Monday, March 9, 2015

Mar 6 – Old and New in Kuala Lumpur

Perhaps the most important event of the day did not take place on our tour of Kuala Lumpur.  When we returned this afternoon, we found two notes from the captain on the bed.  The less important one addressed the outbreak of norovirus on the ship, noted the symptoms and urged everyone to wash, wash, wash as often as possible.

The second announced that we would not be docking at any ports in Egypt.  There was no equivocation this time as there had been on the Grand Med in 2011 when we did finally spend 2 days in Cairo.  The itinerary has been adjusted and our stops in Kusadasi and Aqaba have been changed by a day or two.  Replacing the 3 stops in Egypt will be 2 days in Israel and an added sea day.  By the time we get to Athens [if we get to Athens], we will be back on track.

As soon as we found the notice, D was on the computer writing to tour vendors to see if they could provide the confirmed tours on the new dates.  Both wrote back promptly that there would be no problems with the new dates.  He also sent a message to the tour company we used in 2011.  That year we stayed overnight in Jerusalem when we were lucky enough to get a room for one night during Passover and Holy Week.  This year we will return to the ship each night if we are lucky enough to arrange for tours.  Ken is also trying to get “his” guide to arrange something.  We are hoping one of us is successful. Ginger and Dave have already asked to be included if our tour vendor comes through.  We told them we would have 2 – 6 people; Ken thinks his guide can only fit 5 in his car.  Stay tuned for further developments on this breaking story.

Meanwhile…We thought we might be in trouble when Leng, the scheduled guide in Kuala Lumpur, did not appear this morning.  In his place, we found Dom [short for Dominique].  He had a sign with our name and spoke moderately good English, so we knew things wouldn’t be too bad.  As it turns out, Dom is Leng’s brother.

Although our tour was supposed to be of KL, we started at Putrajaya, a made-for-government city like Brasilia.  It is not the capital of the country [KL is], but much of the administrative and ceremonial activity occurs in Putrajaya.  Dom told us that “putra” means ruler or governor and the prime minister works out of Putrajaya.  His office building is grandiose from the outside;  we were not invited in to see it.

The highlight of the stops in Putrajaya was the visit to the Putra Mosque, named, obviously after the putra. It is know more familiarly as the Pink Mosque because of its exterior color including the dome.  We are used to seeing green on mosques, especially in Morocco, but there was none here.  The spacious interior can hold almost 15000 [yes, thousand] worshippers.  Like the Orthodox Jewish synagogues, there is a balcony for the woman to pray.

Other stops in Putra included the old National Palace and the new National Palace.  The old one has been turned into a museum but we were not told what kind it is nor did we attempt to breach the fence and cross its beautiful grounds to find out.  The new National Palace is set on a hill behind a large entrance which features a double-paneled gate and a façade which reminded us of the entrance to the royal palace in Rabat.  There were 4 ceremonial guards, 2 on horseback, set in alcoves by the gate.  Unlike the guards at Buckingham Palace, the mounted guards and their horses interacted with the tourists.  While we were there, police came out of the compound and shooed visitors out of the driveway in preparation for the arrival of an official limousine and its police escort.

From Putrajaya, we continued to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia and its 14 subdivisions [thirteen provinces and one Federal district].  Our first stop was at the Dataran Merdeka, the site where the Malaysian flag was first raised on August 31, 1957.  Its raising symbolized the end of British Colonial rule in the Malay Peninsula.  Originally a club for the British, complete with cricket fields, it is now a park with a fountain and expansive green lawn [the former cricket pitch].

We visited several markets [although there is some debate about the number] and China town where we went to a temple to watch worshippers prepare and then burn offerings in addition to burning incense.  We do not know if this is an everyday event or if it is because of the Chinese New Year celebration.  We also saw the front of an Indian temple with its lavish and colorful decorations.

