Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Malaya Madmen AAR Part 1

Having spent three weeks blundering around South East Asia I somehow managed to turn up at the venue for the Malaya Madmen tournament more or less on time to pit my cardboard warriors against the best opposition I could find (ie anyone else who turned up).  The competition was held under tight security and heavy air conditioning at Swords & Stationery in Singapore which promotes education through gaming.

First scenario was J128 - Opium Hill which pitted a group of Japanese attackers backed by tanks against a group of first and second line British defenders backed by a single Marmon-Herrington armoured car.  I was informed that I had been selected to face Jamie Westlake.  I may have sworn rather violently at that point.  Jamie has a history of stomping me into the earth at tournaments we both attend, this time would be no exception (oops, spoiler alert).

I liked the Japanese for this one and took the aggressors currently engaged in making the name "Protectorate of Malaya" a rather hollow joke.  The Japanese win by garnering a combination of exit victory points and capturing certain buildings.  It had been my intention to do a sweep down the left hand side of the board but Jamie set up with a very forward defence which seemed to make that distinctly risky so instead I brought the bulk of my forces (including the three tanks) on the right.

  Things started badly when he killed one of my tanks with a lmg shot and I boxcarred two morale checks in the first turn.  After that things went downhill.  To add insult to injury Jamie rolled his armoured car up to the front and parked it directly in front of my two remaining tanks daring me to proceed.  Well proceed I did, if only because I had little choice.  Both my surviving tanks rolled past the Marmon-Herrington without loss and I even managed to kill the damn thing in close combat which gave me a little freedom of manoeuvre but as I rolled forward Jamie immobilised another tank with an atr shot.

By turn three it was all over, I had pushed past his initial defenders on the right and was challenging for the victory buildings but with two tanks out of the running and no hope of any exit VP even capturing all the buildings wouldn't be sufficient to give me a win.  I conceded and slunk off in shame. 0-1

Having undergone remedial brainwashing to remove the memory of defeat from my mind I sat down opposite Joe Moro for the second scenario HF4 - Liehr Launches First.  Again I was on the attack as a bunch of Germans who had failed to get the "the war is obviously lost" telegram launched an attack at Hatten at a time when they really should have been preparing their self exculpatory memoirs and pretending they hadn't heard about any atrocities on the Eastern Front.

Joe had ten US squads and a pair of immobilised M-10 tank destroyers to defend the lower rent portions of Hatten village.  A pair of (fully mobile) M-18 Hellcats turn up a little later to bolster the defence.  To attack I had thirteen squads, a mix of elite and first line and, to provide a little push to my war weary landsers, a pair of PzIVJs and two gleaming beautiful Panthers.  Building control is the name of the game in this scenario (although I would also get a VP if I had more mobile, functioning AFV at game end; this I managed, just).  I needed six VP, each relevant building was worth one.

A road bisected Joe's defensive position and as I looked at it there appeared to be the possibility of splitting his defence into two separate bits and dealing with each piecemeal. This kind of worked ish.
Smoke was the name of the game so naturally my first PzIV didn't have any.  The other one was less useless and I managed to get at least one smoke round in a useful place.  I would send a secondary force through the buildings on either side of the road to try and isolate his defenders on the (my) left while the bulk of my force backed by the panthers tried to flank him on the right.  Incidentally when I say "backed" I mean it literally, I had no intention of risking the Panthers until I found out where the M-10s were.  I would forget this later and pay for it.

All went disturbingly well at first.  On the left I broke his defence and pushed forward.  Joe fell back towards the victory buildings and my breaking of his squads actually helped with this as they routed back in the same direction, not quite my intention.  On the right my Panthers won a duel with his 60mm mortar and my infantry swept forward with the panthers tiptoeing cautiously in their wake.  Armoured assault this was not.

I was in a good position, I had driven Joe back to his last line of defence with very few casualties to myself and was poised for the final assault.  Then I damn near through the whole thing away.  Emboldened by my success so far I brought my panthers up to the front line and promptly lost one of them to a side shot from a previously hidden M-10 but worse was to come.  Joe brought his Hellcats on directly in front of my remaining Panther, I missed the defensive fire shot and one of them skidded to a halt and nailed the Panther through the frontal armour with a critical hit in advancing fire.  At this point I went slightly insane.  Scenario objectives be damned, nothing was more important than killing that damn Hellcat.  My two PzIVs were over on the left helping my troops through the village so I swarmed it with infantry which should have been swinging left to capture the victory buildings.  I lost one squad killed and one and a half broken before I was recalled to sanity.  Eventually I worked a PzIV around and destroyed the offending Hellcat although its brother took out the PzIV.  But my PzIV also had a brother and it took out the remaining Hellcat leaving me with one mobile AFV to his none.

Back in the real world Joe had used the opportunity to garrison such of the victory buildings as he had troops left for and hoped that his M-10 (which had a line of sight down a road I needed to cross) would be able to ward me off from those in the rear.  This almost worked, despite the M-10 I managed to capture a couple of rear buildings and finally managed to destroy the thing when a schreck toting halfsquad, sole survivor of my illfated attack on the Hellcat sneaked up and destroyed it.  With the last turn upon us I had captured four buildings and had a point for my remaining PzIV.  I needed to take one more building for the win and there was only one within range.  It was garrisoned by what was left of Joe's force including his best leader.  I threw as much firepower as I could against it but only gained a pin result.  Which left close combat, rarely if ever my friend.  On this occasion however the dice gods came up trumps.  I ambushed Joe's troops and wiped them out in HtH CC for a victory at the very last.  Probably nobody was more surprised than me. 1-1

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Bushwalking in Singapore Edition

There are many words that can be used to describe Singapore; hot, humid.  Ok that's only two but you use them a lot.  For the record Singapore is essentially a modern version of those independent trading cities that used to litter the planet.  Singapore is old time Venice with a worse climate and fewer canals.  It's also a financial centre, a ship builder, a semi benign autocracy and a place where nearly six million people live, work and strive for a better future for themselves and their families.  You will learn nothing about any of that in this blog entry.  The national symbol is the Merlion and if I had any interest in that it would probably remove around what the hell made it into the water supply the day the nation's legislators decided that the perfect symbol of their nation would be a mythical fish beast vomiting into the harbour.

