape – Transfer Road is named after transfer of Straits Settlement from Indian office to Colonial Office in Singapore in 1867. This resulted in more efficient administration and an era of prosperity of the Crown colonies.
9.      Shorn Hair – barbers who operated here swept shorn hair into the Prangin canal.
10.   ‘Yeoh’ Only – Yeoh Kongsi was established in 1836 to look after the welfare of newly arriving Yeoh clansmen.
11.   Cannon Hole – a cannon shot fired during the 1867 Penang riots made a large hole in this area and hence, the name.
12.   High Counter – the counter of the pawnshop is typically higher than the place where the customer stands for security purpose.
I was happy that I had made the trip to Penang, once again. This time I saw more of it thanks to the helpful staff in the Museum Hotel and Tevin. The quality of service at the hotel was top notch. Without exception, they wore genuine smiles on their faces and every request was treated with respect. I had fallen in love with the chewies they had at the reception, which are very different from the candies that are normally placed there. This morning, as I was completing the checkout, the girl at the reception, who I had not met before, handed over a packet of chewies for the journey! That it is a place for special experiences was brought home with the welcome drink. The ginger and lemon grass concoction was so refreshing that I unabashedly asked for another. In case there is another trip to Penang it will be Museum Hotel. Tevin too, being a long standing resident of Penang, felt that the hotel is exceptional in pricing and quality.
Any number of navigational aids at my command will not deter me from experimenting with the wrong route! It was so this morning too on the drive to Kuala Perlis. Just after the Penang Bridge I took the exit too early and spent time and distance getting back to the correct route. Fortunately, it was not a long detour. I travelled mostly on the North-South Expressway, taking the state road only for the last 40 km. Right from Johor I have driven on a substantial portion of the 770 km North South Expressway. The ‘PLUS highway’, as it is known after the concessionaire, passes through 7 states of Malaysia and is the backbone of the western part of the Malaysian peninsula. The expressway is tolled and I have paid nearly RM 110 thus far. However, considering the quality of roads and the facilities provided en route I did not find it excessive. User fee is acceptable as long as the user gets proper service.
Kuala Perlis is in the state of Kedah and borders Thailand. With this I have driven through 11 of the 13 states and all three Federal Territories of Malaysia, thereby covering the entire peninsula during this expedition. The states I did not travel through are Sabah and Sarawak, which are separated from the peninsula by the South China Sea.
I reached the D’View1 Hotel without any hassle by 10.30 am. When I was told that the room would be ready only by 2 pm I went on a drive to Kangar, 10 km from the hotel and the capital of Kedah state. I did not find anything interesting to spend more time there and was back to Kuala Perlis in a short while. I drove to the ferry terminal and discovered a Ro-Ro vessel being loaded with vehicles bound for Langkawi. That aroused my curiosity. But the steep RM 380 for a two way ride and 2 hours each way put paid to my instant plan to travel to the beautiful island. I went back to the hotel and worked on documentation for a while. I could not concentrate much as I was feeling extremely sleepy, having woken up at 3 am this morning. Fortunately, the room was made ready before the normal check in time.
When I woke up, after a restful sleep, I was hungry as I had skipped lunch. I had noticed a few food courts near the ferry terminal during the morning drive and I went there looking to experience something local. It was in Kuantan that I had first come across Ikan Bakkar, grilled fish. I had not tried it thus far. I selected a full fish and it was grilled and produced with mild spice sauce. The dish was accompanied by rice, leafy vegetables, chilly paste and curry. Despite the sauce the preparation was bland as it was not marinated. It was a very different experience. After that I walked around the waterfront watching the sun go down and the bright lights of wayside eateries go up. I wondered if such a large number of eateries would be patronised. But, in a short time, people flocked to the food courts and wayside restaurants in their car with family. Eating out is the standard fare. Cooking at home was only meant for special occasions.
The stay in Malaysia has come to an end. Tomorrow I will drive into Thailand via Padang Besar. Eight weeks of the expedition are also over. In less than three weeks, travelling across Thailand, Malaysia and the north east of India, the South East Expedition will be completed in Tezu.
 

