Friday, 31 October 2014

Getting Around

Here is a quick update of life in the southern reaches of South East Asia.

General work and life is still good but it seems to have settled into a routine of sorts. I guess it is a little hard to escape that when you have to go to work like the rest of world from Monday to Friday and I shouldn’t be too ungrateful because at least I don’t have to do a 6 day week like all of the staff at my hotel and let’s face it, I am a complete whore to the money and I love my weekly pay day!

I have still been doing enough though to keep life interesting.

3 weeks ago I took a hop, skip and a 55 minute flight over to Singapore for work reasons for a total 4 days and 3 nights. Having previously visited as a backpacker I wasn’t overly impressed with the city primarily due to the fact that there are too many rules and it comes across as a little sterile, lacking in any sort of adventurous spirit.
After this re-visit I still am not taken by the city but being there at the expense of your company allows you to gain a little more appreciation for the finer things that Singapore has to offer.
Of the 3 nights that I was in town I was required to join my fellow colleagues for an all-expenses paid dinner twice – not bad. The first meal was excellent and some of the dishes were superb, even if we did have to talk shop but the second meal will be forever tainted and I am still upset about it now.
We were taken to some high end Chinese restaurant and having been to China I know that they will eat practically anything.
All was going well until we were presented with a soup dish and I took a mouth full of what I thought was sliced onion – due to the patterning.
Having chewed on it and not getting the expected crunch I enquired as to what it was; shock, horror and complete dismay – Shark Fin Soup.
I had just eaten the thing on the very top of my ‘never to eat’ list.
I actually surprised myself by dropping my chopsticks and launching into a foul-mouthed tirade that didn’t go down too well with my more respectful and well-mannered Asian colleagues; I just lost it.
Fortunately I wasn’t alone as two others also spoke out, although a little more calmly than me.

For those of you who don’t know, Shark Fin Soup, like many other ‘delicacies’ all too frequently consumed primarily in but not just confined to Asia is a f*cking abomination.
A shark fin has been scientifically proven to contain no nutritional or medicinal qualities so basically it is completely worthless; as is tiger bone or rhinoceros horn for that matter.
Where it isn’t worthless is on the back or on the sides of a shark!
Per year it is estimated that over 100 million; yes, 100 million sharks are fished out of the oceans to have their fins hacked off whilst they are still alive before being dumped back into the ocean to either bleed out if they don’t drown first.
And here we were, a bunch of suits numbering approx. 40, sitting around a table eating and in many cases wasting who knows how many shark fins and to make it worse some thought it was all a bit amusing and others lapped it up completely ignorant to the facts of how it is sourced.

I still can’t explain how angry I was and still am that not only was I subjected to it without warning but I am working with what I would deem to be very intelligent people who when it comes to the really ‘important’ things in life, not profit and bottom lines, are as stupid and dumb as you can get.

From that moment on I mentally distanced myself from the table, I didn’t speak that much and the next day I tried to avoid everybody and felt much better in myself for it.
I do not see myself as a very moral and ethical person when it comes to a lot of things in life and I like to take it easy, but this bothered me and it still bothers me now.

Luckily the third and final evening was my own and I got out of the office as soon as I could and headed out into the night.
As I was staying by the canal I decided to follow it towards the posh end by the harbour and was rewarded by finding a part of the city I had not come across before. Along the river for about 2 kms from the hotel to the harbour, against the backdrop of the skyscrapers were dozens are bars, restaurants, cafes, shops and the most decadent of hotels all brightly lit up to entice you in. There were street performers, live musicians, moored boats acting as floating restaurants and the continual buzz of the boat taxis drifting by, all in a balmy evening atmosphere that felt as though it was still 35 degrees.

As the canal reached its end it opened out onto a familiar scene – Singapore harbour flanked by the Singapore Flyer (think London Eye), as I call it the DNA Bridge and Flower and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino (which 3.5 years ago I entered with 2 other backpackers to break the rules and swim in the infinity pool and jacuzzi's on the roof).
It is always an impressive sight but what I didn’t know was that like Hong Kong they have a nightly laser and light show and I had turned up at exactly the right time to see it all.
It was a good way to spend my final night in the city and helped to partly banish the previous evening’s ordeal.

