Two days in Chiang Mai

I didn’t mean to visit Chiang Mai but due to the complexities of linking up with Tim I found myself with two days lay over in the north of Thailand. So I decided to make the best of it and these are my best bits.  

I liked the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs which can be reached by bus from Chiang Mai centre. It only costs 20 baht to get in and then you can hob nob with the locals and a handful of tourists while wiggling your toes in the hot sulphur water. While I was there there were coach loads of tiny Thais (from nursery school) and a Scout troop all having great fun in the water.  You can also buy and boil an egg in a basket which are sold with a small packet of soya sauce.
Most people brought picnics and made a day of it. Three hours was enough for me as I watched the skin on my feet turn wrinkly. There are plenty of snack and drink outlets too.

 

The other notable thing I did was to actually find a small makeshift restaurant recommended by many online.  Khao Soi Khun Yai (which also has a FB page!) proved excellent and I was fortunate to meet a retired US veteran, now living in Thailand, who advised me as to what to eat, although there were some rudimentary signs saying ‘Pork Chiken Beef’. I have now invested in my own rather superior looking chopsticks so I don’t have to worry about inside whose mouth the chopsticks provided have previously been.

I stayed at the Non@ Chiang Mai hostel. It has dorm rooms but I got lucky and had one to myself. It had an en suite shower and loo and a fan and A/C and the £8 included a rudimentary breakfast. All very clean and with a lovely outside decked terrace fronting the road with cushions and chairs and parasols.

Finally, I had planned to participate in a ‘Monk Chat’ at Wat Chedi Luang which is centrally located and is very easy to find, taking place at the outdoor tables on the north side of the temple complex. There you will find young monks waiting to talk between 9am and 6pm daily. (Except the day I was there because unbeknownst to me it was an auspicious day of worship). Hey-ho. I must admit that the only question I had prepared was to ask if any of them fretted about mosquito bites – my current obsession. Maybe I’ll go back when I can think of something more profound!!

Hong Kong – City of Stairs

It’s what I’d call working out – everything is either up or down.

I’m staying at Mini Hotel Central.  The hotel isn’t mini but the rooms are minuscule with the added feature of glass screens in lieu of a wall so that had I not have been alone in my room, whoever was present would have been able to observe my ablutions or worse.

I’m recommending it because it’s not only brilliantly located but was also the cheapest room I could find during the Chinese New Year and it was spotless. The pillows were good quality, the mattress a bit hard, but that’s common out here I’m told.

I walked, carrying my bag on my back, for ten minutes from the HK station (Central) and up a very long flight of stairs to get here! It’s next to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club – where you can’t get in unless you are a member, but there are lots of FCs smoking outside and I reckon, if you were inclined, you could strike up a conversation and get in as their guest for a drink or a meal. I simply didn’t have time. If that fails, then right next door is the Fringe Club, a music venue where Colette’s Bar is open to all from midday till late and the Vault Cafe is open from 11am till 8pm. Both are closed on Sunday. A bit further up the road is a Seven-11 and two streets below, a dozen steps down, is a Starbucks which is handy as the hotel doesn’t do breakfast.

You can get all the info about the two parks, various museums and the Man Mo Temple from the guidebooks. I did discover a great place for Dim Sum (which I’m told is traditionally eaten at lunch-time). Ling Hueng Tea House is at the top of a steep flight of stairs at 106 Wellington St on the corner of Aberdeen Street. One is seated at a communal table and issued with a card on which is entered the food you select from the trollies which are brought round to tempt you. None of the staff speak English and so I was lucky that a fellow diner and his wife managed to explain to me what the various dishes were. It didn’t really matter ‘cos I pretty much like most things – but would be trickier for a vegetarian or someone with a restricted diet. The place was heaving and full of the noise of conversation. No canned music here!

On my last morning I ate an iconic breakfast at Sing Huen Yuen 2, Mee Lun St, a Dai Pai Dong (makeshift outside eaterie) with noodles in tomato broth with egg, followed by a light crunchy roll spread with lemon honey and a HK speciality – milky tea. Easiest way to find this is to go where Aberdeen & Gough Streets meet, walk up Gough and you’ll find it 50 meters on the left. They open at 8am.

Feeling a bit stuffed, I welcomed further exercise as I climbed the two hundred or so steps up to visit the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Museum afterwards, which will have burned off some of the calories!

 

Angkor, an ocean of temples

Normally I put ‘Some practicalities’ at the end of my posts, but on this occasion I’m going to start with some practical points that seem pretty fundamental to us. Firstly, the ticket office for all visits to the Angkor temples has moved a little way to the east – your driver (tuk-tuk, car, bus) will automatically take you there, but if you’re cycling on your own you’ll have to find the new place (there are road signs). It’s a spacious new complex (open 5am to 5.30pm daily), but bizarrely it doesn’t have credit card facilities – you’ll have to get US dollars from the ATMs conveniently placed for that purpose. And the prices just went up on 1 February 2017, from US$20 to US37 for one day, from US$40 to US$62 for thee days, and from US$62 to US$72 for a week. A big increase, but it’s all still unmissable. Signs say that a passport photo is required, but in fact they take one for free to print on your ticket.

