Well I thought I'd finish off this blog once and for all and rack my brains one last time. I am now back home in the cold and cloudy climate of England, while my partner in crime remains out in Thailand for one more week, the lucky w***!
We had a couple of days in Singapore before our tour, so we wandered the city and visited some of the sights. Our first day was spent exploring Chinatown and witnessing a vast range of stalls, all selling something unique and different. Loads of salesmen approached us and tried to sell us their goods. I was prepared for this after South America, and was glad that these guys weren't as pushy and actually took no thanks for an answer after 3 proclamations instead of 10! One man even tried convincing us he used to be Robin Cook's tailor!
It was walking back to our accommodation that a nightmare occurrence happened - my flip flops broke. You may be thinking this isn't much of a problem, but it is considered highly offensive to parade bare feet in public if my knowledge of local customs is correct. Either way I felt evil eyes burning the back of my skull! I ran into the next available mall and bought the cheapest, yet sturdiest pair of flip flops I could find.
After this little slip up we headed to the Raffles Hotel to check out this swanky establishment. This place is famous for its Long Bar and cocktail the Singapore Sling, of which we tried one between us as we could not afford to pay for one each! It was a very tasty and fruity cocktail, which might not have tasted that little bit sour if the price were right. £12 for a drink is a little pricey! Another aspect that makes this place different is the mess. On each table there are shelled pistachio nuts, which are there for customer consumption. However, the shells are disposed of by throwing them on the floor, which we did frequently in order to make up for the expensive drink.
The last leg of our travels saw us venture through Asia, from Singapore to Bangkok. We made our way up with an Intrepid tour, lead by our guide Pete. I must say I was slightly taken aback on the first day after discovering our guide was actually female! Our first night saw us touring the city by night. We were around for Ramadan, which is undertaken yearly by Muslims. Ramadan lasts for one month and means that Muslims may only consume between dusk and dawn. We actually walked past on mosque where hundreds of people were eagerly awaiting the sunset and the song from within the mosque to allow them to eat.
Our next day saw us cross the border from Singapore into Malaysia, where we stopped in a town called Melaka. This town has strong European links, mainly with the Dutch. We actually trekked up the top of a hill where a church lay with remembrance for lives lost in World War II. I would now like to point out that all the places visited by us in Asia were tropical and very hot. I make this point now as the building we visited in Melaka was only because it was the nearest place with air conditioning, which happened to be a set of museums. We didn't really learn much about Melaka in here as we were merely standing next to the fans and drying the sweat off our backs!
Later that day we made it back to our hotel in time for our rickshaw tour. These are 2 seated carts that are powered along by one cyclist. Our particular rickshaw was decorated with flowers and happened to be blaring out music by the late Michael Jackson, which was sweet, even with everyone staring at us! Our tour guide told us about the local vegetation and how the locals use them for ailments and then took us to a local temple. The temple was spectacular and was dedicated to 3 Muslim gods. There was also a candle that had been burning constantly for over 400 years. Louise, who was part of our trip and a little clumsy, burned herself on the scented sticks at the temple - she had effectively just extinguished someone's prayer so I hope that person didn't wish for anything too important! The evening was spent wandering the night markets and trying the local delicacies, including pineapple tarts and condensed brown sugar, both of which I found to be very tasty. But then I'll eat anything!
Our next destination was Kuala Lumpur, which we got to by bus. The buses weren't as bad as I'd anticipated, although our last bus of that day didn't have any storage below, meaning all our rucksacks were squashed on seats, laps and even people! We spent a few days in this bustling city and we all really enjoyed it. After arriving at our hotel, we had a brief tour of Chinatown, which was right by our hotel, so there were markets galore! We stopped at a local eatery, where the fruit juices were amazing and the food was top notch too. I bought the pig intestines amongst other things, which I even managed to convince some of the others to try (yes even the chocolate-loving Jimbo tried some!). It tasted quite nice and was similar in texture to squid. We all had a walk around the city with Pete and were then left to our own devices.
