Monday, August 29, 2016

In the land of primary colors

Tokyo is an enormous city. Everything is bigger here, everything moves faster, and everything screams for your attention. Advertising covers entire buildings, especially in the electronics district of Akihabara shown below, and on the small clips on subway handles. Packaging is always as loud as possible; cookies, tiny bits of chocolates, and almonds are available in individually wrapped in brightly printed candy wrappers. Apples are wrapped in a foam net, placed on a plastic tray, then shrinkwrapped, and finally put in a plastic bag at the checkout - and sell for $4 each. I am leaving a trail of brightly colored trash and do not feel good about it.

Restaurants often have plastic simulacra of all dishes out in the window. Amazingly, the food is then exactly as large and carefully prepared as the display version. Compare the beautifully photographed hamburgers on US burger chain menus and the sad, wilted mush you'll actually find on your plate. Many restaurants have call buttons that you can press to have a waiter at your table within seconds. I have had the pleasure to eat pizza with chopsticks (although I was probably the only one). When I have the choice I'll always go for Japanese cuisine of course, it's one of the best of the world. You haven't eaten sushi unless you have eaten sushi in Japan.

The Japanese are incredibly disciplined. On escalators you stand on the right and walk on the left, and it does. not. happen. that someone violates that rule. I have seen traffic lights where pedestrians form an orderly double line to wait for a green light. Everyone is in a hurry yet everyone is very polite and eager to help. I suppose they are used to foreigners staring at Chinese characters in subway stations the size of Belgium. There's enough English to get by though, at least downtown.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Thai food

This is what a proper four-course lunch looks like:

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Some final photos from Ko Mook. Next stop Bangkok, via Krabi.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ko Mook

Another day on the islands. Relaxing!

After the big tsunami in 2004 that washed away entire villages on the western coast of Thailand, they installed an earlt\y warning system, including signs on the islands that show which way to run when the tsunami approaches.

Ko Mook

The beaches on Ko Mook aren't quite as white as on the Parhentians, but the place is more authentic. Accommodations are more basic, and the locals live just around the corner in, for Thailand, very simple wooden houses. These people do not have much money.

Otherwise it's another tropical island paradise. They run long-tail boats to all the neighboring islands, with good places for snorkeling or just exploring the jungle interiors. Ko Kradan has a so-so coral reef, but so many fish that one gets rear-ended all the time.

Ko Mook has a long cave with a very low ceiling one can swim through at low tide. It opens up to a kind of cenote, a small beach and some trees completely surrounded by towering vertical cliffs. Very impressive. The screaming boatloads of school children they drag through the place takes away from the wonder a little.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Kota Bharu is very close to Thailand, there is a border checkpoint just west of it and the Thai city of Hat Yai is not far. Trouble is, using that checkpoint would take me through the southernmost three provinces of Thailand, where some crazies have decided that they'd like to re-establish some old Sultanate, and the best way to accomplish that is bombs. Thailand is governed by the military, and they take a rather dim view of such ideas. So we have a quite brutal war of terror there, one that has completely escaped world attention.

So I had to go the long way around, first from the east coast of Malaysia to Alor Setar and Kangar on the west coast, and from there across a safe border checkpoint to Thailand, and from there to Hat Yai. Several more connections brought me to Ko Mook, a small island in the Andaman Sea, sufficiently far south of Phuket and the other tourist epicenters to be quiet and peaceful. All the connections worked perfectly, not because someone had worked out the timetables to perfection, but because everyone in this part of the world is so friendly, helpful, and intent on making things work.

BTW, the Malaysian restaurant photo below is perfect. It ticks all the boxes. Open to the street, tiled floor, corrugated metal roof, cold and much too bright fluorescent lamps, colorful plastic chairs, fans, TV sets (imaging sugary Thai pop music videos), and some counters where the menu is negotiated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Leaving paradise

My last day on the Parhentian Islands, spent not doing very much at all, sampling the local cuisine, and trying to remember where I put the shoes that I am going to need off the island.

Kota Bharu is an old Malay town on the northeastern tip of mainland Malaysia. It's not a major tourist destination and never will be. It's museums and Malay row houses are nice enough, but putting a huge monolithic 23-floor hotel, the bottom 10 of which are a parking garage, was not a very bright idea. Right next to it is another huge parking garage, and then the promenade ends. Clearly parking is an overriding concern in this city.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Barefoot paradise

The Parhentian Islands are the sort of place where shoes are just a forgotten artifact left behind in a cupboard. It is just natural to step out of the door onto the beach barefoot. My hut is at one end of the long curved beach and the Quiver dive center is at the other, no problem, and there are plenty of stalls on the way to have a fruit juice or lassi before getting kitted out with dive gear.

