Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | June 11, 2014

Japan: Neon-lit steps in a dark place

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

On this trip I spent seven weeks in Japan, and while I had some good experiences, I’m not sure I shall return. There were a number of things that disappointed me, though that is probably my own fault for having certain misconceptions about the country.

I first visited in 2002 spending most of my time in Tokyo with friends who had lived there for two years and learnt as much as they could about a country still little visited by tourists.

What has changed, or what I think has changed, since then
The Japanese have discovered baked goods. When I was first in Tokyo every second shop was a hairdresser dyeing inky Japanese hair a kind of rust colour. Now every second shop is a boulangerie, selling pastries and bread. The Japanese also like cheese now. It’s a good thing they still eat small portions, otherwise they would soon resemble fugu, the round poisonous puffer fish they love to nibble.

Japanese food is not healthy. It’s full of MSG that made my ears buzz. After hunting for stereo equipment that didn’t exist in the middle of the night, I concluded my hearing was shot. Then I discovered tinnitus is a symptom of excess MSG.

I no longer think Japan is technologically advanced. Due to protectionism and corruption, a traveler cannot buy a SIM card in Japan, and their homegrown phones don’t work very well, though when you are reduced to using a payphone, this is all academic. They haven’t really embraced the web either – wifi is scarce and to use the “free” wifi in Kyoto you have to give a credit card number online. (The answer to that is no.) There are passes you can buy, but again only online even if you are in one of their retail outlets. Flexibility is not a big feature in Japan. To use the wifi in a Starbucks you need to register first. By email. Somewhere else.

The train services are great, but can cost as much as flying. If you don’t want to pay a premium for the Shinkansen, a journey can take hours and hours and hours by local trains, using railway lines which seem to be privately owned.

Japan is more welcoming to tourists than it was, but not that much. You look at the Japan National National Tourism Organisation and it is full of press releases talking about boosting tourism and yet the body is absolutely useless. I wasted a lot of time contacting them hoping for some support and despite around 30 emails I got nowhere. I had a commission from a magazine to do an article for an airline magazine – the kind of article most organisations dealing with tourists are desperate to be part of – and in the end I had to abandon it. Most people I contacted didn’t even bother to reply. It was very disappointing, not to mention rude.

Japan’s hotels largely do not seem to understand hospitality. The most accommodating staff were in casual youth hostel type establishments. Possibly service is more adept in the very expensive five star hotels, but as a solo traveler I was not frequenting those. I had an introduction to a marketing person at an international high-end hotel chain and he took weeks to reply and then was not at all helpful

One upmarket ryokan I stayed at almost chased me back into the street because I committed the crime of arriving at 2.45pm and check-in was at 3pm. Arriving at the YMCA in far northern Burma at 4am in the rainy season I was treated more graciously. Another ryokan had a printed sheet instructing guests to arrive after 4pm, and to “leave before 10am”. So much for a relaxing stay, you’re barely there before you have to leave again. (Yesterday I left a hotel in Malaysia which arranged a late check-out at 3pm with no fuss at all.) And this place charged me when I was leaving for using the onsen (hot bath) even though my room did not have a bathroom attached – a surprise considering what I was paying.

I expected to find charming country towns outside Tokyo. Largely, these do not exist, except for Takayama, near the Japan Alps, which is worth visiting. Most of Japan is full of nondescript modern development and a lot of concrete – well there are about 100,000 construction companies in Japan that need to be kept busy.

I had thought the Japanese were really well educated. Having spent time this trip with a teacher at a Japanese school who filled me in on what happens at a Japanese school , I now think Japanese students are extremely well socialised to devote themselves to work within groups, while accepting permanent exhaustion and dull, dead-end jobs.

These conclusions were aided by reading Dog and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr, which really helped me make sense of what I was seeing: a country that is on one hand extremely disciplined and advanced, and on the other, stuck in the Dark Ages.

Japan has a terrible environmental track record, they burn a lot of their garbage and Fukushima is a mess – the worst nuclear accident in 25 years and an ongoing source of contamination that is not under control.

Still, getting a good look at Mt Fuji was nice. Although with the horriblyy cold weather and the toxic food, it took me weeks to recover after I left the country – infected toes, a blocked ear, laryngitis and a cough I could not shift.

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | February 14, 2014

Japan: Fried food and freezing temperatures

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Nothing prepared me for how cold it was in Osaka. I’d been to Japan before in winter and recall nothing of my feelings about the weather (unlike, say the whale restaurant in Shibuya and Otto-san and his stuffed dog in Nagano).

But I will never forget how cold I am now. Yesterday I wore six layers, including two fleeces, and I was still cold. I don’t remember feeling this cold in the Arctic Circle when it was 30 below.

The Japanese think it is cold too, though they are not wearing as many clothes as me. Maybe four years of living in the Tropics have ruined me for places with more than one season. Today I looked out the window and it was snowing and all I could think was: “Damn, wet feet.” By then I was in Kyoto and though told it doesn’t snow in Kyoto, well, the weather had other ideas.

Apart from being freezing, Osaka is nice in an orderly built-up kind of way – rather grey in winter with a rather overwhelming amount of concrete. However the shops are colorful, especially near the “youth area” of Amerika Mura. And everything is so clean and the public transport is really well organised.

Giant sushi: All you can handle

Giant sushi: All you can handle

It is said Osakans spend more on food than anything else, and there are plenty of dining opportunities to help this happen. I was researching street food for an article and a nice man called Toshio was showing me around, introducing me to okonomiyaki (the Japanese “pizza” with lots of cabbage), and takoyaki (octopus balls).

After seeing Shitennoji Temple, I told him we had to eat more, so we headed to Doutonburi Street, where crowds gather beneath neon and signs in the shape of food (giant crab, cow, octopus, sushi, puffer fish).

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

We found queues besides takoyaki stalls – it is fair to say that Osakans love balls. And kushikatsu – stuff on skewers, battered and cooked in hot oil. It is fair to say I ate my own weight in fried food that afternoon.

Later Toshio took me to see Shinsekai, a postwar development that has is now considered a little seedy by the Japanese, which means the rest of us won’t even notice. This place is the kushikatsu center of the universe, with illuminated mobile menus outside most restaurants advertising their fat-soaked morsels. There is all kinds of food here, but kushikatsu is a big draw. One place, with a giant smiley chef holding a skewer stuck to the front of the building, had more than 100 kushikatsu varieties, from meat to lotus root to ice cream. One menu had eight kinds of pork (fatty belly, heart, stomach, ears, etc) waiting to be battered.

