Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sri Melaka

Ash Wednesday, 2012.

We live in strange seasons
Desiring pain in prosperity, and emptiness
Where there is more than enough.

Peeling tangerines, the hands fragrant
Reminiscent of the celebrations of years past
(The years have passed so fast.)
“Oh, look how he’s grown,” to “Are you married yet?”
The world itself a smaller place—
Or, perhaps we, having grown, now occupy more space.
The ceiling lower, or we’ve grown taller
Our parents aged, and we’ve grown older.

I saw an egret alight on a tree,
A rarity in the rampant emptying of resting places.
Our social graces extinct in the gentrified gutters of the city,
Sunk like stones sinking in koi ponds,
Which, for the most part are coy ponds
In their deception—
Teeming, apparently, with life, while the only life
Is wheels turning, water recycled, fish floating
Suspended in the mirage of a living pond.

Somewhere between the sleeping station and the roaring jungle river
My destiny awaits.
I greet it with stale oranges bearing my name,
Kept for this very purpose
To be flung into the darkness
In hopes of being found.
There’s no one around, "Quick, into the cabin!
Into the shower while no one’s watching—"
Midnight masquerades with ourselves
While the moon shines bright as day.

We live in strange seasons
Desiring pain in prosperity, and emptiness
Where there is more than enough.

The survivor, seven times struck by lightning
Severed the cord of his life
On account of a failed relationship;
Depression—the electrical impulses within,
More powerful than those without. 
Emptiness, where there is more than enough
To discourage, to disrupt, to destroy—
Who would not desire a simpler life,
The yesterday of India over the tomorrow of Japan?
Two futures, but we proceed into neither
For the future is every decision we make today.

Pierced bodies in procession, momentarily
Interrupted for political interludes, birds caged,
Aged eagles with unspreaded wings
Chattering into an impatient crowd.
Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have
None of these can give—
No manifestoes, no mock cheques, no masterful orations or oratorios
But the blind see, the deaf hear, the sick are cured
The dead are raised to life.

It’s a long night’s journey.
Realistically, I’ll need four hours—
I’ll start at seven,
Work will take me till eleven.

A suicide wish: four snails, several metres apart,
Crossing a three-foot pathway, no fear
Of jogger, or childer, or dogs
With dogged determination at the hour of death.

I came by this way before; I’ll come by this way again
With nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.
The world is your oyster. Thank you,
I’ll have mine with lemon juice and Tabasco sauce
My magnum opus in six days because
It’s all I have.

Watch me in seventy-two
(Between sunset, moonset and sunrise too);
O you who look to seaward, sit still
Among these rocks, in ship-filled docks
And windowsills.

* * *

Written on Ash Wednesday, the poem incorporates thoughts, events and reflections since Chinese New Year. The title itself draws from several particularly strong childhood memories of Chinese New Year.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Beginnings

Looking through my 'draft' posts, I discovered this entry/poem which was meant to go up in early 2011—over an entire year ago.

It was something I wrote at the BLC 'New Beginnings' retreat at Peacehaven, Genting Highlands, from 7-9 January 2011; Sivin's 'farewell' retreat.

* * *

New Beginnings

You cannot write when it is too bright; there is a glare.
Window light, muted through matted glass is best;
It will pass for the part that matters—
Pen or pencil, and paper—
While the rest sits within the darkness, recessed.

Blow wind, blow away the masked charades of yesterday—
The hiding and not wanting to be seen, and all the lying in between.
How can you lead when you can barely follow;
How can you eat when you can barely swallow
A drop of the cup that is fire and briars?

Noel said to Tim,
Come up, you'll feel like the king of the universe
And also scared.
I wonder if the kings of this world were similarly
Unprepared to live on the mountains
They had dared to conquer,
To tread between the gaining and the losing,
And the hiding in the upper rooms.

Between the coffee and the spoons of sugar, a piece
Of bad news, yet for now, life resumes.

[Written on Saturday, 8 Jan; during the morning reflection. "And the hiding in the upper rooms" added later.]

* * *

The young men of BLC.

Mich and Joan, one.

Mich and Joan, two.

Mich and Joan, three.

Girl, Sivin and Mich.

It would seem the three of them are really living quite the life now. Sivin and family are doing great in Norway, Joan's having quite the experience of a lifetime near Sivin and SooT, and Mich—well, let's just say Mich is in the midst of something very life-changing. ;-)

Friday, February 24, 2012


Welcome to Indonesia!

Dial 121 for your Voice Mail and 123 for Customer Care, the same way as you do in Malaysia.

Have a pleasant stay with Telkomsel.

[Tanjong Piai, Johor, 6 Feb 2012.]

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Receiving everything someone in your position could ever want, and walking away from it.

