Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Friday December 28th

The start of a very long journey back up to Chiang Mai in Thailand. The idea is to take my flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (expensive time of year so keeping the air distance as short as possible), and then bus it all the way up to Chiang Mai, about three overnight bus rides, no doubt with some stopovers in between. At the last minute I collected the ticket I'd bought in Sydney from a local travel shop. It was for earlier than I expected, a lunchtime flight instead of an evening one. The next surprise, when I was on the plane, was that it stopped first in Darwin, though looking out of the plane and at the airport I didn't see anything remarkable there.

At about 8pm local time I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, on the mainland peninsular that comes down from Thailand and Burma in the north. At the bottom of this peninsular is the island of Singapore, to the east is the island part of Malaysia (together with Brunei), and to the west is an island of Indonesia called Sumatra, which has been highly recemmended to me by other travellers.

Always the big downer for me on arriving in Malaysia are the red letters saying "DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUGS" on the immigration card. Thailand makes the point too ("Everyone welcome, except drug users and dealers"), but stays friendly at the same time and has a less hardline government. I'm not a user of anything like that but it's always a little worry that someone could have sneaked anything into an unknown pocket of a bag or something (I have heard stories of this happening). I do try to avoid Malaysia except when there's a big load of money I'm saving by passing through here (which there often is!) Though to be fair even India is strict, a deaf English guy has been caught with drugs in the back of a taxi and has a 20 year sentence even though the stuff could have been left by someone previously who saw the police and fled. Always check the taxi. I never remember.

More of John's Journey
Find on this page:
KL -> Penang
Batu Ferringhi
Penang -> Hat Yai
Hat Yai
Chiang Mai

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Thailand currencies
Thailand visas

Out of the airport and a half hour taxi ride later I was in the bright lights of the modern looking city of Kuala Lumpur. I had paid for a taxi, cheap by English standards but very expensive by Malaysian. I could have saved a lot of money by taking a bus, perhaps even there had been a long distance coach from the airport up to where I was going next, but it is good to have a local person show me around the first time as this is probably not the last time I will be here.

So the taxi driver took me as I'd asked to the main long distance bus station and even helped me buy a ticket (by his standards he'd made too much money from me!). It turned out you could even buy a ticket all the way up to Hat Yai, in southernmost Thailand, but I had set my mind on Penang, a Malaysian island half way to Hat Yai on the west coast (the east coast is supposed to be much nicer, though a little further away). The first of the train tickets I'd bought in case Malaysian immigration had asked to see my exit from the country was waiting for me in a hotel on the island. (The vouchers were delivered to me in Townsville in Australia.)

The bus ticket for the 4-5 hour drive to Penang was 26 rupiah. It's 5.5 to the pound, so that's £5. The half hour cab ride cost me 90 rupiah, £18. I should have haggled, though I needed his help as I didn't want to miss the last bus. It was probably twice the money needed for a bus ride to Singapore!

Distance from Kuala Lumpur to Penang: 350km

My bus was to leave, and it did, at half past midnight. It's an experience waiting for it. You cross the road from the street vendors selling the tickets and go underground at your numbered stairwell (there are over 20). At the bottom of each stairwell is a narrow lane that needs almost a miracle for the full sized coaches to be able to turn into and pick up their passengers. Each lane had one coming in every 5 to 10 minutes and there is only room for one at a time so the place is often gridlocked with a hundred of the oldest, noisiest, most heavily dented coaches I have ever seen. Eventually a man came around and persuaded us all (everyone else looked local to this part of the world) long before the bus came to accept almost blank pieces of paper in return for our tickets.

Most people don't choose to carry much but you load the luggage yourself trusting that no one chooses to take it later on, which is probably why most people don't choose to carry much! I climbed into the dirty and dingiest coach environment and took comfort in there being only three seats per row, old worn out seats but wide at least for some privacy. I wrapped my carry-on bag's strap around my foot and tried to sleep...

