And what a year of travelling it was! Two trips each to Thailand and Terengganu, and trips to two major national parks in Malaysia. That particular season of travel stretched from May to late August—during summer holidays at the centre where I teach.
The series started with a trip to Thailand (19-23 May) via the 'dark side', via Kelantan, with George. We took a compartment on the overnight train to Kelantan, hung around for a bit in Kota Bharu with Teeming and friends, literally walked across the border to Thailand, and spent a night each in Hat Yai and Songkhla, before taking the train back to KL from Hat Yai, via the Padang Besar crossing.
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It all started with dinner at Kenny Rogers', KL Sentral, with Kaun, Ai Wei, Yen and Tim. Kaun was supposed to join us on the trip, but pulled out due to other commitments.
It would seem that Kaun and Ai Wei are bad luck when it comes to dinners before train rides; the last time I missed a train was when the three of us were having a leisurely dinner at the E&O hotel in Penang! Thinking the train would either be just on time, or even five minutes late, we were at the dinner table until 8.30, whereupon George left to check if the train had arrived. Five minutes later, he called and said, in a rather shaky, shocked tone, that the train had left.
My immediate reaction was one of panic, and I think I spent a whole five minutes thinking of what other options we had. By the time I joined George near the KTM ticket counter, it was about 8.45. It was then that a bright idea came to mind: we checked what time the train would arrive at Seremban, the next staion. The stop was scheduled at 9.45. I figured we could get there in 45 minutes by taxi, arriving a narrow 10 minutes before the train, assuming the train would not be ahead of schedule there.
And so we bundled ourselves in a taxi, trying, for the first time in my life, to overtake a missed train. A dramatic 50 minutes later (we took a wrong turn at Terminal 1, Seremban), our enthusiastic and flawless taxi driver got us to the station where we discovered, much to our joy and relief, that the train had not yet arrived.
It would arrive only at about 9.50, five minutes behind schedule.
George and I kept silence on the platform, and it was only after we had put our luggage down in the compartment that we burst out laughing quite like we'd never burst out laughing before. It was almost too good to be true. Almost, because there we were, for real, inside the compartment and safely rattling away on the journey we had meticulously planned weeks in advance.
Sea of green, Kelantan.
The night in the compartment was one of the best train experiences I'd had. It wasn't particularly spacious, but there was privacy, and the lower berth doubled as a nice sitting space. We had the convenience of a sink and mirror in the compartment, as well as a giant window through which to view the passing landscapes.
The buffet coach was operating, much to our delight; it sometimes doesn't run on the west coast trains. For breakfast, we had toasted sandwiches; I had coffee as well, and George had iced Milo and (I think) nasi lemak.
We arrived at Wakaf Bharu on Friday morning, 20 May, and took a taxi eastwards into Kota Bharu.
Man with kopiah on trishaw, Kota Bharu.
Kota Bharu is about as Malay a town as it gets. Separated from the rapid urbanisation that characterises the west coast of Malaysia, it retains some of that suburban tranquility that is fast becoming extinct in places like KL and PJ (though it does exist if you know where to look).
But one of the most pleasant surprises was to discover that trishaws still existed—real trishaws used by real people for real purposes, not those touristy ones that crawl all over Malacca and Penang.
Every weekend there is a bird-singing contest at the padang along Jalan Sri Cemerlang, in the northern part of the city. I don't know what the origins of these contests are, but apparently the same species of singing bird is popular across the border as well, for we saw some of them in the border town of Sungai Kolok.
We paid a visit to the padang, and had morning tea at one of the houses across the road, which had opened up its premises as a tiny eatery of sorts, catering to the bird crowd. I think George went for the nasi lemak, while I had some sort of gulai ikan, fish in heavy coconut curry. The family—from grandmother to granddaughters—speak excellent English.
A city's signboards are often revealing, subtly—though sometimes overtly—declaring its values and priorities. Here, apparently, even burgers get parking spaces!
I don't know how true it is that the burger stall operator actually has a city council-issued permit to take up those parking lots, but it's the first time I'd ever seen such a bold signboard!
While this looks like a pro-environment message, one can't help but wonder if a rather different meaning was intended, given that the state is run by PAS, the Malaysian Pan-Islamic Party (Parti Islam Semalaysia).
This made me think of SooT, what with its very communist colours. Furthermore, the wheat stalks reminded me of the sickle, a symbol of the Soviet Union. I know that SooT doesn't consider himself a communist, but then communism and the Soviet Union remind me of people like Marx and Lenin, and they, in turn, make me think of people like SooT.
Teeming drove us to Pantai Irama, southeast of the city, where we spent some time wading in the water and just taking in the seaside air.
