Stickman Readers' Submissions March 12th, 2024

Around The Traps In Southeast Asia: Part 28



By Mega


Website: megaworldasia          YouTube Channel: Megaworld Asia

He Clinic Bangkok



Phuket: I arrived back in Phuket a few days into the new year. It was the very peak of the high season and the traffic congestion on the roads was chaotic. The distance from Phuket Airport to my condo building is 32 km. It took over an hour to get there. The first half of January isn’t a good time to be in Phuket if you’re looking for a relaxing time on the beach. The numbers coming onto the island are probably higher now than pre-Covid times.


What is supposed to be a quieter secret location in Phuket; the Russians have found it.


The Russian invasion: During the peak season it’s almost like downtown Moscow, such is the numbers of Russians about the place. They’re on the beaches, in the shopping malls, in the restaurants, and on the streets. Take a walk through Patong and all you hear is the guttural sound of the Russian language. From all the information I’ve seen on the web, they are here to stay. Phuket is the new Russian hot spot and they’re buying up properties as fast as they can. Real estate and rent prices have risen dramatically in the past twelve months and, to be honest, I don’t see it getting any better. The crowding and the traffic congestion is only going to get worse in the coming years. The island’s infrastructure, particularly the roadways, is already obsolete for the current population level. The local government is talking about putting in a train line from Phuket Town to the Airport. It will be interesting to see if the local taxi mafia try to put a stop to it.

Police checkpoints: This is something which is becoming a real bane in Phuket. TBH, it’s nothing more than a racist policing policy that targets tourists / foreigners. There are several locations (mainly the roads leading to and from Patong) where the boys in brown set up checkpoints to gather money (fines) from foreigners. The four main fines are for: no international motorbike license, no helmet, running a red light, and drunk driving. Most tourists get picked up for the first two and it’s 500 THB a pop. I’ve been pulled over a few times at the checkpoint near the Kathu Police Station (near the big intersection). I always carry my international motorbike license, so there’s never a problem. However, what’s clearly noticeable is there’s never any Thais pulled over. As you’re being asked for your license, Somchai goes flying past with three up, and no helmets. The boys in brown know that flagging down a local is a waste of time. Most don’t have 500 THB to spare. An expat I know, who’s been here for a while, made a good observation regarding driving in Thailand. It’s got nothing to do with road safety, and everything to do with the police collecting fines. He’s right. There are only two road rules in the land of smiles: 1. The biggest thing has the right of way; 2. Any foreigner in an accident, is always to blame. On a final note, if you’re planning a trip to Phuket, and you’re going to rent a motorbike, only ride between midday and 4 PM. During those hours it’s too hot for boys in brown and the checkpoints aren’t manned.

CBD bangkok



Kuala Lumpur: Thankfully I had an excuse to get off the island, and away from the high season chaos, for a few days. I needed to go down to Kuala Lumpur, and then Singapore, for some work-related stuff. I caught an Air Asia flight Phuket to KLIA. Compared to the mayhem one must endure getting a flight out of Phuket, arriving in KL is a breath of fresh air. The Malaysians now have that on-line immigration card (like Singapore) so clearing through is fast and efficient. The express train into the city is also a great, low stress service which makes the BTS from Suvarnabhumi look second rate. Note: There used to be an express train to Makasan, but it was canned years ago in favour of the public train for the Thais working at Suvarnabhumi. When you live in Thailand long enough, you come to understand that even though the country rakes in a fortune from tourists, their needs are always secondary to the locals.


Early evening beer along Bukit Bintang


Night life area: I hadn’t been in KL for a good five years and was interested to see how the nightlife area of Bukit Bintang was faring after COVID. Wanting to be nearby the action, I booked into the Holiday Inn Express City Centre for 5 nights. My first night in town was sober, and an early sleep, as I had a full work medical the following morning which included a stress test on a treadmill. Once I got that out of the way I was able to partake of the nightlife scene in Bukit Bintang. I had some good memories of a freelancer venue called “The Beach Club.” Unfortunately, as I was to eventually find out, the Beach Club closed during the Covid era and never reopened. The main bar strip is along CHANGKAT BUKIT BINTANG with plenty of street side pubs, with outdoor seating, to choose from. One of the most popular is the Irish pub and sports bar, HEALY MACS. They’ve got a good western menu and a range of beers, including Guinness, on tap.


