Thailand – Amazon saved me

Sunset at Cape Panwa - 850km later
Sunset at Cape Panwa – 850km later

The Coral Hotel was an engaging experience; way off the beaten track and a minuscule enclave of clipped grass and ‘Le Monde Sauvage’ artifacts. But whilst the surroundings were delightful there was an undercurrent of self-indulgence surrounding it that was essentially French. The food was – well – Thai but subtlety bastardised and so allowed guests baguette with their morning coffee and Gauloise. I guess that once you’ve made that sort of concession you’ve lost the neighbourhood, so to speak. But the hotel setting – little chalets scattered among the trees and facing a tropical pool – was very pleasant and a refreshing antidote to the traffic. A few steps from the elevated dining terrace took you into rural Thailand, the forest edge and onto a long, deserted beach. It was exquisite but all the time, though, my mind was drawn to that Emmanuelle film from the mid 1970s and its idealised, romantised and eroticised representation of a perfect, but unashamedly Francophile, Thailand.

We left the hotel with its French contingent in a smokey huddle, intensely debating the day’s issue, to continue our drive south. We were off the tourist beat and on minor roads that would eventually connect again with the still ‘under construction’ Phet Kasem Road. There were few vehicles and the drive took us south through villages and plantations, past small fields with single livestock and wretched buildings whose purpose and product were frequently unidentifiable. And at every point smiling kids waved while some of the dustiest and most contented-looking dogs I’ve ever seen either slept the morning away at the roadside or sat up somnambulantly and scratched with enthusiasm.

Rubber trees tapped
Rubber trees tapped
A family's income can be dependent on one animal
A family’s income can be dependent on one animal

The poverty we witnessed was a stark contrast to the smug complacency of the previous night’s acquaintances and, as the vista unfolded alongside us, made for some deep thoughts about the nature of tourism in the country. Most people I’ve spoken to about Thailand haven’t ventured outside the fleshpots and tourist-orientated centres that exploit the indigence and deprivation of a largely subsistence agricultural economy in which something over half the population is engaged. Unemployment is officially ‘low’ but those without jobs frequently gravitate towards rural family occupations or unskilled work that are outside Governmental influence and aren’t recorded formally. The economy was projected to grow and revitalise the tourist industry with the announcement of the ‘Thailand 4.0’ initiative last year but the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has imposed a year of mourning on the Nation. This has had a direct and adverse effect across most sectors. In practice the slowing of the economy means less for rural regions and encourages further population drift towards areas where tourist-related employment promises opportunity. That in turn generates social, cultural and economic pressures with consequential demands on natural resources and the environment. Tourism and its income are increasingly important to Thailand but the pressure imposed on its population and environment is unsustainable. In some respects the Thais are their own worst enemy although all tourism doesn’t need to be exploitative; some travel companies take a more circumspect approach and you gain a sense of this if you look at what Responsible Travel has to say.

Intensive cultivation along the road
Intensive cultivation along the road
Getting dinner
Getting dinner
Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine

Back in the traffic on the main road the landscape became open and expansive. Roadside shrines glimpsed between heavy trucks and rickety buses were set against a distant backdrop of verdant hills and plantations. We passed through the outskirts of unglamorous Surat Thani, a regional transport interchange with an airport and ferry access to Ko Samui and the Gulf islands. These larger towns present a very different Thailand from the beach resorts that come immediately to mind when tourism is mentioned.

Roadside cattle
Roadside cattle

1-amazon

There were still extensive areas of uncontrolled – and unattended – roadworks but I became a little more comfortable with the erratic and occasionally heart-stopping manoeuvures of other road users with the help of a gem in the madness – Café Amazon. These surprising and charming road-stops with their green and black uniformed baristas are associated with PTT service stations and are built on a standard layout that includes shops, toilets and food stalls. The coffee – ‘do you like your cappuccino cold or hot, sir?’ – came in biodegradable cups if you didn’t sit in the pretty little cabins and was passable, if not entirely authentic, but then I wouldn’t order pad thai at a Sicilian Autogrill. The invariably winsome staff more than made up for any inadequacies in the product and the banana cake set us up perfectly for re-entering the fray.

