On the morning of my last day in Kanchanaburi, I picked my way across the planks to my raft room and surprised a five-foot reptile who had (presumably) been swimming idly near the shore. It was most likely a water monitor (Varanus sp.), though could have been a crocodile with a very short snout. It’s a good job I didn’t sit with my feet in the water, and afterwards I checked carefully before stepping over the open areas. I was heading to Hua Hin, a mini-Odyssey that took four buses and six hours to cover around 250 km, and spent a peaceful hour or so paddling in the Gulf of Thailand, which seems to be populated entirely by hermit crabs and condoms (at least the safe sex message is getting through). Moving further south, I arrived at the excellent Phuket Backpackers on the island of Phuket (pronounced poo-ked, no matter what expats may tell you) and quickly discovered that it’s seemingly the epicentre of Thailand’s sex, partying, booze and hedonism industries. As I was looking for an unspoiled and peaceful beach, I’d come to the wrong place. It was time to pull a Khao San Road. I boarded a bus heading to the Malaysian border, and ended up sitting next to an Agatha Christie-liking palm-reading Buddhist monk (according to my right hand I’m lucky at games but unlucky in love).
So it was that I boarded a rickety ferry (a boat retrofitted with old aeroplane seats) to the Malaysian island of Langkawi and arrived right at the start of the monsoon season. The place was hot (but not insufferably so) and peaceful but sadly very, very damp (possibly why it was peaceful as everyone was waiting for the dry season). I decided to see what the weather was doing further south, and after a marathon journey involving two taxis, two buses and two ferries made it to Georgetown (and the friendly 75 Travellers Lodge), about 200 km away. This turned out to be a rather nice colonial place, worthy of a couple of nights chilling out, but it was still too hot. I needed to gain some elevation, and so climbed up into the Cameron Highlands – home of tea plantations, jungle trails, the nice (if rat-friendly) Daniel’s Lodge and wonderfully cool evenings.
My final stop in Malaysia was many travellers’ first – the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur (lit: muddy confluence). Arriving in the afternoon, I began walking around some of the sights in the city centre and ended up in the close streets of Chinatown (like China, only much cleaner). I had the pleasure of crashing with a Malaysian family that evening, and spent a delightful few hours chatting with a passionate young activist who’s at the forefront of the (admittedly small) Malaysian social justice movement (he was in the middle of making a banner for a Labour Day anti-capitalism demonstration). Amazingly, the situation has gotten worse since the British left – trade unions are illegal, opposition political parties are routinely shut down and there is no free press (all media outlets are owned by the state). Resistance is fertile!
As a fellow activist, I was invited to the (admittedly public) pre-Labour Day concert-cum-jam session, held on a balcony cafe near the Central Market. The first performer turned out to be a huge, traditionally-dressed Malaysian guy playing some kind of electrified traditional instrument (Malaysian songs plus a Hotel California cover). Other musicians played covers or their own resistance songs, and no small amount of entertainment came from the street below, where a local guy with a walking stick started breakdancing, using the stick as a prop (prop as in additional item, not something to lean on).
Leaving KL behind, I travelled to the far end of the peninsula and hit Singapore – which wasn’t quite like I was expecting. Somehow I imagined it to be a purely modern, glass-and-steel society and was pleasantly surprised at all the colonial buildings and greenery. With only a day at my disposal, I wandered around the major sights and sought good fortune at the Fountain of Wealth (you have to stick your right hand in the fountain, make a wish and walk around three times). I ended up, as do many tourists, ordering a Singapore Sling (in a slightly apologetic manner, as everybody orders one) at the famous Raffles Hotel – the Long Bar is pretty historic, has ingenious ceiling-mounted automatic paper fans and, due to unlimited free peanuts, is also full of birds who fly in seeking food and can’t get out again.
After Singapore, my original plan had been to get to Australia, possibly via a boat from somewhere in Indonesia. My new plan was to return to South Korea, spend a week or so there with Amy and then fly south from either Korea or Japan (depending on flight cost). So without further delay I boarded a Thai Airways flight to Incheon (via Bangkok, which is a poorly-designed airport as I had to walk at least 1.5 km through endless duty-free shops before I could get to where I needed to be) and arrived without incident amongst the spring blooms and new greenery of Yongin.
For my first weekend back in Korea, we took a long-distance bus out to the east coast town of Gangneung; a fairly small place between the mountains and the sea with a high concentration of historic houses and ginko trees. Almost as soon as we arrived, we found a veggie-friendly place to eat and returned several times to try such delicacies as pajeon (pancake), naengmyeon (cold noodles), dongdongju (rice wine), bibimbap (rice, egg and vegetables) and dwaenjangjiggae (tofu soup). The principal local cuisine, however, leans towards seafood, which meant that the beach road was like a huge aquarium with all the various things you could eat sitting in tanks. Along the promenade, we made friends with a huge dog (who seemingly liked sitting on a chair) and one of the sellers said that I looked like Ethan Hawke.
A popular activity in Gangeung is cycling around the lake (a trip of around four km) on bicycles, tandems or unwieldy two- or four-seater pedal wagons. We took a wagon, spent some time weaving in and out of all the other people and vehicles on the path and had an on-off race with a wagon full of Korean kids. Back at the beach (which was long and sandy, with wonderfully clear and cold water) we took in two traditional dances. One was stylised around farming techniques – not unlike morris dancing – and the second was a mask dance telling a folk story. There was plenty of audience participation, culminating in my being dragged out of the crowd by one of the (we think) demon characters and used to beseech a god to help wake the heroine.