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

To finish off a full day of new experiences, Toshio and I drove through the red light area. It seemed silly not to – it was right by my hotel. Even this was clean and tidy and appeared to be well organised. Small groups of mostly young men were wandering around looking sheepish through a small grid of streets where the ground floor “shops” could be open to the night, with an older madam type in a kimono and comely young miss in lingerie/nurse’s uniform/skimpy frock sitting on a Hello Kitty cushion behind her.

The women looked very attractive, the madams looked business-like, and I imagine they were rather cold sitting out there like that and just wished those young men would get over themselves and make their minds up already. Though at $300 a pop, I guess you want to make sure you get the sexual fantasy and kawaii (cute) soft furnishings.

Then it was back to the Hotel Mikado, which I’d found on the internet. It’s popular with travelers of all kinds and I can see why – it’s clean, the staff are very friendly and speak good English, and the price is very reasonable. It has computers and a laundry and even a small kitchen. I liked it, though there was little sound insulation and I found the futon a bit thin on the floor then after staying with an American friend who believes in comfort.

My room being on the 7th floor, I had to go down to the ground floor for a shower, which probably wouldn’t suit everyone, but there was plenty of hot water and clean towels. The hotel even provides a robe and slippers so you can travel around with minimal inconvenience. If you are a light sleeper, I would recommend the top (8th) floor, maximum distance from the lift and the microwave.

Arriving in Osaka the plane was late. We were delayed leaving LCCT in KL (and after I was thinking good thoughts about Air Asia being punctual). Instead of making up as much lost time as possible, the Captain got on the loudspeaker and wittered on interminably about which way he’d go when he entered Taiwanese airspace and what speed he’d be going when he got to Osaka. He woke me up and I have trouble sleeping on planes I was cross to be disturbed by such utter drivel (subsequently translated into two more languages). The whole thing took about 20 minutes. By then I was too cross to sleep anymore.

So we landed at 11pm and there was a huge panic to get out of the airport and catch a train into town, imagining taxis would be extremely expensive (and I was right). The guy next to me was not happy either, he had to catch a train to another area altogether and pessimistically said it would take an hour to get through customs.

I’ve never spent an hour getting through customs and I wasn’t going to start now. I barreled through the airport in about quarter of an hour, with enough time to harass the poor ticket man and get him to call the hotel and tell them I was on my way, having read something about check-in finishing at midnight.

Then I reached Namba, and was supposed to catch the subway – I had maps and everything! Of course it was finished, and I had to take a cab, which cost $16 to travel about one train stop. Then we couldn’t find the hotel, and he switched the meter off while we frowned at my map. Anyway, I got there and the hotel was heaving hive of activity and I met a young nice young guy on reception, who was from Tokyo but spoke great English with an American accent and knew more about Osaka than all the other people I met put together.

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | January 22, 2014

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part four

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It was in Burma, after some of the most uncomfortable and yet memorable journeys of my life that I felt like a real traveler. Having seen northern Myanmar via accident-prone trains and leaky boats – and generally the only Western foreigner in sight – it was a very different experience to cruise the Ayeywarwady aboard Road To Mandalay, a German-built vessel that was shipped to Myanmar nearly two decades ago. During rainy season, when water is high, the ship goes as far north as Bhamo, the trading post just 50 miles from China.

DSC_0727Most tourists don’t go much further north than Mandalay – there are no lattes and pillow menus in this part of the world. The stars and the sunsets are incredible though, and Bhamo is a pleasant town with two Chinese-style hotels foreigners might comfortably stay in. One, the Friendship, I sampled three years ago. The guide book said it had plenty of hot water and it didn’t, but it was fine for a night of restless sleep before I boarded the government ferry next morning at 6am.

As for places to eat recommended by my popular guide book, the dumplings at the tea house were doughy and had been sitting around for hours, and the curried chunks of meat at the Indian restaurant were about as tender as an old bit of goat’s hoof. As literally the only Caucasian in town, I was something of a novelty. I feared for motorcyclists so busy looking at me that they forgot to look at the road or where they were going.

Passing through the second defile (gorge)

Passing through the second defile (gorge)

Road To Mandalay always had hot water, dispensed four-course meals from the daily menu in the evening (with cheese), afternoon tea, Bulgari toiletries, and even a small pool on the top desk where passengers were known to gather for drinks in the afternoon, or even nap while pretending to watch the scenery. RTM, part of the Orient-Express stable) is a floating boutique hotel and comfortable by any standards, and about 100 times more comfortable than anything ashore. You don’t get to have as many interactions with locals of course, but you get to see plenty. Westerners are a source of huge entertainment. One of the other passengers carried his small blond son on his shoulders through the local market and caused a sensation amongst the women (yes, everyone working in the market was female – I have no idea what the men were doing).

Whenever we went ashore for an excursion we never had to walk more than about 15 steps without the staff setting up a table with drinks and snacks. I think my only complaint would be that it couldn’t really be Burma without feeling hot and sweaty while bumping over a goat track for ten hours and fishing a piece of chicken out of a few inches of oil at a cafe along the way. (There isn’t much refrigeration, so the oil is a preservative. This isn’t an issue on the ship, which has refrigeration for food and air-conditioning for people.) For those who don’t enjoy goat tracks and repetitive meals, RTM is utter joy. The staff take such good care of you I wasn’t sure I would be able to travel again when I had to be responsible for my own belongings or go more than an hour without local delicacies, juice of the day or wiping my brow with a chilled towelette. My usual refreshment is lukewarm water sucked out of a plastic bottle.

DSC_0890The first day meant rising at 4am for an early, but fabulous breakfast (brie! parma ham! olives!) at The Governor’s Residence, Orient-Express’s hotel in Yangon. RTM’s maiden voyage in Myanmar was in January, 1996 – the company are not newcomers to Myanmar and have always had a steady clientele, though no doubt they will be even more successful now Burma is such a popular destination. OE offerings are not cheap, but if you want to see the country – especially the northern part – in relaxing comfort, you can’t go wrong here. Plus the food is great and really varied. There are Burmese staples to try like mohinga (fish or lentil soup, that most Burmese eat for breakfast), and tea leaf salad, but dishes from other parts of Asia and appealing Western food such as rack of lamb and foie gras as well.