Anyway the point that I totally failed to come to in the first paragraph is that I decided not to look at the history or culture of Singapore per se.  I'm sure they have some, everybody does, but that doesn't mean you have to make a big thing of it.  I'm wandering off the point again.  This is what happens when you write a blog entry on the plane home having been awake for the best part of twenty four hours.

What I was interested in (hurray, paragraph three and I've got there at last) was greenery.  An odd thing for me to be interested in because I have little enough concern for it at home.  Singapore is the very definition of urban but there has been a push in recent times to make it a "green" city.  Not just in terms of environmental friendliness but in literal tree coverage and plant favourable legislation.  I thought I would take a look at some of the already established green bits of this city of cities.

I was helped in this by my choice of accommodation.  I picked it to be close to my gaming venue which placed me on Upper Thomson Road roughly in the centre of the island and only a few minutes walk away from the series of parks and nature reserves surrounding the water reservoirs.  Initial signs were hopeful, specifically the signs on the fences of apartment complexes telling residents not to feed the monkeys.  Less encouraging were the signs warning against the dangers of dengue fever and enumerating the number of cases in the region in the last month, apparently I'm lucky to have survived.

I spent an enjoyable morning strolling (or rather, crunching - see below) along walking paths surrounded by trees.  This being Singapore a walking path could quite easily accommodate a truck and was bedded with stones which made an unholy noise when you walked along them.  People (insane people) were jogging along them.

The trick to spotting animals in the bush is not to look for them (unless you know what you're looking for, I don't) its to listen for them.  I kept as quiet as I could and was soon rewarded with crunches, crashes, hoots and whistles.  They were caused by various Singaporeans walking, jogging, chatting and listening to music as they enjoyed nature.  I moved on a bit and was eventually rewarded with birds, lizards and monkeys.  Well, a monkey which inconsiderately moved out of shot before I could take a photo.  The piece de resistance came when I was walking down the path followed by another bunch of tourists. The bushes ahead parted and a wild boar charged across the path less than ten metres in front of me.  I know it was a wild boar because it looked exactly like a wild boar in Asterix comics.

Flushed with this success (or possibly dengue fever) the next day I took a cable car ride up to Mount Faber in the south west part of the island.  Mt Faber towers a lofty hundred metres above the sweltering lowlands of Singapore and is part of a string of parks situated on the hillier parts of the south west which were presumably more difficult to build on.  The parks are connected by walkways and bridges over roads where need be and allow you to take an eight kilometre walk through the bush in the heart of Singapore.  There were no monkeys this time but I saw birds galore and a snake which is surprising as apparently they make most of their social calls at night.

I had to go to the night zoo of course.  Along with pretty much everyone else who has ever come to Singapore.  It's a thing.  I was accompanied by the Transylvanian German making a brief return cameo before she headed off to Bali.  We spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around in the dark gawping at various animals while I tried to restrain her from physically assaulting people who broke the no flash photography rule.  I have a bunch of great photos of various blurs which I'm going to pass off as incredibly rare animals.  The Transylvanian German adores bats (go figure) and we spent a lot of time in the bat enclosure watching them eat, swoop and crap while at least one tourist stared with rapt delight.  I took a photo of otters splashing about but that didn't come out any better than the others.

Finally I managed to get lost in the Singapore Botanic Garden.  For some reason (incompetence seems the most likely explanation) I managed to get myself into some sort of a loop and kept wandering around the same part of the garden for about an hour.  At one point I managed to get out of the gardens entirely and spent about ten minutes trying to find a way back in.

Eventually I got myself sorted out and walked past turtle filled lakes and rain forest until I made my way to the Orchid Garden filled with brightly coloured plants which ran out the battery of my camera.  There were archways adorned with beautiful yellow hanging flowers.  They were lovely but I might write a quick note to the managers of the Orchid Garden to the effect that "golden shower" was perhaps not the most propitious name they could have chosen.  While in the gardens I saw fish, turtles, bucket loads of monitors, black swans, chickens and various other lizards.

You may notice that I haven't mentioned squirrels.  They were everywhere.  The only way you can avoid squirrels in Singapore is to seal yourself in a box.  Singapore health tip:  Do not seal yourself in a box!

The major thing I noticed about all of the gardens and green space was how pleasant the weather was.  Still hot but much more bearable than in the city proper.  Cities are heat sinks of course but it is amazing the difference in comfort levels once you got a few trees around you.

And that's pretty much the end of the travel journal part of the blog.  The next couple of entries will relate to my gaming which I'm sure won't be all that interesting.  The trip was amazing and I should give a big thanks to Alif, our tour leader who guided us through with skill and good humour.  I'll also acknowledge a couple of my fellow tourists by name for the first time.  Ian, my roommate originally from Leeds but now slumming it in Chester who (Baby Shark notwithstanding) was an excellent traveling companion.  Hayley, a vegan from Wagga Wagga who accompanied me on my initial trips around Bangkok and Barbara, the Transylvanian German who was funny, friendly and occasionally scary but always interesting.  It was a pleasure to meet you all.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Tinkly Box Edition

What is Singapore like?  If you’ve ever imagined an open air sauna made of concrete then you know what Singapore is like.  Or at least you know what the weather’s like.  The simple act of putting on clothes makes you sweat so much that you need another shower.  It’s even worse once you’re out of the air conditioning.

Yet that is what we four brave souls did, we plunged out into the heat to spend the evening at Gardens by the Bay.  We watched light shows, saw fireworks, got attacked by the Singapore Air Force and listened to classical music.  Ok maybe we didn’t get attacked by the Singapore Air Force but they certainly flew low enough to make it seem personal.

To prove we weren’t intimidated we went on a skywalk to look out over the gardens and enjoy a nighttime view of the city.  At least three of us did, my fear of heights doesn’t really manifest itself unless I’m looking over an edge or something but our Transylvanian German companion suffered from genuine and severe vertigo.  It was an act of impressive courage for her to make it from one end of the skywalk to the other mostly with her eyes clamped tightly shut.  Kudos to you my dear.

