Monday, February 29, 2016

Bugs in Phuket, Thailand

On 2/23/16, I flew from Malaysia to Phuket, my first time in Thailand. Of the international destinations I’ve been fortunate to visit due to my work, this was one I was especially excited about. I love Thai food (one dish in particular, as you will soon see) and the beaches of Phuket are famously fetching.

My kind host from the British International School, Cindy Colson, picked me up and took me to dinner at a restaurant in the harbor complex of my hotel. My first meal in Thailand was, with no element of surprise, pad thai.

The harbor setting is lovely—lighthouses and the like—though I could have done without the boat engine throttling at 4:30 a.m. the next morning.

Before I arrived, I was told that (palm trees aside) BIS resembled another British school…albeit a fictional one.

In her library, Cindy is a merchandising master. Here is her display for graphic novels:

The bugs I am referring to in the title of this post are of two varieties. One is mosquitoes. I’ve never been snacked on more than I was on my second night in Thailand (at a lovely restaurant on the beach with school staff). Dozens of bites. My knees looked like the moon (if the moon had hair).

I learned that people with type O blood (like me) are often more appealing to mosquitoes, and I also learned I may have something called skeeter syndrome. It’s not as gross as it might sound. It simply describes people whose skin reacts more flamboyantly to mosquito bites. In my youth, the bites were dots, but now the bites are often big, bumpy, pink (and sometimes closer to red) splotches.

My nightly ritual was to hunt mosquitoes in my room.

The other kind of bug is of the technical variety. The day before I arrived in Phuket, the provincial authorities announced that they would carry out checks on the power lines on the second of the two days I was scheduled to speak at the school (February 25). That would mean the school would have no electricity that day. That would mean no LCD projector…and, more pressingly in a steamy country like Thailand, no AC (or, as they say here, no air con). Tough in average situations and more so in rooms with many people.

Fortunately, I had already planned to be in Phuket beyond my two days at BIS so we agreed that we would reschedule me for the following day. However, not all groups that were slated to hear me on Thursday could fit me in on Friday, so we decided that I would do presentations for those groups on Monday.

The presentations went well. My favorite question, from a first grader: “What is the Riddler’s favorite country?”

I said that question was such a stumper that even the Riddler himself doesn’t know the answer.

On my Thursday off (during which time the staff and students had to sweat it out at the school), I explored the southwest coast of the island, where most of the beaches are. I started with Karon and made my way to Rawai (on the southern tip). One of them, Kata Noi, is #19 on Trip Advisor’s 2016 list of the 25 best beaches in the world.

Kata Noi beach, where I encountered a dark knight of a different kind:

Nai Harn beach, where I saw the first of numerous couples taking wedding photos:

View over tiny Yanui Beach, perhaps my favorite of the ones I saw:

At Yanui there is a marker indicating that the 12/26/04 tsunami caused water to settle inland at 4 meters above sea level. (The date is hard to read but it’s below “4 m.”)

My driver Tor-ha sketched an explanation:

In other words, the marker itself is not 4 meters high but the top of it is 4 meters above sea level; you walk down a little slope to get to the beach near it.

Phromptep Cape, one of the best views on the island, features an outcropping that is a symbol of Phuket:

Another wedding photo shoot:

My first time eating pad see ew in Thailand; it is not only my favorite Thai dish but perhaps my favorite meal in general:

My self-directed tour ended with a stop at Big Buddha, the grounds of which are still being built but which is already open to the public:

Construction began in 2004 and I’m told it has been funded almost completely via donations.

The cost of a driver (who also kindly volunteered to serve as tour guide and photographer) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. was $78. Tipping is not expected in Thailand, and when it does happen it is usually only change, but Tor-ha gave up his whole day for me, so I tipped him $12. He said “Too much” and I insisted. He gave up his whole day for me.

Plus his rear view mirror had a bat on it:

Other glimpses:

Elephants (and monkeys, and snakes) are indentured servants in Thailand, chained and at a tourist’s disposal for entertainment. I was conflicted to take this photo but was honored to get to touch such a majestic animal.

They look at you with such intelligence—and, some say, desperation—that it makes the system even more painful to observe. My driver said Americans in particular get upset at the way the elephants are ridden and kept, but he told me that the Thai people and elephants share a long, regal history. He said the elephants are assigned one trainer from birth so a relationship develops, and even a unique language between them. My driver also said that the elephants are treated humanely. That, of course, is not always true. But unless you are going to take action against the practice, believing it helps you bear it. Before I leave Thailand, I am hoping to visit an elephant sanctuary that gets raves for letting the animals roam freely—and letting them run the show. Tourists can pay to walk among them, but there is no riding and no confining.