We also saw the exterior of the Patronas Towers but only for a photo stop.  We did not want to spend the time or money to go up to the sky bridge which connects the two towers; besides, some people in the group are afraid of heights.  We drove past the Blue Mosque but people were gathering outside prior to the call to prayer so we could not even stop the van much less get close to it.  Unlike other mosques [and everyplace seems to have a blue one], the roof of the sanctuary is not a dome but was described by Dom as umbrella-shaped.  There are 14 V-shaped panels which make it look like an umbrella, one panel for each of the provinces.  There also 14 flags at the new palace in Putra for the same reason.

The highlight of our time in Kuala Lumpur may have been lunch.  Given the choice of street food or restaurant food, we chose street food.  Dom and the driver had a little trouble finding the vendor they wanted, but one wrong turn into a dead-end was understandable considering the winding route they took to get that far.  The food made it all worthwhile.

We were in a “locals” place.  With little through traffic and no nearby public transportation, this was not a venue anyone would find by accident.  Most of the customers either lived or worked nearby and most seemed to be women in traditional garb.  As is the Arab custom, the locals ate using only their right hands; we were the only ones using Western utensils although Dom said that the Chinese residents do also. We shared our meal which consisted of wood-grilled squid and tilapia and banana-leaf-wrapped grilled stingray.  Add rice and an assortment of vegetables plus sticky-rice-mango-and-coconut milk for dessert, and we were in our happy place.  Ken was the only one who had any of the local currency, so he paid and we reimbursed him in USD.  The bill for the 8 of us plus Dom was the equivalent of $30.  By the time we left, people were waiting for our table, a good indicator in its own right.

On the ride home, 5 of the 8 nodded off as did Dom.  Shades of Saigon when the guide slept for the 2 hour ride back to the ship.

Although the custom on past Grand Voyages has been for guests to receive pillow gifts on formal nights, we continue to get only better pillow chocolates.  Then, on some whim, something will appear on our beds when we return from dinner.  Recently we found Tumi luggage scales and tonight we were presented with “ballistic nylon carry on travel bags” which have wheels and are noticeably larger than the carry-on bags from the dear departed Orient Lines which we have used since 2002.

TOMORROW -- Georgetown, Penang, and maybe some email

Mar 7 – No News and Bad News

First, the bad news.  MA seemed to have caught the gastrointestinal distress which has run rampant on shipboard.  Although she had no fever, there were other unpleasant symptoms, so she placed herself in quarantine and stayed in the room all day.  She did not even call room service for lunch and had some soup and chicken in the room for dinner.  We are hoping that she will feel better tomorrow, but she has already decided to skip the tour just to be safe.

The no news is just that.  We have heard nothing from the tour company in Israel yet, not even an acknowledgement that they received the email.  Likewise, Ken has not heard from his guide either.  Now all we can do is wait patiently. 

It seems that most of our tours have to have some element of confusion in them.  Today’s was no exception.  For operational reasons, we used tenders to go ashore this morning but were docked by the terminal in the afternoon.  Our guide did not realize this and was waiting inside the terminal for us while we waited outide in the morning heat.  D asked one of the local drivers to call our guide after assuring him that we had a pre-paid tour.  The driver cooperated and told the guide where we were.

Our problems were not over because once the guide appeared, he could not find the van we were to use.  He called the driver who said he was on his way with a “different” vehicle.  When he arrived, he was driving a 12-passenger van for 7 people [plus himself and the guide].  We told Raymond, the guide, to sit in the middle so everyone could hear him because the van had no microphone/speaker system.  Ironically, our printed itinerary showed a 9 a.m. start despite our 8:30 meeting time and we did, indeed, start out at 9 o’clock.

It wasn’t on the original itinerary, but we started at the Jewish cemetery.  [On the way, we passed St. George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in SE Asia; we paused only long enough for photos.]There are no Jews left in Penang, but the cemetery is still maintained, at least by local standards.  When Raymond asked about flowers, we explained that Jews do not place flowers on graves; instead, they put stones to show that the person was remembered.  Flowers will die in a week or less, but the stones will be there as a reminder forever.