Imagine looking the girl you've wanted to be with for 'donkey months' (so a friend says) in the eye, and walking away from her.

Some things don't change, like the ice-cream man outside school.

You've got to figure this road out for yourself. You're not living somebody else's life.

Good Will Hunting is such an apt movie for times like these. And a great movie to kick Lent off.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Taman Negara, August 2011

When the family went on a trip last year with Aunty Daphne's family, I was excited—at the prospect of the trip more than the destination itself.

While I'd never been to Taman Negara before (unless you count the part where the BF Classmates crossed the north border of Taman Negara via Kenyir), I must confess I wasn't particularly thrilled about entering a rainforest yet again. Three years of walking through rainforest was quite enough for me!—hence even the Bukit Tinggi trip with Thary was more of a favour for a friend than anything else.

We were there over the Merdeka/Hari Raya weekend, and left on the first day of Raya.

I didn't take many pictures on this trip, partly because I just wanted to relax and have a real holiday, but also partly because it was a rainforest and I'm not much of a wildlife photographer. Don't get me wrong; the rainforest is a beautiful and majestic place, and Malaysia's rainforests are about as good as it gets. But while factory visits may be fun for school groups, they are probably not nearly as fun for the factory workers themselves.

That is not to say the trip was devoid of interest. I very much enjoyed the solo trail run at 6.00 a.m. on the third day (we stayed three nights), in the darkness and the rain. It was a misty and overcast morning, but the run itself was worth every centimetre of ground covered. And no photographs can capture experiences as awesome as that—you have to be there to do it yourself.

* * *


Big buttress roots.

Fiddlehead at dawn, Bukit Terisek.

Mist over canopy, view towards Gunung Tahan from Bukit Terisek.


Roosting (sleeping) birds at night.

(A rare sight!—thanks to our guide, Abdullah, for pointing it out.)

The boar, Mutiara Taman Negara.

Careful where you put your fingers! I got bitten—gnawed on, more like—trying to get closer for a super-close-up shot, and saw myself across the river for an antitetanus jab at the Klinik Kesihatan.

Termites on (tree) trunk.

I thought the 'formation' kinda looked like some sort of bird—or an elephant's head and trunk.


Jetty at evening, Kampung Kuala Tahan.

The village is named for the confluence of Sungai Tahan from the north and Sungai Tembeling from the northeast.

Rapids shooting—splash!

Cruising up Sungai Tahan.

The two families.

* * *

Technical matters:

I shot Tri-X and Velvia 50. Still can't really wrap myself around Velvia! Nikon N80 with 18-35mm, 70-210mm and 50mm lenses.

It was the last significant film outing of the year—not counting the rolls of Portra and Ektar used at Val's and Kaun's Convo shoots, Diwali season, and Audrey's wedding reception in December, and the odd roll of Tri-X shot every now and then.

Photographically, the KB/Thailand trip with George yielded perhaps the most balanced portfolio of the year; but there was still a long way to go in reconciling the photographic 'liveliness' of the Kenyir trip (brilliantly colourful, if somewhat 'unfocused', with the extensive range of films used) and the more intentional streamlining of Mensa Thailand and Kuching.

Something that wasn't quite addressed until the 'Roaring Tiger, Sleeping Station' trip earlier this month. But that's a story for another post. ;-)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentine's: True at First Light

In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there, absolutely true, beautiful and believable.

~ Epigraph from Ernest Hemingway's True at First Light

The phrase 'true at first light' came to mind when I saw these sunrise scenes unfolding before me at Chagar Hutang, Redang.

* * *

Eric Peris says, "Don't worry too much about what people think of your photographs. If they don't like your pictures, it's their problem, not yours."

He says, "Look at pictures in books and magazines, but don't copy them because they have been done before. Do something different. Be a rebel, but not a rebel without a cause."

We met over lunch on 28 Jan with Aunty Sheila, Alan and another friend of theirs.

In the week that followed, I decided I was ready to be a rebel with a cause. A rebel against the current trends in which cameras are vested with so much power. Against 51 AF points, against 5 frames-per-second, against high ISO and fancy lighting and more megapixels than you can wrap your head around. Even, against flawless metering.

There must be some room for error.

Photography should not be about the ability to compensate for bad light—unless you are a journalist and you don't have a choice under some circumstances. If the light is poor, why bother shooting? Go where the light is already great, because there, no matter what, the pictures will always be awesome.

* * *

I saw this quote on Sam's blog yesterday:

"Why didn't I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future."

~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

It's so true. And I don't want to let this year slip through my fingers as I often have allowed the years to. There is no future—the future is now and everything I do in the present becomes whatever I imagine my future to be.