Bukit Bintang night scene


Working Girls: Something else which I noticed very quickly, after taking a seat at the outdoor area, is there’s none of those pesky street hawkers you find in Thailand and Cambodia. Even in what is supposedly an upscale place like Phuket, if you sit at a street side bar, a trinket seller will be pestering you before too long. Friday and Saturday nights, as one would expect, sees the pub street packed with punters knocking back happy hour Tiger, Heineken, and Guinness pints in the warm evening ambiance. The ladies who work the street start to appear at around 10 PM. They are predominantly Vietnamese, African, and Kazakh. I’m not sure how, or why, working girls from Kazakhstan are in this part of the world but I guess it could be that entering Malaysia might be easier than other locations. The girls are friendly but a lot of them are a bit over the hill, upwards of 40, and probably can’t compete in more upscale places such as Singapore. Their rates start at around 300 Malaysian Ringgit (US 64) which is probably a price aimed at the local market, more than foreigners. If you’re in KL for a couple of nights it’s a good place to get a cold beer, have some pub food, and do some people watching on the street.

Batu Caves: This cave site is located just 10 km from the city centre and is one of the most popular sightseeing attractions for tourists coming to KL. It also happens to be a Tamil Religious site (Hindu) and at certain times of the year, is teeming with locals paying their respects to the various Hindu Gods. I’d been there some 40 years previously (on my first ever trip to Southeast Asia) and was keen to get back for another look. Unfortunately, I’d picked the worst possible time to go. My few days in Kuala Lumpur coincided with biggest religious celebration of the year, the Thaipusam. A work buddy of mine, who lives in KL, gave me the heads-up regarding transport to the cave. He told me to avoid taking a Grab, or a taxi, as I’d be stuck in a traffic jam for hours. The easiest way of getting there was to take a train from the KL City Centre Terminal. There’s a dedicated line which terminates right outside the Batu caves entrance. From the Holiday Inn Express it took me about 1.5 hours to get there. I left reasonably early, hoping to avoid the worst of the crowds. No such luck. Even at 10 AM the place was packed. There are two cave sites: the main cave, with the 271 steps up to the entrance, and the more sedate (less visitors) Ramayana Cave which has some quite spectacular Hindu artwork / statues within. For anyone who’s interested, check out my video of BATU CAVES.

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271 steps up to the main cave entrance.




Inside the Ramayana Cave.


KL Traffic Jams:  The peak hour traffic jams around Kuala Lumpur are as bad, or even worse, than many of the other capitals in Southeast Asia. A lot of the city is on hills and the roads look as though they might have once been goat tracks, which have now been sealed. There’s a mish-mash of small roads criss-crossing all around the city centre which seems to create a gridlock of vehicles trying to leave, and enter, the area. For anyone whose interested in visiting KL, do yourself a favour and stay within walking distance of the BUKIT BINTANG PUB STREET.

The Twin Towers: This is probably the number one attraction in KL. There’s a large shopping mall called the KLCC in the bottom four floors of the complex. The place is usually packed at around 6 PM with sightseers checking out the WATER & LIGHT SHOW on the lake, at the rear of the building. If you’re staying around Bukit Bintang, you can use the covered (and air-conditioned) walkway which runs from the PAVILLION SHOPPING MALL to KLCC. The distance is less than 1 km, and it beats the hell of sitting in a taxi, in a traffic jam.


The fountains at the rear of the Twin Towers



The Lion City: After a few enjoyable days in Kuala Lumpur, it was on to Singapore. Without a doubt the Lion City is one of the most expensive places on the planet to take a vacation. Unless I’ve got a legitimate reason for being there, it’s a place I generally try to avoid. The company I worked for needed me to get a one-year visa for work in Saudi Arabia, and Singapore was the nearest available location to get it done. Hotel prices in Singapore are expensive at the best of times. Being there when something is happening (Formula 1 or a Taylor Swift concert) sees prices double, or even treble. Being aware of this and having been caught out previously with a Formula 1 race, I always check the local events schedule before making my travel plans.