The earliest grave dated from 1835 and the most recent was from 2011.  The early ones were written entirely in Hebrew except for the birth and death dates while the last one was a mixture of Hebrew and English.  As we placed stones on the grave of Mordecai David Mordecai, we wondered who performed his burial since he was apparently the last Jew in Penang.  We will never know.

The graveyard is maintained by an Indian woman who appeared to be in her 60s.  She inherited the job from her father who had inherited it from his father.  There seemed to be another generation on the grounds, so there may be a 4th generation waiting for the job.  The caretaker and her family live on-site and probably receive a stipend from the Trust which administers the cemetery.

We drove from here to the former synagogue.  The synagogue building now houses a photographic business of some sort.  There were no remnants of the synagogue visible through the windows, but the exterior was in good repair despite the absence of anything which might have identified its former life. 

Then it was time to “get with the program,” literally.  The first agenda item was a trishaw ride through parts of old Penang.  Trishaws are pedal operated rickshaws with the operator riding a bicycle pushing a passenger seated in the front.  This contraption has three wheels, thereby giving it its name.  We rode individually, seven Westerners trying to look inconspicuous while people stared.  We should have big Ts on our chests to symbolize our tourist status.  Overall, it was a great experience.

Georgetown is a UNESCO Heritage site which means that new construction may not exceed 60 feet or 4 stories.  On our ride we passed or passed through Chinatown, Little India, the Kwong Hock Keong Chinese temple [the oldest in Penang] and the Kapitan Keling Mosque.  We waved to friends from the ship as we raced at turtle speed through Little India; all of the operators were elderly and we felt a little guilty having them work so hard.  On the other hand, some drove as if they wanted to kill us, especially making illegal turns on red lights in heavy traffic.  It was fun but also a little frightening.

The trishaw ride ended at the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan-house.  Raymond met us there and, after we had tipped the drivers, explained about the clan system in Penang.  If it takes a village to raise a child, the clans served as the village.  They offered financial and emotional support to family members who were newly arrived and helpless.  Raymond said there were 5 clan houses in Penang, each serving a different family.  The Khoo clan was the most successful and the richest and there wealth was certainly on display in their clan-house.  The central of the three rooms was a Taoist shrine, ornately decorated in golds and reds.  The side rooms held plaques honoring the most successful members of the clan with their names and the universities they attended or their position in society.  One of the rooms held the remains of past leaders and important members of the clan.

Across the courtyard in front of this building was an opera stage where productions were held on special days.  It was also ornately decorated as was the exterior of the main building.  The roof was elaborate and colorful.  In a side area of the main building was a life-size model of what a typical Chinese home might have been like with 4 men sitting around a table using chopsticks to eat out of bowls.  There was also a kitchen are in the display.

Our last stop before lunch was the Kek Lol Si Temple, a Taoist temple built on a high hill overlooking the town.  Raymond said we could get out of the van and walk up to the temple but that it would take at least an hour in 95 degree heat and similar humidity.  We stayed in the van.  The hill was steep enough and tall enough that we were not sure we would make it up the winding roadway to the parking lot, but we did.

As always, we were assaulted by the elements as soon as the doors were opened.  We crossed the car park snapping pictures as we went until we were in the inevitable gift shop, one of several we would encounter here.  Raymond explained that we would have to walk up the hillside [mountainside?] to reach the enormous pagoda and Goddess of Mercy statue at the top.  A friend of Linda Starr’s, traveling with us instead of Arthur, declined and stayed behind while the rest of us started up.

Luckily, it was not a straight climb but a series of staircases with things to see and time to rest between flights.  It was still a long way up and there was little shade to be had.  We finally emerged into another large gift shop where Raymond purchased tickets for the ride to the top.  We relaxed in front of fans while we waited for the funicular car to arrive and then crowded in with other tourists and pilgrims for the short ride to the top.  The view as we rose up the incline was breathtaking.

Once at the top, we had to go through yet another gift shop to get outside and into the burning rays of the hot tropical sun.  There was only a slight breeze even on the top of this mountain.  It was here that the irony gods struck us because we found other Amsterdam passengers getting ready to climb into their minivan for the ride down!  We were dumbfounded.  We had just trekked up a bazillion steps in the heat and ey had driven.  Raymond explained that our driver did not think our van could make the climb to the top, a plausible explanation considering how it struggled to get to the parking lot.

