Farang Footsteps: Organised Tours in South East Asia

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These are Dave’s legs. As you can see, I followed him. We met on an organised tour to see the Rafflesia flower in the Cameron Highlands. The Rafflesia is one of the largest flowering plants in the world. Dave is ‘farang’ (a Thai word for people of apparent European descent), so am I, and, likely, so are you.

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Dave’s Legs…

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This is the Rafflesia…

High Expectations:

I’m not sure what I expected when I flicked through my Lonely Planet books last autumn, imagining my journey through South East Asia from the comfort of my Yorkshire sofa. There were so many amazing things between the pages, Thailand and Malaysia had so much to offer; rock climbing, snorkelling, scuba diving, walking through caves, cycling through ancient cities, kayaking through mangroves (whatever they were), riding on elephants, trekking to remote hill tribes, culture, history, food. On one hand I had no idea which of these things I really wanted to experience. And not once did I think of HOW I would experience them.

In the beginning it did not matter. When I reached Thailand I could do little more than limp around Kata Beach, Phuket, before spreading out on the sand for the day. My left ankle was painful and swollen and on top of that, I managed to fall down a huge hole part way through my stay. Still, on the beach road I got my first experience of Thailand’s tourist industry; shop front after shop front touting taxis and tours, an assault of leaflets and ‘A’ frame signs. Each ‘Travel Agency’ hawked the same tours – Five Island Tour, James Bond Island Tour, Ko Phi Phi Island Tour (they filmed ‘The Beach’ there), Elephant Safari, or all of these squashed into a one-day bonanza. It had a ‘roll up, roll up,’ feel and it was all about the commission..

Tour Avoidance:

The Thai people working the shops looked bored. If you looked long enough (three seconds might be enough), then they would call out to you, barely hiding their cynicism. They would smile, because you are business. The smile would not touch their eyes. No thank you, I stubbornly said to myself, I did not want to see James Bond Island that badly, or at all. Somehow, those far off adventures I had read about were tainted.

One day, I walked from Kata Beach to the Southern view point, passing the elephant safari centre on the way. I walked slower, peered towards the canopy without trying to be obvious, saw the huge beasts chained, moving a step backward, one forward on a dirt floor, again and again. From my distance, for that snatch of time, the conditions looked poor. I always thought I would see – not only see, but touch – elephants in Thailand. People told me I would but I did not want to give money to a place like this.

At Karon Beach, Phuket I was hijacked by Joy and on Koh Lanta I satisfied myself with the moped, the rubber plantations and the local animal rescue centre.

Things changed in Ao Nang; unapologetically touristy as it is. I watched the Muay Thai, snorkelled as part of an island tour, cycled the island of Koh Klang, kayaked through mangroves and was shunted between hot springs and emerald pools in a steamed-up minivan.

Sounds fun?

The Tours:

Snorkelling (800 Baht, say £17-18). I shivered (I was not particularly well) on a long boat for eight hours. I caught Thai fishermen and slices sunlight on my iPhone, took walks on remote islands and watched a beautiful sunset. All this under the care of three ragged Thai men – in charge of the long-tail and catching squid for our dinner – and a Spanish man who excelled at draping himself across the bow of the boat and diving into the navy and turquoise depths at unexpected moments. I believe he might have offered some information about the snorkelling or the fish, but this was only to the privileged few at the front of the boat and was quickly lost on the wind.

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Slices of sunlight…

When my brother arrived we took more tours.

Krabi Ecocycle took us to the Muslim island of Koh Klang (1000 Baht, £20+), where Wut, the enthusiastic proprietor showed us around the island, demonstrating the craft and history of its people. ‘Eco’ is the buzz word in tourism now. Really, whatever ‘eco’ prefixes, may have no less impact on the environment than the next non-eco tour, but on this occasion – cycling equals human power – the title is justified.

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My brother, Robert, and Wut

And the kayaking (600 Baht, £13)? Well we got to the water’s edge in a gas-guzzling pick-up, piled into two-man kayaks, and with little instruction we crossed the sea and into the mangroves.

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Kayak confusion

The emerald pool and the hot springs were wet; not just in the pools but out. It was truly miserable (I grant you I went in rainy season so should expect rain). We were sealed in a steamed mini-van with an extended family of Japanese holiday makers and carried from one site to the next. The overweight driver pulled back the door to release us, and I felt like we were dogs let out for a run. The purpose-built (for tourists) sites were deserted, low season and the rain driving the remaining few for cover. We made the walk to each attraction, dipped our bodies with all the other humans, then made the return journey to await rescue from the rain.

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Soggy tourists…

I felt like a caged animal, forced to endure an indignity to which I would not willingly subject myself. But the fact was, I had.

