Forgotten, fantastic, unappreciated 80’s music

     Who cares about 80s music? You should! It wasn’t just U2, R.E.M. and Cyndi Lauper. When I went to college—I went to college!—I was a DJ at the campus radio station, KCSB 91.9 FM, for three years. I played alternative 60s music with a show called “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out”, but it felt restrictive to limit myself to that decade, even if I managed to unearth gems like The Travel Agency and Vanilla Fudge. I always volunteered to fill in for any other DJ’s time slot and play the progressive music of the day, which left an indelible impression on me.
     Some of these songs had a blip of popularity, some were under the radar even at the time. To appreciate these songs I have suggested the best time to listen. You have to be in the right mood to give these a chanc, though in a lot of cases, they lose something when you watch the videos. This was the early days of MTV and bands were, let’s say politely, finding their way with uneven results. No matter. Let’s do this!

Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – “Before Too Long
     Why don’t we start in Australia? “Before Too Long” is a simple, pop masterpiece with a decent video which makes it stand out from all the dreck of the time. Whenever Paul Kelly toured America, he had to change the band name as “coloured girls” was too inflammatory. I don’t know if anything has changed since.
     Best time to listen: after you’ve thrown that god-awful vegemite in the trash, when you need a simple pick-me-up.
     If you are into this you might like: Hoodoo Gurus – “I Want You Back, Ratcat – “That Ain’t Bad (though there’s a loooot of antipathy for Ratcat among Australians, which I’ve never understood. Maybe the singer is too pretty boy), and Hunters and Collectors – “Do You See What I See?.

Let’s Active – “Every Word Means No
     When I drove around the country watching baseball games with my college roommate we showed up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to see the singer Mitch Easter and his famous Drive-in Studio where R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” was recorded. We met his father who let us poke our head in. Socially, the 80s were like communist Eastern Europe: in an era without cell phones, it wasn’t such a big deal to show up at someone’s house unannounced and uninvited.
     Best time to listen: during those fleeting moments when you aren’t put off by guys wearing eyeliner, when you can’t get enough of puppies in videos.
     If you are into this you might like: Matthew Sweet – “I’ve Been Waiting, another infectious, pure pop song. (If you haven’t guessed yet, the secret to any good song is backing vocals) Translator – “Everywhere That I’m Not (but a painfully bad video, I’m warning you. Major cringe.), The Bluebells – “Cath, though I don’t feel too strongly about it, and The Alarm – “The Stand.

Gang of Four – “I Love a Man in a Uniform
     ‘Twas tough to decide between this and “A Man with a Good Car“. Gang of Four had a moment in the sun, but they have fallen off the map, lamentably. Great band name, too. (What are horrible band names? The Cars, The Police, Backstreet Boys.) The British were miles ahead of the Americans in many respects, musically. It seemed they were always pushing the envelope more than us.
     Best time to listen: When you have an appreciation for grainy videos, when you want to have an impromptu dance-off with the fun-loving guards on Tiananmen Square.
     If you are into this you might like: Human League – “The Lebanon, Gene Loves Jezebel – “Desire and Bow Wow Wow – “Do You Wanna Hold Me? (It’s amazing to think that the singer was a 13-year-old Burmese kid discovered while working in a dry cleaners in London.)

Toy Dolls – “Dig That Groove Baby“.
     Why is it that usually I can’t hear the accent when British people sing? In this frenetic song it is inescapable. Who are the Toy Dolls of 2014? How does anyone hear new music these days in such a disjointed musical world? Who are the tastemakers? Why so many questions when all you came here for was to listen to some songs?
     Best time to listen: when you’re out of Red Bull, when in need of an alarm clock tone, when you don’t mind misunderstanding most of a song.
     If you are into this you might like: Paleface “Burn and Rob, The Dickies – “Banana Splits, D.O.A. – “Whatcha Gonna Do?, and Agent Orange – “Somebody to Love“.

Spike in Vain – “e.k.g.
     Another DJ at the radio station, Eric Stone, turned me on to this obscure Ohio band. It seemed impossibly heavy at the time, though feels almost pop-ish now.
     Best time to listen: when your wife leaves you, during prostate exams, while being waterboarded.
     It might be a stretch, but if you are into this you might like: Minutemen – “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love“, Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker, and maybe Dinosaur Jr. – “Just Like Heaven.

Wasted Youth – “Buckethead
     What do you call this? Thrash? Speedcore? Lullaby? I don’t know, but it was way ahead of its time by a band that had suddenly changed its sound.
     Best time to listen: before doing crimes, on overnight buses in India, while having bamboo splints shoved up your fingernails.
     If you are into this you might like: Black Flag – “Wound Up with the redoubtable Henry Rollins, this video shows the guy’s bottomless energy, Onslaught – “Power From Hell, and Husker Du – “Eight Miles High

Game Theory – “24
     Straight out of Davis, California, home of one of the many schools I was going to transfer to but got cold feet at the last moment. Everyone finds this song too flimsy or lightweight but never in an ethereal sense. It’s just important to hear it at the right time.
     Best time to listen: A rainy, lazy Sunday morning. Do not listen when preoccupied, in hot weather, or in a good mood.
     If you are into this you might like: Pylon – “Crazy, Billy Bragg – “The Milkman of Human Kindness, and The Church – “Under The Milky Way.

The Basics – “Run By You
     This was the band of my college roommate, Marc Taub, but don’t dismiss this out of hand. The Basics went on tour with General Public whom you might know from their big hit, “Tenderness” or more likely know from their previous, seminal band, English Beat. The Basics were a mainstay at UCSB college parties. I didn’t know how good I had it. It’s amusing that a business called Puke N Vomit sells the record.
     Best time to listen: in a nostalgic mood, when I realize the $75 I paid for Marc’s Fender acoustic when he was broke was money well spent (though I am the worst guitarist for someone who owns six guitars.)
     If you are into this you might like: Bad Manners – “Lip Up Fatty“, The Selecter – “Three Minute Hero“. and Fishbone – “Ugly
     Now that I think about it, there is a lot of forgotten, fantastic, unappreciated 90’s music, too…

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Ten months later, the end: Bangkok to Los Angeles

eat am are

     More verbs, please!

