Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year


Only hours are left to this year, but we slept in as long as possible, which turned out to be 9:00 am. Big whoop!! We needed to make reservations for a place in Vietnam, so Blue Pumpkin to the rescue. Just as we walked up, someone took the patio table by the electric outlet, but there was one on the first floor, so I grabbed it. The store next door has a great selection of unique gifts, so I made my fifth trip in there and made one last purchase.

Dropping off the computer, we took off walking in the opposite direction of the market area. We have passed this area a number of times going and coming from Angkor, but have not stopped here. We walked quite a distance looking for a store that Ron had read about in the travel guide, but we could not find it. Street signs or any identification is nil. We never did find the store, but we did find a café that serves good coffee.

On the way back, we stopped at some food vendors and looked at strange fruits. We had tasted dragon fruit in Kuala Lumpur, but we never tasted this fruit that looks like a red tennis ball with porcupine syndrome. The woman peeled one for us and we tasted its juicy sweet yet tangy flesh. Then she peeled these little brown marbles and popped out a slimy ball with a dark pit in the center, making it look like an eyeball staring at me, with the pit as a pupil. It felt like what I imagine an eyeball would feel like or at least what my eyeball feels like when I put in contact lens. We bought some of each just as thanks for introducing us to these new tastes. We will give them to the hotel staff as we leave on a bus tomorrow.

The rest of the afternoon was spent writing, working with photos, and just kicking back. Ron wanted to go to the Blue Pumpkin sale. After 7:00 pm, all of their left over baked goods is 50% off and we would have them for snacks on the bus. We started speaking to a tuk-tuk driver who was telling us that although tourism has been up this year, it still has been a bad year for the tuk-tuk drivers. The increase in tourism is due to the Koreans; however, there are Korean businesses here that cater to them. The Korean travel agencies here draw them, then Korean bus services drive them around and they eat at Korean restaurants. Then the profits are sent back to Korea, not contributing to the local economy. Sounds like Wal-Mart. He also said that many of the tuk-tuk drivers are from the provinces where their family has sold a cow or ox in order to buy a tuk-tuk for their son to come to Siem Reap to make money and send it back home. Unfortunately, these drivers have to rent a room and survive here in the city when they are not driving or trying to convince someone to ride with them. Add to this the increasing price of gasoline and he has us in tears for these poor guys.

As we were talking, he asked where we were going for dinner. We had not decided yet, so he suggested a hotel that has a buffet dinner and a dance show. Wary of such suggestions, he offered to drive us to the hotel to make a decision when we arrived. It was indeed one of the larger hotels and it is packed with who else, but Koreans. We were able to get a table right near the stage, very lucky since it was so full of bus tour groups and we did not have a reservation. The show was excellent dances of Cambodian culture. The buffet was extensive with Cambodian dishes and it was all you can eat sans drinks. Dinner was $12.00 each, a bargain by far.

Our tuk-tuk friend returned to get us and return us to the hotel where I will work on pictures and Ron will nap for the fourth time today. When we arrived, we asked our driver how much we owed, bearing in mind the sob story he gave us. He said whatever we wanted to give him, making it difficult since the ride was only 10 minutes and easily walkable. However, being a special day, the end of the year, we should prosper others and I gave him $7.00. He about did somersaults and it was not an act. I believe he thought we were more generous than he anticipated.

We hung around the hotel room until 11:00 and then went to the block party. There were about six blocks cut off from traffic, but only one block was a party area. Beers were $1.00 and the street was mobbed. No fabulous fireworks or other fun things, but hundreds of people having a good time dancing in the street to loud music making merry. The Cambodians do not celebrate New Years at this time, so they all wished us a happy one. I think theirs falls in April.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Shop Until We Drop For a Cause


No temples, no tuk-tuks waiting, we wandered over to the Blue Pumpkin for breakfast and to finish our Internet work. We were lucky enough to find a table on the patio right next to an electric outlet. Strangely, I checked our Bank of America account and there was no record of the $299.48 being deducted that they sent me the alert on. Maybe this is one battle I will not have to battle when we return. The other interesting thing was that when Ron used his ATM card, even though he put in he wanted to deduct the money from our checking account, the money actually was taken from his B of A credit card as a cash advance. I was able to pay the bill immediately so they could not get any interest charges tacked on. We will have to fix this matter when we return. There is something about knowing you have to go back to fight bank battles that puts a crimp in a vacation. Perhaps the Internet is not the blessing we believe it is.

We set today aside as a day for shopping and possibly a massage. There was absolutely nothing we wanted to buy in Malaysia and we do love to add trinkets from our trips to our apartment. Not only do we love being surrounded by the memories, but each and every bed and breakfast guest loves seeing the things we have acquired from various trips. Sometimes, it is creates an opportunity to share travel ideas for them and for us, too.

Being both of us were former social workers, we were drawn to the craft centers that had a social justice underlying theme. We found a craft training center where children are tested for talents and then are given apprenticeships in various cultural crafts such as silk weaving and wood or stone carving. We did a tour of the school annex here in Siem Reap; the main school is in Phnom Penh. We were able to see students carving, sanding, creating lithographs, and so on. There is a gift shop on the premises.

Another shop we found was run for the Cambodian disabled who had learned crafts. This shop sold their goods. We found a coconut teapot to add to our teapot collection. Along the way, we found some fun t-shirts with the Khmer language on it, not one I would like to try learning. We picked up some pillow covers to replace some old ones we have. Then of course, we found some small gifts for friends.

Neither the disabled nor elderly receive any governmental funds, making life difficult for them to survive. One of the schools started with the craft training programs is one dedicated to deaf children. As the sign said, they are ostracized here and this is a way for them to fend for themselves economically.

We had read about the Butterfly Café that is surrounded by mesh and there are varieties of butterflies flitting all around. There is a double door to keep them from getting out. We went for a drink after finding it across the river and off of the beaten track. For the hour we sat there, we saw three butterflies. Guess it is not the season and the workers did not speak enough English to question them. It was disappointing, but an interesting concept.

Ron had read about a massage service offered by blind massage therapists. They have been specially trained in order to support themselves. We found a couple of places advertising this service, but went to the one in the guide. Ron opted for a massage, while I waited outside. They do have seeing people taking the money. He said it was a lot of acupressure type massage where she seemed to be checking for auras. He could ‘feel’ her hand gliding over his body until she felt something and then stopped and massaged that area. For $7.00 for an hour, you cannot beat it and it is helping those trying to help themselves.

We have been in and out of the hotel room all day, dropping off things and then taking off yet again. It has been a fun day with little bags of goodies piling up, but finding space for it in the luggage and then the weight concern will be another story. As Scarlett O’Hara said “I will worry about that tomorrow.”

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Please, No More Temples


We have a new driver today, Somat, the tuk-tuk driver who will ferry us around for a reasonable $8.00 for the day. First things first, we went hunting for breakfast and when we returned our smiley driver was waiting. After a greeting, he thanked us for giving him work again today. Each driver seems to have their own ideas of what should be seen in the temple area, but none of them take into consideration that this may not be your first day. When Somat gave his ideas, Ron had to pre-empt them with the fact that we had already been to each of the places he suggested. He took us to Angkor Thom, the oldest city in the empire. Inside the city walls are the Byron temple with 216 faces, the terrace of the elephants and the terrace of the leopard king.

Really we were at a loss for where else he should take us; each of us were getting templed out. When he suggested something, we admitted we had been already our first two days. When tour books recommend a seven day pass, saying you need this much time to ‘do justice’ to the area, I have to strongly acquiesce that this is beyond my capabilities for maintaining an interest. After two days, I could have finished off seeing temples and have been perfectly happy, but with the choices of 1, 3, or 7 day passes, there seemed to be a need to utilize that third day. If nothing else, the drive around the area is worth observing. The descendants of the area are still living there and by western standards their conditions are deplorable. However, it does not keep the people from smiling and waving as you pass them by.