The currency situation in Cambodia is generally a bit weird – the Khmer Rouge abolished money altogether in the 1970s, but the country once again has its own currency, the Riel; however prices are quoted in US dollars and generally that’s what they want – although everyone is very flexible and willing to take a combination (with the dollar worth a not unreasonable 4000 Riels). ATMs (of which there are plenty) may only offer you dollars, or may give you a choice. As in Laos, there are no coins – change below the one-dollar level comes in Riels.

Angkor is wonderful and unmissable, of course. What struck me most strongly was the variety of temples, of different shapes, sizes and styles, and levels of conservation and rebuilding. There’s one that was a hospital and another that was a seminary for monks. There are plenty of guidebooks that give detailed information, so I’ll confine myself to saying that it is possible to do both the Small and Grand Circuits in a day with a helpful tuk-tuk driver, but it can be tiring, especially if the temperature is in the mid-30s Celsius, as it often is. It may be better to spread it over two days with relaxing lunch breaks. You also have to decide if you want to see the sunrise or sunset, and if so where – I’d rule out Angkor Wat itself for starters, given the hordes there. Likewise, Phnom Bakheng is horribly crowded at sunset. There are various smaller, less famous, temples that are much less crowded, but, in any case, if you’ve seen some stunning sunrises and sunsets elsewhere in the world this probably won’t be any better. Angkor (from the Sanskrit Nagora or city) refers to the whole area; Angkor Wat is, of course, one of the largest and finest temples, while Angkor Thom is a walled city just to the north of the wat, centred on the Bayon temple, another of the finest sights here.

The next day you could go to Banteay Srei, 40km north of Siem Reap, which is known for the finest and most detailed carvings of all the Angkor temples. It’s another 12km to Kbal Spean, which is not a temple but a series of Shiva lingams (some of them just pimples on a square rock slab) in the bed of a stream – they’re rather underwhelming in themselves, but the 1.5km (each way) hike up a rough trail provides a enjoyable dose of jungle, although most of the wildlife is nocturnal, or just keeping out of the way. With hindsight it might be better to go to the Roluos group of temples, east of Siem Reap, instead. In any case we got back in time to spend most of the afternoon at the modern Angkor National Museum (US$12 – not covered by the Angkor temples ticket), which gives an excellent overview of the temples’ histories and their architectural and sculptural styles.

If there’s one name to retain here, it’s Jayavarman VII, who was born in 1125 and was the last of the great rulers of the Khmer Empire, from c1181 to 1218 – he brought the empire to its greatest expanse and built a new capital at Angkor Thom, with many fine temples, notably Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, as well as 102 hospitals and 121 rest houses about 15km apart along the empire’s main roads. Unusually, he was a devout Buddhist, and when Hinduism returned to fashion after his death his temples were somewhat messed about with and many statues lost.

You’ll often see a tug-of-war motif, on balustrades and on bas-relief carvings – this is actually the Churning the Ocean of Milk, an episode from the Mahabharata and other Indian epics, in which asura (demons) hold the tail end of the serpent king Vasuki, and devas or devata (defenders) hold its head end, churning the cosmic ocean for a thousand years and produced Amrita, the elixir of immortality, the goddess Lakshmi, and the Apsaras or celestial dancers that are another common theme in Angkorian sculpture.

 Eating and drinking in Siem Reap

We did not research the drinking dens of Pub Street nor anywhere much else, but we can recommend two excellent places to eat and drink. The Purple Mangosteen, on a pedestrian alley near Pub St and the river in central Siem Reap, is a boutique hotel and restaurant that does a fine lemongrass mojito (two for one during happy hour (4-9pm), as well as a better than usual range of options for vegetarians and vegans. It’s owned by someone I happened to go to school with many years ago who has been training stonework and sculpture restoration and conservation at Angkor for a couple of decades. The Siem Reap Brewpub, opened in 2015, occupies a Corbusieresque villa with a lovely terrace and produces a range of tasty craft ales, from blonde through to stout, and also serves a decent range of food, all at very reasonable prices.

The Siem Reap Brewpub

 

Cycling in Taiwan

I had a hunch that Taiwan would be a good country for cycling in, and I’m glad to say that I was right – I did an end-to-end ride with my friend Rob (whose own insights can be found here), from Taipei up to the northernmost point, down the east coast to the southernmost point, and on to the suburbs of Kaohsiung, and it went very well. The key to our cunning plan was that Giant, Taiwan’s largest bike manufacturer, has a very affordable (at £100 for 15 days; see the Taiwan in Cycles blog) rental programme that allowed us to collect bikes at one end of the country and drop them off at the other end, rather than having to schlepp them back by train (possible, but quite a hassle – see Taiwan In Cycles and the Taiwan Railway Administration). The Giant bikes were fine apart from the lack of mudguards (mine had an aluminium frame, Rob got upgraded to carbon fibre) but their panniers were terrible – too small, and the clips on all four of ours broke – bring your own, or bring bungee cords to lash them on top of the rack.