In Africa, Hemingway writes, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon. That which is true now, may not be true later, or tomorrow, because by then we would have changed and it would be too late to recapture what we felt, and knew, to be true now.

The time is now, and this is the year to act.

* * *

And then there are the people you love, across seas, across mountains.

I can never forget 2006.

A place where everything was unexpectedly possible. I don't think it would be an overstatement to say, once again, how much I owe to you for recording that video, but most of all for being there.

For always being there.

It was my 'Lemon' moment.

A man captures colour
A man likes to stare
He turns his money into light to look for her

Bono was writing about the experience of seeing video footage of his mother in her childhood, about how we seek to immortalise our experiences in photographs and videos.

And when I see myself again, I see her. Now I know what Eric Peris means when he says that he is in his photographs, because she was there with me in the captured light.

* * *

Photographs replicate reality, it would seem. But I think it is more accurate to say that photographs distort reality. A thing is true at first light, and a lie by noon, because you are not the same person who saw what you saw when at first you saw it. And when others come to see what you claimed to have seen, they naturally do not see it either.

The first photograph, the colour photograph at the top of this post, represents the light I saw, the sunrise I experienced. But if you—or someone else—stands where I stood, looking in the same direction at the same time, expecting that light, you would not find it.

I actually like the black-and-white sunrise better. Mind you, this was not converted from a colour photograph! I shot in on B&W film, on a different morning.

The colour photograph is closer to what I saw, but then it is a little too real and leaves too little for the viewer's imagination. Good photographs, like good novels and good art and good music, should always leave room for the viewer's imagination, should always draw the viewer in, and to do so they must never say too much or say things too obviously.

That is why black-and-white, by stripping the world of colour, forces us to engage with the photograph on a different level. Why is shooting in B&W different from shooting in colour and then converting to B&W? Because the photographer himself must also engage the world on this other level, and before stripping the viewer of the crutch of colour, he must first strip himself.

Colour is illusion, colour is distraction.

But amidst all the changing, swirling colours of life you have been as consistent as black-and-white. You have always been there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Kuching 2011

Five days. Three hot girls. Trouble if I ever saw it coming.

But, I didn't. And 10-14 July 2011 was spent in Kuching with Teeming, Tien and Nasha. The trip turned out to be great fun in a laid-back sort of way, with all sorts of unexpected little twists and turns.

Tien and I had been meaning to visit Bako, Teeming hadn't been on a holiday with us in some time, and I wanted to hang out a bit with Nasha before she left for the States.

We arrived on Sunday, spent Monday in Damai and Santubong, Tuesday in Bako, Wednesday in Semenggoh (after which Nasha parted ways to return to KL) and Kuching, and Thursday just hanging about town, before nearly missing our evening flight back to KL. We were joined now and then by Teeming's friend, Lynn.

Tien got us a room for all four nights at the Anglican Guesthouse, St Thomas [sic] Cathedral.

* * *


St Thomas Cathedral, where Teeming and I went for evening service on Sunday.

Main hall, Anglican Guesthouse.

A simple accommodation, but reasonably priced (it was something like RM40 a night for a twin-sharing room) and managed by the very friendly Pilot.

They don't call the city Kuching for nothing.

Damai and Santubong

The stretch at Damai Beach, my introduction to Sarawak in 1999.

Water carves its way, Damai Beach.

The rose amid the rocks, Damai Beach.

Bako National Park

The second oldest national park in Malaysia, after Taman Negara in Pahang. The park warrants a four-day stay, although we could only manage a day trip, as accommodation was fully booked way in advance.

On the cliff overlooking the gorgeous beach at Teluk Pandan Kecil.

Sandstone formations, Teluk Pandan Kecil.

The young woman and the sea, Teluk Pandan Kecil.

Some think Taib's Sarawak is a good place to start. ;-)


50-sen river crossing, Sarawak River.

The day awakens, Jalan Gambier.

The hidden Indian Mosque, Jalan Gambier.

Tucked away behind shops and stalls selling enough spices to sink the Portuguese armada, the Indian Mosque is perhaps one of (old) Kuching's most understated charms.

Newspaper wallah at the open-air market, end of Jalan India.

The huge mosque in the distance is the Kuching Mosque. The open-air market, at the west end of town, is one of the best places to eat in Kuching—if the locals say so, it must be so!

Tien and archway, Bishopgate Road.

There was once an entrance/access from this road to the compound of the Anglican Mission complex (the present-day St Thomas Cathedral grounds). A giant brick wall separated the complex from the shophouses of the bazaar, but today most parts of the wall have been torn down to make way for a new road.

View of Kuching from the Star Cineplex building.

The large compound in the foreground is part of the Anglican Mission complex. This is the view facing west.

Variations on the 'Tak Nak' theme.