We then headed to Teeming's campus, USM's Health Campus (Kampus Kesihatan, Kubang Kerian), to take some photos of her around the campus grounds. There was a green area with a lake and a few impressive trees, and we had a good evening there.
Along the way, we spotted at least two half-drunk drink plastic bags. It seems that I most frequently encounter them on trips—random or otherwise—with George, hence he also (subconsciously?) takes notice of these things whenever we're out together.
Border crossing at Sungai Golok, Kelantan-Thailand border.
In Kota Bharu, we spent the night at the KB Backpackers hostel, run by the enigmatic Pawi (we still quite haven't figured out if he's Malay, Thai, both, or neither). Disregarding his advice to go to one of the Thai islands instead of Hat Yai and Songkhla ("Why you go Hat Yai and Songkhla? You want to see Malay man, you go Hat Yai. Songkhla? Nooo. You go Ko Samui..." and so on and so forth), we boarded one of the Cityliner buses to the Kelantan border town of Rantau Panjang.
The border conveniently runs along the river known as Sungai Golok in Malay, and Sungai Kolok in Thai. The Thai border town on the other side is called Sungai Kolok, after the river that separates the two countries.
It's not every day that you see a signboard like this, let alone enter another country by foot. Most people fly these days, and even when crossing overland, people take buses or trains. Here, we literally walked across the border.
Muslim man, Sungai Kolok.
I was trying to pull of a Steve McCurry-style portrait, with my 105mm f/2.5 lens and Fujichrome Astia film. McCurry always created the most striking portraits, but then he was also known for spending a good deal of time building rapport with his subjects, something I didn't do in the least.
(Come to think of it, great portraits are never candid ones. Martin Schoeller's subjects are always fully aware of being photographed, as are McCurry's portrait subjects.)
The Sungai Kolok railway station was surprisingly busy, and I think there were a fair number of Thai travellers (judging by the language spoken), though I'm sure there were probably also a sizable lot of Kelantanese.
We caught the 2.20pm (though I think it was delayed to 3-something or so) train to Hat Yai. Thailand is an hour behind Malaysia, because Malaysian time is pegged to Sabah time.
It was a pleasant journey, although the armed soldiers onboard the train served as both a reminder of the general unrest in these southern parts of Thailand, as well as a small insurance against any terrorist attacks. Riding through the countryside, though, all I could feel was that life still went on in spite of the sporadic bursts of violence, and that, for the residents of the 'deep south', it was literally business as usual.
True to accounts of train rides in these parts, hawkers were present at nearly every other stop along the way, selling all sorts of food. We had, I think, a light lunch at the Sungai Kolok station (or perhaps it was only a drink), so at this time I was already feeling quite hungry.
I bought a rice dish served on banana leaf with friend chicken and something like a cross between sayur lodeh and green curry, from the Muslim lady on the right. Rice is called khao in Thai, and so whenever someone came up along the side of the train—or along the aisle inside—calling out "Khao, khao!" it meant they were selling food, usually, but not always, rice.
We got into Hat Yai before sundown, and George managed to exchange some money before the banks closed for the day; Teeming lent me some Thai baht, so I was alright for the time being. We checked into the Cathay Guest House along Thanon Niphatuthit 2 (thanon is Thai for 'road'), near the railway station. At 200 baht (RM20) for a twin room, it was the cheapest I'd ever paid for accommodation with en suite bathroom.
We spent the night walking the pasar malam near the guesthouse, passing on Pirates of the Caribbean in a local cinema, and had dinner in a western restaurant called Post Laserdisc (several hundred metres down Thanon Thamnoonvithi from the railway station). The food was good, and reasonably priced; but the best part was the 'happy hour' mixers, which could be had as cheaply as 50 baht for, say, a standard mixed like Bacardi and Coke.
The next morning, I was up just after sunrise and went out for a morning walk while George slept in. I walked further on along Thamnoonvithi and came upon this Roman Catholic church, which I photographed against the early morning sun.
Along the same road, I also saw some buses with Malaysian registration plates and yet another half-drunk drink hanging from a bus stand! I got lost thereafter, trying to find my way to one Wat Romankathorik (no prizes for guessing what inspired the name) that was on the map (one of those useful WEM maps which I've been using for my travels around Malaysia).
I ended up taking a big loop around the southern part of the city, before finally regaining my bearings and heading back to the hotel.
Hung out to dry, Hat Yai.
It was a Sunday, and along the way the streets declared that it was a public holiday, with many shops and stalls closed (or not yet open?). The sudden quietness stood in stark contrast with the noise and liveliness of the night before.