Traveling around on my own I wasn’t overly inspired by what was on offer in the eating department. The street food, including intestines on sticks, is often covered with flies, and at cafes the choices were generally limited. Usually I ate the chicken set – curried chicken under a layer of oil, with some curried or pickled vegetables, soup and rice. There is a restaurant in Yangon called Monsoon and it serves well-crafted dishes in a heritage mansion – that was probably the best meal I had in the former capital. It’s recommended as a place to try good Burmese food in pleasant surroundings.

All-purpose river: Bathers on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

All-purpose river: Bathers on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

I’ve seen videos of foodie people extolling the joys of Burmese cuisine, but no one I’ve known who went – including one who was there last month – raved about the food. (I won’t talk about the cockroach eggs someone I know found in fried rice). If you are going to find good local cooking, it will be at lunchtime, apparently, when dishes are fresh.

In a video I saw someone helping themselves to a selection of cooked dishes at a kind of street restaurant, but I never saw a selection like that. In 2010 most people were very poor, and they ate poor people’s food, ie lots of rice and noodles. There probably is great local food but I didn’t find it.

Three years after my first visit, the Burmese did look better fed and the markets were full of produce. At the markets you will see items you won’t see anywhere else, including strange fruit that makes the Burmese feel unwell, though this isn’t enough to stop them eating it. I wasn’t tempted.

The itinerary

We flew to Mandalay and boarded the ship, then we went to the ancient city of Sagaing. This was a quick visit as we had to set sail up the river. The Ayeywarwady is also known as the “national highway” of Myanmar and to see the country by boat is to see it as the Burmese have seen it for centuries. Transport wise, it was the backbone of the country. In the Twenties the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was the largest fleet of river boats in the world, consisting of more than 600 vessels carrying some 9 million passengers a year.

The locals turn out to see the dancing girls and the strange white people when we arrive at Naba

The locals turned out to see the dancing girls and the strange tourist people when we arrived at Naba

We sailed north, stopping at Nwe Nyein village famous for its pottery, Kyan Hnyat village where OE supports a school, and at Katha, the town George Orwell was stationed at and described in his first book, Burmese Days. In Katha during two stops we saw Orwell’s house, the lively local market and took a train (90 minutes to go 15 miles) through teak forest to a small town where we were greeted with a band and dancing girls like we  were a time-warped delegation inspecting a corner of the Raj-era Empire. There was coffee served in OE china at the station (very Raj) and a kind of cocktail service on the train going back. When I was on the overnight train three years earlier you had to buy a bowl of water at a train station if you wanted to wash your hands.

Then up to Bhamo and a walk around town to be surprised at a local bakery with biscuits, beer and sparkling wine. We stood in the street drinking the wine from flutes, taking photos of each other and all the locals who came to watch and it was quite surreal – in a good way. Big improvement on doughy dumplings.

Heading south we stopped at Katha again, admiring its golden pagoda shimmering in the water at night, passed through the gorges of the Second Defile, and pampered passengers got a taste of real Burma on rattly buses to visit some elephants. Hundreds of people turned out to see us and the elephants. Maybe it was mainly the elephants, but they were all along the riverbank when we went back to the boat and there weren’t any elephants there. We rode the elephants (better in a basket than just bareback), and I think the elephants had quite a nice time. Mostly they just stood there while a group of people fed them pounds and pounds of bananas and balls of tamarind and salt. Tamarind balls are like elephant candy.

DSC_0419Then it was back to Mandalay, Burma’s second city which is not as romantic as its name might suggest. Still, there are views from Mandalay Hill, the “craft” street where workers suck down lungfuls of marble dust sculpting Buddhas, and my favorite, the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, where the Buddha’s legs grow ever fatter from the gold pressed onto them. And of course in the afternoon we visited the U Bein Bridge, where we were greeted with chilled towelettes and sparking wine, which is a pleasant accompaniment to paddling by the longest teak bridge in the world. Last time I was there we spent more time here, walking the bridge and drifting about in the boat, but we had a lot of pack in that day. And as always aboard RTM, there was another large meal to pack in that evening.

By that stage of the trip I’d made some good friends, including an irreverent Australian couple who made me laugh over dinner most evenings. Our waiter “William” came to know us quite well and we had a good laugh with him too. His name wasn’t William actually, despite his gold badge. He eventually confessed when we remarked on the non-Burmeseness of this appellation that it wasn’t his badge but it was the only one he could find to complete his uniform. When he approached each night with two kinds of rolls and sesame bread sticks, we’d just say: “Sticks, William!” and then cackle like deranged parrots. He probably thought we were mad, but at least we were mad in a jolly sort of way. I looked forward to seeing his smiley face each night.

DSC_0537The staff were lovely. So helpful and courteous, and not in a sycophantic way. It appeared most of them genuinely loved working on this boat and you could feel it. Many had been offered promotions to work on OE’s new ship, the Orcaella, but most had refused.

After Mandalay we sailed to Bagan, number one tourist site in Myanmar. It was a photograph of its temples swathed in an otherworldly mist that inspired me to go to Burma in the first place. Last time I’d traversed the area in a pony cart drawn by a small, grumpy stallion called Rambo. This time we had an air-conditioned bus and our knowledgeable guide San pointed out many interesting features in the temples that I would have missed on my own. The smell I remembered from temples before was that of bat poo; some of these smelt much more pleasantly of jasmine. There were many golden images of Buddha to admire.

DSC_0545We did sunset at a temple I remembered from before; the steps were steep, but the views were worth it. Early next morning we went to another temple and saw a man ploughing a field with oxen. I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to see this beautiful place again. Later we visited Shwezigon Pagoda and the town of Nyuang U, and its busy market. Everyone looked very well fed, as we were on the ship before an optional trip to Mt Popa.

In 2010 I was watching TV in a crumbly hotel in a hill station near Mandalay, and it was like watching the BBC in 1975. There was a black and white soap opera I thought was made in 1974, except then I noticed the characters were using mobile phones (which are now much more readily available in Burma; they were really expensive in 2010).

Between programs there were panoramic shots of Myanmar, including a cork-shaped mountain with pagodas on the top. This was Mt Popa, a volcanic plug inhabited by spirits (or nats) with a lot of steps covered in monkey poo. It actually looks more impressive from a distance, and this time we didn’t go up, we went to a resort near by with excellent views.

That was the conclusion of the tour and that night was the farewell dinner, preceded by a cocktail party and an elephant dance on the top deck.  I said “Sticks, William!” for the last time, and we had a lively meal, tinged with a little sadness. I always feel said at the end of a good trip, and this one I enjoyed almost as much for the gracious hospitality as for the opportunity to revisit Myanmar.