This sign was spotted at the shop selling herbal tea at its front counter. We stopped for a glass or so each.

Cobbler, Kuching.

No such thing as a free pee, somewhere near Jalan India/Jalan Gambier.

Old and new, Kuching.

I loved the juxtaposition of the Main Post Office with all its Corinthian pillars, against the signboards proclaiming 'new development!' just across the street.

Anglican Guesthouse, rear.

Shot with a red filter with polariser, hence the vignetting and slightly more dramatic sky.


Rainbow over traffic, Kuching.

Stuck in a traffic jam with barely 15 minutes left for check-in, we were really pushing it. But the rainbow gave us some sort of hope, and in spite of a pit-stop for petrol, the taxi driver got us there just in time.

Tien in ERL.

This shot, taken on the ERL from KLIA to Bandar Tasik Selatan, reminded me of the quote from Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, which was used as the epigraph for Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star:

"That feeling about trains, for instance. Of course he had long outgrown the boyish glamour of the steam engine. Yet there was something that had an appeal for him in trains, especially night trains, which always put queer, vaguely improper notions into his head."

* * *

Technical matters:

All B&W footage shot on Kodak TriX. All colour photos shot with the phone camera.

Nikon FM10 with 28mm and 105mm lenses. Red and polarising filters for some of the landscapes. Yellow filter for the 'Kuching awakens' shots.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Broga Revisited: Take Two

Am back from the "Mensa Heritage: Roaring Tiger, Sleeping Station" trip. More on that soon to come, but first, a little something I didn't manage to complete before leaving for the trip.

* * *

Leanne and Steph, Broga: Take One

Leanne and Steph, Broga: Take Two

* * *

The first picture was taken with a digital compact camera, while the second was shot on 35mm Kodak Portra 160VC.

On all counts, the first picture has rendered the detail of the scene accurately, and digital does this relatively well. Digital conveys what I saw quite literally, but the film picture comes closer to what I actually felt when I was there.

As I briefly mentioned in this post, digital either warms or cools everything, whereas film is somehow better able to distinguish between colours and tones. Notice that, in the second photo, the sky is a striking pastel blue while Leanne's and Steph's faces are visibly pink and warm. Notice, also, that in the film photo, the separation between the green grass and ochre lalang is more distinct, and the texture/colour of the grass itself is more nuanced.

I don't really know how all of this works, but it does. Film is able to surprise where digital is, on the whole, predictable. In that way, film is a lot more like life (although it is debatable as to which is more 'lifelike'!), and hence one of the many reasons why I shoot, and will continue to shoot, film.

Au revoir, Steph!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The 'Rail' Way to Bangkok

The last week of June 2011 marked my return to Thailand in just a little over a month (from the KB/Thailand trip). This time it was with the Mensa gang. I wrote a 3500-word article/report for the Triple-M, Malaysian Mensa's bimonthly magazine; the length seems justifiable, as I'm usually expected to write about 500 words for day trips, and this was a seven-day trip!

I reproduce the article in its entirety here, with additional pictures not in the Triple-M article. Pardon the length, but I found the whole challenge of editing for the blog too much of a hassle. Besides, why edit when there's no space constraint here in the first place?

Sam blogged about the trip on the weekend of our return itself! You can read it here.

* * *

When putting together this report the biggest challenge was not deciding what to put in, but what to omit. All in all it was a six-day trip (25-30 June) that effectively covered six towns/cities: Butterworth/Penang (counts as one as we weren’t there very long), Nakhon Pathom, Amphawa, Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi and Bangkok. How do you fit all of that into a two-page Triple-M article?

Well, the answer seemed simple enough: you don’t. And so I decided that the article could do without an over-detailed itinerary of the many temples and ruins we visited (we nicknamed Thailand the questionable country, for it was a land of many wats… get it?), without an over-romanticised account of the many train journeys (probably half the entire trip was spent on a train of some sort), and without a Wok Works-worthy exploration of the food we enjoyed; each of these would merit a book on its own.


It all started when Samantha asked me, in late April, when the next Heritage trip would be. She proposed either Bangkok, Kuching or KK; somewhere ‘farrrr’. Ever since the Heritage SIG started last year, there’d been talk of Penang and Malacca, but Bangkok sounded like a good idea to attempt something a little more ambitious within the first year of the SIG’s inception.

By end May we had more or less confirmed the dates: 25-30 June in Thailand. We had also confirmed our party of six: Samantha, her sister Stephanie, Eng Hoo, his friend Rachel (who was excited to go, as plans for a trip to Bangkok with coursemates fell through), Jeru, and myself. Poh Wah wanted to join but had to pull out due to professional commitments that week (no worries, we’ll have more trips ahead!).