Eat and drink: There’s plenty of food courts for cheap eats in Singapore. These are something I tend to use for lunch or an inexpensive meal on the go. However, if you want to eat something a bit more substantial (such as a decent steak dinner) then it’s not so cheap. An excellent spot for a good NZ Ribeye (SGD 32) is OLLIES KITCHEN & BAR, along Orchard Road. They also serve up a great cheeseburger and fries. Beer prices in Singapore tend to be on the expensive side. HARRY’S BAR offers a happy hour deal of two mugs of Tiger draught, for SGD 24. Harry’s is a chain with bars at several locations around Singapore. The two I often go to are at Angullia Park, just off Orchard Road, and CLARK QUAY. Back in the day, the best branch was on the ground floor of the building behind Orchard Towers. There was a good-sized air-conditioned lounge which had a live band on weekends and was also a gathering point for a bevy of older Thai freelancers. The best thing about the place though was the outdoor seating area, which skirted the corner of the premises. It was a fantastic spot for some early evening warm up drinks while watching the constant stream of working girls disembarking from their taxi rides. Unfortunately, this excellent people watching venue shut down a couple of years prior to COVID and has remained boarded up ever since.


A recent photo. The Jamboree is on the left-hand corner.


Last holdout: In an earlier edition of this series, I made mention of the fact that all the bars in Orchard Towers had closed for good at the end of July 2023. It’s since come to light this is not entirely the case. There’s one bar still operating, a final holdout. The Country and Western bar called the JAMBOREE, is still operating. Located on the second floor (southwest corner) this last holdout of the orchard Towers entertainment venues has remained open apparently due to the objections of the Singapore Mariners Association (union). The word is the local seamen like to drink there and kicked up enough of a stink, to persuade the local authorities to allow their favoured watering hole to remain open. The place operates on a country and western theme with that genre of music playing all the time. To set the tone there’s a set of swing doors as you enter the bar and, back in the day, they had a constant stream of rodeo events showing on the TV screens. This is also the last holdout for some over the hill freelancers who know every trick in the book for cadging drinks off you.



Back to Phuket: After four enjoyable, and busy, days in Singapore taking care of work-related stuff I was on the move again. I had a trip planned to Central Laos but first needed to stop in Phuket to pick up all my camera equipment and hiking / caving gear. The ball ache was getting cleared through Phuket Immigration. I’ve never seen it so crowded. The lines were ten deep to get to the immigration officers’ desks and most of the crowd seemed to be Russian. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to clear through. I had two nights at my condo, just enough time to pack my gear, before boarding an Air Asia twin hop (via Don Mueang) to NAKHON PHANOM.


Sunrise over the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom.


Nakhon Phanom: If you’re travelling to Central Laos, this is probably the best and most convenient route of getting there. The town I was heading for in Laos, is called THAKHEK. The nearest airport is Nakhon Phanom. Once you arrive in Nakhon Phanom, you then need to get on a bus which does the border crossing four times daily. Unfortunately, the Air Asia flight arrived too late in the afternoon to get the last bus from the Nakhon Phanom terminal. I had a night in NP at the LANDMARK HOTEL. If you haven’t been to NP before, it’s a nice Thai provincial city along the western shores of the Mekong River. The primary attraction along the river front is the night market which offers some great street food and some interesting local entertainment. The other notable attraction along the river front is the large NAGA STATUE which spurts out water everyday sunset.



