Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A Thousand Wats of Light

It must have been the tenth or so temple I'd seen during my 3 day Angkor Wat temple tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Naturally, being part of a complex and built by the same hands, the temples, individually, felt fairly similar to one another, but this one was a little different. There were fewer tourists here -- and the visitors that were there were not there for photo opportunities, but to pray. This put me at ease.

I strolled its grounds as unobrusively as I could. The smell of incense seemed to reach into me today more than in the past. The silence felt not lonely, but holy. I made my way to the temple's heart which was easy enough to find -- it was at its precise center and was marked by a large buddha statue. When I arrived, I marveled at the precision of the temple's engineering. From this spot, I could see that the doors lined up with such incredible precision that I had a clear line of sight to each of the temple's four entryways, an impressive feat for a temple built at least 800 years ago without the aid of computers or other sophisticated construction tools that we have today -- just the hands, ingenuity and patience of men.

I stood in the bowels of this temple with another man who looked like he belonged there. I told him how impressed I was with the precision of the temple's construction and he concurred. He went on to tell me bit about the history of the temple. I donated some money in a donation box at the foot of the buddha and thanked the man.

As I turned to continue my exploration, I spied an old, plainly dressed woman hunched over a cane and carrying a basket. She looked at me and gestured at a tapestry that I was holding in my hand -- a red blanket with a gold pattern of Angkor Wat. After admiring it for a second, she approved of its beauty and then returned the tapestry to me and proceeded to give me a blessing. The man tells me the old woman was a nun. I stood there, watching the nun tie on colored string to my wrist, absorbing the silent serenity of the grounds, the chill of the frigid stone surrounding me, the cosmic scent of the incense. It was a singularly perfect moment -- like something out of a Richard Linklater movie.

In fact, a lot of my visit to Siem Reap felt surreal, like I was a third person watching myself experience it all -- right from the very start when Pheak, my tuk-tuk driver for the entire trip, picked me up from the airport. A dutiful, knowledgeable, and capable man of 28, after a few hours with Pheak, it was clear to me just where the inspiration for The Green Hornet's Kato was drawn from.

He was sent from the hotel, but was also the driver on my tour as well. The tour allowed me three days to visit Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples and it would be broken up into three heats, dessert first. I'd would see Angkor Wat, the most famous temple, and Angkor Thom, the second most famous attraction, the remains of the main city in Angkor. I purchased my ticket, but had not planned to begin my tour until my first full day in Siem Reap. But Pheak wasted no time. I left my bags in my hotel room and Pheak whisked me off to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. Like I said, dessert first.

The grounds of Angkor Wat were still brimming with activity when I arrived. There were others like me who were scurrying to catch the sun set at Angkor. But frankly, I could barely tear my eyes from the magnificence of the temple to see the sunset. There would be other sunsets I told myself.

Though the attraction would soon be closed to the public, the festivities continued. The buskers continued to play, the dancers continued to dance. I would make it past the temple's outer gate to its front doors before I was turned around and asked to leave -- the temple was now closed. But it was a mouthful of a first taste of what was to me clearly one of the great wonders of our world.

Pheak was waiting for me early the next morning to return me to Angkor Wat for a real visit and then to take me to nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor was beautiful during the day. I had only hours to experience its magnificence, and in the day, I could more clearly see its details, of which there were very very many. Architecture was not then like it is now -- fairly minimalist, and functional -- at least that was not my experience with the temples I saw throughout Southeast Asia. Like all of the cathedrals I've seen, temples are exquisitely ornate with details covering every last inch of the structure. Each temple is a veritable feast for the eyes. It could take a lifetime to appreciate every detail of any single temple in Angkor. I tried the best I could with the time that I had.

It was here that I realized how much photography can enhance one's appreciation for architecture -- maybe this is a commonly known thing, but I never quite got it until now. Taking photos forces you to look for the best angles, best details and to appreciate the lines. And all of the beauty you can spot at a temple is all the more impressive when you consider that it was most likely deliberate and intended by the designer. Taking photos gets you inside the mind of the architect.