Back in KL I have kept myself busy by playing football with some lads from work, going out for dinner with another work mate and his family and then also going out for a few beers with completely different work mates.
On one particular night I had to go and buy some trainers as the fake ones that Beck bought for me in Egypt literally fell apart on my feet as I was walking, and it was raining, and once this was done I had to go and meet my mate in a brothel!!
Now in England it doesn’t happen this way, but in KL apparently you go and have a good time after work before you go out for a drink and some food.
It was all a little bizarre.

Anyway, he showed me where to meet him, so I turned up and sat in the waiting room / bar / restaurant and watched the comings (no pun intended) and goings of the business.
I reckon I am the only guy in the history of brothels to go, behave myself whilst I wait for a friend and get some fried rice with a fried egg on top for free!! Apparently all customers get fed for nothing so I either my mate had paid for extras or I just qualified by association.
Feeling like I needed to part with a least a couple of quid I bought a can of Guinness and sat back with the staff to watch The Expendables as various men skulked in and out of the establishment.

Once he was finished my mate kept the classy evening going by taking us to eat again at a street restaurant where I kid you not, we ate outside whilst the rats ran amok on the inside.
However, as he put it, it is better that you can see the rats ie. if you can’t then what is the meat that you are eating???

I have also made friends with a homeless man called Simon.
I had seen him about so decided to have a chat and he is fascinating. He used to be part of the Malaysian mafia and as a result of this was very wealthy, connected and managed to find himself a hot German wife. For 8 years they lived together in Berlin and he added German to 1 of the 8 languages that he can speak.
In the end she couldn’t give him children so his dad made him leave her in the hope of continuing the family line back in Malaysia.
Being a gangster he was a marked man and one night some of his enemies attempted to kill him by running him over.
He was left with serious injuries (which he showed me) and one of these was to his leg where to save it they had to essentially tie a knot at the top of it.
As a result he slowly became destitute and now he sleeps outside of a shop as a sort of neighbourhood security guard in return for food and I get to see him most days in his usual begging spot where he asks for money for medication.
Basically, the onset of diabetes and the previous injuries have left his leg pretty much dying in front of him. The doctors have told him to amputate it but he has so far refused.
He has a deal with an ex-military doctor who gives him cheap injections once a week to help him, and for this he needs to raise the equivalent of £30, which to me seems like a lot for a beggar to raise in the UK, let alone here where the exchange rate is 5 to 1 in my favour.
Fortunately he has a network of ordinary people who help him out from time to time with food and cash and I am now on clothes duty!
When I met him I was hoping that he would just need a one off sum to cure him but that it isn’t to be, so I will help him where I can whilst I am here and he can repay me with his stories.

Last weekend I decided on a whim to visit another part of the country so flew up to Georgetown in Penang.
Georgetown is a UNESCO listed town full of colonial history and famed for being a foodie’s heaven.
Traveling very light (literally 3 pairs of underwear and 1 spare t-shirt) I arrived and had the pleasure of wondering around and sightseeing before I even thought about finding a place to stay.
The town is characterised by being split into sections. There is Little India, belting out classic Bollywood hits and sending out the aromas of homemade curry, the Muslim quarter where you can walk by the mosques as the daily calls to prayer are sung out with mystical charm and then there are the Clan Jetties, wooden jetties sticking out into the ocean built by the first Chinese settlers as a place for the family/clan to live.
These jetties are individual streets on stilts and contain dozens of wooden shacks that double up as houses and shops and you can actually stay on some of them – which I very nearly did.
As I mentioned they were built by the first settlers who were fishermen by trade and so being over the water made sense and each jetty could only be populated by members of that particular family, whose ancestors still live there to this day.

Apart from this the rest of the town was dotted with temples, churches and colonial mansions and this is without the extraordinary amount of restaurants, hawkers (selling street food at a stupidly cheap price), bars and independent cafes all offering good coffee and homemade cake.
If this wasn’t enough the people here were unbelievable. Traveling on my own has never been an issue but in Georgetown everybody wanted to talk and if they had seen me earlier they spoke to me like we were mates or would wave to me – it was brilliant.

I finally settled on a colonial guesthouse right in the centre of everything as a place to stay and I felt so at home, hence why I didn’t move on to the jetty for the second night.
It was relatively new establishment owned by 3 girls from Kuala Lumpur and I spent quite a bit of time just chin-wagging with them and any number of their mates who would drop by.

