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To California and back again, in 10 days. November, 2014.

the 411 on bicycle touring in thailand

     I remember when I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle and touring Thailand on it, a lot of people kept discouraging me, telling me it would be extremely difficult, that I'd have to install special handlebars, that I'd need proper bike gear.. In the end, I threw their comments aside and just rode.
     My first day cycling out of Bangkok... - I'd neglected everyone's advice to take a train out of the city and, as a result, spent 3 days biking on a dusty highway, my little backpack strapped to my bike with bungee cords, bags of carrots and other groceries dangling haphazardly from it, barefoot, sweaty, but 100% ecstatic anyway.
     In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been so stubborn as to ignore every single piece of advice - sometimes even going as far as countering it - but I'm glad that I didn't let myself get scared out of the adventure. You don't need a bike computer. You don't need to plan out every route. You don't need special cyclist clothes, or special shoes. And you definitely don't need to change your handlebars. As long as you're not a professional cyclist looking to conquer to world or whatnot, you'll be fine without these things. Whatever you're told you might "need" is load of bull. All you really need is an open heart, a positive attitude, and a whole lot of spirit.
My girl Whiskey, decked out - first time bicycle touring
     When I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle in Bangkok and travelling on it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in Myanmar, completely in love with the country and dreading the flight into Bangkok for my first visit in Thailand. I'd heard some pretty unappetizing things about the tourist scene in Thailand and, especially after magical Burma, I wasn't ready to face the typical South East Asia backpacker party culture again. Having had crossed paths with the same cyclists 3 times in a month (two of which were a couple that had been bicycle touring for over 7 years!), by the last time I decided that it must be some sort of sign, and told myself that I'd buy a bicycle the minute I got into Bangkok. My friend Minsung, one of the bikers I met in Myanmar, gave me some heads up on how much a bicycle should cost me, the bare bones of how I should prep it for a long trip, as well as listing for me the 5 places I can sleep at should I not find a guesthouse while touring in Thailand.
     Thailand is probably one of the easiest countries to start a bicycle trip in. The people are super friendly and super enthusiastic about bikes, and there are 7/11s everywhere (not to mention the fact that they sell electrolyte beverages, too), so you don't have to worry about starving.
1 baht water dispensers
     A great country for a first-time bicycle trip, and Bangkok is chockfull of places to buy a decent bicycle (see my post here on buying a bicycle in Bangkok) and anything you might need for your trip. It makes a great starting base. On the road, it's easy to find parts around the country as many locals are experts at bicycle repair (even if sometimes they don't know how to ride one themselves!) and there is always a little bike shop or two in every town. When it comes to water, I personally would buy a large bottle every few days and fill it up for just 1 baht at local waterbottle-filling machines (that's less than one Canadian cent! ~ 0.03$) or under any tap. Locals may say the water is unsafe to drink, but I believe it is only the case when it is consumed for extended periods of time, so I drank it anyway. With regards to the scorching heat? Yes, it's hot. Plan to do most of your cycling before 11am and after 3pm, as the hours between the two are the hottest of the day. Hide out under a tree and read a book, or make friendship bracelets for children. Some cyclists I met in Myanmar gave me some tips on where to sleep when you're touring Thailand by bicycle, and I spent many nights squatting in 24h gas stations (after asking permission, of course) if the nearest accommodation was too far/too expensive.

no confessions

In the cycle of nature there is no such thing as victory or defeat: there is only movement.

today I realized...

