July 31, 2012


I crossed over to Malaysia from Thailand by rail, my first international border crossing on my favourite mode of transportation. Long but comfortable, the almost 24 hour journey began in Bangkok and ended in Butterworth. Upon arrival I quickly purchased tickets for my onward journey to Kuala Lumpur departing that very night. Located near the fabled Strait of Malacca, the only redeeming quality of Butterworth is that it is easy to catch a boat to the island of Penang from there.

In the same vein as Singapore but on a much smaller scale, Penang features an enjoyable blend of Malaysian, English, Chinese, and Indian influences stemming from its colourful history. The British cleverly gained control of Penang from the Malays by offering to protect it from Siamese and Burmese attacks. Although Penang never reached the dizzying heights of a Singapore or Hong Kong, it was still a bustling port from before during the days of the British Raj when China was a strong trading partner.

The heat was excessive and I was carrying a heavy backpack packed with all the necessities for my journey through Southeast Asia. Even though I boast a world class physique, I quickly tired. There was no luggage storage area either at the train station or ferry terminal, so a friendly police officer told me to head to the Penang police station and leave it there. Unfortunately, the officers at the station were not as friendly. I had almost convinced a junior officer to help me, when his senior barged in and vetoed the move. "We cannot guarantee the safety of your bag" he told me. I grumbled "But this is a police station" and continued on my way in the midday heat, as beads of sweat formed on my temple and dribbled down my face.

Most of my limited time in Penang would be spent sitting and eating as the island is famous for its fare, such as laksa and nasi kandar. In between lunch, dinner, and several street snacks, I managed to visit some neighbourhoods with impressive colonial era architecture, a seaside promenade, Fort Cornwallis, and Chinatown. Built in the late 1700's by the British, Cornwallis is the largest remaining fort in Malaysia. The religious diversity was almost as refreshing to see as the food was to taste. I stopped by at a church, a mosque, a Buddhist temple, and a couple of Hindu temples during my brief stop in Penang. As the sun set behind me, I sailed back to Butterworth.

July 20, 2012

Mistaken Identity

The menfolk of India, China, and South Korea share an ability to look nondescript and unexceptional. Their habit of wearing dark dress pants and white dress shirts does not help in distinguishing staff from customer at public establishments. This issue has caused me great embarrassment on many an occasion, and my victims an equal amount of humiliation.

In Bangalore, I once asked a patron at a hazy bar for the bill. He gave me a dirty look through bloodshot eyes. In a Beijing restaurant, a man I presumed to be the server poured a bowl of soup. Once he was finished, I reached over to take it from him. He backed away defensively and told me that it was self service. In Seoul, I gave my ticket to the usher for checking. The man was merely standing to the side of the entrance, patiently waiting for his girlfriend to bring some popcorn.


"Human identity is the most fragile thing that we have, and it's often only found in moments of truth." ~ Alan Rudolph

July 18, 2012

ARNABites: Rat Race

On my last evening in the picturesque village of Yangshuo, I found an elusive item on the menu and quickly ordered it. My finger pointed to the entry for rat cooked within a bamboo shoot. The restaurateur shook her head, "Don't have." She suggested I come back tomorrow. I would leave early next morning, so this was not an option. She saw the dismay etched on my ruggedly handsome face. Her brother was summoned to take me to the market to look for some rodent, but none was to be found that night.

Years passed, and I found myself wandering through a night market in Taipei. My Taiwanese friend spotted a restaurant that would surely interest me. Cages full of snakes and mice welcomed the diner at the entrance. Was rat on the menu? My friend checked the menu and answered in the affirmative, but after speaking with the waiter he served up some unfortunate news.

My feelings of elation evaporated upon hearing that the rodents they served were out of stock for the next few days. I would have left Taiwan by the time the next shipment would arrive. What of the mice on display outside? Those were only for feeding the snakes and not for direct human consumption. The proprietor said there were no other rat restaurants around.

Dejected, we kept walking until finding another snake restaurant. A restaurant worker was loudly promoting the powers of the soup to all passersby. My friend asked if they sold rat. The seller of snake soup was not impressed, advising us to "Be practical. Eat normal things, not crazy things." My quest for a mouse would not end this night.

July 11, 2012


The Elephanta Caves are the first underwhelming world heritage site that I have seen in India, having seen much better days. Although the island location of Elephanta adds some intrigue, they do not compare in any way to the diversity and scale of the sculpted caves found in Ajanta and Ellora. Nevertheless, the opportunity cost to visit it was low as it was a short boat ride away from my Bombay abode. I caught a ferry from near the Gateway of India, accompanied by a colleague from Teach For India who had recently relocated to Mumbai for the cause.

The most memorable structure is the great cave of Shiva, sprinkled with large pillars and sculptures of divine figures. There is no great buildup to the grand reveal. Visitors see the main cave as soon as they climb the staircases from the entrance and past the vendors peddling kitsch. The caves following it taper off in magnificence drastically, with many suffering from water damage. The six meter high Trimurti, a three headed figure set against the back wall of the cave, represents creation, preservation, and destruction.

