A few pictures from today's trip to the Chow Kit Wet Market in Kuala Lumpur. What a truly disgusting place. I know that food involves killing animals but I wasn't ready to see so many dead animals in one place. Cow heads, cow hearts, lungs, and even just the skin of the cow was for sale. The butcher cutting a sheep's head while a cow head sits out in the open was very graphic and intense to see.
Final picture is one of my friend Ella holding a baby kitten who we also found. A good way to cleanse your mind of the squeamish pictures here
One of my favorite aspects of travel is that it makes me more adaptable. When I had an apartment, local friends, and a steady Internet connection there were many things that I could control: things that I could make perfect if I just put enough time into them.
Today almost nothing is in my control. I can't know if I'll get a good night's rest, can't figure out if a meal will fill me up before I order it, and have a lot of trouble eating healthily1. Some of my desire for control comes out with rather obsessive selection of gear, but a bunch of it is lost in all the shuffle of moving around constantly.
I have the kind of mind that likes to solve problems. On the road a lot of those problems have to go unsolved. I'm realizing that I don't need a perfect solution to problems. I don't always need to wear clean clothes or be dry or warm or cool. I'm learning to train my brain to ignore minor discomfort and pain in order to make life more pleasant.
I think that we get so used to having things working just right, just perfectly, that we lose track of what we actually need. It's possible to let the tiny things that are going wrong and frustrating us dominate our time. We obsess over these tiny problems and try to fix them, or aren't even aware of them until a product on Kickstarter tempts us to solve them with money.
Today I could spend hours reading about lenses instead of just going out and shooting pictures, I could spend a similar amount of time trying to plan out the perfect trip to a new town, stay in the perfect hotel, or eat the best local food. Or I can just go there and see what I like and try to smile when things don't turn out right.
As I'm writing this it's late at night, there's loud music coming through my door, and mosquitoes are biting me on the ankles. To stay productive on the road I've had to learn not to care and just sit down and work.
One of my favorite books is On Writing by Stephen King. In the book King stresses that you can't make your working environment perfect and eventually you just have to sit down and get to work. He writes in a windowless room facing the wall so that his mind has to create a world for him. To me that's perfect adaptability: just sitting down and making yourself do something instead of endlessly fussing over getting it just right.
The picture is a Tom Bihn Daylight on a Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. Of the things I like to adapt to, bad gear isn't one of them. Tom Bihn graciously sent me this pack to review in Kyoto. So far I love the pack but want to use it as my primary pack for a while before giving a full review.
Right now I'm working on finding healthy meal replacements on the road. The best advice I have is to eat less frequently and to eat prepared food from grocery stores. It turns out you can eat almost anything as long as you don't eat too much of it. For me it's a lot easier to wait and eat one big meal later in the day instead of eating breakfast and then trying to moderate food throughout the day. Milk, eggs, fruit, and imitation crab are often available in any store on the road and much better, cheaper, and faster than food from McDonalds. ↩
Today I visited Little India in Kuala Lumpur for the first time. What a fascinating place. I got to see (and forgot to photograph) the whole town get ready for Deepavali later this week. There were women getting henna tattoos, men selling fireworks, and the whole of a nearby mall was decorated with flowers for the holiday.
Lunch was with one of my favorite travelers I've met so far. Her name is Ella and she's from Switzerland but grew up partially in Italy. She speaks six languages, travels without a computer or a camera, and couldn't stop talking about how beautiful Kuala Lumpur is, how she loves all of the multiethnic people here, and how she likes not even knowing what she's eating. "I think this is liver" she said as she stuck some food on my plate.
The two pictures below are of my hostel roommate Ella who joined me for lunch and the food stand we ate from. I didn't have the camera out to record the rest of the afternoon but wish I did.
Notably these are the first photos edited and posted entirely from an iPad. I sent the rest of my computer gear home and am going to try using only an iPad for the next few months. My hope is that it will make writing while moving around easier and will also encourage me to spend less time goofing off behind a screen. I'm using PhotoRaw for the raw development and Afterlight for finishing and color. I hope the colors better over time, but I like the flexibility of using only an iPad for production.
If you're following along, this means I'm eating my words over all the hate about Apple lately. I still wish some things would change about the iPad but the interface is sublime for having a computer for just writing and just photo editing — an interface that makes it hard to get distracted into long programming or web browsing sessions. I'd also say that for most uses the iPad is the most ergonomic computer I've ever used.
I'm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days to visit friends. If you haven't been to KL it's worth a quick visit, but I wouldn't recommend spending more than perhaps three days here. I don't like to say this but Kuala Lumpur (at least the core of the city) feels like culturally barren place full of shopping malls, hotels, and skyscrapers.
It's so hot here, and there's so much traffic, that people often walk between buildings on air conditoned and elevated walkways. As a result most of the businesses are in shopping malls instead of the streets, which makes walking through the core of the city either a trip through a shopping mall or a long steamy walk outside where there might be 100 meters between you and the nearest business. In many ways it reminds me of part of Beijing or Northern Virginia.
Now there are a couple cool things to do here. The food is incredible quality and a very good deal price wise. Generally eat well for $2-3 per meal in the streets and up to
The appeal of the street food is more than just eating it. I also like watching people cook it.
Cooking street food on the Jalan Alor street. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Outside of the city, the Batu Caves are almost an hour journey but let you see this stunningly large gold staute.
I also really like the design of the Petronas Towers, and this bit about how their floor plan is inspired by traditional islamic culture:
"The floor-plate of the Tower is designed based on geometric patterns common in architecture of Islamic heritage. It is composed of two rotated and superimposed squares with small circular infills. These geometric figures have been described by architects as symbolising unity, harmony, stability and rationality - all important principles of Islam."