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Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | January 8, 2014

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part three

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

The night before I left for Myanmar I couldn’t sleep. I had to fly to Bangkok, then fly to Yangon. I’ve flown to Yangon before – it’s quite short, and an essential part of the journey as you can’t enter the country overland. The first time I went I reached the airport at 5am and there was a cockroach on my hat when I stepped out of the grubby minivan I’d taken from Khao San Rd. I’d been sitting next to a Japanese scientist doing research at Oxford in the UK, and he’d fallen asleep and banged his head on the window every time we hit a bump, so I was pretty sure his brains had been bumped out by the time we reached Suvarnabhumi Airport.

That first time, as I sat on the cold and half-empty plane, to land and echo through a surprisingly modern but almost empty airport, I was quite nervous of what I would find. It was a bit like visiting South Africa; I’d read so much that the country had become more alien rather than more familiar. At a point of information overload you start to wonder if buildings will even sit on the Earth in this strange beleaguered country the way they do elsewhere.

As it turned out, Yangon looked rundown, and was the place where cars of the Eighties came to splutter and die, but otherwise it seemed like a fairly normal Asian city. At least on the surface. I don’t why I was so nervous the second time, I was being met, I knew exactly where I am going, but my departure anxiety seems to be getting worse. Or I was just a bit strung out by recent events.

There was a time when I was super casual about catching flights, but that was before cattle on train tracks and breakdowns (mechanical) and strikes and huge delays and 9/11 and ubersecurity. Once I slept in a prayer room thanks to a malfunctioning board at LCCT in Kuala Lumpur. Another time I had to stay in Venice because there was a BA strike and I was bumped off my flight. That wasn’t so bad, I got compensation, missed some work and everyone thought that was the best excuse (or story) ever for being late. But I digress.

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

This Myanmar trip was work, and I take work I have committed to do very seriously. When I got the assignment I thought two things: time was tight, and (based on previous experience) this would be a nice job as I was going on some boat trip already organized and I simply needed to speak to the right PR people and off I would go. Well, I was right about time being tight.

Nothing was organized, no flights, no trip – nothing. In the world of travel journalism these things are usually taken care of. At a newspaper I worked at in London, the travel desk had more trips than it knew what to do with. And PR people are usually keen to help because they want coverage for their client. But this was not the case here. And if I didn’t organize something pronto, I wasn’t going to meet the deadline. My other concern was a visa. The first I went to Myanmar I got a visa on arrival, on the last day of a scheme that is yet to be reinstated. Without a visa I wouldn’t be going at all.

After several days and more emails (around 70 in the end) I make a connection with a PR agency working with an international travel company that operates the trip I need to write about, and they may help me, but I have to buy air tickets first. They MAY be able to help with a visa, but they’re not really sure. There is a lot of toing and froing. I know the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok issues visas, but I don’t really want to go to Bangkok and hang around just to get a visa. And it’s expensive. Then there’s the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s nearly the end of Ramadan and the country will soon shut down for Hari Raya, the holiday at the end of Ramadan.

I can’t get a straight answer on anything from the PR person. I keep getting emails asking me the same questions I’ve already answered, and I don’t get a sensible answer on the visa question until after I’ve had to go through exactly what I wanted to avoid. And after a week of messing around, that’s when I find out I have to get airfares before they will actually do anything.

I didn’t lose sleep when the kid with the knife attacked me, but I lose plenty of sleep over this.

Maybe it’s easier just to list the complications.
With 12 days to go before the only trip that will allow me to meet my deadline, nothing is in place.
I need a visa.
To get a visa it looks like I need an itinerary.
An itinerary won’t be considered until I’ve arranged flights.
I am in a place where there is no Myanmar Embassy.
Malaysia (and its embassies) are about to shut down for Ramadan (as it turns out Bangkok is about to have lots of public holidays and shut embassies also).

A friend told me their travel agent could get a visa – I went there, discussed it. To get a visa in KL I would have to go down on Sunday, be there Monday and hope they do it in two days before Ramadan ends on Wednesday. I think the KL embassy will be open long enough to process it. Travel agent said it will take all week, but they could do it. When I went back on Monday, agent said she “didn’t listen properly” and she can’t do it that week because of Hari Raya. Maybe if I go that afternoon I can still get a visa (and someone to beat the travel agent around the head with a bag of potatoes). Adrenaline is pumping, which is not good because I’ve had adrenal exhaustion and I don’t want that again.

No response from Hong Kong. I told them I needed an answer NOW or it was an emergency run to KL. Nothing.

So I went and everything was full because of Hari Raya. I got a seat on a crappy bus that meandered around the island for 90 minutes before it even set off in the direction of KL. Making me feel even more ecstatic, people told me I wouldn’t be able to leave KL, because everything was booked out to return. And nothing would be running on Thursday. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Stressed! I really did not want to be stuck in KL for days and days pointlessly and expensively when I had things to do elsewhere.

At Myanmar embassy on Tuesday morning (visa section is a collection of tin sheds on dirt with a grimy cafe and lots of miserable Burmese sitting around on plastic chairs), the Burmese woman I dealt with could see the desperate look in my eye when I asked if I could get the visa that afternoon so I had a chance to return to Penang on Wednesday before everything stopped. Bless her, she did it. And for another European traveler who looked slightly crazed as well, but not probably because he is dealing with a PR agency dealing with a London office at a speed that made the average turtle look like its on crystal meth.

Then I had to run across town to try to find a seat on a bus back to Penang. My usual bus line (Konsortium Bas Ekspres) was booked out, and they directed me to another company which by some miracle had a seat left. I started to feel calmer.

That afternoon I got my visa. I checked it about eight times and it seemed to be correct so I felt my blood pressure start to drop. I slept a little that night, and there were no interventions by narky Higher Power and I g0t on another crappy bus the next morning, with a seat on top of the engine, and it was fine, I was so relieved, and so happy not to be stuck in KL.

Battles and circular movements continued, and FINALLY the trip was confirmed, 6pm on the night before the journey to Yangon. Even my own worst-planned, idiotic, ignorant and just plain stupid plans have never been as close to the wire as that.

But when I did get there, the boat trip was rather lovely. This post is too long now, so highlights in the next one.