Angkor Wat was as impressive as I had heard, rivaling the majesty of Machu Picchu which I visited in 2009. It was surprisingly well preserved considering its age. It's restoration was impressive as well. But what surprised me the most was the level of access enjoyed by its visitors. We were practically able to access any part of the temple that we could physically reach, no matter how dangerous.

But I would say I enjoyed the remnants of Angkor Thom even more than Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom is a collection of sites, actually, but are grouped together because they once belonged to a city. It's remnants include the arches where visitors come and go, and a few temple ruins. Being a bit more spread out, it had the same number of visitors as Angkor Wat, but in less concetration. There were no lines like we saw at Angkor Wat. And the din of the crowd was much more muted here. It was more peaceful.

I was to walk the entire grounds of Angkor Thom. Pheak dropped me off at one site and we arranged to meet again about 2 - 3 miles away on the other side of the city at my leisure; he would be waiting. I actually really loved how this tour was set up. There was no guide getting in the way of my enjoyment of the temples -- I was free to enjoy the temples as I saw fit.

One of the things I thought about a lot was how all of these ruins fit into the lives of the locals before its tourism boom. Angkor Wat really only exploded in popularity as a tourist attraction after the Tomb Raider movies were filmed here. But the temples have been known to the people for time immemorial. I asked Pheak what the sites were like before Angkor became a major tourist attraction. As I understand it, most of the sites were hidden from view and access since they were overrun by forest. Still, they were known to the people. Pheak himself would often trek through the poisonous snake infested forests as a child to explore the temples against the wishes of his parents. The temples, he explained were actually still in use before they were all restored since they were all still considered holy sites by the monks. I asked him how the people felt about all the visitors. "Not so good" he replied; I appreciated his honesty. But he went on to say that tourism has been good for the economy bringing a lot of money into the area which has been good, so the locals are learning to appreciate the tourists.

Part of me wished that the temples had not been restored; I would have much enjoyed exploring the temples in their unrestored, snake-infested condition. But being a snake-fearing man, that was just fantasy. Were the temples not restored, I would probably not have visited for fear of my life.

The remainder of the tour was great. We caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat early in the morning and then went out to see more ruins. The surrounding temples, though less impressive than Angkor Wat and Thom, were much less visited and therefore, more peaceful and soulful like I tried to portray at the top of this blog entry. But what I enjoyed the most about the remainder of the tour was just getting to know Pheak. There were long drives and naturally, we talked a lot. I learned about his family, a new wife and a young daughter. His stage fright despite having just had a wedding with 700 attendees. We talked about religion and the impacts of colonization on Cambodia. We even talked about the elephant in the room -- the strained relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam.

This part of our conversation was a bit cathartic for me. I had always heard that Cambodians and Vietnamese were not exactly friendly, but never quite understood why. Pheak broke all down for me -- the most important detail being there is no longer any tension between Cambodians and Vietnamese. The two countries have a long history of invasion and war, but the last century has been particularly tumultuous for the two neighboring countries. The early part of the last century saw the two countries fighting side by side against a common foe. Both countries were colonized by the French but yearned for independence. After successfully ridding themselves of their French colonizers, the Vietnamese came to Cambodia to help their friends achieve their own independence. It worked! As I understand it, with the presence of the Vietnamese there, the French agreed to leave without a fight much to the delight of the Cambodian people. But with a new relationship forged in peace and friendship, many Vietnamese decided to remain in Cambodia, even marrying and starting families, so there is a lot of Vietnamese blood in Cambodia even to this day -- Pheak was himself 1/4th Vietnamese.

Having just recovered from rule by outsiders, it's understandable that there were Cambodians who were suspicious of the Vietnamese who were living in Cambodia and feared another attempt for colonization. But how they dealt with it was an atrocity that is mourned by Cambodians, Vietnamese and the world at large. It was this fear that lead to the rise of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and their infamous Killing Fields of Vietnamese and their accused sympathizers.