Watch for trucks and other traffic
Watch for trucks and other traffic
Yeah, OK
Yeah, OK
Off Cape Panwa
Off Cape Panwa
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown

Once we’d turned off towards Phang-gna, however, the traffic cleared and we were frequently on deserted roads. The driving experience changed, the road became less straight and the scenery more spectacular. As we neared Phuket the influence of the tourist-dollar began to show itself in improved roads and street lighting, better building and a veneer of increasing opulence – and fewer dogs. Then we were over the bridge and onto the island. The main drag avoided the worst excesses of the place but as we approached and passed through Phuket Town the traffic intensified, smiling children were replaced with crowds; mopeds were interspersed with tourists on scooters and emboldened Westerners sporting distasteful tee-shirt slogans appeared among the Thai faces. But we were soon through it and at Cape Panwa, with 850km completed and the sun setting across the bay.

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Thailand – just follow the directions

Dusk at Coral Hotel
Dusk at Coral Hotel

Our ‘Bangkok in a day’ tour completed, we were ready to head south to the hellacious Phuket. It’s difficult to overstate the kaleidoscope of elements that contributes to experiencing Bangkok; from breathtaking cuisine – we’d dined on exquisite Miang Kham* in the riverside Thiptara restaurant and meandered through street food stalls – to the people; charming, respectful and gentle in a manner that is disarming to hubristic Westerners; and that river – rich in horrific and mysterious flotsam. We’d wandered along Charoen Krung Road to shop at Robinsons and I’d established a relaxed stand-off with the security officers who never quite understood my dawn excursions, bush-shaking and pishing** in the hotel gardens.

In the taxi to Suvarnabhumi airport to collect the rental car I was mindful of the wealth of advice provided, guidance published and concern expressed about driving in Thailand. Statistically we were in the second most dangerous country in the world with something approaching 24000 vehicle-related deaths a year; that’s about three an hour. I had been counselled on the risks of drunks, un-roadworthy vehicles, insurance scams and corrupt police. In short, choosing to drive was madness.

Emerging onto a moonlit sea
Emerging onto a moonlit sea

The rental desk was deserted and the assistant who arrived to deal with her only customer [locals and Asian visitors were using a presumably cheaper outlet next door] was only matched in her warmth and enthusiasm by her apparent lack of experience. Whilst putting some of that down to language it became clear as we struggled through the process of processing booking confirmations, passport copies and driving licence details that she probably hadn’t done this before. I began to have visions of being angrily accused by a moped-riding drunk in baggy shorts and tee-shirt before being pulled over by corrupt police to find that the one piece of paper you must carry in Thailand was still at the airport. My fears were compounded when the SatNav I’d pre-ordered was respectfully presented to me in a box – cellophane intact – with a perfect set of instructions in Thai. That was swiftly followed by an invoice for the rental charge – £1200! This disjunctive and time-consuming exchange was all very good-natured but with distance to drive and the day disappearing I was relieved when her senior colleague arrived. Within minutes the SatNav was programmed, its cost moderated – she’d used the purchase price for each day of the rental – and we were wedged into a tiny but shining new car with the smiling staff waving us off at the kerbside.

Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Poolside at Coral Hotel
Poolside at Coral Hotel

Now – the aforementioned perils aside – all we had to do was follow the directions. Straight down the Suvarnabhumi Road to the Sirat Expressway; along Ratchadaphisek Road, join the The Rama II Frontage Road and head for Prachuap Khiri Khan. The roads were pretty good and the traffic surprisingly benign but we encountered an unexpected problem – the SatNav couldn’t pronounce Thai. We were reduced to floods of laughter at the American-accented gibberish and were forced into the nearest service station to buy a map that would facilitate our journey towards Huahin.

