Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thailand Here I Come!

A Travelling Aussie, with the correct attitude, will always have fun. I like to think that I have the correct attitude. I finally had the chance to visit Thailand, a country known as the land of smiles. A more apt description I would not be able to think of. As with all of my travels that you may have previously read about in Part 1 & Part 2, half the fun was the journey there. I had a chat to my friendly travel agent & this time chose to fly with Royal Brunei. This proved to be an excellent choice. As with most airlines they try to route as many flights as possible through their own country. As usual, this will involve an overnight stop to boost their economy a little with the tourist money at the hotels. Please note that due to a problem with my computer, I have had to get some of the images on this page from other places on the Internet. However most of the images are my own.

The country of Brunei is a very interesting place. It is very small, but has a fantastic economy. Now I could be wrong with some of the information of what I did learn, so I will try to stick to the basics & not get to wound up with the minor points that I'm not sure of. The Sultun of Brunei owns just about everything, including the airline.The citizens pay no taxes. To live in Brunei on a permanent basis, you either get sponsored by an employer, or marry one of the locals. The employment opportunities for foriegn people are very slim, & I do not want to marry again, so this little tax haven is not for me!! The flight I was on arrived mid morning & I was not due to leave until 10am the next day. I basically had 24 hours in this interesting country.

Having the best part of 24 hours to play with, I decided to have a look around, & learn a little more. One law that is made obvious as soon as you try to enter the country at immigration that I found very interesting, the country is "dry", as in there is no alcohle allowed. This has the interesting result that they have virtually no domestic violence problems. If, as a tourist/ transit passenger, you have the obligatory bottle in your luggage, you must hand it in at the immigration counter & pick it up again when departing. Honestly, the look on the faces of some of my fellow travelers was priceless. As I am a non drinker, it really didn't bother me at all. I did a quick day tour & got to see the palace of the Sultan. WOW !! What a big joint it is. Seriously, pictures just do not do justice to this very palatial home. The bloody cost of the driveway alone would be valued at more than the house I live in. I also had the opportunity to check out a floating village. The whole village is built above the water in the delta area of the local river. The only way I can think to describe it is to try to imagine a timber asian version of Venice in Italy. Everybody commutes by boat. The homes themselves are quite modern inside with most things that you would be familiar with in the average western style home. I also noticed quite a lot of satelite dishes on roof tops. On asking a few people I learn that these were for both TV & Internet access.

Speaking of the internet, I also noticed that the internet speed in this tiny country was the fastest that I have ever experienced anywhere. I really hope that somebody in the Australian Government reads this & that they feel some sort of shame about the stupidly slow speeds that we have here. The hotel that I stay in was very nice & literally 5 minutes travel from the airport by the very effiecient hotel shuttle bus system {hope somebody from Malaysia reads that bit}. I could even see the top of the hotel from the bus waiting area at the airport. I learn that when I ask one of the locals how long was the travel time to the hotel, he smile & pointed the hotel saying not long at all sir. Just can not argue with that at all. The slight downside {and I mean slight} of a country with such a strong economy was that most of the prices were very comparable with those that I would pay in Australia. I have to admit that I had not done a lot in the way of research into this prior to my journey, and had to spend more that was my original budget. Other than this minor oversight on my behalf, I enjoy the country, and look forward to another visit, hopefully for a slightly longer time. I would totally recomend anyone to travel with Royal Brunei & a short stay in their country.

The next day I was back at the airport boarding the plane bound for Thailand. It is a relativly short flight from Brunei & the view is fantastic. If, like me, you like a little history, have a look at the map of the area that you fly over to travel that route. After you have noted the area where you will be flying over, have a look out the window at the type of terrain is below & think that there werew so many conflicts that were faught in that area. The movies just do not do justice to the real image of the area, go see it for yourself. It really did open my eyes.

Being the organised person that I am, I had used the advice of friends & found a very nice hotel to book into for my short stay in Bangkok. I had chatted with the staff at the hotel on the phone when making the booking & with the information I got & the information I found online, I had a rough idea of the taxi price prior to getting in the taxi. I had also printed off a map of the area where the hotel was situated , with the destination highlighted. I had also made sure that the street names were in Thai script. Thank God for google earth. A saying in the Army {I served for almost 15 years} goes Prior Planning & Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance {known as "the 7 P's"}. I live by it still to this day.

