Bangkok

Trip Facts:

 Hotel:

Our hotel was the Padi Madi Guest House located on Sukhimvit Road. This is a shopping oriented part of town and a popular spot for tourists to stay. We were located steps from Thong Lo station and enjoyed the convenience of this as well as many jokes about the station names in Bangkok. The managers: Fred from France and his Thai girlfriend Pimmy were gracious hosts and despite many small issues with our room (leaky AC, tiny wet & moldy bathroom, & spotty power), we enjoyed our stay there due to their hospitality and helpfulness. Pimmy’s mum and brother also work there and were also very friendy. Even though her mum asked Tushar a couple of times if he was married in a flirtatious manner, I let it go without thinking twice but later noted this as one of many observations about the duality of interracial relationships with Thai women and how it ties in with the culture there.

Getting around:

There are many ways to get around Bangkok. To beat the intense traffic, choose the skytrain or the river taxis. Using a combination of these will get you close to most in-city destinations. There are also many taxis, Tuk Tuks, and moped taxis, which are best for short distances. The skytrain is efficient and runs until midnight – expect to mingle with all sorts of locals as well as Western business visitors and tourists who we found to be mostly male. The river taxis are a great experience and at only 15 Baht (50c), are economical too. However, on 3 of the 4 trips we took on the the river taxi, Tushar was overcharged by cheating boat conductors so beware of that!

Taxis are the most effective way to get around on wheels without being ripped off – the drivers use the meter so its fool proof. There were many times that drivers turned us down for rides though, likely wanting to avoid traffic hotspots or stick to their particular areas. Tuk Tuks are notorious for aggressive drivers that take advantage of tourists. Their prices should be the same as taxis, but you have to pre-negotiate with them because they do not have meters. They are also notorious for asking you to stop off at their “sponsor” shops, so that they can receive coupons for free gasoline. This is really annoying because when you refuse, they’ll drop you wherever you happen to be, often far from public transportation and main roads.

We were burned by a tout posing as a policeman. He approached us as we were walking to a shopping district and quite convincingly told us of a once every four years government tax-free sale on any and all Thai made goods, held at the World Trade Center. He was even kind enough to hail and negotiate a Tuk Tuk for us at a bargain rate. Well the Trade Center turned out to be a gem and silk showroom, with nothing good or cheap. We quickly realized we too are susceptible to being duped and tried to get back to where we came from to resume our day. This in itself was a huge hassle as we ran into some more shady Tuk Tuk drivers (who dropped us off in the aforementioned fashion) and a tonne of traffIc. Overall, once you stop trusting strangers and put up your guards, you can get on with enjoying the city. Alternatively you can take these experiences as a window into one aspect of visiting Bangkok and shake em off with a laugh. We did both depending on our moods.

Shopping:

Bangkok is undoubtedly a shopping destination. Famous for clothing, handicrafts, textiles, housewares, and especially fake designer stuff, people come here from all over the world to acquire on the cheap. Anyone who knows us knows we love to shop so were expecting to go to town on Bangkok. Overall, I would say our expectations were not met. The knock-offs we saw were not convincing, and the cheap clothes obviously of low quality, or just not our style. We did get some handicrafts and scarves, and Tushar got some simple cotton button-downs at a deal, and that was the bulk of our shopping there. I am sure there is a lot more to the shopping in Bangkok, we just didn’t see it. Big things we missed were the Chatuchak weekend market and the Floating market. The former is something we were sad to miss and probably would have swayed our opinion a little but we were not in Bangkok over a weekend so could not go.

Food:

The culinary side of Bangkok is incredible. Street food is everwhere you look, and some of the safest around. There are also many restaurants catering to your any cravings. Late night delivery services will bring you anything you desire and tropical fruits dominate the street stands. Durian, the famously stinky fruit, was in season during our visit, and my dad would have been sad if we didn’t taste it, so we went ahead and tried some. The taste was sweet, the smell wasn’t too bad (not like the rotting flesh smell from the one he put in my fridge during his last visit to Seattle), and the texture noticably firmer. I guess acquiring it fresh is the way to go! Score ūüôā We also tried some infamous street pad thai (yes vegetarians – just ask for tofu and no fish sauce) – it lived up to its reputation and was delicious and cheap.