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | January 5, 2014

Christmas: Time to get weird with a fringe on top

Oh yes, the weeks before Christmas were a haze of minced wine and mulled pies. That has been true of some years, though not really this one. Mince pies and mulled wine are not flung about with abandon in December in the Tropics. It’s winter, I think, but it’s not really plum pudding weather, just a bit less sweaty. And I suspect many people in Malaysia have never actually seen a mince pie. They’re not missing much, I never really liked them anyway.
Even without the cement-like effect of Christmas food on the GIT, I still had the post-Christmas torpor. In the aftermath of all that tinsel and goodwill towards retail outlets the brain was too cooked to perform useful functions so I started sorting through crap to enable feeling useful without having to think.
I found what follows in a folder of emails; a folder that Microsoft didn’t destroy when I bought a new computer. For some reason there are all these things you cannot do on this computer unless you have a Microsoft account. Maybe I don’t WANT a Microsoft account. I happen to have one (hotmail) that I keep mainly because I’ve had it for a really long time but it’s rubbish, and this new version I didn’t want is worse. Things the old Hotmail did that were useful have been stripped from it … Then I couldn’t use it anyway without answering all these intrusive questions, the result being I was locked out of the account for a MONTH. Then it let me back in – but only on one computer – and did stuff to my email that it never asked for or was given permission to do, the results being missing emails and me hating Microsoft fairly intensely. That is the sound of my teeth grinding in Microsoft-induced fury.

Need a picture here, and don't really have anything suitable, so ... let's have some elephants

Need a picture here, and don’t really have anything suitable, so … let’s have some elephants

Next computer will be Apple I think. And I am using do not track me, a Firefox add-on that stops cybertrolls gathering information as you surf. Hopefully. This never started out as a computer whinge but it feels good to vent.
Anyway, I found the following. it was part of a script I wrote where this gay guy wanted to have a baby (I think this is Alexander), and he is on a horse-drawn float in a parade (where else?) with some grumpy drag queens who are on a low-carb diet, trying to channel the musical Oklahoma (surrey with the fringe on top, beautiful mornings, Hugh Jackman in the revival and all that). These drag queens are HUNGRY. In my mind at least they are truck-driving drag queen Oklahomos with big love handles, a bad attitude and a yawning void within. There’s no flapping yer gums round croissants in front of this crowd without causing violence.

Alexander, by the way, has a fish phobia, which extends to seafood in jars and cans. Kate was the clueless potential babymama.

This fragment remains …

OKLAHOMETTE 1 and 2 are watching ALEXANDER eating.

OKLAHOMETTE 2 bitches TO OKLAHOMETTE 1

Who does she think she is? Just, just CHEWING front of me like that!

(They move closer in a menacing way.)

OKLAHOMETTE 2 (threateningly)

Who said you could eat a muffin?

ALEXANDER (startled)

I, ah, sorry. Do you want some?

OKLAHOMETTE 2

Of course I want some! And I don’t need you tempting me like that with your brazen bakery products. Now you’ve set off my cravings, and seeing as I can’t have the triple choc truffle mousse cream cake I really want, I’ll have to eat this!

OKLAMOMETTE 2 pulls a jar of herring out of her pocket and brandishes it under ALEXANDER’S nose. ALEXANDER sees it, screams, staggers backwards and falls on the driver who is knocked off the float. The horses are frightened and start trotting off. Everyone screams. KATE with butch friend on a motorbike is approaching the Oklahomo float as it takes off. ALEXANDER IS clinging to the side of the float yelling. OKLAHOMETTE 2 stumbles and drops the herring.

KATE

It’s Alexander! Follow the Oklahomos.

DYKE ON BIKE

Whatever you want honey.

FENELLA, DUCHESS and HUSSY see what’s happened and commandeer other motorcyclists to pursue the float. Unnoticed, a man with a video camera does the same.

FLOAT IN STREET, DAY

The jar of herring is rolling around on the float and ALEXANDER is paralyzed. He is frozen with fear, gasping, but he closes his eyes, focuses, grabs a nearby hoe and sweeps the herring off the side.

OKLAHOMETTE 2

Hey, I wanted that.

END

A friend read this and said she liked the dialogue but thought it was derivative. I guess it is, though it still makes me laugh when one of the Oklahomos barks at Alexander for eating a pastry. And I have yet to see anyone triumph over their deepest fears by dispensing with a container of processed fish.

But probably what it really needs is a big bag of guns and a meth lab. Righto, back to watching Breaking Bad.

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | December 30, 2013

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part two

Katha on the Ayeyarwady: There's no need to worry about being stabbed in northern Myanmar, or indeed any other part of this country

Katha on the Ayeyarwady: George Orwell was stationed here in 1926-27. Tourists don’t need to worry about being stabbed in northern Myanmar

Walking back from taking photographs for a piece on the Hungry Ghost festival in George Town, Penang, this youth I’d been chatting to earlier started running behind me. It was 1am, no one was around and I had a bad feeling. Stopping to say hello to the kiosk man, the youth disappeared. Turning the corner into the deserted part of the street next to the basketball court and a few businesses before I reached my shophouse, the youth appeared again, or rather I could hear him running behind me calling, “Where you from? Where you from?”

I’d already told him where I was from. And now I had a really bad feeling.

At least my instincts were right. The youth kept calling, then ran up beside me, got too close, then grabbed me, while yelling, “Give me money!” and pulling a knife. Having no money on me, I told him this, while retaining a tight grip on the Nikon camera concealed in my bag. Later I berated myself for not doing more to fend him off, but one hand was holding the camera, one hand was trying to push him away, there was not falling over to take into consideration, and there was that knife to watch.

The camera cost a $1,000 and I was not giving it to some kid who wouldn’t even know what to do with it. Besides, why should I reward him for being a little shit? I guess it has something to do with what I have survived in this life, but when someone attacks me like this, I don’t get scared. Well maybe a little. Mostly I get angry.

Many thoughts were running through my head while I was in the grip of this belligerent young Indian, including appraising the length of the knife blade (I suspect it was from his mother’s kitchen) and how far it could penetrate my abdomen, whether I should try and hit him with the camera, and could I count on my reflexes to grab his wrist if he went to stab me. Luckily I was larger than him, and he seemed fairly unfamiliar with stabbing technique so these things worked in my favor. We tussled, he pulled my hair, tried to throw me into a fence and grabbed at my breast. Obviously frustrated on several levels, he eventually ran off.

Later I reported the attack to the police, because I had a feeling this youth – he was maybe 15? – would try this again. And probably practice until he got really good at it. Not that the police were very interested, especially when they learned nothing was actually stolen. I consider the kid not getting anything a good result, as just maybe it would make him think a life of crime was harder than it looked. As nothing was stolen I didn’t have to fill out one of those crime report sheets in Malaysia with all its questions about race and religion.