Note: These are older photos taken earlier in the year. I've been out hanging out with friends and having fun, not using the camera on this trip. They were originally featured in my May 2014 notes on malaysia.
Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in Asia. It's is full of great street food, has amazing and cheap public transportation, beautiful temples, world class shopping malls, and incredible markets selling more than just tourist trinkets.
To get it out of the way early: Bangkok has a bad reputation, but there's a lot more to Bangkok than its sex industry. As with any major city in Asia many of the cheap hotels, bars, and brothels end up clustering together close to each other. That means that if you stay somewhere cheap in Bangkok you'll almost certainly see prostitutes in the street.
Walk a few blocks away though and it all disappears. It's just there for the tourists. A few blocks away and you're left with city of stark contrasts. The entire second floor of Bangkok's Siam Paragon mall is full of Louis Vuitton, Coach, Hermes, Prada and other luxury brands. The fourth floor sells Lamborginis. But walk a mile away toward Sukhumvit and you can find a small market setup alongside the railroad tracks.
I don't think that Bangkok is strong enough to anchor an entire trip to Southeast Asia. So why would you go to Bangkok? Because to reach most places in Asia it's often cheaper to fly from Europe or the United States into Bangkok's main airport (BKK) and then take a budget flight out of the other airport (DMK) than it would be to fly directly. So book a flight in, rest in the big city for a day, and then head onwards to a quieter destination. If you're coming to Thailand you'll probably want to head north to the temples in Chiang Mai or south to islands and beaches.
As far as I can tell most of the tuktuks in Bangkok are used by tourists, not locals. It's an excellent and interesting way to see the city but be prepared to pay more than you need to and bring small bills — they often conveniently can't make change. If you're going to be in Asia for a while save the tuktuk riding for smaller cities where there is less traffic and you will be a bit safer.
Taxis in Bangkok are reasonable, just walk a block or two away from a hotel and flag one down in the street. Ask for them to use the meter. They know what the word "meter" means. If they agree to use the meter I generally tip nicely. If they don't agree to use the meter I wait for another taxi.
A cheaper option that also puts you close to locals is public transit. Bangkok's Sky Train is fast, air conditioned, and at most maybe $3 for a ride across the city. Like most of Asia, Bangkok puts major US city public transit infrastructure to shame.
A air conditioned train into the city from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is about 90 baht ($3) and takes maybe 40 minutes. If I have to get to Don Muang Airport (DMK) I normally take a taxi, ask them not to take the highway, and pay about $10. In general the cheaper short haul flights go through DMK and the cheaper long haul flights through BKK.
In Bangkok there are two excellent budget options for food. The first is obviously street food, and you're not going to have a hard time finding it. On any major street someone will selling barbecue meats, fruit, or rice dishes. If you walk down a side street, and you don't have to go too far, you'll often find whole restaurants on the street with menus and plastic tables.
A single entrée can be about 30 baht ($1) but it often costs me two or three times as much for a filling dinner and a water.
I try to be careful with street food hygiene but I'm not too pedantic about it. For about $4 you can get some Azithromycin at any of the local pharmacies (look for green signs). It's also worth bookmarking ToiletFinder and packing some toilet paper.
If you ever need to use the bathroom in Bangkok check out Terminal 21 shopping mall. Each floor is decorated like a different international city and they have Japanese Toto toilets with heated seats.
The Bangkok Chatuchak market is a fascinating place to any kind of craft you imagine. My favorite was a $10,000 Elephant made of driftwood. My favorite sight was the exotic animals, but they really don't like you taking pictures of them. I saw an owl for $30, a koi fish for over $1,000, and other strange animals I didn't even know people kept in captivity (lemurs, monkeys, and flying squirrels). Obviously I don't recommend that you buy any of these animals, but they are fascinating to see.
Bangkok has many lesser markets on the sides of the streets. Mostly these are selling clothes, sandals, knives, sex toys, and counterfeit electronics. I stay away unless I need gifts or a cheap power adapter.
The touts at these markets are famous for pushing Viagra. Dealing with touts can get annoying, and to keep myself from getting frustrated I like to have different responses teasing about whatever they're offering. For Viagra I prefer to smile and ask "Why would I need that?" Taxis are famous for asking "Where are you going?". If you just ask them the same question, at the same time, it blows their minds. I would really caution against using Viagra you find in the streets.
Often when I get to Bangkok I've just spent a few weeks in a less developed city in Cambodia or Vietnam. In this case I like to go to the big shopping malls called Central World and Siam Paragon to eat and enjoy air conditioning.
On the top floor of Central World you can find excellent restaurants offering Japanese Ramen for about $5 per bowl. There's an amazing aquarium in the basement for about $30 that lets you walk through a tunnel under swimming sharks and sting rays. If the rest of your trip to Thailand involves scuba diving you can easily miss it, but it's the most impressive aquarium I've seen other than Boston, Massachusetts and Monterey, California.
For buying any electronics, bags, or clothes you will save a lot of money going to the MBK mall instead. It's a bit hard to navigate but the prices are low and they sell western goods (I bought a Think Tank camera bag there once).
If you want to see temples in Bangkok I'd go to Rattanakosin to see Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha. He's 140 feet long.
I hope some of this article convinced you to give Bangkok a shot on your next trip. This blog now has comments. If you have any questions ask them below and I can answer them or add them to the article later.
Camera note: The square format photos in this article were shot with a Mamiya 6 on Fuji Provia 100F slide film. The 35mm photos were shot on a Leica M9.
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