There are plenty of cyclists in Taiwan, both local utility riders and lycra-clad road-riders – but there are far more scooter-riders. By and large, road conditions are excellent for cycling, with virtually no potholes, and many main roads in the north seemingly reduced from two traffic lanes each way to one and a wide shoulder-cum-scooter/bike lane (there are far more scooters than bikes in Taiwan) – but beware the drivers who park right across the shoulder, and often pull in and out with a blithe disregard for cyclists – they probably assume that cyclists all pootle along at 10km/h and are happy to wait, and are not aware of hard-riding touring cyclists who are moving twice as fast and assume they do have priority. There’s also a lot of undertaking – it seems entirely normal to use the shoulder to overtake on the inside. And in any case when you reach a hill, generally the shoulder ends instantly and you’ll find yourself having to concentrate on holding your line between vehicles fairly close to your left and a concrete drain (as often as not) to your right. But we never felt that drivers didn’t respect us or felt we shouldn’t be there. And we also liked the way that all footways and pavements (sidewalks) were open for cycling (with priority for pedestrians), and again everyone got on fine and there was never any sense that we weren’t wanted there (but we are very polite and considerate cyclists, of course…).

There are plenty of routes marked for touring cyclists, and by and large they follow the main roads (with their wide shoulders), rather than seeking out quiet parallel lanes. These also have ‘cycle rest stops’ signposted every 10 or 20 kilometres, which often turn out to be a police station where there’ll be a few tools and maybe a stirrup pump, and some police officers who probably won’t speak English but will be delighted to help. You’ll also find a steady succession of 7-Elevens and similar shops (FamilyMart, OK-Mart) that provide snacks and hot drinks, and usually toilets and ATMs. There are plenty of Latin-script (‘English’) roadsigns, but be aware that there are two (at least) different transliteration schemes in use. Also, be aware that marked distances are to the township limit, from where it can easily be 10 or 15km more to the centre of the actual town. On tourist maps north is often not at the top, and the ‘You Are Here’ marker is usually wrong.

Our route
Cape Fugui

We were doing an End-to-End, so we started from Taipei along the excellent riverside paths (outside the massive flood defences) and rode along the coast to the northernmost point, Cape Fugui, and on to Keelung for our first overnight. From there it was just a matter of keeping the sea on our left as we rode down the east coast (apart from when we cut through the abandoned Caoling railway tunnel). A week later we were at the southernmost point at Eluanbi and then rode to the outer suburbs of Kaohsiung where we were able to put our bikes on a local train. In fact if we did it again we’d ride along the Eastern Rift Valley rather than the coast between Hualien and Taitung, but there’s no avoiding the Su-Hua Highway, to the north between Su’ao and Hualien. This runs below some huge cliffs that are very prone to landslides and is narrow and busy with tour buses (all heading north, to be nearer the sea) and gravel trucks. In addition the first half of the Su-Hua includes two fairly long climbs and one shorter one, while the second half includes various tunnels in which cycling appears to be banned, despite this being a national cycle route. In fact the No Cycling signs are to forbid cycling on the narrow and obstructed footway in the tunnel (actually a drain cover).

The Old Caoling Railway Tunnel

In any case I recommend bringing an extra tail-light for the tunnels – make sure that you can attach it to your luggage (as the one on your seatpost may well be obscured).

We booked accommodation in advance (about £10 per person) due to Chinese New Year, but at other times you could just busk it – there are plenty of options, and apparently you can go to a police station and ask for help finding a bed for the night. We were always able to store our bikes safely under cover. We found the ‘winter’ weather just fine for cycling, and I even got a bit of sunburn one day. The wettest time is April and May, but it can rain in the north at any time of year, whereas the south is tropical and can be very hot. Typhoons occur between June and October and would be a serious impediment to cycling.

And what of the cyclist’s worst enemy? I don’t mean the wind, but dogs. Taiwanese dogs are all scrupulously polite, just like the people, and caused us no trouble at all, even though there clearly are feral populations here and there.

Spiritual assistance on our very last climb

Berlin – new museums for the cultural powerhouse of Europe

Berlin is positioning itself as the capital of post-Brexit Europe, in case you hadn’t noticed, the most culturally dynamic city at the heart of the continent’s most powerful economy. Huge amounts of money are being spent over long timescales to take the already wonderful cultural assets of two cities, East and West Berlin, and make them into a global powerhouse. The key to this is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, just inside the former East Berlin), where a huge extension to the legendary Pergamon Gallery is being built in five phases between 2012 and 2025, including a fourth wing to the west as in Alfred Messel’s original plan. In 2017-9 visitor services are being transferred to the new James Simon Gallery, named after the Jewish businessman who gave huge and very important donations to the museum in 1904 and 1918. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, this will be a combined visitor centre for all the Museumsinsel museums. The new entrance will be on the south side, not far from the new U-Bahn station (on line U5, opening in mid-2019) at the west end of the Schlossbrücke (and next to the German History Museum). It will also give access to the Neues Museum, the second world-class archeology museum on the island – this was beautifully refurbished in 2003-9 by David Chipperfield, who has incorporated the damage caused in World War II rather than trying to remove or hide it.

 

There’s nowhere else like the Pergamon, with its full-size reconstructions of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II and Processional Way of Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus in the south wing, and the altar hall of Pergamon in the north wing, although this is closed for refurbishment from 2014 until 2019. It really will knock you sideways. Meanwhile the Neues Museum has beautifully presented displays of Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the site of Troy (which he secretly removed from Turkey, having to pay a fine afterwards – it doesn’t seem so unfair that much of the collection was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1945, although it is about time that it was returned), as well as the iconic long-necked bust of Nefertiti and the Golden Hat of a Bronze Age Celtic priest, with a 19-year sun/moon cycle encoded on it.