     I'm not a biker. In highschool, I was that fat kid on our cycling trip that demanded to get picked up cause I couldn't go any further. Hell, I'm not even a traveler. The feeling has been itching me for a while now, but today it hit me - I don't actually like traveling. What I like is seeing new places and staying, not moving constantly, breaking bonds with beautiful people every few days, looking for... looking for what, exactly?
     Today I realized that I'm not cut out for this. Today, biking from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the first leg of a long journey, a buildup of emotions began to catch up with me. I had made all these big plans: bike around Thailand another 2 weeks, pass through Myanmar, and eventually make it up to India; but then I thought, why? And I didn't have an answer. I considered going back to Bangkok, where I could rent a room in a shared home with my friends and work, but I thought, again, why? And I had no answers. Worse, I had no one beside me to answer these whys for me. No one to mull these questions over with. No one to hear out my thoughts.
     Traveling alone isn't easy for me. I'm a social person, and going for hours on end on a bike without as much as another presence alongside me can sometimes take a toll on my mental health. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there are definitely days when the solitude gets to be a little too much (maybe that's why I'm so overly excited when I meet strangers?). Of course, there is always that friendly Thai (or wherever I am) that will no doubt pop out to save my day eventually, but the one-time kindness of strangers only goes so far below the surface of things. I'm endlessly grateful for the years I've spent traveling alone, they have shaped who I am today, but I'll admit that I am not fearless. Every night before I set out on a big journey, I am shaking with anxiety. I'm stressing about this, and that, and that... And then I sit with these stresses. I get on my bike and I sit and I pedal, and no, the stresses don't get left behind. I try riding away from them, but I'm still that dork struggling to keep up on her bike, and the stresses are faster than me and they still catch up. I try to hold it together, but some days it all comes pouring out. Today, about 10km from Ayutthaya, I stopped to ask a woman for directions. I didn't make it to the end of my crap thai sentence before I started crying at her. Her face showed a mixture of compassion and shock, more so when I decided to scrap the direction-asking and rode away in tears. She called out, "Where's your boyfriend? Where are your friends?", genuinely concerned. A truckful of happy Thais stopped me a few minutes later. She had waved them down and told them to pick me up on their way, and they drove me the remaining leg to Ayutthaya. People never cease to amaze me, and all the good makes me... Well, quite frankly, it makes me sigh. Deeply. Often. In a good way.
     I'm not a biker. As much as I love my bicycle, as much as I love riding it through beautiful countrysides or busy capitals, I'm letting myself off the hook. I tried to prove to myself that I can cycle, and I did over 700km in June. Now, I realize that there is absolutely no shame in admitting that I am not married to the idea of this trip being a bicycle tour. I love my bike, and I will ride it whenever I like. That being said, I will also allow myself to take a train here or there if I feel like it. So there.
     I'm not a traveler. I'm not a traveler, but that doesn't mean I'm going to book my flights home today. It doesn't mean I'm going to hurry back to Bangkok tomorrow. I'm deciding that I'm going to take my time, and I'm going to take each day as it comes. It's not like there's a rule that I need to be moving around often! I need to keep reminding myself of the flexibility I have, reminding myself that there is no "right" way to travel. Being alone forces me to put up with myself - or, to put it nicely, to get to know myself, - and to adjust my lifestyle accordingly. I'm writing this spiel on here because after a full day of painful solitude (not that it's always painful!), I arrived at the guesthouse here to find that it's completely empty except for myself. Get that - full last night, and today, when I most need human contact, there's no one around. So here you go, this post is a treat. A raw account of what the first days of my solo adventures are truly like. But things only go uphill from here, I promise!

meals on wheels

     Travelling with a gas burner is always handy. Sometimes, it happens, you get tired of the local food, you get fed up with MSG, you just want to cook your own food, or you're just too stingey to dish out those 30 baht for some standard pad pak (yeah, one whole dollar for fried rice!). When you're hit with any of the above, you'll be super glad to have your own just-in-case provisions. I've long run out of my trusty Clif bars, - always a nice treat when I need a home comfort, - but oatmeal and/or veg soup have been my go-to home cooked meals when travelling in Thailand. All you need are a couple of ingredients, all of which you can find at local markets and 7/11s, or grocery giants like Tesco Lotus. Some ideas for cheap eats on the road:

HOME-STYLE OATMEAL
oatmeal - 55฿/500g 
hot water - free 
banana(s) - 10-25฿ 
soymilk - 10฿ 
peanut butter - friggin' expensive! 
       -OR-
- peanuts - 10฿ 

