Reflections of a Fire Monkey


Yesterday, to mark Chinese New Year, I went for a stroll at Bukit Gasing, one of my favourite hiking spots close to Kuala Lumpur. There seemed to be more monkeys about than usual – could they know it is the Year of the Monkey?

Fire Monkey Year

To be more exact it is the Year of the Fire Monkey. Each of the 12 zodiac signs under the Chinese calendar has 5 elements: wood, metal, fire, water and earth which rotate in turn so that each combination only comes round every 60 years.

Major Events 1956

Major events in the last Fire Monkey year, 1956: wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, birth of Thrifty Traveller, Red Army invades Hungary, first Eurovision Song Contest, Suez Crisis.

The last Fire Monkey year was in 1956 which is when I was born. How does it feel to be turning 60 this year? Well I guess I can’t call myself young anymore. I’ll finally have to admit to being middle aged.

60 is the new 40

Now that people are generally living longer and healthier lives it is time to recalibrate our definitions for ages. Here is my suggestion:

0 – 60 Young

60 – 80 Middle Aged

Over 80 Senior/Old Aged

Governments would be delighted to accept this proposal as it would give them an excuse to delay paying state pensions until the age of 80. Britain first introduced a limited state pension scheme in 1909 with payout for men over the age of 70. Since the average male life expectancy at the time was less than 50 it meant that few actually collected a pension. With male life expectancy in UK now nudging 80 it is not surprising that pensions are a heavy burden on the state’s finances.

Time to Slow Down?

Now that I am approaching middle age does this mean I will cutting back on my travels and hikes? On the contrary, I feel the need to do more. There are so many more places to visit and the clock is ticking, and time seems to accelerate as we get older. The plan is to press on, health permitting. I’ll update you on my 120th birthday.

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Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk


Mt. Kinabalu’s Clipped Ear

I purchased this postcard in 2009 after completing my hike up Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. It shows part of the route used by most climbers and the various peaks at the summit.

The profile of the mountain has altered slightly since this photo was taken. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake which occurred on 5th June last year caused one of the Donkey’s Ears to partially break off (the one on the left, I think).

You might recall that this quake, which caused 18 fatalities, was blamed, by followers of local beliefs, on a group of western tourists who unwisely stripped off at the summit, thereby angering the mountain spirits.

A more scientific cause of the earthquake would be Sabah’s proximity to seismically active plate boundaries.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk

Malaysia is not normally associated with earthquakes. West Malaysia is seismically stable although vulnerable to the affects of large earthquakes in Sumatra.

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The Indian Ocean plate is pushing under Sumatra, in the direction of Malaysia, at the rate of about 7cm per year. Large earthquakes occur periodically in Sumatra and have been known to cause buildings to shake in KL and Johor Bahru. Meanwhile the Philippine plate is moving westwards, towards Malaysia, at a velocity of around 8cm per year.


Sabah is classified as a moderately active area, seismically. The map above shows the location of earthquakes around Sabah in recent years. There have been 16 incidents in the past 20 years, mostly in the 4-5 magnitude range..  The biggest one ever recorded was a 6.2 magnitude quake in Lahad Datu in 1976.

Mt. Kinabalu’s 6.0 magnitude was not huge in earthquake terms but the energy released was still the TNT equivalent of 15 kilotons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Very frightening for the people who were stuck on the mountain at the time.

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This graphic helps put these events in perspective.

Mt. Kinabalu was closed to climbers for six months following the earthquake due to damage to the trails and facilities. It was reopened in December 2015 although the number of permitted climbers has been restricted to 120 per day. That will probably improve the experience – it was a little too crowded at the top when we went.



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Carpet Museum of Iran

Now that international sanctions against Iran have been lifted, intrepid travellers might start visiting the country in increasing numbers. For those with an interest in Persian carpets, the Carpet Museum of Iran is the place to go with an extensive collection of rare and unusual carpets, including some which were transferred from the Saad Abad Palaces following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.

Here are a few of my favourites:


This 19th century Isfahan cotton and wool carpet has a rare zodiac design with signs for the years in the inner circle and the months in the outer. The year signs have some similarity with Chinese zodiac signs but the museum says these are taken from the ancient Nazarene culture. The names of the months and years are woven in Persian, Arabic and Turkish.

The upper woman’s face motif represents the sun while the lower star shaped motif symbolises the moon. The four corner portraits in human form represent the planets Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury. The name of the carpet weaving workshop of Mohammed Taghi Banki is inscribed in the two cartouches in the upper corners.