Batu Ferringhi, Penang, Malaysia

Saturday December 29th

There were no names I could see of the places but I guessed we had arrived in Butterworth, the first big town, actually right next to the island I was heading for. This is where you can catch the (slow) train all the way up to Bangkok. I waited for the bridge and there it was, 6 kilometres long, bridging the shallowest but not the narrowest gap between the island of Penang and mainland Malaysia. Next the apparent arrival in Georgetown, the main town of the island, and the unlikely looking second largest city in all Malaysia. Georgetown is the main English colonial town, and I hear a lot of the streets still have their English names. There was no obvious centre, just half an hour of the bus moving on a bit and different people asking to get off. Just when I though I should gamble it and get off before the bus drove off into the country it arrived at a car park with plenty of taxis waiting, even at 5 o'clock in the morning.

I had looked at the map and thought I knew where I wanted to go to so allowed a taxi driver to talk me into going with him. In the end he pursuaded me (by driving further and further away from where I wanted to go in the centre of Georgetown) to head for the beach resort, Batu Ferringhi, which I had also read about and was happy to end up, even though I might only be passing for a day. After all if it was good I could stay there for a week, it would be difficult to reach my friends in Thailand by New Year anyway. For £6 the taxi driver had taken me many miles out to the best beach area of the island, to a very basic accommodation but right on the beach. I had insisted on air conditioning but got a room with just a fan. In the end this was enough.

First Malaysian beach

My guesthouse was like the building on the right,
and the building at the end is a little shrine

Before I had a chance to sleep the pre-dawn morning chorus started. Before the birds or the many cockerels had woken up the small local mosque started it's loudspeaker Muslim chanting, like the Buddist Temple in Uttaradit. Then the cockerels started up so off for a quick walk to find some pre-sleep breakfast. A girl was selling drinks and snacks accross the road from our lane. I asked for water, she seemed not to understand then I realised she didn't sell cold water, just hot water that had been boiling in a huge pot. I asked for fruit juice and got a very refreshing mixture of fresh lemon, sugar, boiling water and plenty of ice, which overall makes a cool fresh drink.

Mosque keeping me awake

I slept most of day. There was an opportunity to hire a motorbike which I knew could take me to a faraway temple that has large numbers of venemous wild green snakes inside it. They turned up the day it was built and have never left, apparently attracted and subdued by the incense of the temple. I wouldn't want to be the monk on duty when they run out of the insense! I don't ride a motorbike, ought to find out how soon.

It wasn't worth a long stay on the island so I found out about the buses to Thailand. There is a minibus that collects people from their guesthouses and takes them all the way to Hat Yai or Krabi in Thailand at either 4am or 8am. 4am is better, even with air conditioning the heat could be uncomfortable in a minibus late morning. I booked the next available one, 8am next morning. I was so tired, even after sleeping all day and all night, that I bailed out of the bus idea and decided to try to find a flight in Thailand from Hat Yai all the way to Chiang Mai. This is still saving a lot of money, the cost is apparently the same all year round (£60 one way), whereas flights booked in Australia are double money this time of year (£200 extra from Kuala Lumpur).

The night market was just like in Thailand. I [might have!] bought a copied DVD (Swordfish) for £2.

Hat Yai to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sunday December 30th

8am bus, nearly missed it, it was very early but came back for me, and the driver was not happy about the size of my luggage (big rucksack). We drove into Georgetown to collect more customers, and lost one or they didn't wake up. I'm guessing he told everyone the same time, and was half an hour late for the last person who didn't show up. A four hour drive with a slightly mad driver, his driving was ok but he felt he needed to use his horn at just about every vehicle he overtook, returned by looks of puzzlement from all the other drivers.

The border crossings (Malaysian and Thai) were easy, short passport queue to leave Malaysia and for entering Thailand as promised he took all our passports and returned quickly with them and we drove on. Hat Yai is only 60km across the border and seems more like a city than a town, excellent shopping mall I found by accident (ask for McDonalds, it's above that). We were dropped off at a cafe, with the cheapest coffee I'd ever paid for (10p I think). It doesn't look like it but it's a common transit point so it was easy to find someone to help me buy a flight to Bangkok and then onto Chiang Mai in the evening.

At the other end of Thailand I arrived in Chiang Mai at 8pm. The hotel I knew was full. It was just before New Year so every hotel they knew was also full. I called Om and she took me on her motorbike (with all my luggage as well!) around the centre of Chiang Mai looking for a guesthouse with a spare room. We eventually found one, which turned out to be very friendly and very cheap. 100 baht a night for a twin room, with ensuite (but the sink empties onto the shower floor!). That's £1.50, I think I'll stay there for a while.

