That Time I Ate My Weight In Street Food: Penang, Malaysia

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Penang, Malaysia was a big surprise for me, as it’s so incredibly different than all the other spots in Malaysia I experienced.

Georgetown is quaint and quirky: my kinda spot!

Georgetown is quaint and quirky: my kinda spot!

We spent a few days in the capital, Georgetown, which as you might be able to concur by the name was colonized by the British.

Georgetown is well, adorable.

Georgetown is well, adorable.

The town is full of two-story British colonial style shopfronts and homes, which, if you’re imagining this in your head, might seem pretty regular, except now add in the fact that they are covered with Chinese or Indian writing.

Exploring.

Exploring.

This is where things get interesting. As the rest of Malaysia has a very high Islamic population, Penang does not, because the majority of Penang’s population is actually Chinese, followed by Malay, followed by Indian.

British with a serious Asian vibe.

British with a serious Asian vibe.

They all peacefully coexist, and all while inhabiting these traditional British colonial structures in the intense heat and humidity.

Our hotel. Not the best pic, but a very special space.

Our hotel. Not the best pic, but a very special space.

So the scene has been set. We arrived at our hotel, the charming Nam Keng, on a peaceful street in Georgetown late at night. The hotel was once an old British mansion, now decorated with rich wood and Chinese characters, with a beautiful courtyard in the middle, shutters thrown open to let the Malay sun shine in. Or in our case, the night moon. The hotel was perfect. Jorge always makes fun of me and how much time I spend researching the perfect hotels for us but when you are on the road for six weeks, it’s amazing to come to a hotel and feel like you’ve arrived home. We immediately headed to Lebuh Chulia, which is the “backpacker” street. This to me translates to me as “incredibly cheap street food for broke travelers.” And cheap it was. I got some kind of noodle dish with pork for 3 riggit (about 50 cents) and on the pricier side at 5 riggits, Jorge got the famous Char Kway Teow….. which is a famous Chinese Malay dish of rice noodles, complete with juicy pork, peanuts and shrimp. We also got fresh juices which came in a trusty bag, I got mango and Jorge orange and carrot. These cost about 50 cents each. Having stuffed our bellies for a combined total of approximately two euros, we headed back the hotel to crash after a long day of traveling.

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We awoke the next morning and I was ready to explore the street art scene. Penang is famous for its art, and we were lucky enough to be in the city during the Georgetown Arts Festival.

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The festival is one month long and offers several temporary art and photography exhibits as well as some dance and music shows. But first, we wanted to start with that permanent street art that Georgetown is known for.

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So we braved the 100 degree plus heat and started off. The street art did not disappoint! I loved the way the artists incorporated 3D items into the art, like a real bicycle and then children painted on the walls.

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It was so much fun to take cheesy photos with the street art and just seeing all the people enjoying it.

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Street art is so cool because it doesn’t discriminate: it’s for everyone! Locals and tourists alike can enjoy the art, free of charge, anytime.

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This art really gives Georgetown its own quirky character.

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We also braved the heat to enjoy two temporary art exhibitions in town for the festival, one from French sculpture artist and another by a Malay photographer called Panic, who edits his photos to create distortion and disarray.

The jetty's didn't impress me much.

The jetty’s didn’t impress me much.

We also headed down to the Clan Jettys, which are houses on stilts where Chinese people live over the water. I was previously excited to see these, but I unfortunately wasn’t that impressed in person, as I found them super touristy and just kind of smelly and gross. Oh well. It was still a neat experience to see them.

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We were starving and considering we’d probably sweat out half our body weight in the heat, it was time for lunch. We decided to try the most famous Indian restaurant in town (I used the word restaurant lightly—it was more like street food with a roof on top), Kapitan. As I previously mentioned, Penang has a huge Indian population and Little India is a great place to chow down. Kapitan is famous for its chicken tandoori. We ordered two sets: one with clay pot biryiani rice and other with butter garlic naan.

The best meal I've ever eaten.

The best meal I’ve ever eaten.

This was the best chicken tandoori I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve been to India. The flavors were unreal: the chicken expertly crisped, the tandoori sauce spiced to perfection, the naan buttery and soft…I was in heaven! I almost hugged our server I was so happy…I feel like at least 1/3 of my life in Madrid is spent trying to find delicious Indian and ethnic food…one can only eat so many croquetas you know? Oh, if only I could have this amount of SPICE in my life on a daily basis! It was so amazing that we’d end up back there AGAIN the next day, I just couldn’t get enough. In fact, it’s only been a few days and I’m already dreaming of those flavors. Better get that out of my head, because I’m a girl who’s been ruined: I know I’ll never find Tandoori like that again, at least not in Spain! After this I decided I needed a back massage, which I quickly found and was amazing. I figured I need to start preparing to get my daily massages in Thailand.

Our spa.

Our spa.

Although this one was rather pricey: about 8 euros for 30 minutes, it was amazing and well needed after many days of planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention tons of walking around. That night, Jorge and I decided that we needed more Indian food and headed once again in the direction of Little India. We tried to get samosas but they’d run out for the day, so instead we got Roti Jala, which is a type of soft bread with a curry dipping sauce. As if I hadn’t had enough bread and spicy sauce already that day! It was insanely amazing and just 3 Riggit. This plus a couple of fresh juices and we were full. We decided that we wanted to splurge and head up to a fancy rooftop bar to get an overpriced beer and views of the city.

The view from the rooftop bar.

The view from the rooftop bar. A bit blurry, but you get the idea.

So we found one called Three Sixty, which is on the top of a hotel. It has a revolving restaurant and an outdoor Sky Bar for drinks. We ordered two beers for a total of 40 riggits (8 euros or so) which actually cost more than the total of our dinner three nights in a row! But it was fun to see views of the city at night, so it was worth it. We try to walk that fine line between splurge and save during our trips, so this was definitely a fun splurge. However, since Malaysia is Islamic, they don’t brew their own beer, which was disappointing. Instead, the offerings were mainly European, which is why I found myself drinking a Carlsberg (ew).

Unfortunately, a bit hazy at the top of Penang Hill.

Unfortunately, a bit hazy at the top of Penang Hill.

The next day, we took the local bus (an experience in itself) about an hour to the base of Penang Hill, and then prepared to take the funicular up. After waiting in line with a lot of annoying tourists, we headed up.

A lookout point on the hill.

A lookout point on the hill.

The views from the top of the hill were massive, since it was hazy, it wasn’t the best day to see for miles. It was still neat to be so high up though. I will say the hill is very much geared towards families, with tons of things for kids to do (extra $$$ of course) but we stopped into the mosque and the Hindu temple at the top and then ordered some chick pea masala for a $1 that was delicious.

My favorite part of the excursion, the street food.

My favorite part of the excursion, the street food.

We headed back down to then head to the Kok Lo Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, perched at the base of the hill and quite possibly one of the most spectacular temples I’ve seen.

The temple.

The temple.

However, it was unbelievably hot out, so this temple excursion was definitely a sweaty one. We grabbed the local bus and then of course, got off at the wrong stop, but it was fine as we wandered through a more authentic area of Penang, where locals went about their business, shopping, working, cooking up a storm of street food. We finally discovered the entrance to the temple, which sits at the base of the hill. Covered with market stalls on each site, locals try to hawk you souvenirs too you as you make the climb up uneven, dark stone stairs. Once near the top, there is a creepy pond filled to the brim of turtles that looks rather like a construction zone, and then the temple fun starts.

The famous pagoda, with its three design styles.

The famous pagoda, with its three design styles.

The structure itself is enormous, with several pagodas and twists and turns. Of course, too many Buddhas to count. As the temple is perched up high, there are so many spots that make awesome panoramic viewpoints. The first section of the temple visit is free, but if you want to climb the famous Pagoda of “Ban Po Thar” or Pagoda of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, you have to pay 2 Riggit per person, about 40 cents or so. The structure is extremely interesting because it combines three main architectural styles: Burmese, Thai and Chinese. Having visited many temples in Myanmar, the first thing I noticed was the top of the pagoda, which is gold and tapered in the typical Myanmar style. Whereas I am sure there are more accurate architectural terms to describe the differences in the three styles, I did notice the typical Thai minaret peaks in the middle section and then the base of the structure is Chinese.

Views from the pagoda.

Views from the pagoda.

The view from the pagoda was amazing and each level provided a difference angle of the city, perfect for taking an excessive number of photos, which of course, we did. It’s worth noting that during the Chinese New Year, you can finish the temple at night, when it’s lit up with Chinese lanterns. It must really be a sight to see!

After the temple, we headed back down to the city center. After exploring some street food in Chinatown, we decided all we wanted was more Indian food in Little India, so that’s exactly what we did. Two tandoori chickens, two carrot and orange smoothies and two foot massages later, we ended up back at the hotel. The next day we were finally heading to the beach, but not before exploring the morning market. Many markets in Asia are in the evening to beat the heat, so I was surprised to hear their market was open all day.

The chaos of the market.

The chaos of the market.

Of course, we headed there on the early side and the market was filled with locals, both selling and buying food, like noodles and curries for breakfast and also things like raw fish and meat for the week, fruit etc. The market also sold housewares, clothing, even lingerie!

A guy selling fish and other unidentifiable items at the market. I find it interesting,, so many locals sit like this all day long. I've been taking yoga for 20 years to be able to hold this posture for like, 11 seconds.

A guy selling fish and other unidentifiable items at the market. I find it interesting that so many locals in Southeast Asia sit like this all day long. I’ve been taking yoga for 20 years to be able to hold this posture for like, 11 seconds.

Jorge and I picked up a few things and then it was time to head to Thailand. As I plan to spend the next two weeks doing pretty much nothing besides lying on the beach, doing yoga and eating Penang curry, there won’t be much more happening on LSM until my next trip (don’t worry, got a lot of plans coming up soon). I hope you enjoyed following our adventure this summer and cheers until next time!

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Lori Goes To the Jungle

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Ever since I was a young girl I’ve wanted to visit the Bornean rainforests. I was fascinated by an exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo called Tropic World, which consisted of three rainforest habitats where different types of monkeys live. One was Malaysia, and there were gibbons and orangutans swinging from ropes and trees. They had misters creating “tropical rain” and I remember thinking it was so exciting. At 8 years old or so I said to myself, “One day I’ll get to see this in person.”

So you can imagine my excitement when I planned this trip, finally getting to see what I’d dreamed about since a little girl. Most young girls dream of their weddings, I dreamed of orangutans! Of course, the devastating effects of deforestation and globalization, more specifically, cutting down the Bornean rainforests to create palm plantations are in full force, quite possibly to the extent that if I one day I have a little girl who dreams of seeing the Bornean rainforest, she won’t be able to, because it won’t exist.

So I hope this post will be not only a trip report but also a wakeup call for all of us to consider what we need to do to protect these special spaces and species that are in danger of being lost for good.

The ops base.

The ops base.

Back to my trip. We landed in the Sandakan airport and headed directly to Uncle Tans Ops Base in Sepilok which sits of the edge of the rainforest. This would be our starting off point for our wildlife adventure. We spent one night at the ops base in a VERY basic cabin preparing for our jungle trek. The next morning, we started off at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which is a wonderful organization responsible for rescuing orphaned orangutans and releasing them into the wild once they are ready. This center is responsible for rescuing and sending hundreds of orangutans back into the jungle, ensuring that this species, which is rapidly nearing extinction due to loss of habitat, continues to thrive. As it is, there are only 10,000-20,000 orangutans left in the wild, and the species can only be found in this particular island and part of Malaysia.