 

Also here are the Altes Museum, the first museum built on the island (by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1823-30), housing classical antiquities; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, displaying a wonderful collection of 19th-century German and French art) and the Bode Museum, home to Byzantine art and sculpture, including what is in my opinion a wonderful collection of Italian Renaissance altars by virtually unknown artists. Anywhere else these museums would be huge cultural draws, but here they tend to be overshadowed.

All this money being poured into the former East Berlin has left the former cultural hotspots of West Berlin looking rather sorry for themselves – the Kulturforum, around the Philharmonie concert hall (and near the horribly over-rated Potsdamer Platz), seems very uncared for, with lots of long grass and no signage. The Neues Nationalgalerie, one of Mies van der Rohe’s finest buildings, is closed for refurbishment (by the ubiquitous David Chipperfield) and won’t re-open before 2019; by 2027 it will be linked by a tunnel to the Museum of the 20th Century, a new museum of 20th-century art by Herzog & de Meuron. Yet the Gemälde Galerie probably has the most complete and wide-ranging collection of all Berlin’s art galleries, covering all of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. All the Italian, Flemish and German masters of the Renaissance are here, followed by a superb group of 16 Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers, as well as other 17th-century Dutch works; it’s pleasing to see a group of fine 18th-century British works, by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, Lawrence and Hoppner, too. Allow plenty of time – a full tour will cover 2km, taking in 72 main galleries and lots of side rooms, with around 1,000 works on display, as well as 400 more in the lower-level study gallery (open Friday to Sunday only). It’s definitely one of Europe’s great galleries.
While you’re at the Gemälde Galerie, see what’s on at the Kupferstichkabinett (the Cabinet of Engravings), in the same building – for conservation reasons they only put on temporary shows, but they have an excellent collection to draw on.
For 20th- and 21st-century art, the place to go is the Berlinische Galerie, which has interesting temporary exhibits downstairs and its permanent collection upstairs (running up to 1980, not 1989 as one might have expected) – it’s a good representative overview, with one painting by just about everyone who should be represented, but it doesn’t really get excited and go into depth about anything in particular, especially not Expressionism, Germany’s main contribution to modern art.
I didn’t go back to Dahlem, in the southwestern suburbs, site of West Berlin’s other main grouping of museums, but I assume it has a similar uncared-for feel, as it’s intended to move the Museum of European Culture to the Kulturforum, and the Museums of Ethnography and Asian art to the Berliner Schloss, now being built immediately south of the Museumsinsel. This is a very controversial project to recreate the largely 18th-century palace of the Electors of Prussia, which was heavily damaged in World War II and demolished in 1950 by communist East Germany. They created the huge Marx-Engels Platz and the Palace of the Republic (1976), which was itself demolished in 2008, supposedly due to the presence of asbestos. There’s a strong feeling that this historic building, where German reunification was agreed and where East Germany’s first free parliament met, should have been preserved rather than being demolished for petty political point-scoring. Certainly the plan to rebuild the Schloss is backwards-looking and reeks of imperial bombast; nevertheless the concrete shell has been completed and a new north-south pedestrian axis created, from the Lustgarten to Breite Strasse, and it only remains to deck it out with Baroque features and to move the museums in, by 2019. One good sign is that the project is led by Neil MacGregor, the very successful director of the British Museum until 2015. It’s run by the private Humboldt Forum, which commemorates Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the explorer and biologist, rather than his brother Wilhelm (1776-1835), politician, linguist and founder of the university now named after him, who is probably better known in Berlin; the temporary Humboldt Cube, on the north side, houses a general exhibition on the project and tasters of what’s to come (for instance ‘Frog Trading in Africa – the ecological effects’ – looking at the spread of malaria).
The historic centre of Berlin, from the 13th century, was the Nikolaiviertel, to the east of the Schloss near the Rathaus, and it was only after 1688 as the city expanded to the west that the area of the Schloss became central; in the 1730s Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse were extended to Mehringplatz and Leipziger Platz, and in 1788 the Brandenburg Gate was erected. The Nikolaiviertel has been pedestrianised and prettified, with fairly generic new bars and terraces, as well as August Kiss’s statue of St George and the Dragon, and four museums, mostly remembering bourgeois life in the area.

Katy says the next bit is very boring (except the news of the new cycle scheme) unless you are a transport buff….so you have been warned!!

Berlin’s public transport system is of course also being unified and integrated – the huge Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), opened in 2006 where the city’s North-South and East-West lines cross, is just the latest stage in its evolution. The Lehrter Bahnhof, opened in 1871, was the terminus of the railway from Hannover, and from 1884 from Hamburg – this route was extended eastwards through the city and is now a four-track elevated line with one pair of tracks for long-distance trains and one pair for the Stadtbahn, carrying local S-Bahn services. The North-South line was created when various terminals north and south of the centre were closed (some architectural traces can still be identified) and mainly carries S-Bahn services. Meanwhile the city’s Ring line was completed by the DDR (to allow its trains to avoid West Berlin) and carries another useful range of S-Bahn services.

Construction of the U-Bahn (underground railway) began before World War I, but it took its present shape when the city was divided and West Berlin had to create new routes to avoid East Berlin; new routes into the East are now under construction (see above), but very slowly due to spending constraints.
   Trams, traditionally a feature of East Berlin, are slowly being extended into the West, with routes M5, M8 and M10 being extended to the Hauptbahnhof in 2014 and 2015. But cycling really is the best way to get around Berlin, with 620km of cycle tracks and 13% of journeys made by bike. In spring 2017 Germany’s largest bike-sharing scheme is due to go live here, with thousands of bikes at 700 rental stations, roughly 150m apart.

The ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned when the rail tracks were put underground to link the north and south of Berlin

Rough Times in Romania

The first place I went to research a guidebook was Romania, in the spring of 1991, and after writing two editions of the Bradt Hiking Guide I continued as author of the Rough Guide to Romania, still somehow trundling along with new editions to this day.

My first professional contact with the Rough Guides was when I went to Portugal in 1992 with a second-hand copy of the guide and sent back detailed notes, which they found useful enough to offer me a free book for my next trip – so when I went to Morocco at the end of 1992 I sent in a good load of information on Marrakech and hiking in the Anti-Atlas. When I returned to Morocco in March 2016 I took that 1993 4th edition (we also took a 2013 Footprint Dream Trip guide which was quite adequate for current info), and I was reminded how very good the RGs were in those days. My notes from that first Morocco trip led to my working on the RG to Romania, a satisfying experience at first as the country transformed itself (with countless detours and delays) from a post-communist mess into a more modern mess, but an experience that became depressing as each edition was cut, cut, cut – just as the tourist offer was expanding in volume and variety. The Morocco book had a particularly good Contexts section at the rear with extracts from literature by Moroccans and about Morocco – the sort of thing that’s ideal for long bus rides, but long since lost from guidebooks. For the most recent (7th) edition of Romania, researched in late 2015 and published in 2016, we had to endure a re-design of the text, breaking it up with extra headings so that – suprise surprise! – more information had to be cut (while finding space for all the new URLs, more detailed opening hours, both English and Romanian names for all museums etc). Hard and tedious work – and it was quite a shock to return to the 1993 Morocco guide, and then a month later the 1997 RG to Tuscany & Umbria, to see how much information and added insight they were able to give – even if we couldn’t really see the difference between the zellig designs in the various medersas, it was good to know about it.

To give a bit more detail, the text has been broken up into app-friendly nuggets – each given its own heading, followed by a line with practical details (often just a two-word street address) – then the name is repeated (in English and Romanian) in the text below. So on the one hand there’s pointless repetition, and on the other any nugget that doesn’t reach about 30 words has to be either puffed up with flannel or cut. Likewise, hotel and restaurant/café listings have to be 30 words, or be cut – passing mentions in running text are now banned. The upshot is that the redesign – which we were promised would actually save space – actually needs more space, and leads to the text being cut ruthlessly. Of course, as always in this image-hungry world, there are lots of glossy photos. And this is a book that has been trimmed in all the preceding editions – there was no fat left to lose, while there was lots of new material, especially in Transylvania. Space could be saved by using single instead of double quotation marks, by writing eg p.154-5 and 1946-7 instead of p.154-55 and 1946-47 etc (that adds up over the length of a book), but the design is sacrosanct. The Rough Guides have always taken a much more mechanistic and formulaic approach than other publishers I’ve worked with, but this time there really was almost no wiggle room.

The official view was that the redesign would actually save space, but there would also be ‘counterbalancing cuts’, though I have no idea what these were: ‘To achieve the desired extent in other titles, we’ve depended on the counterbalancing cuts mentioned in synopses, in tandem with the slight shrinkage naturally brought about by the redesign’.

I hate this not simply because valuable information is being lost, but because it’s a shift towards a more metropolitan style of tourism where people rush from one honeypot to another in search of third-wave coffee. The redesign did seem to work for Wales, but the thing about Maramureş and Transylvania is that it’s all about the villages, and often there isn’t a single specific sight. If we have to delete every place that doesn’t have the requisite number of cappuccino outlets it ends up like every other guide to towns and other tourist hotspots. Now we can’t even write ‘the road from A to B passes through C, where there’s a nice church and a couple of guesthouses, and a lovely unrushed rural lifestyle.’ – now it all has to be pumped up into full listings, or cut. So people’s livelihoods in sustainable, community-based businesses are jeopardised, and the tourist experience just gets duller.

Rough Guides (now part of Penguin-Random House) is progressively buying out authors’ copyrights, so that we now receive a fee rather than royalties. This shouldn’t have changed our status, but increasingly the payments department in particular is treating authors on a level with suppliers of office toilet paper, in a faceless bureaucratic maze where we’re threatened with non-payment if we don’t use exactly the right format for our invoices – and I was sent just one copy of the finished book until I demanded a second (an oversight, apparently). Authors are no longer expected to check the proofs – but thank goodness I did see them for indexing, as there were quite a few errors still in the text, given the last-minute rush after the lengthy to-and-fro trying to decide what really had to be cut. The fact that the layout and cartography are now done in Delhi didn’t help.

Given the general atmosphere of doom and gloom in guidebook publishing since the 2008 crash and the rise of smartphone apps to replace dead-tree guidebooks, we were a bit surprised that a new edition of Romania was commissioned at all, and there was never much chance of getting space for all the new tourism developments in the country – so I may have been unreasonable in trying so desperately to fit all the new stuff in while not hacking out too much existing text. No-one is as dedicated as me to going through text word by word (several times) to make it as tight as possible, but it was never going to work.