It was also confirmed that we’d visit the only-on-weekends floating market at Amphawa (ambitious as it was to head right to Amphawa upon arrival in Bangkok by late Sunday morning), and that we’d be travelling to Butterworth by overnight train on the 24th, so as to catch the Butterworth-Bangkok train on the 25th. Jeru said, “In case you need to decide on something and you can't get hold of me, just go ahead and decide. I can sleep in $2 dorms with roach crawling around.”

And then, on 3 June, Eng Hoo threw in another variable: “Would be great to make a visit to River Kwai (or Kwae), Hellfire pass and travel on the Wampo viaduct. Heard the scenery there is great and of course the historical significance,” he said. Jeru’s immediate reply (in those days Jeru replied everything as though he was literally one with the computer) included a suggestion to EH to visit Ayutthaya, in line with EH’s interest in ‘historical’ things. This being a heritage trip, the idea seemed good.

Within 24 hours we had a totally revised itinerary, which included Bangkok, Amphawa, Kanchanaburi, the Hellfire Pass, Ayutthaya, and a place I personally wanted to see, Nakhon Pathom. To think that the original idea was just to head to Bangkok and chill there! And within those 24 hours we had also secured our tickets to Bangkok.

Jeru noted, “Our itinerary is more compact than a tour group.”

The Train: KL to Butterworth

Air Asia has successfully made Southeast Asia a smaller place; ask anyone how they would go to Thailand, and 9.5 out of 10 would probably say, “Fly.” (In some quarters it would be 10 out of 10.) Well, true to being the Heritage SIG, we took the train. Why? Because the journey is as important as the destination? Maybe. But also largely because heritage is about the story of a place.

Our journey was to cover places like the ancient kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Nakhon Pathom, and the World War II history-rich Kanchanaburi; it only seemed fitting that we travelled by a means that would allow us a good view of the land. And so, between an elephant convoy and the railway, we decided on the more practical option.

The Chow sisters were already in Butterworth, and so the other four of us were to meet them there on the morning of Saturday, 25 June. We took an overnight train from KL Sentral on Friday. The adventure had already begun for Jeru, who only then found out that KL Sentral was the operational hub for intercity trains; he thought we were to meet at the Old Railway Station! Eng Hoo jokingly commented, “Where have you been the last 10 years?”

We arrived in Butterworth and spent the morning wandering the streets of Georgetown, before heading back to Butterworth to catch the 2 o’clock International Express train to Bangkok. The journey was to last nearly 20 hours, but the seats (which converted into sleeping berths at night) were spacious and comfortable, and our Thai hostess made dinner and breakfast a most delightful experience.

The unforgettable Jeru.

View of Penang from Butterworth.

100 Cintra Street.

Company: Stephanie, Samantha, Ben, Jeru, Rachel, Eng Hoo (Photo: Mr Chow).

Detour: Nakhon Pathom

Although we had purchased tickets all the way to Bangkok, we decided to alight at Nakhon Pathom, a stop before Bangkok, in accordance with the revised itinerary. My student exchange friend, Piao, was to meet us at the station and bring us around what is said to be the first Thai settlement (Nakhon Pathom is believed to originate from the Sanskrit ‘nagara pathama’ – negara pertama).

We had brunch at a coffee shop near the station, before visiting the Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world at 127 metres. At the coffee shop, although it all looked so familiar, we could tell for sure that we were in Thailand as we were surrounded by people speaking in a different tongue. Fortunately, Piao served as interpreter and ordered for us a very complete Thai sampler.

Phra Pathom Chedi itself was busy, packed not only with what must be the usual Sunday crowd, but also by voters who thronged the temple grounds, which were used as a polling station ahead of the General Election a week hence. Nonetheless, everywhere we went it was peaceful, and life rolled on as usual. But for election campaign posters and banners, and a slightly stepped-up military presence, you couldn’t tell otherwise that this was a country on the brink of quite a political U-turn.

We spent some time wandering the grounds of the Sanam Chandra Palace, before Piao’s roommate Apple gave us a lift to the bus stand, so that we could get to Sai Tai Mai (the Southern Bus Terminal in Bangkok), from which we would head to Amphawa. There were eight of us including Piao and Apple, so it was quite a feat, stuffing ourselves into the car, with the entire luggage to boot!

Eng Hoo and Rachel settle into the International Express.

Through an archway at the Phra Pathom Chedi.

Canalside Evening: Nakhon Pathom to Amphawa

Over a late lunch at the Sai Tai Mai food court, where fellow exchange student Sai joined us, Piao helped us book our rooms at the Reorn Pae Amphawa guesthouse. We hopped into a minivan for the hour-plus journey, and made it to Amphawa well before sunset, where we were able to witness the well-known floating market. It is said that the Amphawa market is among the least touristy, and true enough, practically everyone on the banks of the river looked local, or at least, Asian.

