It’s all Russia’s fault. The country that created borscht, the Comintern and the European far right’s bank surpluses also made us speed almost 3,000 kilometres in just two weeks, with barely any time to smell the banana pancakes.
The Russian embassy in Seoul only gave us two maddeningly specific weeks to visit the country—November 15 to 30. And there’s a lot of physical space between here and there.
We did manage to get those ferry tickets from Jakarta to Batam. The 29-hour boat trip was perfectly enjoyable, if a bit dull. We mostly slept in our cabin, walked around on deck and watched the conga line of cockroaches make their way through our bathroom. At mealtimes, a pop band entertained the six of us who opted for the first-class dinner, even as I silently begged them not to.
From Batam it’s an easy one-hour ferry to Singapore; from there, another easy and rather luxurious six-hour bus ride to my favourite city in Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur.
This was our fourth visit to Kuala Lumpur since 2005. We can’t stay away from it. It hosts the best mix of grit and charm, kindness and edge, and cultural diversity in the region.
We stayed next to the magnificent Court Hill Ganesh Temple, where Tamils in saffron robes pray throughout the evening to the elephant-headed Hindu deity. Across the road from there is Chinatown, a bit touristy with its legion of kitschy souvenirs and backpacker bars, but still the best place in town for a cold drink or a plate of Portuguese fish and Hokkien noodles in the open air.
And then there is that dash of British colonialism, the clock tower by the Central Market, the red mailboxes, the “Manglish” spoken by everyone you meet.
The one thing we did miss in Kuala Lumpur is authentic Malay culture, so we decided to skip the more multicultural and metropolitan west coast of Malaysia and head across the peninsula to the northeast, and the city of Kota Bharu.
Kota Bharu is a beautiful little town, but if you come on Friday, be prepared to postpone whatever you had planned for the day. As is Kelantan state law, laid down by the ruling Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the shops, the offices and most restaurants shut down for the Islamic day of rest. The streets are full of people though, listening to sermons and prayers over loudspeakers, and the markets do robust business.
At the fruit market, no one would let me buy just a single fruit to sample—they insisted I just take it for free. Rambutans, dragon fruit, guava, I sampled them all while they shook their heads at my proffered bills.
Jo had her first durian, which almost made her puke on the market floor. The stinky fruit, banned on public transportation and from most hotels, is definitely an acquired taste.
At the night market, we feasted on nasi kerabu, the local delicacy, rice and a huge choice of fish, chicken, seafood, eggs or salad on top, usually in coconut or tomato sauce.
And then it was goodbye to Malaysia. The next morning, we hopped a bus to the Thai border and quickly walked from Rantau Panjang to Su-ngai Kolok. We only found out later that Lonely Planet says it is “out of the question” for foreigners to use this crossing because of a low-level insurgency in the south of Thailand. It looked perfectly safe to me, to Jo, to the others who followed behind us and to the extremely bored-looking Customs and Immigration officials who didn’t bother x-raying our bags—a first so far.
Once you do get into Thailand, though, you kind of get the idea. There are soldiers all over the train station, and they told me the bus station, two kilometres down the road, is much the same.
And then it was train, train and more train. We spent the next 25 hours climbing Kra Isthmus, which connects the Malay Peninsula to the rest of Thailand, a long monkey’s tail between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Russia wouldn’t let us stop at the beaches on the way, but we’ve been this way before, and we got our beach fill in Bali.