The Portuguese gave the island the name of Elephanta in the 16th century, after finding a mammoth statue carved out of black stone. The complex was created well over a millennium ago, although it is hard to pinpoint the exact time period within which it was constructed. Much damage was done under Portuguese rule, which brought about an end to centuries of usage of the caves as a place of worship for the Hindu inhabitants of the island. The origins of the cave creators remain shrouded in mystery.


"Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage." ~ Morris West

July 05, 2012

ARNABabe: Shutout

Whenever I discover that a dazzling Korean beauty already has a boyfriend, a Korean guy will usually appear within a few moments to provide some words of wisdom. Although quite pleased at the turn of events, he will nonetheless attempt to lift my spirits by saying "You know in Korea we have saying: You can score goal even if there is goalkeeper."

July 03, 2012

Of Bamboo Forests and Slow Cities

I caught a train to Gwangju, the nearest transit hub to the bamboo forest of Damyang. A helpful Korean lady at the Gwangju station drew an accurate rendering of which way I should turn, which stairs I should climb, and which direction I should walk to find the stop for the bus to Damyang. I followed the instructions and arrived just in time to catch the bus. I got off at the entrance to Juknokwon, a carefully cultivated bamboo forest that is the pride of the city. I wandered the gently sloping trails of Jukniwon for a couple of hours, before going to Damyang's main bus depot.

Public transit outside of the major metropolitan areas of Korea is very sporadic, with some bus routes being serviced with very limited frequency. Most Korean travelers either have their own car or go on a packaged tour, so it is not a issue for them. I wanted to go to a nearby "slow city" named Samjicheon. A "slow city" is an euphemism for a quiet town with an aging population that has not seen economic development in the past couple of decades as its youth has moved away to larger, more modern, cities in droves. I was told there was a long wait till the next bus, and introduced to a guy named Gyu who was also heading for Samjicheon.

Gyu turned out to be a unique fellow, with strong English skills, an independent mind, and extensive travel experience. He was in his thirties, self-employed, and unattached. Gyu explained that he travels until he runs low on cash, and then works on a freelance basis until he stockpiles some savings to fund further wanderings. "Korean women do not like poor guys" was his finding.

We reached the bucolic village of five hundred residents, rice fields, and traditional homes after a long and winding bus ride from Damyang. All the stores on the main street seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Saturday. We found a home style sit-on-the-ground-and-eat restaurant open a bit further down the road. A grandmother was sprawled on the floor and watching television. She got up spryly and called her daughter, who prepared a satisfying meal for us.

After lunch, we walked around the village. A couple passed us wearing matching clothes to show their undying love for each other. "When I had girlfriend, she made me do the same thing. I felt much shame." recollected Gyu. We caught a bus heading out in the direction of Gwangju, but had to switch buses midway to get to our next destination - the Joseon era garden of Soswaewon.

A friendly fruit vendor told us that it would be a long wait for the next bus and suggested we would be better off hitch hiking. He suggested using me as bait. "Me?" I asked. "Me!" he replied, poking me in the chest with his finger. We followed through on his idea, as a middle aged couple dropped us off at Soswaewon. Heralded for its unmatched beauty, Soswaewon was an underwhelming collection of pavilions and overgrown shrubs. It took less than five minutes to cover the grounds, followed by a much longer wait for a bus back to Gwangju.


"A garden without bamboo is like a day without sunshine." ~ Korean saying

July 01, 2012

Inch by Incheon

Quite a few of Seoul's neighboring cites are connected to it via the region's extensive subway and light rail network, making intracity travel easy and affordable. I caught a train to Incheon one morning, Korea's third largest city with a population of 3 million. Famous for its international airport and being Korea's first designated free economic zone, Incheon also has the only official Chinatown in the country.

The familiar red and gold painted structures of Chinatown were located across the street from the train terminus. I explored the colourful bylanes and visited some colonial buildings and art galleries. The Chinese restaurants seem to be very popular with the Seoul weekend crowd, as each restaurant had long queues at lunchtime. Not overly interested in standing in line in the midday heat, I filled my stomach with tasty street food. This was followed up with some refreshing bubble tea, which is exceedingly rare to come across in this nation of coffee lovers.

Jayu Park, the oldest "Western style" park in Korea, is located on a hill near Chinatown. I ascended several flights of stairs to find out what a "Western style" park was. It was a public park like those found in Chinese cities, and not a private garden to be enjoyed exclusively by the royals. Children run through water fountains and couples wearing matching apparel walk hand in hand along the winding paths. Unlike Chinese parks though, elderly folk do not dance in unison to loud music to keep fit and maintain a sense of community.

Jayu Park features a large statue of General Douglas MacArthur and another monument celebrating one hundred years of friendship among the United States and South Korea. During the Korean War, Macarthur famously landed UN forces in Incheon behind North Korean lines. He recaptured Seoul within a few weeks, changing the momentum of a war that was swinging heavily in North Korea's favour until then. My final stop was the boardwalk at Wolmido, a short bus ride away. It is a place where families come to enjoy sunshine and raw fish amidst a carnival atmosphere.


"Could I have but a line a century hence crediting a contribution to the advance of peace, I would yield every honor which has been accorded by war." - General Douglas MacArthur