I have only one thing to say about Thai Airlines. Go out and book a flight with them. This was undoubtedly the best flight I have ever taken, even if it was 9 hours long and started at midnight. Ok, the legroom was perhaps worse than usual, but they make up for it by the luxury of everything else on the plane. In my seat was a personal video screen, which showed the plane's takeoff live from a camera under the nose. Once in the air, I pulled out a handheld remote, and was able to choose from a slew of movies and start them anytime I wanted, as well as music channels (or make your own personalized playlist), games, and more. I watched Casablanca, then played a little Nintendo Super Mario Bros with the remote as the game controller. Then I found a Berlitz Language game, and selected the Thai language, so I could listen and see common expressions and numbers that might just come in handy in Thailand. It was so fun, I didn't want to go to sleep. Added to that, the meals (I usually abhor airplane meals, and most of the time these days they don't give them out anyway) tasted great, and came with real silverware, wine, and even a shot of whiskey afterwards. Even our second flight, just a 3-hour hop down to Kuala Lumpur, came with a full meal.
In between the flights was a long layover in Bangkok, Thailand...yup, the one that just a week ago was closed by protesters. It seemed nice enough for the 10 hours we spent there, I even found comfy benches to take a nap on. But it seemed too quiet...there weren't too many flights in and out (for a major hub), whole sections of gates seemed deserted, and there were way too many people working in the security section for the number of actual travelers. It just didn't seem quite back to normal yet, but perhaps when we fly out of here in February, it will be a behive again.
17-18 December - Kuala Lumpur
Our Lonely Planet travel book calls Kuala Lumpur an easy place to enter the madness that is SE Asia, and indeed we found it so. Even though our delayed flight yesterday put us in late in the evening, the 70 Km train ride into town only took 30 minutes, and then the city metro brought us right to Chinatown. At 10 at night, the streets were still filled with vendors and street food, and we had no trouble finding a hotel for the night.
So we woke up our first day in Malaysia in the middle of bustling Chinatown, and took stock of ourselves. Our hotel was an interior one with a window looking into the drab hallway, and a fan to move the hot humid air around. An air conditioning vent in the ceiling brought a minimal amount of coolness (it was only turned on at night), but since we still slept without sheets or blankets and didn't get cold, I'd say the AC system had seen better days. Which might have been lucky for us, since our sleeping bags and warm clothes were now on a slow boat home from Australia. Down the hall were the bathroom stalls (BYO TP) each with a cold shower head on the wall and a drain on the floor. I'm describing this because I'm sure it will be repeated many times in the next month...hot showers will become a distant dream...but it's so hot out that it doesn't matter. Sure, downtown hotels would look and feel more "western", but they would also cost normal western prices. Finding a hotel room like the one we are in, for between $5 - $15 a night is pretty easy on the pocketbook.
Since the rental car and the supermarket chains were long gone, street food was now our game, and Chinatown in KL had plenty of it. We had a breakfast of won-ton soup in an alley sidewalk cafe, and set off to explore the city. The city metro was simple to use, and it brought up right to the base of the Petronas Towers, which at around 500 meters tall, are the tallest twins in the world. At their neck-craning base was a five story mega mall as chic as anything in LA (yup, that huge Christmas tree was inside of it, although the "Frosty the Snowman" song playing over loudspeakers seemed incongruous with the equatorial heat outside). KL is a real mix of cultures, and the upscale shopping area was filled with Muslims wearing head scarves, Indian women in colorful dresses, and teenagers in hip Western clothing, while no one seemed to disapprove of anyone else. But the clean downtown was a far cry from the tiny shops, stalls, and squalor of Chinatown, creating a disparity of lifestyles even among people of common cultural descent. To appreciate the change, we walked the couple km back to our hotel, passing through Little India on the way. Here, the copious and colorful eye candy of the fabric shops pulled us in, offering head scarves and dresses in hundreds of patterns and colors in a cornucopia of designs. We were tempted to empty our wallets on the beautiful and cheap wares, but knowing that we were headed to India later, we saved our Malay Ringgit for Chinese food instead. And back in Chinatown, we had a plate of the noodles that look and feel just like worms, they seemed to be extruded in a way that makes them thicker in the middle than at the ends....thankfully they tasted more or less like noodles. Rob ate most of them...I picked up one at a time with my chopsticks, inspecting it to make sure a real worm wasn't hiding among them (nope), while Rob took the easy route and used a spoon.
It was hot out, and adding to it were our outfits, which would become de riguer for our time in SE Asia. Long quick-dry pants, sandals, and a long- or short-sleeved button-up shirt. Thais especially are not comfortable with much skin showing, and will usually even swim in the ocean fully clothed, so to fit in better, we're going long. Rob actually enjoys the long shirt, because it lets him hide the camera in his hand and take pictures on the sly. He has spent many hours already, wandering around the alleys snapping shots. But some photos can't hide, and our sunset trip back to the Petronas Towers was one such. We found a place to cool our feet in a wading pool, and watch the lights come on in the towers.
***I'm moving over to the Thailand section now, as our day on the bus tomorrow brings us to...Thailand! See you there!***