By 12:30, we were ready to return to the hotel. Somat seemed unnerved that we did not use him as long as he anticipated and I suspected he feared of losing out on his full $8.00. When I gave him a $10.00 and told him to keep the change, his reaction was better than seeing a child’s on Christmas morning. He bowed three times and told us how happy we have made him giving him work for the day. We arranged for him to pick us up again for this evening.

The staff at our hotel is absolutely adorable. One of the young men who attends the desk in the later afternoon has a book My First Book of Animals. He is trying to learn animal names and has his book open and is studying every time we come in. The young women who work the morning shift are all smiles and cheerful each time they see us. When they hand us the key to the room, they hold it on two open palms. They are the sweetest staff we have come across. None of them can be over 25 years old, yet I wish we could take them with us to do training for other staff in other parts of the world, starting with Budapest.

The Blue Pumpkin called to us to check e-mail, upload the blog and have a real brewed coffee. The afternoon is not the time to go. They have six tables on the patio and four on the first floor. They were all occupied. They do have two other levels, with tables and full wall and deep white leather sofas where they serve you on breakfast tray tables. However, I was scouting for a plug to electrify my computer; the battery only lasts for 1 ½ hours. The closest I could get was one table away where a woman and her son were busy writing out postcards. They had a stack that even at the impoverished rates here, would cost a king’s ransom to mail. They must have had fifty cards in their stack, but they were prepared with pre-addressed mailing labels. I quit sending postcards ten years ago, so it was beyond my comprehension why anyone would send so many unless they were from Luxembourg and promised one to each citizen in the country. When a table near a plug finally became available, I was working feverishly and then the WiFi stopped. I thought it was my computer, but then realized I was working on battery power once again. It was a few minutes later that Ron noticed all of the lights were off. The woman working behind me noticed too and asked a waiter. He said sometimes the electricity goes out for an hour and at other times for hours on end. There is never any way of knowing. Looking out the window, we could see the lights were off in all of the shops across the street also. With no Internet, it was time to leave and go shopping instead, carrying my laptop along the way.

At 7:15 pm on Saturdays, Dr. Beat Richner gives a cello concert for free at the Children’s Hospital. Somat was waiting for us at 6:30 and gave us his award winning smile when he saw us leave the hotel. Although the traffic was horrendous, we were still early to the magnificent complex where children are cared for from neo-natal onward. Bright, modern, and well designed we went to the auditorium, but it was freezing cold, so waited outside until it was time.

Dr. Richner is a Swiss medical doctor who worked in the Kantha Bopha I children’s hospital in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge took over. After their fall, King Norodom Sihanouk asked him to restore Kantha Bopha I children’s hospitals in 1991; it reopened in 1992. Since then, Dr. Richner through fund raising has since opened more hospitals including this one. In 2008, the fifth children’s hospital will be opened. Their annual statistics are impressive: 600,000 visits by sick children, 55,000 hospital admissions by severely sick children, 9,000 surgeries, 100,000 vaccinations, 5,500 births. They sum this up by stating that each month 2,800 children would end up dying if it were not for these hospitals.

The concert was a combination of concert and fund raising event. Dr. Richner would play a song on his cello with expertise, and then gave us statistics of the hospitals. He stated that Princess Anne from Great Britain who is Chair of the Save Our Children Foundation came to see the hospitals. She said she believed the technology used was too advanced for Cambodia. She told him that the technology should be on par with the economic status of the people it was serving and the technology here was better than they had in Britain. He said he told her that is why the Brits go to France for health care. Dr. Richner stated he has heard the same comments from the World Health Organization and they will not assist in funding since the technology is above the standards for the country. However, Dr. Richner argues that if they were on a level of the country’s economy, they would not be saving lives. He returns to Switzerland twice a year to perform a concert and fund raise. The auditorium was packed full and he received a standing ovation when he was finished.

Outside was a jungle of tuk-tuks waiting for their fares, but we did not have to worry. Somat was waiting close at hand ready to escort us to the correct tuk-tuk. Our ride there and back and his choosing to wait an hour and a half for us to reappear cost us $3.00. I gave him a $5.00 bill and he again did the triple bow with unadulterated humility. If anyone reading this blog should come here, look for driver 6325. You will not be sorry.

Dinner tonight was a diversion; we ate at the Mexican restaurant. Mexican food in Cambodia is about equal to Mexican food in Budapest. It was as good as it gets when you are not close to any authentic Mexican food outlets. As we were sitting on the patio, two little girls about 7 and 9 years old, came up to us selling bamboo and reed bracelets. We told them we did not need bracelets, but one little one persisted. She and Ron went round and round with bantering. She asked where we were from and Ron said Hungary. She immediately piped up with “That is in Europe”. He then said we were originally from the U.S. and she responded with “Washington, D.C.” is the capital. He then started throwing out other countries and she responded with the correct capital. Then she went back to bargaining for the sale of her bracelets. When he held strong that we did not have a need for them, she suggested they play three games of Tic-Tac-Toe. If he won 2 out of 3 games, she would leave us alone. If she won, we would fork over the money and get bracelets in return. The results were 1-1 with one null game, no winner. So to break the tie, our young sales woman suggested three goes at Rock, Paper, Scissors. We now have 10 thin bracelets and five thicker ones. It was worth the $5.00 for the entertainment value. I am now wearing one of the thin bracelets since I was assured it would bring me good luck. Actually, I am wearing it as a reminder of the harsh circumstances children have in different parts of the world that many of us are not even aware of. She is out selling cheap little bracelets until god knows what hour and still has the ability to learn country capitals. What would her life be like if she could get a proper education without having to spend her evenings out hawking goods?

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Chon, Chon


Thinking it better to get breakfast before Chon picks us up, we went to the Dead Fish Guesthouse and Restaurant. There is such an obvious glaring reality between those businesses that have embraced commercialism and those who have not had the funding to do it yet, but they are side by side. Dead Fish is tremendously large with different levels seemingly floating in the air making it look like a 3 dimensional chessboard. One level juts out to the right, but there are stairs to the left going to the next level where everyone on any level is visible to the whole establishment. It is definitely designed for the younger crowd, which grabs your attention when you see all of the very youthful employees organized like bees in a hive completing their morning tasks without any authority figure giving them directions. One twenty-something was carrying loads of 10 large bricks up three levels to construct something, while another young man carried an armload of pipes.

We met Chon in front of our hotel; he was not as chipper today as yesterday. His mood further deteriorated when he told us his idea for the day, but Ron interceded and told him which temples we wanted to see (rather Ron wanted to see, I was just along for the ride). The places on Ron’s agenda were farther out than what Chon had anticipated, so they renegotiated for $40.00 for today. There was a definite lack of conversation and explanation while riding around in the car.

Without a tour guide license, Chon could not go into the temples with us. He said that guides within the temples cost an additional $25.00 a day. Quite a number of people had them making it interesting to hear these different guides speaking English, Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, and Spanish. Personally, I think a guide would have been sensory overload.

At the end of the day that ended at 2:00, Chon tried yet again to get us to go to the dinner show, but we refused once again. He asked about us using him again tomorrow, but we said we had made other plans and he did not push it. He seemed to know he milked the cow try.

With the holiday fast approaching, we decided it wisest to stay here two additional nights, so cleared it with the desk. We will leave here on January 1st and go to Phnom Penh then. There is a double-decker bus with snacks and a bathroom for $10.00 for the five hour journey. The idea does not send me doing cartwheels, but is should be fine. We have to come back to book it.

At last we had to try the ATM machine again with Ron’s card. The moment I had been dreading fearing they cut off his card also. It worked and it spit out American dollars, not Cambodian Rieals. We went to get a snack, but it turned out to be so hearty, we just skipped dinner altogether.

We found the Blue Pumpkin a café with fantastic looking desserts has free WiFi, so we will check it out tomorrow.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Temples and More Temples


Chon charmed us into using his taxi services today, but for $25.00 for a day, it is a deal. The temples would be difficult to get to without a car or Tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are motorcycles with a carriage to seat four attached. There are hundreds of them around and each driver will beg to give you a ride. They are very inexpensive and show the devastation of the economy here. They are desperate for work, so we felt compelled to use Chon for our day’s travels to the temples to give something to the local community.