Visitors are able to see the nursery, where the babies and children are trained to climb, swing and jump, as well as find food, ensuring their survival later on when released into the wild. The babies were so naughty and cute, and it was hysterical watching them tumble about. They’re only assisted by monitors if they walk on the jungle floor, as they need to learn how to avoid the jungle floor. This is because wild orangutans almost never visit the jungle floor and mainly live high up in trees. Did you know they also make nests? Considering the size of orangutans, these nests are huge!

Cutie pie.

Cutie pie.

The really neat part about this center is that it’s very different that a zoo in a sense that when the orangutans they are adults are simply released about into the wild. So this center is placed in the jungle, meaning if you hike around a bit, you are in the jungle, and the orangutans just roam about.

This guy!!!

This guy!!!

Only the nursery is caged so the other animals simply roam about in the jungle.  They can return to the center if they want food but most choose to stay out in the rainforest. One came so close to me I could touch it and was very special to be near these animals in a setting where they aren’t caged.

Family dinner time isn't just for humans.

Family dinner time isn’t just for humans.

During feeding time, food is placed on a platform and left out. The orangutans and come if they want, and we were able to see a cute little family eating their bananas here.

This one was swinging like crazy!

This one was swinging like crazy!

 

And kinda posing for us.

And kinda posing for us.

 

After this, we headed back to the ops base for a briefing on our jungle wildlife adventure. We hopped in a 4 X 4 with another couple and headed about 1.5 hours into the jungle. We were dropped off at a small jetty, where locals helped us throw our backpacks into a small boat which was to take us about 45 minutes upstream the Kinabatangan River where we’d stay for two nights at Uncle Tan’s wildlife camp.

Up the river we go!

Up the river we go!

The boat ride was amazing.

The muddy river.

The muddy river.

We were able to see a ton of proboscis monkeys dangling from tree branches, and the most exciting was our first real orangutan spotting. It was a giant male perched in a treetop, and WOW. He was enormous. I would later realize we were extremely lucky, as many don’t even get to spot an orangutan in the wild during their tour. In fact, it was the only one we saw, but that’s cool, I was just so happy to have seen one really far out in the wild, plus the few I’d seen in the jungle rehabilitation center area.

Some monkeys hiding in trees.

Some monkeys hiding in trees.

 

We spotted this owl during the daytime, very rare!

We spotted this owl during the daytime, very rare!

We docked at the camp and were given our cabin assignments. We’d be in the first cabin along with one Dutch couple and two Dutch girls, for a total of six. We got really lucky that our cabin mates were super cool (honestly, I just love Dutch people) and we ended up having a great time with them.

Our cabin.

Our cabin.

The cabins…they were beyond basic. No doors, no windows, made of creaky old wood. There were three mattresses on the ground with mosquito nets and a sheet covering each – no pillows.

Plastic bins to keep the jungle pests away.

Plastic bins to keep the jungle pests away.

 

Each cabin came with a plastic bin to place any food, toiletries or medicines in. This is because monkeys and jungle rats (yes, RATS, EW) can unzip bags and bite through fabric, and apparently are especially partial to toothpaste and aspirin!

Wooden walkway to cabins.

Wooden walkway to cabins.

There was a wooden plank that led to the cabins, which were perched upon stilts and rightfully so, as the rainwater made the area below swampy and gross.

You don't want to fall in here.

You don’t want to fall in here.

It was especially scary at night in the pitch black, so it was essential to carry your flashlight, because if you tripped and fell off the wooden walkway, you’d tumble down into the swamp, eek! Who knows what creepy crawlers were living down there.

More cabins.

More cabins.

The bathrooms were insane. Four toilets and a few giant tubs of brown water for a “rinse.” I went without a shower, and instead did a quick rinse on day two in the river, despite warnings of crocodiles.

Sunset on the river.

Sunset on the river.

We settled into a camp and got ready for our first night safari boat ride. I could believe how dark it was on the river. Literally pitch black…I don’t think I’ve ever seen darkness so black! I didn’t realize the extent to which light pollution plagues even the most rural of spots in the US and Europe. Even in Arizona where my parents live, I’ve never experienced darkness like this. It was terrifying and extremely exciting all at the same time to be out in a boat in the middle of nowhere in total darkness. Luckily, the boat driver has a spotlight and we all had our trusty headlamps and flashlights, though it’s rather annoying because once you turn them on, the bugs are drawn to the light and let me tell you, these mosquitoes are unlike any other. Even covered in Deet, they attack hard! Don’t worry though, I’ve been faithfully taking my malaria pills, and Zika doesn’t seem to be an issue here, at least not yet. Plus all sorts of flying bugs and creatures…even night bees! Ummm what, night bees! Yes, they are real. The guide smacked my back in the middle of the ride, killing a giant night bee on the back of my life jacket. Just you know, surviving the jungle!

A family of monkeys asleep. Wish I could sleep sitting up. Would make air travel so much easier.

A family of monkeys asleep. Wish I could sleep sitting up. Would make air travel so much easier.

Despite the bugs, the night safari was super awesome. We were able to spot monkeys of all kinds asleep in trees, several kingfishers, an owl and crocodiles.

A Kingfisher.

A Kingfisher.

 

Another breed of Kingfisher.

Another breed of Kingfisher.

Seeing the crocs was creepy too. I don’t have a photo, but it’s scary–you can see the reds of their eyes creeping above the water in the darkness!

We came back to camp afterward and ate dinner.

The dining room slash gathering spot slash hangout area.

The dining room slash gathering spot slash hangout area.

The food each day and night was buffet style, with a solid selection of meats, veggies, curries and rice, with fruit for dessert.

Buffet style food.

Buffet style food.

The vibe at the camp was happy go lucky and chill. The guides would play the guitar and everyone would hang out and sing and have beers and hang out. All the people we met were pretty cool.

Evening jam sessions with the guides.

Evening jam sessions with the guides.

I think in order to do something like this, you have to be a pretty awesome person, so we had a lot of fun meeting the other guests, who hailed from all over the world, of all ages, nationalities etc. We had families, singles, couples and groups of friends. Nature is for everyone, after all!

This guy also wanted to hang out.

This guy also wanted to hang out.

The electricity was only turned on from 7 pm-midnight, allowing us to charge our camera batteries mainly, as there was no internet, TV or phone service of any kind! Of course, the highlight was heading back to the cabins and finding a giant snake asleep inside. Apparently this breed, a mangrove snake, is only poisonous when it spits, but the bite won’t kill you. Seeing the guides run over to it with a golf club and a broom, chasing it into the swamp, was priceless. The whole camp came out to enjoy the spectacle.

At midnight, the lights would click off and boom, plunged into darkness! Wakeup calls were at 5:30 am and I definitely didn’t get much sleep that first night. The sounds in the jungle are like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life. Shrill screeches, chirping, scattering, pattering, a surprise rainstorm, honestly, it’s like a full on pop concert of wildlife out there. Made me long for the comforting city sounds of my upstairs neighbors stamping about or drunks shouting from the bar downstairs, horns honking, car alarms etc. I of course awoke to every noise, not to mention the intense heat and humidity. Thankfully, the mosquito net did its job and I awoke without bites at our 5:30 am wakeup call. Also, waking up in the middle of the night to pee was scary! I stumbled out of the net, threw on my flip flops and cautiously excited the hut for the long walk to the bathrooms. In a moment of panic, I saw something slowly creeping towards me, but it was just the camp cat. Whew.

Back to the wakeup call. I exited the comfort of my floor mattress in the pitch black to get dressed and heard a yell. There was an ENORMOUS spider on the mosquito next (the outside, thank goodness) of the girls bed next to ours. Jorge chased it away with the top of the plastic cube and it scuttled into the darkness (probably into one of my socks or something). After a quick coffee, we started out for our morning safari.

Outfitted for my jungle trek.

Outfitted for my jungle trek.

As you might figure out, the morning safaris are done early because that’s when you see the most wildlife.

A giant forest centipede (very poisonous).

A giant forest centipede (very poisonous).

However, we didn’t have much luck this time, only spotting some monkeys and eagles.

Morning millipede adventures (non-poisonous, don't panic).

Morning millipede adventures (non-poisonous, don’t panic).

Following this, we went on a morning jungle trek, where we were able to spot giant forest millipedes, giant forest centipedes, some birds and learned a ton about plants and trees.

Another millipede species.

Another millipede species.

Heading back to the camp after this, we had lunch and I headed over to my hammock for a solid three-hour nap, an ideal activity in the strong heat of the day.

Jorge doing Jorge things.

Jorge doing Jorge things.

During this time, Jorge went fishing, and caught several catfish and some eel.

Jorge all tuckered out after fishing.

Jorge all tuckered out after fishing.

I woke up just in time for the evening boat safari which was awesome as we managed to see tons of new monkey species, as well as a flying lemur, and some other cool birds.

Boots after a muddy trek!

Boots after a muddy trek!

 

I had a solid nap in one of these hammocks.

I had a solid nap in one of these hammocks.

We also saw flying foxes, which are some of the world’s largest bats.

Ready for night trekking!

Ready for night trekking!

Once it got dark, we headed into the jungle for our night jungle trek, which was exciting.

Night trek!

Night trek!

Head lamp in tow, galoshes on, we stomped through swamps, discovering several frogs and birds and even a special species of small monkeys who only come out at night. I wasn’t able to get a photo, but I’ll never forget their red eyes glowing in the dark. Apparently, spotting these monkeys are quite rare so we were really lucky. I think the species is called Western Tarsier.

Froggie spotting.

Froggie spotting.

We also saw a giant scorpion and several spiders.

Trying not to fall in the swamp.

Trying not to fall in the swamp.

The night trek was super cool and I’ll happily remember the feeling of stomping through the jungle in the pitch black!

A Blue Eared Kingfisher spotting.

A Blue Eared Kingfisher spotting.

After an evening of rice wine and guitar songs (yes, I’ve heard enough “In the Jungle” to last me a lifetime) I found I was so tuckered out that I slept much better, despite the sounds of the jungle. Or maybe I’m just becoming at home in the wilderness? Ha. We awoke at 5:30 for our final morning safari which was deemed “the crocodile hunt.”

Monkeys.

Monkeys.

Here we saw a couple baby crocs, a monitor lizard, several monkeys (some jumping super far tree to tree, it was really neat) and more birds: several toucans (officially called hornbills), eagles, egrets and Kingfisher species.

Final monkey sightings.

Final monkey sightings.

After this we packed up our stuff (finding our spider friend at the bottom of someone’s backpack!), had lunch and got ready to head back to civilization. Before leaving, we sat down with one of the guides, Teo, who made a list of all the species we saw and I found this to be super cool.

A list of all the species we saw. Wow!

A list of all the species we saw. Wow!

I now know so much more about jungle wildlife! All of the guides were really helpful and it’s amazing how they can spot things. You’re just going along in the boat and all the sudden they stop the boat, pull it over to the side and tell you to look. You can’t see a thing! And the suddenly, something comes into focus. Monkeys, an owl, a croc…I don’t know how they spot it from so far away. And then they tell you the breed or species and if it’s a monkey, if it’s a male or female, etc. They have so much knowledge and it makes you realize that no matter how much you know about the world, there’s always so much more to learn!

Our boat crew. The four just to the side of Jorge were also in our hut.

Our boat crew. The four just to the side of Jorge were also in our hut.