Pheak assured that once the Khmer Rouge was toppled and Pol Pot removed from power, the remaining Cambodian people held no ill will to their Vietnamese neighbors and in fact, there was quite a bit of interaction between the two neighbors in the forms of commerce and tourism. But Pheak and I made one last pilgrimage before retiring to the Hotel that night: we visited a monument to the victims of Pol Pot located at the site of one of many Killing Fields used by the Khmer Rouge.

Angkor Wat proved to be one of the Crown Jewels of Asia; it offered me more than just a visual experience, but a spiritual one as well. Its history, the serenity of its temples, the magnificence of its ruins -- any one of its Wats would justify a visit to this little city in Northwestern Cambodia, but there were dozens of sites to visit; I didn't even get to see half of them in the time that I had. But my main takeaway from my visit to Siem Reap was not what I expected -- I'll mostly remember it for the kindness of its people. For the old nun who took the time to pray for my health and wellbeing asking nothing in return. For Pheak who treated me like family even though he barely knew me. For Phem, the girl at the front counter who came to my rescue after my travel arrangements through fell apart. It was a kindness that can't be described adequately; it can only be experienced.

Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia

Monday, 5 November 2012

Home Away From Home

(Note: This was written 11/02/12 but not posted due to a combination of laziness and dissatisfaction with my writing -- I've been in Cambodia since 11/03... Anyway, I've decided to get over it and post the sucker, so here you are...)

Sawasdee Khap!

It's the common greeting in Thailand and you'll hear it at most businesses you visit... But its just a bit different when you hear it in Chiang Mai. It's said a bit more earnestly by the shop keepers here. Chiang Mai is much more welcoming, relaxing and friendly than Bangkok. And their sincerity and politeness doesn't just end with that greeting at their front door.

It was the first thing Jacky, the owner of Cat House Cafe said to me when I stepped into her restaurant on Tuesday afternoon, my first full day in Chiang Mai. Sawasdee Khap! I smiled and sat down.

Jacky is full of passion about her restaurant and her food and it shows. With her restaurant being situated near guest houses (it was about 30 meters from mine), her clientele primarily consists of backpackers like me. Her menu, naturally, is a reflection of this -- a heavily western influenced menu infused with the flavors of Thailand that she grew up with, along with other SE Asian flourishes that she picked up during her own travels. She happily shared all of her cooking secrets with me (though I'll never remember them or be able to replicate her dishes in my own kitchen) as she served me each order. There are many great restaurants in the area, but I was hooked from my first meal here and ended up eating just about all of my meals in Chiang Mai at her restaurant. From her home baked rolls (which were the best I've ever had), to her zucchini, eggplant, and pumpkin fries, to the mango-pumpkin mustard she served as a dipping sauce, I was impressed and surprised with every plate of food I ate here. There was simply no reason to eat anywhere else...

But Cat House was more than just a place that I ate. It became my base of operations -- my home away from home. In fact, I'm writing this blog entry at Cat House. Jacky was so welcoming, that within a couple of minutes of talking to her, I felt like she was an old friend. Actively avoiding tours, I'd been planning on making my own arrangements to see Chiang Mai's treasures. One of the sites I'd planned on seeing was a Temple in the mountains, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, but I had not yet figured out how I would get there. Jacky was planning to go to the mountains too to get some coffee from an obscure cafe deep in the mountains, so before the end of my first visit to Cat House, we cut a deal -- I would rent the scooter and she would scoot us both to the mountains where I could see my temple and she could get her coffee. One hour, and one scooter later, we were off like the wind.

Doi Suthep was just lovely. Like most temples, we were greeted by vendors selling flowers, candles and incense for visitors to offer at the temple's alter. I always feel a bit like a tourist doing this, so I was happy to be with an actual Buddhist this time. I made my offering, but was more interested to see what Jacky would do. Her offering was made with the same passion she applies to her cooking. Despite the din of the temple's visitors, she prayed, bowed and made her offering of incense and flowers as if she was only person there.