This unique early 20th century Kerman carpet is named ‘The Nation’. On the branches of the tree there are typical Iranian fruits such as apples, pears, pomegranates and grapes, together with different birds including a parrot, swallow, hoopoe, owl, peacock, ostrich, turkey, duck and goose. The river at the foot of the tree contains various fish while the border portrays the animal kingdom and even insects such as a beetle and scorpion.

The ten circles in the main border are meant to show the ten nations or races in the world, namely: ’Roman, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Australian, Turk, American, Black, Iranian and European’. The level of detail in a carpet only 287x176cm is very impressive.



Some of the carpets on display were presumably made for foreign markets such as this late 19th century Kerman pictorial carpet. Here Bacchus/Dionysus (the God of Wine) is playing music for an immodestly dressed dancing woman surrounded by angels – an image which would probably be frowned upon in modern-day Iran. The border shows portraits of a western woman alternating with an Armenian Qajar period woman.



This Kerman rug from 1904 portrays King Hushang, the founder of the Pishdadi Dynasty and said to have laid the foundation of civilisation in Iran long long ago. He is depicted on a throne studded with gems carried on the shoulders of demons.



One of the more intricate designs is this 19th century Isfahan landscaped prayer-niche carpet known as the ‘Gate of Heaven’. The weaver has created his vision of paradise as promised in the Quran and filled the view with delicious fruits such as grapes, pomegranates, apples and figs together with birds and flowers, a flowing river and turquoise blue sky. The weaver pays no regard to perspective in typical Persian style.



This interesting Kermani carpet from 1919 is called ‘Sultans and Celebrities’ and portrays 54 prophets, sultans and famous men including Solomon, Moses, Confucius, George Washington and Napoleon. Each character is marked with a number and the border of the carpet provides the name for each number. The inscription on the Roman portico translates as ‘The pictures of the celebrities of the world who have done great things, year 1337AH’ (1919).



This final carpet is not part of the Carpet Museum of Iran collection. It was made for the Imperial Bank of Persia (an ancestor organization of my former employer) patterned on a 100 Toman note payable at the Tabriz office. It appears to be signed so it could perhaps be considered legal tender and cashable but since 100 Toman is equivalent to 1,000 Iranian Rials (3 US cents) it is probably better to hang on to the carpet.

If you want to know more about the Carpet Museum, including the location, opening hours and ticket price, you can refer to their official website.

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Chiang Mai Railway Station

While in Chiang Mai last month I went along to the city’s charming railway station.


Old Steam Locomotive in Front of Chiang Mai Railway Station

The station master obviously takes great pride in the station’s appearance. The platforms are decorated with potted plants and statues of elephants. The sparklingly clean ticket hall has portraits of Thai Kings, past and present, and a waiting area reserved for monks. There is even a Thai massage parlour which could be handy if you have a long wait for your connection.


I was intrigued to think that I could board a train here which would take me, albeit with a couple of changes, all the way to my local station just south of Kuala Lumpur.


How long would it take? As you can see from this map, Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur is a long way, over 2,000km or about 3 hours flying time. By train, I calculate that it takes about 51 hours and 50 minutes!


Source: The Man in Seat 61

The train departs Chiang Mai at 18:00 and reaches Bangkok the next morning at 6:50. Then you have to wait 7 hours and 55 minutes in Bangkok for the 14:45 departure to Malaysia arriving at the border town of Padang Besar at 8:55 the next morning (yes, that’s two nights already on Thai trains).

Unfortunately you will have just missed the connection to KL and you have to wait 7 hours and 20 minutes for the next train, departing Padang Besar at 16:15. From here though the pace accelerates now that the new electrified ETS train service has been extended all the way up to the border and you will arrive at KL at 21:50 feeling quite weary I would imagine.

Of course there are sleepers, 1st and 2nd class, and restaurant cars on the Thai trains (no longer serving alcohol) so the journey would be reasonably comfortable.  The cost of the Chiang Mai / Kuala Lumpur train tickets, one -way,  would be around US$100 including sleepers. Not bad value at all but you could fly on Air Asia instead for just US$43.

If you want to know anything about train travel in Thailand or Malaysia (and just about everywhere else in the world) I thoroughly recommend The Man in Seat 61 website.

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Traditional Massage in KL

IMG_4374bNot the best name for a massage business!

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Courier Madness

I have run out of empty pages in my British passport so I am applying for a new one. The UK Government has introduced an ‘improved’ method for passport application for British citizens living overseas.

In the old days you would pop into your local British Embassy , drop off the completed forms, old passport, photos and payment and, about a week later, your new passport would be ready for collection.