     After exactly ten months away, the end of the trip is here. Ten months is a long time to be running around, if you weren’t sure. For the 28th straight year of my post-university life, I have been traveling at least six months of the year. That’s too much, if you weren’t sure. My longest trip was twelve months and twelve days, and I was brain-dead the last month or three. This time I paced myself better with a couple of house-sitting gigs and some laziness in Europe. I look back at it now as wasted time since I didn’t go to Africa when it was sitting right there below me, but, psychologically, in the big picture it might have been the right thing to do.
     The end found me in Bangkok. Everyone finds themselves in Bangkok, the hub of Asia, at some point. As much of a magnet that it is, most travelers don’t like to dwell. (Some think that boiling pots of danger lurk on every corner.) I can easily stay for a week, but I am always easily entertained in big cities.
     Besides, it can take a lot of time to accomplish anything in one day in this sprawling megapolis. My goal in Bangkok is to never use taxis and, of course, tuk-tuks to get around, but I need buffer time to allow for the challenging bus system. Thais sometimes very happily will give you directions that are completely wrong, probably because of the belief that wrong directions are better than no directions. Even when I think I am on top of things with my destination written in Thai for the ticket person, it can still be problematic because they are sometimes illiterate, which always embarrasses me more than they appear to be.
bkk apt sign

     This looks like some deal. I don’t know what the asterisk might mean, but 5500 baht is US$167.

bkk boat hyacinth

     Bangkok’s mighty Chao Phraya River is plagued with this water hyacinth.

     I flew from Phuket to Bangkok for only $35 net on Malindo Air which is also called Thai LionAir. One free checked bag, too. The bus would have been 10-12 hours and $20. (A quick aside: I considered taking the bus for exactly three seconds. Young Kent Foster would have taken the bus and thought to himself, “With that $15 I saved, I can stay in a ragged guest house for three days. Cha-ching!” Sometimes I don’t miss being Young Kent Foster.)
     The public transport secret for Bangkok is the Saen Saeb boat that goes from near Khao San Road/Democracy Monument eastward to the Siam Square area and beyond. This is the map of the route. It’s unique and fun and a godsend to go quickly across town. If you are a woman wearing a skirt or a shy Scotsman in a kilt, it could get a little awkward to discreetly climb over the rope and down into the boat.
     Where to stay in Bangkok? It’s the question on everyone’s minds because so many travelers have huge backpacks and “can’t be bothered”—I hate this expression—to change places, so they plant themselves firmly and suffer the consequences if they don’t like it. Be flexible! I often ask guest house managers if travelers reserve rooms in advance versus just walking in, and it seems that the average is about 90% book in advance. That’s too high.
     I stayed in three places: Fab Hostel for 450 baht (US$14) for a single, kind of near Silom Road, a bit of a walk south of Surasak BTS station, Sawatdee Guest House in Thewet (north of Khao San Road near the National Library) for 250 baht for a single—I’ve stayed in every guest house in Thewet now—and an official HI hostel by Victory Monument for 390 baht for a dorm bed.
     I used Travelfish to check out my accommodation options, but the problem with any information in Bangkok is that too much changes too fast. The cool, hip new guest house from 2013 very quickly turns into an overrun, clogged-drain nightmare like every other Bangkok guest house by 2014.
fab hostel

     Fab hostel doesn’t look like you are in a huge city, does it?

     The theme music for Los Angeles is by an under-appreciated 1980s LA punk band called “X”. (When is punk coming back? The time is right and it’s desperately needed.) The wretched airport aside, I always look forward to Los Angeles, one of the world’s great cities. Everyone thinks I am joking when I say that, preferring San Francisco, but LA is just hard to get to know as it is too large and unwieldy for travelers passing through to digest.
am pm drink

     Back in the Land of Giant Drinks. 100 ounces (3 liters!)

trader joes salt

     Kosher salt from Pakistan(!) packed in South Africa(!!) and sold in USA(!!!)

valley smog

     Great to be back in Beijing—wait, where am I? This is about an hour north of Los Angeles coming over Grapevine. If you know the John Steinbeck book, “The Grapes of Wrath”, this is the pass the Joads come over and find the fertile land of plenty. Nowadays the Central Valley has the worst air pollution in America, worse than Los Angeles’, but when it’s 32C (90F) in November, I say that breathing is overrated. Did you know that beyond that haze is where 90% of the entire world’s almonds are grown? And don’t get me started on grapes, walnuts, oranges, cotton, figs, rice, dairy…

     I flew from Bangkok to Los Angeles on China Southern Airlines for $566 one way. I know, I’m not happy about it either. Cheaper would have been to fly on via Europe, but that’s much longer and I hate flying. Turbulence kills me, and it is unnerving to hear Chinese pilots with their shaky English. Maybe I should have gone with the sing-songy Norwegians.
     My dear foreign friends! Don’t fly into a US airport and expect to stop by a tourist information office to get yourself sorted. They don’t exist. (Am I mistaken? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.)
     My destiny might be to work at Los Angeles Airport in a true tourist information office. I like helping travelers and Los Angeles is a black hole for good information. LAX only has a volunteer post where the staff gamely try and help people with transport and hotel questions, but it is unconscionable that the Great City of Los Angeles doesn’t see the value of having a professional service or believe that this first impression for visitors is important. As it is, travelers are thrown to the wolves, and Los Angeles is extremely traveler-unfriendly. Stay tuned.
dusty tennis

     Did I mention I have been away ten months?

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Thailand, world heavyweight night market champion

be plump

     The Thais, they are very direct people, no mucking about.

     Yes, it’s true, Thailand does night markets better than any other country I know, and I know a few countries. I gushed about them last time I was in Bangkok and northern Thailand, and I’m still impressed. The venues are often in attractive surroundings whether in Phuket on the most beautiful street or in Bangkok among shops selling vintage American memorabilia and old classic cars and motorcycles. Most people sell new stuff, but it’s not uncommon to have a cool mix of homemade things, oddball items you don’t see anywhere else, and things that make you stop in your tracks, like obscure 1970s records or Japanese baseball uniforms.
     Speaking of which, before I start foaming at the mouth and this turns into a lovefest, I still say Japanese flea markets are the best, mainly because they have the weird, quality second hand stuff I like, but Thailand is more festive and it might be out-Japaning Japan in the cuteness game.
     The night markets are one explanation as to why women love Thailand: everything is cute: the presentation is low-key, the venues are calm, the delicious food is all in bite-sized portions, the clothes are petite and subtly stylish, not to mention the general inexpensivosity. It’s all one big, cozy, fun, safe night out.
texaco poser

     There is an epidemic in Asia of people needing to pose next to something, anything. I don’t get it. Is this an extension of the selfie obsession? (I would say the number one thing sold on the beaches of Thailand is a metal rod that attaches to your smartphone which lets you take a selfie two feet farther away.) People had to wait their turn to take their photo next to the Texaco pump, fiddling with the nozzle. This girl’s boyfriend wasn’t pleased with me.

thalang singer

     The Sunday night Market on Thalang Street in Phuket Town. Every night market in Thailand has live music, often several acts at the same time.

phuket shirt

     Bought at the Thalang Sunday Market for 180 baht (US$5.75), pricey for Thailand. It’s rare to find anything in a night market that costs more than 300 baht (US$10 max).

indy market sign
indy market food
indy market sushi

     Sushi? Sushi! There’s usually one sushi seller per market, usually 5-8 baht (US 20 cents) per piece.

muslim food venders

     The woman laughed when I returned for another sticky rice with sweetened, dried meat, chiding me, “Again?!”