I can’t say enough nice things about Uncle Tans Wildlife Adventures. It’s super basic and the sleeping arrangements are far from luxury, but this place is special. The focus is on nature and I honestly can’t believe I went three days in jungle heat and humidity without a shower and with all of natures comforts like bugs, bees, snakes, rats and more (and loved it).

I can certainly cross this one off my list! I strongly encourage anyone who doesn’t mind roughing it and who loves nature to do something like this once in their lives. It’s an experience I’ll never forget! Ok but now, onto a nice, high-end hotel with white fluffy sheets please!

The view of Sandakan from our room.

The view of Sandakan from our room.

After the camp, we headed to the Four Points Sheraton Sandakan, where were given a room upgrade and had a gorgeous view overlooking the city and harbor. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a nicer shower in my life than this one. Washing off the DEET, the sunblock, the blood, sweat and tears of the jungle felt incredible, and I couldn’t be happier for a soft, warm bed with no bugs!

Never been more excited for a big white bed!

Never been more excited for a big white bed!

Sandakan is a weird little city.

Central Sandakan isn't well kept.

Central Sandakan isn’t well kept.

There really isn’t much to do, but that was fine, as we wanted to relax and recover from our jungle adventures – honestly, it’s exhausting being out in the heat and humidity wildlife hunting!

Infinity pool!

Infinity pool!

The hotel had a great infinity rooftop pool which we enjoyed immensely and we also had a nice time savoring the fresh fish purchased at the markets or on the street.

The Sim Sim village.

The Sim Sim village.

One evening we headed over to the Sim Sim fishing village, which is an area of town that features houses on stilts over the water. The area was kinda gross, with rats running around the muddy area below the houses, but it was a really unique spot and interesting to see how these people live.

Picturesque but kinda dirty too.

Picturesque but kinda dirty too.

Peeking into the houses, I saw many altars of worship and the inside of the homes were actually clean and well cared for.

Seafood delights.

Seafood delights.

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Clams with spicy garlic sauce.

 

We ate some incredible seafood at a famous restaurant near here, Sim Sim 88.

A little girl hangs out with the chicken.

A little girl hangs out with the chicken.

The other highlight of Sandakan was the Central Market which is open in the mornings.

Onions galore.

Onions galore.

Selling all sorts of things, we especially enjoyed the fish section with all the fresh catches of the day, including sharks and stingrays.

Boys selling fish.

Boys selling fish.

 

Dried fish wrapped in paper.

Dried fish wrapped in paper.

 

We also walked down to the docks to see them unloading all the fresh fish which was busy and interesting.

The docks.

The docks.

 

The last night, we did something very original.

Sandakan Fishing Association. A couple tables and a makeshift the kitchen!

Sandakan Fishing Association. A couple tables and a makeshift the kitchen!

We had the hotel call the Sandakan Fishing Association, which I discovered by reading obscure blogs online to reserve us a spot.

Our buddy cooking up some fresh crab.

Our buddy cooking up some fresh crab.

They put a few tables out of their office/kitchen and cook dinner serving the fresh catch of the day. No menus and no English!

Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

We went and were served the most delicious crab I had ever tasted! Total bill for two for soup, two giant crabs, and a whole grouper? 12 euros. Not bad!

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Grouper in soy ginger sauce. Yum!

 

And that’s all folks!

My headlamp is officially packed away at the bottom of my backpack, most likely to never be used again. My galoshes have been passed down to another enthusiastic jungle trekker. My mosquito bites have since ceased to itch…did all of this really happen? Oh but it did! I leave you now with a pleathora of wildlife photos, hopefully a thirst for adventure and exploration and this quote:

There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. ”

- Theodore Roosevelt
President of the United States

Now we’re heading to Penang, so stay tuned for plenty of street art and street food!!!

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The Islands of Indonesia

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Our visit to the islands of Indonesia wouldn’t be the typically Bali trip most people do. Lombok is located on West Tenggara, an island which is just east of Bali and the Gili Islands are three tiny islands just of the coast of Lombok. We opted to head here as opposed to Bali to have a more authentic Indonesian island experience.

Lombok, Indonesia.

Lombok, Indonesia.

Lombok is a very local island. It’s busy and poor and almost 100% Muslim. But I wanted local and that’s what I got, so here goes.

The island is large and famous for its volcano in the North of the Island, which unfortunately we didn’t have time to trek, but perhaps in a future trip. We decided to first stay two nights in Senggigi, a small town near the Bangsal Harbour so we could easily catch our boat to Gili Meno.

The huts at Mama Bella's.

The huts at Mama Bella’s.

We stayed at the cutest boutique resort, Mama Bella’s. For about $30 a night, we had our own little hut and in front of the most charming pool.

The lovely pool at Mama Bella's.

The lovely pool at Mama Bella’s.

I later realized I much preferred to lounge in a hammock by this pool instead of heading to the nearby beach, which was filled with locals swimming in hijabs and burkas.

The foreigner end of the beach.

The foreigner end of the beach.

I know I said I wanted a local experience, but I must say being in a bikini in a beach with everyone completely covered is a strange experience, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable as people were looking at us weird.  We ended up heading over to the foreigner end of the beach, because it was clear we weren’t appropriately covered to be in the section with the locals.

Feeling the night to cover up slightly well enjoying a beach smoothie.

Feeling as if I need to cover up slightly while enjoying a beach smoothie.

In most cases, I would try to fit in more, eg, wear long pants or cover my shoulders, but it’s a beach! I wasn’t going to swim in clothes and I certainly don’t own a head-to-toe swimsuit of sorts. So after a brief jaunt to the beach, we opted to hang poolside the second day before heading off to Gili.

Senggigi is a small area where we were able to eat the local food in the evening and just relax. There’s not much nightlife, which was fine, as we were still exhausted from our crazy travel experience just a few days earlier. Walking through the town streets, you’ll see plenty of goats and chickens wandering around, children playing happily in the dirt and women covered from head to toe. The call to prayers came often and were quite loud, even waking us up in the morning.

A beach sunset in Senggigi.

A beach sunset in Senggigi.

Whereas Senggigi was fine, I was really excited to head to the Gili’s. There are three Gili Islands: Talawan, Air and Meno. We chose Meno because it’s supposed to be the slowest, most laid back with the most local vibe, especially compared to Trawagan which is the party island. Meno is also the smallest of the three islands. It’s also supposed to have some of the best snorkeling and diving, and Jorge was excited to finally put his PADI certification to use.

Jorge and our private speedboat.

Jorge and our private speedboat.

We were able to book a private speedboat over and the trip was only about 10 minutes or so.

Our luggage guy on the boat.

Our luggage guy on the boat.

After wading to the shore with our backpacks in tow, we walked to our huts, the Cha Cha Bungalows.

Our hut at the Cha Cha Bungalows.

Our hut at the Cha Cha Bungalows.

There are no cars or motorized transport of any kind of Gili Meno, which made the whole experience just so lovely.

The inside of our hut.

The inside of our hut.

You can use a horse cart to carry your luggage to your hotel, but in typical backpacker fashion, we walked, and it was only about 10 minutes.

Our huts were slightly inland and pretty bare bones, but I loved the vibe. Our bathroom was sort of half indoor half outdoor and there’s nothing more awesome than an outdoor shower!

Gili Meno.

Gili Meno.

Everything on this island was just relaxed and calm, and the moment I jumped off that boat into the clear blue waters I felt at home. The locals seemed much more relaxed here and many women went without head coverings.

Some kiddies building a raft on a more local beach area.

Some kiddies building a raft on a more local beach area.

First order of business: getting to the beach! You can lap the entire island by bike in about an hour, and the south is known for the sandy beaches and the north for rockier, snorkeling beaches.

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We rented bikes and headed around, finally settling in the south of the island on some lovely beanbag chairs.

Beanbag chairs on the beach? Don't mind if I do!

Beanbag chairs on the beach? Don’t mind if I do!

The island’s nightlife consisted of beach restaurants closing at about 9 pm each night, and WiFi was existent but very slow.

Relaxing in one of these beach huts with a cold drink is simply heaven!

Relaxing in one of these beach huts with a cold drink is simply heaven!

Most of the beach restaurants had this cool wooden huts where you could sit facing the sea and relax, which was super chill.

A watermelon smoothie.

A watermelon smoothie.

I really enjoyed just hanging out with a fruit smoothie in these huts (fresh lime juice is heaven!). Inland is where we found the best food and restaurants.

A local spot we stumbled upon and fell in love with!

A local spot we stumbled upon and fell in love with!

Many people open homestays on their little farm-style properties, meaning there are a few rooms and a few tables and they cook for you. We ate some really amazing food there for so incredibly cheap, I’m talking full meals for two for $2!

Indonesia delicacies.

Indonesia delicacies.

We mainly chowed down on Nasi Goreng, which is like Indonesia fried rice with chicken, Mie Goreng, which is like ramen-style noodles with vegetables and chicken, often with a fried egg on top, and stir fry vegetables covered with coconut flakes (my favorite).

In the mornings, we’d head to the northern beaches by bike so Jorge could snorkel. Of course, within 10 minutes of snorkeling I contracted an ear infection, which prompted a visit to an Indonesia medical center where they gave me antibiotics. Unfortunately, I missed out on seeing some giant sea turtles which Jorge spotted since I couldn’t snorkel for the remainder of the trip. But in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t so bad, especially once I had the medicine.

After a morning at the northern  beaches we’d break for lunch and head to the southern beaches in the afternoon to relax.

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Jorge did a dive one day where he saw some amazing sea creatures, including turtles and a giant octopus, not to mention some interesting fish species like a scorpion fish.

Sunset over the lake on Gili Meno.

Sunset over the lake on Gili Meno.

It’s also worth noting that Gili Meno is extra cool thanks to its inland lake, which is a small body of water surrounded by trees. During sunset, the trees reflect in the water and it’s just breathtaking—better than the beach sunsets!

My three days in Gili Meno peaked when I randomly spotted my friend Laura on the beach! Laura is a friend from Madrid who’s taken the year off to travel in Southeast Asia and beyond. We’d been in brief contact to see if we’d be in the same place at the same time and I had hoped to see her, but I was under the impression she was in Bali and not able to get to the Gili’s during my time there. So what an incredible surprise to see her on the beach! We ate lunch together while she told me all about the last six months she’s spent traveling, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Having the opportunity to travel the world for long periods of time is a beautiful thing, and Laura is a someone who shines inside and out so what joy to be able to see her!

Our return trip on the group shuttle boat.

Our return trip on the group shuttle boat.

The only problem with getting to the Gili’s is that they try and cheat you so much with the boat experience. There are several ways you can arrived: by private speedboat, shuttle boat and the public boat. The private speedboat is clearly the best option because you select the time you want to leave and it’s private, but also the most expensive. The shuttle boat has about 20 seats and is a fine option, leaving once an hour or so. However, it was a bit harrowing boarding this boat, we had to wade out to sea and they almost left without us on our return trip back to Lombok. The public boat, though extremely cheap, is rumored to be unsafe due to overcrowding and poor safety regulations (eg no life jackets on board) so we decided to skip that experience. The main problem is they try to cheat you. We paid 500,000 IRP (about 35 euros) for the speedboat trip over plus a taxi from our resort. However, for the return trip, they wanted to charge us 800,000 for the shuttle boat and shuttle bus to the main town (meaning it would make several drops with a bunch of people and leave us in the town center vs. the hotel). So it took a lot of bargaining and organizing to figure out the way back, and we ended up meeting a French couple who let us tag along in their taxi for 250,000 IDR, and the boat cost about 200,000 IDR, about 32 euros in total. The public boat, which I previously mentioned wasn’t going to be an option as I didn’t fancy drowning during my vacation, was just 9,000 IDR, less than 1 euro, which the locals crowd on to. Perhaps they can swim better?

