What follows are a series of essays dispached via email on various treks.......(click on links)
ADVENTURES IN BRUNEI
DISPACHES FROM THAILAND
Greeting from Borneo in Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu (kk) was once know as British Jesslton . After
the British left the Japanese came. Then came allied bombs and a Japanese scorched earth retreat. Today KK is a
rich tapestry of culture. The seedy seaside market is massive. Bustling with locals the market is mostly destitute
Pilipino immigrants touting their wares. Fish, produce, exotic drink...it runs the gamut of food and odors...the
way the food is prepared would make even the most lax of heath inspectors cringe, however this is no obstacle to
backpacker who has prophylactic Levaquin as his breakfast of champions....ah my stomach is like steel!!
....its hard to get more surreal than watching the sun fade into a crimson yellow sky as merchants yell at customers
in a songlike manner... the smell of raw fish and Malay cuisine not quite overwhelming the nose. The islands
off the coast I visited are no less exotic. Mamutic island. Manukan island... of note a few islands down the
TV show survivor was filmed. The water is absolutely pristine. Snorkeling through turquoise water all manner of
tropical fish are encountered darting through the coral, all this against the backdrop of lush verdant jungle
abutting into the sand....monkeys frolic on the beach and clamor for food.
Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic country. Malay women bustle through the roads wearing
colorful headscarves and brilliantly decorated dresses. Perhaps it is some of the smaller things and little quirks
that collectively add to the flavor of all that is Malaysia....after buying a meal my only change was one coin, however the lady presented it to
me with all the care of an ob/gyn delivering a baby. As she presented the coin to me with both hands I though what
if everyone America was this polite. Other quirks....my accommodation is in KK...minimalistic
to say the least. The entire place shares a toilet/shower room barely 3ftX3ft in size. (note to self a small room
with a shower just above the toilet does not a good house Make). Well soon Borneo will be but a not so distant memory but not before grade 4 white water rafting in
the Padas river. Next up...the royal kingdom
of Brunei. Then its Thailand, Cambodia, China,
Japan, and Singapore to conquer.
When our protagonist
last left off it was off to grade four white water
river rafting on the Padas river ( Padas means “spicy” in
Malaysian).The tortuous rapids were a real treat but the real adventure was
gettingthere and back. Safety is nice
to strive for but it appears Malaysians
may consider it merely superfluous. On the way back from the river it
noted that the bridge spanning a rather large gorge
could no longer support an object like…...oh say a train. And
it was that the engineer was alerted and the bewildered passengers detrained
(is that a word?) as we stopped in
the middle of the Malaysian jungle.
The train track was originally built at the turn of the century to
colonial cargo. Quite interesting to see the
passengers spill out of the 1930’s era train cars and cross the
by foot to a waiting train on the other side of the tracks.
From there the
ride back to the small town we set out from was one I shall
not soon forget. We rode on a flatbed train cars……no
even rails, just wooden planks as the dense humid air rushed by and the sun
set to the west. The view was
amazing. The track hugs the Padas River
the entire time as the huge jungle laden peaks and hills reach up
either side. Perhaps no sunset may every compare to the brilliance of
this one. On to Brunei.
The Sultan of Brunei
is one of the worlds richest men. Oil Oil Oil. He
rules the now rather tiny kingdom
of Brunei. Present day Brunei
Darussalam (as its officially know) is situated in northern Borneo, but
in its heyday it stretched all the way from the Philippians to
peninsular Malaysia. The Sultan is a simple man. Nothing exorbitant
about his 1,200 room grand palace
or his personal collection of over
1000 vintage cars. He is also a very humble man…..not the
make him out to be, as the museum he built to honor himself
isn’t quite as lavish as it could be. Further, he is
also a deeply religious
man. Following the pillars of Islam he takes just as good care of his
two wives as he does the
playboy playmates he imports to be in his
harem (after they have literally been quarantined of course).