     Krabi‘s night market is really all about food, but it is fun and busy. Both nights I was there it rained, so I had nothing to do but continue my pork-eating binge. Spain and Thailand are the two pork-eating capitals for me. In Thailand they make an addicting sour sausage that comes from the Northeast.
     The Indy Market in Phuket Town is supposedly for teenagers to sell their stuff, but some teenagers looked pretty old. It’s Wed-Fri nights, small, but with a nice variety of goods and foods on offer.
     The Sunday evening Thalang Street Market in Phuket Town is on…Sunday evening. Thank you. It’s a blast, but I get the feeling it will turn into Chiang Mai’s and become too crowded. Go while it’s perfect.
     On the north end of Karon Beach there is a night market on Tuesday evenings, but it’s bogus and not worth your time unless you are nearby.
     There is something newish in Bangkok called JJ Green (Chatuchak is also known as Jatujak, or JJ) on the north side of Chatuchak Market on Saturday and Sunday evenings. It’s excellent, maybe my favorite one. Fantastic atmosphere, also on the verge of becoming too popular, but it’s a big space.
     The Talad Rot Fai (Train Market) used to be just to the west of Chatuchak Market by the train tracks but then moved to the far other end of Bangkok and kept its name, confusingly. I went on a drizzly evening, so I couldn’t get a full taste of it, but the most interesting sellers are way in the back by the driving range. It’s Thurs-Sun evenings. The easiest way to get there is to take the BTS Skytrain to On Nut station and find the seungthaew (pickup truck, 7 baht) that is going to Seacon Square, then walk behind it from the Tesco Lotus end.
     The Thieves Market at Khlong Thom by Worrachak and Charoen Krung Roads is worth checking out, but it’s a zoo. I believe it is a day market most days but a night market on Saturday and possibly other days. Getting reliable. recent information is tough and you can’t trust every website you see, except
     Chatuchak Market is the granddaddy of them all, though it’s only a day market. I don’t lose sleep if I am in town and don’t go, but I understand that it is too much of an institution to pass on if you have never been there before. I make a beeline to one shop I like that sells unique t-shirts, but nothing else stirs me.
     I went last weekend. There is a police office next to Chatuchak Market that also acts as tourist information. I always pop in because they speak good English. It was only later when I realized this was a strange conversation:
     Me: “How do I get to the Thieves Market?
     Policeman: “It’s near Chinatown. Are you looking for illegal DVDs?”
     Me: “No, just looking for second hand stuff, old things. What do they have there?”
     Policeman: “It was known as a place for stolen items, but now most people go there for illegal DVDs.”
     And then the helpful policeman told me the wrong bus and it took hours to get there.
thai job low pay

     These markets might be for middle-to-upper class Thais. This is a job announcement for a fast food place in a mall in Bangkok. The pay for the part time job is 37-41 baht an hour, which is about US$1.20. As I said in my last post, Bangkok is cheap, but it’s not that cheap, and that’s from a foreigner’s perspective. It’s hard to find noodle soup for 40 baht, and one shouldn’t have to work an hour to afford a simple noodle soup. It must be tough to survive at that wage.

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Into the belly of the beast in Patong, Phuket

patong beach sign

patong pizza girl

     This place was an outlier on the main drag since it’s pizza (or is it?) and no one else was there. I half-expected to walk into a McDonald’s and see a girl dancing on the counter.

     Patong is like Las Vegas: you have to see it to believe it exists, but after a day or two you can’t wait to leave and you don’t return until you have forgotten most of it. That said, the beaches on the entire west coast are fantastic, and I never got stung by the sea lice that plagues all the other beaches in southern Thailand but that no one ever mentions because we’re so busy perpetuating the whole Land of Smiles nonsense.
     I was last in Phuket pre-tsunami, over ten years ago. Patong is unrecognizable now. The main little party street is now a wide behemoth of a pedestrian zone with innumerable bars that have listless girls “dancing” on table tops. There are more ladyboys and they-might-be-ladyboys than you can imagine existed and you can hardly look at a girl in such an area without wondering what the original gender was, it’s so confusing. Thais on the street are hustling to get you into bars, clubs and massage places and alongside are Russians trying to get you interested in Russian girls in bars, clubs and massage places.
ladyboy maybe

     The person on the left certainly looks like a woman, right? In Thailand you never know, which is very, very disconcerting. The ladyboys put an extraordinary amount of effort into their appearance. What’s especially interesting is how integrated they are in mainstream society. I have seen them work promotional events, acting as the public face of a company, which goes a long way in explaining public acceptance. I dare say that in the enlightened city of my birth, San Francisco, they are still on the fringe of society. Am I wrong?

     My dream is for another tsunami to come and wash away anyone who utters the word “taxi”. For most travelers it’s easy to enjoy where you are without thinking of public transport, but I’m not one of them. Some cabal of corrupt politicians has created a system where public transport connecting the two major towns on the island with thousands of people stops at 5pm and the infrequent airport bus takes 90 minutes to go 25km, so instead it is all unmetered rapacious taxis, which means that all the sidewalks in Patong for several kilometers is taken over by thugs yelling “Taxi!” at you all day and night long. There is an unofficial maximum fare posted here and there, but to go within town it is 200 baht (US$6!) and they have zero incentive to budge downward. They know and you know that you will be fleeced.
     I don’t know why this makes me so agitated, but it does. It may just be the rant of a crank who is nearing ten months on the road and whose brain fried long ago, but I hate taxi mafias more than genocide or age restrictions in hostels (I can solve that problem by getting a Somaililand passport; it’s high time I reinvent myself as a 34-year-old Somali entrepreneur anyway.) This is where Patong’s problem is like Kuta, Bali: it’s all short-term thinking because they know the tourists will never stop coming.
     The tourists will never stop coming unless the latest plan from the military government comes into fruition. Up to this point, coups, tsunamis, civil war, terrorism, violence against tourists, and too-spicy food have failed to make a dent in foreigner arrivals, but the murder of a British couple on Koh Tao might be a game-changer. The murder itself no one would care about as that can happen anywhere and a couple of Burmese guys are being framed as scapegoats, but the military is thinking of implementing two incredibly bad ideas.
     One is having foreigners wear bracelets showing what hotels they are staying at. Few men and certainly no women will want to wear something that has the name and hotel of where they are staying. The other is to pair every single tourist entering the country with a Thai local to watch over us like we are naughty kids.
     I say they aren’t going far enough. Since most tourists stay less than two weeks, let’s give henna tattoos on the forehead to everyone at the airport and border crossing stating their hotel, some background info, maybe how much cash they are carrying around. Let’s forget the bracelet, too, and just go to a dog collar and leash.
kvas phuket

     It’s incredible how many Russians are here. Lots of Chinese, too, but Russians thoroughly dominate. Any other nationality is a very distant third. “Kvas” is a fermented drink made from rye popular throughout the former Soviet Union.

patong sunset jet ski

     From a distance, it’s beautiful.