Some friends met me at the airport & we got a taxi. I handed the driver one of my copies of the map I had printed & said the name of the hotel. He look at me & smile saying no problem. I then gave him some money in small denomination bills and said that it was for the tolls. Bangkok has a lot of toll roads, rather than have to look for cash each time we arrive at one, I just give it to the driver & he pay as we go. He seem to like this idea a lot. I had learn about the tolls from my chat with the staff at the hotel. For the sake of a few extra dollars on the phone, I had potentially saved myself a fortune, & did not suffer any frustration of being misunderstood. The drive through Bangkok was uneventful, & I was enjoying looking at my new surroundings and comparing to other places that I had previously visited.

I was booked in at a small hotel Bally's Studio Suites on Silom Road. You could walk past this hotel without even realising that it is there. There is a doorway with a sign out the front, that is all. The big landmark to find it is the fact that there is a Burger King next door & BTS Skytrain station outside. Although only having a small entrance, it opens out once inside, & spreads out a lot on the upper levels. The rooms are very comfortable with everything that most people would require. Air Conditioning, Internet access in the room, big comfortable bed & a very clean and modern bathroom with hot & cold running water. The staff at Bally's are amongst the most helpful that I've ever met in any hotel. To put this into perspective, they were helpful & friendly in that you could tell from the attitude that they genuinely wanted to have a chat & be friendly. I had to ask them for advice on a few matters in my time there. At no stage did I feel as if the only reason that they talk was because I was a paying guest. The buffet breakfast every morning on the top floor of the hotel are fantastic, with a great selection.

I was in Thailand for both business & pleasure, so between the business appointments, I got to play tourist. I had friends that advised me of some of the better places to visit, & things to experience. The Grand Palace is a Buddhist temple that is well worth a visit. I actually got to see quite a few temples in my stay, but this one just blew my mind. I also went on a canal boat tour on a traditional Thai Longboat. This was a real experience & the operator/driver of the boat was a great guy, & quite friendly. We had a few challenges with language, but with his smiles & my easy attitude, we had fun. One of the things that I found interesting was how modern living was making inroads into an ancient land. To explain a little further, on the longboat tour we were travelling past one of the many giant statues of Buddha, I've no idea how old the statue is. The houses & buildings nearby were very old, & some looked as if they were in imminent danger of being about to fall into the water. The roofs of a lot of these buildings were wearing satellite dishes for Internet & TV. Somewhere on this page I have a picture that I took to show exactly what I'm trying to describe, have a real good look.

Food! Oh my goodness, the food just defies description. It is fantastic. I am a lover of asian food, & I like spicy food. With Thai food, I'm in my version of heaven. I only once went into a restraunt, the remainder of the time I ate at the street vendors. I would have my buffet breakfast at the hotel, & then if I needed anything else, I would find a vendor with some tasty pickings available. Believe me, I never had to look hard, or for very long to find something interesting & tasty. The food from these vendors is very inexpensive, and if you want a guide for quality, just look for the vendor with the largest number of people waiting. Thailand is just like any other place in the world, the locals know where the good food is, follow the crowd of people.

When I booked the hotel I did not realise that Silom road was quite the busy area that it is. Oh, I had read various articals that said it was busy at night, but none of what I had read had prepared me for the experience that was in store for me. During the daylight hours, it is similar to anyother major road in any other Asian city. At night, it really comes alive, to the point where there are parts of the sidewalk where you almost can not walk due to the number of people, stalls, tables loaded with clothes, the list is endless. Welcome to the Silom Road night markets. Between all of the markets on the sidewalks are the nightclubs. The nightclubs are a story in themselves & you can see anything that your heart desires inside. You can also see a few things that your heart may never desire, but I will leave that to your imagination. I am human, and yes I did go inside a few of the clubs. I thought that I had travel a long way, I may as well see what it was that they were all talking about. I got to see a ladyboy show & have never laughed so hard or enjoy myself so much in a long time. No, I am not gay, but I am also not homophobic either. I loved the way that the ladyboys could spot the men that were very uncomfortable in the surrounding, & then they would tease these men almost unmercifully. It was very funny, & they have a lot of talent. I also went into one of the Ping Pong shows. Words really do fail me on how to describe this experience. In short, with all of these clubs {I only went inside 3 of them} I am glad that I did visit & have the experience. To answer the next question, no, I will not go back into one of the clubs again. I have been, I have had the experience, I have seen, I did enjoy, but I shall not return to them.