After this, she led me deeper into temple to receive a blessing from a monk. We scooted in, shoes off, on our knees. The monk said a prayer, splashed our heads with blessed water and then tied a string to our wrists which I am still wearing. Jacky tells me the blessing was for good luck, but truth be told, I felt in that moment that I had already received my good fortune having made a new friend.

After the temple, we made our way further up the mountain and stopped at a Hmong village and took a stroll before pushing on to the coffee house, her purpose for our trip.

Situated about 40 minutes out of civilization, with absolutely no earthly reason for existing, the coffee house was one of the most beautiful, soulful places I've ever sat for a cup of coffee. As I understand it, the hillsides are home to Thailand's Royal Family's coffee crop and this cafe, also belonging to the Royal Family, sat atop one of these hillsides. It was built entirely from logs right down to its tables and chairs. We grabbed a table overlooking one of these coffee fields from which I snapped the below photo.

The ride back was interesting. The sun was setting as we made our way down the mountain's treacherous and winding roads. On the way, we discovered that the light on our rental scooter was out. So it was a race against time. Were we unable to get out of the unlit mountain roads to civilization, we might have had a problem. But luckily, we made it out of the mountains okay.

The next day, as I had lunch at Cat House, I saw a flyer for a Muay Thai event which was happening in the city. One of my reasons for coming to Thailand was to see a Muay Thai event, so I was excited to see it. I had heard these events were fixed, but I've seen a lot of fights and can say with some certainty that these fights were real. And the first fight was one of the most epic, back-and-forth fights I've ever seen. For your viewing pleasure, here's the last round of this exciting fight.

Yesterday, I visited Chiang Mai's Elephant Camp before heading out to check out it's famous Night Bazaar. I know I must be 'going native' since I am no longer any more suprised or excited to see elephants than I would be to see cows in Washington State... Although it was nice to see the elephants in a place where they appear to be treated well.

The Night Bazaar:

But night bazaars, elephant camps, temples... These won't be the things I'll remember Chiang Mai for.

I'll remember Chiang Mai as the first place during this trip where I felt like I was truly at home, even though I was on the other side of the world. I'll remember having Jacky, a good friend to share stories and experiences with. I'll remember meeting Glenn, the long time expat from Wisconsin, and talking to him about his travels and United States politics. I'll remember having a place I could retire each evening knowing that I would be welcomed with open arms. And I'll be welcomed back anytime I return to Chiang Mai.

It's experiences like this that beckon me to the open road. Meeting people... Hell -- meeting myself. As long as there Jackys, Glenns, or Catherinas and Alexises (not to mention their kids) out there in the world, I will be there to answer its call.

Location:Chiang Mai

Monday, 29 October 2012

One Night in Bangkok Makes A Hard Man Humble

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, but three nights in Bangkok can harden the humble man, I'd say. I got a little spoiled in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, a couple of tourist-friendly destinations. Bangkok is not for the naive or the faint of heart.

It's not for the naive because, unless you plan to hide in restaurants and your hotel room, touts at most tourist attractions WILL take advantage of you in every way you can imagine if you let them, and sometimes, even if you don't. I don't hold it against them, and I don't think any other visitors should either -- it's a living -- but if you're going to be here, its better to be ready for it; someone will most likely try to scam you at some point -- many points -- during your trip.

It's not for the faint of heart because unlike Singapore and KL, you won't easily find comforts from home here. If you can't get down with eating things that will surely test your palate, you might get hungry at times. I've been ok and enjoyed most of what I ate, but I grew up eating tripe and boiled pig skin... Then again, there's definitely tamer stuff out there for those of you who can't stomach the gamier animal bits in their food. Rice with omelette is pretty much everywhere there is a food market and is suitable for any palate.