After all this, being tourists, we went along to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel for drinks at one of the bars up on Level 57.  This hotel must be one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.  It gets better as you get closer because you can admire the skill which went into its construction without seeing the end result in its entirety.  It is said that the building is shaped in a stylised version of the Chinese character for monstrosity.  The very best viewing point is from a bar on the 57th floor because then you can’t see it at all.

And that was pretty much the end of the tour, we all went our separate ways leaving me with several days in Singapore before gaming began (although I did meet up with the Transylvanian German to visit the night zoo a couple of days later).  I was all by myself in one of the greatest and most vibrant cities on earth.  You know what that means; Musical Box Museum!

Yes I visited the Singapore Musical Box Museum for a guided tour of all things small and tinkly.  First however I had an obligation to fulfill.  My mother wanted a photo of Raffles Hotel so before immersing myself in all things musical box I went to find Raffles.  To get to the hotel you go down Raffles Street, turn left onto Raffles Boulevard past the Raffles Hospital and the Raffles Home for Stray Dogs and you’re there.  If you hit the Raffles Sewage Treatment Works you’ve gone too far.  Raffles Raffles Raffles Raffles, dear Christ Singapore change the record.  Sorry I think the heat is getting to me.

Anyway I made it there and took the photo before making my way to the Musical Box Museum.  The museum was easy enough to find, it was right across the road from the Raffles Institute for Post Colonial Studies.  Once there the first thing I learned was that musical boxes needn’t be small and tinkly.  There was a huge one for use on ocean liners too cheap to hire a band.  There were medium sized ones to fit in hotel rooms and small portable ones to take on picnics to frighten away ants.  I think my favourite was a musical cigar holder which played music and simultaneously opened a series of doors in its sides which contained cigars for your enjoyment.  You had to be quick though when the music stopped the doors closed and if you didn’t have your cigar you were out of luck.  It was like a game of musical chairs where the prize was cancer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Baby Shark Edition

Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby Shark!

This is the first verse of an idiotic children’s song that has hung over our trip like a vulture over a zebra not quite dead.  I believe my roommate, may a thousand pariah dogs defile the graves of his ancestors, introduced it and such was its impact that the damn thing is still in my head despite the fact that I’m writing this blog entry in Singapore several days after the events described below.

Baby Shark achieved it’s ghastly apotheosis one night in Melaka when a series of events combined to produce the perfect storm.  My roommate was in this up to his neck I was merely a helpless victim.  Melaka has bicycle powered rickshaws for the amusement of the tourists and the irritation of the motorists.  These trishaws are decked out with fuzzy toys and bright colour schemes.  At night they are brightly illuminated and play music.  I think you can see where this is going.

Four of us, the two bike riders, the Transylvanian German and myself had arranged to meet up early in the evening sample some street food and then go on a night river cruise.  The two bike riders turned up with the glow that denotes healthy exercise or possibly incipient heatstroke and we proceeded to sample.  After this our little band split in two.  Melaka has one of those sightseeing towers with a transparent lift enabling you to get a great view of exactly what part of the landscape you’ll be smeared over if something goes wrong.  The bike riders were keen so they went off to challenge gravity while the Transylvanian German and I found a nice bar overlooking the river to have a quiet drink at while we waited either for their return or for news of their gruesome demise.

The appointed meeting time came and went.  Just as we were contemplating checking with the authorities about accidents it appeared.  A bright blue trishaw lit up like daylight, festooned with fuzzy shark toys and blasting Baby Shark at noise violation levels.  In the passenger seat were our companions doing the dance moves and laughing hysterically.  We tried to pretend we didn’t know them but tourists and locals alike had parted like the Red Sea leaving us with no choice but to acknowledge the capering maniacs in front of us.

Once everybody had calmed down and the death threats had been, if not rescinded then at least put on hold we went off on our river cruise.  The authorities have illuminated the banks and trees along the river and at night it is a beautiful and very impressive show.  It was the perfect end to an evening.  Or at least it would have been but there was one thing I couldn’t get out of my head.

Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby Shark!

Travelling Hopefully - UNESCO Edition

Our bus bounced and lurched down the highway like a vehicular version of Frankenstein’s monster.  Fortunately it moved at a decent clip and we managed to outrun the torch waving villagers following us.  Our destination was Melaka a city which looked unprepossessing at first glance (to be fair the first glance was of a bus terminal) but which rapidly transformed into the highlight of our time in Malaysia.  The historic city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site with a wealth of old buildings, random churches, museums, a river and at least one post office.

For as long as it has existed Melaka (or Malacca if you want to be all colonial about it) has been a trading city.  That means it is home to a wealth of divergent cultures.  Of course it also means that a lot of those cultures turned up to dispossess the existing occupants.  Even the founder of Melaka was an exiled Sumatran prince who turned up, decided he liked the place and stayed.

Following in his footsteps were the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and (briefly but bloodily) the Japanese.  Melaka was a centre of the spice trade and when you’re a bone of contention between several major powers you’re going to have an interesting history whether you want it or not.

To guide us around some of this history was a living part of it.  An elderly gentleman by the name of Kemal who spoke with pride about his service in the Royal Navy and his father’s role fighting alongside the British against the Japanese.  Kemal gave us interesting facts about Melaka’s history such as pointing out where the Beatles played when they came to town (right across the road from a Buddhist temple lit by an eternal flame that has burnt for four hundred years).  Kemal himself is an indication of the cosmopolitan nature of Melaka, as his name implies he can trace descent from an Ottoman sailor who fell ill in Melaka, was nursed back to health by a local woman, married her and settled down.

Our tour finished in a square adorned with a fountain which was erected on the occasion of one of Queen Victoria’s innumerable jubilees by her loyal Malayan subjects.  At least that’s what the plaque claims.  Presumably her disloyal Malayan subjects just sent a card.