As I was walking, many motorcycle taxis stopped to offer me a lift. I declined, wanting instead to explore the city—and find my way—on my own.
Back on Thamnoonvithi, just a couple of blocks from the guesthouse, I stopped to pick up some breakfast yew char koay for myself and George. This old man was making and selling some by the roadside—one of the few signs of life other than the busy coffee shops nearby.
He was a rather shy man, and even when telling me how much to pay he barely whispered "Sip baht" (ten baht).
When George finally got up we headed to this air-conditioned café called Daothiam, also along Thamnoonvithi, for noodles.
I must say that, for what it's worth, I like Thai noodles quite a lot. Nothing beats the curries and laksas of Malaysia, but as far as clear, brothy noodles go, the Thai ones are way up there. This was only my introduction to Thai noodles, and a little more than a month later, I was back for more—but that's another story.
Hope for tomorrow, Hat Yai.
Being a Sunday morning, we thought of dropping into a Thai church for service. We found one—although I cannot now remember the name—along Thanon Phetkasem, on the way to the fountain circle. There, we were greeted by a church elder called Chan Wit, who incidentally spoke English, being a lecturer/researcher at a hospital/medical school.
The sermon was delivered in Mandarin, and translated into Thai, as the pastor does not speak Thai; apparently he is Korean or something, and married a Thai woman. I could pick out a few words and phrases, but by and large George and I couldn't understand anything. Still, it was a good experience, and I believe the fellowship of believers goes beyond the languages we speak or don't speak. Chan Wit's hospitality was already such a pleasant start, and to be welcome at the post-service lunch along with the rest of the congregation was a further blessing.
We were introduced to a young seminarian from Bangkok, who was sent to Hat Yai for a short stint at the church; and things like this, missionaries and all, we can understand though we come from such different cultures and backgrounds, because these things lie at the heart of the entire Christian movement. It hit further home some months later, when I discovered, during Convo Dinner, that Ruth Vinoth was spending some time on mission work in Hat Yai itself.
In this part of Thailand, at least, they still hand-paint movie posters. There's George with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.
Contrary to Pawi's advice, we barely found any obvious Malaysians in Hat Yai; it Thai enough for us, but still not quite as Thai compared to our next stop, Songkhla. There is so much to be said about Songkhla, and it would merit a study on its own, but the first impressions I got went along the lines of 'mighty ancient kingdom on the coast'. There are many ancient Thai settlements, and famous sites like Ayutthaya come to mind, but this is one of the few (if not the only one) that sits proudly in between a sea and a 'lake'.
Trivia: Songkhla is Sai's hometown.
National Museum, Songkhla.
Situated on a piece of land in between the Gulf of Thailand on the east, and the Thale Sap lake on the west, Songkhla is the site of an ancient civilisation, the remains of which are displayed in the small but well—presented and informative Songkhla National Museum.
The museum is housed in an old Chinese mansion, with the lovely courtyards typical of the Chinese mansions of time past. Several giant anchors from ancient ships are on display in the museum's large lawn.
Admission was 150 baht (RM15)—pricey if you think of the Smithsonian Museums, which are free, but well worth it for a glimpse into the history of the city, hard to be gotten any other way.
In the evening—and it was an ominously cloudy evening—we climbed the naga (dragon) stairs all the way to the 105-metre-high Phra Chedi Luang temple on top of Khao Tang Kuan (Tang Kuan hill/mountain). Along the way, we stopped at the King Rama IV pagoda/rest house, where George took some particularly awesome photos.
The chedi offers a superb, panoramic view of the city, the Gulf of Thailand and the Thale Sap.
Royal colours in a stormy sky, Songkhla.
One of my favourite photos from the trip. I know the dynamic range is a bit problematic, but I found this picture symbolic of what I felt about Thailand, both on this trip and the next. In the midst of the political storm, bright rays shine; not just the royal connection in the reverence of Thais for the monarchy, but the whole idea of yellow being a hopeful colour.
And on the subject of literal storms, look what happened in Bangkok some months later!
Gulf of Thailand coast, Songkhla.
The storm did hit, and we were trapped at the foot of Khao Tang Kuan. A couple of bottles of orange juice later, we decided to run towards the beach (near BP Samila hotel) for one of the seafood restaurants we saw there earlier. It was still raining, albeit much lighter than before, but we figured that if we didn't start running, we'd be stuck for a long time.
It was a beautiful sunset on the coast, a beauty not even the storm clouds could extinguish (and some might even say the best sunsets come after the worst storms). I've always felt, perhaps subconsciously since Pangkor 2009, that seascapes ought to have boats in them.