My guesthouse, I'm staying upstairs on the left

Chiang Mai

Monday December 31st, New Year's Eve

When I first arrived in Thailand in October it seemed I'd found a place I could live happily for a long time. It wasn't the intention, I was thinking before about either Australia or Spain as places to stay after my one year visa in Australia. And you have to be careful with liking a new place a lot, the exotic differences of things seen on holiday soon become ordinary. However girls from this part of the world are gorgeous and particularly like western men, and even if you avoid the many situations that are clearly money-driven that part of life is way way easier than in the UK. Even if I did have a stable relationship it's good to have a lot of attention! It's better in Australia too, but here it's even friendlier, and of course even cheaper to live.

One problem is the visas, one month 'transit' visas are obtained when you arrive or just by crossing the border for 5 minutes, e.g. Burma just beyond Chiang Rai 300 km north of here. 2-3 month 'tourist' visas can be obtained back in Penang or KL in Malaysia, or major traveller departure points like Australia or London. I was in a hurry to get here for New Year so I didn't manage that, so my first transit visa runs out on 29th January. [19th January: I later found out you can get up to a year's multiple entry visa if you go to an office before going through customs in Bangkok airport when you arrive! Just need to show them a bank statement with enough money to live here for the time you want to stay, and pay them a relatively small amount of money for what you get: 10,000 baht or 160 pounds for a full year]

The only way to find out what it's like to live here is to try. Om is a great friend to make me feel at home (and add plenty of excitement to whatever's happening!)  I also know Jiap from last time. I'm taking it month by month as I find out what I will do for the visas and to see how it all goes. It's certainly not the end of the journey, at the very least I will have to travel for renewing visas, there are a lot of interesting countries to see, and at the moment it looks like I can only stay in Thailand about half the year, because you can't renew visas indefinitely. Om's particularly fluent in English, though of course I'll learn some Thai to understand more when she's talking with friends. Bit of a nightmare to learn I hear, you can pronounce each word about six ways (for example increasing or decreasing pitch) to get totally different meanings. £40 buys a month of lessons. And the writing's stranger than Lord of the Rings, all curvy loops and stuff and 46 letters in the alphabet. You can see an example on the waterfall sign in the first Chiang Mai section of this diary here (press the 'Back' button to get back). Om has a 9 year old daughter, though I've only seen her once.

The next part of the diary will be a bit simpler than what's gone before, I'm staying in Chiang Mai to find out what living in Thailand is like, as opposed to travelling in Thailand. I won't write about the more tedious day to day stuff, so quite a few days won't appear here at all, but there will be plenty more travelling, and all the things around here.

This evening is New Year's Eve. By a lot of luck I have finally achieved a Christmas in Australia and a New Year in Thailand (the real Thai New Year is later in March, water fights and stuff). Here the conventional new year is much like anywhere else, plenty of drinks which in this country is almost exclusively either beer or whisky. For beer most people drink Chang (others are Singa and Leo) because that's the cheapest, about 50p for a wine bottle sized bottle.

Superb way to see New Year with Om's friends, mostly girls. At the end we even won another bottle of whisky, and fortunately didn't drink it tonight!

Tuesday January 1st, New Year's Day

The best way to travel around, except when you have a friend with a motorbike, is by red taxi. There are loads of these, more than one in ten cars is one. They are converted pickups (utes in Australia) with a roof and two benches to sit on in the back part, and unless you are sitting next to the driver you climb in at the back. Best bet is to wait (a few seconds!) for an empty one and the driver will probably take you where you wanted for 10 baht (15p). He'll stop to pick up more passengers on the way if they are going in roughly the same direction. Other colour taxis are for destinations outside Chiang Mai. Hiring a motorbike can be only 100 baht a day (£1.50) and a car, 4 wheel drive jeep, is from 700 baht (£11.50).