travel wardrobe

     I like to plan my packing long before I travel. Just kidding. I spend the night before lying in bed, staring at the wall, and at 5 minutes after I was supposed to leave you'll find me skidding around the house looking for my passports. What I do do, the night or a few before, I try to write up a checklist of things I need to pack so that I can just tick them off as I dash around mindlessly. In the end, though, all I really need is a passport, a smile ...and some cash can always come in handy. When I was younger, I used to stuff half of my wardrobe in the bag I took for the summer, most of which I'd never even get around to wearing. Nowadays, anything more than the clothes I have on my back feel like too much to lug around. Truth is, when I travel, I only stick to wearing the clothes that I feel most comfortable in, so what's the point in bringing a tight miniskirt if I've got the choice between it and a pair of airy elephant pants? Not that I would ever consider cycling in a tight miniskirt anyway...
     When you Google search for a packing list for travel, you come up with looong lists of "essential" things you just simply caaan't forget to bring with you. Truth is, only you can know what's indispensable to you, and hey, maybe you'd rather bring a harmonica in place of 2 extra pairs of underwear! So I make my own packing list, and for this trip, it looked a little like this:

musings from up above

august 28, 2014
     The man across the aisle from me is buttering his cookie. I'm forking my "lunch" of a green bean salad and 2 slices of peeled orange as dessert. I guess the veg*an meal option on Aeroflot airlines translates into "low-fat, low-carb diet food for rabbits that can sustain themselves on a tablespoon portion of legumes and a single cherry tomato." Although I'm still starved after the meal, I appreciate that I was able to eat anything at all. I always try to call the airline a week before my flight to order the complimentary veg*an meal, though I make sure to pack an enormous amount of snacks anyway, just in case. Sometimes my veg order doesn't go through, and I'm stuck in the air stuffing myself with leftover buns and untouched salads after the other passengers had finished eating. Mmm, yummy AND nourishing.
It's not my favourite way to spend 13 hours, so I'm always coming prepared, with snacks (they help with the boredom of long flights, too. Nothing like cracking out some sunflower seeds at the 7 hour mark!). Today I stocked my backpack to the brim with apples, cucumbers, peaches, an orange, bags upon bags of nuts and seeds, and, of course, a chocolate bar and some wafers, so I think I'll make it to Bangkok without starving too much. I also like to save money at the airport by bringing a large, empty waterbottle through security and then just filling it up on the other side instead of having to buy the overpriced water they sell there. Plus, as the humidity in the cabin can be up to 6 times lower than it is normally, it's important to drink at least a glass of water every hour spent in the air to avoid dehydration. Anyway, I'm set, with my new tyres around my arm (or neck?), and here goes the umpteenth leg of this year's adventures!

رمضان مبارك

     The month of Ramadan is considered to be the most sacred lunar month of the Islamic calendar, and according to one of the Five Pillars of Islam, Muslims are obliged to fast during its 29-30 days each year. From sunlight to sundown they must refrain from consuming any food and drink as well as from smoking, and it is not until the call for the evening prayer that a ceremonious iftar can be consumed to break the fast. In Jordan, it is in fact illegal to eat or drink in public during daylight hours. Although tourists are often excused from these rules, I tried to abide by them during my stay in Jordan out of respect for those fasting. As you can imagine, this can make it incredibly difficult to travel... No water in 40 degree heat? I spent many lunch hours in bathroom stalls, scarfing down granola bars and other snacks, or gulping down entire liters of water to quench my continuous thirst.. I came across a few tourists who strove to follow the fast themselves, but for me the amount of physical exertion that comes along with travel and sightseeing coupled with the outrageous heat was too much to handle without any nourishment (or you could maybe say my faith is simply not strong enough?). After all, the laws of Ramadan supposedly exempt those who are travelling, right? Nor am I Muslim in the first place, but mad respect for anyone who fasts during the Ramadan.
Meal at Hashem Restaurant in Amman
     However, if you're in Amman during Ramadan and you're hungry for a solid meal despite the Ramadan - don't worry, not everyone in Jordan manages to fast, anyway, - there is a joint called Cairo Restaurant, at which the waiters hush you up to the 3rd floor if you are looking to dine in so that the cops don't catch them serving food. Otherwise, there are many locales open at which you can buy food for take-out, or grocery stores to buy fruit or snacks. At night, restaurants open up but if you're looking for falafel, keep in mind that it is considered to be a breakfast food and is therefore rarely served during the month of Ramadan. Nevertheless, Hashem Restaurant in Amman fries up what is considered the best falafel in town for the best price. For a couple dinar you can get a large pita on a napkin of a plate, along with an assortment of bean dips and a tomato salad, which is enough to keep you stuffed for hours.