Once out of Bangkok the road degenerated into a straightish dual carriageway but, as one would expect, it was sort of different from what we see in Europe. A lot of incomplete road works necessitating diversions, U-turns and – frighteningly – some unmarked two-way stretches were interspersed with random traffic signals and junctions that often defied comprehension. Numerous potholes, missing bits of road and debris encouraged heavy trucks, tractors and pick-ups full of schoolgirls to swing erratically from lane to lane but it became clear very rapidly that none of this concerned the Thai drivers; they simply ignored everything in a headlong rush to get where they were going. It was truly nerve-racking but in time I became more confident and once we’d reached a velocity approaching that of the traffic it was akin to floating down a river on a log.

Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel
Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel

We had an overnight stay booked at Coral Hotel in Bang Saphan but it was almost dark as we arrived. The SatNav, which we’d by then begun to interpret, garbled a left turn onto an unlit, narrow road heading into the forest but there were no signs and the road was too small to be on the map. We could see no indication of where we should go, turned back, retraced our steps and tried again before eventually seeing lights. We emerged into a rural setting that boasted a supermarket, a rail crossing and a single traffic light. I decided to try – map in hand – to see if anyone could point us towards the hotel and was ushered to the centre of the store where a youngish guy was ministering to a hoard of local residents. This was the pharmacy and he was, I guessed from the way he was consulting each customer before dispensing pills and tubes of ointment, the local doctor. I was at the back of a queue but quickly became the focus of animated attention, being foreign and all. We collectively established that we were indeed on the right road and that we should cross the railway, turn right at the signal and look for a sign. Whether that would be transcendental or physical I couldn’t tell but the garrulous crowd quickly turned its attention back to the doctor and we headed further into the trees. Eventually a hand-painted notice directed us along a sandy track that broke through the forest onto a beach, edged with coconut palms and bathed in moonlight. A short distance further and we pulled into a bijou tropical paradise, adorned by beautifully presented Thais and a small group of trendy, French guests. For all the world we had emerged in the film set of Emmanuelle.

Waiting for Emanuelle to appear
Waiting for Emmanuelle to appear

So, we’d passed the first test by avoiding death on the highway – narrowly, at one point – and were in a tropical paradise.

*Dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanut, shallot, ginger, lemon wrapped wrapped with betal leaf and served with palm sauce.

**If you’re not a birder then this explains pishing.

I use a SatNav, especially when I’m in the Middle East and have to tackle remote places but I’m not a big fan. Here’s a post from some time ago.

pool-and-sky

 

Beam me up, Rakesh

Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite
Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base

 

 

Sicily – a tantalising taste of Baroque

Although we were aware of just how big the island was the poor quality of the roads, appalling traffic in towns and difficulty in parking when we actually got somewhere meant that we were in the car far too much. It was an important point that we’d remember for next time as it became a little frustrating, especially when we didn’t get as much time to explore as we would have wished. We’d planned a trip that would take us through as many places as possible and while that has good and bad aspects, on balance we were satisfied that we were seeing as much of Sicily as we could and were getting a real impression of the place.

We liked the south-east corner of the island and before embarking on the long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo we spent a few more days looking around. We stayed at the very pleasant La Corte del Sole. This is a country hotel in a rebuilt masseria, set on the side of the flat river basin of the Val di Noto. A masseria is a farmhouse that is fortified or, at least, capable of being defended and typically dates from the late middle ages. The appellation is used somewhat loosely but then the marauding hoards that invade Sicily these days come with easyJet or Thomson so a degree of poetic licence is forgivable. To be fair, Le Corte doesn’t look old and actually feels pretty new but it has a satisfying solidity that we liked nonetheless. The rural location balances country walks to the relatively empty beach with a short drive to nearby Noto, one of Sicily’s Baroque towns. It’s also well-placed to see most of the region between the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari and Isola delle Correnti, Sicily’s southernmost point. A very pleasant dining terrace overlooks the verdant valley and has views to the sea. We had a memorable dinner; spada alla griglia con finocchio selvatico [grilled swordfish with wild fennel] for Mission Control and maccheroni con le sarde for me. This is one of my favourite Sicilian dishes – local pasta, sardines, saffron, currants, pine nuts all turned in fried bread crumbs. The food and substantial breakfast were actually very good. La Corte del Sole is a bit off the beaten track and quiet but well worth finding.

