Thursday, September 25, 2008

Days 30-33: Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a big city spread out over several islands: Hong Kong island (the central business district), Kowloon (the shopping district), and the New Territories. There is another island also.
The city is expensive, and, like Macau, is rich (not that Macau is cheap, which it is not). Whereas casinos are sprouting like mushrooms in Macau, Hong Kong is one of Asia's premiere financial capitals. There is everything and everyone here. In short, it is a very cosmopolitan city.
My hostel is located in Chunking Mansions, which sounds a lot more luxurious than it really is, to put it nicely. Is it really a residential building that is 15 stories high and is located in a very diverse area of Kowloon. In many ways, due to the people living here (not that I have anything against them), it feels like Little Nigeria. There are heaps of Africans and Middle Easterners.
There was a typhoon on the first day I arrived. And on the second. The weather was bad: usually rainy, very humid, and ultra hot.
Many of the people here still understand English. Cantonese is spoken by just about everyone, but the British influence still lives on in Hong Kong. Most of the signs are in English and Cantonese, as is the subway. Luckily, unlike for mainland China, most westerners don't need a visa to enter the country.
It is a city of contrasts, both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. Large, but manageable. Expensive, but not too much. Not particularly dirty, but not the cleanest in the world, either. In short, it's Hong Kong--a shopper's paradise and many people's gateway to Asia.

Days 29-30: Macau

Macau is a very enjoyable place for a day or two. The archipeligo is small--with a population of some 500,000--but it is insanely rich due to the casino construction boom that has no end in sight.
Gambling is so popular in Macau for several reasons. For one, as a Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR), the country gets to keep its own currency (the pataca), have its own domestic laws, etc. Beijing, as far as I know, only controls some of the politics and has the right to protect Macau with its army, but other than that, the place feels very different from China. The main difference is that while gambling is illegal in China and China's other SAR, Hong Kong, it is legal in Macau--and millions of Chinese and Hong Kongers alike visit Macau to gamble their newly earned money away. With millions of Chinese emerging from poverty, more and more are visiting Macau, so this boom feels like it's only beginning.
Macau is also a lot cleaner than China. Also, nationals of most western countries, such as the EU and U.S., don't need a visa to enter the country. When I saw the special $50 one-way Air Asia flight from KL to Macau I jumped at the opportunity, not only because of the price (which was the main determining factor), but also based on Macau's geographic location: just an hour away from Hong Kong on a ferry and right across from the mainland People's Republic of China. I almost missed the flight due to the distance of KL airport from the city center and because of the irregular bus service, but, luckily, all turned out to be okay.
In addition, Macau was only returned to China as a SAR in 1999 from the Portugese, who established the colony some 300 before the British arrived in Hong Kong. As a result, Macau has the distinction of being the first western colony in Asia. Today, the Portugese influence is everywhere: in the food, the signage (by law, all of the signs must be in Portugese and Cantonese, although only about 1% of Macanese speak fluent Portugese, according to surveys), and the culture, which feels like a mix of Chinese and European, as does the architecture. UNESCO included the Old Town of Macau in its list of world heritage sights recently.
Today, Macau has some two dozen casinos with a total revenue that is bigger than that of Las Vegas. The SAR also has the biggest casino in the world, which opened last year: the Venetian.
Perhaps the best thing about Macau, though, is that most of the things are free for the wise traveler. Free shuttle buses belonging to various casinos bus the travelers to the airport and ferry terminal--and anyone can board those buses, since tickets are only needed for the latter, and they can be acquired for free anyway. In the casinos, while playing slot machines or other games, one can always ask for food, water, and juice--it is implied that all are free, mainly as an incentive for the gambler to keep gambling his or her money. I happily took advantage of this. :)

Kuala Lumpur Continued...

I was lucky enough to secure one of the 1,000 or so free tickets up to the Petronas Towers, but that came at a hefty price nonetheless: waking up at 7 a.m. just to be at the Towers by 8. Since there's not that much to do in KL as far as tourist attractions go, I was really happy I got to rise to the 44th floor SkyBridge that connects the two towers. And the fact that it was free only made it better. The towers are truly an architectural feat.
An interesting note is that I ended up meeting Vladimir Yarets, who is the deaf motorcyclist trying to set a world record by driving through the most countries. I met him the day before in downtown KL when I was walking in the direction of my hostel. He travels the world on his motorcycle, as he has been doing so far countless years, and survives in part thanks to genorous philantrophists such as myself who donate a few pennies here and there for gasoline. Alas, the only picture we have together is on his camera, but I did manage to take a picture of the banner on his motorcycle saying that he has traveled to 70 countries and another picture of his travels around the USSR, which is included here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Days 26-28: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

It's hard to believe that I'll be departing Southeast Asia for good in just 2 days.

Yesterday I had quite an experience in Kuala Lumpur, more commonly called KL. I met a Korean national at my hostel who was spending his last day in the city and wanted to go clubbing before his plane for Laos this morning, so I went along.

He had the name of a good club called Nuovo, but when we arrived at 10 p.m., they said that things get going there at about 11.30 and offered for us to come back later. We agreed, and in the meantime went to the bar/club adjacent to it. Then we went across the street to a club, but saw that there way too many lonely women there (read: hookers), so we went back to the club next door from Nuovo. I forgot the name, but it was all right for an hour. Then we attempted to go back to Nuovo, but even at 12 midnight it was slow there, so we asked the owners what a good Malaysian club is that's frequented by locals. They suggested Blue Boy.

Well, it was quite an experience. I should have thought about it earlier. After all, Blue Boy wouldn't be the name of a typical club. And it wasn't. It was a gay-friendly club, which we only discovered upon entering. First we saw a singing contest, and while the music was great, I realized that there were no girls in the club at all. Finally, I spotted a few, but upon closer observation, they were more likely to be ladyboys.