The next day we were given the opportunity of going on a biking tour around the Melaka region.  For reasons I cannot begin to understand a couple of us actually did so.  Specifically my roommate a chap from Chester in the UK and my erstwhile tourism companion from Bangkok.  I planned to take a DUKW tour around some of the soggier parts of Melaka and for reasons best known to herself (I’m not ruling out attempted drowning) the Transylvanian German decided to accompany me.  Sadly the seas were too rough for our amphibious steed and we were reduced to wandering around museums, palaces and churches although we did stop in for coffee and condensed milk on toast (surprisingly good).  Later in the day I went to the post office all by myself.  The sense of achievement I felt upon accomplishing this trivial task was pathetic.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - KL on the Bounce Edition

Travelling from Penang to Kuala Lumpur gave us our first taste of Malaysia’s intercity bus service.  I’m not sure whether it was the road or the suspension but we bounced down the motorway like a kangaroo.  Still the seats were reasonably comfortable, the air conditioning was first rate and the bus was large enough to shrug off a collision with anything smaller than an eighteen wheeler.

Armoured thus against the world we bounced into Kuala Lumpur mid afternoon and were promptly deposited in front of another Travel Lodge.  Darkness fell upon the faces of the people and loud was the wailing but this one seemed in less danger of imminent collapse than the one in Penang and better cleaned as well.  Pleasantly surprised we hurled our luggage to the far corners of our rooms and set out to see KL’s tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers.  This is pretty much obligatory in Kuala Lumpur.  Not to see it would be like going to Paris and not being robbed by Romanians on the Champs Élysées.

It is actually worth a look, especially at night when it’s all lit up and looking it’s best.  There’s a nice park surrounding it through which people insisted on jogging despite the heat, humidity and prevailing air quality.  I hope jogging is good for your health because simply participating in the act in KL must shave six months off your life expectancy.

Eventually after the excitement of looking at a really tall building began to wear thin but just before we started rioting our tour leader took us to the Chinese market where we had the opportunity to haggle for stuff no one would ever want and to pay full price for some truly amazing food.  I and a few others went to a Malaysian fondue shop, it was the best meal I’d eaten in Malaysia so far.  The next day it would face some pretty stiff competition.

The next day we went out for breakfast, which is to say we went on a walking tour around the Little India section of Kuala Lumpur and stuffed ourselves silly at the local street vendors we were taken to.  By the end of it we weren’t walking any more, we were being rolled through the streets of KL like barrels.  Our local guides provided us with interesting details about life in their community to all of which we listened in an advanced state of food coma and made helpful comments like, “more curry puffs”.  Eventually they gave up and just tried to murder us with food.  We all survived but it was touch and go for a few of us.

Later to aid digestion (or possibly because we were incapable of walking) we had ourselves hoisted onto a hop on/hop off bus that wandered around KL traffic permitting.  I got off at the National Museum accompanied by a Transylvanian German of my (rather brief) acquaintance.  The National Museum is actually very well laid out and quite interesting.  Also it’s air conditioned a not insignificant selling point if you happen to be in the area.  The main part of the museum is divided into four parts (Gaul only managed three).  There is prehistoric Malaysia, with bones of really old things whose descendants would evolve into humans.  There was the Golden Age a period of self rule sufficiently far in the past so that nobody can dispute you when you call the age “golden”.  After that was the colonial period when the Portuguese, the Dutch and (coming uncharacteristically late to the colonial exploitation party) the British all attempted to make a buck out of Malaysia whether the locals liked it or not.

My companion became quite upset upon learning the tale of greed, violence, ruthlessness and duplicity which collectively can be defined as the Golden Age of the British Empire.  I didn’t attempt to defend the actions of my notional forebears (because they were indefensible).  It was pure diplomacy on my part that prevented me from mentioning that without a certain amount of colonisation “Transylvanian German” would be a contradiction in terms.  Well diplomacy plus the fact that she announced that she shared a birth place with Dracula with such lip smacking relish that I decided not to push my luck too far.

Travelling Hopefully - Hilltop Hoots Edition

The highlight of our stay in Penang was a trip up a hill.  Penang Hill to be precise, apparently naming the island exhausted the creativity of people naming stuff in these parts.  The hill is eight hundred metres of lush forest and has survived the development of the rest of the island for the usual reason.  It was too steep to build on so eventually they made it a park and babbled on a bit about biodiversity to cover up the fact it was too damn difficult to get a bulldozer onto most of it.

What they did manage to get onto it was a funicular which sounds like it might be one of those small blood vessels that nobody’s heard of until the day it gets blocked and you drop dead unexpectedly in the middle of a conversation and every one says how shocking it was.  Actually a funicular is a type of railway designed to go up very steep slopes.  They’re very popular in Switzerland which, incidentally, is where this one comes from.

The funicular is how you get to the top of the hill unless you want to walk.  You do not.  Any inclination towards walking that I might have possessed vanished when I saw the inclination of the funicular.  Once at the top both delight and disappointment awaited me.

It had been my intention, while in Penang, to visit the Owl Museum (don’t ask for reasons).  However a glance at a not particularly good map had convinced me that getting there would be too hard.  Imagine my delight when my roommate informed me that the Owl Museum was here on Penang Hill.  Giddy with excitement I dashed off to immerse myself in all things owl.  It was closed! Slump shouldered I returned to my companions and poured out my tale of woe.  They had the bad taste to find it rather funny.

So there I was stuck at the top of Penang Hill with nothing but amazing scenery, cute monkeys and the worlds most spectacular sunset to entertain me.  Life can be cruel, or so I’ve been told.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Tardy Scone Edition

The rain was hammering down when we were roused from our various sleeping dens and herded our to see temples.  By the end of this trip I’ll be as cultural as all hell.  The rain had pretty much stopped by the time we had climbed the hill that the temple sprawled over leaving those of us with rain jackets boiling in the heat that replaced it.  The temple complex was huge but it had to be to provide a home for a positively gargantuan statue of Buddha (well it was unlikely to be Darth Vader was it?) on his feet this time.  The whole place (including the statue) was built and is maintained by public donations.  At this point it might be helpful to mention that sixty percent of the population of Penang is Chinese.

After being given enough time to be appropriately awestruck we hopped back in the minibus and rattled to the centre of town and a visit to a much more modest Buddhist and Daoist temple in the city.  There a monk splashed us with water (always welcome in the heat) and tied a yellow string around our wrists in case we forgot something.  Our sightseeing around the temple was interrupted by people who insisted on kneeling down to pray in front of the best photo opportunities.  Still we managed to get in some good shots once we elbowed the religious maniacs out of the way and then surrounded by our new monk induced aura of sanctity went out for more profane sightseeing.