Say what you
may about the Sultan but he is a smart man and knows how to keep his people happy. Educated at Sandhurst he’s got western savvy. His people
love him. Why not, how could you not love a nation with
no taxes, superb
universal health care, and pensions for everyone? The sultan knows how
to spend his nation’s
oil money (i.e. his money). Any king worth his
gold plated Harley knows that to prevent revolution you must keep the people
happy and the token military run by close relatives. I had occasion to
experience his benevolence.
As a present
to his people for his birthday (a national holiday no less) he built an amusement park. This isn’t
your run of the mill traveling circus with dwarves and carnies running around. It’s a sprawling expanse of state of
the art rides,
lights,massive musical fountains, and has just about every attraction you
wouldfind in Disneyland.
In fact one might rate this place better than
Disneyland. I found myself riding the 7 loop 4 twist roller dangling
coaster 6 times in a row barefoot ( and yes I was a bit
apprehensive…….not because of the ride itself but because
to wake up the napping ride operator). There was no line. In fact there was
quite literally a total of 20 guests
in a place the size of Disneyland.
My guide tells me that the reason for the lull was the fact
five years of being free the place started charging the unreasonably
pricey sum of $7 US. Ridiculous!
Bandar Beri Sagawan (BSB) is the capital of this great nation. The city
boasts two lavish
mosques, two of the biggest in the world. The golden
minarets tear far into the sky. BSB is famous for its stilted fishing
villages. 30,000 people live in the highly coveted pillared
Only a person born in the village may own property there. Some of the
villages are said to have been in existence for 600
constantly scan the villages bridges and poles for sighs of
decay or collapse. BSB is a small but bustling capital although 5 times a day
the entire city stops for prayer. The dreamy
morning call to prayer can be
heard everywhere in the town as it echoes from the plethora of minarets.
Of course there
is no alcohol in Brunei. Perhaps there is no coincidence
streets are bereft of homeless people.
Alas its time now to say good bye to Brunei and hello to the beaches of
Thailand. Ciao for now.
After a long night on the town fried crickets and sautéed cockroaches
do little to entice the western palate, but the innumerable post-midnight street vendors somehow seem to make a living peddling
Thiswas my second swing back through Thailand this trip, I was quite excited
to behold all the mayhem that is Bangkok. Bangkok is so much more than uncanny traffic jams, pollution and humidity. The two most
rewarding was to traverse this most surreal of cities is by water taxi or tuk-tuk taxi.
The later is essentially a three-wheeled motorcycle with a seat in the back. The gridlock of Thai avenues is no obstacle
for the fearless tuk tuk driver. A night ride on a tuk tuk can be a harrowing experience. The tuk tuk careens past huge buses
weaving and darting haphazardly though red lights and against traffic. The ride is surreal as the humid air flows through
the hair, the radiant neon lights of go-go bars reflect brightly off rain soaked streets and glowing night market tents abound.
It was via tuk tuk that I arrived at Lampini stadium. The violence of Muay
Thai kickboxing is best appreciated ringside. For a relatively modest fee I was privy to the ringside spectacle and flying
blood and sweat that mark this most brutal of sports. It is said that in an effort to enhance imperviousness to pain, some
fighters pre-medicate with a little pre-fight opium. Most of the local Thais
sit further back behind the caged perimeter. Wagering locals shout passionately as the pugilists spar, all the while a steady
droning beat emanates from a huge drum and Thai horn in the background. One competitor was wheeled off on a stretcher knocked
out and still unconscious amidst cheers and heckles.
The Wats and temples of Bangkok also merit special
mention. Hundreds of temples big and small great the visitor seemingly around every corner. Huge gold towers spiral into the
sky as giant demon statues ominously peer at orange robed monks ambling in the courtyards.
About two hours outside Bangkok is the city of Rachaburi
lie the floating markets. The canals are picturesque and are teaming with small two-foot wide boats. Old women with muak ngob hats peddle cooked foods, fresh produce,
and other random items from their small vessels.