The climb-in taxis, you can see most vehicles on the road are these or motorbikes

Finding the way around Chaing Mai is quite easy, the central part where I am staying is a 1 km square walled area, with an old gate about half way along each side (the building in that picture is now a hotel). Chiang Mai Gate is just behind the trees in the picture above. The only difficult part is remembering which side of the square you are on as they all look alike. Inside the wall is the road for anticlockwise traffic (we drive on the left here, same as the UK and Australia). Outside the wall is a wide moat full of fish with bridges for the U-turns that enable you to change direction, or go from inside to outside. Outside the moat goes the clockwise traffic.

The moat around the old town

Within the walls it's a very quiet pleasant place to live, loads of temples large and small, and houses, schools and loads of small family-run shops.

Buscuit shop

Outside the walls it's more busy with a few western-style shops (like 7-Eleven). Western tourists usually stay in the main hotels close to the night bazaar area of Chang Klan Road, a 10 minute walk away from the central walled area that I prefer. Just beyond there, and a kilometre away from the walls in any direction is the outside edge where you get out into the country. The eastern wall has most of the tourist stuff, like bars and Thai/western food cafés. Beyond the west wall are the mountains, including the hill with the Doi Suthep temple I visited last time.


Friday January 4th

Om's still working so it might be difficult to see her a lot next week. She prefers to stay at home (she has a 9 year old daughter to look after) when she's tired. I'll have to work out some way of moving near her house if her contract job lasts a lot longer.

Today we had breakfast together and had a look at a couple of markets. It's a cultural difference, but against my suggestion she even didn't take her daughter to school today to stay with me! The deal in Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, is that Thais do pretty much whatever they want, and everyone works around this. It effects the way they drive (cars pulling out and motorcyclists wearing no helmets), how they work (Om works a couple of hours a day almost whenever she likes) and how they play (young girls very often sleeping with much older men, plenty of open affairs, and AIDS is reputed to be a particular problem).

Saturday January 5th

Om is in trouble with daughter for not taking her to school yesterday! I'll leave them alone this weekend to spend time together.


Monday January 7th

I phoned Om again, now she's unwell with a slight fever and hurt back perhaps from long scooter rides to work in Lampang. Her car's not working, it needs to be fixed for the front brakes to work. She could take it to local car menders but they apparently keep inventing things wrong that need fixing, so her father wants to fix it himself and he's busy.

This evening there was a major domestic fight in one of the guesthouse rooms, between a Thai couple. The bloke was hitting her with everything, though he slowed down a bit when people were watching. Om says this is totally normal in Thailand. I decided against intervening, I have to live here too, and Thai boxers seem to be just about the hardest fighters in the world, you don't know who people's friends are!

Tuesday January 8th

Played scrabble in the evening with a few new people in the guesthouse. Included a retired American living off $750 a month pension, and a Turkish teacher (who travels with his rich students for a living) with stories of how a local private hospital is trying to sell him far too much medicine.

Wednesday January 9th

Met a cool French bloke at the guesthouse in the morning while trying to call Om. Finally found her, hired a car and we spent over an hour trying to find each other (I didn't know yet where her house was). We took the car with Jiap, one of the two other girls we travelled with last time in Thailand with Sean and Cathal the Irish guys, and drove to have a look at some hot springs. The car (4 wheel drive jeep, the cheapest car you can rent) was classic Thai. Luckily it didn't start when I hired it so we had a look under the bonnet. Not only had the battery come unconnected but so had a couple of important looking large pipes! I don't know a lot about car maintenance but that did not look good. Also the speedometer was always at zero. Whatever, I took the car anyway. When we returned to Chaing Mai in the evening we had a rare rain storm. Needless to say the windscreen wipers didn't touch the glass...

Hot spring

Geyser at the hot spring, the water's very hot here

Thursday January 10th

I won't see Om for the next two days, she's working again. She prefers to see me only when she's relaxed so I get the best impression of her. It suits me at the moment to have loads of time to myself to collect my thoughts about the computer game I want to write, and have a go at sorting out my finances so I can have a go at making back some of the money I've been spending (or at least not lose more!)

Friday January 11th

Woke up and watched the Final Fantasy DVD I'd bought in Australia.

Mostly a day starting to think properly about the game I want to write. It's a big new concept and I could make it easily, it just needs a tie-in to make it mainstream. I'll think of something.
      In the evening I went for a walk back to the park where I fed the fish last time I was in Chiang Mai. I sat about thinking about the game until night- (and mosquito) fall.