     I went to a private extension of Patong Beach (100 baht admittance) called Trai Trang Beach or Paradise Beach as well as the two beaches further south, Karon and Kata. Paradise is too small and claustrophobic with only a narrow strip of sandy-floored sea to swim in, but it has decent facilities.
     Karon, Kata and the whole eastern coast is great. The beaches are all long, white and wonderful, the water is lacking only some blueness but is excellent for swimming. On my first day there in Patong I lay floating in the Andaman Sea, blissfully drifting along, lost in thought about search engine optimization and Facebook likes when a jet ski roared by me, shattering the calm and sending my heart racing.
     The beach is plagued with such nuisances as well as four(!) different places where a speedboat drives in a circle while you and a Thai kid are whisked around in a parachute/kite. (What do you call that, kite sailing?) That’s another good business as they are busy the entire day, blowing their whistles and making a commotion.
     If we are turning the beach into a carnival, why stop there? Why not a firing range on the beach? Olympic hammer throw trials? Javelin practice? Do I sound old? Have I mentioned I have been away for ten months?
takraw patong

     Takraw on the beach in Patong. Amazing athletes, but the points come too fast because there are rarely any rallies.

kata surf

     Manmade surfing. US$25 an hour to be in a group of eight people taking turns to try their hands at it. This is on the southern end of Kata Beach.

     Hitchhiking is a pain because there are too many taxis around and few people speak English. I hitchhiked from Patong to Phuket Town with a man who said he couldn’t accept payment from me even if he wanted to. He seemed afraid. The local government is cracking down on illegal taxis just to control the trade, not out of any malevolence by them.
     I stayed at Niku Guest House near the middle of the action in Patong for 400 baht (US$13). (Late October is just before high season. Over the winter I hear it is hard to find anything under US$25.) It was OK, but Patong is the kind of place where you lock your bag to something in the room, even if it is a single room and you keep the key.
     Most guest houses elsewhere in the world have a policy of not allowing anyone in your room, but in Patong they want you to be sure that you can and probably should. Niku says, “Fan room with a bed for two persons. For two budget oriented persons who don’t mind to share a bed, or the one who wants to invite a guest.” Patong has a large seven-story hotel in Patong called Sleep With Me. I’m guessing they have a permissive guest policy, too.
     In Karon I stayed in a nice room near the beach at Paradise Beach Inn for 400 baht. It’s a long story, but I will be the last person to get a room at that rate. Let’s just say they were happy to see me go.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Phuket Town, more than just clean vomit stations

baby on bike

     How fast would this woman’s kids be taken away if this scene happened in USA? The only thing missing is a cigarette in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and the woman being underage. I am assuming she has no license. I am always amazed that helmet laws are ignored here, too. Isn’t it the simplest thing? If they let this slide, you can imagine the police only very selectively enforce what they feel like.

combini girls

     These girls work the night shift at the convenience store by my guest house. They are 18, 12 and 17 years old.

     I was last in Phuket pre-tsunami—the 10th anniversary is next month—and I hardly remember it, so I was surprised to discover how wonderful Phuket Town is. The island has the same name as the main town which everyone ignores as they go like lemmings to the famous beaches on the west coast (more about them in the next post), but they’re missing out. Phuket has a well-preserved downtown that feels like a smaller version of Penang, which is high praise. It’s a nice accessible size, there are two very fun night markets (more about them in the following post), and the people are mellow and welcoming. I loved it.
thanon rommanee

     Quaint Rommanee Street in the old town. They call this Sino-Portuguese architecture, heavy on the Sino.

     Last time I stayed in the oldest hotel in town called On On Hotel(!) In the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, “The Beach” the first scenes were shot there. Not far away were other buildings used as the French and American embassies in the classic, “The Killing Fields.”
     A friend took me to a cool place on Yaowarad Road called Sanaeha where we saw a band. The singer asked if anyone had a request, and I shouted for “Yark Rung Dunk Dunk” by Palmy since it is Thailand’s gift to our ears. It’s a song by a Thai-Belgian hippy waif that I made my nieces watch the video of a billion times before they cried uncle, but I’m already their uncle and it didn’t stop me from insisting on another billion views. The best version of the video on YouTube has bad sound halfway through. Sorry.
     This is the link of the fuzzy performance if you can’t see it below:

binkies curry

     Across the street from Sanaeha is my favorite spot to eat, a place called Binkies that serves nothing but pizza and this spicy, coconut-milk sweet yellow curry. I can’t bring myself to try the pizza. I usually think of myself as someone who likes spicy food, but in Thailand I’m exposed as a fraud. Even “a little bit spicy” can mean “face melting.”

vomit station

     Vomit station at Timber Hut, a happening place in Phuket Town. This was a long night, ending with me hitchhiking 15km (10 miles) back to my guest house at 2am, remarkably easily.

phuket view

     View of Phuket Town from Big Buddha. This isn’t considered the nice side of the island as everyone goes to the west coast.

expensive pomelo

     Thailand is cheap but it’s not crazy-cheap. It seems absurd to say if you just flew in from Sydney or London, but if you have been running around Southeast Asia a while you do a double take when you realize you just paid 60 baht (US$2) for a simple noodle soup or see pomelos for 120 baht each (US$4—and it’s pomelo season now!) or mangoes at 120 baht a kilo or US$13 for a bed in a regular hostel…

     I had the dorm to myself at Journey Guest House for 199 baht (US$6) with a flat screen TV(!) and a bathroom inside. It only sounds like a good idea to have a dorm room with a bathroom inside, but it’s just noisy and you hear e-ve-ry-thing about your roommates’ digestive system and how Thai food is treating them. When I finally got roommates I changed to a new place a few doors away, Yak Yai, where I pay 250 baht for a single room as part of its “soft opening.”
     I’m looking for flights to California and the cheapest I saw had the punishing route of Bangkok-Copenhagen-Oakland on for $420 last I looked.
     7-11s are absolutely everywhere in Thailand, often across the street from each other. I’m on a nostalgia kick as I devour slurpees and sunflower seeds like I am back in fifth grade. A guest house had a sign asking travelers not to shop there since they don’t contribute to the local community. I see the point, but I don’t completely abide: they’re easy, everything has prices on them, and there are no language barriers.