After heading back to Lombok, we took a crazy drive through the mountains, spotting several monkeys along the roadside en route to our hotel for one night before heading back to KL in the morning, and onwards to Borneo.

Buying a fresh mango on the beach.

Buying a fresh mango on the beach.

All in all, our time in Indonesia was special, more specifically in Gili Meno. However, the vibe of the islands is really different than Thailand, and I really think it was to do with the Muslim culture. People are more disapproving, not as open, and where we did meet some very nice locals, I felt many of them were starting at me shamefully for wearing a tank top or shorts. It’s mindblowing to me that more people are Muslim than any other religion, meaning, more people like that than like me! Well, to each their own, I suppose.

Cheers from the Gili Islands.

Cheers from the Gili Islands.

After working on my tan in Gili, I was ready for an adventure, so it was perfect timing we’d be heading to Borneo. Next stop, the jungle!

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The Beginning: Kuala Lumpur

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After two overnight flights, we arrived in KL pretty delirious, but happy to be there. We grabbed the KLIA Express train after clearing customs and picking up our bags which took us to KL Sentral, the main train station. Our hotel, the Aloft KL Sentral, was actually accessible through walkways within this giant station/shopping mall, which was really convenient, especially after two nights sans sleep.

Rooftop pool at the Aloft KL Sentral.

Rooftop pool at the Aloft KL Sentral.

I typically pick a “nicer” hotel to stay in at the beginning of these trips after the big trip over, thinking that after long flights I would be happy to rest and recover in a comfortable spot. Each time I do this, I am reminded of how awesome I am and what a great idea that was, and this time was no exception. The staff at the Aloft was totally awesome and allowed us to head up to a 6th floor room to nap (we arrived around 12:30 pm). Later, upon waking up, they’d move us to a nicer, upgraded, upper floor room (which was being cleaned so we couldn’t go in at first). I was overjoyed to hear that one, we had a place to nap and two, we’d be upgraded! So we crashed hard for about four hours and then headed up to our new and sassier room on the 28th floor, which did indeed have better views. This is one of the many times during our three day stay in KL that I would be so happy to have picked the Aloft, I honestly can’t say enough nice things about it!

We spent several different afternoons lounging at the rooftop pool, just two floors above our room. This was the second time I would be thrilled to be staying here, because WOW. The rooftop infinity pool was simply amazing, with panoramic city views, sexy lounge music and just an all-around Lori-approved vibe. Upon entering on the first day, we realized it was about to storm, and so we enjoyed taking some photos and then headed back down to the room where I promptly fell asleep again. Finally, an hour later the rain had stopped and I had come back to life and we headed to the night market in Chinatown.

The Chinatown night market.

The Chinatown night market.

This is a good point to stop and explain a little bit about KL in general. As far as cities in Asia go, this may be my least favorite, as it seems extremely disjointed. There’s several “sections” of the city that are cool, like KL Sentral/Little India (where we stayed), Chinatown, Bukit Bintang (near where the Petrona Towers are) and more, but in between it’s very odd, with just highways or industrial streets. It actually feels like several small cities sort of close to each other instead of one big city. This made it annoying to get places, even though they do have a monorail transport system and we did walk and use Uber as well. It’s also worth noting the city is not super pedestrian friendly, which is something that is important to me in a large city. It was annoying to get around, there was just so much traffic, and I really didn’t like it.

So back to Chinatown. As far as night markets go, I’ve been to many in Asia, especially in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and this just didn’t seem to have much of an ambiance. It was fine, though, we walked around, got some Chinese food (KL is also a big mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay) which wasn’t great and went home to crash. After sleeping 11 hours, we decided we needed to enjoy the insane pool for a bit, so we headed up to spend most of the day there, which was so wonderful.

View from the KL Tower.

View from the KL Tower.

That evening, we headed over via Uber to the KL Tower to visit the observation deck and see the city, Petrona Towers included, from up above.

Petrona Towers at night.

Petrona Towers at night.

Then we walked over to the KL Towers and strolled through the active Bukit Bintang area where we searched for this restaurant I wanted to try, and never found it. We ended up getting Lebanese food which was awesome, but I was seriously jonesin for some Malay food at this point, but we couldn’t seem to find the right spot.

The Batu caves.

The Batu caves.

The next morning, we got up early to head out of the city and see the Batu Caves. The journey was super easy on the KL Komuter Trains, and we were able to get there with no problems, as it’s just about 25 minutes outside the city. Although it was super hot, these Hindu caves and temples dedicated to Indian God Lord Murugan dating back to 1890 were worth it. They were colorful and huge and quite unique, thanks to their many stairs and excess of annoying monkeys running around stealing peoples food.

A monkey eating a stolen ice cream cone.

A monkey eating a stolen ice cream cone.

One of the temples had  about 300 stairs to climb to get to the top, which of course we had to climb. In the heat and humidity of the day this felt like an extreme sport of course, especially as I was wearing pants and sleeves (temple gear, gotta stay covered) and we were sufficiently sweating and tuckered out by the end.

Inside the caves.

Inside the caves.

However, for me this was one of the highlights of KL, and to be honest, one of the most unique temples I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of temples, but really). As I mentioned, KL has a bit of an awkward vibe, and so this cool cultural attraction really was a highlight for me in the midst of a bustling city that can’t seem to find it’s own personality.

The menu, entirely in...some language I don't understand.

The menu, entirely in…some language I don’t understand.

Once we arrived back in town, of course we hit the pool and then finally found a more local spot for dinner, but not before taking Jorge to Little India to get his head shaved at the barbershop for $2. After a nice haircut, we found a cheap street vendor to make us some Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and roti (a type of buttery nan bread) which was fantastic. The guy spoke no English, so I ended up ordering the above somehow, plus some kind of green vegetable (perhaps morning glory, a common vegetable eaten in Southeast Asia) with chicken which was covered in ginger and delicious. The whole meal cost about $3, so I was thrilled. After spending a lot more on other shittier meals and feeling like I was getting cheated for half the trip, a good $3 meal helped to put me in the grandest of moods.

The next morning, we were headed out to Lombok and then onto the fabulous Gili Islands, which will be detailed out in my next post.

Basically, compared to other large cities in Southeast Asia, KL is my least favorite. I think I’ll stick to Bangkok from now on for my jumping off point. That being said, if you want to explore Malaysia or Indonesia, it is easily accessible and close to everything, so it can be a good place to start. However, for future trips, I doubt I will be back unless I get some kind of insane flight deal.

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Istanbul A Few Days After The Attempted Military Coup

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Welcome to my fabulous trip diaries, where I’ll chronicle my 6-week summer adventure. Hopefully, someone other than my mother will be reading this. The adventure begins in a far off land bordering both Europe and the Orient: Turkey. Enjoy!

The lovely Istanbul and beyond.

The lovely Istanbul and beyond.

I was super excited for our long layover in Istanbul to do the free city tour that Turkish Airlines offers for passengers with stops. We’d specifically planned in this stop to spend the day touring Istanbul, a city I’ve been wanting to visit for years, and everything seemed to be in order. Famous last words. When preparing for bed Friday evening, just four days before our trip, images of military and gunfire invaded my social media. Gasp! It seemed that there was an attempted military coup, where the military basically tried to take control of Turkey. Long story short, it didn’t work and the President is now using this as an excuse to get rid of (literally, take out) a large portion of the military. It’s also an excuse for him to create more dictator-like laws and fire many school teachers and close down many charities–anything that doesn’t seem to agree with his political ideals.

But this isn’t meant to be a political post, it’s meant to be a travel post, so we were clearly concerned that this would make our coming journey unsafe, especially as the military temporarily took control of the airport. As of Tuesday morning, things seemed to have calmed down, although the US media still portrayed the situation as alarming, I chose to listen to European media which said things were much more tranquil. We took off at about midnight on Tuesday, nervous but excited. We actually loved our 5-hour Turkish Airways flight. We had a whole row to ourselves, the food and service was great and although we didn’t really manage to sleep, we entertained ourselves with movies on the personal screens. We landed at about 5 am and headed out into the airport, which actually seemed incredibly calm. We napped for a couple hours in the arrivals hall before the tour began. Although we were pretty exhausted after night one with no sleep, we were running on adrenaline for the tour, which involved 42 tourists from countries all over the world on a bus.

Delirious after a night of no sleep, but ready and raring to go on our tour bus!

Delirious after a night of no sleep, but ready and raring to go on our tour bus!

I usually opt out of these style of giant group bus tours, but as this was a special exception, we boarded the bus with all the other annoying tourists.

A breakfast of Turkish delights.

A breakfast of Turkish delights.

We headed into the city center and started off with a traditional Turkish (and free) breakfast, with a boiled egg, various cheeses and bread with honey and jam. There wasn’t any coffee but there was tea.

Admiring the Blue Mosque.

Admiring the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we walked through the city center, which I thought was adorable, and started at the blue mosque.

Finally mosque appropriate.

Finally mosque appropriate.

Despite my long dress, I was still deemed “inappropriate” and had to cover my arms with my sweatshirt, hair with my scarf and they gave me a sarong like skirt to put over my legs.

What you can and can't wear.

What you can and can’t wear.

After putting all that clothing on, I then had to take off my shoes. It made me laugh a little to think I had just put on a million layers and then had to take something off, but such is life.

An outside glance.

An outside glance.

Sufficiently covered and sweating of course, I headed into the Blue Mosque. If the inside was as spectacular as the outside, with towering domes and pointy minarets, I knew it would be worth it.

The inside of the mosque.

The inside of the mosque.

 

The millions of tiles that cover the ceilings and walls of this mosque are pretty incredible, though I did prefer the outside view (I always like the outsides of things better).

The outside view is always more impressive in my humble opinion.

The outside view is always more impressive in my humble opinion.

Many people were praying and there were also many tourists just looking around.

The HGS!

The HGS!

After the mosque, we visited the Hagia Sofia (just from the outside), another gorgeous building and then headed over to the Topkapi Palace, where we were given 50 free minutes to enjoy some lovely gardens, gorgeous panoramic views and some of the Sultan’s Chambers.

The entrance to the palace.

The entrance to the palace.

Although there were plenty of different rooms with museum exhibits, we only had time to do a few, and selectively decided on the weapons room, filled with swords and old-fashioned guns richly decorated with opal and pearl, and the Islamic room, housing the scepter Moses allegedly parted the Red Sea with and a man who’s been reading the Korean 24/7 since the 17th century (well, not actually him the whole time, but turns are taken). This was especially insightful, as I am trying to understand what drives people to partake in the Islamic religion. With everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, empathy and understanding is key, and it’s difficult for me to see why people want to participate in Islam, especially women, but I’m trying.

A view of Istanbul.

A view of Istanbul.

The Sultan's Chambers and gardens.

The Sultan’s Chambers and gardens.

After this, we headed over to lunch with a view.

The lunch spot, all ready and set for our group.

The lunch spot, all ready and set for our group.

The food included traditional Ottoman specialties like Shawarma, which was decent. I mean, I can’t complain as this was TOTALLY free.

Yum! Lunch Did I mention it was free? I like free things.

Yum! Lunch. Did I mention it was free? I like free things.

After lunch, we got back on the tour bus to head to the airport. It’s worth noting I saw no signs of an attempted military coup, except for possibly some new flags hung around the city.

Turkish pride.

Turkish pride.