Before us was the Goddess of Mercy, all 60 feet of her.  She had been visible for miles but we had no scale to estimate her size.  Raymond then told us the story of her personal sacrifices that ended in her transformation from devoted daughter [like Cordelia in King Lear] to Goddess of Mercy. 

Lower down the hill was the pagoda, seven levels of golden delight done in three differing architectural styles.  There were Indian, Chinese and Thai[?] influences as the style changed every 2 stories.  We did not approach the pagoda although we could see that others were there.  From a distance, it was easy to see where the pagoda changed from one style to another but it may have been harder up close.  We never took pictures on a level with it, always looking up.

We repeated the journey down the mountain – gift shop, funicular, steps, steps, steps, gift shop – until we met the driver and Linda’s friend.  She had spent most of the time in the van in some semblance of comfort but she was a bit testy when we regrouped.

We sort of ate lunch at the bottom of the hill at the 118 Café.  Outside the café were two WWII memorials, one a plinth commemorating the Chinese who help defend Malaysia against the Japanese and the other a memorial to the British who were there as well.  Or maybe it was to the Japanese.  The explanation was a little confusing; regardless, it was a life-size bronze of a jeep being pushed out of mud by several soldiers.

The 118 Café was a collection of food stalls around a central courtyard, nothing like the hawker food we encountered yesterday.  D found a place which looked promising and order chicken and rice which came with hot sauce and a cup of chicken soup.  When he returned to the table, he was surprised/disappointed that no one else was eating.  One couple who had been with us yesterday said they were not in the mood for rice again today; one offered no explanation and Linda and her friend were afraid to eat the local food.  Instead, several had the local beer.  Linda ordered watermelon juice but refused to drink or pay for it because it had ice cubes in it.  She settled for a beer and her friend for bottled water.  D had a real Coke.  While he was getting it, Annie drank the hot sauce which came with the chicken and declared it quite tasty and others [unidentified] nibbled at the rice.

Although she would not eat anything in the 118 Café, Linda stopped to purchase a pancake from an old woman who was making them on a portable stove outside the café.  We could not figure out why that was safe and the food inside was not, but Linda said the rolled pancake was quite tasty and filled with ground peanuts.

We were back on the road, then, on our way to the Reclining Buddha Temple.  This was a Thai temple which nonetheless had some Chinese influences.  Outside were large mirrored dragons, two in red and two in green.  The red ones represented China and the green represented Thailand.  There were also 2 larger-than-life statues done in red and green.

We had to remove our shoes [but not our socks] and hats before going inside.  The temple was resplendent in more gold and green.  The Buddha itself was over 100 feet long and laying on its right side.  As with all depictions of Buddha, the feet were perfectly flat and the toes were perfectly straight.  In front and below the Buddha were smaller statues of goddesses and celebrated monks as well as candles and donation boxes.  Worshippers could kneel on mats which had been provided for them.

Behind the Reclining Buddha we found two walls filled with glass-covered niches containing the remains of of the dearly departed.  As in many of the Asian religions, followers of Buddhism are cremated.  At this temple, those whose families could afford the fee were on display, so to speak.  The more the family paid, the better the placement and visibility of the urn.  The rows at eye-level cost the most.  The window on each niched contained information about the deceased.  There was a wall behind the Buddha itself, so it rose only to eye-level and then the outside wall opposite which rose at least 20 feet.  The niches at the top of that wall were the least expensive since no one could see or read them.

Across the street was another Buddhist temple, but this one was Burmese.  Like most Buddhist temples, it was really a compound with several buildings and beautiful grounds.  We wandered on our own for about 20 minutes before reassembling for the ride to our last port of call.

Just as the immigrating had their clan houses, so, too, did they have their own neighborhoods.  Because they were poor, they could not afford traditional housing in Penang, so they built shanty towns.  These were built on piers over the water as a way to avoid paying taxes to the government.  The clan jetties, as they are called, have morphed from strictly housing to shopping streets with carry-out food available along with sundries and tourist tchotchkes.  Most of the families live in back of their stores although there are still some places that are strictly residential.  Many of these had signs asking people not to take photographs.

We walked all the way to the end of the jetty where Raymond explained that the Chinese immigrants who lived here had once provided transportation for goods to and from ships in the harbor.  In those days, everything worked on a barter system.  The boats would go out to the ships and bring goods in; the merchants from both sides would haggle over the price; and then the Chinese boatmen would take the new goods which had been traded for out to the ships.  This system and their way of life changed drastically when barter was outlawed and the government found a new source of income.

We left the jetties and drove for only 5 minutes to return to the ship.  Raymond then asked for $12 apiece for entry fees [like the funicular] which was no big surprise because the original description said fees might be as high as $20.  No one complained and it gave at least one traveler a chance to rid himself of his remaining local currency.

MA was still not feeling well enough to come to the MDR for dinner, but D went without her because we had invited Ginger and Dave to eat with us.  Ken offered the three of us space at their table, but we declined and had a relaxing meal.  Meanwhile, MA had soup and chicken and no ill after-effects.

TOMORROW – Phuket, Thailand

Mar 8 – Elephant and Buddhas

Wonder of wonders, our guide showed up in the right place at the right time.  The ship was late arriving in Phuket because of tidal considerations, but we were still off the boat at 8:30 and found Jo at the front of the crowd awaiting passengers.

Jo, whose real first name is Patthanat, is a 33-year-old who has her own tour business.  When she books a trip such as ours through Tours by Locals, she takes the customers around herself, but when clients come from other sources, she assigns them to one of her other guides.  She hopes to get out of the guiding herself when she marries and has children.  She is in a three-year relationship with a Frenchman, but they have not talked seriously about marriage.  We found her to be charming, witty and generally fun to be around.  She also knew everything we wanted to know and then some. 

At one point during the day, she was giving language lessons to one of the group, explaining what words meant and how they were pronounced.  The problem with English, she said, was that the same letter combination can mean different things in different contexts and even be pronounced differently.  This was not news to us, of course, but she then explained that Thai has 34 consonants and 22 vowels and 4 tones which make it an inflected language.  Mom was right – it’s not just what you say but also the way that you say it.  The same pronunciation with each of the tones produces 4 individual words.  Phew!  It made English seem simple, at least to us.  She also said that she uses English and French almost exclusively and has trouble remembering Thai words when she is in conversation.

We started our tour on the west side of the island.  This where the tourists come, according to Jo, and we could see why.  From the Karon View lookout we could see three beautiful beaches and lush forests.  The vast expanse of the Indian Ocean complemented the shoreline and created a symphony of blue and green.  Jo said that Karon View is best known for its views of the sunset, but it was pretty spectacular by daylight.

Working our way eastward, toward the ship, we took time for a 30-minute elephant trek.  Luckily for us, it was the elephants which did the trekking.  All we had to do was hold on for dear life.  Elephants do not move quickly – they can’t run – but they lurch from side to side and front to back so there is never a truly steady moment.  Taking pictures from a moving elephant is an exercise in luck because they are only steady when they stop.

Our elephants made a big circle up a hill and then down the other side.  It wasn’t exactly exciting and we did not go through any water as D had outside of Bangkok in 2008.  On the positive side, no one got drenched by a frisky elephant.  The beasts seemed to hear their own drummer and would stop when they wanted to to forage or pick up sticks.  They knew the route and the routine and knew we were not going to get off.  Our “drivers” each stopped to take our pictures with our cameras [for which they were tipped about $2 each] and also tried to sell us trinkets after first leading us to believe we were receiving souvenirs from the ride.

To prove she was a good sport, Jo agreed to pose with the Flat Grandchildren and a baby elephant.  The grandchildren were the more cooperative.  The elephant did not want to hold still.  He even had the nerve to “kiss” Jo who had to wipe her face thoroughly when she returned to the van.

The highlight of the scenic overlook on the Phromthep Cape was the wedding party we observed.  Jo said that the couple had yet to marry and that these were pro-wedding pictures we were seeing.  The bride had a long aqua dress but was shoeless, all the better to keep her footing on the rocky outcrop where they were posing.  Jo told us that Thai people like to have their pictures taken and that the couple would not mind our gawking.  Oh, and the view over the surrounding hills and ocean was nice, too.

Several times this morning we saw a big white Buddha on top of a mountain.  We had no idea that it was known simply as The Big Buddha.  It has another official name but everyone knows it as The Big Buddha.  Even the signs pointing the way and the sign on its front say Big Buddha.  It is visible from all over standing, as it does, 45 meters tall on top of a mountain.  The Big Buddha is approximately 25 meters wide and gleamed in the bright midday sun.  It was hard to miss.

We drove yet again to a car park and yet again faced a climb to reach the top.  We entered through a covered shopping area and made our way to the bottom of the steps.  Ken and Lois did not want to climb or spend more time in the sun, so they stayed under cover while the rest of us walked up the stairs.  This climb was not as bad as our others [Uluwatu, the Pagoda] because it was shorter at only 78 steps and cooler because it was shaded overhead. 

Although Jo had told us that the Big Buddha was mostly solid concrete covered in marble tiles, we could not discern this until we were close to it.  It looked like a three-dimensional mosaic.  All of the marble tiles were the same but different since they were natural stone.  The back side of the statue is still incomplete and had scaffolding around it and there is still more work to be done to a ground level space.  Outside were statues of various Buddhas as well as bells strung at ceiling height around the covered walkway at the base of the Buddha.  These bells and statues will be placed inside once that area is completed.

Our final stop before lunch was at the Wat Chalong temple.  Wat is the word for temple in several Asian countries, so Wat Chalong temple is really redundant.  Again, this Buddhist temple was a compound with several buildings.  We explored several including one which is less than 20 years old.  At its very top is a relic of the Buddha himself, allegedly a piece of bone.  Once again we had to remove our shoes and hats as a sign of respect.  There were people in the temple praying as there had been at all of the others, so we tried to as unobtrusive as possible.

We found another couple taking wedding pictures outside one of the buildings so we all took their pictures, too.  We were only a little startled when fireworks were discharged at another of the buildings but only because Jo had warned us about it; the firecrackers were set off several more times while we were there.

There was more climbing involved in lunch.  We drove to the top of a mountain and then walked down the other side of the hill to get to Tunk-Ka, the restaurant.  It was pleasant but not air conditioned on the patio, but we had a panoramic view of the area from our table.  There was plenty of good food and everyone was happy.  To keep things simple, D charged the entire bill [about $70] and collected from everyone later.  Although the itemized bill was in Thai, Jo knew who had ordered what and placed symbols next to the items to indicate who had eaten what.  All D had to do was match the symbols and amounts.

Our itinerary included time to feed the monkeys and we thought it had been left out.  Jo explained that the monkeys in question were outside the restaurant and that she had fed them since we did not seem interested.  None of us had heard her mention it, but we all saw the monkeys as we left, so there were no hard feelings.

We were also supposed to take a walking tour in the old town of Phuket, but no one was anxious to get out of the van and into the inferno any sooner than necessary, so we went back to the ship instead.  We were home earlier than planned which made everyone happy.

Most of us wandered through WalMart on the Water, as we call it.  There was a small tent city of merchants and food vendors selling to passengers and crew alike.  D picked up something for Lois’ birthday tomorrow before going to the cabin to check on MA.  After Trivia he returned to WalMart to buy something for the tchotchke table in the den and a size 2 surprise.

MA seemed recovered from her intestinal distress and went to the MDR for her first real meal in two days.  Ginger joined us minus Dave who has had a relapse and is once again suffering the noro symptons.  Ginger is hoping it is just a reaction to some curry which sneaked into their lunch today.  We’ll learn more tomorrow.

Update on Israel:  There is no update because there has been no response to the email.

TOMORROW – A much-needed sea day.






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