Cooking Class:

The absolute highlight of our Bangkok trip was the Mai Kaidee Vegetarian cooking class. All I have to say is SAP SAP (Yum Yum). We cooked and ate 15 courses of food over the course of 4 hours. Mai Kaidee is a true entrepeneur who has built a brand around herself. She owns 3 restaurants, a cooking school, and has published a cookbook. We learned about Thai cooking from the ground up. The key ingredients you need for Thai food are galangal (ginger family), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and thai green chillies. We learned our favorite Thai dishes: Tom Yum Soup, peanut sauce, green curry, pad thai, and papaya salad. At the end of the class, Mai Kaidee first danced for us and then led us through some traditional Thai dancing and we all had a good laugh and entertained some innocent restaurant customers who probably also had a good laugh. Good times!

Grand Palace:

Bangkok is famous for its palaces and we had no intention of going to them all so settled for a few big hitters. The Grand Palace is a massive compound that houses a series of beautifully decorated buildings, including the famous temple of the Emerald Buddha (unfortunately closed for a service when we went). We enjoyed walking around the grounds, despite the crazy heat, and snapped some good pics of the property. One thing to remember is that you have to cover up when you visit the temples, and tha Grand Palace is the strictest of them all. No shorts and your legs and shoulders must be covered. If you are not dressed to their satisfaction, they have clothes to borrow in exchange for a small deposit. Tushar got some cotton jammies to wear over his shorts and I got a button down shirt over my tank top. I particularly enjoyed the incredible artwork on the walls which is laced with gold leaf.

Wat Pho:

This temple houses the famous massive reclining Buddha. I was really looking forward to this one because of all the various poses of Buddha, the reclining pose is one Tushar and I can relate to the most. It emphasizes the need for rest and rejuvenation, and exudes serenity and peace. The temple did however have a feeling of being too small for this gigantic representation of Buddha who seemed not to mind his cramped quarters.

 

 

 

 

 

Patpong:

Patpong is home to a night market and probably the heart of Bangkok’s sex trade. There is a very seedy feeling in the air as you roam around looking at fake watches and purses, while hearing booming (bad) house music fill the air. Men approached us repeatedly asking us to check out sex shows and gave us very vivid decriptions of what occurs inside these clubs. The streets are lined with scantily clad women (or what seemed to be women), trying to entice you into their club over a neighboring one. The area is one that seems to not sleep so after shopping unsuccessfully for a good knockoff watch, we parked up on some steps with a beer and people watched for a few entertaining hours. This was our last night in Thailand and gave us an opportunity to process a lot of what we had seen over the previous 2 1/2 weeks. We chatted about the sex trade, the attitudes we witnessed of the youth, the stories we had heard from the locals and European immigrants about how Thailand has changed in the last two decades, and our perceptions of public awareness of world issues here in Thailand.

Culture:

Traditional Thai culture is wonderful. We experienced this from mostly older Thai people and through some of our better restaurant experiences in Thailand. The smiling Thai people are famous for letting go of their aggressions and embracing Sanuk (worry free enjoyment). Buddhism has a massive influence on this and the many temples are a testament to this. Thai hospitality is famous, as well as their massage, and there is much to enjoy on a trip here. We had a great time here and loved the beaches of Thailand and the spicy flavorful food.

 The flip side of all this is what we perceived to be the overdevelopment of Thailand, as well as the obvious lure of sex tourism. Land is developed by multinational corporations, and new malls constantly erected. The youth of Thailand seem to hold some contempt for tourists, and there are a lot of people trying to take advantage of foreigners. There are many Western males coupled with Thai women and we noticed that they fall into two categories -relationships that appear to be genuinely loving (hand holding, affection and chatter) and relationships that seem to be transactional or shameful (pretending they dont know each other, old men taking young girls shopping). Thai people appear to frown on these relationships in particular. We think that tourists are often viewed either as dollar signs, or as perverts and there must be some effects that trickle down from these negative images. The things we witnessed had quite lasting effects, and made us feel some sadness for this aspect of Thailand.