The beaches of southern Thailand
There are no roads on the island of Kho Phi Phi, Thailand. And so it logical follows that there are no cars or even
motorcycles. The only way to get around is by foot and longboat. Approaching the tropical lagoon for the first time the visitor
is greeted by an untrammeled shoreline full of massive bight green palms. The
water is of course a pristine turquoise aqua color and the lagoon stretches far, almost stuff of fiction (as a matter of fact
Leonardio de Caprios great cinematic flop, The Beach, was filmed on on of the island of Kho Phi Phi).
One of the cleanest and most modern countries in Southeast Asia, Singapore is quite a departure from the chaos of Bangkok. Singapore’s fame as the largest port in the world is no small accident. Its strategic location makes
it is the ideal gateway for the cargo ships of the far east and pacific heading to the South Asian waters of the Indian ocean. While Singapore is safe and beautiful it is also notorious for its barbarically strict legal
system. Amnesty international doesn’t take kindly to the canings and mandatory executions by hanging for drug trafficking
and other lesser crimes. Also don’t expect to find your favorite brand of juicy fruit here, like you’ve probably
heard before, gum in contraband here. I had the opportunity to take a cruise around the harbor and just a few of the 57 islands
that belong to Singapore, could even see some Indonesian islands in the distance, absolutely brilliant.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The bar seemed ordinary enough at first glance, nothing unusual about
dirt roads and past fortified checkpoints to partake of one 's favorite libations. And so it was that I began my visit by
having pint of Angkor beer with my former colleague and now Pnnom Penh expatriate, the illustrious Alexander Lemon. Nothing
strikes the casual
observer as unusual about the menu until one gets to the heavy firearms section. Yes, not only can you
imbibe the local brew, you can also brush up on your armor piercing bullet technique. It reads like a fine wine listAk-47’s,M-60’s,
hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades, and on and on. And so for a not so nominal fee, Alex and I tried our hands at Mikhail
Kalashnikov’s great harbinger of peace, the tried and
true AK-47. As an aside, Alex relates that a local minister of the Cambodian People’s Party recently banned that time
honored tradition of annihilating live cows with rocket propelled grenades (apparently this rather obscure form of leisure
was particularly popular with Japanese backpackers).
The city of Phnom Penh is an interesting juxtaposition of striking
poverty and splendid opulence. Grand
19th century French colonial
mansions manned with armed guards sparkle against the backdrop of
sweatshops, slums, and
refuse laden dirt roads. Wild dogs forage for
food while the appendage challenged beg for money. Indeed the intrepid backpacker
must take care to avoid unexploded landmines that still litter the country. As such it is advisable never to wonder off well
trodden paths and roads on the outskirts of cities. Even up until 1991 before the United Nations took over, Cambodia was a bloody civil war zone. Furthermore, chilling reminders of Pol Pot’s
brutal regime are everywhere. Almost anyone you talk to in Cambodia has had a relative killed by the Khmer Rouge. By 1979 when the Vietnamese came to liberate, Phnom Penh was virtually abandoned thanks to Pol Pot’s agrarian delusions.
A visit to Tu Sulong Prison Museum provides a graphic glimpse into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
On to Angkor Wat
And so I bid Alex adieu and headed north to the city of Siam Reap near
the temples of Angkor Wat. Getting there was not without excitement.
Cambodia doesn’t exactly have a world class FAA and this is why they can sell tickets
for the aging dinosaurs they variously describe as planes. The particular plane I took is a Chinese knock off of an old Russian
Plane called the Yakovlov. To its credit it did land safe on the way there despite the rain (although on the way back it died
on the tarmac, so all the passengers had to wait for another plane to be flown in from Phnom Penh).
Anyway, to articulate the sheer grandeur and immense scale of the temples of Angkor is well beyond the scope of this letter if not impossible. Suffice it to say they were
simply amazing. The temples
were discovered by a french explorer in the 1870’s half swallowed by
Built between the 9th and 14th centuries, the enormous temples
burgeon high above the jungle thicket. Trekking through
temples by foot and motorcycle is an exhilaration I have seldom known.
The fickle Khmer rain occasionally
ameliorates the sweltering heat. One
almost expects to see Indiana Jones traipsing through the ruins.