Even tigers! This place is famous for letting tourists go into cages with tigers to pose for photos. They insist the animals are not drugged but again, that seems unlikely to be fully true. Even after a mauling in 2014, the place remains open.

Sign in the bathroom in the lobby of my hotel:

(No word on avoiding flus 2010-2016.)

Sign in the lobby of my hotel:

Durians are a regional fruit with a smell so pungent that hotels regularly forbid it.

The 1974 James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun filmed scenes in Phuket and that beach is now a tourist destination. I was advised not to bother, and I heeded that advice.

Thank you, Cindy and BIS, for making this experience possible.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

High points of Kuala Lumpur

On the weekend between my visits to the International School of Kuala Lumpur (first middle/upper, then lower school), I got high in two ways.

First by elevator—34 floors.

Then by foot—1,312 feet.

On 2/20/16, I went to the Heli Lounge Bar, a pleasant 10-minute walk from my hotel. By night, it’s (you guessed it) a bar—with minimal protective railing. By day, it’s (you might’ve guessed it) a helipad—with no more protective railing than at night.

As guests marvel at the 360-degree view of the city, they sit in simple plastic chairs right on the spot where choppers land.

This demands to be in panorama:

Some people recommend getting your altitude fix here rather than up in the more famous Petronas Towers or KL Tower because from this bar, you get a wild view of both of those landmarks.

Petronas as the evening wore on:

Sorry for the selfie onslaught. I am man alone here.

Spot the moon:

These images were taken between 6:45 p.m. and sunset at 7:30 p.m. (times approximate).

On the way out, I tried to capture the height of the roof—apparently, until sometime relatively recently, you could walk right to the edge.

Now they have a barricade—stanchions, like you see at the bank.

The following morning I woke at 4:45 a.m. to see the sunrise at Broga Hill, a 40-minute drive from the city.

Why so early if it is not that far? Because first you have to hike up to the top. Why so long if it’s not that high? Because a) it gets so steep at times that you need to pull yourself up by installed ropes (kind of like stronger, more vertical stanchions) and b) it is crowded. Trip Advisor warned of this but it’s quite another thing to see it in person. It was a steady stream of people the whole way up, and some parts were single file, meaning your pace is at the mercy of the person in front of you. You pass two lower viewing stations but I wanted to go as high as possible, both for the better view and for more legroom. However, at the top, which I reached when it was still pitch-black, I was quite limited in my choices of where to stand to wait for the sun.

There were two dominant characteristics of the climbers: young and Asian. I was one of the oldest people I saw—and one of only three Caucasians. Most women wore a hijab (Islamic headdress that seems the most modest of styles).

Lights of hikers ahead of me eerily rising up in the distance:

Awkward to take a selfie when you must also provide your light source:

The “you made it to the top” sign again, in slightly more light:

Looks almost like Scottish highlands, though I have not been there:

What I brought up Broga Hill in my new ultra-light travel day pack ($30):

(Bolded items went unused.)

  1. water—three bottles (drank less than one)
  2. dried apples
  3. mosquito spray
  4. sunscreen
  5. huge flashlight borrowed from hotel
  6. micro-fiber towel
  7. wipes
  8. towel paper
  9. pad and pen
  10. hat
  11. extra T-shirt
  12. earbuds
  13. salt (in case of leeches)
  14. business card of concierge
  15. cash (to pay the cab driver, who waited for me for three hours)

When I say
“ultra-light,” I mean this: it packs up to a nugget a little smaller than a computer mouse.

A portion of my gear:

Began hiking about 5:50. Reached top 6:30. Began descent about 7:45. Back at cab 8:30.

Here are three sights on the way up compared to on the back down, starting with a simple food stand near the base:

Once in daylight, the scope of the foot traffic was amplified by the parking lot—it was a few cars short of a Taylor Swift concert crowd.

It was a shot like the following that drew me to Broga Hill. The real thing delivered.

Speaking of early morning, I heard Sheryl Crows “All I Wanna Do” on the radio and, this being a country with a large Muslim population, the beer part of the line “I like a good beer buzz early in the morning” was buzzed out. (Muslims commonly refrain from alcohol.)

Going up.