from eilat to aqaba, & the valley of the moon

"Mushroom," Wadi Rum
     We'd arrived in Jordan just in time for the last week of Ramadan. From the main bus station in Jerusalem, we took a bus to Eilat and asked the driver to let us off near the border crossing. The journey took about five hours, and from the bus stop we proceeded to walk 1 or 2 km in the scorching heat to the border crossing, where we gobbled down our sandwiches (with respect to the Ramadan on the other side of the border) and were let through without much hassle. We had previously read on the internet about the so-called "taxi mafia" that exists on the Jordanian side, but found that as the prices for the rides to Aqaba are listed on a board, there was no such scam. Nevertheless, we teamed up with a Spaniard we met crossing the border and split the cab. Booking.com had a deal for a double room at Ahla Thla Hotel, where we spent the night before heading up to Wadi Ramm. The hotel is grubby, but the staff is helpful and cheerful, albeit not speaking English too well (but then again, what do you expect?). If you are expecting wifi access, don't count on it as the signal is weak and only works in certain corners of the hotel, and if you move your device a few centimeters it ceases to work. However, there is a 24h internet cafe on the bottom floor of the building if you are in dire need of connection.
Border crossing

skip down for more on Wadi Rum

kudos to all my sisters in the struggle

     Some things that a man will never be able to understand are the limitations that come with being a woman travelling solo. That being said, I'm not trying to imply anything other than the fact that travelling alone as a female comes with a set of struggles particular to our sex, as cautious as we may be. The other day I set out for Hat Thung Wa Laen from Chumphon, hoping to camp there for two nights and then return for my Thai friends' wedding on the 6th. Along the way, I stopped at a roadside shop after a big uphill for a soda. Boys from the nearby Technical College happened to be on their lunch break, and throngs of them were stopping to grab some snacks as well. A couple of them were brave enough to approach me, and soon enough I had a circle of boys sitting around me, trying to communicate with me in Thai. I told them I was headed for Thung Wa Laen Beach, not knowing how small the place was, and one of them offered to meet me there as I was his first farang friend. Of course, it's propositions like these that require me to trust my gut and decide whether a situation is safe or if there is the slightest possibility of danger. As innocent as the request seemed at first, he kept insisting that he come along despite my constant refusals. Listening to my intuition and feeling a little uncomfortable, I laughed him off and said he'd better get back to class instead.
Hat Thung Wa Laen
     Arriving at Thung Wa Laen, I was surprised to see the array of beachfront resorts and of restaurants advertising "western food," etc. Although one of the farang I met there raved about how quiet and remote the place is compared to the rest of Thailand, for me it was the one of the most touristic places I've been so far this month! Even the price of a bag of sticky rice, usually 5 baht, was quadrupled. Despite the beautiful seaside and the soft, white sands, I felt a little defeated. I looked around for a place to set up camp and a hotel owner kindly offered for me to put my tent up within the area of her bungalows. I think she was worried that I'd end up camping on the beach, which is never a good idea for reasons concerning both safety and sandflies. I met a nice Frenchman and Thai woman living in the room next to my tent who invited me for a chat over beers on their patio, after which I headed off to bed. Sometime between 10 and 11PM I heard a car roll up right next to my tent, the slamming of doors, and male voices calling "hey! hey! You!" right outside my tent.

ranong: updating the visa run situation

     I'm not going to waste any time writing this post because I think it's important to inform all you (us) travelers in Thailand about the current situation regarding doing visa runs to Myanmar from Ranong. Summed up, here are the main points. Keep in mind: I received a visa on arrival of 29 days - having entered by plane - for Thailand on my Canadian passport, and I require(d) an extension of at least 8 days before I fly out of the country.
  1. It is not possible to renew your visa by taking a boat over to Myanmar for a few minutes and coming back into Thailand
  2. You must pay 1,900 baht to receive a 7 day extension (no more) on your VOA (if you have a different type of visa, you may receive 1 month) 
  3. You may obtain this visa, like I did, at Ranong Immigration - not at the pier, - more details below.
  4. There is supposedly an Immigration office in Chumphon - open regularly, albeit hard to find; this is not the one at Tesco Lotus -, so you are not required to travel all the way to Ranong like I did (dammit).
  5. If you take the minibus to Ranong bus terminal for 120 baht from beside Farang Bar in Chumphon, you don't have to pay the extra 100 baht for it to take you to the pier - take a pickup for 15 baht instead. Or just get your visa done in Chumphon instead.
I'll recount my experience today and include some more details below.