Quite an experience. It was my first time in such a place. And, in all places, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is a Muslim-majority country. At least KL is contemporary, for I could not imagine the same thing, say, in Riyadh or even Qatar. But KL is different.

For one, KL, literally meaning "muddy estuary" in Malay, is mainly of Chinese descent. Indeed, some 55% of the city's residents are ethnic Chinese, which explains the omnipresent Chinese signage in the city. In this country of 27 million people, Chinese constitute about 27% of the population, with Indians comprising another 10%. While the country is some 60% Muslim, due to Malaysia's geographic location and demographics, it is "Muslim lite." It didn't even feel like Ramadan, since many of the food places are open during the day, as are many shops. Malaysia's minorities include Buddhists (some 20%), Christians (10%), and others.

The city KL itself is about 2 million people--with about 5 million more in the greater metropolitan area, so it's just a tad smaller than Chicago.

What was nice is that English is spoken by most locals. And spoken very well. Since Malaysia became an independent country only about 50 years ago, English is required in schools. Many older locals still remember it, while the younger generation learns it in school and the middle-aged know it for business. KL is a big financial center, too, boasting great infrastructure and architectural wonders, such as the Petronas Towers (pictured here). Alas, the picture isn't mine--it's from Wikipedia-- but the towers are an amazing feat.

After Cambodia, some differences are striking. The infrastructure here is many times better. There are most of the Western food and clothing chains, none of which, except KFC and Dairy Queen, I saw in Cambodia. And the food is different, too. After traveling around Southeast Asia for nearly a month, I have come to find one common ingredient in most locals dishes: rice. However, the way it is prepared is different from country to country. The Thai fry their rice and add curry to it, as do the Cambodians. The Cambodians, though, also eat sticky rice. Lao people, on the other hand, eat sticky, plain rice almost exclusively, as do the Vietnamese. Here in Malaysia it is fried with some chilis--and no lemongrass, as in Thailand. It has a tangy, bit spicy flavor to it and is not sticky at all. Out of all the rice I have tried, the rice here is probably my favorite.
I have also noticed about one other commonality: the widespread scourge of prostitution. It is everywhere, bar Singapore. I must have been stopped and offered a girl at least 10 times yesterday on my way to and from the club--and a massage at least 15 times. Even in Laos and Cambodia it's a similar situation, if a bit more tame. In Vietnam the pimps and/or hookers are super-aggresive, following foreigners on motorcycles. The difference is that in Thailand if it's officially illegal but the authorities turn a blind eye toward it (thereby indirectly, or directly, encouraging it), in communist countries such as Vietnam the police try to stamp it out, but it's not working. It's strange, indeed, for I had previously thought that only Thailand was a place where something like this is so widespread. I guess not. As long as Southeast Asia remains poor, it seems, despite the region's quick economic growth, prostitution will exist en masse.

Recommendation: A good book...

I've spent the last 8 hours starting--and finishing--a book that I bought from one of the child vendors at Angkor Archeological Park. It's about a young girl's acount of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s that led to the death of her parents and two siblings. The author, along with several other of her siblings, survived the four-year conflict and eventually went to Vietnam, then Thailand, and finally ended up in the United States.

The book is very interesting, shedding light on the Khmer Rogue regime's heinous crimes and on her desperate attempts to survive. This book is very similar to the Diary of Anne Frank, which focused on a similar genocide: the Holocaust during World War II.
If anyone is interested, the book is called First They Killed My Father and is written by Loung Ung. It was a U.S. national non-fiction bestseller.
I spent a whole day reading these memoirs rather than exploring Kuala Lumpur. For one, I have 3 nights in Kuala-Lumpur, and as far as must-see attractions go, KL doesn't have too many of them. I am waking up tomorrow morning to get one of several thousand free tickets that are given out daily to go up to the 44th floor off the Petronas Towers, which were previously the highest buildings in the world. For some reason, tourists aren't allowed to go higher, but the whole city can be seen from that height regardless. So I spent today reading this book from cover to cover, which I definitely don't regret, but... now I don't know how I'm going to kill my time on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I had originally purchased this book to read it on the long one-week train ride from Vladivostok to Irkutsk (3 days) or from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow (4 days), which I will be taking in October-November. Oh well, I guess this means that I'll swap this book for another one at a free book exchange that some hostels have.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Some budget clarity...

So I added up my expenses and I am exactly $165 over budget. In other words, my deficit is growing, but not all is bad.

Here's why.

All in all, $165 for travelling 25 days is about $6-7 per day--not that much money in the end. And it comes, more or less, from the following areas that I failed to take into account when calculating my trip budget:

- 1% foreign currency conversion fees = about $10
- ATM fees = about $10
- Buying unnecessary drinks when I am in too good of a mood (either for myself or others) = $10
- Cambodia departure tax = $25
- Laundry fees = $12 (I was going to do this myself, but for $1/kilo, hell, I'll pay to save time while I can)
- Internet = $12 (I thought all of my hotels have this for free, but so far only a handful did)
- AirAsia ticket = $36 (when my flight to Phuket can canceled because of the airport closure...)

This is about $115. More than a third (but under half) of the aforementioned budget deficit--such as the Air Asia ticket or the Cambodia departure tax--are one-time things. The other expenses are from, well, spending too much. Both of those will be cut back on for sure, either involuntarily or voluntarily.

Still, starting with China, I'll cut back as much as I can. No more three-course meals for $5... a one course meal for $3 with water instead of a fruit shake should suffice. :)

More pics of Angkor Archeological Park (Day 2)