This is my diving day. The first site, called T3, is on the opposite side of the island. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy there and one of the divers described the underwater visibility as "vodka with milk". The second site, just off the beach, was much better.

One nice thing about diving is that there is always lots of time between dives to sit together, chat, have lunch and dinner together, compare notes on where we have been and which dive sites we like most, and generally having a good time. In fact, our dive computers keep track of our blood nitrogen levels and have very clear opinions on when one can go diving and when one can't. And the island is just made for relaxing.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tropical islands

It's a long way by bus north along the coast, and I had to connect several times. All connections between different buses and the ferry worked like a Swiss clockwork, so I found myself looking at the lesser Parhentian Island from a speedboat in the late afternoon.

The Quiver dive center is strategically located at the end of the island's ferry pier, and friendly dive masters hang out there and give advice on accommodations and restaurants. I'll be seeing them a lot during the next few days, but for now all I needed was a shower.

Unexpectedly, the island is almost fully booked, but I got a nice beachfront "chalet" at the Senja resort. The island is more of a laid-back backpacker destination so it's not anywhere as grand as the name chalet suggests, but the nights are cool and the sound of the surf comes through the open windows, and the variety of fruit smoothies is endless.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Kuala Lumpur

Time to say goodbye to Borneo. I had booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur on the Malaysian mainland the day before. Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia's capital, and Kuala Lumpur airport is one of the main hubs is southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is polluted and Kuala Lumpur's traffic is terrible. But I like Kuala Lumpur because I like the sound of "Kuala Lumpur", so I might have used the name Kuala Lumpur in this paragraph more often than Kuala Lumpur deserves. Kuala Lumpur.

My destination for the day was Kuantacn on the Malaysian east coast. I had been to the west coast before but never here. The bus east was a huge double-decker rust bucket with a badly slipping clutch, but I got the big front panorama windows upstairs all to myself. The countryside is green and pleasant, but no rain forest. On the other hand, there is no rain, the sky was bright blue all day.

Kuantan is a big city, but it has a very pleasant waterfront promenade and park with fountains and art, and some open restaurant stalls with good Malaysian food. Cheratin, a little up the coast, is more laid back but it's awkward to reach and I will see better beaches soon.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Rain forest

Bako National Park is close to Kuching. A regular city bus brought me to a boat pier; the park can only reached by boat. They are not the kind called Flying Coffin but felt like one - the sea was very rough, and the boat went airborne a few times when crossing wave crests. The pilot knew what he was doing, except that one time when the boat nearly rolled over.

They don't call them rain forests for nothing, it had been raining all morning. But shortly after the boat arrived, the rain stopped. Signed in at the ranger station (so they know if you get lost) and followed one of the marked trails through the forest. Most of the time, the trail is just a mess of roots, big rocks, and beds of small creeks, constantly going up or down. Good thing I brought sandals and could wade right through. The trail ends at a beach.

Due to the rain, no animals could be seen. Only after returning to the ranger station, on a narrow bridge, a few gibbons sat grooming one another. They didn't even run away, just looked at me briefly as if to say "may I see your tickets please" and kept on grooming. No respect for the food chain.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Most of Borneo belongs to Indonesia, except the northern coast which belongs to Malaysia. Went first to Pontianak, which sits right on the equator. It's so good to be in a place where the satellite dishes point up vertically... First time I crossed the equator on the surface.

After the rather unpleasant 11-hour night bus ride over potholed dirt paths, and after all those mid-range Asian hotels that think they've done their job if the white tiles are clean and the roof doesn't leak and the fluorescent tubes flouresce, and after those picturesque but primitive boat heads, I checked into the upscale but very reasonably priced Batik Boutique hotel in Kuching. You can really tell if a hotel was designed, built, and managed by the owner; the place feels like a home. The big granite bathtub in each room alone is a reason to stay here. And I was invited to watch a movie too; they have a beamer. Also got a lot of useful information.

Such as how to get to the "cultural village", which is a small lake where all the local tribes were invited to build a prototypical ancestral home for their entire village; a little like the longhouses of southern Borneo. It's like an executive summary of the widely scattered home villages of these tribes, which have of course modernized. Some of these homes are huge - four floors on stilts 12m tall, and the one the tribe still lives in today is four times as large on 18m stilts!