Noto is a particularly attractive town that was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and we liked it a lot. The splendid buildings are faced with the local honey-coloured limestone that develops a unique luminosity in evening sunlight. It’s laid out on a grid and this adds a formality to the ornate architecture that is frequently absent elsewhere on the island. Noto’s UNESCO world heritage status is apparent when wandering its streets; taking time with a cool aperitivo delivers, in many respects, both the charm and the acute fascination of Sicily in a single bite. During our visit it seemed that all of Noto’s residents were either strolling back and forth along the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele or watching life pass by from church steps or the piazzas. And Caffé Sicilia produced simply the best cannoli that we found, with the finest scorze [that’s the pastry shell]. Equally interesting, however, was to walk off the main streets and find, as I did, evidence of a less comfortable side to life away from the mainstream. Browsing a row of local shops I found myself gazing at a display of weapons. Not small guns for target shooting or keeping the sparrow population in control and not a few but dozens of AK series assault rifles, carbines, Berettas, machine pistols and shotguns – the kind of weapons that are used to kill people. And there they were, on open display between a hairdresser and a pharmacy. It was sobering to ponder what ‘I’m just popping to the shops, dear’ might mean in Noto.

We resolved to return as the town deserved far more time than we were able to give it but we had a rendezvous and there were more places to visit on the way. I wanted to see Messina again after gazing at it under a smouldering Etna from across the straits as a student. And now that I’d finally decided to visit the island there was also that remaining piece of endemic woodland in the Nebrodi Mountains.

Getting to Palermo from Noto was tortuous; driving between the ‘three points’ of Palermo, Messina and Catania makes travellers heavily dependent on the autostrada network, which peters out away from these centres. Fortunately Noto is linked to it and getting to Palermo by way of Messina would take about the same time as using the cross-country route through Enna we’d arrived on. We headed for Messina and north of Catania the autostrada became a toll road. The rates are not high but not for the first time I found myself wondering about how the fees don’t appear to resurface as improvements, maintenance or repairs.

While we were thinking about that and trying to keep our Autogrill coffee in the cup – almost impossible on Sicilian roads, by the way –  Taormina and its teetering, cliff-top buildings came into view.

Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.

 

A little seedy, but First Class

The train was a little late arriving at KL Sentral – about an hour and bit, actually – but as it had started its journey in Bangkok that wasn’t entirely unexpected so we were fairly cool about it. We’d heard that the advertised journey times didn’t include the time spent at borders, where checking passports, scanning baggage and waiting in queues took a lifetime so a delay was, well, inevitable. The station in KL is new and a major transport hub; it was full to the brim with travellers, heaving with life, shops and market stalls but well-signposted and easy to navigate – a foreign but altogether not unpleasant experience. A separate waiting area was set aside and cordoned-off for First Class passengers and although all the seats were full by the time we arrived we were left in no doubt that we were getting something special for the princely sum that our tickets had cost.

A six-hour journey on the Ekspres Sinaran Selatan promised to be scenic and relaxing but it would require sustenance. The service on the train included a buffet trolley but, to be honest, I’m not comfortable about what’s on offer on the Stansted Express so, after a quick conference with Mission Control overshadowed by visions of what Malaysian catering might deliver, self-catering was the answer. Having some regard for the well-being of my stomach and determined to keep my relationship with the toilets on the train completely platonic, we set off in search of carry-on food. In a land where eating at street kitchens is a national pastime that was quite an adventure. There was a lot on offer in the station and it was being consumed with gusto at every turn but most of it was yellow and if it wasn’t granular it was kind of wet. We had something of a frantic half-hour but by the time the arrival of the train was announced we’d assembled from the most unlikely outlets a clumsy but reasonable picnic; nuts, bottled water, apples, bananas, some funny-looking sandwiches, dry biscuits and chocolate bars.