There was a very pasar malam-like feel about the floating market, except, of course, that some of the stalls were operated off boats in the water. It wasn’t difficult to find the Reorn Pae guesthouse, which was above one of the shop houses facing the river itself. After checking in, we wasted no time and immediately found ourselves wandering about the market.

The highlight of the night, however, was arguably the firefly cruise along the canal. The hour-long ride up- and downstream through the sleepier parts of the canal was the epitome of tranquility, and we were treated to views of countless fireflies nesting/resting in the riverside trees. At only 60 baht (RM6) per person, it was one of the best deals of our entire trip.

After the cruise, we stayed out until all the shops closed, and the river was once again plunged into an abyss of silence. We had hoped to pop by the bar next to our guesthouse for some drinks, but, alas, it was about to close for the night. Much to our delight, the charming old lady who ran the guesthouse, and operated the sundry store downstairs, came to our rescue with a rather respectable stock of drinks and snacks. We had our first taste of the infamous Sang Som spirits, opting for the rum over the whisky, and carried on conversations well into the night. In our more sober moments we talked about the value of being actively involved in Mensa (as opposed to just lurking in the background), and in the less sober ones the discussions went as far as how ‘42’ is not the answer to everything.

It was a chilly, rainy morning the next day that greeted us, and so the breakfast of hot soya milk and fresh yew char kueh (courtesy of Aunty Proprietor) was most welcome. We said goodbye to the town most of us promised to visit again, and caught a songtaew (pick-up truck taxi with two rows of seats in the back) to the nearby Samut Songkhram train station.

Floating market, Amphawa.

Accordion player, Amphawa.

The deserted Monday morning, Amphawa.

Aunty Proprietor and her dog, Amphawa.

The Mahachai Shortline: Amphawa to Bangkok

In order to get to Ayutthaya, we had to board a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station. So we set off to Bangkok from Samut Songkhram via what is known as the Mahachai Shortline, a series of two 10 baht trips, which terminates at Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai station, west of the Chao Phraya.

The first leg of our journey ended at Ban Laem. We crossed the river by ferry to the port town of Samut Sakhon, where we had lunch at a roadside stall before catching the connecting train to Wong Wian Yai.

Upon arrival, we attempted to find our way to Hua Lamphong by foot. Up until then it had been a rainy morning, but as we were walking the sun had unveiled itself in its full glory, and getting lost only made the journey more arduous. Jeru was right; Bangkok is to be explored in person, and by making many mistakes—maps do precious little to help.

Nonetheless, we did arrive at last, and caught a late-afternoon train to Ayutthaya. (As you can see, trains were indeed a recurring motif on this trip!)

The Mahachai Shortline crashes through the market, Samut Songkhram.

Aboard the Mahachai Shortline.

Crossing over to Samut Sakhon.

Noodle stall, Samut Sakhon.

Trishaws, Samut Sakhon.

Samut Sakhon is not all that far from Bangkok, and yet in this somewhat backwater town, time seemed to move a lot more slowly. The whole 'small town' vibe was alive and well.

Of Ancient Kingdoms: Ayutthaya

The Provincial Administration Organization of Ayutthaya nicknames the city, ‘The City of Gorgeousness’, and given the sheer number of wats—each with its distinct historical and architectural characteristics—it would be hard to disagree. We checked into the P.U. Inn Ubonpon, which by guesthouse standards had really luxurious rooms and a cosy restaurant/cafeteria downstairs; the owner/manager practically chased us on motorcycle to secure our patronage, but it was well worth it.

After a rather rushed dinner at the guesthouse, we went on a night cruise on the river(s) that encircle the town centre of Ayutthaya—namely the Mae Nam Lopburi which joins the Chao Phraya. A number of riverside temples were lit up, but due to the low light and our being in the boat, we could not take any decent photographs. However, we did alight at one of the temples—the Wat Chai Wattanaram—and were able to explore the grounds and take photographs. It was indeed a highlight, and although we visited that wat the next morning, it was a lot more surreal at night.

The next morning, we were taken on a whirlwind tour of some of the temples in Ayutthaya. Mr Pok, our guide, was most animated and enthusiastic throughout the whole journey, and this was probably one of the more touristy things we did throughout the week. In spite of the commercialisation of so-called historical tourism, the wats seemed for the most part well taken care of, and if one stopped to actually reflect and absorb the sights (minus the sounds) both in the day and at night, one might actually begin to feel what a great kingdom this must have once been.

After a quick lunch of noodles, we found ourselves in a minivan, en route to Suphanburi, from which we would take the bus to Kanchanaburi.