Now you have to complete the application form and make payment online then send your old passport, photos and signed declaration off to Liverpool where it is centrally processed and, if all goes well, the new passport is sent back by courier after 4 weeks.

I don’t have a lot of confidence in sending off my passport to UK by ordinary mail or even registered mail so I forked out for UPS courier at a cost of £45. That’s expensive but better safe than sorry. This is in addition to the UK Passport Office’s charge of £110 for passport renewal which includes the return courier charge.

I thought I would track the package on UPS’s website to see if it has been delivered safely. I was rather surprised to see that my passport has had quite a journey:

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After being picked-up here in Malaysia it went to Shenzhen in China before being shipped off to Mumbai after a short stop en route in Thailand. From India it was sent back to where it started in Malaysia, then despatched off to Shenzhen a second time. Then off to Taiwan where it caught the red-eye flight to Koln in Germany. Then to Castle Donnington (somewhere near Derby – getting warmer!) Then back to Koln a second time  (getting colder) before being returned to Castle Donnington once more and then on to Manchester. As I write this my passport is out for delivery and, assuming it is not re-routed back to Shenzhen, is scheduled to reach Her Majesty’s Passport Office in Liverpool by this evening, by which time they’ll be closed for their New Year’s holidays.

Amazingly UPS managed to achieve this global odyssey in just 48 hours which is really good going. But they could have just put the package on Malaysian Airlines’ direct KL to Manchester flight and reached there in 13 hours.

Here’s how UPS’s routing looks on a map:

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I understand that courier companies operate a hub-and-spoke system but from an efficiency and fuel-saving point of view there has to be a more direct route. At least now I understand why they charge so much!



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Chiang Mai, Thailand


We have just returned from a short family holiday in Chiang Mai, a place that I have not visited since the 1980’s.


Katam Corner, remnant of the city walls, reconstructed around 1800.

Chiang Mai is a bustling city located about 700km north of Bangkok. The fast growing metropolitan area has a population of a million or so but the city proper, with around 170,000 inhabitants, retains a small town feeling. At its heart is the charming ancient square walled town surrounded by brick ramparts (of which only fragments still stand) and a moat.


Three Kings Monument. Kings Mengrai, Ramkamhaeng and Ngam Muang are said to be founding fathers of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai’s northerly location and moderate elevation of 310 metres above sea level produce a more comfortable climate and at this time of year the weather is perfect with mean December low and high temperatures of 15°C and 28 °C respectively and an average 8 1/2 hours of sunshine per day.


Good weather, friendly people, delicious food and a vibrant culture combine to make Chiang Mai  very attractive to tourists and it came in at 24th on Trip Advisor’s list of 25 Best Destinations in the World in 2014, though it dropped off the list in 2015 (not that I put much store in such lists).


Buddha Statue inside Wat Phan Tao.

Expats seem to like living in Chiang Mai and there appear to be a lot of long-term foreign residents here, including retirees.


Raming Tea House was built from teak in 1915.

Over 5 million foreign tourists and 10 million Thai tourists visit Chiang Mai annually and it seems most of them were in the Sunday Market at the same time as us. The crowds were crazy!


Traditional Tri-Shaw.


The cat was not for sale.

The Night Bazaar was less busy and a good place to shop for tourist tat, T-shirts, Thai handicrafts and souvenirs. Some of paintings being sold by artists here were of high quality.


Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.

There are dozens of splendid Thai Buddhist temples to visit, including the city’s most famous landmark, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. This temple is located on a hill overlooking the city at an altitude of 1073 m.


Religious Souvenir Stall at Doi Suthep Temple.


Songthaew Pick-up at Doi Suthep.

We travelled the 18 km trip to the temple in the back of a songthaew which is a pick-up truck with bench seats in the back. While this is a fun experience (like a jeepney ride in the Philippines) the diesel exhaust fumes inhaled on such trips are noxious and probably life-shortening.


Tuk-tuk driver taking a rest.

Tuk-tuks are just as bad and the sooner these ubiquitous methods of transport are replaced with non-polluting electric vehicles the better.


Mae Ping River Cruise Boat.

To experience some cleaner air we took a river cruise on the Ping River which runs through the heart of the city and is a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River. The two hour cruise was on a traditional teak rice barge and stopped off at the ‘Thai Farmer’s House’  where we could see exotic fruit trees, herbs and vegetables and admire a pair of large wild boars enjoying an afternoon siesta.  It was quite a touristy thing to do but pleasant all the same.


Air Asia has direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai making it a convenient and inexpensive place to visit for us Malaysia residents. We might go again one day.


Girl in Traditional Hill Tribe Costume Posing for Photos.

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