Trains, planes and not enough sleep

Hat Yai may have had a share of bombings and terrorist scares from a small separatist faction in the Songkhla province of Southern Thailand but if they’re still active, they’ve been laying low for a few years. A more recent, pressing problem were the floods that hit in December to January of this year. It’s still cleaning up the estimated £4 million worth of damage. Looks like they might need to stop cutting down trees.

Dusting itself off and picking itself up, it looks like business as usual already in a city whose focus is shopping. There are countless shopping malls, markets, floating markets yada yada, which entertained me for a hour or two before I disappeared into a cake and ice-cream shop, not to be seen til dark. It’s a pleasant city, nothing remarkable and with plenty of tourists pouring between Thailand and Malaysia. Most of the architecture is boxy and concrete but there are chinks of colourful old relics and spirited artwork too.

Hat Yai. Not so ugly.

Grimy. Unsophisticated. Like.

I had taken the boat and ‘luxury AC van’ (I won’t elaborate; suffice to say that you can read what is intended from the emphasis) option which I was assured would arrive at 1pm, leaving plenty of time to catch the 4pm train to Kuala Lumpur. Ah, but it didn’t arrive at 1pm, it arrived at a predictable 4.05pm, giving me a day to explore the city as I waited for the next available night train. No biggie.

Cathay guest house is the backpacker place to stay but I went somewhat upmarket <ahem> at the Louise Guest House down the road and secured myself a stuffy but spacious rooftop room, minus the jungle termites. The walls of the hotel corridors are lined with archive shots of Thai royalty and my absolute favourite had to be a picture of the King with ‘the King’, Elvis. Too good.

The night train to KL – a hand-me-down from Korea – the following night went very smoothly, if you discount the unruly kids in my carriage who were up until midnight screeching in their mother’s face and jumping out from under a monk’s orange robe. Boarded the second-hand Korean train for a relatively comfortable night, albeit insanely cold. I will never understand why they keep the AC so low on public transport in the tropics. I embarked wearing shorts and a t-shirt and within an hour was wearing socks, jeans, a jumper, a fleece and was huddled in my sleeping bag. I was still cold.

Crossing the border was simple and unremarkable but for this sign.

"No smelly soapdodgers"

I had 24-hours in Kuala Lumpur ahead of my flight to Manila, and decided to stroll around looking at some temples, parks and museums, in amongst frequent coffee stops. Started out in Brickfields, a bit of a dump of a neighbourhood but lively, as you’d expect. It seems to house much of the Indian community in KL and correspondingly has lots of curry restaurants, tailors and launderers. Bizarrely, it also has a much higher than average proportion of blind people, for reasons that I cannot explain.

I tired quickly of it and its brutishness but it did illustrate the cacophony of culture and clash of modernity visible in KL. The city has quite a history, as I learnt at the museum, a well-presented and fairly good collection of artefacts from Malaysia’s different ages. My favourite bit of learning was that 20,000 years ago sea levels were 120m lower and the whole Malaysia/Borneo/Palawan areas were linked as one peninsula. It was islamicised  in the 1400s, taken over by the Portuguese for much of the 1500s, the Dutch for much of the 1600 and 1700s and then the Brits (ever present) in the 1800s. Being located on the Malacca Strait, it is a veritable trade cross-roads and as in so many places this had given rise to a hodge-podge of nationalities and cultures. What’s more surprising is that it seems to be fairly integrated. You won’t hear the locals say that, I’m sure, but to an untrained eye it seems like all the different groups intermingle well and enjoy equal footing. I could be way off the mark. Interestingly, there is a large Iranian community here who escape to learn English thanks to easy visa processes and flight links.

Car park, temple, construction site, skyscrapers. A living urban organism.

Making my way from Brickfields to the park took me through a carpark, down a concrete ramp, along a kerb at the side of a highway, across the 4-lane highway, down a narrow flight of iron steps and across another slipway. It occurred to me that Dubai’s urban planners most likely came here to develop their blueprint.

Next, to Manila, a city that was recently described to me by a German bloke as ‘up there in the running for biggest shit hole I’ve ever been to’. No one but no one likes Manila. I say Manila, Air Asia, in true Ryanair fashion, flies to Clark, which it calls Manila but is actually a two and a half hour bus journey to the North. I spent as long as the bus as I did on the plane. I wouldn’t say that I warmed to the capital on another incursion but I didn’t find it as loathsome as I had feared. The people are friendly as ever in the Philippines and I enjoyed wandering around talking to the urchins and money changers for a few hours.

Malate, Manila

Ah, Manila

Then Little Helen arrived from Tokyo for a week of co-voyaging. We spent night one in a dank cell of an overpriced room at Friendly’s Guest House (which earnt itself an online slating) but enjoyed rooftop beers to the hum of the city as we watched a shower of magnificent disregard for health&safety as sparks rained down from a skyscraper project on flammable banners below.

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