Day 55 - 23 April 2015 - In Penang

Breakfast was served on the dot at 8 am. The sunny side up eggs on two buttered toasts and ham came after the fruits, mango juice and layered cake were polished off. Without any hesitation I was given a second helping of the coconut based cake, which is supposed to be a local delicacy. The hotel staffs are so pleasant that it rubs off on you. Thereafter, I walked to the bus stand of rapid Penang and took the 30 minute ride to Air Itam, which is about 6 km from George Town. When I was here in 2000 Beena and I could not take the funicular railway ride up to the summit because the place was swarming with tourists and we did not have the time to wait our turn. This day the number of tourists was low and I purchased the RM30 ticket for a 2 way ride. I took a place in the first cab so that I could get a frontal view of the ride up the hill through dense forests.

The funicular railway was built between 1906 and 1923. Presently Swiss made coaches form the train and nearly 100 passengers can be accommodated in each train that maintains a headway of 30 minutes during peak time. The 2000 meter ride takes about six minutes. Normally the ride is completed in one stretch, but the train stops at intermediate stations on request. One of the highlights of the ride is the crossing of trains on the single line section of railway track. The trains pass through the loop without stopping. Alternatives to the funicular ride is the 5 km ‘jeep track’ road that is available only to local residents and a challenging trek.
Penang Hill is a hill resort and is also known by its Malay name Bukit Bendera. A large hoarding on the Hill proclaims that a visit to Penang is not complete without a visit to Penang Hill. It’s true if one goes by the photographs I have seen from that vantage location of the valley below, town, bridges and beaches. I was not lucky this day to get clear and unhindered views of George Town and the rest of the island because of low hanging clouds that progressively got thicker and darker till it started raining. Tourists visit the Owl Museum, aviary and tea estate on the Hill, as well as the centres of worship. I hung around for quite some time on the Hill hoping that Nature would lift the veil of clouds and show me the dazzling face of the island. It was not to be and I left as soon as I felt the first drops of rain sprinkle my face.

I took a short nap in the bus on the ride back to George Town. I woke up just as the bus had reached the stop where I had to get off to walk to the hotel. I wanted to try the many local delicacies that were listed on the hotel notice board, prime among them being Laksa and Char kway teow before leaving Penang. With this in mind I turned into a small restaurant that mentioned prominently that it served Laksa, among many other foods. I hesitated a bit for I did not know how to order a portion of it. A waiter of Indian origin helped me do that. I also ordered a glass of iced Nescafe. There wasn’t a free table in the restaurant and hence, I asked a person sitting alone at a four-seat table if I could join him. He agreed without hesitation and moved to another chair so that I could have more space at the table.
The Asam Laksa served to me was a spicy, sour fish-based thick noodle soup, which had plenty of ginger flower buds, diced onions, cucumber, red chillies, mint leaves and prawn paste. It was a bit pungent due to the liberal dose of ginger flower buds in it. As I was savouring the initial taste of the local delicacy the other person, who identified himself as Zarir Bin Abu Bakar, Manager of the Hong Leong Bank nearby, opened up a conversation about India and Modi. We compared the developments in India and China, as he worked in a China headquartered bank. He was also interested to know about my expedition and offered to change foreign currency for me at the Western Union outlet in his bank. After we had got through the meal he gave me his business card and paid my bill too before leaving! Without a doubt, “Goodwill knows no boundaries”!