The bus to Laos: There’s a bus departure from the Nakhon Phanom terminal every 2.5 hours, starting at 9.00 am, and the fare is 70 THB per person. Fifteen km north of Nakhon Phanom is the Thai Lao FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE #3. There’s an immigration checkpoint at each end of the bridge which usually takes at least an hour to clear through. Mondays and Fridays are always the busiest with Lao’s crossing back and forth for the weekends. You’ll get a 30-day visa on arrival, at the Laotian side, and the fee is 1800 THB. Once you arrive in Laos the difference with Thailand is immediately noticeable. A lot of people have said it’s like stepping back thirty years in Thailand. Less crowded, less traffic, less developed, and no Russians to be seen anywhere.

Thakhek: The bus trip ends at the THAKHEK BUS TERMINAL which is located along Hwy # 13. From here it’s a 5 km tuk-tuk ride into the town centre. Note: the town centre is right next to the Mekong River and it’s where most of the hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, cafés, and motorbike rental agencies are located. For anyone interested in going there, the best hotel in town is probably the INTHIRA THAKHEK. Best in terms of room quality, pricing, ambiance, food standard, and good coffees. Thakhek is also the start and finish point for the renowned motorbike tour called the THAKHEK LOOP, one of the best in Southeast Asia.


Along the river front in Thakhek.


The Rock Viewpoint: I hadn’t been in Thakhek since early 2020 but had I’d been there several times in the seven years prior. I’d also done the loop trip four times, so I didn’t really need to hang about there too long. Prior to arriving in Laos I’d booked accommodation and tours with GREEN DISCOVERY LAOS, the best adventure tour company in the country. My target destination for six days was their adventure base, some 140 km north of Thakhek, called the ROCK VIEWPOINT. I’d arranged a pickup from the Inthira, the day I arrived in Laos. To see more on the Rock Viewpoint, click on this link: MEGAWORLD ASIA


At the Rock Viewpoint.


What’s happening at Kong Lor Cave: This cave site is probably the premier attraction of the THAKHEK LOOP TOUR. At 7.5 km end to end, it’s one of the largest river tunnels in Southeast Asia. Tours through the cave are done in a motorized boat which takes you all the way through the cave to the remote encampment beyond the upstream entrance. KONG LOR VILLAGE, which is located approximately 1 km from the downstream entrance of the cave, has around a dozen homestays and guesthouses, and numerous restaurants, for those planning an overnight stay. Note: if you’re doing the Thakhek Loop Tour, Kong Lor Cave is a 42 km detour off Hwy # 8 (the turn off is at Na Hin Village). To see more on Kong Lor cave, click on this link: MEGAWORLD ASIA

Kong Lor Cave Video


Kong Lor Cave downstream entrance.


Getting off the beaten track: The SECRET VILLAGE, and THAM HUEP CAVE, are hidden gems which most loopers miss but need not, because the locations are clearly indicated on Google maps. There’s a couple of remote villages on the far side of a 300 meter high karst peak, and the only way of getting there is going through a one km long river cave. Note: The best way of seeing this attraction is to do a tour with GREEN DISCOVERY LAOS, from the ROCK VIEWPOINT. They can provide transport and an experienced, English speaking guide. The local guides at the village, at the start point, don’t speak English. To see more on the Secret Village Tour, click on this link: MEGAWORLD ASIA


A 1 km walk through this cave tunnel, to get to the Secret Village.



Nam None Cave Tour: The best way of making a trip into this massive natural tunnel, is on an organised outing with GREEN DISCOVERY LAOS from their adventure base at the ROCK VIEWPOINT. Taking a trip into this cave is a challenging undertaking. There’s a combination of trekking, swimming, and climbing to go four to five km into the cave. The internal volume is bigger than Kong Lor Cave and rumours are it’s over 16 km long. The guides at Nam None Village have never been right through it, and nobody actually knows how long it is. The standard tour (the one I did) takes you 4.4 km into the cave and involves a good deal of wading and swimming. It’s a great adventure but, in the interests of safety, it needs to be done with experienced and knowledgeable local guides. To see more on the Nam None Cave Tour, click on this link: MEGAWORLD ASIA



Doing the Nam None Cave Tour.


That pretty much wraps it up for now. At the time of submitting this trip report I am in Saudi Arabia for work, for the next two months. The next instalment will roll out in approximately 3 – 4 months.


Safe travels,


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