buying a bicycle in bangkok

     While in Myanmar I came up with the crazy idea of buying a bicycle when I got to Thailand, and it stuck with me for a good two weeks. I'd met quite a few bikers there who inspired me that no matter how lazy you are and how little you may know about bicycles (I could hardly adjust my seat a few days ago), cycling journeys are far from impossible. Also, you really won't know until you try. I was scared shitless but beyond excited for the adventure, and as soon as I arrived in Bangkok I began my search for my new mode of transport.
In the nude
     Department stores like Tesco Lotus often have bicycles but I decided that I wanted to invest in a half decent one, as a birthday gift to myself. So I headed to Worachak Street (and kept returning there every day for the following 3 days) and found the perfect bike for 6,600 baht. It wasn't the cheapest, but I comforted myself with the fact that I could've spent more than double the price on some of the other bikes there. I had to equip my new baby with a rack, get elastics, a chain, a water bottle holder, a light (which fell off today...) and an inner tube (which, of course, I have no idea what to do with - same goes for the pump, though I'm sure pumping a tyre will come much more intuitively). All these items can be found on Worachak.
     As you have probably already guessed, I know absolutely nothing about bicycles. So I was, and am, scared shitless, and I even delayed my departure for a day. Biking around Bangkok, even, proved to be incredibly rewarding in itself. Tuktuk drivers would tease me with the standard "you need tuktuk?" and the bike shop lady, disappointed with the spray paint job I did on my bike, reassured me that at least nobody will want to steal such an ugly bike! I think she was more concerned about my skin getting tanned on such a jouney, though. Bangkok on a bike can be scary, but you find some gems in the streets the you otherwise may have missed.

a night on mt zwegabin

may 13, 2014
     Hpa-An is only a one hour bus ride from Malawmyine (1000mmk), and well worth the trip. The surrounding countryside is absolutely breathtaking, dotted with mountains supporting golden stupas on their peaks. The bus dropped me off a short distance from Soe Brothers Guesthouse, a clean, 3 story hostel with incredibly helpful staff. Single rooms with a fan cost $6, while a double is twice as much (although the beds are a lot more comfortable).
Mt Zwegabin
     As a group of 4, some friends from the hostel and I headed out to the bat cave near the bridge, paying a tuktuk 8000mmk total to take the four of us there and back - and wait for us for the 2 hours that we admired the sunset and, after sundown, the millions of bats that flew out as a massive swarm from the cave, right over our heads. The phenomenon seems unending: we watched the bats for a good 20 minutes and the bat fog didn't even appear to thin, and we left after a healthy dose of batshit accumulated on our bodies.
     The next day, we checked out of the hostel in preparation to sleep at the monastery on Mt Zwegabin that night, leaving our backpacks at the guesthouse. In the morning, we rented the semi automatic motorbikes for a half day through Mr Soe (5000mmk plus one refueling which cost 1000mmk) and visited what locals call Choccolat, which is a pagoda in the middle of water, on an oddly balanced rock, and a local swimming hole. The scenery was absolutely beautiful riding through the countryside.  

     Agreeing to meet our tuktuk at the hostel at 3pm to take us to the base of Mt Zwegabin (in time for us to make the 2h hike to the top for sunset), we set out, getting some fried rice to go in case dinner options were limited at the peak (monks shouldn't eat after noon). We were dropped off at the Buddha Garden and asked the driver to pick us up the next morning (we paid 3000mmk each, for both ways, as a group of four).