One of the main attractions for me visiting Penang was to go to the Kek Lok Si Monastery, well out of town and built into the base of the hills.
As Buddhist Monasteries go this was a good one and having specifically gone early to avoid the masses I spent 2 hours alone and in my own quiet world, when the French backpacker wasn’t trying to talk to me, exploring the buildings and temples by barefoot.

So I reckon that covers it for now.
The Sultan of Johor is currently staying at my gaff. A Sultan is the same as a King so it is a big deal; apparently.     
I haven’t seen him yet but having read up on him he seems like someone to meet.
He is a billionaire, has an extensive jewel collection, a very good car collection, was convicted of murder before being acquitted and has been in trouble for various misdemeanours such as starting a fight after gate crashing a wedding and a woman refused to dance with him.
I am not sure how I will get to him yet but I am thinking the fact that his mum is from Torquay is my way in!! Random.

I am also going to an invitation only event at my hotel this Friday. For 10 days we have one of Spain’s top chef’s presenting Spanish food in one of the restaurants and I am going to the opening night to dine and watch some flamenco etc.
I may get to hunt down the Sultan here or at the very least practice my ailing Spanish on the chef himself.

If all this fails the Sultan's football team are playing in the Malaysian Cup Final on Saturday and the team is staying at the hotel. Will I go to the game, or get to join the after party if they win??

Who knows but either way, I am going down in a blaze of glory / embarrassment.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A 5 star lifestyle

I wasn’t expecting to write another blog entry so soon but as the adventures seem to still be ongoing and my mum is complaining that I am not calling enough it seems appropriate to post an update.
So this is for you mum!

Where we last left it I had returned from The Americas for a brief UK spell having accepted a job based in Tokyo.
Whilst all the details were being sorted and the project was taking shape for a September start I busied myself by getting back in to the work routine in London and began my Japanese lessons.
At first I wondered what I was letting myself in for as we aren’t just talking about learning a new language, it is a completely new reading and writing system to get to grips with, but strangely enough I found that after only a few lessons I was learning quite a lot and the theory that once you have opened your mind up to learning one language, Spanish in my case, it becomes much easier to pick up the second, third, fourth…..seemed to be true.

Of course it was nice to be back in the motherland and London and hanging around in the city, eating out, watching some live music and getting back down the Lane to watch Spurs was all good; but in my mind I had already left again and so the longer everything dragged on at work, the more nervous I became and the eagerness to get over to Japan to start the next chapter and also be reunited with AJ, who had now returned to Aus to see her own family, was palpable.

It was a Friday morning at 10am when I was called into the boss’ office and told that it was all off. Disappointment and anger were the top 2 emotions that I was feeling because not only did it mean I wasn’t going to Japan (I was due to fly on the next Tuesday) it also meant that I didn’t have a job!
However, things tend to work out and in this case they did very quickly as that same Friday at midday I was offered a similar but more challenging role in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia!
I was given the weekend to think it over but I didn’t need it, why wouldn’t I take this opportunity? Admittedly it was for a much shorter term but who cares right? It is a chance to live and work in a major capital city for 3 months, in my favourite continent and in a city I have already visited and loved, plus I would get to choose my own accommodation and it would be paid for. Beaut!       

I confirmed my acceptance on the Monday and arranged to fly 7 days later – there was no need to hang around was there?

During this time I also made a brief but necessary trip out to Egypt to see my long lost sister. I hadn’t seen her for close to 2 years and wanted to experience what her life was like in her so-called ‘job’ / permanent holiday in the sun and even though I didn’t get to do the classic Egyptian sights it still counts as a new country for me.
We had a really good 5 days together and this also marked the start of my first-class lifestyle, not something to be underestimated or unappreciated after 3 years of budget travel.
Beck's bathroom or Boots?

We made sure to maximise our time together and achieved far more than my mum and aunty did during their recent trip; but this wasn’t hard as by all accounts they spent 7 days snoozing on their respective sun-loungers.
The list of activities included:

- Snorkelling in the Red Sea and being hounded by a hotel guest and his Go-Pro – why did he feel the need to stalk us and then barge through to take footage of the fish and scare them away?

