For myself and quite a few other PacRimmers, leaving Thailand was a very bittersweet experience. Although it was a stop on our trip that had inspired fear in me in the weeks leading up to our arrival, Chiang Mai turned out to be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding cities that we visited. A rigorous course taught by Ajan (Professor) Kontogeorgopoulos kept our minds focused, while the nightlife of Nimman Road and the Old City served as convenient escapes from the coursework. As we boarded the train in Bangkok, however, the sadness of leaving the country we had come to love was balanced by the excitement of a train journey down the Malay Peninsula.
Via sleeper train, we traveled from Bangkok to Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia. Joining us in our car was a group of four other travellers (who somehow managed to make more noise than 22 Pacrimmers) and a steward (whom 22 Pacrimmers managed to keep in a constant state of frustration and annoyance that was materialized by a surprisingly obvious facial expression). Our berths were small, the food was nowhere near comparable to that which we had grown accustomed to eating in Chiang Mai, and the suspension of the car was long overdue for a tune-up, which lead to a rather bumpy and squeaky ride. Views of the rubber and palm oil plantations that we had discussed in class, along with the general sense of excitement that comes with any train journey, however, made for a generally enjoyable trip.
Our time in Georgetown was limited, but we still were able to get a good feel for the city. Characterized by an abundance of repurposed Chinese merchant shop-houses and contemporary street art, the city has a very trendy flair. China House, a social space that is comprised of a bar, lounge, restaurant, bakery, art gallery, and boutique, proved to be a favorite in Georgetown with its comfortable ambience and delicious food. We also happened to be in the city at the same time as Tropfest Southeast Asia, a regional short-film festival. The festival, which was held at a park in the Esplanade, boasted food and beverage offerings from specialty producers. At nightfall, the short films were projected onto large screens throughout the park and were judged by a celebrity panel.
From Georgetown, we took a second train to Singapore. The journey was shorter, only 14 hours, so we were booked on a car with standard seats. As we were loading onto the train, the smell of fresh garlic filled the air; a brief investigation discovered the source of this smell to be the dining car immediately adjacent to our car. The majority of the trip was spent in the dining room surrounded by plates of garlicky fried noodles and strong intentions to be productive, which, unsurprisingly, never materialized.
Our arrival in Singapore was punctual; in fact, our arrival at the first passport check was entirely unexpected and we were amongst the last passengers to disembark. Singapore was expensive, but also spectacularly clean and incredibly luxurious. Marina Bay was a short ride on the MRT from our hostel. Across the bay from the Marina Bay Sands Resort is the iconic Merlion statue and smaller, historic hotels. There is also a good deal of high-end shopping centers and restaurants. On our last night in Singapore, another PacRimmer and I went to a bar along the water where we had some delicious cider and crispy chicken wings. It was hard not to be at least a little envious of the young Singaporeans we saw enjoying a night out, wearing designer labels and chatting with work colleagues and friends. It was a scene that definitely didn’t fit into the standard Western imaginary of Southeast Asia.
In the morning, we were off to the airport to catch our flight to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where a month-long course with Pak Gareth Barkin awaited us along with copious amounts of insanely delicious ayam goreng (fried chicken), and we were all very excited for both!