not so sleepy in mawlawmyine

may 10, 2014
     Before I begin to write about my travels in Myanmar, I have to admit that there's a selfish part of me that wants to keep it all to myself. A part of me that fears rapid development of tourism, the part that wants to keep this magical land all to myself. There are many times that I've said that I love a place, but after being here, I don't think I can say that truly about any other place. In the 3 days that I have been here so far, I have not had a single "bad" experience, or even anything below spectacular. The people truly make this fascinating country what it is.
     I rolled into Mawlawmyine in the early morning after 9 hours on the night train. I paid around 4$ for a seat in the ordinary class, and spread out on the wooden bench to sleep. All through the night, people were waking me either to let me know that I should tie my bag/pillow to keep things from falling out, to give me back my books when they had fallen off the seat, and the officers even offered that I go sleep in the upper class, though I refused. Arriving in Mawlawmyine after an extremely slow and bumpy ride, a woman in the seat over even offered that I use her comb and makeup!
     From the train station I took a moto taxi for 1000mmk into town, to Breeze Hotel, at which I got a small jail cell of a room, with a fan, for 7000mmk. It was still early, around 7am, but I was starved and headed to the market to find breakfast. Nobody was willing to fix anything veg*an, and kept joining me to the next stall over, and the next, until finally one woman led me to a place at which I settled for noodles with cucumber slices.     
     Walking back to the Guesthouse to take a nap, I passed by an English language course that was coincidentally just beginning their two hour weekend class from 8-10am and asked the teachers if he needed some help. I ended up staying the entire time of the class, talking to the shy students in English and making friends. A few of the girls then motorbiked me to the market to help me find a pair of flip flops (4500mmk - my sneakers are now stinky, holey, and duct taped all around) and we all agreed to meet at 4pm after I got some sleep. So, we spent the evening motorbiking to a church, the hilltop pagoda with its infamous viewpoint, their university and the barren airport (that does flights to Yangon and Bangkok twice a week only), finishing off the sight seeing with some cakes and coffee at a hip little cafe on the waterfront. As some of the girls had to head home afterwards, my two remaining friends took me out for dinner (again, ardently refusing to let me pay).
     Although I didn't do any organized boat tour to see the Mon villages on Blue Island, I spent an amazing day with some very hospitable Myanmar friends, learning some of their language and in turn helping them to practice their English. I hope to return to see them again in the near future!

yangon

may 9, 2014
     I arrived in Yangon yesterday morning at around 9am and took out some kyat at the airport ATMs, just in case, catching a taxi to Sule Paya for 7000kyat. Mahabandoola Guesthouse is located right by it, on the corner of 32nd street, and has the cheapest rooms in the city for $6 a night (and a "special" dorm for $4). The room has one plug, so you have to choose between having the fan on or charging your electronics, and it's really basic but does the trick if you just need a night's sleep. The common area has wifi, albeit patchy, and there is a common washroom with showers.
     As soon as I checked in I headed out for some Indian food on Mahabandoola street - a filling masala dosa for 800mmk - and walked around the neighbourhood. There are many street food stalls everywhere selling handmixed noodle salads, boiled corn, fresh fruit and a variety of deep fried goods. In the evening, I walked about a half hour to the Shwedagon Pagoda, paying a hefty 8000mmk (or $9) to enter. I left my shoes at the entrance (or you can get them bagged to hold onto) and proceeded up the staircases from the South entrance (you can pay the fee at the top). As it was already 7pm it was a lot cooler out and the climb was bearable in the heat. The last rays onf sun illuminated the pagoda, and artificial lighting flickered on when it set. There are stations around the stupa marking each day of the week, so if you know which day you were born on, this is where you pray. It is useful to remember to keep your feet to yourself when you sit, ideally cross legged. When I sat down with my legs to one side I had someone come up and gesture for me to retract my feet. Upon leaving, I noted that the going rate for taxis to Sule Paya was 2500mmk, or 2000mmk if you walk a little further away. Walking another few minutes southbound, I caught a bus into town for 200mmk instead. By 8pm, most food stalls were already closed so I got some boiled corn for 300mmk on Merchant Road before going back to the Guesthouse to sleep.
     In the morning, I left the guesthouse at around 7am and the city was still sleeping. The morning market on 42nd, however, was bustling. I ended up buying a knife for 1000mmk and two large mangoes for 800mmk, and as I was eating one on a street corner a man came up to give me a tissue to wipe off my hands and face. The kindness of the Myanmar people continues to surprise me, and I am quickly forgetting the world in which smiling is not as genuine as here in Myanmar.