- Eating in the local markets – the pigeon was nice but like the Guinea Pig in Peru there just wasn’t enough meat. They need Trafalgar Square pigeons


- Drinking in local establishments such as Cliffside Shisha Bars and gate-crashing the Bar Crawl to get free drinks and watch the Russians live it up to dire electro music 

- Playing Bat ‘n’ Ball in the ocean but never getting close to a respectable score – Beck’s fault

- Avoiding the hotel guests such as one couple who insisted on telling us about the wife’s sexual harassment case before she turned away to shed a tear even though she brought it up and I had only just met her! Odd

- Attending the ultimate chill-out acoustic session on the beach by the resident band who were seriously good and could learn any song request in 15 minutes.
I requested Run by Snow Patrol (it was chill out after all) and they very kindly announced that I made the request because I am a huge Leona Lewis fan.

- But best of all was the ‘desert’ day where we spent about 6 hours quad biking, riding camels (for about 2 minutes) and getting bullied by the camel master, drinking lots of tea, visiting Bedouin camps, watching sunset and belly dancing before gazing at the night sky through a telescope and getting to see Saturn with its rings and Mars close up.
This was all done with the threat of terrorist action for any tourist visiting the desert hanging over our heads. However, like us, the 100 or so other tourists taking part across various companies didn’t give a sh*t about these idol threats

And so to KL.
As I said, life is pretty sweet now and it doesn’t get much sweeter than flying Business Class; a first for me.
I flew from Birmingham to KL via a connection in Dubai and I can’t begin to explain how nice it was from start, in the business class lounge with its free food and drink, to finish, during which time I got to hang my suit up in the wardrobe, play with my massaging chair, sleep on a flat bed with a mattress that was put down for me and choose my own 3 course meal from the menu and eat it with real cutlery and a table cloth set out.
This is the only way to fly and it was just a shame that the person next to me on the first flight wanted to talk about his money! No class. It didn’t take long to press the button to make the privacy divider go up so I didn’t have to see or hear him.

For the first 4 days I had arranged my own accommodation whilst I found a more permanent location and fortunately the team at work were able to recommend and arrange the perfect place. Whilst the first place was great location wise it was in a slightly shabby part of town and every night I got to walk by a car-park where I could watch the local prostitutes sit around a plastic table and apply their make-up for the long night ahead!

My current abode is sh*t-hot. I have a one bedroomed serviced apartment in a 5 star hotel and as far as I am concerned it is luxurious and even better it is all paid for by the company.
To add to this there is also a pool, spa, gym, 2 bars, 5 restaurants and a cigar room aptly named Fidel's.
I am in the middle of the city within walking distance to all that makes KL such a great city and also I am only about a 7 minute walk from the office as well.
The font door

It didn’t take me long to get into a daily routine, something that has been missing for quite a while and it goes something like this:

·         Up at 6:15am for the gym
·         Showered and down for the complimentary breakfast at 8am. Here I am greeted with a “Morning Mr Adam” and confirmation that I want my ‘usual’; a black coffee and freshly made omelette. There is also an array of cooked foods, fruit, cereal, cakes, pastries, bread, yoghurts and fruits etc to choose from as I read my daily delivered newspaper and watch the news – seriously, what have I become?
·         Head off to work and say goodbye to Manoj, my cleaner
·         Out for lunch with the colleagues
·         Head home at a reasonable hour and decide how to amuse myself for the evening – a movie, a swim, a walk in the balmy night-time atmosphere, a few pints with colleagues or meeting random backpackers for a ‘one night in KL’ booze fest

It really isn’t too shabby.

As for work, we don’t really need to discuss that, work is work. It is all going really well now that the first 2 weeks of getting everything into shape is out of the way.

Kuala Lumpur is a great city, a complete mixture of Asia meets the West, but its winning feature is the food. In this city you can eat anything that you want for next to nothing price wise. Every Asian country is represented in this city so every type of Asian food (my favourite) is cooked fresh by the people who know how to cook it and do it justice.
There are high end establishments all the way down to the infamous Jalan Alor (Food Street) where you can eat out on the streets whilst the food is barbequed in front of you. I love it.

During the previous 2 weeks Arancha had come to town to play and this has only heightened an already enjoyable experience.
Obviously I have still been working but this has suited her just fine as KL is home to multiple huge and modern shopping malls – so much for us saving for a home!!