Chon is supposedly a trained tour guide, but has not taken the license exam yet. It is only offered every 2-3 years, depending on need and presumably costs $3,000, which he has not been able to afford. One portion of the exam is a language exam and I suspect his English is not up to par for that particular exam. Although we could communicate, it was difficult at times. When he was giving us information about the various temples, he was at a loss for words to fully explain what he wanted to say.

First order of business was finding a place to eat breakfast. Chon drove us to a restaurant on the temple grounds, where we could get the much needed coffee and some eggs. Coffee in most places is Nescafé, not brewed coffee. There is no Starbucks around. Chon looked a bit irritated that we needed to make this unscheduled stop, but once we were on our way, he returned to his happy self.

As you enter the temple grounds, you have to pass a check point where you show you entry pass. At each temple, there is again a control checking passes to make sure no one passed through the first check point. Fines for not having a pass while on a temple grounds is $350.00. We drove through lovely forested areas before coming to a wide and lovely lake. Chon explained this was the moat for Angkor Wat, but first a primer.

The Angkor area is the heart and spiritually center of the kingdom of Cambodia. Yes, they still have a king. Angkor was where temples were built from the 9th to the 13th centuries when the god-kings built temples to honor themselves or their parents. Angkor Wat is the largest and also has the distinction of being the world’s largest religious building. It was built by Suryavarman II in 1112. The temples switched from Hindu to Buddhist, back to Hindu and then Buddhist again depending on which religion held dominance at the time. Now it seems, most of them are rededicated to Buddha.

Now I have to admit that as magnificently superb as these temples are or were depending on their current state, I have never been one to pursue Asia studies with any great interest. I am more interested in the modern people then their ancient culture. After being to Thailand where the temples are bright and colorful with gold dripping down every precipice, these are colorless grey or blackened stones. What one needs to appreciate and I do are the intricate carvings on these stones. Gods, goddesses, demons, dancing girls, servants, and pictures of daily living are all memorialized in the stones. Depending on the religion of the time, determined which gods and demons were displayed. Just as the pyramids in Egypt, it boggles the mind how they constructed these temples without modern equipment. Then the intricacy of the carvings that go on for the length of a city block with such exactitude is awe-inspiring. To this day, no building can be built in Siem Reap that is taller than Angkor Wat, much to the dismay of the chain hotels. This was the same in Philadelphia at one time, when no building could be taller than William Penn’s hat on city hall, but when that law was changed, it ruined the skyline.

Chon took us to three of the major temples, each different and significant in their own way. By 2:30 we had had enough and returned to the hotel. He wanted to pick us up for a dinner buffet with Cambodian dancing, but we declined.

Fortunately, we were wearing our Crocs; the temple grounds are sandy and our shoes and feet were covered in red sand. Crocs go right in the shower with us to clean off. The air conditioning in the room kept us in for a few hours before heading out again. We went back to the Austrian restaurant for a beer and to use their WiFi, but it was not keeping a signal. After they rebooted their router twice, we gave up and left.

Dinner was at the Red Piano, a charming two level restaurant painted in a tomato red with dark wood beams and oversized pictures of the Wats on the walls. When we left, we were barraged by tuk-tuk drivers and finally accepted one’s offer to drive us the three blocks back to the hotel for $1.00. When we arrived, our driver Somat, wanted to be our driver for the next day, but we had arranged to meet Chon again, so we told Somat we would hire him for the day after.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Our Picks - Melaka, Malaysia


In Melaka or Melacca, it is spelled both ways, we were fortunate to come across an excellent taxi driver who did not rip us off. He drove us from the central station to the hotel and then from Melaka to the Air Asia airport in Kuala Lumpur. His English is excellent. Omar Sulkaflee 017-279-6739 or night reservations 606-335-2353

A great place to hang out, have a coffee or snack is the Dutch Harbor Cafe. They also have FREE WiFi, the only place we found that had WiFi. Dutch Harbor Café 39 Jalan Laksamana Melaka

For a hotel, we stayed at the Aldy China Town. They had just opened this location 6 days before we arrived. They do have another location, but we found this one to be great. The rooms are large, ultra clean and the service was excellent.

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Boxing Day


It was 2:30 am when the alarm went off. The taxi was going to be here for us at 3:30 am. We were up like a shot, least we fall back to sleep once again and miss our flight. When the phone rang at 3:00 am, we were duly impressed that it was a wake-up call since we never arranged for one, but they knew we were leaving at an unholy hour. We were downstairs by 3:15 and our driver pulled up at 3:20 as he said he would. The drive would take close to two hours, and I am not a chatty person before coffee, so I was hoping for silence. I feigned sleep so if there was a conversation to maintain, Ron would be responsible.

We were at the airport in due time and was able to check-in immediately. All of my nightmares about the luggage weight were unfounded. They took our bags without a second glance. It could have been the six books we left behind, the three pairs of pants we gave away, the umbrellas we trashed, the shoes donated to charity, or the fact that I finally came to terms with facial products not being the holy grail of youthful appearances. Hence our gross weight of the luggage was less than a new born infant born premature.

Air Asia used boarding tickets that look like receipts for the grocery store; cheap paper with print on them, no frills, no souvenir quality. When we were to board they had Express boarding for those who paid for the option and anyone over 65 years old, so I pushed Ron to the forefront and told him to save me a good seat. I may have a birthday coming up, but it is still not nearly close to 65 to try to worm my way in that line. Once they let you through, they don’t waste money or fuel bussing you six feet to the airplane, but make you hoof it. We found the plane on the Malaysia coastline, which really shortened the flight time. Good thing too, since there were mechanical problems with the plane, which delayed our departure. The pilots door was open and we saw him kicking the instrument panel, but minutes later announced there was nothing to worry about, so we all relaxed.

All of the seats are black leather with red seat belts, looking like and S&M parlor, but comfortable with lots of legroom. All of the leather gave it a new car smell until the flight attendants started selling their snacks. It is amazing to see how my white people will eat Top Ramen soup that they are paying a premium for just because they are on a plane. There was a perfectly good McDonalds in the airport, not to mention the Asian Kitchen restaurant. The smell took me back to my poverty days in Philadelphia where I lived on Top Ramen for weeks on end.

Landing in Siem Reap, (which means something like the Thais did not defeat us), was extraordinary. The airport is small, but quite lovely. We had to first line up and apply for our Visas after filling out the third form; the first two were given to us on the plane. If you had a photo, which we did, it was $20.00; otherwise, it was $22.00. They kept the passports and processed them down an assembly line, where at the end, one officer tried calling out the names and showed everyone waiting the picture. His pronunciation of names was not stellar. From here we went to Passport Control, a lengthy time consuming process where they took our picture yet again with computer cameras. Finally, it was through the line for Customs and we were free to be bombarded by taxi drivers trying to sell their services.

We went to the taxi desk to make the choice between a motor bike rickshaw for $1.00 or a taxi for $5.00. Notice the dollar sign? Everything is listed in US dollars. We converted 100 Euros into Cambodian Riels and were asked if we would like a porter to help us cart it off. Our taxi driver was a young man named Chon (pronounced Than). He was chirpy, but I was not. He tried selling us services and Ron caved in since he can be chirpy at times in strange countries with strangers. We did not have a hotel booked since Ron read in the Lonely Planet, you did not need to, but they did not mention Christmas or New Years. The hotel we picked out was fully booked and everywhere they usually refer to has been calling them to see if they had vacancies. Not a good sign. Chon had a recommendation, but Ron was hesitant since the guidebook said to steer clear of taxi drivers’ recommendations. We could have traveled from hotel to hotel, but decided to see what Chon came up with. His first attempt was a great hotel, three minutes from the market area, where there are restaurants and shops galore. The room is huge, very clean and $30.00 a night. We booked for four nights.