Uniformed attendants ushered us onto the platform and into the sleek, polished metal coach. It was only as we stepped into the pink-liveried interior that we became aware of some alarming scratches along the outside, peeling paint, a carpet that was worn smooth in places and several double-glazed window units that had lost their outer pane. Some of those that were intact had fogged with condensation but the windows around our seats allowed some visibility, even if they were a little dirty. There were large, flat-screen TVs at each end of the coach, both with carefully drafted but badly spelled notes stuck to them apologising for the inconvenience of their not being in service. The seats, colours coordinated in a fetching orange, were akin to airline seats and equipped with footrests, reclining mechanisms and fold away tables. Unfortunately, they had carried a lot of passengers and made a lot of trips since they were installed so none of these luxury features worked and I suspect that the tables were best left where they were, wedged in the dark and sticky recesses of the seat arms.

But it was comfortable enough and we settled to friendly smiles and greetings from fellow passengers. The decrepit décor was soon of no consequence as the Malaysian scenery took over and unfolded before us. The express rattled along the uneven and narrow tracks at a pace that wasn’t really slow, but couldn’t honestly be described as fast either. Small towns, villages, views to forested hills, rain forest and a truly frightening amount of oil-palm plantations drifted by on each side. It was a fascinating way to see Malaysia and as we went further south I became more appreciate of the Man in seat 61. The journey was what we’d hoped for and was a relaxed way to travel the country. Anyone who has time should see Malaysia by train, although getting your hotel to provide a packed lunch would be worth the effort.

The catering trolley did arrive but not until the threadbare aisle carpet had been meticulously and noisily swept by a young lady with a carpet sweeper – the first time I’d seen one used in any kind of accommodation that wasn’t stationary. It was a pointless exercise but a charming cameo. Although we accepted the small complimentary cake and bottle of water that was offered, our own food was by far more appetising than that yellow stuff we’d been curious about at KL, served here in a semi-liquid form in small, plastic boxes. I guess it’s a matter of what you’re used to; there was a murmur of understated excitement as the trolley cluttered into the coach so the food is clearly considered a highlight of the journey and it was consumed with silent enthusiasm. I was happy to pass on the meal, a decision reinforced later when I squeezed into the tiny toilet and barely avoided slithering down the gaping hole in the floor that opened ominously and unencumbered onto the tracks below. Bracing myself between wall and door I had a passing thought that there were practical advantages in being male.

The towns along the route – the express officially grinds to a halt six times before reaching the border with Singapore – provide a fascinating insight into regional life in Malaysia and once again proved that making the journey by train was by far the best of the options available. The character of Malaysia’s colonial past was frequently reflected in the buildings and names on shops as well as the exchange of passengers, where first a Chinese and then a Malay or Indian community predominated. Towns with such exotic names as Seremban, Segamat and Kluang are significant stops before Johor Bahru, just before Singapore. Border controls in Malaysia are tiresome and move at glacial speed with lots of officious stamping of documents by suspicious and unsmiling officers. Johor was no different. All passengers had to disembark, remove their baggage from the express and wait in line below signs proclaiming death to anyone found with drugs. I don’t know about you but in every movie I’ve watched where someone was stopped at an Asian border with drugs secreted in their bag, from Bangkok Hilton to Bridget Jones, the tourist was innocent and the police immune to protest. I knew I hadn’t been watching our bags all the time. In the heat and intense humidity I wilted under the scrutiny of the border guards, trying but failing to avoid eye contact and certain they had me marked as a trafficker worthy of further examination. It seemed an age before, with a rare but curt smile, we were invited to start the long walk through the entire length of the customs building and back to the distant express. I was expecting a hand on my shoulder at every step.

But that was the border; it had been the last stop for the majority of passengers so we rattled slowly over the causeway spanning the Johor Strait and into Singapore like a ghost train. Very quickly, the rural nature of Malaysia was replaced with a verdant urbanity of modern buildings, overpasses, expressways, roads and traffic. Singapore always looks like it was built last month and even though I’d experienced it previously the contrast with Malaysia was startling. It was sunset as the express crept the short distance into Tanjong Pagar, the Malaysian-owned terminus on the island. The journey had been surprisingly enjoyable despite the train now being past its best and a little seedy. We were about two hours late but pleased that we’d made the decision to let the train take the strain and planned to use it going north the following week.