Anyway – the upshot of a process in which each edition looks prettier but contains less useful information is that over 80 villages were cut from this latest edition. From the Transylvania chapter these are: Moeciu, Fundata, Cloaşterf, Sâmbata Monastery, Cisnădioara, Răşinari, Săcel, Miercurea Sibiului, Slimnic, Ocna Sibiului, Sebeş (actually a fairly significant town), Lăzarea, Brâncoveneşti, Hodac and Gurghiu, Cernat de Jos, Zalánpatak, Băile Homorod, Vlăhiţa, Stejărişu, Buru, Ocoliş, Bucium Poieni, Beliş, Călata, Călăţele, Mănăstireni, Fildu de Sus, Hida, Cizer, Leşu, Beclean, Coşbuc, Năsăud and the whole of the Someş Mare valley (Sângeorz-Bai, Rodna and Şanţ) and the Bârgău valley  (Livezele, Josenii Bârgăului, Prundu Bârgăului, Tiha Bârgăului and the Tihuţa Pass). But we’ve added the delightful villages of Richiş, Moşna and Alma Vii.

Now I’m not saying that some of these places didn’t need to make way for newer ones, or in a general process of streamlining, but I do want to make the information available in the somewhat more elastic space of the internet. I’m posting a selection of accounts of Transylvanian villages in this post – some updated, some not, and all shorn of their context. I’ll come to the rest of Romania in another post.

Kuala Lumpur – built to be bypassed

I can’t really see a reason for tourists to come to Kuala Lumpur. The World Heritage sites of Melaka and Penang – of course. The Highlands, for cooler weather and lots of nature, certainly. Islands and beaches, unavoidably. But KL – very avoidable, especially given recent (and continuing) improvements to Malaysia’s transport infrastructure. There are fast rail links from the airport to the huge modern BTS bus terminal (Bandar Tasik Selatan) and the Sentral railway station, all south of the city centre, and there’s really very little point staying overnight. The main railway that runs the length of peninsular Malaysia has been electrified and rebuilt (although the southernmost part from Gemas to Johore Bahru won’t be finished until 2020) so you can get from one end of the country to the other in a day. The National Museum is almost next to Sentral and apart from that, there’s the rather dull colonial centre, and the Petronas Towers, which are very high but apart from that not very interesting. Meanwhile the modern city centre is as choked with traffic, and as unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists, as anywhere I’ve been recently. If KL is trying to match Singapore, it’s doing it the ugly way. Even the new business districts (towards the Petronas Towers, and including the entertainment and backpacker area of Bukit Bintang) are not built to any kind of a grid plan, so the monorail and MRT lines have been threaded through above ground, below ground and with some difficulty.

On the plus side, the National Museum is good. Built in 1963 on the site of the Selangor Museum, partly destroyed by US bombing in 1945, it has four large galleries – start on the ground floor with pre- and protohistory and the Malay Kingdoms, then go up to the Colonial Era and a weaker display on Malaysia Today. Fine metal-working was established in this area up to 3,000 years ago, with bronze bells and drums from Vietnam and Cambodia, and there’s been trade with India for 2,000 years – Malay kingdoms were established in present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Java and Sumatra between the second and fifth centuries, and from the fourth or fifth century there was a Malay kingdom in the Bukong Valley, north of Penang, where there are the remains of 60 or more Hindu stupas. Eventually there was a full patchwork of Malay Sultanates, some of which ‘accepted’ Residents from the British East India Company (along the lines of the earlier British Raj in India) and some of which (the ones with less tin) didn’t. Apart from the Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka and Singapore – see my posts here and here) there was no unified British rule until 1946 (after the Japanese had invaded and eventually been thrown out) – and then it moved fairly rapidly to independence anyway (see here). However British forces (mainly Gurkhas, in fact) did have to stay on to fight Chinese communists in the jungle from 1948 to 1960 and to face down Indonesia until 1967 in the Confrontation, caused by Indonesian fears of neo-colonialism.

The more familiar part of the colonial district lies to the west of the river which gave the city its name (meaning Muddy Confluence) – Merdeka Square (the Padang or Parade Ground, later used as a cricket field) is surrounded by various imposing piles, many in a distinctive NeoMughal or IndoSaracenic style, such as the Royal Selangor Club (1884), the Government Printing House (1898, now the City Gallery and tourist information office), the old Post Office (1896), the Sultan Abdul Samad building (government offices, built in 1897), the similar Panggung Bandaraya DBKL (1896-1904, built as the city hall and now a hall for musical theatre), the National Music Museum (built as the Chartered Bank in 1888 and closed for refurbishment in January 2017), and the National Textile Museum (built as headquarters of the Federated Malay States Railways in 1905). To the east of the Klang river is an unexpected area of Art Deco buildings around the central market (itself built in 1928, although the area was laid out in the 1870s and 1880s) – there’s a plan to revive this area with a promenade and cycleway along the river (along the lines of what has been achieved in Seoul), which might be wonderful if properly done, but what I’ve seen of the cycle route so far has been disastrously bad. As things stand one might want to gently cycle around the Padang, but that’s about it for pleasant cycling in KL. Nevertheless, if there were budget accommodation in this area, I might begin to think of it as an attractive area in which to spend a night or more.