I felt very safe and very comfortable walking around and at the airport, and I can’t wait to return and spend more time in the city, exploring it at my own pace and in my own way. If you have a flight with Turkish, I encourage you to build in a long layover and take this free tour, you’ll love it, as it’s a great introduction to a city with quite a bit of history.

A Turkish ice cream, where they mess with you when you try to take the cone!

A Turkish ice cream, where they mess with you when you try to take the cone!

After a very long customs line, we were able to grab an ice cream (traditional Turkish), and prepare for another night of (not) sleeping on a plane.

Adios Istanbul! Off to KL!

Adios Istanbul! Off to KL!

We boarded our 14-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, and stayed tuned for my next post, which will be on the obvious next stop of Kuala Lumpur!

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An Ode to the Milano Bicicletta

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Milan tends to get quite a bit of haterade out there from those who feel it’s just another city and nothing special. Too bad for them, because I find Milan to be one of the most fabulous spots in all of Italy for a variety of reasons. Besides the amazing fashion, intricate and friendly locals and incredible boutique and restaurant scene, people are constantly riding super-vintage cool bikes.

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Not only do the locals ride bikes wearing fashionable outfits like capes and stiletto heels, their bikes are certainly not boring mountain bikes. Most seem to be funky, antique banana-seat or 70′s road bikes, which makes everything seem all the more awesome. Plus, what many don’t know is that Milan has a canal district, the Navigli area, similar to Venice or Amsterdam, which is the perfect spot to sport your hipster bike.

This started by me snapping a few photos of some bikes around the city and ending with a full-on love affair for la bicicletta in Milano. I hope you enjoy the photos of these bikes and their lovely Italian surroundings as much as I do!

Adesso…andiamo a fare un giro in bicicletta per Milano!!!

A rusted bike basket

A rusted bike basket

Handlebars along the Navigli Grande

Handlebars along the Navigli Grande

A cool bike lamo

A cool bike lamo

Part of Milan's bike system

Part of Milan’s bike system

Milan offers these bikes to locals

Milan offers these bikes to locals

This sign explains that you are not allowed to lock your bike to the fence. Looks like someone wasn't paying attention

This sign explains that you are not allowed to lock your bike to the fence. Looks like someone wasn’t paying attention

One of the few mountain bikes I spotted

One of the few mountain bikes I spotted

Metro and bike

Metro and bike

Bikes in a group

Bikes in a group

Stars shining in broad daylight

Stars shining in broad daylight

This bike owner is most likely enjoying happy hour, or aperitif, at this cafe

This bike owner is most likely enjoying happy hour, or aperitif, at this cafe

Bike and garden

Bike and garden

Big baskets, wonder what's inside

Big baskets, wonder what’s inside

Just lock up your bike and pop into mass!

Just lock up your bike and pop into mass!

This bike was locked here for the whole four days I was in Milan

This bike was locked here for the whole four days I was in Milan

The city-wide bike system outside of Parque Sempione

The city-wide bike system outside of Parque Sempione

A stylish man biking near the Duomo

A stylish man biking near the Duomo

Bike and bridge

Bike and bridge

Bike along the canal

Bike along the canal

Propped up in the courtyard of my picturesque Airbnb rental

Propped up in the courtyard of my picturesque Airbnb rental

A bike made out of bamboo

A bike made out of bamboo

 

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Rollin’ On The (Mekong) River

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Sorry for the Tina Turner reference, just had to. Anyway, our two-day cruise up the Mekong river was one of the aspects of our trip I was most looking forward too, especially since we weren’t able to cruise from Mandalay to Bagan in Myanmar along the Irawaddy River.

A map of our route

A map of our route

We set off on a misty morning in Luang Prabang, carefully treading down slippery steep steps to the riverbank to embark on our Shompoo Cruise boat, made of teakwood, decidedly rustic and delightfully picturesque.

I chose this spot, and basically didn't move for two days!

I chose this spot, and basically didn’t move for two days!

The boat was prepared for a max of 40 passengers, and since it was rainy season, we were only 10, which was perfect–we could spread out, relax and have plenty of personal space. My favorite area of the boat was the loungers placed at the front and back, where you could stretch out and read, nap or just enjoy the river view scenery. The middle of the boat featured booths, with wooden benches and tables so you could eat or work.

A lone fisherman

A lone fisherman

I took my spot lounging in the front of the boat and didn’t move for about 10 hours! The scenery was breathtaking and very much uninhabited, albeit a few villages here and there and a lone fisherman looking for his catch of the day.

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For the most part, the area along the Mekong is a jungle forest, thriving with huge trees and plants jutting out at all angles. There really isn’t even a “riverbank” along most of the river, especially in rainy season, it’s just water, and then trees and then mountains. In fact, we were told that the river had risen over 20 meters in about a week’s time, as the rainy season had just hit and the rain was really pouring down hard.

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

The dewy mist covering the mountains was just stunning. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park or something (well, minus the dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum). We passed by the occasional village, clumps of broken-down wooden huts, muddy roads and boats as their main form of transportation.

River debris

River debris

There was a lot of debris in the river at times, but not garbage. There is just so much foliage that the trees, leaves and plants break off into the river. There are also landslides then end up pushing a lot of branches and logs into the river. Our captain had to be very carefully to not tread over any of the big logs. At one point we actually had to stop so they could clean out some of the wood from the engine.

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The first day, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves, which consist of two caves, the lower and upper. The upper cave we couldn’t access due to a flooded staircase, but we headed into the lower cave (it wasn’t really a “cave” more of just an overcut).  The caves are famous thanks to their thousands of small, spider-covered, dusty Buddha figures set up throughout the space. The Buddhas have been left in the cave from worshippers, and some are hundreds of years old. Locals still boat up the river to pray and burn incense to the many Buddhas.

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

Rustic, wouldn't you say?

Rustic, wouldn’t you say?

 

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

 

After the stop, we cruised until about 5 p.m. having enjoyed the lovely, yet at times monotonous scenery. We docked in Pakbeng, and dropped our bags at the Mekong River Lodge before heading out to walk around the village. The village was nondescript and probably only there for locals and backpackers to stop mid-river for the night. We ate a nice Indian food dinner overlooking the Mekong and headed to sleep.

Sunrise over the river

Sunrise over the river

After an evening in our rustic river lodge, complete with mosquito net and plenty of insects, we awoke to a sunrise over the river. Although it was cloudy, it was still gorgeous, and we enjoyed some morning peacefulness on our balcony before heading down to the boat once again.

A village hut

A village hut

 

A typical Khmu house

A typical Khmu house

Our second day along the Mekong was just as lovely as the first. Relaxing on my lounger and enjoying the scenery plus the occasional nap was paradise! Later that morning, we stopped at a Khmu village along the river. Jorge enjoyed the visit, but it left me rather sad. The village has about 300 inhabitants, and no running water, cars or electricity. The Khmu tribes live in remote areas in Northern Laos and came over from Cambodia in the 4th century.

The pump, which is the main water source in the village,is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The pump, which is the main water source in the village, is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The villagers live in teak wood huts on stilts, with their animals, pigs, ducks, dogs, chickens and even cows lounging underneath the areas where they sleep and cook. The animals also run amok through the town and around the water pump, the only water supply currently available to villagers. Whereas it was very interesting to see, the villages looked sad, dirty and poor. There was one small schoolhouse, where all the kids go together. Small kids go with one teacher and slightly older kids with another teacher. They are typically married off as teenagers, except for ones that escape the village to work in the “city”–meaning Pakbeng or Pat Tha, the two nearest cities (to me these are both small villages, but it must seem like paradise after living in such a small, remote area like the Khmu’s do).

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While they are taught Lao at school, they speak the Khmu language and they aren’t Buddhists like most of the Lao people. Instead they worship a variety of gods such as a dragon and mother earth. As they don’t have access to medical care (the nearest option for them is two hours by boat to Pak Beng, and I am not even sure if there is a hospital there, but there is a doctor), they turn to the town Shaman to cure them from any mental or physical ailments they may be experiencing. They get pretty much everything they need by working the land (food such as rice, vegetables, fruit and meat, building materials like wood) and for clothes and other supplies they may take the occasional boat trip down the river.

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As I mentioned, it rather depressed me to see people living in such dirty conditions. I have witnessed this kind of living before, in the slums of India or Bangkok or remote jungle areas of Cambodia, but the people seem to be smiling and content, especially the children. In fact, in Cambodia, I actually envied the children, running around collecting coconuts naked, without a care in the world.

A Khmu villager

A Khmu villager

In the Khmu village, people seemed tired and worn. Despite seeing their apparent sadness I am glad we visited. The discomfort I felt clearly wasn’t a nice feeling, but it’s important to be exposed to the way people live. If we don’t understand the conditions in which people live around the world, how can we grow and change? I wonder if there are ways to respect and continue their traditions while taking them into a more modern, comfortable world? Maybe not, but how can I ever appreciate all the comforts I have in my life: running water, electricity, internet, soft mattresses, electronics and access to medical care and education at my fingertips without realizing it’s not a right or given ? It’s essential to understand that not everything has access to these types of comforts and to never take for granted that we can switch on a light, have a dry shelter from rain and clean drinking water whenever we want. It’s clear, especially after seeing this village close-up that not everyone is born with or given such an “opportunity” (or is it a right? Another conversation for another day).

A traditional Khmu house

A traditional Khmu house

Piglets in the village

Piglets in the village

Some typical village kids...the closest thing we got to a smile!

Some typical village kids…the closest thing we got to a smile!

 

After re-boarding my luxury boat (and feeling mildly guilty), I took my spot on the lounger and watched as the scenery changed a bit, banana plantations, rice fields, and more villages. We got to the point where the left bank of the river was Thailand and the right, Laos.

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

 

Around 4 pm on the second day, we docked in Laos, the right side of the river. Then we had to take a tuk-tuk about 10 km to go through Laos immigration, take a bus over the friendship bridge to the other side of the river into Thailand and then go through Thai customs. It was slightly tedious but no major issues and when we exited Thai customs, our driver was ready and waiting to take us the two hours to Chiang Rai.

I would also like to point out that we took the two-day slowboat cruise to the border. There are speedboats they make the trip in one day, and they are terrifying. They are small motorboats that fly over the river and it’s extremely dangerous, many people have died. In fact, the passengers all wear motorcycle helmets. No thank you! We saw a few and it looked well, not enjoyable in the least.

A typical slowboat, like ours

A typical slowboat, like ours

 

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

I really loved our cruise and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the rural landscape of Laos along the Mekong.  Especially if you want to some un-interrupted relaxing time without internet!

Ciao Mekong River!

Ciao Mekong River!

Next stop, coming soon….Chiang Rai, Thailand!

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A Dreamy Week in Laos

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Flying into the Luang Prabang Airport was absolutely breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. The airplane lowers into a slim valley set between two beautiful mountains covered in green foliage and floating clouds making for beautiful views, but one false move and we’re all goners.

Flying into the Luang Prabang valley

Flying into the Luang Prabang valley

 

Luckily, we arrived safely and headed to obtain our visas upon arrival. Our visas cost approximately $35 US dollars per person plus a one dollar processing fee. We needed to fill out some paperwork during the flight and we brought passport photos with us. For an added fee they will copy your passport photo for you if you don’t have photos. Although everything is done by hands the line moved relatively quickly and we were in and out of the customs area within about 20 minutes. We changed some money into Lao Kip and headed out!