The aura of sanctity lasted about thirty seconds before being burnt off in the sun along with the outer layers of our skin.  Despite the absence of divine protection we were driven around various buildings and Fort Cornwallis which was built by the British East India Company notionally to protect the locals from the Thais.  Obligatory historical buildings thus completed we were taken to a Chinese wharf.  When the Chinese first turned up they were effectively illegal immigrants so rather than build on land they constructed long wharves stretching out into the harbour and lived on those.  Some of them still do which means as we touristed our way along the wharf we were constantly peering into peoples living rooms.

After the Chinese wharf experience we had more free time which consisted of being abandoned in the middle of town and invited to make our own way back to the hotel unless we preferred to sleep in a doorway.  There was some debate over this but eventually the hotel won because all our stuff was there.

Penang is famous for its food for some reason.  We popped into a cafe partly because we were hungry but mainly because it was cool.  Here in recognition of Penang’s period of colonial oppression under the English the Transylvanian German and I ordered an English tea.  For the record “English tea” consisted of tea (or coffee), a slice of cake, cucumber sandwiches and scones with jam and cream.  The tea and coffee arrived first, then the cake and then the sandwiches.  After that we waited and then waited some more.  Eventually an apologetic functionary informed us there would be a delay on the scones.  We told him we had worked that out for ourselves.  Some time later a more senior functionary came over to tell us there would be a delay on the scones because they were cooking them.

By this point half of our dining companions had abandoned us with only a couple of noble souls waiting to guide rescuers to our sconeless corpses.  Eventually long after we had given up hope the scones arrived piping hot from the oven or possibly from being left outdoors for thirty seconds.  They were very nice if you like salt with jam and cream.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Border Crossing Edition

While I was rock climbing I met a trio of guys from Malaysia.  I mentioned that their homeland was my next stop.  They asked me what time my flight left and I informed them I was crossing the border by land and then driving to Penang.  The looks of astonishment I received at least gave me a non rock climbing reason to question my life choices to date.

Despite this slightly ominous portent things went swimmingly.  We piled out at the Thai border and waited patiently while they graciously gave us permission to leave their country.  Armed with the imprimatur of the Thai authorities we humped our gear about a hundred yards down the road to where the stern faced guardians of Malaysia’s territorial integrity awaited us.  After the obligatory fingerprint scanning and passport banging we were duly granted access to Malaysia.  I’m not sure what we would have done if they’d refused us, the Thais had already washed their hands of us so we would probably have spent the rest of our days in a tropical limbo.

The difference once we’d crossed the border was immediately apparent.  The time on our phones jumped back an hour to reflect the fact that we were in a different country or at least a different time zone.  There was also a portrait of the Sultan of Malaysia and (presumably) his wife welcoming us to their time zone.  From the expression on their faces I got the impression that their majesties would have been quite happy if we’d stuck with Eastern Standard.

As we stumbled past the border post our tour leader greeted us with bad news.  The minibus that was going to take us on the several hour trip to Penang was unavailable.  Instead, sadly, we would have to tolerate a large, comfortable, air conditioned coach.  Nobly we concealed our disappointment and charged towards the coach as if afraid it would vanish before our eyes.

The first thing you notice about the Malaysian countryside is that you can see the actual countryside.  You can’t really in southern Thailand, there are too many trees in the way.  It’s different in Malaysia, once we descended from the hills we could see for miles.  Mostly what we could see were rice padis but we could certainly see a lot of them.

The island of Penang sits off the west coast of Malaysia and is connected to the mainland by a pair of bridges one built by the Koreans (South) and one by the Chinese (mainland).  We took the Korean bridge and ploughed through the suddenly pouring rain to our destination, the worlds grottiest Travel Lodge located in George Town, capital city of Penang.  We cleansed our rooms with fire and acid and unpacked among the smouldering ruins.  Then we went out for food.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Liberal Chalk Edition

Having decided that twelve hours immersing ourselves in the local culture was more than sufficient we piled into the minibus and headed to Ao Nang where we checked into a Holiday Inn for two days to recover.  On entering our air conditioned rooms we gave a collective moan of ecstasy.  The tour leader had to prise us out of them with a crowbar.

Ao Nang is a tourist town whose principal attraction is its convenience to a bunch of attractions.  Beautiful islands abound just off the coast, caves beckon, offering shelter from the heat and interesting rock formations to justify your decision, there’s even a shooting range if that takes your fancy.  My particular fancy couldn’t have been less interested.

Instead I spent half a day staring at a cliff face.  One of the options offered by Ao Nang was rock climbing and for some reason I decided the best thing I could on a day when the temperature hit forty degrees in the shade was to cover myself in chalk and scramble up a semi sheer limestone cliff.  I made careful enquiries; did it matter if your rock climbing experience was minimal?  Not at all.  Did it matter if by minimal I actually meant none at all?  Apparently not.  I thought of asking if it mattered if you were scared of heights but decided that two out of three was a pass.

The next morning bright and early, before I had a chance to back out, I was bundled into the back of a van and driven to an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Ao Nang.  There I was kitted with a harness, shoes and chalk and escorted to a boat.  I was assured the rock climbing was perfectly safe and then asked for a contact name in case of emergencies.  Presumably just in case I was hit by a bus crossing the street outside the rock climbing centre.  The boat ride was slow enough to give me plenty of time to review my life choices in general and the decision to go rock climbing in particular.  I had just reached a conclusion which didn’t reflect well on my decision making skills when we arrived.

The location for the climb was a narrow beach surrounded by cliffs that were festooned with ropes, rock for the climbing of.  I don’t actually think the cliffs were terribly high but they were many times higher than you could fall off and expect to walk away afterwards.  After some last minute instructions centred around tying of various knots which would keep fatal falls in the realm of the theoretical I was pointed at a convenient section of cliff and essentially told to get on with it.