Saturday January 12th

Om has some children's event going on today, so yet another day on my own. Taking the chance to get the diary up to date, though I'm starting to get bored and a little in need of girl company! (Om says that I "left her alone" for a month and a half so a few days here and there is nothing.)

500 year old buddhist 'wat'

In the afternoon I noticed a particularly tall 'wat' (Buddhist temple) tower over some buildings. There are loads of these within the walled central area of Chiang Mai, but this one looked huge. I walked around to it, even further away than I thought, so it was even larger. Very impressive, will make some good pictures when I go back in better daylight. It is a half ruin, but huge, and apparently still used with lights coming from the inside at night, like an Egyptian fantasy film. It partly collapsed in an earthquake in the 1500s. Around it are signs with presumably Buddhist proverbs, like "Better do it than wish it done", "Still water runs deep" and "Envy is the sorrow of fools". It has a giant ribbon tied around it like they tie around old trees they have particular respect for (and believe have spirits). There are a couple of huge tall trees in the front area with similar ribbons, one over a small temple dwarfed by the tree. There are plenty of monks chanting inside a modern temple built in front of the old one, dressed in yellow instead of the usual orange.

A big old wat, partly collapsed by an earthquake in the 1500s

Close up

Steep bit

The new temple is in the background

One of the huge trees (more impressive when you are there)

I had a drink in an Om-approved bar, but it was boring so came home to sleep early for a more interesting day tomorrow: we have decided to do another car trip, perhaps to the big mountain in the west, the tallest in Thailand.

Sunday January 13th

Om, Jiap and I visited a waterfall and large flower garden area in the hills south of Chiang Mai, buying strawberries and plenty of strawberry wine.

Monday January 14th

Another appliance has blown up on the mains today (a phone charger blew in flames by just plugging it in last time I was in Thailand, they don't always have switches on the mains). Don't take safety for granted in Thailand, you have to be careful with everything! Like you have to be careful walking around, there are plenty of lights in Chiang Mai at night so that's ok but there are heaps of huge potholes, sometimes they dig a huge tranch in the road and don't fence it off. Potholes everywhere, I was gonig to say large enough for a small elephant to fall into but today the Bangkok Post newspaper has a picture on the front cover of an adult elephant being hauled out of a hole with a crane!!

Chiang Mai is a great place to relax, gather thoughts and be happy to do very little for a while. It's only £1.50 a night, and not much more than the same again for food. There are monks and temples everywhere, even monks playing computer games in the internet cafés.

Wednesday January 16th (approximately)

There was a freak hailstorm just in Jiap's family village near Chiang Rai a couple of hours drive north. There was a short rain and hail storm here too, only the second time it has rained since I arrived here in Chiang Mai (it's the dry season).

It's a village in the Golden Triangle at the Thai/Burma/Laos border, close to China. The hail was up to the size of full size oranges. China is noted for it's exceptional hailstorms, I checked on the internet. This was the worst in Thailand for 30 years, very unlucky to be her village! Destroyed all the roofs and killed the chickens. One in China 65 years ago killed 200 people. I bought her a new roof for 50 pounds!

In retrospect I should have been a voyeur and rushed up there for some photos. The government does nothing, more worried about finding and burning down the drug fields they find around those border areas! After the war in Afghanistan the Golden Triangle has become the world's leading producer of heroin. Here's what the BBC wrote about it just now: BBC news article about the drug fields (this'll be popular!)

Friday January 18th (approximately)

There weren't a lot of people around, and it was difficult to spend a lot of time with Om, so I announced to everyone I was leaving. Simon and Eg pursuaded me to stay. I had more friends here than I thought. I don't know where my long term future is, but there's a lot more to do around here first.

Heard about a James Bond style trick around here. Need to be careful with people touching you on the arm in unsafe places, there is a drug that permeates the skin quickly making the victim want to agree to everything, like giving money away!

Thursday January 24th (approximately)

Om's 9 year old daughter Fern goes to hospital. Her family are worried as her twin sister died a couple of years ago, they have both always been weak since their premature birth.

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