     I’m sure it means something lovely and inspiring in Thai, but it’s still a bad name for a guest house.

car reception

     The reception at the hip Quip Hotel in Phuket.

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Blood, chocolate & ink? Must be southern Thailand

love milk

     Hello? I’m getting mixed messages here.

     Greetings from Thailand, deep in the iron-hard grip of a military coup! This is probably my 15th-20th visit. Indeed Thailand is now under martial law, the result of a political stalemate, but you would never know it from being on the streets. I was once in Bangkok during another coup and I only read about it the next day. There is no noticeable difference for tourists, though a lot is going on. A personal question to ask Thais is if they are a red shirt (a supporter of the deposed prime minister Thaksin, very popular in the countryside) or a yellow shirt (the opposition, mainly middle class Thais, with yellow being the color of royalty). They will have a quick answer, but they may not want to say it out loud.
soiled sheets

     K Guest House laying down the law against the Big Three!

     I can see that English is improving little by little in Thailand, but it is still a great impediment to communication. I remember a time when many foreigners felt compelled to learn some Thai phrases to get by, at least the basics such as, “I love you but I can’t get married just now” and “If I get one more blood transfusion, do I get a discount?”
     No one is put off by the language barrier, and many come for medical tourism, which I have never understood. Just getting my eye exam was fraught with communication difficulties. I need third and fourth opinions.
stop teen mom

     Yes, please

     I flew to Krabi from Kuala Lumpur. As a quick aside, my last time in Kuala Lumpur I met a Ukrainian traveler who had almost no money. She was very breezy and unbothered about it; living in complete destitution was just her way of traveling. She had slept rough in New York’s Central Park and by London’s Buckingham Palace, hitchhiked through California, and her experience is that just when things look grim and she’s nearly broke, something great happens. It always works out in the end. She’s also a chain smoker; if she’s laying half-dead by the side of the highway, her last coins will go to cigarettes.
     In Malaysia she lived on roti canai and when the money for that ran out, she merely went to the corner of a busy part of town and started asking people if they were Couchsurfers. She got a place to stay, then she went into a pub popular with foreigners and came out with a job. Later she found a landlord to rent from and got a temporary job from him doing “auditing and business consultation” for five days in Brunei despite having no idea what she was actually doing. The details are hazy to me, but I bring this up because this kind of traveler living off the seat of her pants is a dying breed. I also bring it up because she’s the poster girl for where there’s a will, there’s a way. You create your own luck. The last I heard from her she was was in Vietnam, sick and presumably penniless. Good times!
     When I asked her what she missed most from being home and she said she missed end-of-summer get-togethers with old friends discussing what they did, what it meant to them, the meaning of their existence, etc. It was the most Eastern European of answers.
krabi karst

     Krabi still has a backwater-ish feel as most people use it as a stepping stone to other places, but the airport is getting busy and there are even direct flights to Guangzhou now. Yes, the Chinese are already here in big numbers. I’m still amazed how Chinese tourism has gone from almost zero just five(?) years ago to ubiquity.
     It’s fun to see each nationality carving out its own little niche in Thailand. Scandinavians are big around Krabi. One guest house had a sign: “We sell snus“. Last time I was down this way on little Koh Lanta island I noticed there were Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—in Swedish.

stoplight statue

     A stoplight in Krabi.

phangnga view

     Phangnga is about halfway between Krabi and Phuket and is one of the places to come for tours of its exquisite bay, though no one does because no one wants to base themselves here. It is one of those nondescript but nicely-sized Thai towns where you can watch a takraw game, get normal (non-touristy) food everywhere, not be harassed by taxi and tour touts, the locals are extra friendly and, I dare say, even happy to see you.

karst road

     Limestone karst rock formations sprout up all along the coast. Big fan.

heaven hell temple

     A charming little scene from the Heaven and Hell Temple: a bird(?) pushing humans into a grinder.

     I flew from Kuala Lumpur’s old, rarely used Subang Airport to Krabi, Thailand on a Malindo Air turboprop for US$68.
     I must have looked at ten guest houses in Krabi. Almost all of them smelled of mold when I opened the door, which releases the suction deep into my nostrils. When you can smell the mold before you reach for the door knob, that’s a lot of mold. (One malodorous guest house had a radio station inside of it, which almost swayed me.) I ended up at the same place I stayed last time, the one with all the beautiful dark wood yet doesn’t reek, K Guest House. 200 baht (US$6) for a pokey room, bathroom separate.
     In Phangnga I stayed at Phang-nga Guest House just north of the bus station on the main road for 350 baht. The Monday night market way in the southern part of town isn’t worth the effort to get there.
     A discovery: when Thais show that something is funny on social media, instead of “lol”, they use “555” because the number five is pronounced “haa”. Clever.
     Next up: into the belly of the beast, Phuket.
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Bali: no country for old men?

tegallalang face

     A face from the Tegallalang rice terraces. Lots of girls like this one try and sell postcards to tourists. Last time I took photos of a bunch of them, went down to Ubud to make prints, and returned to give the girls photos of themselves. The looks on their faces when they got them was worth all the world’s gold.

     So I was looking for a place to sleep in Sanur on the east coast. There is one backpackers hostel, but it ruffled my feathers when I read on their website, “PLEASE UNDERSTAND WE HAVE AN AGE LIMIT OF 35 years or younger IN THE DORM ROOMS.”
     Once in a while I see something like this and I always become agitated, probably more than I should be. I think I am less bothered by genocide. I am also confused about the problem. Are we boring? Do we snore disproportionately? Do our dentures keep slipping out and hitting the bunkmate below? (I’m really, really sorry, Mr. Norwegian! Won’t happen again!) Do we sit all day in the common areas and yell at everyone who will listen that it was all better in the good old days? Do we turn off the lights at 10pm and grumble if anyone turns them on? I decided to politely write the hostel:
     Me: Hi, I was wondering why backpackers over 35 aren’t allowed.
     Jackass: “I don’t spend a lot of time asking ‘WHY?’ Instead I focus on what I should do now”
          Jeff Dixon-The Key To The Kingdom
     Me: That’s an answer? I should instead focus on trying to be under 35?
     Jackass: How old are you?
     Me: Too old. I am curious what it is about over-35s that you have that policy.
     Jackass: Why would an old man want to share a room with young 18yr old girls?
     Why can’t we smoke in Restaurants
     Why do we have to wear a helmet on a motor bike
     Why do we have to where seat belts
     Me (biting my tongue): Are women over 35 allowed?
     Jackass: No, I’m sorry thats just our rules, we have implemented them at the request of the majority of backpackers. We initially didn’t have this rule and on 2 occasions we had several complaints from our guests about older guests ogling at the young girls and one occasion where the girls felt unsafe. So to be fair the rules also apply to women. Hope u understand. There are however many other backpackers in Bali that allow older guests. Enjoy.
funky smell

     …and we’re going to need to check IDs.