This sunset was captured on Portra 160VC. Not as wildly saturated as Velvia—or a crossed process slide film—would've been, but just alright.
George in songtaew, Songkhla.
After a somewhat filling dinner, we started walking back to the guesthouse. A songtaew (pickup with two rows of seats) stopped by and the driver offered us a ride. It was agreed we'd pay 10 baht (RM1) but we ended up paying 20 baht (RM2) because, according to the driver, it was 10 baht each. I didn't think that was our initial agreement, but it was late and I had neither the mood nor vocabulary to argue, and besides, it was only RM1 extra and not worth the effort.
After a shower (we were still slightly messy from the rain, I think) at the Romantic Guest House (Thanon Platha) where we lodged for the night, we were out again looking for drinks. Countless 7-Elevens later (they seem to be everywhere in Thailand), we ended up in the nearby Thanon Sisuda, which was more like Mat Salleh central than anything else.
We had some mocktails at the Irish Pub, before settling for some heavier stuff at the Corner Bier (where I had a glass of white wine). The Corner Bier was rather dead, but the decoration was tasteful, if simple: there was an impressive collection of liquor bottles and a large-enough Soviet Union flag, among other flags and paraphernalia.
The best part of the night, however, had to be the drinks and snacks we had at a place whose name we never figured out, but which, from the signboard outside, seemed to be "63, Thanon Sisuda". It is an easy enough place to spot, with its generally youthful clientele and candlelit tables. It was such a laid-back place, and obviously popular with the locals; it always seems to be a good indicator that, to find good food, go where the locals go.
Porridge stall, Songkhla.
Next morning, I somehow convinced George to rise early—before sunrise—and follow me to Khao Noi (Khao Tang Kuan's sister hill) to catch the sunrise, if possible from one of the sites of the ancient ruins. He agreed to come, reasoning that he couldn't leave me walking the streets of Songkhla alone in the dark.
We failed to locate the ruins, which we probably overgrown or completely excavated, but we did have a pleasant-enough walk on the hill. On the way back to the guesthouse, we stopped by a porridge stall on Thanon Sukhum (or nearby) for breakfast. The porridge was very nice, and seemed to be popular among the locals, and many school children stopped by for breakfast, too.
The rest of the morning was spent asleep in the guesthouse—one of my first long knockouts, a rarity for me while on trips—and we finally checked out, walking past the scary owl painting in the stairwell, and returned to Thanon Sisuda for lunch at a restaurant called Parlang.
There, the women running the restaurant didn't speak English, but they were so resourceful and enthusiastic—they looked up Google and translated the Thai menu for us!—that we had to stay for lunch. We had the famous Thai mango salad, which was perfectly zesty and spicy, among other things. After lunch, the proprietors even went so far as to drive us to a bus stand from which we could take a bus back to Hat Yai!
Porters outside railway station, Hat Yai.
We arrived early enough in Hat Yai, where the train was scheduled to depart at 4.00pm. I did not check earlier if the 4.00pm on the KTM schedule was in Malaysian or Thai time. If the latter, it would mean 3.00pm Thai time, and we'd have to get to the station earlier (our watches weren't set to Thai time).
Turned out the 4.00pm was Thai time, so we had a whole hour to spare. We managed a quick tea of noodles and iced tea at one of the coffee shops on Thanon Thamnoonvithi—I was desperately searching for some of that dark red milk tea we were served at Sabai Dee in Honolulu—where the tea was redder than our usual teh tarik, but not quite red enough.
That would be our last meal on the trip, as no food was served on the train.
Packed buffet coach on the Senandung Langkawi, Hat Yai to KL.
And so the journey came to an end the morning of 24 May. George and I have not been on a trip since, although we are very much looking forward to April and, if all goes well, Aug/Sept this year.
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I used Portra 160NC (colour, Kota Bharu), Portra 160VC (Songkhla, KL Sentral), TriX (all B&W pictures), Astia (Sg Kolok, Hat Yai) and digital (railway to KB, George in songtaew, Hat Yai noodles, and those signboards and miscellany for which I did not want to waste film).
While I've really settled into TriX for B&W, I've yet to settle into a colour film, although Portra looks like the obvious choice: Portra 160 for controlled shoots (e.g. portraits/indoor where I can use flash), and 400 for everything else.
As a colour film, Astia has always been my number one, but it's not very forgiving in less-than-perfect light. This was the last roll I shot before discovering that Astia had been discontinued, and I haven't shot any of my remaining six rolls since.
I used the FM10 with 28mm and 105mm lenses. A red filter was used for most of the outdoor B&W photos.