We are rich! 10,000 kip is about one euro...so not really

We are rich! 10,000 kip is about one euro…so not really

Some Lao Kip and Jorge

Some Lao Kip and Jorge

Luang Prabang is such a cute town

Luang Prabang is such a cute town

The city of Luang Prabang is quaint, picturesque and charming. It’s roots are French and therefore there is an interesting mix of Asian and colonial European architecture vibe and ambience throughout the city.

Some street food: Mekong river fish

Some street food: Mekong river fish

Since we had a full week here, I won’t go through daily activities, but simply share some exciting activities and interesting tidbits from our time.

A blooming lotus from the lotus pond at the Maison Dalabua

A blooming lotus from the lotus pond at the Maison Dalabua

This is the city I was most excited to stay due to the hotels I had carefully hand-selected. Both were boutique hotels, and since I couldn’t choose between the two, we chose to do a few nights in each: the Maison Dalabua Hotel and My Dream Boutique Resort. They were both lovely, but were very different from one another.

One of the lotus ponds at the Maison Dalabua

One of the lotus ponds at the Maison Dalabua

The Maison Dalabua is a French-owned hotel boasting charming wooden bungalow huts overlooking a blooming lotus pond. I was in love at first glance. Our room was large and decorated with French antiques and Asian-weaving projects.

I have this thing with lotus flowers, they are just so magical. They close in the afternoon and open in the morning. According to Buddhists.org:

“The lotus flower represents rebirth, both in a figurative and a literal sense. The rebirth can be a change of ideas, an acceptance of Buddha where there once was none, the dawn after one’s darkest day, a renaissance of beliefs or the ability to see past wrongs. It also represents a symbol of fortune in Buddhism. It grows in muddy water, and it is this environment that gives forth the flower’s most literal meaning: rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I honestly don’t understand why anyone would want to be anything but a peaceful Buddhist. If I am ever inclined to become religious one day, Buddhism is definitely where it’s at!

I just can't get enough of the lotus flowers!

I just can’t get enough of the lotus flowers!

The second hotel, My Dream was a zen-like property overlooking the river, with all teak-wooden rooms and a beautiful “yard” area where you could relax in little huts and read over looking the Nam Khan river.

 

Our room was the balcony on the top left

Our room was the balcony on the top left

Both hotels were wonderful spots to recharge and relax, and I am so thrilled I was able to experience them both.

A little quiet riverside reading hut at the My Dream. Perfection!

A little quiet riverside reading hut at the My Dream. Perfection!

The city of Luang Prabang has a lot to offer. It’s small and cute main road has a plethora of Lao restaurants, touristy shops and temples to check out. Every night, vendors set up shop for a night market where you can buy all sorts of items as well as street food.

The night market goes on for several blocks

The night market goes on for several blocks

 

Tents at the night market

Tents at the night market

Rain or shine, this market goes on nightly. We had a lot of fun buying items here, and often enjoyed a crepe or Mango smoothie for dinner too!

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The view from Mt. Phousi

The view from Mt. Phousi

We were all templed out after Bagan but we did manage to stop and see a couple temples. One was at the top of Mount Phousi, a  100-meter high hill right in the middle of the city center with the temple Wat Chom Si at the top. The temple was nothing to write home about, but the mountains encased in fog overlooking the city was a glorious view. Climbing the approximately 300 steps to arrive there was worth it! 

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The other temple we stopped at was called Wat Xien Thong, and had some beautiful glass mosaics of Lao life and culture.

Jorge and his ladyphant

Jorge and his ladyphant

Me and my baby girllllll

Me and my baby girllllll

One day we went to the Elephant Village, recommend to me by fellow travel writer Eric Rosen. I always take special care to make sure that any elephant activities I participate in treat the elephants well, and this particular spot is a rescue center and conservation center where they really do treat the elephants well, which is important.

Splish splash I was takin' a bath!

Splish splash I was takin’ a bath!

 

Jorge playing with one of the two "babies"

Jorge playing with one of the two “babies”

Here we were able to ride, bathe, feed and play with elephants, as well as take a brief boat tour up to the Tad Sae waterfalls. The day was lovely, and I fall more in love with these majestic creatures every time I see them!

The Tad Sae waterfalls

The Tad Sae waterfalls

The camp was beautiful and had little cabins overlooking the river where you could eat lunch

The camp was beautiful and had little cabins overlooking the river where you could eat lunch

This butterfly followed me around the whole day!

This butterfly followed me around the whole day!

 

The elephant village also had a swimming pool...with just some average views...!

The elephant village also had a swimming pool…with just some average views…!

We took advantage of what was pretty much the only day the sun poked through the clouds and rented a motorcycle to head out of the town and into the countryside to visit the Koung Xi waterfalls.

No caption needed

No caption needed

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I wasn’t sure what to expect, and well, it totally blew my mind.

Mesmorizing!

Mesmerizing!

An astounding wonder of nature, and it was so refreshing to enjoy wading into the cool water after a brief but intense hike through a steep, muddy forest to the top! (during which Jorge managed to break his camera and drop his phone into a pool of water…sigh…).

It was this very moment the phone fell out of Jorge's pocket. The convo went as such: Jorge: "Oh look, someone dropped their phone in the waterfall. Oh wow, it's the same as my phone. Oh, shit, it's my phone!" #fail.

It was this very moment the phone fell out of Jorge’s pocket. The convo went as such:
Jorge: “Oh look, someone dropped their phone in the waterfall. Oh wow, it’s the same as my phone. Oh, shit, it’s my phone!”
#fail.

Whipping my hair back and forth during the hike

Whipping my hair back and forth during the hike

 

The cold pools

The cold pools

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The best part was that the fish in the water are the kind they use in the fish pedicures, so they nibbled away all the dead skin on my feet, yay! The waterfalls also have a small moon bear conservation center and was funny to see the bears lumbering around and playing.

My next pet? A moon bear!

My next pet? A moon bear!

This is for sure an absolute must-do if you visit Luang Prabang, and luckily, no matter what season you visit it, it always has water flowing.

Alm-giving prep

Alm-giving prep

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Of course, one morning we had to wake up at 5:30 to see the townspeople giving alms to the monks. I tried to stay in the back a bit, as I had read that often times tourists get in the monks faces and disrespect the practice. It’s a sacred practice (locals supporting the Buddha by giving food and offerings to the monks) and special so I actually waited until we were in our second hotel, which was a bit further away from the city center in hopes of having a more local experience. We stood behind a few women in the pouring rain and watched them give the monks rice and to my surprise, umbrellas. It was a very beautiful, peaceful thing to see…and I kept having to remind myself they do this every single day and it’s an important, religious moment for them.

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Something else special we did was visit Big Brother Mouse to offer English conversation to young Lao students wanting to practice their English. You simply walk in and start chatting. I sat down with two young men (one 17, one 21) and was later joined by two more, and Jorge had his crew as well. They asked me a lot of questions about my life and told me about their lives too. One of the boys was one of 10 kids, and his family lived on a farm outside of the city. He is spending his summer in the “city” (if you can call Luang Prabang that!) working to save for university and trying to improve his English. It’s clear these teens have very little in the way of opportunities and it was nice to get to know a bit more of the Lao culture and know that we were doing our part to give back. I strongly encourage anyone visiting Luang Prabang (and I think there is also a center in Vientiane) to pop in and offer your native English skills to help out a Lao local. (from 9-11 am or 5-7 pm daily). One curious thing about this was that it was filled only with guys, almost no women.

My two "students" and I at Big Brother Mouse

My two “students” and I at Big Brother Mouse

As far as local Lao food goes, we tried a variety of spots and my favorites for Kaiphaen, which is a restaurant created by Friends International, a charity that helps low-income kids train as chefs and waiters. We went to their sister restaurant in Cambodia last summer, Marum, and if I can help out a great non-profit while enjoying a lovely meal, than great! A highlight for us was the food Kaiphaen, which the restaurant is named after. It’s crispy, nacho-like chip made of cooked river seaweed found in the Mekong.

Another cool spot we enjoyed was Dyen Sabai, which features Lao fondue, which is not cheese at all. They actually put a stove at your table and you cook your own meal. We got the chicken fondue, and they bring out your stove, light it up, and then give you raw chicken, veg, and noodles, and you boil your own soup and then cook your own meat. Jorge and I had so much fun doing this, and it was delicious. The only negative was that we were sweating so much after…the hot stove mixed with the hot humid temps was just too much.

We took quite a bit of down time in Laos, reading and relaxing by the pool, napping, just biking around the city (both our hotels offered free bikes, which was great) and dining and drinking along the river. After a busy, activity-filled Myanmar trip, we were so happy to just chill out a bit.

We biked across this bridge!

We biked across this bridge!

Bike riding along the river

Bike riding along the river

Laos, we will miss you!

Laos, we will miss you!

 

Next up, two-day cruise along the Mekong, coming soon!

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The Ancient Temples Of Bagan, Myanmar

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DAY 1

BAGAN

BAGAN

We excitedly arrived in Bagan and our hotel, the Oasis Bagan was a short taxi ride (about 4 euros) away located in Nyang-U. There are three sections of Bagan: Old Bagan (where most of the temples are and super pricy luxury hotels) New Bagan (far away from everything) and Nyang-U (mid-range hotels and great restaurants, a short ride away from temples).

At the airport we had to purchase a temple pass for $20 p/p (it was just $10 last year, so things are growing fast) and in the end we were asked to show it at two temples, so make sure you buy it at the airport because I am not sure where else you can purchase the pass.

Our boutique hotel, the Oasis Bagan, was sparse yet cute and we settled in and headed out for dinner. We ate at a little spot called “A Little Bit of Bagan” (I am getting ahead of myself but DON’T EAT HERE YOU WILL REGRET IT) and then headed to get some shut-eye.

Before turning in, we discussed our options for seeing the temples the following day.  Basically, you have the option of horse and carriage, taxi, e-bike (which is really a small electric scooter/moto) or regular bike. It was super hot, and so we decided our best option having three days to explore the temples was to start with a taxi and have him route us through the further temples. Then, the following day we’d rent e-bikes and explore the closer temples on our own. Bicycles are not recommended unless you are super fit and love the heat, because it’s a lot of work in a hot climate and you have to ride through a lot of sandy dirt roads which is not ideal.

The horse carts are something I see dying out soon. They were quite popular before the e-bikes made an appearance about 2 years ago but the horses are also exhausted in the heat and it’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. So we opted for the taxi tour, which would go from about 830-1230 am and then pick up again from 4-7. This way, you can have a rest and lunch during the hottest part of the day. The full day taxi tour with English-speaking guide was about 30 euros. We booked it and headed to bed.

Trees and temples

Trees and temples

Jorge woke up in the middle of the telling complaining of intense stomach pain, which worsened. I got a bit worried, but gave him some Pepto Bismol and that did help, but neither of us got much sleep. Nevertheless, we powered through and got up the next morning for our 8:30 am guided taxi tour.

Us on the top of Butheyi temple enjoying the view

Us on the top of Bulethi temple enjoying the view

I will include the full list of temples and pagodas we visited below, but for now I will just talk about my favorites. Bagan has about 3,211 temples located throughout a dusty area of 60 miles, though about 2,000 are still standing and not in ruins, so you have a lot of territory to cover.

Temple time

Temple time

They range from small shrines to looming broken-down palaces, and it was really cool to see how each one was unique.

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We were able to start with about 6-7 temples in the morning. We saw a few you could hike up the steep, uneven stairs for gorgeous panoramic views, and I think those were my favorite. The shrines, elaborate with gilded gold Buddhas are beautiful, but sometimes they all begin to run together, whereas climbing old, dark cement stairs hopeful for a new glimpse of the clouds over the temple-tops, well that is where the real magic lies.