     I am amused by “young 18 yr old girls”. Are there “old 18 yr old girls?” He might be the one with the obsession. “On 2 occasions we had several complaints”? “The majority of backpackers”? I doubt this, and even if something did happen to one of his precious 18-year-old girls—adults—are they really threatened more by us drooling, senile oldsters than a 19-year-old boy, say? Jackass.
lion painting
     I was in the Sanur market, the only idiot in the midday heat shopping in the inferno of the enclosed space. No one was particularly interested in selling me anything they had displayed. Instead, as I walked around I heard, “Hello, massage? Special massage!” and “Special massage…Bali girl!” I bought some clothes from one stall and I asked the woman what was distinctive about a Balinese girl. As a non sequitur she said the girls are all from Java and that the pimp (i.e. everyone in the market) will take 500,000 rupiah ($40) but pay the girl only 200,000 or 300,000.
kent birds
indo haircut

     Great name for a barber shop. FA-FUNK, y’all!

kuta sunset board

     Sunset on Kuta Beach. It’s so beautiful in this direction but everything behind me is so ugly: masses of people, non-stop noise, endless shops crammed together, horrendous traffic, continual hassle, and darting motorbikes all in heavy, heavy overabundance.

tanah lot sunset

     Tanah Lot, another photo where there are a zillion people off-camera. Absolute hordes of tourists go for the sunset. Traffic is so bad coming back that it took me two hours to go 21km.
     What I will remember more from this day was that I was hitchhiking nearby when two chickens were crossing the road to get to the other side and a passing tourist van hit one of them. The dying chicken lay flailing in the middle of the road while the other ran circles around it in distress and then had to dart to the side of the road to avoid cars. The chicken had to wait, but when there was a moment, he ran back to the suffering one, scratching at it with one foot before scurrying off to the side of the road again. It was touching to watch.

tirta warung

     I was saying last month how accessible Penang felt, but Indonesia is even more open and inviting. I went to Tirtagangga on the northeast coast for no reason at all and these women working at a food stall let me hang out with them in the open kitchen, let me ask how they cook, what ingredients they use, their thoughts on monosodium glutamate, etc. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s a great feeling to have this freedom to get all my stupid questions answered.

tirta nasi campur

     They make this fried rice for 25,000 rupiah (US$2.) Love the tempeh (fermented soy bean cake) on top and on the side. Tempeh is God’s gift to the world, and it’s a mystery to me why it hasn’t taken off in USA, especially when we grow so much of the world’s soybeans.

tirta organic farmer

     After my fried rice I went for a walk away from the village, following a religious procession that one always finds in Bali (A local told me, “It’s easy to be Muslim, all you do is pray five times a day. Being Hindu, much more difficult!”) and I stopped to buy some fruit at this family’s shop. The guy didn’t speak great English, but it didn’t stop him from passionately telling me that organic farming could change the whole community. The problem is that he had trouble convincing his fellow farmers, who blindly want the fastest harvest possible.

water palace

     The Tirtagangga water palace, a relaxing place to beat the afternoon heat. I made small talk with a friendly couple from Shanghai on vacation, but when I asked them their opinion of what is happening in Hong Kong, they suddenly went stiff. I killed the moment.

     I flew on Malindo Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Bali for US$68 one way and $60 coming back with one free checked bag. Not bad for a three-hour flight. AirAsia was similar, but you have to pay for bags and I tire of AirAsia’s heavy-handedness such as when they announce that you can’t eat your own food on the flight and where they slyly try to help you forget to opt out of insurance and seat reservations.
     Visa on arrival is now $35. The international departure tax everyone must pay at the airport (if you are not flying Garuda Indonesia) is now 200,000 rupiah (US$16.50).
     I met an Aussie guy who came through immigration quickly even though several flights had arrived at the same time. He was just as surprised, but he said a security officer sidled up to him when he was filling out his arrival form and asked if he wanted “express service”, promising he would go right through for 300,000 rupiah (US$25.) He said sure, the security guy took his passport to get stamped, and he buzzed right through.
     Just so you know, there is no such thing as express service. Likewise, when I saw a friend off at the airport, the security guard on the outside of departures whispered to me that I could go inside for $10. My first time to Indonesia I bribed a Bali immigration guy $10 to let me into the country without an onward ticket. (That’s how you know it was a long time ago; it only took $10.)
     Last time I was here I wrote a quick guide to Ubud on $10 a day that was well-received by my fellow bottom feeders. Two changes from that: they fenced up the Monkey Forest Park so you can’t sneak in and a good tip is to check out the Ubud market before dawn to see it busier than at any time during the day. Also, there is something resembling mass transit in the Kuta area now with the Kura Kura bus. Together with the Sarbagita bus, it’s a step, a small one.
     I finally stayed at a Tune Hotel my last night in Kuta. It’s a real hotel that can be had at a hostel price if you book it on the right day at the right time. It’s well worth checking out, but wifi is unnecessarily expensive and you don’t need to buy air con since there is a fan.
     It’s irresponsible to hitchhike in Bali on busy roads by simply throwing your thumb out. The problem is no one is expecting to see a hitchhiker and they stop impulsively without thinking of traffic behind or beside them. I learned that the hard way by almost causing several accidents. I instead picked my spots by extending the thumb only when it was safe for a car to stop.
     Distances are short, but traffic and roads make any traveling time-consuming. Still, it’s fun, and the people are great. A few foreigners pick me up, too. A Belgian woman who had been a diving instructor years ago took me. I said I know a Hungarian diving instructor. “Viki?” she asked. Yes.


     Tegallalang rice terraces

bali garbage

     A common sight in Bali.

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Last gasp from Malaysia—until I visit another 15 times

say huat

     Say huat?