Now, I know there are many of you out there who have visited and loved Thailand (I love it too) and you may disagree with my appraisal... But this blog is a place where I intend to be totally honest and this has been my experience. I don't know... Maybe it's because I am traveling alone and look like an easy target for the scammers... Maybe I haven't visited the districts where there is a McDonalds on every corner -- surely, I haven't seen all of Bangkok.

In any case...

If you're an adventurous traveler and can deal with stuff like this, then Bangkok will reward you. It's a strange blend of ancient and modern, like I've observed throughout my SE Asia travels so far, but in a much more overt way. There are centuries old temples nestled awkwardly into urban or residential areas. There are communities carrying on centuries old ways of living, modern only in their methods of transportation and communication. There are restaurants so intimate and romantic, and with breathtaking views, and yet, curiously, barely known to tourists -- I thought these only existed in books and movies. Bangkok is as exotic as you've probably imagined -- maybe even more than your mind can compute. It will truly sweep you away from your regular life in that way that probably lured you to the open road in the first place.

My first stop was Bangkok's Grand Palace which was home to the King of Siam and some government entities from 1782 until as recently as 1925, just a few years prior to the abolition of monarchies in Thailand. This is where I got my first taste of Thailand's less-than-legitimate touts. I was greeted across the street by one who was friendly enough and told me it was the wrong time of day to visit... There was a religious service that would be going on until 2:00 PM, 3 hours later and until then, tourists were not allowed to visit the grounds. Sounded reasonable enough. And he didn't try to sell me anything. So I took him at his word and began walking down the street as mulling over what exactly I would do to kill 3 hours before I could enter the site.

I was stopped by another tout who reiterated what the earlier man said, and then promptly started telling me about other sites which she'd be happy to arrange a tour of for me for only $... I stopped her. I realized what was going on and walked away, but let me tell you, they are very persistent -- she followed me for about a half block before she finally realized I was not going to buy her tour. Before I reached the entrance, I saw another man standing at the gate and asked him of what they were saying was true, assuming he was an employee. He nodded yes, it was all true and waved me on signaling me not to enter, but something rang false about the man, so I entered anyway. No one stopped me, so I proceeded to the ticket booth. I stood in line and no one advised me to leave. Finally, I got up to the ticket lady and asked about the alleged religious service. She assured me they were lying, and I was welcome to buy a ticket and visit the grounds.

I won't spend any more time talking about the "scams", but this one I thought was interesting because of the elaborateness... Multiple touts working together... It'd be almost deserving of my admiration were I not almost their mark. But bigger picture: the scams are harmless, designed only to part the naive with their money. At no point have I felt threatened or in any kind of danger -- I just want to be clear about that.

YouTube Video

Anyway, it turned out they weren't exactly "lying". There WAS a religious service going on, but it didn't mean tourists weren't allowed to visit. If anything, the service added a lot to the experience. I felt a little bad about intruding, but they didn't seem to mind and mostly just ignored the visitors. We surely did not ignore them. Their chants filled the palace from end to end. They were really beautiful -- melodic, rhythmic, spiritual. They had me tingling just like I'm sure other visitors were tingling as well. It was really special.

The palace, like most historical sites, was a delight. Thailand allows access to visitors on a level that I haven't seen often during my travels. It both excites me, and concerns me. While I don't love to be kept at a distance when I'm seeing ruins, I also understand that letting tourists like me walk all over the place will hasten their deterioration.

Later, I visited another temple -- Wat Arun. Built in the 17th Century, Wat Arun is impeccably preserved. It appears from a distance to be a massive stone structure, but upon closer inspection, almost every inch of the structure is covered by pieces of ceramic which I understand to have been recovered from pots, bowls, plates and other wares that were thrown out by Chinese traders.

I toured the Khlongs (Thai canals) of Bangkok, still used by the locals to this day. I worried a bit about Malaria, but learned from the CDC website that Malaria is non-existent in Bangkok, so I'm in the clear. But even with Malaria on my mind, the experience of traversing the khlongs -- stilt-homes nestled closely along the banks of the river, locals commuting on the rivers on their boats packed with wares for the market place -- was otherworldly.