Things didn’t exactly go well.  I got part way up, lost my grip with one hand, panicked and lost the grip with all my other hands as well.  As a consequence I fell off the cliff.  I dangled there for a moment with terror rapidly turning to embarrassment and was then lowered gently groundward.  Once I’d recovered my equilibrium and the staff had stopped laughing they tried me on something simpler.  Inappropriately dressed Asian women were going up and down it in stilettos.  Somehow I did manage this one and with a measure of confidence gained I attempted a third and somewhat more difficult one.  I got a great view of the bay from my (not particularly) lofty vantage point.  At that stage I decided to quit while I was ahead.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Fine Dining Edition

The next evening we were doing a home stay in a local village.  We’d assist in the preparation of an authentic Thai meal (those of us jealously guarding their few remaining taste buds trembled slightly) and be taken on a walking tour around the village by our host.  We would sleep in two rooms divided by gender.  We had two married couples in our group and news of the sleeping arrangements roused outraged and tearful protests in precisely none of them.

According to our team leader there’s been a fair amount of development in the area around the village since he first started coming here.  That would help to explain the major road which bisects the village.  After introductions our host did indeed take us on a tour of the village which rapidly degenerated into a game of “what fruit tree is that?”  With the added advantage that we got to eat the fruit.  I say it was a village walk but basically we just wandered around pinching fruit from people’s front yards.  The presence of our host made it OK or at least dissuaded irate locals from pursuing us with shotguns.

Along the way we stopped in at a stand of rubber trees to see a demonstration of rubber tapping.  Our host managed to prevent us from eating the results.  He also informed us that most Thai rubber is exported to Japan which promptly exports a chunk of it back with words like Yokohama and Bridgestone stamped on it.  The expression on his face showed he was well aware that he was at the wrong end of the value added chain but a farmer has to make a living somehow.

Roaming the countryside gorging ourselves on fruit worked up a nice appetite for dinner.  Which was handy because our tour leader had used the time granted by our absence to source half the food in Thailand and all the chillies in the world.  We were each assigned a task; I was on garlic crushing duty.  I grabbed the mortar and pestle and drove down manfully.  Garlic flew in all directions so I proceeded more circumspectly.  After a while the tour leader examined my progress and opined that the garlic might be ready in a fortnight.  I should be more vigorous he suggested.  I attacked the garlic in a murderous frenzy.  People ducked for cover as bits of garlic howled over their heads (halfway through dinner I found a random garlic clove in my pocket).  Eventually another guest who knew how to cook relieved me of the garlic crushing duties before anyone lost an eye.  Then I was given the task of whisking eggs, our hosts sister took that away from me before the place looked like a scene from Ghostbusters.

The meal was delicious and when we were finished I offered to help with the dishes.  Our host and his sister declined with polite smiles and genuine panic in their eyes.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Environmental Devastation Edition

We spent a couple of days in a guesthouse on the edge of Khao Sok National Park.  There were trees, flowers and a small but rather enthusiastic river flowing nearby.  Sitting in the river while clinging to a rock to avoid being washed away was a great way to cool down.  There were also a wide variety of animals, I didn’t see any of them but I heard them at night unless it was the staff hiding in the bushes making animal noises.

For those who were keen there was the opportunity to do a night walk through the jungle.  It will come as a surprise to no one that I wasn’t among their number.  Instead I satiated my urge for adventure, such as it is, by eating dinner.  Our guide had pointed out that most Thai food we had eaten had been toned down for western tastes and that proper Thai food was much hotter.  A couple of us, including me, accepted the implied challenge and with his intercession persuaded the staff to provide us with a genuinely Thai version of what we’d ordered.  I’m pretty sure part of what he said was “please don’t kill these idiots”.  The food was indeed rather hot.  Quite hot actually but both of us agreed, through the tears streaming down our faces that it was delicious.

The next day we were herded onto a minibus and driven into the hinterland or at least into land somewhat more hinter than we had previously encountered.  Our destination was Cheow Lan Lake a vast expanse of aquamarine water surrounded by jungle and limestone cliffs with karsts sticking out of the water in picturesque positions.  A long tail boat ride took us across to a raft house where we were fed lunch and allowed to mess about in kayaks.  I did a certain amount of messing about in preparation for my upcoming sea kayak excursion.  Strangely on a millpond flat surface I managed to keep the bulk of myself dry.  Flushed with this rather trivial success I put my hand up for a three hour jungle walk to one of the caves which pretty much come as standard wherever limestone and water meet.

The very first thing we saw on our walk was elephant dung.  My god were we excited.  I don’t think an actual elephant would have been greeted with more enthusiasm.  Of course the question was asked asked, “might we perhaps encounter the beast whose bowel movements had given us so much pleasure?”  And of course the answer was “no, the droppings were a few days old.  The elephant had moved on probably to defecate on some other tourist trail.  It probably has a route.

Nevertheless with this faecal encouragement we set out in good spirits.  It was hardly hacking through the jungle as the path was perfectly good but the canopy closed over our heads, providing some welcome shade and it was easy to believe we were the only people for miles around.  We weren’t of course as the occasional group of walkers coming the other way made clear but they were out of sight soon enough.  Along the way a fuzzy orange caterpillar posed for photos and on the way back our guide tapped a stick outside a tarantulas burrow prompting it to leap out and scare the shit out of us.

I’m an absolute sucker for caves for reasons I prefer not to explore but with which a psychologist would probably have a field day.   This one wasn’t too large (or at least we didn’t go too far into it but it had beautiful rock formations, creepily appealing stalagmites and tites (maybe I should see that psychologist) and even a few bats although the battery ran out on my camera before I could photograph them.

I have to say the lake and it’s surrounds are one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen.  It’s a natural wonder.  Only it isn’t.  The lake is artificial, the result of a wacking great dam.  It was built to provide the locals with a reliable supply of water when the rain wasn’t cooperative and to restrict the amount of water when the rain tried to make up for its earlier tardiness.  Along the way they tossed in a hydroelectric station so the locals could get their hands on some of that newfangled electricity everyone was talking about.  Almost as an afterthought they tossed in some fish farms and opened the place to tourists.  This is environmental devastation done right.  I don’t know what the place looked like before but the very least you can say is that here the Thais have improved on perfection.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Boats Trains and Hungry Fish Edition

After exhausting the opportunities for harmless entertainment at the temple (and having been strongly warned off harmful entertainment) we decided to go and pester fish.  There wasn’t really much more to do at the temple unless you wanted to become a monk (spoiler alert; you do not want to become a monk) and the fish weren’t going to pester themselves.  Our walk down to the river reintroduced us to the heat of Bangkok and one or two of us were only prevented from plunging into the river to cool off by the sight of the river.