     Another visit to Malaysia in the books. I accomplished nothing I intended to (go somewhere new, see inexpensive doctors for a checkup, check my skin post-chicken pox, etc.) but I’m less bothered than I should be about it. I’m also 300kg now. It was time to go before I ate myself into Bolivia, as Mike Tyson might say.
nasi lemak penang

     Preparing what is arguably the national Malay dish, nasi lemak, literally “fat rice”, that is quite cheap. It’s not enough to say there is Malay, Indian and Chinese food here. There are sub-categories and a broad mixing of cultures, such as nasi kandar which is predominantly Tamil-Muslim food, a simple rice and meat dish that is smothered in a variety of rich curries. Nyonya/Peranakan cuisine is from the intermarriage between Chinese and Malaysians, Chinese spices making subtle changes to Malay/Indonesian dishes. In Malaysia there’s probably a cuisine inspired by the third uncle of one-legged Portuguese who hail from southwest Mongolia.

tandoori chicken set

     In some circles this tandoori chicken and nan set is called flavoursome. It reminds me that every time I leave Malaysia before I get the definitive answer to this burning question: is ghee the devil? (I say yes.) This cost nine ringgit, or about US$2.75. Malaysia is very good value for money, but it’s poor form to say that it’s cheap in front of Malaysians when local wages are so low.
     This was at Sri Ananda Bahvan restaurant in Penang. The food is excellent, but I find my favorite part of going there is when a tall, lithe, dark-skinned Tamil girl with long, shimmering black hair and bewitching eyes, all improbable elegance amidst the din of Little India, lopes in like a gazelle, and all the guys working there, which seems like dozens since workers cost three cents to import from India and Nepal, manage to get a short but solid stare in like they have never seen a woman before.

subway penang

     Subway has opened ominously close to the World Heritage zone in Penang at the end of Lebuh Chulia. I’m heartened that I have never seen it busy. It saves me from not giving foreigners the stinkeye when I walk by. Yes, we westerners can get tired of Asian food after a while on the road, but out of respect can’t we all wait until we get to Kuala Lumpur or Hat Yai, please? Thank you.

mcdonalds penang

     This is even more ominous, that the deep pockets of McDonald’s have been able to renovate historic buildings for their own use. Or, should we rejoice that they are being renovated at all? Is the trade-off worth it?

bread history

     Cutesy names aside, stay far away from western food in Malaysia.

danish briyani

     I don’t know what Danish briyani is, but there is a finite amount of meals you will eat in Malaysia and they are too precious to be used for experimenting.

butterworth hitch

     Hitchhiking from Penang to Kuala Lumpur was easy. I took the ferry to Butterworth where I very quickly got a ride with two Tamil women and then this Tamil couple drove me out to near the highway. The key to hitching in Malaysia is to go from big kawasan rehat (rest area) to big kawasan rehat—also known as “R&R”s with excellent facilities: one or two gas stations, a good-sized food court, and sometimes a hotel or a Starbucks.

red sidewalk

     Malaysian police loves making posters and banners of gruesome photos of accidents to try and scare drivers to go more safely. I accept your gratitude for not having a more close-up photo, especially the lower right one—unless you want to see it, then click here. It’s really bad, I’m warning you.

do not go on stage

     If you tried to put up this sign in the Philippines and karaoke was involved, you would start a riot.

     I don’t have photos of:
     The thief who burst out of a cell phone shop followed by two guys in hot pursuit, so hot that they caught up to him ten meters away, the thief was so slow and clumsy.
     Someone dozing in their car with the engine running in order for the air conditioner to work, a popular pastime, global warming be damned.

Practical information:
     I drank tap water for days until enough people told me not to. My last morning in Malaysia on my way to the airport something hit me from whatever it was I ate or drank the night before, which could have been anything.
     The Penang tourist office is putting out some quality heritage-related maps and information. In one they profile individual craftsmen who do one thing and only one thing like making joss sticks, rattan furniture, traditional lanterns or even just the old Chinese guy who makes 300 coconut tarts every morning, then stops, and that’s it. You walk on over, there is the guy’s store and there he is, like how life is supposed to be.
     They give the same treatment to the itinerant food hawkers. I read about the coconut and peanut sesame ball family, found their usual location where they set up most evenings, and there they were. I like my Penang to be a time capsule where nothing changes.
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My favorite restaurant in the world, Ee Beng Vegetarian

eebeng entrance

     The entrance to Ee Beng! Excitement!

     My favorite restaurant in Penang, and therefore the known world, is Ee Beng Vegetarian Food Restaurant. (The first restaurant that comes to mind when I think of a runner up is Al-Hashem in Amman, Jordan. I also have rained praise on Sri Ananda Bahvan in Penang.) It is a humble mixed rice restaurant that doesn’t put on airs. Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Ee Beng so I don’t need to declare my love ad nauseum, and I still feel the same uneasiness knowing that I have no idea what I am eating—is it soy? Wheat? Reconstituted cat flesh?—but I don’t need to know as taste conquers all.
     Also, I need to be reminded that “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” as there are some pretty heavy sauces on some of these things. It gives me pause for thought that I eat meat at all. I would be content eating this mockmeat stuff all the time. The texture is a quick giveaway that it isn’t meat, but I’m not bothered by that. Trues carnivores might disagree, but I say it is the sauce, not the substance.
     The next three photos are a few of the meals I had. They all cost between six and eight ringgit. (US$2.75-$3.50)
eebeng queue

     Civilized dining—and no overlapping!

eebeng layout

     The layout

eebeng stortage

     Ee Beng seeks your mercy even though they are the ones suffering through the stortage!

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Penang: greatest city in the history of mankind?

fern building
     Instead of building up to something, let’s start out with it: Penang is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’m a world city aficionado. It would be cool to visit every country in the world, but I’d like to visit every big city in the world, too. I’m probably Karachi, Chongqing, and Lagos away from the top 25, depending on how you measure.
     Technically speaking, there is no city called Penang; it is an island off the west coast of Malaysia with Georgetown as its major city. Georgetown is what I love, though I will go with the more-commonly used “Penang” which comes from “pinang”, which means betel nut tree. I can barely bring myself to explore other parts of the island, I am so enthralled with it, and just watch: I can express my love without mentioning food once. That will come in the next two posts as I share my favorite restaurant in the known world.
     The challenge is that it’s hard to express my enthusiasm for Penang in a way that would pique anyone’s interest other than for the food. I hesitate to recommend it to friends, as they might not interpret their experience as positively as I do. Many travelers are here just to renew their Thai visas and they saunter around in the oppressive heat woozily, unimpressed by the run down, weather-beaten buildings. The beaches aren’t particularly clean, the water less so, and the sleepy city center’s buildings make it feel like a provincial New Zealand town circa 1988. While most locals are warm and welcoming, some can be by turns taciturn or tetchy, traits that don’t go over well with travelers.

light quote

     In the late 18th century it was decided that Penang Island was going to be a place to develop, so to make space to settle, silver coins were fired from cannons on the ship into the jungle, knowing that everyone who came for a better life would want them. The land was cleared in no time.