We loved climbing up the temples, especially Jorge!

We loved climbing up the temples, especially Jorge!

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We bought some paintings for our house at one of the temples and chatted for awhile with the girl selling them. She repeatedly offered to “trade” me items she was selling for items of my own like lipstick or bangle bracelets. They really can’t get that stuff here, and it made me wish I had brought alone all those bracelets I never wear or brightly colored lipsticks. I just would have given them to her!

My new decorative art for the apartment! 5 euros!

My new decorative art for the apartment! 5 euros!

 

Some temples are famous for things like having unique Buddhas inside, a reclining Buddha, or other unique characteristics like a leaning top, painted walls, etc. We also  saw one that is white-washed by villagers once a year and a few with gilded gold tops. By about noon Jorge was looking a bit green and so we headed back to the hotel for our mid-day break. He immediately fell asleep and would stay that way for about four hours, and I took a one hour nap and then headed out for lunch on my own.

Just couldn't get enough of the views

Just couldn’t get enough of the views

 

This trip wouldn't be nearly as much fun without my favorite partner in crime, Jorge!

This trip wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without my favorite partner in crime, Jorge!

Our afternoon portion picked back up with more temples and finished with an amazing sunset view. Although the temple was crowded, the view is absolutely awe-inspiring. Photos just don’t do it justice. I tried to embed the glowing sky hovering over the ancient temples in my mind forever. I feel lucky to have been able to experience such beauty in this fleeting lifetime.

The sunset over the Bagan temples and plains...just marvelous!

The sunset over the Bagan temples and plains…just marvelous!

 

Okay enough of me getting all poetic justice here, there is one other interesting fact I would like to share and that is some info about laundry. I know, pretty mundane after just speaking about what may just be some of the most majestic ruins in the world, but it is interesting.

Obviously traveling with a backpack requires that during a six week trip you will eventually have to do laundry, in fact, several times. Especially when it’s super hot outside and you are constantly sweating.  Last year we did laundry in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and it is super cheap. Typically they charge by kilo and for a couple plastic bags full of dirty clothes they charge you a few euros to wash, dry and iron.

Myanmar is a totally different animal. THEY DON’T HAVE WASHERS! Yes, you heard me. They wash all their clothes by hand, just like I previously mentioned when I saw people doing laundry in Mandalay in the river.

So we dropped off our laundry in the morning, and it was 300 KYAT (about 23 euro cents) per small item (tanks, undies, a pair of socks) and then 500 KYAT (about 40 cents) for larger items like pants. We actually had about 33 small items and 8 big items to wash, and they hand washed every single item (I feel slightly weird knowing my dirty underwear was washed in the river by some random person, but what choice did I have) dried (obviously they have no dryers, so air drying only) and ironed it during my day at the temple, and couldn’t have been more good-natured about it all and thankful for our business. The total was about 11 euros, and it’s one of the most expensive things I’ve done in Myanmar, but it was certainly an interesting experience.

DAY 2

Encountering some road blocks on my e-bike

Encountering some road blocks on my e-bike

After an awesome first day, we were completely exhausted– especially Jorge who was feeling better but who still was a bit ill. So we slept a solid nine hours and then woke up ready to take on the e-bikes. It’s funny to me that they are called e-bikes because this conjures up an image of a typical bike with a small motor, not unlike the ones in Madrid used for the Bici Mad bikeshare program. Instead, e-bikes are more like motorcycles or scooters, but electric. There are various kinds and ones that have more power, but the most basic ones sorta reminded me of a faster version of those scooter cards old people drive around Walmart in the USA.

E-biking our hearts our

E-biking our hearts out

We started out around 8 am, paid about four euros each to rent the bikes and were on our way. Again, full list of visited temples below, but we saw some of the most popular ones today, as well as a smaller complex with a semi-leaning temple that the locals refer to as the “Leaning Tower of Bagan”.

Of course we had to take this photo at the Leaning Tower of Bagan!

Of course we had to take this photo at the Leaning Tower of Bagan!

I personally prefer some of the smaller, quieter temples. They may not be quite as grand as some of the more famous ones, but they allow for peaceful, reflective exploring as opposed to knocking knees with people shouting in other languages and Myanmar kids trying to sell you touristy trinkets.

A temple along the river

A temple along the river

Another interesting fact is that the temples often have fresco paintings inside. Some are destroyed and others more intact. The images are beautiful, showing Buddhas, typical life in Bagan, elephants etc. We went to one temple which was especially cool because the whole inside of the temple was dark with paintings. No photos were allowed and you needed to use a flashlight (I was overjoyed, Jorge made fun of me for taking a mini-flashlight along and it came in handy!) to see them. It was eerie walking about the dark temple shining the flashlight to see the huge paintings all over the walls and ceiling.

Happy on my e-bike

Happy on my e-bike

Many of the temples allow you to buy these gold papers for about a $1 where you actually peel off bits of gold and press it onto the Buddha. This practice seems to be very popular among locals and we gave it a shot. I think the concept is that you are supposed to make a wish or desire and press the gold on, and then it will come true.

We took our midday break for lunch, pool and nap and then headed back for a sunset, this time at a less-touristy temple. The view was just as great and there were about 10 people there vs. about 100 yesterday. Unfortunately, the sunset wasn’t quite as beautiful as it had clouded over, but we still had a nice time.

DAY 3

The keyholder opening the gate for us!

The keyholder opening the gate for us!

We managed to get up at 4:30 am to catch a 5:30 am sunrise! We wrote our e-bikes to the temple Law ka ou Shaung through dark dirt roads. We also managed not to get too lost, thankfully. We carefully selected this temple for two reasons: it wasn’t super touristy and also because there is a neat process to get inside the temple. You actually have to go to the hut behind the temple, where the dogs & roosters alert the “gatekeeper” of our presence. He comes out and unlocks the temple gates and directs you up the spooky, dark stairs so you get walk up to the top and watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was so cloudy that there wasn’t really a sunrise, but the experience was still really special, and we were the only people there which made it very peaceful as well.

We decided to take advantage of the cooler temps (it was so early in the morning) and then headed around through Old Bagan and to the Bupaya pagoda which overlooks the river. Apparently the pagoda was destroyed in a 1975 earthquake, but it’s been rebuilt and gilded with gold. It was a great time to go (around 6-630 am) because people were there taking their early morning prayers and meditation before starting the day.

It’s actually worth nothing that one thing that makes the Bagan temples so riveting is that they are active temples. You see locals visiting them, praying in them, meditating, monks paying visits to their Buddha among the tourists. I think it’s so cool that these temples are not just being used for tourism and that local people enjoy them as well.

Jorge with a local girl

Jorge with a local girl

 

We walked down the riverfront and saw some of the boats taking off along the Irrawaddy. I was actually bummed because our original plan included taking a 12-hour slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but then we realized it only operated in the dry season, so there went my illusions of slowly sailing past the Burmese countryside. At least we will have our cruise up the Mekong coming soon in Laos.

Riverfront child

Riverfront child

Riverfront people

Riverfront people

 

We then headed over to some smaller temples on the way home where we encountered the typical beggar kids trying to sell us things. They were really cute, but I hate supporting the idea that they beg and don’t go to school, so we reluctantly left without purchasing their coins, souvenirs or hand-colored postcards.

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My heart went out to this child, but I didn't have the heart to give him any $$, though I wanted to!

My heart went out to this child, but I didn’t have the heart to give him any $$, though I wanted to!

By that time we were destroyed from our 4:30 am wakeup call, so we headed back for a nap and breakfast. It started to rain and didn’t stop for awhile, so we were so glad we woke up early and got those few hours in of temple time. Around 5:00 pm it stopped raining and we were able to get in one last cruise with our e-bikes and visited a few spots. Although it was slightly drizzly and overcast, it was fun because the temples were completely deserted!

Jorge being Jorge

Jorge being Jorge

 

Dusk on our e-bikes!

Dusk on our e-bikes!

Bagan is amazing!

Bagan is amazing!

 

If you take away anything at all from this long winded explanation of my travels, it’s that you need to see Myanmar, and you need to see it ASAP. In even just six months things will be so different and so go, go now, go soon and experience this pure and authentic one-of-a-kind country!

Next stop, LAOS!

Temple & Resource List 

DAY 1

Temples taxi: guide Win: thiriallright@gmail.com
09253599515

MORNING

  • Bulethi (went up, great views rec’d for sunset)
  • Su la ma ni pato
  • Dhamma yan gyi temple (smelled of bats)
  • North guni (great views recd for sunset)
  • Dhamma ya zi-ka Zedi (all gold), like a pentagon, 5 buddhas
  • Lay myet hnay-white washed by man-nan-thu villagers once a yr
  • Tayoke pyai

AFTERNOON

  • Shwe-kun char (amazing river views)
  • Teak wood monastery Nat Htauh Ryacn (not so interesting)
  • Mingala-zedi
  • Gu-byauk-gy (painting, no photos)
  • Ma-nu-ha (near Myinkaba village) with reclining buddha
  • Sunset: shwe-san-daw Paya (asked for pass)

DAY 2

  • Rented ebikes for 5000 each from Sulatt store in Nyang-U
  • Route: drove along bagan Nyang-U road
  • Shwe-zi-gon Paya
  • One near hti lo min lo
  • Hti lo min lo (asked for pass)
  • Leaning tower of bagan otherwise know as Khay- Min-Gha
  • That-byin-nyu (grey and gold) at first we thought it was Ananda
  • Ananda (popular, 4 standing buddhas, jorge bought gold paper to press on the Buddha)
  • Afternoon sunset–dirt road to Guni (north)
  • Dinner at Spice restaurant: carrot salad, eggs, rice for a total under 2 euros (very good!)
  • Rec’d for sunrise: Pyat thut gyi,  Pyat tha da or Law ka ou Shaung (gatekeeper with key)

Day 3

  • Ebikes again
  • Sunrise: Law ka ou Shaung
  • Bupaya (along the river)
  • Small temples without name along Nyang-U road

–Note—Restaurant that gave Jorge food poisoning: “A Little Bit of Bagan”—don’t eat there!

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A Hidden Gem: Mandalay

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After three sweaty yet amazing days in Bangkok we headed to Mandalay. I was really unsure on what to expect. I really couldn’t find too much info on Mandalay and what to do there during my pre-trip research. In fact, many people just head to Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagana and skip Mandalay entirely—some say Mandalay isn’t even worth a visit.

Needless to say I wasn’t expecting much. I chose Mandalay as a gateway city instead of Yangon before heading to Bagan because you can’t fly into Bagan from any international airport and it’s super monsoon season in Yangon. So Mandalay it was, and I went in with very low expectations.

A local having a nap

A local having a nap

I was in for quite I surprise. I find myself right now actually sad to leave Mandalay after a wonderful few days there.

Day 1

I suppose I should start at the beginning. We arrived and hopped into the free AirAsia shuttle bus that conveniently stops about a block from our hotel. Changing euros at the airport was no problem, so we had literally hundreds of thousands of KYAT on us! We then checked in and everyone was overwhelmingly polite. Our hotel, the Sahara was about $28 per night and included a small, impeccably clean room with fridge and a bathroom.

We dropped our stuff, enjoyed a few magical moments of air conditioning and headed out about 3 pm to find a spot for lunch. We consulted the hotel staff and they suggested a traditional Burmese spot about a 25 minute walk away called Mingalada which also means hello in Burmese (the only word I managed to master so far!).