I talked a little about a intimate and romantic restaurant I ate at. My boat tour of the Khlongs ended at a pier on the bank of Chao Praya river which cuts through Bangkok. As I stepped off the boat, I looked up at a sign that read fresh coffee. Beneath it sat a couple quietly admiring the view. They looked so relaxed that I had to visit the restaurant. I made my way up to the second floor and seated myself at the open table with the best view, Wat Arun not far away on the other side of Chao Praya. I had heard that Wat Arun was absolutely breathtaking when lit up at night, so I ordered dinner and stayed for the sunset. It was worth the wait.

This was my view as I dined on my Thai Curry Chicken, bones in -- actually one of my easier meals here... It was delicious. But what I most enjoyed was the intimacy and romance. I felt privileged to be sitting there... This amazing spot in the city -- unheralded by any guide books or Travel Channel shows. And for that moment, it was all mine to enjoy. It was one of my favorite moments of my trip so far, one in which I've had many wonderful moments.

On the advice of my friend Mark who visited Thailand this time last year, I decided to visit nearby Ayutthaya, about an hour outside of Bangkok. I caught a third-class ticket for a train at Bangkok train station. 50 cents USD vs. about $15 USD for an air conditioned car. It actually wasn't so bad; the car stayed fairly cool since all of the windows were down and there are fans running throughout the car.

Like I said, ruins are always a delight, and Ayutthaya has the most ruins I've ever seen in a single city (I've never been to Rome -- it's on my list). And it was nice to venture a bit further out into Thailand. Now, I do feel quite conflicted about this, but I rode an elephant in Ayutthura, pictured at the beginning of this blog post. But it was a uniquely Thailand experience, so I decided to go ahead and do the elephant ride.

I visited a few more sites before catching a van pool back from Ayutthaya train station with some other travellers back to Bangkok. This is getting really long, so I'll just share the photos with you all and let you get on with your lives. :)

Alright, y'all. I'm going to pack and go to bed now... I'm flying to Chiang Mai, Thailand tomorrow. Thanks to all of you have been following me and especially those of you who left comments. :) Keep them coming! I really love reading them. Talk to you again soon.

Location:พิษณุโลก 2,Dusit,Thailand

Saturday, 27 October 2012

It's KL or Be KL'ed

It's always the places you least expect to enjoy that surprise you. In 2009, it was Santiago, Chile that will stay in my heart despite having been told by some other backpackers that there wasn't much for travelers to do there.

I had considered skipping Kuala Lumpur having heard there wasn't much to see there except for its famous Petronas Towers, but decided to pop in for a visit after seeing how cheap the plane ticket was -- $55.

I bought my departure ticket immediately after landing. I decided to give myself two days to see the city. The first to see Petronas Towers to get that out of the way. The second, to explore the city, wherever the wind may take me. Cab fare to the hostel was about $100 RM (Malay Ringitt), equal to about $30 or so USD. This is an important point which I will explain later.

On the way to the hostel, I struck up a conversation with the cab driver and eventually, negotiated a ride back to the airport for what I thought was a deal, $80 RM. The driver gave me his card and told me to call him the night before to arrange the pickup. Because of some confusion with the roads, he dropped me off about 2 blocks from the hostel with my 40 lb pack -- ugh..

But I found my new home eventually, and there, I met Tony.

Tony's a good man to know KL. I wish there was a Tony at every hostel I stayed at, but there isn't. But he was super knowledgable about the city, knew exactly what he needed to tell me and the other travelers to help us get where we needed to go, and he did it with a smile. It was from Tony that I learned I paid way too much to get to the hostel. And he informed me of the very efficient and affordable subway and bus system in KL and where to find the closest station.