Kate collected us and we were whisked off to catch-up and recover. I reckoned I had about six hours before I was due to meet my guide and head back into Malaysia for a trek into the rain forest.

Mission Control's view of the back of the train

Tenerife; over the mountain and through the clouds

When you leave the repetitive and incongruous developments along the southern coast and especially when north of the TF-1 motorway, the character of Tenerife quickly changes; it becomes more verdant and rural. Small towns and villages are surrounded by terraced fields growing grapes, onions, cereals or citrus and the buildings, which rarely exceed two storeys outside town boundaries, sit more comfortably in the landscape. The smaller roads, bordered by stone-walled fields on one side and expansive views down to the coast and out to sea on the other, make the journey a pleasure. The route we took was ever upward but narrow and convoluted so progress was often slow. Nonetheless, one quickly gains a feeling that, road surfaces apart, this approaches what it was like on the island in the days before easyJet, Monarch and Ryanair.

Mist and the forest above Vilaflor

The Islas Canarias are a volcanic group and on Tenerife the third largest volcano in the world – it’s also the highest point in Spain – towers to 3718m so getting from one side of the island to the other means either going around or over El Teide. Ever the adventurer, I wasn’t minded to take the advice of the concierge and rush headlong down the TF-1 motorway to Santa Cruz De Tenerife so that I could then zoom back along the northern coast on the TF-5. That would have been a doddle, he’d assured us, at just over two hours. The mountain road would be slow and, holding my gaze for emphasis, very dangerous. Mind you, he was from Morocco and had no interest in sharing with us what turned out to be the most beautiful part of the island. And for all I know anyone driving slowly was, in his view, wet. No, it was the mountain route for me and with it the anticipation of isolated populations of native Canarians, endemic birds and distant views over heart-stopping precipices. That aside, we had experienced the TF-1 several times since arriving and I’d gained the impression that the motorways had been built by the same guy who was fixing the lights at the Vincci hotel. Consequently, it was difficult to convince me that using them would improve my journey. Stocked with emergency supplies – water, oranges, almond and a wonderful local nougat-like confectionery called turrón de melaza – we headed north and upward.


Lava fields in the national park

Our banana plantation was located on the north coast near a town called Garachico and in order to see the pine forests along the way and lava fields at the foot of El Teide we had to follow a less than direct route through Vilaflor, on the south side of the volcano, across to Santiago Del Teide on the south-east side, north to El Tanque and down to Garachico. The roads weren’t that bad at all but were often narrow with numerous hairpin bends. As we climbed higher through the pine forests we increasingly encountered mist and cloud. It was a spectacular drive, bends and steep inclines, sudden bright sunshine and a momentary view of the Atlantic before plunging again plunging into mist and light rain. The vegetation suggested wetter and cooler conditions and it was much greener. The landscape was filled with birdsong; flocks of canaries seemed to be everywhere.

El Teide

By the time we’d reached El Tanque the clouds had closed in and the light rain was persistent.  Roadside verges on this northern side of the island have grass and scrub and the backdrop is woodland, reflecting a very different climate from the southern side. There’s also less intrusion from tourism so the towns feel altogether more ‘Canarian’. Any visitors to Tenerife not seeing this part will have missed something special. The national park with El Teide at its centre is apparently the most visited in Europe and I’ve read that it is the second most visited globally after Mount Fuji. I suspect, however, that the people at the Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon might question that. Whatever its status, it is spectacular.

Looking down to Garachico

The road really does reach the edge of the island; as you head for Garachico the start of a vertiginous road leads down the north-facing slope and provides panoramic views that stretch from Puerto De La Cruz in the east to La Palma, another of the Islas Canarias but still 90Km to the west. Out in front of you is the ocean but if you have a head for heights and look down, you’re peering right into the town square of Garachico, some 400m below.

From there it was a short hop to El Guincho and the bananas.

View from El Tanque towards Puerto De La Cruz