Gargantuan centuries old tree roots meander through
temples, having long ago pushed 2 ton slabs of finely decorated sandstone aside like building blocks. The
vistas from the soaring towers at sunrise
Well Cambodia has been quite the experience but now its off the land of
rising sun. Japan!
After hitting my head on the door frame for the 3rd time I
came to the
sudden epiphanous realization of just how immutable the laws of physics
can be. It escapes me how I could
have thought that the axioms
governing mass and inertia could possibly allow a door frame to budge after being
by a fleshy object like a head. So was my introduction to the
land of the rising sun and the perilously descending doorframes.
Tokyo was once known as Edo. When the capital was moved from Kyoto
during the so-called Meiji Restoration of 1868, the name was changed to
East capital or Tokyo. Tokyo is
host to fanciful skyscrapers and myriad
Shinto shines where the faithful pay homage to there ancestors. The
Shinjuku and Shibuya seem an order of magnitude brighter than
Times Square. The affluent
flaunt their yen at exclusive boutiques in
the Ginza. At Tsukiji, the worlds biggest fish market, $23 million
of fish are sold each day. The streets of Tokyo for the most part are
bereft of street signs. Taxi drivers
clad in neatly pressed suits and
white gloves navigate their late model lexuses (lexi?) though the vast
avenues and side streets that is Tokyo's utterly
confusing road system. The cabs are immaculately clean,
pure white doilies cover
all the seats, and of course the doors open and close automatically.
in Tokyo are minimalistic and cramped. Staying at a
is somewhat confusing at first. Upon entering the
modest edifice shoes are off and slippers adorned. When entering your
8ftX5ft room the slippers are removed. This keeps the tatami
straw mat clean. Indeed the aroma of the tatami straw mat
refreshing. There's more though, when leaving the room to go to the
restroom, slippers are put back on and
at the bathroom special bathroom
slippers are worm. Many of the toilets are squat types but some of the
toilets here even have heated seats. Oh, and to flush you
pull up on the handle as opposed to down.
Japan is a very clean place with a very progressive attitude toward the
environment. The Japanese
have the world's most efficient, if a little
confusing, metro and rail systems. Most trash cans have separate bins
glass, metal, and paper. And as a final coup de grace I submit to
the reader this ultimate example of just how far the
willing to go for the sake of the environment. Working class Japanese
men ( aka salary men) do their part
to be ecoconscious by buying
unwashed "RECYCLED WORN CO-ED PANTIES" at vending machines no less
vending machines sell all manner of
goods: beer, cigarettes, porn magazines, soup, hot dogs, and camera film to name a
These salary men are likely the same ones who frequent the
numerous, elaborately themed, pay by the hour "love hotels".
also love to gamble. Smokey pachinko parlors (a game best described as a
cross between pinball, a slot machine,
and a video game) lure their
prey with flashing lights and luminous neon
signs. Missing the last train
home after an inebriating night of pachinko madness is no worry for the
need just head to the nearest capsule hotel. These
coffin-like rectangles even offer the guest a mini TV inside
Japan is certainly a land of unabated hilarity. Baseball has become an
institution in Japan. A visit to a Japanese baseball game is a world
away from going to the ol' ballpark back
home in the states.
Throughout the entire game, men in suits and red armbands ritualistically lead
each section in
cheer. They bark loudly into megaphones at the fans,
drummers, horns, and cheerleaders in their section. Like frenzied
zealots they scream fervently at the crowd orchestrating
an intricate series of complex yet incessant cheers, songs, and
Absolutely hysterical. Another rather humorous nugget of Japanese
culture is manifest in the English t-shirts
that are all the rage. The
phrases of these t-shirts run the gamut from at best cryptic and
enigmatic, to at worst word
salads that make zero sense. A few
examples culled meticulously from many: view good point, demand of you, rock n
delicacy survivor, and my personal favorite.....we can't see the
world for the trees.