The markets themselves are great. We have nothing like them in my home country of Australia, and I think they are great. I love the free enterprise system that is so alive & well in this market place. Almost anything is available here to purchase. You want some DVD's to add to your collection, the choice is huge. You wantCD's, the stacks that are available would shame a lot of major outlets in western outlets. Clothes, there are so many clothes it makes me wonder how the permanent clothing stores in the city remain open & making money. The quality of the clothing is also very good, I did have a bit of a challenge though with the sizing. It seems that although I am of average size in the western world {178 cm's} by Thai standards I am almost a giant, & not very many of the stalls in the markets had size XXXL. It is also in these markets where you can eat to your hearts content. I ate there every evening when I was in Bangkok, & I had a different dish for every meal. I never even once got even slightly sick & I loved it. I was somewhat surprised to see that there was a Burger King & numerous other western style food outlets in the area. I found it amusing to note that the majority of the customers were westerners {mostly American}, that did not want to even try the local food. I am sorry to say it, but this attitude disgusts me. I did however also notice that the majority of these westerners were also the same people that you would see taking advantage of the wares available within the walls of the nightclubs. You could see them later in the evening with some pretty young lady that was trying to make some cash to provide for a family. I did not like the way that some of the men treated the ladies, it was with disrespect that they treat them. I do not really care what a person does to earn a living to provide for a family, they still need to be treated with respect.

I also had the opportunity while in Thailand to spend a few days outside of Bangkok at a little place {compared to Bangkok, everything else is little} called Buriram. It is about 400 kilometers out of Bangkok, and is very provincial. The people were even nicer than those that I had met in Bangkok and everything had a much more rural atmosphere. I explored a little of the area in the few days that I had available & got to visit some very old temples dating back to the Khmer era. I had learn by this stage of my travel thay although I did like Bangkok, I just love rural Thailand so much more. I now have a love of the country & the people. I have also developed an interest in the Buddhist religion. The people of Thailand are so happy, & so peaceful. They are very accepting of others & seem to have some type of inner peace that I'm just not able to describe, and I really do wish that I had the capability to find the words to describe the attitude that they have.

I have recently learn of an area in Thailand called Surin City. Surin is famouse for the Elephants. Every November they have an event / festival that lasts for about a week called the Elephant Roundup. I do not think I will be able to get there during the month of November due to commitments elsewhere, but I most certainly will be wanting to visit the area in the very near future. I guess that also answers the next question. Yes, I will be returning to Thailand, it really is the land of smiles. It even made me smile, I smiled a lot while there, & even now at the memories.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Part 2, Off To Malaysia

A travelling Aussie can have a lot of fun in this wonderful world. as I mentioned in part one of this, I have learn that the journey is at times more interesting than the destination. Using this theory as a base, I have also learn that if the travel agent gives me a flight with a stopover for more than 5-6 hours, get them to change it to adjust the stop over so that can stay for 24-48 hours, it makes the journey so much more interesting.

My very first visit to Malaysia was prior to learning this, & I was on my way to the Philippines again. I had a 12 hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur {KL}, Malaysia. I had asked the travel agent to find me a place to sleep for the night that was of reasonable price & close to the airport. The agent did admit that he did not know a lot about the area & had no recommendations, but he would see what he could find. All I can say is he did very well.

I was told that I would be staying at The Pan Pacific. The agent informed me that the hotel was very reasonably priced & was directly across the road from the International airport in KL. My immediate thought was "great, I get a decent nights sleep, & a hot shower". I asked for more information about the hotel, but he did not have a lot. All he could tell me was that it was the only hotel reasonably close to the airport, it had hot showers & air conditioning. Knowing that I was only going to be in the country for 12 hours from the time the plane touched down at 21:00 hrs until take off the following day at 09:00 hrs, I was not really worried. The reason I wanted a hotel close to the airport is actually very simple. I did not want to spend most of the 12 hours trying to find a hotel. When Flying international, it is a good idea to remember that it does take some time to get through customs, immigration etc. Knowing that I also had to be at the airport 2 hours prior to departure the next day, & figuring to allow 2 hours to get through customs etc, I really only had about 8 hours in the country. I did actually want to get some sleep.