Kuala Lumpur

Trip Facts:

Hotel

While the room was clean, air-conditioned, and chock full of amentities, we could very easily hear our neighbors. First, there was the man who coughed all night and day(poor guy), and then there was the French family who slept through their morning alarm for so long that I had to politely ask them to wake up and turn it off through the paper thin wall (they heard me!).  Because the hotel is located in the city, there was a minor ant infestation in our room, so there was a heavy odor of pest control, and it only got worse after we asked for more pest control. We were centrally located amogst the locals and near public transport. The hotel was located in Masjid Jamek, a predominately Islamic area with many mosques. Daily, we heard the beautiful sounds of the call to prayer as we walked around the shops or to the monorail station. The area was very fashion oriented with the latest in Islamic womens fashions,  very modest clothing shops.

Transportation

Overall, we were impressed by the Malaysian transportation system and by the level of public infrastructure in place, although navigating aroung can be hectic at times. It is quite easy to get around KL. We travelled from Singapore to KL via train and it was a fairly smooth ride the whole way, even though our travel car had broken doors on both ends so air conditioning was not as effective in the heat and there were bugs entering the cabin as we travelled through the jungles and palm plantations (these are EVERYWHERE). It was still a very pleasant experience travelling with the locals and through the various  villages so we would recommend travelling on the trains. As we enterred the city we disembarked at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station which was a medium size station, and it appeared to be clean, and well laid out for the foreign traveller.

Our next mode of transport was taxi to our hotel. The good thing about getting a taxi from the railway station is that you prepay your taxi “ticket” at a counter inside the station, where the fares are standardized to protect the foreign traveller.¬†We then waited in another line to get your taxi. The ride itself was great, fast drivers, but they still needed help getting¬†us to our exact destination.

In the city, we generally used the monorail which was usually a short walk from wherever we were and we think its the best way to get around.  There are many hidden stairwells and escalators in all different directions, and poor signage, especially in English.  Depending on what time we rode it, the monorail was usually busy with lots of people. At night and especially on the weekend there were rowdy local teenagers (fun to see and generally harmless), and the rest of the time, it was still an entertaining ride.

Traveling by taxi can be quite hectic and it is common to be ripped off, especially at night with drivers choosing not to use their meters and instead charging you double flat rates.

Traffic in KL was a nightmare. It was an organized system of chaos with little regard for traffic laws. On our first night in KL we hailed a taxi and got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for15 minutes, so we got out and took the monorail instead.

People

The vibe we received from the Malaysian people is that they have a lot to learn service-wise in order to compete with their Western and SE Asian counterparts to help¬†gain tourism dollars. We experienced many locals trying to rip us off at almost every opportunity. Watch out for the tour bus operators who will¬†make surprise stops at¬†handicraft shops. As vegetarians, we were surpised at how difficult it was to find food without meat. We found many locals who said “Yes” to everything even if they didn’t understand so we learned to scope out the restaurant before eating.

Food

We tried hard to stay away from the big hotels and restaurants geared towards foreigners and eat locally instead. We wanted to eat and taste the same foods as the locals, but to our surprise, quality vegetarian Malay food was actually difficult to find. English was not common at the establishments where the locals hang out, so asking for and describing vegetarian food was quite difficult for us. Even ordering a vegetarian pizza and veggie wrap was difficult at a Pizza Hut (it was a last resort!). Malay food in general is a fusion between Indian and Southeast Asian dishes. You have curries and dals, as well as fish dishes, and noodles.