Wat Chai Wattanaram at night, Ayutthaya.

Dog at Wat Chai Mongkhon, Ayutthaya.

Mr Pok with tiffin lunch, Ayutthaya.

At the Suphanburi bus station.

Besides numerous songtaew rides, we also travelled by bus (Nakhon Pathom to the Sai Tai Mai terminal, Suphanburi to Kanchanaburi) and minivan (Sai Tai Mai to Amphawa, Ayutthaya to Suphanburi).

World War II Vignettes: Kanchanaburi

Thailand has, over the centuries, proudly remained sovereign, free of colonisation. But that is not to say that the great colonial powers of the West never set foot here. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kanchanaburi, where the tables were turned and the great colonial powers were, instead, the humbled white slaves in a project to build a railway linking Thailand and Burma.

The Bridge on the River Kwae (according to Lonely Planet, pronounced ‘kwhere’, not ‘kwy’; to rhyme with ‘square’, not ‘cry’) is situated north of the town centre. It was one of the key destinations on our itinerary, but by this point in the trip everyone was quite worn out, and I suppose the stopover in Kanchanaburi meant different things to each of us. Here, my friend Joan joined us. That night, after a somewhat relaxed dinner, the girls and Jeru headed for a Thai massage, while Eng Hoo returned to our rooms at the VN Guesthouse, and Joan and I chilled at the Reggae Bar.

Our rooms were in a floating chalet complex on the River Kwae itself, and the next morning Samantha and Stephanie opted to stay behind and enjoy a leisurely morning by the river while the rest of us made the journey to the Hellfire Pass north of Kanchanaburi. An Allied war memorial has been built there, and the interpretative centre was very informative, providing visitors an in-depth perspective of the significance of what has been dubbed the ‘Death Railway’.

In spite of time constraints, we managed to walk a part of the railway route itself, i.e., on the tracks, or what’s left of them. And then it was back to town to catch the last of our train rides as a group.

Dogs cross the tracks, Bridge on the Kwae Yai River.

Floating chalets at the VN Guesthouse, Kanchanaburi.

Memorial, Hellfire Pass.

I found this especially poignant, because the koala hugging the giant nail/spike so vividly recalled to memory the numerous Australian soldiers who were forced into slave labour in the Hellfire Pass by the Japanese.

Boarding the train from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok.

Arrival in Krung Thep: From Kanchanaburi to Bangkok

Ironically, for a trip billed as the ‘Rail Way to Bangkok’, we only really arrived in the city on the very last day. But arrive we did, just as the sun was setting on 29 June. A songtaew and a Skytrain ride later, we arrived in the Silom area and checked into the Take a Nap Hostel.

Apparently, the locals call their national capital Krung Thep, and only foreigners refer to it as Bangkok; it is thus easy to distinguish between those who are, and aren’t, local. We met up with more of my friends from the exchange programme; they brought us to dinner at a pizza place near Khao San Road, accompanied us as we explored Khao San Road itself, and later showed Samantha, Stephanie and me around the area while Eng Hoo, Rachel and Jeru headed back to rest ahead of their flights the next day.

Khao San Road was indeed Mat Salleh central; offhand the first impression was that of Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street on steroids! There were many bars in full swing, street performers, and stalls selling all sorts of snacks—including those of the invertebrate variety. We tried some deep fried silkworms and crickets. The Chow sisters developed quite a taste for them; Samantha once said, “I’m squeamish about leeches and bugs,” so I suppose this must have been a breakthrough of sorts!

We then went with the Thais to the area west of Khao San Road, towards the Rama VIII Bridge over the Chao Phraya. It had been, on the whole, a very hectic trip, and walking the deserted streets around Khao San Road and the Rama VIII Bridge was actually restful. Eventually we parted ways by taxi; the Thais to their respective homes/hostels, and the Chows and myself back to Take a Nap.

SUSI 2010/2011 with Mensa Malaysia, Khao San Road.

A sense of local flavour. ;-)

Eating insects, Khao San Road (Photo: Bas).

A barge passes, Rama VIII Bridge.

This is a very imperfect time exposure. For one, the water droplets on my lens appear in the picture, marring it unless you imagine that it has the aesthetic value of looking through a raindrop-coated window. But I nonetheless like it because it reminds me of that night we spent walking the deserted streets of Bangkok.

Apparently the bright building to the right of the passing barge is the hospital where King Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently being treated.

The Return: Hua Lamphong to Butterworth

In the wee hours of 30 June, Eng Hoo and Rachel tumbled out of bed and hopped into a taxi bound for the airport, the great Suvarnabhumi (pronounced ‘suvarna-poom’). Jeru would also be flying back to KL, albeit some six to eight hours later. Perhaps they got the most complete experience out of the trip, travel-wise, literally navigating by ‘sea, air and land’.