So after locking up my gear, off I went to explore the city. My first destination was Petronas Towers. I snapped a photo of the subway map for reference.

I learned KLCC stands for Kuala Lumpur City Centre, and learned this was also where Petronas Towers was located. $1.60 RM later, and I was at the doorsteps of the Towers. At the base of the tower is a huge, luxurious mall. I purchased my ticket for the tower tour, but learned that my tour would not be until 7:00 that evening, giving me about 6 hours to kill. So I hung around the mall a while before remember a promise I had made to Karen Motiejunas, a friend, to help her daughter with a school project -- I'm to snap photos of landmarks throughout my travels that include a hand-drawn avatar of her. So dutifully, I took this picture -- my first with my little inanimate traveling companion, Flat Alena.

Tour time finally came. I'm not usually a fan of guided tours, but this one was really cool. There were two stops on the tour; the first was the Skybridge that connects the two towers.

I was lucky to be on the skybridge during an electrical storm. I was able to capture a bolt of lightning right at the end of this video.

The second as the observation deck from the top of the tower which was really neat.

As you can see, Flat Alena photobombed me. Curses, that sneaky little girl! :)

So anyway, not a whole lot to say about the tower except it's really high, gave me butterflies in my stomach, and it's pretty famous -- it's been in a few movies even. But it was a neat experience in any case.

After Petronas Towers, I returned to the hostel and fed my internet addiction in the common room. There I met Selwyn, an Australian traveler who was stuck in Malaysia after his U.S. Visa ran out while he was in Chicago staying with his girlfriend. Poor guy. Not sure why he didn't go home to Australia. I'm guessing he just wasn't ready for his trip to end -- he's been on the road for 6 months so far. Then in my dorm, I met a couple of German nursing students who were in KL doing a 2 month internship, and another Aussie, Richenda who was just in town for a day and would be taking off the next night for Turkey, the first stop on a 4 month backpacking trip. I had read about a beautiful cave on the outskirts of KL where Hindus worship and had decided to check it out along with KL's Chinatown on my last day in town.

I saw Selwyn in the common room in the morning and invited him to come along -- I knew he was bored. I think he's stuck in Malaysia for like a month. Then I saw Richenda in the dorm as I was collecting my things -- I knew she had no agenda for her 1 full day in KL, so I invited her along as well. I'm glad I did. It was nice having a couple 'single serving friends' on my excursion.

Tony gave me instructions on how to take KL's Metro bus to the site which was cheap and convenient. Batu Cave turned out to be pretty breathtaking.

It's said that if you make a wish, then ascend its 290 steps without stopping, your wish will be granted. On my way up, I was greeted by some friendly monkeys and wanted so badly to stop to take a photo, but I was determined to have my wish granted and pushed on. I made it to the top ok, where I found this.

I stopped to enjoy the monkeys on the walk back down. The were so adorable, for the most part....

But you must remember these are wild animals and they will defend themselves when they feel threatened:

So it was definitely a worthwhile trek out to Batu Cave. Afterwards, we decided to stop by a "fish spa" for some rest and relaxation. What's a "fish spa" you ask? It's this:

You may not be able to tell, but the fish are eating the dead flesh off of my feet. It sounds gross, I know, but I assure you, it is pretty terrific.

Oh yeah, about paying too much for my ride to my hostel. After a couple subway rides, I felt pretty confident using KL's transit system to get to the airport. So I took a sub and a bus -- total cost? $11.00 RM (vs. $80 RM I was quoted by the cab driver). AND the bus was super comfortable, well air-conditioned and quicker.

I'm in Bangkok now; just touched down this evening. I know a few of you out there have been here before, so if you have any suggestions on what I 'must see', please suggest away in the comments section. I allotted myself a couple of days in Bangkok, and plan to fly to Chiang Mai to ride some elephants on Tuesday... I'll give you another update in a couple of days. Thanks for all the comments! They're a great cure for homesickness which inevitably creeps up now and then when you're travelling alone...

Location:Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia