Thursday, March 30, 2017

March 26th – Phuket is growing on me!

On my last couple of visits to Phuket, I've come away with a slightly negative impression of the place. This beautiful island is in danger of becoming over-developed, many of its tourist attractions are bordering on the tacky, and some of the people in the tourist industry have been a little on the aggressive side. But, after a very pleasant day spent in Phuket Town, my faith has been restored somewhat.

Even the taxi drivers weren't as horrible as normal. Of course, the guys in the gate tried to charge ridiculous prices ($70 for an 8 mile trip to Phuket Town? Get Lost!). Instead we just walked round to the port gates, and met a nice guy who would do the same trip for $15 – still over the odds I'm sure, but not quite the same rip off.

We did a self-guided walking tour around the historic streets of the old town, and in spite of the heat, we had a lovely time – there was plenty of interesting architecture to discover,  and the whole place seems to have had a bit of a makeover since our last visit here. Actually, the place had a fairly "genuine" feel to it – there were plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops aimed at tourists, but nothing was aimed at the mass market.

Some of the grandiose 19th century mansions left over from the island's tin boom still need to be done up, but the whole place seems to be going through a gentrification process. But, there's still a distinctly Thai character to the place – particularly in its busy market. When you see the stalls of delicious fresh fruit and veg on offer, you think that you could live pretty well here.

For lunch, we had a recommendation of a place that was very popular with the locals, but was spotlessly clean and had air-conditioning to satisfy us foreigners – Tu Kab Khao, on Phang-nga Road. The waiting staff were lovely, and I had the best Thai Green Curry I've had in a long time.

So, today proved that Phuket can still offer local culture, interesting sights and classy service - as long as you're looking in the right place.

Monday, March 27, 2017

March 25th – Feeling at Home in Penang

Ever since we first came to Penang when we were backpacking 17 years ago, I've always had a soft spot for the town. Maybe it's because of Penang's wonderfully preserved collection of historic architecture dating from the days when this was a colonial boomtown. Or, maybe it's because the diverse mixture of ethnicities who've settled here have given the town such an intriguing blend of cultures, religions and cuisines. Plus, it's one of the easiest towns to explore from a cruise ship – we dock right next to the colonial centre.

And in the last couple of years we have an extra reason to love Penang – our friends John and Phaik See live here, and they've been giving us a wonderful local insight into the place. So, they very kindly picked us up from the ship and took us round some of the most important sights in town. With every year, Penang seems to get better and better as it smartens up its act – more and more restaurants, smart cafes and boutique hotels opening up in its historic buildings.

We then went for lunch in a lovely seafood restaurant overlooking the sea – with the warm air blowing in from the water, we sampled some delicious food and wine and it began to feel like Penang would be a pretty good place to live. What's more, John and Phaik See had kindly smuggled in a bottle of champagne and an amazing 3-D jelly cake, so that we could celebrate Tracy's birthday in style a couple of days early. It was a wonderful lunch – great food and great company.

After lunch, we went to Suffolk House for tea. This splendid colonial mansion just outside of Georgetown dates from the very start of the British colony here at the end of the 18th century – it's so evocative of the Days of the Raj, that the House was used as a set for the British TV period drama, Indian Summers. Another superb piece of Penang architecture.

I don't know why, but in a way, visiting Penang feels a bit like coming home.

March 24th – A Stairway to Heaven in KL

As a city, Kuala Lumpur has a lot of things going for it – a booming economy, excellent infrastructure, diverse cultures, and an interesting mix of historic and ultra-modern architecture. But, for cruise passengers, its main drawback is its location – a good hour's drive from Port Klang (with the potential for longer, if the traffic seizes up, which it often does).

That means that most tours into KL tend to be flying visits. So, you're best off not trying to see too much, and just try to pick off one or two things to concentrate on. So, today my mission was just to visit the Batu Caves – an enormous set of limestone caves in the hills on the edge of the city that have become sacred to the city's large Hindu population.

Maybe it's the daunting physical task of getting up to the caves that gives them their mystique. In the shadow of a huge golden statue of the God Murugan, you have to climb up 272 very steep stairs to get to the top, whilst at the same time running the gauntlet of a troupe of rapacious monkeys who stalk you all the way, on the lookout for food – if you're not offering any, they're quite prepared to come and take it for themselves. In fact, Tracy and I were mugged by these simian bagsnatchers last time we were here – they ripped open my bag to steal an apple out of. Being mentally scarred by that experience meant that I made sure I was carrying no food, and gave these cheeky monkeys a very wide berth.

At the top, there's a few temples decorated with their typically florid statues, but the caves were emptier than I had remembered, mainly filled with puddles because the heavens had just opened, and dripping water was filtering its way through the limestone. But, it was an atmospheric enough spot, and at least the monkeys kept their distance.

On a muggy day, the climb up and down meant that we were all covered in perspiration at the end of our cave-pilgrimage, so it was good to get into the air-conditioning at the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory. To be honest, I'm not really in the market for some pewter mugs or jewellery, but it was relatively interesting to see the processes they go through to produce the pewter, and at least it acted as a reminder that it was tin mining that caused KL to be founded out in the jungle in the 1850s, and tin that fuelled much of the growth of the early colonial city.

If you wanted any proof that KL has moved on from low-tech mining to hi-tech manufacturing and oil production, then our final photo stop at the gigantic Petronas Towers confirmed this. In the 20 or so years since they were built, the towers may have slipped down the rankings from the World's Tallest Buildings, to now just Numbers 11 and 12 – but they are still an impressive statement of intent from a country with lofty ambitions.

Whether its tall staircases or tall buildings you're after, KL has plenty to offer – if only it were closer to the port.