The cities beyond Tokyo seem to offer
much. The city of Nikko in the
Japanese countryside is nestled amongst towering mountains
rivers. The shrines there were pleasantly tranquil. A few more days
here in Japan......Yokohoma's next and then its on to the chaos of Bangkok,
The Hutongs of Beijing are a sight to behold. These narrow alleyways
range anywhere from 3 feet to 10 feet in width
are home to some of
Beijing's most fascinating dwellings. Tin roofed shacks, assorted
produce stands, and animated markets lend the Hutongs their charming
flavor. At length, it was down one
of these Hutongs that my hopes for
locating a bike finally came to fruition after searching for several hours.
old man covered with oil and sweat spoke no English but it was
assumed that the bikes in front of his shack were for rent.
demonstrating the international sign for "rent bike" (this oft forgotten
maneuver is executed by first balancing
on the left foot then extending the
arms while simultaneously flexing the right hip up and down in a
while bobbing the head up and down). This was the very
picture of a utilitarian Chinese workhorse bike, rusting and weighing
probably more than its rider it served its purpose and the brakes did work.
After negotiating the not so unreasonable
sum of $1 a day, it was off
to cycle through Beijing starting in Tiananmen Square.
The massive portrait of Chairman Mao glares stoically
Square through the thick haze annually blown in from the Gobi desert.
in 1989 that the Chinese were said to have mowed down thousands of
pro-democracy protests. Today, however,
this largest square in the world is
lively and bustling. Hordes and hordes of Chinese tourists make the
to the square and queue up to visit the "Maosoleum". Here the
chairman's preserved body lies in all its splendor for the
revere. Kites swoop high and low through the air above the square,
just don't get clotheslined.
Tiananmen Square is a relaxing place but big brother is still watch from the numerous cameras
peering down from corners of buildings and light poles. Then there is the peculiar and omnipresent Chinese soldier. Hundreds
finest cadets eye you suspiciously wherever you go, especially since
westerners here are few and far between.
These soldiers are a curious breed,
alternatively standing at attention for hours on end and marching
briskly to apparent
destination for no apparent reason.
Just north of Tiananmen
square lies the Forbidden City.
Quite the city
within a city, not a bad place for a humble emperor and throngs of
concubines and administrative eunuchs
to hang out. Hundreds and hundreds of
splendorously decorated palace halls overlook expansive courtyards and
gates. As if this weren't enough, the summer palace just
outside the city offered the emperor a magnificent retreat. The
palace is replete with grand cyprus trees and spreads over rolling hills
tranquil Kumming lake.
Beijing is crowded and virtually no one speaks English. Buses are
filled to the brim. It is not at all uncommon for middle aged ladies or
anyone for that matter to spit up huge wads
of phlegm or pass flatus with
orchestral brazenness all while standing right next to you. The Chinese
make no apologies
for their curtness. Elbows fly and crowds push, just
another day in the life of Beijing. The cuisine also deserves special
mention. Tasty and cheap…pop into an eatery and order.
The menus are
all in Chinese so lunch is very much a lottery of pointing at Chinese
characters. Sometimes the exact
nature of what has the delicious if a bit
mysterious meal is best left to the imagination lest you know you've
eaten ox entrails, pigs blood, eyes, tendons etc.
The Wall from Jingsaling to Simatie
The Great Wall needs
little introduction. Construction was begun nearly
2,000 years ago. Only after hiking five miles up and down the
mountains of the Chinese countryside can one really come to
appreciate the magnitude of the wall. The wall is rugged terrain,
were once steps are now pebbles having been weathered over the centuries.
The wall connects a series
of sizable turrets every few hundred
On to a random city in the countryside
The flatter areas of
the Chinese countryside glisten with acres and
acres of peach trees, flowers in full bloom as pink petals cascade to the
ground. The tiny provincial village of Guanjiayu is not a tourist
Mecca, rather a completely random place for the westerner to observe country
life. The old
men wear Mao style caps and dark blue sweaters and
pants. The people are very hospitable and gladly invite the anomaly
the western backpacker into their huts for a meal. Of course no
English is spoken but communication
somehow occurs with a series of laughs
Well China has been amazing wish I had more than a week to explore but
gotta move on.