Following this incident I was not in a good mood. However, I did not lose any sleep over it – it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to me that week. Trying organize this work trip to Myanmar: Now that was stressful.

Cheeky: Burmese children with thanaka on their faces

Cheeky: Burmese children with thanaka on their faces

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | December 23, 2013

Christmas: Baby, there’s a cake outside

Cocktails: The best way not to have a hot and itchy Christmas. Or even avoid it altogether

Cocktails: The best way to get through a hot and itchy Christmas. Or even avoid it altogether

Christmas is a strange thing in the non-Christian Tropics. But even in Malaysia, there is no escaping Yuletide festivities. There are carols in the supermarket, tinsel-covered trees in malls, and even Burka-clad women are liable, for no reason, to suddenly start singing Jingle Bells.

This year I am spending Christmas Day in Penang with friends, cooking, eating and drinking (not necessarily in that order). Other Christmases have been spent in various places, including South Africa, Italy and Nepal. I have various memories of Christmases in Australia too. Eating seafood with friends in someone’s backyard (good). Being anywhere near my depressed, alcoholic, neurotic relatives (bad).

One year my sister “did” Christmas at her house and her cross was heavy that day. She envisaged a Mediterranean buffet, which I’m sure featured olives and sun-dried tomatoes and plenty of sliced deli goods on plates, and she embarked on a meltdown because it wouldn’t be ready at 1pm.

“It’s OK,” I said. “No one will die or go to jail. Don’t say anything and they’ll think it was ready when it was meant to be ready.”

“You don’t care about this family!” she screamed, and went off to cry somewhere.

The guests didn’t care; they had salty snacks, strong vodka tonics and padded furniture. They really didn’t give a shit if they had to wait another 15 minutes for cous cous and festive Pinot Grigio.

It was a very contemporary Christmas menu-wise, and the guests were a bit post-modern too. My sister’s current amour was there, along with the father of her child plus girlfriend, and his mother who was perpetually on the search for “something tasty and delicious”. (It remained to be seen what she thought of grilled vegetable salad.) Then there was the amour‘s ex-wife, who came in from next door with her new husband, a grandmother and her Valium, a father who got drunk and fell asleep in the corner, and a mother who was collected by some man friend to go to a “dinner-dance”, which sounded a bit 1975, but no one could be bothered arguing about it.

Later, my sister had recovered sufficiently from the trauma of feeding people to go down the street to a party where the hosts served nothing but candy and alcohol. As far as my family went, that was a good day.

Christmas in London tended to noted by the increased consumption of mince pies and booze. At one cocktail party, the talk naturally turned to family hatred during the holidays.

‘Oh yes, I want to kill my family,’ laughed Jens, the Danish florist. ‘But at Christmas we drink a lot and light candles and that’s nice.’

“Nothing depresses me more than seeing my family at Christmas,” I said.”The whole things is such a waste of energy. And I really hate my mother.”

“I don’t hate my mother, she’s the only I like,” Jens replied.

“At least you like someone.”

“It’s just too much, there’s this endless discussion about who’s doing what,” sighed Matthew, who had a full-time job and was writing a Master’s thesis in psychology. “My mother rings me in a panic saying, ‘Aunty Doris is making  a pudding,  but there’s no cake yet’,” he sighed. “I mean who cares? Except Michael. He’ s decided to make a cake and he has it on a strict feeding schedule and it’s taking over our lives. It’s become the child in our relationship.”

“Feeding it with what?” asked a puzzled Jens.

“No idea. Brandy?”

Well I had a story about cakes.

“I knew someone at college who fed a cake. He kept it in a plastic tub and gave it bits of fish and things he stole from dinner. It was kind of mouldy.”

Ignoring the looks of disgust, dismay and concern I continued. “When he wanted to torment the cake he’d drop a few blobs of antibiotic cream on it.”

Matthew grimaced. “That is the weirdest thing I ever heard.”

“But if dinner was shite you could always look forward to seeing how the cake would handle it.”

Jens looked a bit worried, I don’t think they do that kind of thing in Denmark. Too busy eating herring.

Anyway, may your Christmas be free of psychosis, and amply filled with co-operative cakes, meals and bottles. Ho, ho HO.

Christmas 2012 in central India. Not hot and itchy here, as about to freeze to death

Christmas 2012 in central India. Not hot and itchy here, as about to freeze to death

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | December 21, 2013

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part one

The "national" highway of Myanmar

The “national highway” of Myanmar

Three years ago I visited Myanmar and spent a month among its gentle people and on various not-so-gentle rattly, bumpy and decrepit methods of transport. Then there were elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was released, and there was some government reform. Many changes have taken place in the “Golden Land” in the past two years, as I saw when I recently returned.

Some changes are good – the Burmese seem less fearful, more cheerful and better fed. Some changes are less welcome, such as the increase in traffic and the soaring prices. Myanmar was comparable to say, rural Thailand price-wise when I was there, I don’t think there are any $7-a-night guesthouses left any more. It’s now considered an expensive destination, and in peak season you need to book ahead. The first visit I went at a hot, damp time (September) and there were about ten tourists in the entire country. I ate in one restaurant near Bagan and the owner almost cried he was so grateful to have a customer (I was the only one).  I felt bad for him, struggling to keep his business going, but I think it’s easier now.

On my second visit, it was still hot and damp, being August, and the country was a bit busier tourist-wise, but up north, foreigners were still definitely a novelty.

The assignment

A magazine asked me to go to Burma and write a story about the Ayeyarwady River, the “national highway” of Myanmar, partly because I already had some experience with this mighty waterway. In 2010 I went north by railway from Mandalay, the main city of Upper Myanmar, and was the “only tourist lady on the train” – only one foreigner but several accidents. Despite the train falling over and having to get off it and hike to another one, I reached Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state.

A report of that trip is here on the site – this train journey is probably not a good idea for nervous travelers, or those who don’t like being deprived or air-con and dining cars, those who don’t enjoy being incredibly hot and uncomfortable – well most people really. But I was literally treated like minor royalty, which generally only happens when you are writing a story about something and people are sucking up to you because you are a journalist.

No one on the train knew I was a journalist, and I had no plans to write about it, but after the unpredictable course of events, how could I not?