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And Finally:

Nick and I decided to take a tour in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. We thought it would be a change from the marked tracks we were walking, we thought it would take us away from the beaten ones.

Our group numbered no less than 20. This is where we met Laura and Dave (who were on part of a 16-day tour of Malaysia), some vocal Americans (with a strange penchant for ‘Are You Being Served?’) and Pok, their professional guide (originally from Thailand).

We followed yet another guide to find the flower, accompanied by some local men. All had fearsome knives; for what, I am not sure, because the path through the jungle was a thoroughfare, populated by several other large groups, leap frogging each other and crowding to be first to get to the flower.

We stood in a line to take pictures of it, flies landed all over us, oblivious to how we waved and swatted. Lazy flies, the worst kind. Several people wanted multiple pictures; of them with the flower, of them with their friends with the flower, them doing a peace sign with the flower. They passed their cameras back and forth, adjusting themselves, not caring that they were actually standing on the flower, tearing the huge red petals that, in truth, looked like raw flesh. I took the pictures but could not wait to leave. With the flesh and the flies, the flower repulsed me.

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The flower in its rotten form…

What they did not tell us (or else they did it so quickly that I failed to hear) is that the flower, far from being an out-sized epitome of beauty, is known locally as the ‘corpse flower.’ Not only do its petals resemble traumatised flesh but they smell like it too. The flower is part of a parasitic vine and attracts flies by the dozen.

I’m not sure Dave and Laura enjoyed it; they were looking forward to the tea plantation scheduled for the afternoon. Pok wanted to leave. He skipped through the undergrowth on the trodden down backs of shoes (a Kao San Road buy), cynical about Malaysian time keeping and organisation, anxious to make sure the transition to the plantation went off.

For me, the tour was everything I feared when I walked by those shops at Kata Beach. I was repulsed, by the experience, as much as by the flower.

But we saw what we wanted, right? So, I have asked myself, why I am so against organised tours? Am I the worst of all tourists; the hardest to please? It came to me, as I was cycling through Sydney Olympic Park along the cobbled Olympic Boulevard, pristine after 13 years. Bright green flags flapped, still celebrating what was past, great curving buildings stood as proud as ever. Pride; that was it. Most of the tour companies in S E Asia seemed to have no pride in what they were selling. The pools, the mangroves, the flowers were places used to entertain farang. It seemed the tour companies cared little about preserving these sites and farang only trampled and left.

In an effort to balance my cynicism, I would say Wut (Krabi Ecocycle) was different. He clearly took pride in his business; the tone of his body, the condition of his pick-up and his mountain bikes, the diversity of his tours, the explanations that he gave of the surroundings, all said so. So, his are the type of footsteps I would follow, away from trampled nature and cardboard culture.

And perhaps that it why I ended up with a bike between my legs and half of Thailand waiting before me, making my own footsteps; no elephants, no islands, no huge flowers…

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Mountains and Way Markers

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Mountains are big, to many they are insurmountable, to others they are a problem to be solved and a chance to learn.

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The Thai hills between Phrae and Lamphang, best seen from a train

Thailand is behind us and we have moved on to Malaysia; first stop Georgetown. Georgetown has a lot going for it – culture, food, architecture, museums, Queen’s Bay sunrises – but we decided we needed to do something more physical. So, we headed to the edge of town, to the Botanical Gardens to begin the walk to the top of Penang Hill.

The road heads up the hill just left of the entrance to the gardens and is clearly marked for walkers. But there is also a route from inside the garden, a series of steps cut into the humming jungle.

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The jungle stairway, from above

Over the last two months I’ve realised that I need to DO something when I am travelling. Doing, rather than observing, allows me to feel more a part of the landscape or environment I’m in. Of course I am still a stranger but I am interacting (even if this means sweating all over and gasping for air). For this reason I would rather walk somewhere, hire a bike, get a public bus (although on this day I was eating my words; we got the wrong bus, which meant a further two bus journeys, not much less than an hour each) or train. That is over an organised tour, where sights are flourished before me, along with the food, drink and t-shirts, before I am gathered up for the next experience; this should appeal to my lazy nature, but it only leaves me feeling empty and frustrated. So, the walk to the top of Penang Hill seemed like a good idea.

Mostly, these steps just go straight up and will not spare you. The path hits the road eventually, passing a rest area where macaques hang out, scrounging food from the locals and nursing their young. At this point, I believed the hard work was done. Sure, we had more hill to go, I estimated 3km of it, but the climb was on concrete and I’d read somewhere that it was only the first kilometre that was really steep.

On the road, glad to be free from the suffocating jungle, we came across the first way marker. A small blue sign, printed with 1.6. I assumed this indicated 1.6km covered from the bottom of the road, and this conviction was strengthened when approximately 100m later we passed 1.7.