Deco-style details on the Central Market
Some practicalities

The new ETS train service (supposedly the only 160km/h trains running on metre-gauge track in the world, although it didn’t go above 140km/h when I went from KL to Butterworth) is quite impressive, with free snacks but no wi-if on trains or stations. It’s well used – be sure to book in advance. It’s much easier to buy tickets at the classic station (built in 1910), immediately north of Sentral – your ticket will be from Sentral but trains stop at both and you can board at either. The introduction of the ETS service (apart from the southernmost end – see above) has meant the abolition of the overnight services, which as everywhere in the world at the moment struggled to pay their way. In the longer term there are plans for a Chinese-funded and -built high-speed line (more like a bullet train on totally segregated tracks) from KL to Singapore – this will terminate in Jurong, in Singapore’s western suburbs, even though the original rail corridor to the Keppel station is still available.  Sentral is, like most modern rail interchanges, more of a shopping mall than a station (it’s a long walk to the Monorail stop). The Sentral MRT station is currently under construction between the station and the National Museum, so access to the museum is currently from the rear (past some preserved steam locomotives, as it happens). I was not impressed by the machines for MRT and monorail tickets – one stole my coins, another rejected my notes. Eventually you get a plastic token, cleverly encoded with the length of your journey, that will work the automatic gates (as in Taipei too). In January 2017 RapidKL introduced a cheaper cashless fare. but that’s with MyRapid and TnG (TouchAndGo) cards rather than cashless bank cards.

Malaysian World Heritage – Melaka and Penang

Malaysia has five sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but it’s the two urban ones of Melaka (Malacca) and Georgetown (on the island of Penang) that attract most interest and visitors. I called in on both on my way from Singapore to Bangkok, and found both interesting and enjoyable, in different ways. (I visited them both, and one of the other sites, in 1983-4, but don’t remember a great deal!)

 Melaka is by far the older of the two, having been established as a fishing village by the 13th century. Around 1400 Parameswara (also known as Iskandar Shah), the Raja of Temasek (now Singapore) settled here having been driven out of Singapore by invaders from the south. His successor converted to Islam, and Melaka became a centre for trade with India and Arabia, and also a centre for Islamic scholarship. Due to the monsoon patterns Melaka was busy with ships from December to March and from May to September – its fine natural harbour allowed almost 2000 ships at a time to wait, for months on end, for the winds to allow their onward journey. It was so prosperous and respected that it gave its name to the whole Malay peninsula for a while. In 1511 (after two failed attempts) the Portuguese captured Melaka, aiming to make it the hub of the Asian spice trade; however their anti-Islamic attitudes drove traders elsewhere (for instance, to Brunei). In 1528 the descendants of the Melaka sultans established the new sultanate of Johore-Riau-Lungga-Pahang, which had no permanent capital, but eventually in the 18th century became the Sultanate of Johore. St Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the East, visited Melaka 15 times between 1545 and 1552, and was welcomed although he didn’t convert the people of Melaka. In the early 17th century there were regular attacks by the Dutch, the rising trading power at the time, and they captured Melaka in 1641 with the help of Johore. During the Napoleonic Wars the Dutch handed Melaka over to the British to keep it from being seized by the French, and then in 1824 ceded it to the British in exchange for Bencoolen (Bengkulu) on Sumatra. Melaka remained under British control until 1957 (apart from the Japanese occupation during World War II), first as an outpost of the British East India Company, then as a Crown Colony, and then from 1946 as part of the Malayan Union and then the Federation of Malaya.

The Portuguese fort built in 1512 was destroyed in 1641 and rebuilt in 1670, and largely demolished by the British in 1806 (it would have been totally demolished if Sir Stamford Raffles, here on sick leave, had not intervened); the Stadthuys or Dutch City Hall was built in the 17th century on the site of the Portuguese governor’s house. These now form the heart of the World Heritage Site, where various new museums have been created in a bid to boost cultural tourism, along the lines of Singapore (see this post) but in a rather more amateur way. However the street linking them, Jalan Kota is traffic-free, and smoking-free too, and makes an attractive promenade.
Starting at the Stadthuys, at the northern or city-centre end of Jalan Kota, you’ll pay 10 Ringgits for access to five museums and an art gallery, but the main attraction is the History Museum in the Stadthuys itself, with wonderful Malay knife blades as well as cannon and porcelain. At the other end of the pedestrianised street, the Independence Memorial is a free museum in the former Malacca Club, where the first leader of independent Malaya, Tunkuh Abdul Rahman, announced the date of independence for the first time on 20 February 1956 (he’d gone to London on 1 January to negotiate with the British government and returned via Singapore, so this was his first stop back on Malayan soil). It gives a decent enough run-down of Malaysian history, and not just the movement for independence. (One of the new museums along Jalan Kota is the UMNO Melaka Museum, dealing with the history of the United Malays National Organisation, Rahman’s party, which gives a more narrowly focussed view – the same applies to the Democratic Government Museum, well funded in its large modern building, but aimed at educating Malaysians, not foreigners.)

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Independence Memorial stands opposite A Famosa, the gateway that is all that’s left of the Portuguese fort; more recently the foundations of the Santiago Bastion were revealed here, and in 2006 parts of the Dutch Middleburg and Victoria Bastions, by the river, have been tarted up and made accessible to tourists.

But really, despite these efforts to move tourism in a more upmarket and cultural direction, Melaka’s visitors are mostly Malaysians and Chinese – the town’s trademark seems to be the luridly decorated and illuminated trishaws (with a sound system to match) that seemingly cater to Chinese honeymooners and the like.