We made our way to a butterfly park, which was very impressive. There were butterflies of all shapes and sizes as well as many funny looking lizards and reptiles, which made us all chuckle. I even found a net and persisted to try to catch a butterfly - unfortunately I was unsuccessful! As we left the butterfly park we got our first torrential downpour in Asia. There's 2 seasons in Asia - hot or rainy! At the time it was just breaking into the rainy season. To save ourselves from pneumonia we all bought ponchos and headed out into the storm. Who'd have thought tourists could be so easy to spot?! We found a local shopping centre and tried out Dr. Fish. This was a large paddling pool of water filled with fish. For a small fee you could dunk your feet in the water and the fish will nibble/lick your feet to clean off the dead skin. It was a pretty weird feeling but you eventually got used to it. After asking the owner why all the fish were swarming around my feet, he replied "your feet are very dirty sir!" - the cheeky w***.
On our first night we headed out of the city to a typical English bar. Why you ask? Because Jimbo's beloved Aston Villa were playing a match against their nearest rivals Birmingham City and the Kuala Lumpur branch of the fan club were due to be making an appearance at this bar! When we arrived I was disappointed to see mainly British lager swilling louts and bar prices that made me feel I was back home. Eventually the leader of this supporters group showed up and Jimbo joined a few genuine locals (along with at least 20 odd Brits!) to cheer on Villa. I joined the other guys in our group for a few beers, a chat and to laugh at Jimbo as he got very irate watching the match - he even punched a chair, which I'm pleased to say wasn't occupied at the time! All was well in the end as Villa won in the last few minutes if I remember, so Jimbo was a happy chappy for the next week.
The next day we literally walked the entire city! We firstly stopped off at Times Sqaure, the biggest mall in Asia, where we had a quick wander round. Of course with lacking funds we left fairly sharpish, but that wasn't until we had a look at the indoor rollercoaster that was found on the 4th and 5th floor! After being flabbergasted we headed to the twin towers, which did not fail to impress. These towers could be seen clearly all across the city and were even more impressive when we returned that evening to see them fully illuminated. To give you an idea of how tall they are, the sky bridge between them, which you should see in our photos was 44 floors up in itself! We then headed to the base of the KL tower, another large structure to gaze in awe. Funnily enough we were all towered out after that, so we headed to a local craft market. We saw some impressive cakes that were literally works of art and many other wonderful items. I even bought a ceramic necklace, which looks awesome. I was even more impressed when they told me they make 100 of those daily. We wandered back to the hotel and then went back with our tour to see the twin towers at night and have some tea. After tea we headed to the Beatles bar, where no Beatles music was played until their number one fan (Jimbo) stepped in and demanded some! We then went to the livelier venue of a Rastafarian bar, where a fair bit of alcohol was consumed and loss of memory ensued.
The next day we got a bus to Bukit Gantang, where we were to spend the next couple of days in a Malaysian homestay, which was inclusive in our tour. We firstly visited Batu caves, where you walk 272 steps up to see shrines to some of the many gods worshipped. It was very interesting and the place was surrounded by monkeys that live in the cave structure. We also had a visit to the Selangor pewter factory, where we learnt about pewter making and learnt that they were to deal with the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix trophy, as that event was coming up. I posed with the world's largest pewter mug and if you have the most inventive pose you could win a prize. You'll have to judge for yourselves.
We got a couple of buses to our destination where we were met by our host Chi Gu (apologies if I spelt that wrong!), which means teacher. As we were effectively staying with 2 local families we were to act with respect, as they were fasting for Ramadan, and to live as they do in their culture. The rules were as follows: No alcohol, you should not point bare soles at anyone (as the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body - I did once but I think I got away with it!), pointing is not acceptable unless you use your thumb, eating with your hands is advised and the occasional wearing of a sarong was also required! We were greeted by the families we were to stay with and the children soon swarmed around us for a good old game of Uno. After losing a couple of times we then opted for a game of football, followed by piggyback rides around the driveway - I kept telling Smole it was for the kids benefit and that he was a heavy w*** so he soon got off!