I am one of those people that find it almost impossible to sleep on an aircraft. Oh, do not get me wrong, I do doze off & get a little nap, but not exactly what I would call real sleep. I got a real surprise when I arrive at KL. The customs & immigration officers are very efficient, & I was through in about 30 minutes. Now it was time to go looking for this hotel that was across the road from the airport terminal. Hmm, how do I get outside & across the street? Then I notice a small sign with arrow and the Pan Pacific Hotel name. Now I am not the smartest person in the world, but found this to be rather interesting, so followed the pointing arrow. I found myself in an overhead walkway {air conditioned} leading from the terminal directly to the hotel, how good is this! I did not even need to go outside to get to the hotel, I walked straight into the reception lobby of the hotel from the airport. Life just does not get much more simple than this.

Now I gotta admit, I was not sure about what I was expecting. I s'pose I was expecting an old hotel, nothing really great about it, just a very useful location. Was I surprised. It seems that the Pan Pacific Hotel is a 5 star hotel, & it is in the top 20 hotels of South East Asia. The Hotel is very very good. I did all of the normal check in procedures & went up to my room on the 21st floor. WOW! what a view. Had a quick learning curve to overcome though. This was my first classy hotel in Asia, and I learn that it is normal to have a magnetic card as a room key, & that same card also operate the lifts. as you enter the room, you also need to place the card into a slot on the wall next to the door. This then turns on all the power to the room. A great idea for cutting down on power in rooms that do not have anybody in them. It did take me a while to learn how it all worked. I'll be honest, I found a maid in the hall, & ask her to show me as I could not get the lights to turn on. She just smile politely & showed me how to use it. I've never been afraid to ask how to use something if I can not figure it out in a few minutes.

I unpack my overnight bag & freshen myself up, deciding that I was going to go have a look & see if I could get some food. I really wanted to sit & have a feed with a plate that was not designed to be used on a drop down table on a aircraft. Now I realised that I just might have a little problem. I had walked into this hotel at 10pm in the evening, now here I was at almost 11 at night wanting a feed, this might be a bit of a problem. I discovered that it was not really a problem at all. I had a lovely meal in the restaurant, obviously, I did try the Malaysian food & it was fantastic. I also learn that I was entitled to a complimentary free cocktail. I donated that to the table next to me with a family. The lady really looked like she could use a drink. I am a non drinker, so I was never going to use it. I have nothing against those that do like a drink I did have a coffee, and the waitress even gave it to me for free. She said that it was because I was a non drinker, I thanked her very much. It was at this point that I made the choice that I would always try to stay in a country a little longer & learn more about it. This decision has changed my life in more ways than I can possibly describe. I went back to my room, had a very long hot shower & went to bed. The next day I was back in the airport and on my way to the Philippines. We had a quick stop over in Kota Kinabalu for a few hours. I then had the decision from the previous evening reinforced, I just gotta get back to this place.

Some time later on my next trip I did stop in KL for longer {36 hours} and I really did take advantage of the opportunity. I got the agent to book me in at the Pearl International in KL. Very reasonable cost, and also central to most attractions. I did however learn that the transport system from the airport was not quite as it had been described to me by the agent. When booking the flight & accommodation I was also given a ticket to get a free ride on a bus that would take me to the hotel that evening, & also pick me up & return me to the airport. The bus takes passengers to all of the hotels & there are several buses working the route. All that was required was to report {transport voucher in hand} to the desk downstairs from the airport terminal, and I would be loaded onto the next bus. Simple!! Yeah, right.

I had made friends with a few other passengers on the plane & we discover that we were staying at the same hotel with the same transport arrangements to the hotel. I was the first to get through customs & make my way to the transport desk. On chatting with the staff, I learn that the bus would be here in 30 minutes, well that's OK, I am in no hurry at all. About 10 minutes later Charles came wandering out to the bus terminal area. He had just had a very similar conversation with the staff & learn that the bus would be about 30 minutes. Next a Vietnamese couple from Perth came out into the bus terminal. They also said that they were just told the bus would be here in about 30 minutes. I got to thinking & had a chat with Charles about my thoughts. I have been waiting here for 20 minutes now, & the staff are still telling people the bus will be 30 minutes. Charles also thought that this was interesting. When I had been waiting for 40 minutes another man came to the terminal, Charles & I instantly say hello & ask him for the latest that the staff had say to him about the waiting period for the bus. We were not surprised when he told us they had said the bus would be along in 30 minutes.

As I have previously said, I am not the smartest person in the world, but I know when I am on a lost cause. It did not matter what we said to the staff, or who ask, the only answer was , the bus will be here in 30 minutes. It was quite obvious to us that the bus might be several hours & that the 30 minutes was just a standard answer. We also learn that the bus was in no way financially connected with the airlines or the hotels, it was totally independently operated. We try to learn who it was that we could speak with about the system & who to direct our compliments to about the outstanding service. always ask in this manner, as the staff usually more forthcoming with information than if you tell them you want to complain. Now I am not the type of person to complain normally, but the travel agents that I had used had been led to believe that this was the best method to use. We wanted to get to the bottom of the matter, so that they would not continue to use this system until it had been fixed.

We had now been waiting for almost an hour, with no sign of the bus. I had asked a taxi for a quote on the price to get to the hotel & learn that it was RM 85. I mention this to Charles & we started to discuss the idea with 2 of the other people that were also going to the same hotel. we could get a taxi & split the fare between us. I had also learn that taxi were not allowed to pick us up from the bus terminal area, we had to go to the taxi waiting area & stand in line & wait for our turn. You got to be joking, we had been standing around for an hour now. As we were discussing our options a small limo pulled up & a couple got out & started to make there way into the airport terminal. We looked at each other & I just took off after the limo trying to catch him before he leave the area. I reached the limo as the driver was getting back into his car. I ask him if he had to also follow the same rules as the taxi & not pick up from this area. He say that he can pic up anywhere as long as he have a booking. I negotiated a nice price & he then drove around & pic us up from the bus terminal. So it all worked out very nice indeed. we got to travel in style in a limo to the hotel, at a price only marginally more expensive than a standard taxi. Divide the fare 4 ways, and this was great value.

The international airport at KL is a very long way out of town. It would be a very good idea to keep this fact in mind if travelling to KL for the first time. We arrived at the Pearl International Hotel after about a 30 minute ride in our limo. Along the way We had arranged that the driver would also pic up myself & Charles on the following evening to take us back to the airport. Charles & I had never meet each other prior to this trip, but we figured why not help each other out. He was staying in KL to do business the next day & I was doing a little sight seeing. Splitting the limo fare was still better than waiting for a bus that might not turn up to take us back to the airport. The return trip to the airport was a lot more important than the trip rto the hotel, there was no way we wanted to miss that plane. We now had our travel method to the airport all sorted out, and we were feeling quite good about life.

We did the normal check in procedure & went to our rooms, agreeing to meet in an hour to find something to eat. The rooms were huge, this place is even better than the Pan Pacific Hotel at the airport. Having said that, it is nowhere near as convenient if you only have a short time to stay in KL, and there are no transport problems either. We had a chat to the staff in reception & they pointed us in the direction down the road to a local outdoor eating area. The meal was fantastic, the service was great, and the cost was so cheap, I had to ask again to make sure that they had not give me the wrong bill. I was sure that there was another person that was going to get my bill, and not be able to afford it. We really needed the walk that took us back to the hotel, allow the food to sink further down the belly.

The next day I did some sight seeing, & played tourist. I went for a look at the Petronis Towers. Normally I am not one to visit modern man made attractions, however I just had to have a look at this marvel of modern engineering. Pictures just do not do justice to this building. Stand back & have a look, it is so tall it blows my mind. I had a great time walking around taking in the sights. I walked through a few parks & got a meal at a street side cafe. The food once again was awesome. I very much enjoyed my short stay in this wonderful country. I have made a vow to myself that I shall return to try & see yet more. I have learn so much about the area that it has made me curious to learn & see more. It does not matter that I could learn most of the information on the Internet, there is nothing that beats actually see these things with my own eyes.

My advice to all people, go and have a look & have the experience of a lifetime. You will never regret it.

My next installment will be Thailand.