The markers climbed with us. The climb became a real climb, signposts indicating that the gradient was 30%, tendons in my legs stretched to their maximum, bent double, breathing hard, willing myself around the next switch-back; I realised I was relying on these markers. They told me I was making progress to the 5km summit. As I passed one marker, I could think about the next. Each time I saw a marker, my waining will was recharged a little and in spite of the sometimes laughable gradient, I was reassured.

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Way marker 2.3, a very reassuring marker

As I climbed, I thought more about these little markers. And found I was remembering one of the most awful and the most exhilarating days of the trip. It was the most challenging day of bike riding (although we could not comprehend quite how challenging at the outset), a distance of 110km from Phrae to Lamphang, crossing hunched, indifferent mountains to get there. I had done my research, several cycling bloggers who had beaten the path before us had commented on there being a number of hills, a couple recounting that there was one particularly long climb that took over one hour. With each hill we climbed, I was not sure if that was the big one, but hoped each time that it was. I became increasingly tired. But when the big one came I knew it. It was just after lunch, I was stood less than 1km up a climb on Highway 11 and I couldn’t go on. The gradient was steep and unrelenting, carrying all my luggage, the bike moved no faster than walking pace as I ground the pedals round, wobbling with my weight. My whole body pulsated in the 40 degree heat and where fabric did not cover me, the sun stole what energy I had. My head pounded, telling me I needed more water but our supply was limited and I had no idea how long the climb would last.

A milestone (or kilometre stone, as it really was) had told me we had 45km left to cycle. The number boggled my mind. ‘But the climb,’ something inside me demanded, ‘how long is the climb?’ I could not think of anything beyond the next 5km but I had 45km to worry about. What I really wanted someone or something to tell me, just a little further, only 2km left to go…

There was nobody to rescue me, I knew that. Nobody could make it all go away. But something inside me still demanded to know how far, it raged, it would not, could not go on if it did not know how far. It was not enough for that each 100m I travelled, whether I pushed the bike or rode it was 100m behind me, I would not have to travel that distance again. But I could not believe that I would see the top of that mountain. I did not have the faith that each step or revolution took me closer to what I had set out to do.

When I finally got there, cycling the last 100m in a blind panic, fleeing from the huge (in my mind) red and black bug that continued to harass me, I felt two things; relief and trepidation, because I did not think I could do it again. But heaving my way up Penang Hill in the company of those handy blue and white signs, I realised I relied on way markers way too much.

I believe I need them in other parts of my life; my job, my relationships, the sports I enjoy and that thing I think of most of all, writing. I look for little signs everyday, especially when I am back home, things that will tell me I am doing ok, heading in the right direction. If I cannot find them and don’t tell me what I want to know, I feel despondent. Take my job; wage rises, reviews, promotions, the attitude of my boss and other colleagues, the responses and reactions of customers I meet. One problem with this mindset, I realise, is that you come to rely on them. A second problem is that they might not really be giving you accurate information, there are so many variables out there. The third problem is that the mindset is like that of a child who looks for praise to affirm that the things they do are good. The fourth problem is that it is a poor and misleading substitute for faith.

There is a fifth problem. Its a habit. I have this bad dependent habit that is hard to break. And worse still, what I want to do most in life is to write; never was there an area of life so dry and barren of encouragement and so dependent on faith. Rejection and despondency spring up like brush in the desert and if they can they will snag all your inspiration and ideas and hesitant starts; if you let them. All there is the desire to do it and the faith to keep going.

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Smile and keep going

My trip and this blog have been part of that. I have found that the blog stats can suck me in, encage my habit. I can look at those statistics and be energised by a new follower (yes, just one will make me happy) and floored by a post that nobody read. But doesn’t everybody feel that way? What is important is that you (I) don’t give in. There are no signs, no measurements, no-one to tell me yes or no, just a hill waiting to be climbed and a blank screen waiting to be styled in black.

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The next mountain, Gunung Brinchang, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

This is a good time to say a big ‘thank you,’ to everybody who does read my posts…

THANK YOU!

The Classic Inn, Kuala Lumpur

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The Classic Inn stands on a raised pavement on a back street, just off Jalan Chankat Thambi Dollah. Easy to find, it is just at the southern edge of KLCC, the business district, and within walking distance if at least two malls (one is across the road) and many budget eateries.

Tired from my flight, anxious to be in a foreign city, at first I was disappointed with my room. Windowless; an old television and a single bed. However, as I was told never to judge my guests on their arrival in the French Alps, I think the same can be applied to accommodation on my arrival.

The Classic Inn was in fact a friendly, professional and comfortable place to stay. A breakfast of bread spread with sweet jam, noodles or pancakes, chopped fruit and either delicious coffee or tea was served every morning on the porch, covered over with a dark wooden canopy and beset with greenery. Furthermore, breakfast stretched from 07:30 to 11:30.