We were due to go for a cruise around some of the canals of Bangkok but were delayed because the boat had broken down.  According to our guide this was because the boats are powered by repurposed car and truck engines that have been adapted to a new working life on the river with varying degrees of success.  Eventually though the boat, or a boat, sputtered up and perhaps slightly optimistically we climbed on board.  Or rather we descended on board as the boat sat rather low in the water. This also meant we were spattered with bits of river as we set off.  Still off we did set and were soon making our way around Bangkok’s rather extensive canal network.

The canals fronted onto houses, businesses and what appeared to be random patches of jungle that no one had got around to clearing yet.  Pulling up beside another monastery gave us the opportunity to see fish in a non dead and floating down the river context.  An elderly lady sold us a bag of bread with which to feed the fish.  Feeding the fish is part of this monastery’s charitable work and the fish have definitely figured this out.  The water heaved with vast quantities of piscine mendicants.  No divine powers would be required to walk on water here, the most egregious sinner would have been able to cross the canal without getting his feet wet.  Although he may have been eaten by the fish.

With the bread exhausted we ploughed off through water that was approximately 80% seafood and headed for dry land.  Along the way we passed water lizards of various sizes lurking dinosaur like in the shallows.  After only a few hours of relaxation to recover from fish induced psychosis we gathered our belongings and headed to the railway station for our journey south.

The railway station reminded me a bit of Central station in Sydney.  It was an old building with a bunch of new technology shoehorned in wherever it would fit.  I felt immediately at home.  I did get lost briefly but I do that at Central as well.  Our train was a purple painted ribbon of steel ready and apparently only waiting for us to board before setting off.  We boarded and settled in.  The train politely waited until it was an hour late and then launched itself into the steaming Thai night.  To compensate for the steaming Thai night an extremely efficient air conditioning system had at least one passenger concerned about frostbite.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Cultural Experience Edition

OK so apparently there are floating markets in Bangkok.  I know this because I saw signs saying “floating market” studded about the place as we did a canal tour of Bangkok.  Since the signs were attached to pontoons bobbing about in the canal this seemed pretty definitive although they all seemed to be closed.

With a probably unnecessary correction (nobody can possibly be coming to this blog for accuracy) I can focus on more important events.  Firstly the proudly independent traveller section of my holiday has come to a close.  Henceforth I shall be merely one a group of a dozen people thrown together at random by a capricious god to share a fate whether for good or ill.  We’re mostly Australians and New Zealanders with an Englishman and a Thai tour leader tossed in.  A much needed touch of the exotic is provided by the presence of a Transylvanian German who was rather surprised when I knew what a Transylvanian German was.

This evening we catch the train to Southern Thailand but first we hopped a bus (two actually) to see the Wat Pho temple and its famous reclining Buddha.  The temple is actually a complex of buildings including a monastery, schools, stupas galore and a large construction to keep the rain off the aforementioned reclining Buddha.  In days gone by of course the temple was a community centre providing education, healthcare and a place of refuge for the local population as well as being somewhere the people could come to get their Buddhism on.  And not necessarily just Buddhism either.  The Thais are largely Buddhist but they also believe in keeping their options open thus they are rather catholic as regards other gods.  They work on the principle that if you ask all of the gods one of them might say yes.  Actually that doesn’t sound very Catholic at all really.

Did I say stupas?  Have we got stupas, we have stupas to burn.  Actually the burning occurs pre stupa.  This is a royal temple and for someone to have their ashes interred here after cremation (or a really bad house fire) is a mark of signal honour.  The temple grounds are crammed with stupas presumably containing the ashes of prominent Thais.  It is bad form to sit on them or stub your cigarette out on one.

And finally to the reclining Buddha itself.  What can one say about a forty metre long statue of a guy resting on one elbow completely covered in gold leaf?  At least what can you say that wasn’t covered in the previous sentence?  Try this, check out the soles of his feet.  They’re covered in mother of pearl and they look amazing.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Marketing Edition

I have a confession to make.  I thought the floating market was in Bangkok although to be fair five millimeters of rain and every market in Bangkok would be floating.  The particular floating market presented for our edification today was about a hundred kilometres from Bangkok southwest towards the border with Myanmar.  I discovered this when I looked up after about an hours journey in a minibus to realise I was still on a journey in a minibus.  According to our cheerfully disinterested guide the area had been settled by Chinese fleeing Communism.  Apparently they turned up with little more than the shovels on their backs and started digging canals immediately.

Their actions were prophetic because now, mere decades later I arrived to check out their floating market.  Mission accomplished!  We were turfed out of the minibus and bundled into boats to take us to the market.  This wasn’t strictly necessary, the market had a perfectly good car park, indeed our minibus greeted us on arrival, but it was a picturesque way to arrive.  We scrambled out of the motor boats and crossed the car park to queue for paddle powered boats to take us around the market.  As we did so a busload of Chinese tourists arrived.  Our guide referred to them as the Chinese army and hustled us into the queue ahead of them.

Having swapped one water conveyance for another we were gently propelled around the canals while shop owners took advantage of this semi captive market to try and sell us stuff.  Some of the more proactive had boathooks to make escape a little harder.  I presume the vendors know their market but pretty much every shop sold the same sort of thing virtually none of which I had any interest in.  I did manage to pick up a Thai football shirt or at least a football shirt with Thailand written on it.  Mind you it was written in English so I’m not investigating the authenticity too closely.

Still it was pleasantly cool on the water, there was a large water dragon just out of camera shot and it was fun watching the boatmen skilfully manoeuvre four boats into a space designed for three at most.  Keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.