The culinary highlight of the trip was a restaurant called Annalaxmi¬†which we visited on our last night in KL. It was recommended to us by Rajeshbhai, Jyoti’s cousin¬†(Thank you!). It is affiliated with a temple, therefore both men and women must be fully covered.¬†Since I¬†(Tushar) was wearing shorts, they required¬†me to¬†wear a Dohti prior to being allowed to dine.¬†Picture shown for your viewing pleasure ūüôā

You eat what you want and pay as you wish, a very shrewd business model as most patrons over pay, including us! We thought it was a fantastic concept and we stuffed ourselves with everything in their buffet in addition to ordering 3 masala dosas. They also served the best rice in the world and it had noodles in it.  We both at a lot  РI ate the most I have ever ate in my whole life, ever! We were both in pain as we walked back to our hotel room. It was a good pain though.

Nightlife

Nightlife in KL can be very fun and full of energy but expect to pay the same as a night out in the U.S. or Europe for dinner and drinks at most nightclubs and restaurants. We visited the Traders hotel for drinks one evening, which is also the best place for a nightime views of the Petronas Towers. We paid 100 Ringit for two drinks, which is about $19 per drink, but you pay for the views, which were amazing.

Batu Caves

The Batu Caves were a beautiful sight to see. Situated about 30 minutes out of the city, the Batu Caves were formed a long time ago in the limestone hills. As we approached the site,we started to see the 270+ steep steps leading up to the cave entrance then we noticed the gigantic statue of Murugan, the Hindu god, which is massive! At the top of the steps is a Hindu temple inside of the main cave. We entered the caves and were instantly drenched in sweat with the rainforest-like humidity. The ceiling of the main cave is sunken in and there are rays of light which light up the inside of the cave. Looking up and out of the caves is a beautiful sight, a habitat of its own, which trees, monkeys, birds, and all sorts of insect creatures. Just about 25 steps down from the main Batu Caves is an entrance to the dark caves. You walk back up a different set of stairs and enter an area where you can see the entrance to the cave, but are restricted from entering furthur unless you do a paid tour of the dark caves. This is where you can go into complete darkness, at a cost. The caves are a few hundred feet tall and the perspective is quite impressive.

Part of our tour was a tour of¬†the world’s largest pewter factory, based in KL.¬†We walked through the factory floor and got to see the molten pewter before it was cast into a variety of items. Apparently, pewter mugs are the best for the drinking liquids from as the metal can¬†regulate the temperature for up to an hour. We also took pictures with the world’s largest pewter beer mug.

Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers are hard to miss seeing from anwhere in the city. Once the tallest towers in the world, their exterior consists of lots of glass and steel. The base of the Petronas contains a massive shopping mall with only the worlds finest(and most expensive) store brands, like Givenchy, Bulgari, and Harrods. To get a tour of the Towers and the walk across the sky-bridge connecting the two, it will take many hours of waiting in lines in the morning where they give you an assigned time, later in the day. This is just to be ushered across the sky bridge in 10 minutes so we decided to skip this given our limited time.

Elephant Sanctuary

The elephant santuary was one of the highlights of Malaysia. We spent a couple of hours going into the interior of the island, over a mountain pass, and through local villages before we arrived. We watched a short video on how the Malaysian Elephant Relocation Team moves and sometimes rescues elephants who threaten local Palm farmers due to their dimishing habitat. Elephants use the same migration paths forever so whenever another farm or palm oil plantation goes up, more destruction soon follows, as elephants will always follow the same migration path, even if there are farms in the way. Their need to stay in their herds makes it even harder for them.

Afterwards, we fed peanuts to the elephants. It was a wonderful experience. We saw some elephant tricks before we got to ride them which was very cool Рand wobbly! It was an extremely hot day, apparently 120 degrees when a member of our tour group checked. We were lucky to be able to end our visit by jumping in the river, cooling off, and bathing with the elephants. We got to touch them and rub their skin(which is very rough). Jyoti freaked out a bit as one of the baby elephants wrapped his trunk around her legs. It was a refreshing end to a really fun day interacting with these incredible creatures.