After we took a nap, Chon returned for us to take us to the temple on the mountain to see it by sunset. We first had to get our passes for Angkor Wat. We chose a three day pass for $40.00 each, but this gave us free admission this evening. Our first day does not start until tomorrow. Chon took us as far as the parking lot, and then directed us on where to climb the mountain, not one of my better honed skilled even if I was born under the sign of the mountain goat. The climb was not as some we have done, being a gradual incline upward. The temple was over 1,000 years old and still in great shape. People were all over it to watch the sun set from near the top, but I was grateful for making it to the temple. I hate heights and climbing up is easy; getting back down is vertigo valley. There were elephants up there where you could ride them down for $10.00, but I figured we had already done the difficult part of climbing up. I am not giving an elephant my money to do the easy part. They did allow me to play with them though. One put his trunk near my ear and the suction inward would have made the Hoover Company jealous. He could have pulled my hair out of my head just by sucking in.

As it was getting dark, there was a shrill sound in the air. At first, we thought it was a siren of some type notifying people of pending darkness and the dangers of climbing down the mountain, but then we heard a guide say it was cicadas. They could use this for an air raid siren, they are so loud. We meandered down the mountain to find Chon, who drove us back to the hotel. We arranged for him to pick us up at 9:00 am for a day’s tour of the temples for $25.00. He wanted us to do sunrise at another temple, but 5:00 am did turn us on to the idea.

Just a few doors down from us is a European style restaurant that has free WiFi. We mixed dinner with computer business, so I had German pork roast with brown gravy and potatoes. It was great, but Ron had a seafood curry and was disappointed. One of the menu items was Hungarian goulash!! Just cannot get away from it.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day


I have been reading the book We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. In spite of the author’s name, it is a woman. The book won the Orange Award for Literature in 2005. We picked up the book in South Africa last year, but I never got around to reading it. Ron had and strongly urged me to read it soon. Well I finished last night before going trying to find the Sandman. However, my mind was in a tidal wave of thoughts about ATM cards, credit cards, worrying about cash if the hotel could not get our card to work, running out of money before our trip is over, which is really quite ironic. For the first time ever, we have enough cash in our accounts to cover this trip in its entirety without having to use credit cards at all. However, with Bank of America putting a stop on my ATM card and our Hungarian bank’s ATM not working, we are having to struggle with the cash on hand. Ron’s card has worked once. As a last resort, we will try his again, but the sadist/masochist duality in me does not want to draw money from that account. After all, we have over 3,000 Euros sitting in a bank in Hungary waiting to be drawn on for this trip, so I really don’t see the reason we should pay Bank of America $5.00 for every withdrawal PLUS their currency conversion fee on top of it. With these boil, boil, toil, and trouble thoughts, sleep was elusive. When it finally arrived, my slumbering nightmares were about school shootings and watching someone prepare for the next one. This is Kevin’s fault or rather Ms. Shriver’s. She is solely responsible for these transmissions into my subconscious, because for certain if they were mine, I would be lining up bankers, not innocent school children.

Knowing that Santa did not find us, there was no real motivation to crawl out of bed when the alarm went off other than knowing Ron rested well and had his heart set on more explorations. He was sweet enough to go the Italy for coffee and pastries while I showered and dragged myself together.

As soon as we reached the lobby, we told the desk we wanted to pay our bill. If we had to arrange for money, we wanted to know if they were going to have issues with our card also. It went through like a charm, averting one cardiac arrest. When I explained to the desk clerk our problem with the restaurant last night, she explained they had a chip reader also, but were trained in the other method also for instances like this. She claims there is no reason why the restaurant should not have been able to run our card. We are having to leave here at 3:30 am to take a taxi to the airport in KL for an Air Asia flight at 7:00 am. If I did not have enough material to produce a trilogy of full length nightmare movies, here is an added bonus. Air Asia has a luggage weight limit of 15 kg. When we left Vienna, my carry on, which did have the bulk of our clothes and six books was weighing in at 42 kg. We have dumped things, have not purchased a thing that has not been consumable, and hopefully they will know how to run a credit card machine to charge us for the excess baggage. There is nothing left to leave behind.

Being conscientious, we went straight to a money changer and converted more Euros and then on to Libra, the restaurant we owed the money to clearing ourselves of debt. It was 11:30 am, but they were not open for the lunch trade. Ringing the bell and pounding on the door did not produce any results either. We knew there was a historic mosque in the area, so we hunted it down and found it on Harmony Road. This road is so aptly named because there is a mosque, a Buddhist temple and a Hindu shrine with two blocks. When we were in Thailand, the Buddhist temples really spoke to my soul, but there is something about a Hindu temple that speaks to my imagination. This one in particular was dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant headed god. When I started to take a picture of a small Ganesh statue, a monk ran up to me waving his hands. I said “No pictures”, but without responding he placed a lei of flowers around Ganesh’s adequate neck and then signaled that now he was ready for his close-up.

Ron being the ever optimist, we went back to try out the other hop-on hop-off bus to see if we could get to the Portuguese neighborhood, though I reminded him that most likely they were all Catholic and nothing would be open. We entered the bus for two Ringgits for an all day ticket. We did the full circuit taking close to two hours of our time, touring neighborhoods reminding me of the time I lost my way in NYC and ended up in Harlem, back in the early 70s. We never did get close to the area of the city Ron wanted to see, so we let it go and returned to our starting point.

Again, we tried Libra to pay our outstanding bill, but still at 3:30 the place was closed tight. The neighboring business was open and when I questioned him, he said they would open at 5:30. He then asked if he could help and when I told him why we were insistent on finding someone, he called the manager for us. We arranged to leave the money with the neighbor. Cynically, I will now have to monitor Ron’s charge card to make sure that charge did not actually go through. We stopped at the Geographer’s Café for a beer where Christmas carols were BLASTING. I really cannot take it seriously hearing “I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas” when Ron and I are the whitest things around. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” are unnerving also in this environment. Perhaps they don’t play “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” because of moral issues; hmmm…I wonder.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve


Christmas Eve and it is feels like Fourth of July outside, with temperatures around 85 degrees and 85% humidity, but it is better than the 30 degrees in Budapest. We went to Italy for breakfast or at least the bakery called Italy. We cannot get enough of the Portuguese custard pies. When they will appear again on our radar is anyone’s guess; best to fill up on them now.

Walking to the historic city center, we stopped at the Dutch Harbor Café to check their hours. This is the one place we have seen that offers WiFi. We shall return, but onward to the tourism office. I am surprised Ron waited this long before sniffing it out; it is usually the first thing on his agenda. His motto is “Leave no tourism office undiscovered and then rape and pillage their knowledge”. When the tour office is especially convenient, he has been know to make frequent trips in to the office during a stay in one city. Workers have learned that if they are not on Ativan before he arrives, they will be by the time he leaves. He prepares his list of questions, before entering, but this list never seems to diminish as they are answered, but rather grow exponentially. I witnessed one young worker who actually was able to able for retirement by the time we left the chairs facing him. Sad really to see someone so young, age so quickly.

Armed with all of the information he thought we would need for our two days stay, we left. Directly across the street is the Museum of History, next to where the Christ Church is located, not a gathering ground for tourist schlock and bicycle taxis. They are not so efficient, but they are memorable for those who have not seen them before. Each competes with the others in a gaudiest bike from Mr. Black’s worst decorated bike list. As if the lime, hot pink and canary yellow flowers are not enough, some have attached generators to their tri-wheeled taxi in order to have miniature Christmas lights blink on and off while you are serenaded by East Indian love songs in that high pitched shrill nails of the chalkboard sort of undulating vocal noise. Needless to say, we passed up this cultural opportunity.