On the way back south I experienced a local “ferry”, boarding by a gang plank to a ledge, inching round to the open sides while holding onto the roof (with luggage) then sitting on a plank above eddies of dirty water and next to monks wanting cash to buy cigarettes. Needless to say, I was the only foreigner aboard. That day ended by a night sweating on a hard mat in a village with two hours a day of electricity, in a guest house with dirt floors, no bathroom and yet a shrine to Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears. Still the stars and the electrical storms – and the fireflies! – made up for that. Well nearly, I was pretty tired the next day for the next chunk of river time aboard a “canoe” with a pig, bags of sticks and far too many passengers, bobbing about in a storm I did not think we would survive. Some travelers pay thousands to go on “adventures”, that day of excitement cost about $12.

I was glad to arrive in Bhamo, a trading post 50 miles from the Chinese border, which was full of mud and pushy tuk tuk drivers. Having had enough of boats, I wanted to get on a bus. But there are no buses for foreigners out of Bhamo, so considering the state of the buses I was allowed to take, I can only imagine what horrors on four wheels these were.

Choices out of Bhamo were limited. There was one flight a week – four days away – or the public ferry to Mandalay. After 30 hours sitting on the ferry deck, I was mighty glad to reach the city, and the Royal Guest House, which in 2010 was cheap and friendly and was a safe place to leave things. I’ve seen recent reviews criticizing this place, and sadly due to increased prices everywhere it is probably more expensive than it should be. But I stayed here three times, and left my computer there when I headed north. One review was whining about lack of Wifi, which indicates to me this idiot understood nothing of Myanmar: internet is still in the Dark Ages there, but that doesn’t stop you appreciating the country. If you have a problem with that then don’t go. Of the six weeks I spent in Myanmar, I probably used the internet about six times. Most of the time it simply wasn’t available. Many websites are difficult to access, though gmail and facebook for some reason usually work.

Anyway, the ferry had departed at 6.30am, so of course departure anxiety kept me awake most of the night in the mouldy-bathroomed Friendship Hotel. Still, as a foreigner (again the only one), I had a choice chunk of deck against a platform where sleeping men framed my head with their feet; when it rained the poor sods at the edge of the boat got wet.

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot on the journey to Mandalay

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | December 20, 2013

Why I won’t look for a travel companion on the internet

There are a lot of strange people out there and the joy of the internet is that it makes it easier for them to find you. Luckily this one lived a bit too far away to be a fully fledged stalker, though he did his best by email. It just shows you should never respond to the advances of strange men, even the ones who just want you to accompany them overland through Afghanistan.

Late one night it had seemed like a good idea to register myself on a website for people interested in finding like-minded companions for overseas trips no one you knew was interested in. I was bored, had some wine … you know how it is. However there were no like-minded people, so I forgot about it. Having described myself as “can cook, sing Petula Clark songs, will go to war zones”, I wasn’t sure whether to expect many replies anyway. The website wanted money to show details of others to get in touch with, and it was all too much trouble. I did receive one email from a bloke who wanted to take me on “an all-expenses paid trip to watch football in Germany” (like Germany, but not football), so rejected that. But then there was Travelman.

He decided that I was “the one” to accompany him across Iran, Afghanistan and a few more dangerous countries because they are there. He was of the opinion that just because the Foreign Office says stay away, that’s no reason not to chug on in, over or through. To be fair, the trip sounded interesting, but I’d just committed to various things that demanded constant injections of money.

I’d said I would go to war zones. But if you’re going to a war zone, you want to go with someone fun. I didn’t think he was much fun when we first met, and he just became less fun as time went on.

“He’s deranged,” said a colleague by way of assessment when I showed him the emails a few weeks later.

By then Travelman emailed me constantly, up to half a dozen times a day. I started to curtail my replies, leaving longer and longer between them to calm his frenzied correspondence a bit. Apart from anything else, I was tired of his hackneyed expressions and his annoying use of quotation marks to delineate anything he thought was a “challenging phrase”.

The initial meeting was in a large railway station, in the wake of some recent terrorist activity in Central London that had made everyone a bit jumpy. I had approached one wrong strange man, so was naturally a bit wary when I approached strange-looking Travelman. I was also perhaps a little constrained by something in my subconscious that hoped it wasn’t him, while unappealing evidence indicated it probably was. He later accused me of not being very friendly when I came up to him, though I wasn’t entirely sure I had the right person. And this was England for god’s sake, no one bounds up to anyone like a Labrador puppy there, and many would say good thing too.

Balding but beardy, he was rumpled and nerdy yet exuded a kind of frustrated belligerence. I knew in the first five minutes I didn’t want to to go anywhere with him, let alone Pakistani hinterlands and Taleban strongholds. We spent an hour or two together, where he flapped large maps around, talked manically, apologized for talking manically, then talked manically again. And he gave me a huge pile of books to look at. Some he described as gifts, like a large coffee table book on Rajasthani palaces he said he had picked up at a fete for a pound. I didn’t know how to refuse without being rude, and having declared myself to be interested in Rajasthani palaces, I couldn’t claim indifference.

We parted, I went to a job interview, then he started ringing. He complained that I hadn’t spent enough time with him. Out of guilt I offered to come to Sussex on the weekend and discuss it further. I don’t know why, I couldn’t see in any way that I would change my mind. But he kept hinting mysteriously that he had solutions for my problems. So many problems … I am such a sucker for people who say they can solve my problems.

I’d tried to fob him off by saying I couldn’t take off for six months in the next few weeks like he wanted me to for minor reasons like a job, a car, a lease on a flat, possessions … As an expat in the UK there was no one to take care of these things for me.

There was an argument because he didn’t want me to come to his country town in southern England when I had time. When I didn’t have time and had to work he insisted that I make the journey and then sulked when I said I couldn’t abandon my colleagues. He hinted that this was a grave betrayal, a test I had failed that would rankle in his mind as he wandered the village talking to homeless people and scavenging for free stuff.

Eventually I went, bundling up the books he gave me, except for a couple I thought were “gifts”. When I arrived he told me my sense of humour needed development, my appearance did not live up to expectations, and later he yelled at me when I didn’t want to let a friend down (whose father was dying of cancer) and cancel all my arrangements to help him re-organise his attic. Well, his mother’s attic. He lived with his mother and she was going away for the first time in four years. The first time in four years. The mother was alive – I saw her – so he was no Norman Bates, but it was a bit creepy. I mean, what would we be doing with the stuff in the attic that we couldn’t do when his mother was around?

One of his “solutions” was that I could put a few boxes in that attic. And I should quit the job, because job security was a fantasy, and sell my car. I wasn’t very impressed with these “solutions”. “You don’t need a car,” he announced airily as drove me to the station in his mother’s automobile. Houses, indeed possessions of all kinds, were a simply a hindrance to an interesting life according to Travelman, who had full use of his mother’s home.