Later that night after donning our sarongs and shirts for our very messy yet very tasty rice meal we headed to the local hot spring for a dip. It was most welcome as its always around 90% humidity in the country. The pools were of ranging temperatures and were all really nice, even if we did have to wear t-shirts so not to offend people. It's even worse for girls as they almost always have to be covered up. The reason for this so we're told is because men are weak and easily tempted by the opposite sex and the males are not even allowed to think any sexual thoughts during the day as part of Ramadan.
One thing that was a little different was the folks with their feet in buckets. These buckets were filled with water that was pumped straight up from the springs below us. We all gave this a go, but with a certain level of apprehension. This was after I asked the a guy how hot this water was, to which he replied 80 degrees Celsius. We all manned up eventually and took the plunge. If you can hold your legs in for the first 20 seconds then the pain subsides and is replaced with a felling of numbness combined with the feeling your leg hairs have just melted! It was actually quite pleasant once you got used to it. I then removed my legs to find them a nice glowing pink colour and immediately got into the coolest of pools to find my entire body warming up, apart from my legs which felt cold.
On our next day we went for a tour of a local orchard and got to sample a lot of the tasty local fruits. My personal favourite was the dragon fruit, which was like a purple kiwi fruit yet a lot juicier. There was also a leech farm as part of this orchard. There were many leeches in a tank of water, which were soon attracted to us once you splash the water. Every day they consumed the blood of one large catfish, which is caged in the tank with the leeches - not the nicest way to go! We also got to see how latex is acquired from latex trees. The process is quite simple: The bark is shaved from the tree in 2 opposing directions until a midpoint is reached. A small collecting pot is then placed under this point, where the latex sap is collected. There was no-one present to demonstrate on this day as it had been raining the night before and the bark needs to be as dry as possible.
Our final excursion was around the Matang Mangrove forest, where Pete was telling us about what was to happen late that day..... My mock Malay wedding to fellow traveller Louise! Pete was telling us how Indians are very violent towards their wives and how a lot of the time marriages are undertaken to better families i.e. marrying into a rich family. She also told us that the easiest way of divorce is for the man to declare he divorces his wife on 3 separate occasions, of which Louise was asking me before we had even got married! Don't worry girls - the women can apply for a divorce but have to go through the appropriate legal channels in case you ever meet a nice Malaysian man! Men are also allowed to marry more than once provided the other wives agree - I mentioned this to Louise before our wedding but strangely enough she declined the offer! One thing that shocked us all was how rape cases are dealt with. Basically if a woman declares she has been raped then 4 professional men (i.e. lawyer, doctor etc) have to have witnessed the crime and made a statement for the matter to go to court, which is bloody ridiculous. We made our way back to the house for our mock wedding - don't worry it wasn't official! I didn't even get to celebrate my last few hours of freedom after finding out about my wedding that day - nightmare!
We made it back to the house where we were all provided with our outfits for the wedding. My description wouldn't do my outfit justice so I'll let you browse the pictures instead. It was a very smart blue outfit covered in gold and bits and bobs like that. I barely know about fashion in the UK so I'll be damned trying to describe what I was wearing - all I know is there was a sarong in there somewhere and I really struggle to wear those things because I'm not fat! I'll get over it though! The trousers were a bit short but you can't complain as it was a bit of a spur of the moment thing anyway! All the guys headed over to the other house in the pouring rain and the ceremony began.
Me and Louise had matching outfits and were given special marital shoes to wear, which amazingly fitted! Rita and Noel, who were the married couple of our group, were playing the part of the bride's parents ad immediately started bartering with me over the price of their daughter, which was rather amusing! We got to 500 ringgit (just under £100) and a TV so Rita and Noel were very pleased! Myself and Louise were seated, while Eugene and Kirsten had to fan us continually throughout the ceremony. I took full advantage of this as it was very hot in all those layers and where else could I get a fellow traveller to fan me?! Our host pretended to be the religious cleric and marry us, while everyone either watched or fanned us! We then had what looked like potpourri placed in both of our hands and we were sprayed with water from what looked like a metallic vinegar pot, which was quite refreshing apart from when the water got me in the eye! This process was repeated by everyone in the room and then the ceremony ended with the happy couple (ahem!) standing. It was pretty different and an insight into a Malay wedding. Of course the kids thought I looked pretty ridiculous so everyone was happy!