The entrance fee for the Museum on History was five Ringgits, but also included the Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Education, Museum of Literature, St. Paul’s Church, the Governor’s Museum, and still another governmental museum. With the exception of the last two, we did them all. It was an engaging hour. Well, I exaggerate, but it was not too much longer than this. The Museum of Literature was especially disappointing. The first room was a diorama of Folktales, which I had high hopes, but then after that was just a propagation of Islam and Arabic with famous letters written by one of the Sultans to the King of England. It was not until the last room, that Malay cultural literature was continued, but none of the descriptions were in English.

For an educational museum, there was not much to see, but a diorama with a teacher holding a stick over a child’s head while they copied from the board onto their individual slates. Other exhibits were old report cards and school memorabilia. One of the other guests was a man who had gone to school here and recounting his memories for his son. Listening to this was worth the price of admission to the whole complex. From the son’s accent, they have been living in North America.

Based on Ron’s investigations, we knew there where two hop-on hop-off buses that stopped on this circle. He had wanted to see the Portuguese section of the city and this was the best way to get there. One bus is a double-decker while the other is single and they have different routes. According to the ‘tour’ bus map, the red double-decker should have taken us to this Eurasian part of the city, so we hopped on and paid our five Ringgits for a full days travel. Unlike in most cities, where a hop-on and off bus offers a commentary about what you are seeing, this one was silent with the exception of the jabbering of the locals who use this as local transport. After two blocks, we made a stop, and then we went for over thirty minutes before the next stop. Just like a local bus, you have to tell the driver when you want to get off, but this was not clear to us. We rode the whole circuit. With the hypermarket Tesco and a mall being the highlights of the ride, we realized we were not getting any closer to anything Portuguese then when we left Budapest.

Actually, the real highlight was waiting for the bus. By the bus stop is a gentleman with three snakes of varying size and variety along with a huge iguana. The iguana, a café latte brown with some black stripes on his tail, was quite dashing and with his three inch nails, making it certain he could cut a rug both figuratively and literally. His head had a mass of horns coming out of it like a deformed unicorn, but such a pleasant docile personality to spend hours being on display. We never actually saw him move, I hope he was not stuffed. Unquestionably, the snakes were real. For ten Ringgits, the man would drape his 15 foot yellow snake around your neck, take your picture and then use his portable photo printer to print it. If yellow was not your color, he had other choices in patterns of browns and blacks. Quite clever, but since I have posed with snakes before, both the reptile and mammal versions, I declined the offer to model for him. It occurred to me that he must have to give the snakes a rest once a week or so for feeding. Who would want a snake wrapped around their neck with a big bulge half the way down its body?

Being Christmas Eve, Ron had to do the Catholic thing. We stopped at St. Francis Xavier’s Church to find out masses were at 7:30 pm in Tamil and10:30 pm in English. Back to the hotel to read and rest, we left again at 6:30 to ensconce me at the Dutch Harbor Café across the street from the church, where I would check e-mail and hope my battery did not run out before Ron reappeared. The owner is American, born in England and lived most of his life in Minnesota. He was a commercial pilot and after retiring was offered a teaching position by Air Asia. He opened this restaurant because his friends told him if he was going to whine about not finding a good pizza or other Euro or American food menus, he should open his own restaurant. It sits on the Dutch Harbor, hence the name.

When Ron returned, he stated that being a Tamil language mass, he was the only lily white person there. The church was overflowing into the courtyard and beyond to the edge of the street. He was not in awe of the music, partially due to the language, but also the instruments were too different for his ears.

We went looking for a recommended restaurant that serves a particular version of Indian food indigenous to Malaysia, but when we found it, it was closed. I did not bring my wallet thinking that carrying the backpack with the computer was enough; we were relegated to finding a restaurant that accepted cards. By chance we found one and it must be the gayest restaurant in Malaysia. The ‘hostess’ was so butch she makes my father look like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Each of the waiters was more flaming than the next and we half expected a pyrotechnic display before we left. We verified they took credit cards and agreed that MasterCard was acceptable.

Being a balmy evening, we sat outside with diners at five other tables. We ordered a full meal, being Christmas Eve and all. As the evening progressed, additional tables and chairs were set out on the street to fulfill the growing demand for food and drinks. When we were ready to go, the count was up to twelve tables all filled with customers waiting. Asking for the bill, Ron handed over his charge card. It seemed like an impossibly long time before the waiter retuned and said “I am sorry sir, there is a problem with your card. We have a chip card reader and your credit card does not have the chip.” I had read about this issue in Europe, but would not have imagined it would have appeared here already. Apparently, all of the credit card issuers in Europe are changing their cards to have a computer chip in them. The retailer inserts the card into a reader, negating the need for swiping it; supposedly this is to reduce fraud and problems with the magnetic strips. However, since North American cards do not have this chip, travelers have encountered this problem when traveling. The solution is to tell the retailer to swipe the card the ‘old fashioned’ way as their chip readers are dually capable. They supposedly tried this, but it did not work. I told them to punch in the numbers manually, but they said that did not work either. Between us, we only had 50 Ringgits and the bill was 69. After discussing the matter with the waiter, then the hostess, we finally worked our way to the manager. I kept insisting that if they did it right, it would work fine. Proof was that it worked in KL just days ago. They insisted they were not trying again. We gave them our 50 Ringgits and signed an IOU for 19 more. How humiliating is that? Merry Christmas! Where is Santa Claus when you need him?

When we returned to the hotel at 11:30, the lobby was black and the front door was barred shut. The way things were going it would not have surprised me if we found the only hotel with a curfew and we were locked out of it. As we peered into the window, we saw a security guard who opened the side door for us and had our key ready. Not quite Santa Claus, but he did do in a pinch.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Our Picks - Kuala Lumpur


This is the hotel we stayed at and would use again if in Kuala Lumpur. The staff was great, friendly and warm. The hotel is clean and the rates are really reasonable for the budget traveler. It is not connected to the American Comfort Inn chain.

Comfort Inn 65 Cangkat Bukit Bintang 50200 Kuala Lumpur +603-2141-3636 e-mail

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Good-bye Kuala Lumpur, Hello Melaka


Sleeping in until 9:00 am was a real treat. I never seem to be able to sleep that late in Budapest. After going for coffee, we repacked and readied to leave the hotel by noon, but the laundry was not going to be ready until 1:00. The hotel, a real winner will be added to Our Picks page on our web site. They were exceptionally kind. We found out at the last that there was WiFi right in the lobby, but alas they don’t serve coffee.

A taxi ride to the bus station on a Sunday, one would think it was would be a no brainer task, however, even on a Sunday, the traffic was nose to tail. Once at the bus station we had to fight the crowds to find out where to buy our tickets to Melaka. It was more crowded than any U.S. airport the day before Thanksgiving. Trying to get through with luggage was like trying to fit whale in a sardine can. Our tickets for one way were only 9.50 Ringgets, but with a two hour bus ride ahead of us, we had to use the bathroom first. Of course, the men’s rooms are on the 2nd floor. Finally making it to the bus, there were only two seats left and miraculously, they were together. Fully wide reclining seats made the two hour ride a joy. There was a little boy across the aisle from me. At one point, my seat went flying back, surprising the hell out of me as I am sure it did the man behind me. The little monster across from me had pulled the lever while I was reading. He must have been about nine years old, but he never stopped moving.

Hoping for lush scenes of countryside as we traveled out of the city, we were disappointed with views of high rises that were dilapidated, run down businesses, and with the usual detracting signs on buildings, it could have been boring highway riding anywhere, any country. When we pulled into the final stop, it was a little nerve rattling from the build up we had heard about this city. It looked like a beautiful woman that is more than plain before the make-up artist transforms her. Melaka like all of Malaysia has bowed to many rulers from the Hindus to the Europeans. The Portuguese ‘conquered’ Melaka in 1511 by Alfonso d’Albuquerque and kept it under Portuguese control for 130 years. In 1641, the torch was passed to the Dutch who maintained power for 154 years. Then the British had their turn from 1824 until the country gained independence 50 years ago. Actually, this is their 50th anniversary of independence and a free nation, August 31, 1957.