     I’m doing a great job selling it, aren’t I? HA! But come on, get up early in the morning and go for a walk before the heat wilts your constitution. Come late afternoon for the same walk as streets can undergo a metamorphosis with a market in the morning and food stalls in the evening, like the area around the Chowrasta Market (short-listed for the greatest market name ever even if the market itself is known for selling the worst food ever: pickled fruit. I just threw up in my mouth.) Few places positively drip with atmosphere like Penang.
     I’d usually rate myself as an average history buff, but here I feel like an avid museum curator sent to chronicle what there is and was before it all completely disappears. Penang feels so palpable and accessible; I don’t need a vivid imagination to conjure up the past. The old town is still well-preserved in both its extremes, the stylish renovated buildings and the ones gone to seed, and there’s a sign on every street detailing its history beyond what you can imagine with names like Lebuh Armenian, Love Lane, Jalan Burmah, Lebuh Acheh (now a province in Indonesia, then a powerful sultanate), etc.
     The historic center is small and compact and in short order you can stumble across busy places of worship for all the different religions, visit Chinese clan houses and clan jetties, smell the flower sellers in Little India before you see them, and, my personal fetish, watch the Malay policewomen in full uniform eating fish curries with their hands across the street from the police station. (Wait, was that my out-loud voice?)
odeon cinema

     The Odeon Cinema at the end of Lebuh Chulia was a Tamil institution that closed this year.

go down houses
islam banner

     I saw this banner on several mosques. Not a big fan of its message dissing other religions, or am I reading it wrong?

     I remember a time when locals commonly wore sarongs and it was less of a stop on the banana pancake trail than a place of great historical interest that warranted a visit on its own merits, but I won’t go into full whine mode because Penang is still a rare bird, just not a bird big enough to handle the biggest rats I’ve ever seen and which are at ease darting around alleys in broad daylight.
     Socially, there has always been issues. Homelessness is omnipresent and I am hard-pressed to think of a place with more transvestite prostitutes. At dark they take over the main drag, Lebuh Chulia, which is also the main backpacker street. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence (cough!)
     I’m still not doing a good job of selling Penang, am I?
dog rickshaw

     The rickshaws are going to disappear someday, so might as well give the dogs a spin around the block.

     I once volunteered here for a couple of weeks at the Penang Heritage Trust, an organization that tried to preserve the historic center of town from the modern-is-good, old-is-bad federal government at the time. Success came a few years later when Penang and Melaka were given UNESCO World Heritage protected status, but one can only hope that Penang doesn’t go the way of Melaka. Penang is lived in. Penang is for Penangites despite the fact that tourists abound. Melaka is like a showcase of what it once was, Disney-fied in garish colors, a tarted up spectacle for tourists. It’s as if the Chinese government were advising Malaysia how to develop it because visiting Melaka feels like you have paid admission to see something.
     Part of the excitement of being here is that it feels like a place on the verge of a transformation because you wonder how it can last. Forces are pulling it in different directions, but is there a tipping point where it will become Melakacized: upmarket, upscale, and a playground for the rich? In the meantime I will enjoy its surprises, like hearing bagpipes coming out of the local high school across from my guest house.
motorcycle mural

     If you haven’t been to Penang in a while, there are new murals and metal wire frame sculptures dotted all around the city. It’s pretty well done with maps to show you where they are, and I love the concept. See the murals quickly as the weather is taking a toll on them.

step by step mural
bruce lee mural

     To counterbalance the rich meals I have been devouring, I went on two hikes, one up Penang Hill (5km and 700+ meters in elevation) and the other was to Monkey Beach in the national park on the northwest coast of the island. On the trail I met this funny local girl who gave me a ride back to Georgetown despite the embarrassment of my super-sweaty body fouling up her car. She introduced me to fried noodle tom yam which I will forever be grateful for.
     I asked her, “What’s your first language?” and she had to think about it, which seemed very Malaysian since there is such a strong mix of cultural pushes and pulls.

     I need someone with a sewing machine to elongate the pockets on some shorts I bought, but in Penang they want to charge me an arm and a leg to do it. The funny thing is that anyone in the world who has a sewing machine, the person will grab the garment from my hand and start working on it before they tell me a price. Must be some sort of secret code among tailors. I tried to get the transvestites interested in fixing my shorts, but I think they thought I was speaking euphemistically.
lewd behavior sign

     I thought we told you foreigners last time to keep your lewd behavior at home!

     Practical information
     I stayed in three different places. Prices for accommodation are going up, but more guest houses are opening than closing. I was told prices are rising because Penang has World Heritage status now, which doesn’t completely make sense, but it is true that you should be careful what you wish for when you want the world to acknowledge something you privately know as special.
     The best cheap place is Red Inn Cabanas (there are several different Red Inns) near the west end of Jalan Muntri. It is well-hidden, but it is in the same building as the Chocolate and Coffee Museum (pure hokum; it’s like calling McDonald’s a hamburger museum) and across the street from where local boy Jimmy Choo learned about shoes. 26 ringgit (US$8) for a bed in a four-bed dorm with real walls, not the paper-thin ones found in subdivided houses where noise reigns supreme. (Someday I expect to read that a consortium of Malaysian guest house owners have contracted with NASA to come up with new, microscopically-thin materials because paper-thin walls simply aren’t thin and flimsy enough.)
jimmy choo
     I also stayed in Old Penang Guest House on Love Lane, which was fine, even though a girl told me two disturbing things right after I checked in: she woke up with itchy bite marks all over her legs and the only other guy in the dorm was awoken at midnight by the police because it was suspected that he stole a laptop.
     Both walks to the beaches in the free national park are excellent and worth doing. Don’t take the boats, slacker! There is a lighthouse viewpoint at Muka Head another twenty minutes or so beyond Monkey Beach. A sign says it closes at 3pm, but I went after hours anyway since this is Malaysia (“Britain ruled the waves, but we waive the rules!”) The compound was open, but the trees are high enough that you can’t see anything, and the actual lighthouse with the great views, is, well, closed after 3pm.
     I went to the flea market in Penang on Lorong Kulit behind the stadium. It was so-so; less than half of the sellers have used stuff. Just as so-so and in town is the daily, late afternoon flea market where Armenian and Acheh Streets meet.
     I hitchhiked from Kuala Lumpur to Penang pretty easily. The place to start is just south of the Rawang KTM commuter train station. Hitchhike the four or five km to the highway entrance, and you will be fine. A big highway gas station rest area is just a few km to the north.
     I prefer to get dropped off in Butterworth and take the ferry over to Penang, but my last driver happened to be going over the (new, second) bridge and straight to Georgetown. He also knew of a guest house that had beds for 33 ringgit on Kimberly Road called On Journey Inn that was empty because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be open or not, so you will have the place to yourself.
flag in sea

     The Malaysian flag mysteriously poking out of the sea. My lens has a spot on it and doesn’t take good photos any more. I’m suffering with my camera. When I go home I pledge to shop, spend and consume electronics enough to make my countrymen proud of me.

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