In contrast, Georgetown (Penang) has lots of hostels and sees far more western visitors, including Aussies in singlets and backpackers on the beaches-and-bars trail around South-East Asia (there’s a fast ferry link to the lovely island of Langkawi to the north). It also has a growing expatriate population, and property on the island now costs about double what it costs on the mainland. Its history is much more recent – in the 16th and 17th centuries its sheltered anchorage, with plentiful fresh water, made it a perfect stopover for Chinese, Indian, Arab and European trading ships during the monsoon months, and thus also a happy hunting ground for pirates, such as Sir James Lancaster who lay in wait here during the summer of 1592. In 1786 the Sultan of Kedah (under threat from Siam and Burma) let Francis Light of the British East India Company occupy what he called Prince of Wales Island. He founded Georgetown which was a free port from 1786 until 1969 (although it was never usable as a naval dockyard). When British military aid was not forthcoming the Sultan attempted to retake the island in 1790, and the next year a treaty was signed obliging the EIC to pay rent to the sultan. From 1826 the EIC created the Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka and Singapore), ruled from Penang, but in 1832 this was transferred to Singapore; in 1867 they came under British rule as a Crown Colony. As with Singapore, the port prospered and immigrants flooded in, particularly Chinese as well as Arabs, Singhalese, Tamils, Thais and Burmese. There were also (from 1802) Armenians, notably the four Sarkies brothers who in 1885 founded the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, still the grandest hotel in South-East Asia.

The Chinese incomers were enrolled into two main secret societies, one Cantonese-speaking and one Hokkien, and in 1867 these fell out, leading to nine days of rioting until police arrived from Singapore; the name of Cannon St dates from this time. From the 1880s the area east of Beach St (now Lebuh Pantal) was reclaimed from the sea. Penang was occupied by the Japanese in 1941 without a shot being fired, and a couple of German U-Boats were based here from 1943 to attack British shipping in the Indian Ocean. After World War II Penang was, like Melaka, part of the Malayan Union and then the Federation of Malaya – Melaka and Penang continue to be ruled by governors rather than sultans, and Penang is now run by the opposition Democratic Action Party, which seems to be doing a good job (it’s definitely much less corrupt than the national government).

The core of the World Heritage Site, essentially Chinatown and Little India, is attractive and lively, with pricey little coffeeshops, noisy bars and gift shops, and the best Chinese and Indian temples, notably Khoo Kengsi (hidden away down Cannon Square, an alley off Cannon St) and Sri Mahamariamman (founded in 1801 and rebuilt in 1833), and the Kapitan Kling and Achin Street mosques, founded in 1802 and 1808 respectively. But don’t miss the buffer zone, just to the north, where you’ll find the colonial buildings, starting with Fort Cornwallis, built of wood by Light and rebuilt in stone (by Indian convicts) in 1804 – it’s a bit of a let-down unless you take a free guided tour, which is recommended. Nearby, the Clock Tower was commissioned for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but finished only after her death in 1902. Just beyond are the Anglican church of St George the Martyr (founded in 1818) and the Roman Catholic church of the Assumption (1860) – with between them the History Museum. Built as a school in 1896, this is cheap and well worth a visit, with its display of Baba-Nyonga (Straits Chinese) embroidered wedding costumes a particular highlight. Across the road is the imposing High Court, built in 1903 and extended in 2007, and just north at 14 Leith St the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion, built by the eponymous Chinese merchant in the 1880s and refurbished from 1989 – it’s run as a boutique hotel to pay for ongoing maintenance, but can be visited on tours (11am, 2pm, 3.30pm; MR17). It gives a wonderful insight into the lifestyle of the amazingly wealthy Chinese merchants of the time.

If I had more than one day in Penang, I’d get out to the Botanic Gardens, created in 1884 around the waterfalls from which fresh water was piped to the harbour in 1805, and I’d hike up Penang Hill (833m) – a track was cleared to the top in 1790, up which colonial-era visitors could be carried by pony or sedan chair; in 1924 a funicular railway was built (upgraded in 2010) and this became the only hill station along the lines of Shimla or Darjeeling in Britain’s Far Eastern colonies. The starting point is the village of Air Itam, reached by regular Rapid Penang buses from Georgetown.

The ‘five-foot-way’ in Georgetown
Some practicalities – Melaka

Melaka sprawls inland from the old town, and the only way to reach the Sentral bus terminal is by taxi (MR20) – then it costs just MR12 to get to Kuala Lumpur in a comfortable a/c bus. The railway passes a long way inland of Melaka, and it’s a long crawl even for buses to reach the expressway to KL or Singapore. I stayed at the Discovery Café and Guest House, a cheap and adequate travellers’ place – the café has some character, but the rooms (across the road) definitely do not, although they do have air-conditioning as well as shared toilets and showers. The Geographer Cafe, at 83 Jalan Hang Jebat, is justly a landmark on Chinatown’s Jonker Street strip, with decent food and beer plus live jazz.

Some practicalities – Penang

The first bridge to Penang Island opened in 1985, just after my first visit, and a second opened in 2014 – but the classic way to reach the island is still the best, by ferry from Butterworth. The 20-minute ferry ride costs just MR1.20 to the island (the kiosk just changes notes to coins for you to feed into the turnstile) and is free returning to the mainland; the walkway from the train station at Butterworth is tortuous and tedious, but there is a free shuttle bus ferry to and from the bus terminal. I stayed on Jalan Muntri, in the World Heritage district but a bit quieter and classier than the streets nearer the centre.