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.

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