He wasn’t fond of the police, and I got another rant  about them when I arrived, in particular how he felt uncomfortable yelling at them when they carried weapons. Walking along a country path he enthusiastically described his foraging ways, ie searching for food and who knows what else in public areas. Later his eyes gleamed as he relished the tale of how he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, threw the butts in his mother’s garden, roamed the garden and collected the butts when he’d run out of tobacco, and then made another rollie out of them. “That last cigarette,” he  confided, “is the one that tastes best of all.” As he told me this I wondered desperately where I could find a copy of the train timetable and thought the subtle flavors of train catering on the way back to London would be the best taste of all.

He seemed to be one of those men who spend way too much time alone in their bedrooms with a computer. You think, poor sods, they should get out more. Then they do get out, and you wish they’d go back in.

We went on a “nature walk” during which he took it upon himself to quiz me about things we saw and the countryside in general. If I didn’t know the answers he would say: “Come on Carolyn, you can do better than that!”

Maybe I didn’t want to. Scuffing my toes I entertained evil thoughts of pushing him into a blackberry bush while he stripped it of berries and then making a dash for the nearest police station.

Between rants about the constabulary, he also quizzed me about baking. Then he manouvred me into making pastry and I wasn’t even allowed to see how it turned out. The apple pie was turned over to his mother while in the oven, then incarcerated in the freezer where it stayed. Later he wrote he hoped I’d come and eat it. Who makes a guest construct a tart for no reason and freezes it? I thought we were making it for consumption. But it seemed that as I was there, I was required to provide some form of domestic service. Or maybe it was another test, another one I didn’t care about passing.

Next on the agenda was looking for badgers (there were none) and an agonizing drink in a pub where he expressed his many disappointments regarding my inadequate person, and told me what a terrible person I was for insisting on visiting the friend nursing a dying father when I could drag cartons around for him.

He ranted more about my various shortcomings in the car, and said he’d be happier going to Iran on his own because people there were very hospitable.

‘You’d only hold me back,” he snapped.

‘Fine,” I replied, thinking please hurry, I don’t care about trains in Turkey, I just want to get on the service that will take me away from here.

When we did get to the railway station he stopped looking angry and went all sad puppy. I was terrified he was going to try and kiss me. While he clutched at my torso I submitted  to being lightly mashed against his cheek.

I escaped from him then but there was no let up in the emails, whether complaining about cleaning the attic on his own, or being affronted I’d kept the “gifts”, whining that the chunky coffee table book was in fact a “shared resource” to be taken on the journey, despite being extremely heavy and mainly photographs. He demanded I send it, and some other volume, back. After wrapping them, I labelled them, took them to work and left them at security, informing Travelman that he could collect them on his next trip to London. This was another test I failed to pass. Several times a day I was updated on his dealings with the security staff and those books – all two pounds’ worth – and how I was the cause of an unending and distressing saga of woe and pestilence. That was when I showed the emails to a friend.

I stopped writing back, even when Travelman triumphantly re-embraced his books and found other people to travel with, all much more attractive and useful than me, including someone who owned a canoe. I really didn’t care, after all, we’d only met twice. Weirdly, dealing with him was like enduring a bitter ex, except there had been no relationship, just a miserable ramble in the woods. And one pie, interrupted.

The last time I heard from him was when he invited me to come to Stonehenge to see him off at sunrise at the start of The Trip To The East. I really thought he was deranged then, for all kinds of reasons. Anyone who knows me is fully aware I do not do early mornings. TTTTE, as he called it, would commence without me. I wasn’t even tempted.

Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | December 10, 2013

Malaysia: Going up in the world

KL skyline from the pool at Aloft

KL skyline from the pool at Aloft

As a former theater critic I see the parallels between a good show and a good hotel. Both take people into a different realm. Compelling theater can take viewers into all kinds of spaces mentally, though they should generally be physically comfortable. A great hotel should provides respite from the road and be hopefully free of insects while providing the kind of reality entertainment derived at the interaction of travelers, staff, food culture and design.

Returning from Bali I stopped off in Kuala Lumpur, a city that irritates me as only a traffic-clogged mess of lost opportunities can. Zoning is weird (from the monorail across the center there are vacant lots and huts next to 30-storey buildings …), much of it can only be reached by car, and if a city has been mostly constructed in the past 20 years and has little character left, then at least it should be efficient.

As the hub of Air Asia, KL is a mandatory stop. It’s not a terrible place – especially if you like malls – unless you are in one of those traffic jams where you are ten miles from the city and it takes an hour to go round the block.

So I quite like Sentral, which is slightly southwest of the city center and the best connected spot in town.  It’s a tangle of ongoing development and highrises clustered around a massive transport hub, but  it is easy to reach from the airport, and to reach other places (though why the monorail terminus isn’t inside the station I’ll never understand, along with why there isn’t a simple link between Bukit Bintang and KLCC. Ours is not to reason why, or we start frothing at the mouth waiting for the LRT.)

There hasn’t been a new hotel in Sentral for about eight years, but Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral opened earlier this year and it’s fun – a bit like an immaculate nightclub (but with quiet rooms). It has perky, friendly staff (or “Talent”), bright colors (lots of lime green at the breezy breakfast) and plays the latest music video clips in the elevator (a chance to see what Britney Spears is up to while going up yourself).

The concept is well established in North America, but there are only around a dozen Alofts in Asia, and this is Malaysia’s first. With 482 rooms and suites over 29 floors, Aloft KL is the largest in the world.

The outlook is futuristically urban, with skyscrapers, highways and rail terminals. Ascending to the rooftop for a swim with a view of the central KL skyline, cocktails from the bar and a bouncy soundtrack, the atmosphere was rather LA pool party.

DSC_0443But if the streamlined check-in/check-out and DIY minibar is too much efficiency, the lively Indian community of Brickfields is a few steps down the street, and as an antidote to all the concrete and man-made structures, Lake Gardens with the National Museum and a deer park are a short walk away. Being KL, it is impossible to describe how to get there on foot – the area is a jumble of car parks and large roads to accommodate vehicles rather than pedestrians. The easiest thing to do is head for Le Meridien outside the station and ask someone.

That’s what I did. Essentially you head down a car park ramp, get onto the highway, look for the steps … you really just need to do it. The good thing is, it isn’t far and the park is green and quite calm – even on a weekend there was hardly anyone there, except a bride and her small photographic entourage.

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