Samantha and Stephanie managed to squeeze in a bit of shopping, while I took the MRT to Pahon Yothin to check out the camera stores and photography labs there, upon exchange student Fitra’s recommendation. That afternoon, the three of us boarded the International Express back to Butterworth, bidding Bangkok goodbye at the grand Hua Lamphong train station.

The return journey is never quite the same as the forward journey. While the latter is taken with much expectation and excitement, the former is usually a more subdued affair laced with a contemplative fatigue. On all accounts the journey was officially ended, yet there was a long road ahead—all 20 hours of it, and only half the company as at first. And if there’s one advantage of ending a trip with a flight, this is it: flying is like a quick and painless death. The train, on the other hand, is a long slow death of Shakespearean proportions—full of lengthy soliloquys and ‘last words’ that seem rather to last forever.

We arrived in Butterworth in the afternoon of 1 July. Leaving the girls behind, I ended as I began: with the night train to KL, arriving almost exactly two days after Eng Hoo and Rachel.

Such a pleasant surprise (Photo: Sam).

Lunch with Joan, near the Dusit Thani. My last bowl of noodles in Thailand (for now).

Hua Lamphong station, Bangkok.

The first time I saw this was when we arrived from Samut Songkhram, to buy tickets to Ayutthaya. This time, it was goodbye—or at least, au revoir!

People waiting, Hua Lamphong.


It has been said, always say ‘hello’ in the local language. And, some would add, ‘thank you’ as well. To this end, our trip was saturated with countless utterances of sawatdee krap/ka (krap if spoken by a male, and ka if spoken by a female) and korp kun krap/ka.

We got back together in Bangsar on the weekend of my birthday (end July) to exchange photographs and meet everyone once again. Azrai joined us and it was a nice way to ‘officially’ end this adventure.

Finally, a hearty thank you to Eng Hoo, Samantha, Stephanie, Rachel and Jeru for making this trip so enjoyable and worth every minute of it—including the arguments and the not-so-comfortable moments: the challenges of group travel, but I’m glad we pulled through.

And a deep korp kun from the bottom of our hearts to our Thai friends who made us feel so welcome in their land. May we do likewise.

* * *

What They Said

A mode of transportation that opened up frontiers, speeded up development of towns in the 19th & 20th century. Into the 21st century, railway is still an important mode of transportation as well as that of a nostalgic one. When the Mensa Heritage SIG put together a rail trip from KL-Butterworth-Bangkok, it was one trip I wanted to take. I would say the itinerary of the original that Benjamin had in mind was almost hijacked with the suggestions to include more places of interest. Kudos to Ben for managing to fit it all in and without any hitches encountered.

Would I go again? Without hesitation but will spend a longer time at each place.

~ Eng Hoo

It was my very first time on a trip like this. All my previous trips were not like this at all, not even close. My first backpacking experience, it was fun, awesome and STINKY of course. If I remember correctly, we didn't bathe for more than 48 hours. That's a record for me. Not to forget, spending about two days on train is another record for me too. I call that train hopping.

Thank you Uncle Lim and Aunty Lisa for persuading me. I wouldn't have had this much fun if you didn't talk me into it. I wasn't very keen to go at first, especially when I didn't know any of them. But I am glad that I went. Thank you Ben for the arrangement, the accommodation, transportation, basically everything. You rock, Ben! Please let me know if you are planning another trip, I would love to join!

~ Rachel

Most significant memory from the trip? This place where we could not find (Singha) beer, and had to settle for Chang! Is seeing many Wats exciting? Huh, all the same what!

You’ve been to Thailand so many times, why join this trip? I’ve never been there by train; quite ‘dai’—you pay so little and the journey is so long! It would have been nice, though, to stay another night in Kanchanaburi or Amphawa.

The last time I took the train was probably 1999 or 2000. I went to the old train station, and then I called Ben and asked, “What time is the train to Bangkok?” I thought I was going to miss the train, and had to go to Bangkok by Bus.

~ Jeru

Here’s to our next trip! Somewhere equally exotic, like the Philippines perhaps?

~ Samantha

* * *

Technical matters:

B&W shot on Kodak TriX 400. Colour shot on Kodak Portra 160VC; except Samut Sakhon and Ayutthaya shot on Kodak ColorPlus 200, and Kanchanaburi shot on Fujichrome Velvia 50.

Pictures in KL Sentral, Penang, Khao San (Ronald McDonald) and Bangkok (Joan, Hua Lamphong) shot on phone camera.

Nikon N80 with 18-35mm lens. 50mm used for the Phra Pathom Chedi photo.