Indeed smaller than KL, the traffic here is no less threatening than it larger counterpart. We made our way to the Hotel Aldy Chinatown, a second hotel for the Hotel Aldy ( This newest property just opened a week ago and they are having a few growing pains; however, it is modern and lovely. Not finding any towels in the bathroom and the nozzle broken on the toilet spray hose, we reported it and within 2 minutes, there were two people here to fix the problem.

Walking the city in the neighborhood was not all that impressive, but there is an absence of sidewalks. Either you walk in the street or you walk through the stores’ entry ways where there are a number of large rectangular holes in the cement, which I am guessing is for drainage. We walked down to the city center where the Dutch influence is still evident. A whole block of buildings were painted salmon red including Christ Church and the Dutch governors’ official residence. The stores close much earlier than in KL, thus the number of people out and about are far less, but the traffic is still rush out like at 8:00 pm on a Sunday night.

Across from our hotel is an ‘Italian bakery’ like a non sequitur in this culture, but lighting a familiar flame in my ancestral longing. When we went in, there was nothing that could be identified as Italian baked goods, but they were featuring Portuguese egg custard cups that they just started serving. Three for 3.30 was a bargain, so we indulged in six. We took them to our hotels restaurant for a coffee, but their espresso machine is not working yet and the best they could offer was Nescafe. We went back to the bakery for an espresso and ate our cakes. They truly were as exceptional as those we used to buy during our weeks in Lisbon.

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Funny Story 2


Four women in full black Muslim identical dress including the full burkas with only their eyes showing were standing with the Twin Towers in the background. The sole man with them was taking their picture. I had to keep from rolling with laughter imagining them showing their friends their vacation photos. “This is me, or at least I think this is me. Now who was with me in this photo?”

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Birds, Bees, Orchids


Having a room free of insects and with clean sheets, makes for a good night’s sleep. The television even has more channels in English than we do in Hungary. An interesting cultural note is that in all three of the hotels so far, the bathroom is truly a water closet. The shower is not separated elsewhere. You shower where you toilet and the toilet paper is under some protective covering so it does not get wet. Also, each bathroom has a separate hose to be used like a bidet. Now I thought this was a custom for women only, but when I went to the men’s room at the Handicraft Center, all of the stalls there had this hose with a nozzle also. I have heard that Orthodox Jewish men have some restrictions about touching themselves, so perhaps this is the same with Muslims also. I am not going to ask around.

We had to break into the Euros to exchange money this morning in order to get breakfast. We have not had Ron try his luck with his ATM card again. If Bank of America has shut down his card too, well I just don’t want to think of that situation at the moment. When we passed restaurants on our way to Starbucks, I rationalized why we do go there. Besides the fact that none of the restaurants serve coffee, we witnessed what people here eat for breakfast. At 9:00 am, people are sitting at the outdoor restaurants eating duck, pork soup, soup with noodles, another words, all of the same things they eat for lunch and dinner. Now I have been known to eat pizza, left over spaghetti, and chicken for breakfast, but I don’t make it a regular practice. What you don’t see here is what you would consider breakfast foods unless you go to the American style places. Rationalization part II: Starbucks gives free WiFi. Even if I am not going to use it, it is nice to support them. With Internet cafés all over, I have yet to see any WiFi hotspots other than Starbucks.

The National Museum is located near the Bird Sanctuary, the Orchid Farm, and the Butterfly World. None of them are accessible by public transportation, so we had to take a taxi. The hotel desk clerk told us not to pay more than 10 Ringgets for the ride. Well this knowledge did not bid us well as three taxi drivers refused us for that price. We suggested we pay the meter, but was told that they will not use meters in the city since the traffic is so bad. After settling on 20 Ringgets we found a ride.

The National Museum is another gargantuan complex with little open on the grounds. The museum itself is open to the public for an entry fee of 2 Ringgets. It has been years since I have been on a football field, but my guess is that the whole of the museum is smaller than one. What was there was interesting, but there was not a great deal there. A foot bridge connects this underutilized space over the eight lane highway to the National Planetarium. Walking through the parking lot, you can find the Bird Sanctuary. Admission here is 30 Ringgets and despite the fact that it is the world’s largest, we thought the admission was for the birds and all too high. Across the street, the Orchid Gardens was charging a reasonable 2 Ringget admission, so we submerged ourselves in orchids and the national flower, the hibiscus. We went to the butterfly gardens in Thailand, so skipped it here. Returning to the bird side of the road, they have coupon taxis where the rates are fixed by zones, giving us a bargain fare of 15 Ringgets for the ride back to the hotel.

After dropping our laundry at the service next door, we took the monorail to the Malaysian Cultural Center. They have a 45 minute dance performance highlighting the different dance styles throughout Malaysia. We did not realize that parts of Malaysia are not connected to the peninsula, but across the sea. There are two states attached to Indonesia, called Malaysian Borneo, Sabah and Sarwak with Brunei in between. Sabah and Sarwak are larger than the entire peninsular country. The show was vibrant with costumes from all of the different Malaysia States; this country of 24 million has a cosmic number of cultures, costumes, and dance traditions. What really dazzled us was the way the women dancers use their hands in dance. One dance was a hand dance while sitting on the floor. They are able to bend their hands backwards and make unusual contortions making them extremely demonstrative. We found later that they have to start bending their hands backward starting at 2 years old to stretch them to perform these moves.

Then it was time for a nap, reading, and writing. Afterward, we went walking down the street around the corner for a dinner place. Basically, they all look alike, so it is difficult to make an informed decision. Basically, we stopped when we reached a section of the street we had not eaten at yet and where they had menu items other than fish. I don’t eat fish at all, but there were a number of Internet articles on fish contaminated with a new not easily detected parasite throughout Asia, giving Ron pause about ordering seafood. Normally, this would be his choice. We again had chicken curry with fried rice and greens cooked in garlic, sharing a large beer. It is one of the few things on the menu we can understand other than deer, or frogs that does not have gills.

We wandered over to Starbucks to check e-mail and confirm our reservation for our hotel for tomorrow night. We leave for Melaka tomorrow afternoon. It was a tight fight to find a table near an outlet so I could plug in the computer. The place was mobbed at 10:30 pm and they are open until 2:00 am.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Around the City in Hotels


Ron looked at the map and found an area with a high concentration of hotels. We took the monorail to that area and to our delight; there was a Starbucks at the bottom of that station. Sitting at the bottom was a San Francisco Coffee Company. We had an Americano breakfast. Ron had scrambled eggs with sausages and I had a bagel. From here we went from hotel to hotel to find there was no room at the inn or the inn or the inn. All of the places with credit card stickers in the windows and a bit more upscale than our last two places were booked solid for the next two nights. With each refusal we asked for a recommendation and were sent further down the street. We happened on the Comfort Inn, not to be confused with the American chain, it is a small and independent hotel, but the lobby was clean and attractive. We asked if they had a room and gave us keys to look at two rooms. Eureka! They were clean and suitable. We booked our two nights here.

Relieving our backs of our luggage one more time, which they seem to be getting heavier even without any purchases, we went in search of some culture. We heard we should see the Malaysian Handicraft Center where handicraft artisans are weaving, making pottery, and batiking in the traditional ways. Going from here to there and then over yonder, we found yet another mall with a gigantic Christmas tree in the center courtyard. Christmas carols playing throughout made this white monstrous tree seem a bit Christmasy after all. This upper scale mall was enhanced by a Jaguar car dealership and a concierge desk with uniformed employees. By walking through the mall, we were able to find the road to lead us to the Handicraft Center even when everyone said it was too far to walk, we did it. It really was not far from this mall.

As we neared the Center, it seemed it was closed; there were no tour buses or cars in the parking lot. Fearing that we walked all this way for no good reason, we were delighted to find it was indeed open. This is really a series of little independent shops strung together in a Malay style building, each selling their own line of products. The first was the clothing store with Malay woven clothes for men and women. As hard as I looked, I was only able to find one shirt that I would be caught dead in and then only if I had died in Hawaii or Miami Beach. Other than those two places, this shirt would live it entire life span in the closet, not making for a good investment, I left it behind.