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While my room did not have a window it did come complete A/C (arguably more important) and was kept exceptionally clean. It was also replenished with bottled water daily. For £20 (approximately) it was a sanctuary after a day of walking the busy streets of Kuala Lumpur.

The staff were happy for me to leave my heavy backpack at the guesthouse after checkout and I didn’t feel uncomfortable when forced to repack on their porch before heading off. For a lone traveler, these things count.

Finally, place has a guest book for comments but they must have got so many, they have just taken to using the walls…

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Testament to the great service

Park Life – Acclimatisation in Kuala Lumpur

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…The title? Think dirty pigeons…

After 24 hours in Malaysia my brain was struggling (with the noise, sticky heat, roads – their treachery and lack of pavements – stares, dilemmas, the great bulk of my backpack) and searched constantly for patterns, something it could identify with.

Eventually, it found animals.

My first fear, if it is that easy to separate those slippery, weaving eels, was that once in the guesthouse, my bedroom door shut, in a sanctuary where there were no eyes or voices, it would become my cage. I would not dare to leave, like an animal that desperately seeks safety. Like my cat, in fact, who disappeared behind the washing machine for two weeks when she first became ‘my cat’.

And strangely, it happened just that way – funny, huh? I had more in common with my cat than I thought. But for me it took only 13 hours to emerge and like ‘Little Miss Tib Tabs’, it was food that drew me.

However, I think our similarities end there. Before I could face breakfast (a good job it ran from 07:30-11:30) I had to revise Malaysian culture and food etiquette – always use the right hand (never the left, the poo hand), don’t put the fork in your mouth, use it to push food onto the spoon, wash your hands, before and after…I had images of horrified gasps, the Malay equivalent of crossing themselves (whatever that is) as I unwittingly did all of these things.

But, eventually I clunked my way to the ground floor and within minutes was sat on the covered porch, in a chair the shape of a huge hand, a steaming mug of coffee in front of me. Ahhhhh – I had not been cast out as a heathen.

Shortly after I sat down a grey cat streaked in, only half a tail and little spare flesh. Trotting low it came to rest under a large bench. It was something in its urgency that caused me to look outside, beyond the canopy; it was a dense mucousy grey. Rain, lots of rain.

The cat comforted me. I watched it beneath the bench, tearing at its clumped coat with its tongue, intermittently staring at the monsoon. Like the cat I looked with baleful saucer eyes, but set out later anyway, turning towards the monorail station, umbrella aloft. I fixed on the entrance as I passed the first of many malls. ‘You want taxi?’ An old man looked at me. I shook my head. He would be the first of many. ‘What wrong with your foot?’ Again, the first of many, always men.

Kuala Lumpur is not like the cities I know; European cities. Much of the centre, although close together, is huge dual carriageway. Like any city it is thronged with vehicles, one after another, after another. But there so many motorbikes, armies of (mainly men) on board old puttering machines, their jackets worn back to front across their bodies –

– and then the more I think, perhaps it’s not the construction. It maybe no different from many European cities in build. It was the customs; the noise and the customs. Many of the crossings do not work, so to cross four lanes of traffic people learn split second timing. I found myself walking long pavements, beside these beasts and when I needed to cross, honed the hobble-run. Nowhere else have I walked a dual carriageway into the path of the oncoming traffic. In China Town the roads became narrower, wedged with every kind of vehicle, pipping and chuntering, straddling junctions and, in the case of the mopeds, simply mounting the pavements and using them as a short cut.

Tides of men passed me in varieties of costume while I limped my way up that dual carriageway and I began to think of lame pigeons. Those you see on the street, close to the walls or edges of side walks, a little broken and lost; a sight that evokes pity and revulsion in equal measure. I wondered then about the eyes that ran over me; always male.

Through China Town, then beyond the market dragons and into the city to the magnificent Petronas Towers; one huge monument to capitalism built on foundations of Chanel and Bvlgari. KLCC, the business district; where the corporate animals live.

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Business time…

At the guesthouse, safe, I congratulated myself; able to smile, rather than scream, at the lizard scuttling about the light fitting. Aware that I had not eaten, I dared myself to head out again to the street vendors.

Only I didn’t go. Disturbed on the porch by a man who claimed to be in Real Estate, to do ‘oh, maybe one or two deal a year; that’s all I need.’ He had a BMW, he said. He was a good friend of the guesthouse owner, he said. He had time to kill he said, before going clubbing. The club – The Butter Factory – opened late, he was meeting a lady there, an architect. I didn’t tell him he was killing my time, I only wondered that there was this type of man all over the world. Making my excuses, ducking the inevitable invite by pointing at my bandaged foot, I limped to my room. After that, I stayed there, hiding; always the animal.

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