After the water market began to pall those of us who hadn’t made a dash for freedom were herded back into the minibus and taken to the train market.  This is a small apparently local market set up in a narrow space between some shops.  Also set up in this narrow space is a railway line.  From time to time a train rolls by prompting the locals to move their wares about two inches further away from the tracks while a mass of foreigners get in their way looking for photo opportunities.  There is an element of showmanship to the whole thing but the train is big and heavy and, although it travels slowly it shows no inclination to stop.  You probably don’t want to be an inch out of place.

Travelling Hopefully - Gecko and Dead Fish Edition

The rest of the day was spent “at leisure” as guided tours are wont to say when they are sick of pandering to the whiny, petulant foreigners infesting their country.  It turned out that my newfound sightseeing companion had a very different idea of what “at leisure” meant to me.  She planned to do an evening bicycle tour of Bangkok.  Would I like to join her?  I gently indicated that I would rather perform open heart surgery on myself.  For me “at leisure” meant lounging around drinking coffee and writing increasingly puerile blog entries.  I’d also booked a massage for later in the day.

We had plans to visit markets of the water and train variety the next day so we parted ways until the morning.  I said a quick prayer for her safety (she was holding our tickets) and wandered off to amuse myself.  Amusing myself consisted of drinking coffee and smoking insect repellent flavoured cigarettes.  That last wasn’t some exotic smoking option favoured by the locals but was rather due to the fact that I’m coating myself in so much insect repellent that not only are the mosquitoes avoiding me but the humans are keeping a respectful distance as well.

After my massage I went to a canalside restaurant for dinner.  A dark cloud arose on my approach as thousands of mosquitoes and the occasional wading bird sought sanctuary elsewhere.  With the immediate area cleansed of life I had no hesitation in picking an outside table where I could enjoy the not quite as stifling as the daytime air and watch the dead fish floating down the canal.  Quite a lot of dead fish incidentally, that repellent is powerful stuff.

I had just finished my meal when I became aware that I was being watched.  After gazing around panic stricken I looked down to the table and locked eyes with a small gecko.  We stared at each other for a couple of minutes until it mustered up the courage to broach the repellent zone.  Then it darted forward, seized a couple of grains of leftover rice and made off with them in triumph.  It paused long enough for me to take a photo, naturally I had left both my phone and my camera behind.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Travelling Hopefully - Random Silk Merchant Edition

My Aircrash Investigations related brush with fame having been postponed for the foreseeable future I instead settled into my nice, canal adjacent, hotel in Bangkok.  Canal adjacent sounds impressive but in actual fact pretty much all of Bangkok is if not canal adjacent then at least canal pretty close by.  This is what you get when you build a city in an area where the water table is at the level of your knees.

I met a fellow tour member at the airport and with a couple of days before the tour actually starts we decided to take the opportunity to see a little of Bangkok.  Incidentally when I say I met her at the airport what I mean is she was in a car part way to the hotel when it was called back to collect me l having managed to get completely lost in the airport with the result that the car left without me.  Despite this early warning of the basic level of competence I bring to my arrangements she still agreed to go sightseeing with me.

The next day, refreshed by not enough sleep we stepped out into Bangkok for breakfast and a stroll around the neighbourhood.  We took in a local park that had an eighteenth century fort.  The former fort status was highlighted by cannon poking somewhat randomly out of the exterior.  It was probably a little more frightening in the 1700s.  The attractions of the fort being swiftly exhausted we left in search of bigger prey.  Having spent nearly an hour outdoors in Bangkok we popped back to the hotel for a complete change of clothing and to arrange a tuk tuk ride to Jim Thompson’s house.

Jim Thompson was an American, an architect by profession, who served with the US army in South East Asia during the Second World War.  Apparently he liked the place and when the war was over he settled in Bangkok and started a new career exporting Thai silk to the US.  He “built” his house by bringing in six, one room, Thai stilt houses and linking them together.  Then he went on holiday to Malaysia, wandered off into the jungle and, depending on which theory you believe, was either eaten by a tiger or murdered by the CIA.  These are apparently your only two options.  His house is now a museum showcasing his collection of regional antiquities.

The house, as mentioned, is six, one room Thai stilt houses joined together.  It’s made of teak and has Carrara marble floors which I’m prepared to bet wasn’t standard for Thai stilt houses at the time.  The house backs (or rather fronts, because this used to be the main entrance) onto a canal just across the water from the silk weaving district where Thompson did his buying.  At ground level there are lush gardens plus ponds, urns and jars all of which have fish in them (alive I should probably point out).  All of this is slap bang in the middle of Bangkok and makes for a peaceful oasis in the heart of the city.  Unfortunately you can’t take photos inside as some of the antiques are very fragile.  Apparently people were knocking them over trying to get good shots, presumably of other antiques they hadn’t destroyed yet.

Travelling Hopefully

As one wanders through the departure lounge of Sydney airport the first thing that hits you is a gust of perfume.  It’s also the second, third and fourth thing that hits you.  Apparently the staff in the duty free perfume shops have given up on scent soaked pieces of cardboard and have simply rigged perfume dispensers up to the sprinkler system.  Which doesn’t stop them accosting you with scent laden slivers of card as well.

Having staggered through this olfactory assault and emerged more scent than alive I arrived at the departure gate just in time to board my flight.  This skillful bit of timing was the result of me and Sydney airport working together.  I played my part by realising I had forgotten something vital when I was in the cab on the way to the airport and having to go back and get it.  Sydney airport came to the party by scheduling renovations that slowed movement through the departure gate to a crawl.  The result of this convergence of idiocies was that I didn’t have to wait a second at the terminal.  In fact they seemed very pleased to see me.

By the way it is definitely time they stopped renovating Sydney airport.  No matter what they do it always winds up the same gloomy, ill lit barn it’s always been.  There comes a time when you have to acknowledge that plastic surgery isn’t working anymore and you just have to accept that this is what you’re going to look like.  Nothing further will be an improvement and it will just signal your increasing desperation to the world.  From now on Sydney airport should limit its renovations to keeping the possums out of the roof and, of course, off the runway.

Now my aerial steed is thundering through the stratosphere leaving a trail of greenhouse gases in its wake; the ultimate horseman of the Apocalypse.  The next time you hear from me I’ll be in Bangkok, or a supporting role in Aircrash Investigation.