Losing Chitlom

“Chitlom,” we tell the driver as we get into a cab at the Bangkok airport. We are feeling rather pleased with ourselves, because the hotel we like is in Chitlom and everyone knows the Red Shirt protesters are hunkered down in Silom where they won’t bother us.

As we cruise down the toll road at alarming speeds, the driver fills us in on the latest strife.

“Blam blam blam,” he says, imitating a machine gun. “Accident. Pow pow! Accident!”

“Sounds like there have been more clashes,” I say to Chad, shaking my head. “What a shame.”

Then we exit the freeway, make a turn or two and come to a sudden stop in front of a spiky, homemade barrier. Sharpened bamboo stakes jut out from among piles of tires.

“Chitlom,” says the driver, pointing at the Red Shirt roadblock.

At last we realize the true meaning of “Blam blam blam! Accident!” which is something like: “You can’t stay in Chitlom, you fools! Someone might shoot you by mistake!”

Scrambling, we have the driver drop us at a nearby hotel. I immediately fall for its tacky extravagance but the rate is four times our budget, even after a Redshirt-Season discount. So we get on the wi-fi and hunt up a hostel across town.

Our new room is tiny, and the mattress is so hard it could be Chinese, but it’s a cheerful place. As for the protests, we’re fine — they’re far away and we’re staying out of the area at night. We did go down and take some photos of the encampment today. More soon!

Eating and Rambling in KL

Chad has already raved about the benefits of visiting our food-writer friends in Kuala Lumpur here, to which I can only add: yum! Among the highlights were Robyn’s own Sichuan beef with toasted rice powder, the steamed-and-fried Hokkien fish in Chad’s photo, and the roti canai (Malaysian flatbread) with curried dal at this street place in KL’s fabric district.

Afterward we wandered around looking at bright cloth ….

and slightly eerie scarfed heads.

The next day we took a long walk through a local park (local! park! It’s an exciting concept after four years in the middle of intensely-urban Jakarta).

Tapping rubber in the park

It was a good way to ease into on the hiking we plan to do in Thailand, and a sobering reminder of how soft we’ve gotten lately. After an hour or two of gentle hills, my legs were as rubbery as the stuff collectiing in this bucket. And two days later, I’m still getting hate mail from my calves.

Another plug for Robyn and Dave’s mouthwatering blog: http://eatingasia.typepad.com/. They’re also on Twitter (@EatingAsia) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#!/pages/EatingAsia/111526995552726?ref=ts).

Singapore to KL, Super VIP style

The bus to KL said SUPER VIP on the side in big letters, and in fact it was pretty swanky. We reclined our plush seats nearly all the way back and gazed out the window for 6 hours as endless fields of oil palm trees flickered past. (Malaysia and Indonesia have been tearing down their jungles in a race for the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest palm oil producer.)

As evening set in we pulled into a rest area for dinner. There’s something universal about bus rest stops: the merciless fluorescent lighting? the gift shops full of useless trinkets? the sad plastic trays? Maybe it’s all three. If I squinted a bit, I could almost convince myself I was in a Greyhound rest stop somewhere in New Jersey.

Neon-bright boxes of Poosh! candy from Argentina only enhanced the sense of being both everywhere and nowhere.

A tasty plate of flat rice noodles (kuihteow) placed us firmly back in Asia, though.

Sprinting through Singapore

Well, we’ve done it. After four years we’ve bid farewell to Jakarta, in a goodbye-for-now way. We’ve quit our jobs and wrapped up freelance work, or most of it, and we’re heading out to travel around Southeast Asia for three months before heading back to the US where I am set to enter grad school in the fall.

I envisioned leaving in an organized, well-paced manner: leisurely spells of packing punctuated by get-togethers with friends and philosophical blog posts looking back over my time here. Of course it turned out to be chaos. But somehow, over a tumultuous two weeks, stuff got sorted into piles, piles disappeared into boxes, and a very few items made their way into our backpacks. Sunday night we got onto the late (ie cheap) flight to Singapore to begin our life on the road.

Singapore is a good place to start, because we know the drill. Forget hotels: the expensive ones are too expensive, and the cheap ones have all the ambience of a jail cell. Go straight to the Inn Crowd hostel in Little India and get a private room.

The Inn Crowd may not be high-class, but it has heart.

The next morning we ran around doing all those little things that are easy to do at home and hard to do on the road: rescheduling a plane ticket to Bangkok, finding a bus to Kuala Lumpur. (For various reasons, it made sense to visit our friends in KL first and then move on to Thailand). Luckily, just as we got everything sorted out, a drenching rainstorm forced us to take refuge in a cafe. The coffee was gloriously strong, with just a hint of condensed milk.

By midafternoon we were across town at an old shopping mall featuring several dubious-looking karaoke joints and the Beyond Friendship Marriage Agency.

The 3:00 bus would take us on to the first truly new stop on the trip: Kuala Lumpur.