The after party consisted of cake and tea. The head of the house invited me to sit and eat, although I did feel a bit awkward because he was still fasting for the day and I didn't want to rub it in his face. He insisted so I quickly consumed a cake to make it a quick and painless experience for both parties. Louise almost immediately demanded me to divorce her, although I quite liked the power so refused for a while. I lasted 4 days - she just nagged me too much! It really was like a proper marriage! Our host then asked me all about sport in England - it seems wherever we've been people love to talk about English football teams! You just can't escape. He was a keen hockey player and told me the winner of the US open so we had a good old chat. This was one thing that fascinated me about our time in Asia - everyone is really pleased to meet foreigners and always ask about our culture. They like to know what we think of their way of life and when we respond positively they were truly overwhelmed. In fact we got to tour a mosque the next day and after a ceremony for the women, one of these ladies asked if she could have a photo with our group as she was so pleased that foreigners had taken an interest in her way of life.
Going back to the wedding day now... we played with the kids after changing as we didn't want to get the smart clothes dirty. We played table tennis and again the piggy back rides went down well. I was in a double bed for the wedding night but it wasn't your typical wedding night as it was spent top to tail with Jimbo! After stating it wasn't the wedding night I'd have expected Jimbo said never mind and gave me a wink!! I slept with one eye open that night I can tell you!
We left our homestay the next day after a farewell breakfast meal, which consisted of rice. Don't get me wrong I like rice but I'm not favouring it over cereal or toast any time soon! We firstly had a tour of the nearby town of Kuala Kangsar. We also wandered a local museum and then got on a bus and then ferry to Penang. Here I had an amazing curry and gave the squid egg a whirl. Squid egg is even better than the squid itself if you ask me as it's not as chewy and whatever it was cooked in was genius! The next day we had dim sum breakfast, a typical Chinese thing. It was really tasty with lots of little dishes to try. It reminded me of Spanish tapas, except it was Chinese and more a breakfast thing. The must try in this instance was chicken claw, which you may have guessed tasted like chicken! It was like sweet and sour chicken, but sadly there isn't much meat on a chicken claw. Nevertheless we gobbled them down (I know that's technically a turkey pun but it's the best I've got!) with our dumplings and other Chinese delights.
The highlight in Penang for me was helping out at Cheshire Home - a disabled community centre. We were present for an aerobics class where we did lots of stretching and attempted to interact with some of the disabled people there. I was a bit disappointed at first because it was quite hard to interact with them when they are focusing on doing their exercise. I was pleased to learn that we were staying to help with the lunch service. Here, I chatted to a young lad called Dinnis. He told me about his time at the centre and how he's a keen swimmer. He also goes to school and enjoys it very much. I then fed a man his lunch because he cannot use his arms. He wasn't speaking much, but I guess it was because he was hungry. I'm not sure whether he'd have me back again as I spilt a bit of curry in his beard, but soon mopped it up for him. I then helped to put Dinnis to bed, when he asked if I would be back to visit him again. Sadly we were due to leave the next morning, but I said I would like to go back and visit him one day. I found it a very rewarding experience and everyone I spoke to or helped out said thank you to me and were all very friendly. It just goes to show how lucky most of us are and that the work done by care workers is second to none.
That afternoon we went to a beach and myself and Eugene went for a swim to cool down, while Jimbo and Louise attempted tanning themselves when there was a distinctive lack of sun. The marriage was ended by this point as I discovered Louise and Jimbo became a bit more friendly. So I was effectively cheated on - wife and my ex best mate!! All was forgiven seeing as it wasn't a real marriage mind! Our final hours in Penang were spent playing Jenga in an Australian bar and we got our visas sorted for Thailand. As we planned to stay over 14 days we had to pay for a visa - luckily it was only 50p so we didn't break the bank on that one. We also changed our currency to Thai Baht. I got my change but the others had to wait as the employee went off with their money on a motorbike to get the change for their large denominations - they all thought he wasn't coming back at one point I'm sure
To be continued...