Tevin Ek Lim and CK Chew work for a shipping and logistics company and are based in Penang. They came to the hotel after 4 pm and asked me out for a drive. The next three plus hours went by fast in their excellent company. They took me on a sightseeing tour of the island that covered the Gurney Drive, Straits Quay, Batu Feringghi andTanjung Tokong. Gurney Drive is a popular tourist destination as it has some of the most sought after hawker food stalls in Penang. The other attractions, apart from swanky residential properties and hotels, are the island’s first modern shopping mall, Island Plaza, and the state’s first megamall, Gurney Plaza. Coastal erosion has affected the beaches along the drive but recent efforts to stem it have paid off. The Straits Quay has a large marina where large yachts are anchored, mostly belonging to foreign residents who have apartments near the Quay. Foreigners are permitted to own residential properties in the state provided they bring in the funds – they are n0t eligible for bank loans. We had traditional White Coffee in one of the cafes in the Quay before going to Chew’s house nearby. His 83 year old mother lived there and he wanted to get her dinner. The amiable elder showed us to the balcony of the apartment from where one could appreciate the magnificent skyline of the area and the new developments coming up.
From there Chew drove on to Batu Feringghi, which is considered to be Penang’s most developed beach. He parked at the Hard Rock Hotel and through it we walked on the soft, white sandy beach that houses lovely seafront resorts, hotels and restaurants. Water sports such as parasailing and windsurfing are popular here. The Hard Rock Hotel has a shallow pool with a bar attached to it. Tevin told me how the Tanjung Tokong area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami and became inaccessible to four wheeler transport for many days after. He also narrated the miraculous story of a one year old infant who survived despite being swept out to sea when she was sleeping and her Indian origin parents ran for safety as the tidal waves struck the beach. Rescuers found her still sleeping when she was ‘beached’ safely later. She is a robust 12 year old now.

We had dinner in one of the food stalls. Tevin ordered Char kwey teow, crunchy spring rolls, fried oysters and chilled Tiger beer. The local delicacies were every bit as good as they were claimed to be. Char kwey teow is flat noodles stir fried in soy sauce and has prawns, shelled blood cockles, egg, bean sprouts and chilli in it. The nutritious food was a favourite with labourers because of the high fat content and low price. The chilled beer stitched the dishes together along with interesting conversation about night life and Malaysian politics. On the way back to the hotel Tevin pointed out some of the costliest super condominiums coming up in the area.
Before I curled up in bed I said a quiet prayer to my parents who would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary this day had they been with me and my siblings. We miss them a lot; whatever we are and whatever we have are all because of them. Cheers to you, Ammachi and Achachan.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Day 54 - 22 April 2015 - Kuala Lumpur to Penang

Anand has been in Malaysia for over four years and has travelled quite a bit in the region on work and leisure. He recommended a short stopover in the Cameron Highlands en route to Penang. I was certainly interested to do so, particularly after listening to his description of the place and what one could do there, like picking strawberries and enjoying a stroll in the tea estates, for example. The climate in the Highlands is also different from what one experiences normally in Malaysia, he said. The minimum temperature is almost 10 degrees lower in the Highlands as compared to KL.

I took leave of Anand, Dhanya and Gauri a little later than I had intended to, wanting to finish the blog. Before leaving KL, Anand connected me to Tevin, a good friend of his who lived in Penang. I did lose my way a bit trying to get out to the highway from Anand’s apartment, even though he had given me elaborate instructions. Once on the North-South highway I motored along, mostly at the maximum speed of 110 kph, to Ipoh. Indeed, as Anand had told me, I reached the exit for Cameron Highlands within the first two hours. I had debated the detour from the start in KL and gave it a pass because I need some extra time in Penang to catch up with the backlog of documentation. The tableland, which is one of the oldest tourist spots in Malaysia, will have to wait for another trip.
I remember Penang from my last visit here in 2000 with Beena. At the time there was only one road crossing from the mainland to the Penang Island. The 13 km dual carriageway was considered one of the longest bridges in Asia at the time. Since we had come by train from KL we took the efficient ferry service from Butterworth to Georgetown. The memory that lingered of that visit has been the hotel near the beach and the lovely walkway near Fort Cornwallis. Even though the ferries still operate there is a second, 24 km long, bridge connecting the island to the mainland, which was thrown open to the public only in 2014. I was told that an undersea tunnel is in an advanced stage of planning. Penang is a favourite with tourists from faraway lands as well as neighbouring countries like Singapore and locals. Hence, huge investments in tourist infrastructure are going on adding to the impressive and fast changing skyline of the island.

I took the older bridge and traversed through the busy parts of Georgetown to reach the wonderful Museum Hotel on Jalan Ariffin. As soon as I parked in front of the hotel I knew I had come to an exceptional facility. The courtesy of the staff and the ambience impressed me. The hotel has been named thus because it is a 95 year old heritage building with an antique collection attached to it. The building had been owned by, reportedly, the first Baba Nonya couple of Penang and was only converted to a hotel with modern amenities two years back. I was politely told that I would have to wait some time to occupy the room as the check in time was 2 pm. I settled comfortably into the lobby and started on the blog. However, the exceptionally furnished, quaint hotel kept diverting my attention. I got through very little when Munir and Sham, two youngsters who tended the reception, announced that the room was ready. The room was not too big, but was cozy and comfortable with a large bed. Concern for the environment was evident everywhere in the room, from use of water and towels to bed linen.
Hunger has a loud way of expressing itself and does not believe in being quiet and socially appropriate. The notice board in the hotel had information about the local food and desserts to be tried out in Penang. I made a note of it and got directions from Munir to get to a hawker centre to try out a local dish. However, despite wandering quite a bit in search of the hawker centre I gave it up in a while because of the hot sun. “Roti Benggali” is a tradition of Penang. The famous Mallia Bakery is just round the corner from the hotel. The aroma of freshly baked bread caught my fancy as I was walking past it. I noticed that the bread is baked as two rows of eight mini crusty and crispy loaves, a very unique bread ‘design’. I bought one and had it with sardines in tomato paste in the hotel room. The fresh from the oven bread was every bit as tasty as it was claimed to be.

With the sun starting its customary daily march down the horizon I decided to walk to Fort Cornwallis and enjoy the sights on the way. It was a three km walk right up to the Esplanade. I did not quite feel it because I was busy locating landmarks and admiring the quaint city. Along the walk fell the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Love Lane, Church of the Assumption, Penang State Museum, St George Church, Town Hall and Dewan Sri Pinang, with each of them contributing to the architecture, culture and history of the island. The walk from the Town Hall to Fort Cornwallis made me nostalgic about the previous visit to the lovely island. This time I appreciated the container terminal of Penang Port from a distance. I came to understand later that the terminal enjoys a throughput of 1.2 million TEUs annually, making it the third biggest port in Malaysia. The cruise terminal was also busy with two mid sized vessels docked there. I walked past a car park in the vicinity which prescribed two rates for parking; one, “For trip to Phuket/Krabi (3 days)”, and two, “For trip to No Where”!
The Victoria memorial clock tower is a prominent landmark at the entrance to Beach Street. The 60 foot high tower was built to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign; one foot for each year. I walked through the Beach Street admiring the classical buildings and took a detour to see the Customs House and India House. What caught my attention was the orderly disembarkation from a docked ferry. The meandering walk took me past Little India, Maha Mariamman Temple, Han Jiang ancestral temple and the Kapitan Kellin Mosque that dates back to early 19th century. The 6 km evening walk was terminated at a restaurant for dinner of chappatis and chicken curry.

I had called up Tevin, Anand’s contact, who promised to meet me after he checked up his schedule in the office the next day. I decided to visit Penang Hill in the morning after breakfast. The hotel has a small cafeteria attached to it. Breakfast has to be ordered from the menu, latest by the previous night. As I walked into the hotel after dinner I was asked my choice. I asked to be served at 8 am.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Day 53 - 21 Apri 2015 - In Kuala Lumpur

When I announced my itinerary for Kuala Lumpur Anand wanted to know if I had any plans already scheduled. I placed myself fully at his disposal and he said he would take care of that. The only thing I wanted factored into the schedule, I told Anand, is my age! This day he had organised a gathering of professionals in the shipping industry in Klang in a conference hall of the building where Trans Asia had its office. He also suggested that we take the car there so that those who gathered there would have the opportunity of ‘wishing the Champion’. Accordingly, it was confirmed that we would leave at 8.30 am so that we could also get the car washed before reaching the venue of the meeting.

Anand’s wife, Dhanya, had prepared wheat puttu and peas for breakfast. Puttu is a personal weakness; I can have that for all three meals of the day. The smell of steamed wheat puttu is ‘music to my nose’. As soon as I opened the door of the room, after getting dressed, my nose directed me to the table for a special breakfast. Dhanya had made the puttu with the right consistency, taking care to balance the flour and water, so that it is not lumpy. I knew my day would pan out alright after that excellent start to the day. On the way to the meeting Dhanya got off to go to her office, where she works with a structural design team. They had shifted residence to where they are staying now so that Dhanya would be closer to her place of work. Their affectionate daughter, Gauri, spends her day in a play school near Anand’s office. She loves to be at the school where she learns something new every day. Yesterday she was proud to show off her colouring efforts. I was happy to see her going so willingly to the school. Anand and Dhanya told me that she is often reluctant to leave the school even late in the evening!
After Gauri was dropped it was time to get the car washed. Car washes are not difficult to find in Malaysia. I have found them even in smaller towns. Many of them are automated drive through facilities. But we went to a manual one, where the car was given a thorough external sprucing. I avoided vacuuming the interior because of the amount of luggage that was in the car. The RM10 was well worth the work done. Anand had taken special permission to park the car right in front of the lobby of the 30 floor office cum commercial complex. To say that the car was the cynosure of most eyes that entered the building this day would be an understatement.

The third floor meeting hall was already set for the morning function. Anand had reserved it for the first half. Beverages and cookies that are part of the normal arrangements were already there and I helped myself to a cup of strong coffee, while waiting for the invitees. Anand had also made arrangements for a light meal of sandwiches and noodles. Nearly 25 invitees turned up for the session, which started right after the refreshments. After the welcome address by Phillip, a doyen among the shipping fraternity in Klang, and introduction of the speaker by Anand I shared experiences of my drives and beliefs I have picked up in the course of the expeditions. After the formal session ended with a vote of thanks we went down to the car and Anand affixed the sticker on the car to signify that Malaysia was done and dusted for the return trip to India. Only Thailand and Myanmar remained on the way to re-entering the Indian stratosphere!
The Klang office of Trans Asia has ten employees across management levels. I spent quite some time with them talking about travel and the Company and responding to questions they put to me. Later I went up to the office and enjoyed the commanding views of the town’s skyline. Anand and Suresh took me for a special lunch of Bah Kut Teh in the Pao Xiang outlet in the office complex. Bah Kut Teh dishes are all of pork and the Pao Xiang brand is famous for the cooking style. The meat is tied with cotton strings to extract excessive oil and fat from the meat and keep it intact during the long process of cooking. Special Chinese herbs are used to cook, which gives the meat its taste. We ordered three different dishes, which are basically different types of pork. The main dishes are served in traditional Jijong bowls that are kept warm by lighting a flame underneath it. A bowl of rice accompanies each dish. The soup in the bowl is replenished whenever needed. The food was amazingly tasty, especially the ham.

We went back home to leave the car there – I was not prepared to risk parking it in public places after hearing horror stories the previous evening about cars getting vandalised and broken into.  It is not that I had any valuables in the car, but I was willing to risk the exposure. Later we went in Anand’s car to the Central Market, which is historic and a major tourist attraction in KL. At the entrance to the pastel blue building the year of its first construction is shown as 1888, when it was built to serve the tin mining community. It was a wet market then and continued to be so well into the 20th century. Many renovations have been done to the building over the years, most recent being the annexe in 2006 which showcases the cultural milieu. The second floor of the market has a large food court. During my earlier visits to the market I had always made it a point to have nasi lemak from one of the stalls there, which is recognised widely as the national dish of the country.
Not very far from the Central Market is the Petaling Street in KL’s China Town. A visit to KL, for me, is never complete without a stroll in the street. I used to pick up ‘pirated’ copies of latest English movies, music and ‘branded’ watches at bargains from here, besides feasting on street food. Anand had never been there before. We walked around and in and out of shops and stalls looking for bargains. CDs and DVDs were no longer on display and sale. But watches there were in plenty. After what I thought is a hard bargain I bought a couple of them. As we were about to leave the street I saw a stall selling pens. I asked for Mont Blanc and was presented with two sets of them; both were look alikes, but one was better in quality and looks than the other! Bargaining was tough and hard, but I managed to get a few of them at what I thought was a decent price. Humidity was over powering. We had Tiger beer from a wayside restaurant. Just opposite the restaurant was a shop selling tops. Kassim, the guy who tended the stall, finally agreed to give me a couple of them at the price I was willing to pay for them. The beauty of such deals is that the shop and stall vendors make you feel that you have driven a hard bargain and got more than your monies worth! I am hopeless at bargaining; even I came away from Petaling Street with my collar up in the air.

Suresh and his family, who were visiting him from Kerala as schools are on vacation, Dhanya and Gauri were in the Tropicana Mall by the time we reached there. Dinner was at the Golden Dragon restaurant, a typical Chinese set up. Plenty of food was ordered and when it arrived the waiters ensured enough space on the table by serving large portions in the plate and clearing the dishes to make room. The meal was sumptuous and filling. I normally close a meal with a large helping of fruits or desserts. But after this meal I could not even have a glass of water.
The stay in KL had come to an end. It was to Penang that I was headed for next day. I was meeting Anand and his family for the first time and I am grateful for the way they treated me. I felt comfortable in their home as I would in my own.  

Day 52 - 20 April 2015 - Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

Yesterday evening I had messaged Anand Kumar of Trans Asia Line, who would be my host in Kuala Lumpur, that I would want to meet a doctor to consult about the condition of the finger. This morning I wondered if that would be needed because the pain had reduced and the swelling seemed under control. However, when Sreekanth dressed the finger I could see that the puss had increased, which, if not controlled soon, would spread under the nail and then it would be most painful to even drive.

It was indeed most difficult and emotionally draining to take leave of new friends I had made in Singapore. Ammayi was still in bed when I touched her feet and sought her blessings. She kissed me on the forehead and wished me well for the rest of the journey. Sreekanth has been special, more of a son than a friend. I can never forget his help and the way he took care of my requirements in the country. Even though I was not able to meet Sreedevi, I know they are a ‘made for each other’ couple. Sreekanth affixed the sticker for Singapore on the car before I hit the road for the Woodlands checkpoint.
With the help of Google maps I was at the checkpoint in about 15 minutes. The queue moved fast. When formalities were being completed in the immigration booth, with me sitting in the car, I asked the official where I could get the Carnet stamped. He immediately got on the phone and told me that someone would come shortly to assist me. In the meanwhile, I pushed the Autopass into the card reader and deduction was automatically made of the toll and ERP charges. Very soon another official came to the immigration booth and asked me to move the car to a secure locati0n. I was asked to follow him after handing over the key to him. I waited in an office where seven officials poured over the Carnet and passport for quite some time. Later they physically verified the chassis number of the car. It took a while before the Carnet was filled in and stamped. Once that was done the exit was also stamped in my passport. I had driven less than 60 km in Singapore and incurred expenses of about USD 300 to facilitate it!

I reached the Malaysian border and expected to get the formalities done fast, considering past experiences. Immigration was completed in drive through mode. I drove through the Customs Green Channel too and parked to find out where I could get the Carnet stamped. Nora, a young customs official, took charge of the proceedings thereafter. She found out from her seniors that I have to get the requisite work done in their office that was located quite some distance away from the gates. She took me on a long walk and got the matter sorted out once she had her senior approving the transaction. Nora was quite impressed by the drive and kept on telling this to Indian origin officials she met on the way. She told me that I should use the Red Channel next time in case I wanted to get the Carnet stamped, since the car is a dutiable item. From the Woodlands checkpoint to the Malaysian border clearance it took me over an hour.
The distance of 220 km to Melaka was covered in 3 hours of leisurely driving interspersed with a few stoppages at wayside facilities. That is a feature of the North-South Highway – wayside rest and food facilities are many. I had been to Melaka in 2000 with Beena. I had then been impressed by the quaint town, where colourful trishaws playing loud Hindi music had remained etched in my mind. Along with Perlis and Penang it is one of the smallest Malaysian states. I had read that the historical city centre had been bestowed UNESCO world heritage site status a few years back. Since I had time and the historical city was a short diversion from the North-South highway I took the detour for a short stopover to visit the churches in Melaka. I could not find a place to park the car near the Christ Church and hence, parked in front of a hotel close by.
 
I walked around enjoying the sights of the old town such as the water wheel on the Melaka River, remnants of the old fort and walls, walkway along the canal, clock tower, signboard showing the distance to London as 10632 km, a quaint windmill, Stadthuys – erstwhile residence of the Dutch Governor – and the Christ Church and the Church of St Francis Xavior. The influence of the Portuguese, who captured Melaka by sending troops from Goa, the Dutch and the British on architecture and culture will be apparent to tourists and visitors.  The colourful trishaws were there too, a long row of them parked in front of the Christ Church. However, none of them played Hindi music; it was loud alright, but popular Malay songs. The interest shown by a group of deaf and dumb tourists from one of the oriental countries to understand the historical significance of the city centre was a sight to see.

I wound up my visit of the city in front of an ice cream stall. Seeing my interest in the menu stuck on the wall one of the vendors asked me to try the Cendo ice cream which is made with coconut milk, boiled brown gram, palm sugar and nestle ice cream. He got very pally in a short time and came over to talk to me. He asked me to stir and mix in the palm sugar to the ice cream and other ingredients to get the proper taste. He showed me the picture of his motorbike on the phone when I told him about my drive. He shared his dream of wanting to ride his motorbike to India, which is doable now, I assured him. When I got back to the car I found a parking violation ticket stuck to the windshield. It was a RM30 fine slapped by the municipal administration. The last date for payment of fine was shown as 4 May and hence, could afford to check with Anand in KL before making the payment.
I reached Petaling Jaya, where Anand was put up, in about two and half hours from Melaka. However, I could not locate the apartment complex. The original entrance had been closed and Google maps could not lead me to the address. Anand had to accompany me in the car before I finally reached his apartment. After settling the luggage in the house I went with Anand to a hospital owned and managed by the Manipal Hospital group. They are in the process of building a huge facility in the neighbourhood and will focus on multi-speciality service to patients. Anand knew George who worked in the hospital in the cardiac section. With his assistance I got an appointment directly with an ortho surgeon, Dr John Benjamin. After the registration formalities BP and blood sugar were checked. While the former was normal the blood sugar reading rocked George on his heels! Dr John took one look at the infected finger and said that it has to be drained immediately. He sent me to the casualty and asked the nurse to prepare me for the procedure. I opted for a local ‘ring block’ rather than general anaesthesia. Immediately as the injection was given Dr John took up the scalpel to drain the puss. When I told him that the finger was not yet numb he suggested another dose of the anaesthetic. He was not very happy when I suggested that he wait a while before he used the scalpel. When he was draining the puss he suggested that the nail be taken off too! I almost screamed in alarm. I told the doctor to leave the nail in place and dress up the wound. I said I would rather take antibiotics and give it a chance to heal. He agreed to it reluctantly. When I was asked to pay the bill I knew that he had had the last laugh – nearly Rs. 12,000 for registration, consultation, procedure and two tablets!

I could not get over the shock of the hospital charges till my eyes fell on the Petronas Towers. Anand and his colleague, Suresh, took me around the Surya KLCC complex to appreciate the shopping complex, lighted up Petronas towers and the buildings in close proximity to it. I was appalled to learn from both of them about the rampant bag snatching and theft of electronic items and mobiles, even from vehicles parked in basements of buildings. Later we watched the colourful fountain within the complex and had dinner in one of the restaurants there.