It has also been nice for me in that Arancha comes for breakfast each morning, even though she could lie-in, we meet up for lunch (along with the shopping bags) and then we go out for dinner. We have been eating all over the city, such as one food court that brings together all of the most famous Malaysian restaurants under one roof and is ranked as number 37 on the New York Times top 100 list of Asian odysseys; but our favourite restaurant has to be Din Tai Fung – a Michelin starred eatery (but cheap even by UK standards) that serves dumplings that are so good I just want to shout out and declare my undying devotion. Yum f*cking yum!

Roller coaster in a mall, why not?

Having not ventured out of the city yet I was determined that we should see another part of Malaysia whilst AJ was here so in the middle weekend we flew north to Langkawi, an island located off the west coast in the Andaman Sea just below the border with Thailand.
It is pretty mad that from the door of my apartment to stepping off the plane into a tropical location can be achieved in exactly 2 hours!
Having gotten very used to a luxurious standard we decided to keep it going by staying at the Meritus Beach Resort and it didn’t disappoint.
Situated in its own 35 acre plot with manicured gardens, swimming pools and open access to a white sandy beach it just about met our standards of a weekend getaway destination. We were greeted at the airport, driven to the resort where we were presented with a cold towel and a cool fruit drink before being offered a golf-buggy ride to our cabin, which we declined and walked over to because that just seemed a step too far considering we only had a day bag each.
We got a last minute deal on a garden view room but I lied and told them that we were on the island as part of our honeymoon, so we got an ocean view room instead! I was hoping for a complimentary bottle of champagne but you can’t have it all.

Langkawi is very popular with mainland Malaysians because it is tax free meaning that you can buy booze, fags and oddly enough chocolate very cheaply. The mainland is cheap for everything except alcohol, the price of which converts back to GBP as more expensive than London for a pint.
Whilst doing a little bit of first day exploration we happened across a tax free mall and so bought a few items for the room – 1 bottle of Port, 1 bottle of Campari and a huge bag full of boxes of Smarties. The designated Chocolate shops were mouth-watering for me but for obese people they must be orgasmic.

From that point on the first day passed us by in a drunken stupor. We drank at the pool bar before then doing it from the comfort of our balcony overlooking the beach, the palm trees and the ocean with a sprinkling of islands that make up some of the 99 in the area. 
We then carried this on in town where we met a bar owner from Nottingham, as you do, and had a good old sing-along to the resident band – a proper SE Asian band doing British Indie covers – how I have missed this sort of night.

Langkawi isn’t just a beach destination. Once you step away from the coastal edges the land rises sharply to form mountains that are covered in dense rainforest and the best way to view these to take the cable-car up to the top of an 800 metre peak to look out across a jagged range akin to the surrounding mountains of Machu Picchu and then down across a green wilderness surrounded by a ring of white sand and then the blue sea.
It wasn’t quite this colourful for us, we had to imagine how it would look because it was a bit cloudy and miserable but it cleared enough for us to know what we were looking at.

For the rest of our long weekend we wasted the time away by either playing in the kid’s pool, walking or lying on the beach or taking long pointless taxi rides to the island capital and realising that there was nothing to see except for a huge eagle statue and more tax free shopping malls.

And then it was back to KL.
Whilst in the city we did venture out to see the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in the concert hall at the base of the infamous Patronus Towers but I have to say that it was a bit disappointing and I wish we had paid for the cheap seats. Still, on the way there we did get to walk by a live DJ dance set and I don’t think I will ever again hear these immortal words shouted out the get the party started:
“Let me hear you KLCC Science Festival”

Towards the back end of Arancha’s stay one of her best friends and husband happened to pass through the city on their way back to Aus from Europe so it was nice to hang out with them and do lunch and dinner etc and it gave AJ something to do during the day time whilst I was in the office.

And so that brings us up to date.
Arancha has returned to Aus and I now have to plan a few weekend trips away to explore some more of Malaysia before I depart at the end of November – to who knows where?
I did make a trip out to the north of the city to the Hindu revered Batu Caves and this was well worth it and as enjoyable to visit as it was the last time I was about 4 year ago.

A monkey looking at his willy

Unfortunately I have to fly to Singapore on Monday for 4 days work but I suppose I will just have to deal with the hassle of yet another 5 star hotel and a few after work dinners at any number of the over-priced restaurants on offer.

Life is a bitch!

ps. looking back at this blog it appears that my new lifestyle still leaves me without only 1 yellow t-shirt. At least I can argue that it hasn't 'changed' me!!!