Batik artists, weavers, and potters must be in short supply. There was no craftsperson crafting, not even crafting spaces were obvious with the exception of one two harness loom that was set up, but not a single pass through had been made. In all of the other stores, I had repeated déjà vu experiences and then realized that thanks to Pier One Imports and similar stores in the States, where “We shop the world so you don’t have to” we have been privy to these decorative items for years and the novelty has worn off years ago.

Back in our hotel area, we walked the neighborhood making this a fortunate part of this move. We would never have known this neighborhood was here otherwise missing out on dozens of new stores and restaurants. On one side street near our hotel, there is a dim sum restaurant that spreads out over the sidewalk to the edge of traffic. We lunched there. Four varieties of dim sum and a large beer was only $6.00. I am in constant conflict over whether travel is about seeing museums or just witnessing the people, but I settled on a combination of the two so far. It seems unconscionable that we have spent so much time viewing hotels and not museums, but then again, they have tons of motels and few museums, so it seems to work out.

Near the hotel we are currently staying at, there is a shop that does foot massage, regular massage, cupping, and ear candling. I suggested to Ron that he have ear candling done to rid what may be some waxy build up so he would have no excuse for not hearing me. He surprised me by readily agreeing to it. For the uninitiated, ear candling is when a specially made hollow wickless candle with a tapered bottom is placed in the ear and allowed to burn. There is no candle wax drip. While burning, the candle is drawing out wax and other impurities from you ear canal. It is also claimed it helps headaches, migraines, sinus problems, and stress. I had seen it done in California many times at different fairs, but never experienced it myself. Before they start, they show you the candle held up to the light so you see it is empty and hollow. For 60 RM (Malaysian Ringgets or about $14.00) Ron spread on his side on a massage table with the young lady massaging the back of his ear, with one hand while holding the candle with another. She kept a towel wrapped around the candle during this process to keep a seal around the ear. For fifteen minutes on each ear, the candle burns and the back of the ear is massaged. By the time the candle is burned down to about one inch, they throw it in a bowl of water. When you are completely done, they open the candle to show you the ash like content of what was drawn out and burned by the flame. So far, I have not had to repeat myself once.

Cupping is something different, which I may try at some point. They take wooden type drinking cups and heat the rims. The cups are then placed up and down you leg with the heat forming a seal. This is supposed to stimulate the circulation.

Streets blossom with restaurants once evening arrives. Cars cannot get through without playing dodge ball with people as the ball. Tables and chairs appear from nowhere with portable kitchens suddenly spewing steam from pots in your face. We had dinner at such a restaurant this evening. We were hungry for a coconut curry. As you walk down the street everyone is trying to get your business, so they shove menus at you. We found seats at a table in the street, ordered red chicken curry with coconut milk, pork ribs in a lemon sauce, fried rice, a green vegetable that is really stringy, and a large beer we shared. This was by far our most extensive and expensive meal yet. The bill came to 75 Ringgets about 25 Euros. It was also enough food for three. The lemon sauce on the pork ribs was outstanding.

Foot massages are ultra popular here. At 10:00 pm, we were walking off some of our dinner in the neighborhood. There were chaise lounge chairs lined up on the sidewalk and people from twenty-somethings to those that are septo or octo-genarians, were getting massages done.

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The traffic is so bad here; you have to make a reservation for crossing the street. If you miss you allotted time, you have to reschedule for another day.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Someday We Will See the Sights


We have to be out of our room by noon, breakfast options are few and far between. We were warned that many things would be closed today since it was a public holiday. This is the day when the Muslims slaughter the sacrificial animals: cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep. Thankfully, it is a family event and not a public one, but all government offices, banks, and many shops are closed. This did not stop the street vendors in our China town area from breaking open for business this morning. Even women who were obviously Muslim by their dress were out shopping around for bargains. As a last resort, we went to the great market in search of coffee. It is difficult to find here in restaurants. The only place there serving java is the White Coffee Company. As it turned out, this is more of a coffee enhanced creamy white drink served hot, rather than real honest to goodness down to earth Arabica bean coffee.

We took a long walk to the old colonial train station. The design was interesting, but it is used for a limited number of passenger trains now. By the time we returned, it was time to get our gear and get out of our hotel, but we had two hours to kill before we could check into the new place. Starbucks offers free WiFi Internet access in all of their stores and without a time limit. We hunkered down there and downloaded e-mail, mostly spam with 732 messages caught in the spam filter. One message I wish were spam was a notice from Bank of America. They cut off my ATM card due to suspicious activity; country unknown; if this is an error, please call this 800 number immediately. Well if anyone there had a modicum of critical thinking when they developed that message, it would have occurred to them that if the country were “unspecified” their 800 number was not going to work to call them. It went on to say that $299.49 was withdrawn from the account. Remember the airport fiasco? All I received were messages saying the PIN was invalid or the system could not complete the transaction at this time. So I sent off a secure e-mail through online banking to tell them where I was and what happened. I am positive I will receive a form e-mail telling me they cannot handle this through e-mail as secure as it is and I will need to call their toll-free number. I am planning on being out the $299.49 and never seeing it again. Bank of America is the 2nd largest RIP OFF bank there is. Even the locals have not figured out how to use the phone cards here for make calls from pay phones, my chances are nil. Add that to the fact that the time difference is a major one and I know from experience though they say they have a 24 hour service, it is really only 9-5 PST. I went that route the last time from Hungary. It took seven phone calls and a dozen e-mails. I am just hoping that they have not cut off Ron’s card. If they did, we could very well be in trouble at some point in the vacation. I cannot remember if I have PIN numbers for my credit cards or not.

We checked into the new hotel. Ron went to check out the room, said it was okay and I paid for three nights. I am hoping that the stains on the sheets and pillow cases are only ones that years of washing were not able to remove. I intend to sleep in my clothes and with a towel over the pillow.

We took in Little India today. Definitely not as lively as China Town, but we did get a good meal at an authentic little place. Our seatmate across from us told us that this was a special menu today since “they” are celebrating a holiday. We were not sure if “they” were the Muslims or the Hindus and did not ask. While we were eating the skies opened and a torrential rain started. It was coming down so hard; the restaurant had to close the doors that normally would have made it open to the street. We were fortunate to have found seats inside or we would have been soaked within seconds.

By 8:30, Ron could not last any longer and wanted to return to the hotel. I pleaded otherwise and lost the battle. When I opened the wardrobe, I found a creature and shut it with rapid fire dexterity. I would rather have slept in the coffin room than one with visitors. Tomorrow may just include another move. I am sleeping with my clothes on, the sheets are not the cleanest and Ron has to have the a/c on all night. I am freezing. It sounds like the Malaysian Speedway outside and some Indian singer is crooning next door until the wee hours.

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Funny Story:


A Buddhist monk in saffron robes with an aura of calm comes over to us with his carved wooden bowl and a stack of bills in the bottom. He obviously is asking for a donation as we have been accustomed to in Thailand. Ron reaches into his pocket, while the monk’s face is breaking into a smile of gratitude. Ron throws a coin in the bowl with hearty feelings of generosity. The monk looks at the coin, looks at Ron, and then takes the coin and throws it on the table while saying something which did not sound like a chant for nirvana and left us.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jet Lagged Still


My internal alarm went off long before the mechanical one. By 3:00 am, I was awake and could not fall asleep again. I refused to sit in the bathroom to read; my only other option was relaxing and trying to coax sleep back for a few more hours. My last peek at the clock was at 5:00 am, then the next thing I knew there was an annoying noise grating on my nerves. It was the alarm clock. Ron woke long enough to ask for another hour, so I shut off the alarm not to wake again until 10:00 am.