pangkor getaway

may 5, 2014
Nazri Nipah Camp
     I'm probably crazy. I'd just arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday and already the next day I decided to head off on a 7h journey to Pulau Pangkor. Pangkor island is a small island located a little over half the way from KL to Georgetown. Weekends see swarms of local tourists, while the week days give way to relatively empty beaches. Fresh out of final exams and off the plane into a foreign culture, I decided that it would do me good to acclimatize to Malay culture and weather in a kampung atmosphere and get to know the metropolis of KL afterwards. So, while my Burmese visa was being arranged in the capital, I headed off for 2 nights of island time.
In the pink bus
      Busses to Lumut leave from Puduraya Bus Station (the hub for most connections in KL) frequently, I got to the station around 9am and caught one almost immediately. Tickets are sold on the third floor, and I paid 28MYR to Lumut, where we arrived five hours later after changing busses once. The ferry terminal is a two minute walk from the bus station, and ferries run every 45 minutes between Lumut and the island, but make sure to get off at the second stop. From there, you can take the vastly overpriced (probably because it's the only transport available) pink taxi for 15 MYR to Nazri Nipah Camp, a chilled out reggae hostel in Teluk Nipah. The dormitory was up for 20 MYR, and the hostel's got a great hang out area with hammocks. There's a kitchen and wifi is available. I spent the following day exploring the island with a friend who had a motorbike. Although there isn't all that much to see, Pangkor is a nice, quiet island for a few days getaway - but bring enough cash in case you get stuck.

guangzhou, take two

     Will I ever get lucky with Guangzhou? I've flown through the city three times already and I'll admit that at this point I'm actually curious about what it's like. China Southern Airlines puts you in a five star hotel, free of charge, if you've got a layover longer than 8h. Last May, I was shipped off to Vienna Hotel in the suburbs and couldn't figure out how to get into the city centre, so this time I prepared myself by searching up how to get downtown from Vienna Hotel and even printed out a map of the metro. I was ready.
     After my 13h flight from Vancouver, I got to in Guangzhou Baiyun at around 5pm. I told the man at the "transfer accommodation" desk that my connection wasn't until the next morning, and he ushered me off to fill out an arrival card and find my way to Departure Gate 9 with two other women in the same boat as I. Although the people handling the transfer accommodations barely spoke a word of English, we figured out that we'd been assigned to different hotels (who knows why? Maybe those women went to Vienna Hotel) and waited for our respective shuttles.
     Hao Yin Gloria Plaza Hotel, where I was taken, is an approx. 45min ride away from the airport, through the smoggy suburbs of Guangzhou. The man at the reception (who, unlike t Vienna Hotel, spoke English) told me that the nearest metro was a 30min cab ride away and the nearest supermarket a 10min ride. Regardless, I was pooped and all I wanted to do was pass out. There were no restaurants or food stalls nearby, the only meal options being a 24h KFC and buffet at the hotel restaurant for 88yuan (which, I later overheard, was pretty good). Instead, I enjoyed powdered soup, free tea and a CLIF bar in the privacy of my luxury bathtub in the luxury ensuite of my luxury room, after which I passed out on my luxury bed.
     I woke up in the morning to catch a 5:30 shuttle to the airport for my flight to KL. The hotel offered complimentary breakfast - served in a tv dinner-like box - of 2 eggs, 2 cherry tomatoes, a very fuzzy looking sweet loaf, white bread and a carton of vitasoy milk. Let's just say it was too early for milk and tomatoes, so I passed.
     It seems like suburban Guangzhou is filled with either empty slabs of concrete apartments or luxury hotels (which are almost as empty as the building skeletons nearby). Maybe CSA offers free accomodation for the sake of filling/using all these massive hotels? Massive is an understatement. The emptiness combined with the overly luxurious decoration and amount of space taken up by both Vienna and Hao Yin Gloria Hotels (and others, I assume) lend to an overall eerie feel to the place. I walked around the Gloria Hotel and found that the top floor was nothing but rooms facing a stretch of gym equipment, pool tables, couches and hammocks. It felt as though it was built to prepare for thousands of resort-loving guests and not the occasional few layover tourists. It felt incredibly weird. But one day, ONE DAY I will see Guangzhou!