Out the door in search of breakfast, the hotel does not provide it and doesn’t have a restaurant, we combed the streets. There are no ‘breakfast’ restaurants and all that were open were offering the same menu that services the lunch and dinner crowds. Noodles with chili are not our idea of breakfast food. Ready for the hissing session? We went to Starbucks. Yes, Malaysia has what Hungary does not, Starbucks. To top it off, they have free WiFi too in all of their locations. This will be a favorite resting place for checking e-mails and uploading the blog. We have not seen any signs for WiFi anywhere, though there are numerous Internet places. A medium latté is only $2.00 as opposed to double that in the States or even in Vienna. What a bargain.

The traffic here is incredibly congested. Walking across the street is hazardous to your survival. They do have that little green man sign that signifies it is your life opportunity to go from one corner to the next, but the vehicle drivers see this as another opportunity to pay “Hit or Miss”, completely ignoring the red light that is supposed to keep them in place. We decided we needed to explore the ‘extensive network of transportation options available. Buses are out. They are prone to the traffic jams that the cars are stuck in and movement is negligible. The doors are kept open and they are so full, passengers are straddling the steps holding on while the bus inches along in the myriad of the motoring nightmare. Motorcycles are the only modes of transport that are not inconvenience by the flow, but they weave in and out. If one attached yarn to them, they would create a most dazzling tapestry within a few blocks.

There are no subways, but they do have a subway like train that for the most part is above ground. With an insufficient number of cars, it is quickly full to capacity and the ‘beware of pickpockets’ announcement is continually repeated. We bought a day ticket for unlimited usage, but it is for this light rail train only. To use the monorail that roams parts of the city, we would have to buy another ticket or full day pass. Our day pass cost us $1.50, so we intended to get our monies worth, but first things first, we need to find a place to stay come Thursday. Ron only booked us for two nights where we are at and he refused to stay longer. The lack of a window is more than he can handle. I rather like the darkness, finding it easier to sleep.

We made our way to the tourism office at the ‘great market’, but it was closed. The sign redirected us to the main office. The great market is a huge building built in the late 1800s. today is houses crafts people and merchants to sell their wares. It is two stories with few food options upstairs. With tons of things on display, there is nothing that catches our eye as a must have item. All of the colors of the fabrics are color combinations or patterns that our Western tastes curl our noses up at.

Ron had his list of questions for the tourism people, so we headed in that direction. The central station is ultra modern, but is not for regular trains, but for the light rail and the monorail. Planning our great escape from the city, Ron asked where to spend a couple of days outside of KL, so we will leave here for two nights. We also have a 7:00 am flight coming up, so we had to find a hotel closer to good transportation. We are taking an Air Asia flight and they do not fly out of the major airport. Getting there is going to be tricky at that hour of the morning, with 2 hours ahead check-in time. He made a suggestion of a hotel across the street, so we will check it out.

On the tourism’s list of 10 top festivals in KL is one called YES Year End Sale. Apparently, this is a big event. After peppering the tourism guy with questions, we went to the KL City Center, located in the twin towers of the city. The twin towers until very recently held the distinction of being the tallest buildings in the world. This was just outdone by Taiwan. The buildings are really beautifully designed and it holds a humungous shopping center with all of the best names. Prada and Louis Viutton are there as well as every other designer name you can mention. Along side of them, there is the mandatory McDonalds, KFC, Chilis, San Francisco Coffee Company, California Pizza Company, Kenny Rogers Roasters, and the likes of every other bit of Americana imaginable. In the center courtyard is a skyscraping tree decorated for Christmas and all of the halls are decked with holly. It is seemingly incongruent to see woman strolling around with burkas or just hajib head scarves. This is not just a browsing mall; everyone is loaded down with bags. This community is affluent.

Outside the back of the mall in the twin towers courtyard, there is a large pond with a fountain reminiscent of Las Vegas. The water sprays, dances, and performs, but not as elaborately as in LV.

We looked at the hotel recommendation. The only thing it has going for it is that it has windows in the rooms. The rooms are small, but at $15.00 a night, you cannot ask for much more. I would have opted for something better, but that would only increase the transport issues for flights.

Searching for some cultural events, we had been informed by the tourism office to go to the Malaysia Cultural Center to find out what was being offered. The grounds are well appointed, but interestingly, they only offer events a few times a week. They suggested we attend the dinner show next door since it was daily there.

For dinner, we ventured back to our hotel territory and thought we were going to the restaurant where the man had been so nice to us the day before. However, we undershot his place by one outdoor restaurant and did not realize it until we had ordered. We shared satay of chicken and beef, fried rice, and vegetables in garlic sauce. The satay was not very peanuty, so this was disappointing. Sitting behind us was a real blow-heart full of himself older man who started carrying on with the Australian couple sitting next to us. I was so relieved when he said he was Canadian and not American.

Across from the restaurant is a shop that is nothing but Christmas décor. It seems so out of place is this city of primarily Muslim people. I cannot say for a fact, but I don’t think they have a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. As I was walking to the curb to walk to the door of the shop, I felt something knock into my ankle, which caused me to jump. When I looked down, I caught the last glimpse of something small and black flit under the cartons of the knock off designer watch street vendor. He looked at me and said what I think was “RAT”. I am hoping he said “CAT”. I did not see a tail, so I am not certain.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mile High


Getting through Customs and Passport Control was relatively easy and swift. We were advised to use the ATM machine inside the luggage area. There is only one machine and it was not spitting out any cash for anyone. Once we were through the doors, throngs of taxi drivers bombarded all of the passengers with offers of rides, but we only wanted the ATM machine. My second nightmare was about to come to fruition. I tried my Euro card from our Hungary bank. It would not work with the message “Sorry, we are temporarily unable to complete this request”. Okay, fine, I used my California account ATM card, but the same story. We then tried another bank’s machine with the same results. I started to panic. We were relying on using ATMs while we were away. The third machine was the same issue yet again, but we watched others leave the machines hopelessly as poor as they approached them, so it could not be us. We went to a money exchange and changed enough cash for a taxi.

People bombard you with advice on which taxi to take and it is supposed to be a set rate, but amazingly it is not. We finally agreed on a price of 90 RM for our ride, climbed in and off we drove. They drive on the same side as the British and since this was part of the colony until only fifty years ago, this makes sense. The driver drove, we slept, he drove some more and we slept some more. Two and a half hours later, we arrived a block from our hotel. Still feeling drugged, not fully coherent, he told us that our hotel was a half block away, but cars were not allowed down the street. In our hazed awareness, it seemed like we were in the middle of an evacuation plan for a city, surrounded by unbelievable crowds. The mobs of people surrounding us were overwhelming. The smells, the colors, the sounds were sensory overload at high speed.

We checked into the China Town Hotel 2 and were asked for the full payment. We had to kindly plea for more time explaining the dilemma with the ATM machines at the airport. The problem continued a block away from the hotel. I know I have the correct PIN code for our Euro account, though our bank has been bought out by another bank. When I called them before leaving, they assured me the card would be good until January 1st. Due to the time needed, I did not bother going to get a replacement card. Our CA account, I have no idea what is happening with that, but it is Bank of America and I have had nothing but problems with them this year. Strangely, Ron tried his card and it worked fine. At least we will not have to get advances from credit cards. The hotels do not take plastic.

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur: overcrowded, dirty, polluted, high tech, bustling to the point of ridiculousness, rainbow of color in the skin of people and the clothes they wear. I keep asking myself where the beautiful sights they had on their television commercials that state “Malaysia, Truly Asia” and have all of the magnificent scenery. It certainly was not this city. Perhaps it is jet lag, it is seven hours ahead of Budapest, or it is possibly just not enough preparation, but I keep asking myself why we are here.

We keep returning to our hotel situated in the heart of the China Town area. We have napped a great deal; it is easy to do since our room has no windows. The only light when everything is turned off is what leaks from under the door from the hallway. We only have this room for two nights. Ron was assured by the Lonely Planet guide swearing that you should only book a couple of nights and then find the rest when you are on the ground.

By 10:30, we are ready to call it quits and actually sleep restfully for the night to get on track with the time change. The alarm is set for 8:30 am.

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