Our trickshaw driver and new friend, Challaou

Our trickshaw driver and new friend, Challaou

Upon heading out, we were stopped by a trickshaw, a man with a bike with a “sidecar” of two seats attached. I normally steer away from those offering tuk tuk or taxi services but something about this guy was different. So I asked a price and he told me 1200 Kyat. I did a quick calculation…less than one euro. Cheaper than one ticket in the Madrid metro. We happily accepted.

We had a great time talking with him and asked him if he would come back after lunch, pick us up and take us around the city to see the sights, and he told us he would for 7000 Kyat, about five euros. Sold!

Now onto the food. We sat on the floor around a table and ordered a traditional Burmese lunch. It works like this: you order the main dish, like duck, or chicken curry (we got one of each) and then they bring you a million sauces, side dishes, veg, salad, soup and more in little plates and also dessert.

This is only about half the plates!

This is only about half the plates!

So our table was literally set with 100 plates and the food was good! I prefer Thai and Indian curries to these because the Myanmar curry was very oily, which is typical of their curries. However, the presentation was fun and dessert consisted of seeds mixed with chili, which was crazy. Not my favorite, but certainly an experience. Jorge accidentally put a giant spoonful of picante pepper seasoning in his mouth thinking it was something else and the entire wait staff was cracking up. He’s still dealing with the consequences two days later, LOL.

It’s also worth noting the wait staff spoke basically no English, although the menu did have the dishes in both Burmese and English. The menu also had no prices, so we were slightly concerned we might get cheated. Then the bill came.

6200 KYAT for a full meal for two including dessert and drinks. 4.50 euros. Insane, right?

Our friend/guide Challou was waiting for us outside with his trusty trickshaw bike and we headed out. He took us to some amazing shrines as well as simply driving through some of the areas in town that are less touristy.

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He also showed us the old monastery he lived in during the days when he was a monk.

Jorge playing some game with the locals! He did pretty well I would say!

Jorge playing some game with the locals! He did pretty well I would say!

Jorge also played this game with locals that is similar to hacky sack where they kick the ball around.

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During this tour, so many people and children waved to us, said hello, in fact, we were the only Westerners we saw all day! Tourism is still new in Mandalay and we really didn’t see many at all, however, we did hear there are quite a few tourists from India and China which makes sense because those countries border Myanmar.

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The people are poor but friendly and for the most part, they don’t try to cheat you. In fact they just seem awed at the fact people with blond hair and western features are in their country.

This kid, sitting naked on garbage tugged at my heart strings

This kid, sitting naked on garbage tugged at my heart strings

Children seem especially excited, and love to say hello and come shake our hands. It was our fifteen minutes of  “fame.”

 

Almost every single person here wears a Longyi, which is a long skirt that you tie at the waist. Woman wear it more wrapped around their waist and men tie it in a knot. Children also wear it and it’s surprisingly comfy and airy. I couldn’t believe that 99% of the people wear this. It just seems like such a different world (it IS). Locals, especially women and children also put a yellow like, glittery substance on their cheeks and face which our guide told us was like a natural kind of sunblock. Besides the fact that the sun is very strong here, Myanmar is no different to any other Asian country in that they are obsessed with having whiter skin.

It’s also interesting to hear about their anti-government sentiments. We were told not to pay to go inside some of the government monuments because the government gets the money, and clearly doesn’t use it to help and support their citizen.  I listened carefully and decided not to contribute to the government and their cronies by choosing to simply see the outside of these monuments.. Of course, by staying in a hotel, I already was handing money over to the government but obviously I had to have somewhere to stay.

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Anyway, our awesome tour ended with a visit to the banks of the Irrawaddy river, where I surprisingly saw locals bathing! Yes, it’s true…many people in Myanmar don’t have running water.

A local chatting me up after a quick bath in the river

A local chatting me up after a quick bath in the river

In fact, I saw a lot of stone wells too during the trip, and people using them to fill up buckets with water. Also, no one seems to have the luxury of a washer here, and most wash their clothes in the river or using the water they have in wells.  That means squat toilets and outhouses too.  In fact, there aren’t really any laundry places in Myanmar as you see in Thailand where backpackers can drop off their laundry. Why? Because of course, no washers! No one wants to wash scuzzy backpacker clothes by hand!

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Checking out the river was beautiful and interesting. We were able to see the beginnings of the sunset, which was very peaceful.

Flowers on a moto!

Flowers on a moto!

Then, we made a quick stop at the flower market, where most locals bring flowers on their motorbikes to sell. It’s curious because the flowers are typically purchased not for peoples’ homes or gifts, but as offerings to Buddha. Flowers may be a luxury not many can afford, but they will splurge only for Buddha. Lucky guy, that Buddha!

Fitted for my very own Longyi

Fitted for my very own Longyi

Finally, a stop at the night market for Jorge and I to purchase our own longyis! When in Myanmar, do as the Myammar(ians?) do! I am still trying to master tying mine!

Jorge getting fitted for his Longyi

Jorge getting fitted for his Longyi

Day 2

Our day tour was so wonderful we asked Challou if he would drive us around to see the famous U-Bein bridge and sure enough, he asked his brother to do so who happens to be a taxi driver. It was perfect because the hotel had quoted us $50 for a full day tour with driver who speaks limited English, plus another $30 for a guide to  explain more things in English for a total of $80. However, Challou said he would accompany his brother in order to translate and the full cost would be $45. Deal!

Meditating with the women while the men got to see the Buddha. Not fair!

Meditating with the women while the men got to see the Buddha. Not fair!

We started off with a visit to the Big Buddha, which is placed in elaborate shrine made of gold. To my dismay, only men could enter! So Jorge happily sauntered in while I sat meditating with the other women. Blah.

Our boat ride over to Amanpura

Our boat ride over to Amanpura

Next stop would be Amanpura, a small village just outside of Mandalay featuring the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest wooden teak footbridge in the world at 1300 yards. We started on one side of the water and took small boat over to the other side, which was fun.

Boarding the boat

Boarding the boat

They we explored the village, visiting a weaving factory, pagoda, a Buddha shrine (they are all starting to blend together) and then finally walked back over the bridge.

The Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

The bridge made for beautiful views and we encountered some friendly locals as well and all in all it was a delightful experience.

Jorge making friends with local children

Jorge making friends with local children

Us in front of the U-Bein bridge

Us in front of the U-Bein bridge

Locals use their heads to carry heavy goods across the bridge

Locals use their heads to carry heavy goods across the bridge

Walking back across the bridge

Walking back across the bridge

 

Next stop, lunch at a local Burmese spot. Delicious curries, again, a table with one million plates, and for four people (we treated our guide and driver) to eat a huge meal, the bill came to a whopping total of…about 8.50 euros. Mind-blowing. Also interesting to note that the locals eat the rice and curry with their hands. It’s a bit shocking at first, but once you realize everyone does it you get used to it.

Lunch with our guide, Challaou, and driver, Mr. A

Lunch with our guide, Challaou, and driver, Mr. A

We then took a small speedboat over to the village of Inwa, where we  paid for a horse cart and driver to take us to a monastery and some pagodas. The shrines were gorgeous, but the horse cart was bumpy and this is really the only spot I encountered pushy locals trying to sell me crafts etc. It reminded me of Siem Reap…which I am sure most of Myanmar will be like when the tourism boom hits in the next five years or so.

We bought these cool etchings in one of the temples for our apartment

We bought these cool etchings in one of the temples for our apartment

Until this point it had been refreshingly authentic, but I guess it’s normal that these people want to make a living and really the only people who come to this ancient protected city are tourists.

Hanging out with Buddha

Hanging out with Buddha

Horse and buggy in Inwa

Horse and buggy in Inwa

Love this shrine, so much zen!

Love this shrine, so much zen!

 

Chatting with the big B

Chatting with the big B

Jorge being Jorge

Jorge being Jorge

 

We ended out the day driving up to Sagaling Mountain for beautiful shrines and some breathtaking panoramic views of Mandalay, where you can see the river, lakes, greenery and tons of temples. I think this was my favorite part of the day, as I am a real sucker for panoramic views, plus a bunch of gold shrines that were really stunning.

They call these the "cage" buddhas because they are technically behind some caged gates

They call these the “cage” buddhas because they are technically behind some caged gates

The views

The views

This little girl was wandering around the temple alone. I just love this photo!

This little girl was wandering around the temple alone. I just love this photo!

Thank goodness for the selfie stick!

Thank goodness for the selfie stick!

Enjoying the views

Enjoying the views

 

 

The tour was incredible and I really had no idea that Mandalay was filled with so many special and historic spots.

We had a small rest after the tour and then headed out for dinner. Since there are so many Indian and Chinese people living in Mandalay, a huge part of the Myanmar cuisine is actually Chinese and Indian food, so we selected Indian. It was good, but decidedly similar to the more oily curries of Myanmar.

Biking around the palace

Biking around the palace

 

DAY 3 

After a long day out, we crashed and woke up fresh the next day for our final Mandalay morning. We rented bikes from our hotel and braved the Mandalay traffic to lap around the nearby palace. That may seem like a short trip, but the giant, square Royal Palace complex is a huge square surrounded by a moat that is actually two km on each side. So to bike the whole thing is eight km. We had decided not to go inside for two reason: one because I didn’t feel like paying 10 euros to the government and two because I heard it wasn’t that interesting inside anyway. Everything was reconstructed in 1990 and nothing is original, so I didn’t think it was worth it to pay the 10 euro entrance and support the government. So we decided to simply enjoy the outside instead.

Biking around the palace

Biking around the palace

We biked along the first two sides and then stopped to see a few pagodas, one of which I fell in love with, the Sandarmuni Pagoda. It’s simply stunning: many small white shrines with a giant gold one in the middle. The cloud formations were just perfect and the photo ops were insane. Each little tower has small chimes on top and the deserted temple with the chimes blowing in the wind just about converted me to Buddhism, it was such a zen setting. If only I could induce that feeling of the chimes blowing in the wind into my daily life (perhaps I need to get some wind chimes in my office lol?).

My favorite!

My favorite!

Our bikes parked outside the temple

Our bikes parked outside the temple

 

We then lapped the last two sides of the palace on our bikes and arrived back in time to check out of the hotel, head out for a brief lunch of Chinese food (good, but nothing particularly exciting, though we did finally sample Myanmar beer which I give two thumbs up). Then we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Bagan.

Some not-so-subtle gold temples

Some not-so-subtle gold temples

 

The flight to Bagan we managed to purchase online a month before on a travel agency, which I wasn’t really sure if it was even real because it’s extremely difficult to purchase flights online and ahead of time.  Really, until a few months ago, inter-Myanmar flights could only be purchased in person by a hotel or travel agency once you arrived to the country.  I also see this changing very soon…especially with the increasing presence of internet and tourism.

We got to the airport and went to the Air KBZ desk with an printed email I was assured was enough to secure our reservation. Turns out it was, hooray! However, there was no one at the Air KBZ desk and I was directed to another airline’s check in and actually flew with Mann Yandanarpon Airlines (try saying that 10 times fast)…I still am not sure if I totally understand what happened but the point was after a 25 minute flight in a propeller plane, we landed safely in Bagan. Oh, and it’s probably worth noting that no one once checked my ID and security was kind of a joke.

Stayed tuned for Bagan, coming soon! In the meantime, I leave you with a little poetry from Rudyard Kipling:

Come you back to Mandalay,  
mandalay imagesWhere the old Flotilla lay; 
 
mandalay imagesCan’t you ‘ear their paddles clunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay? 
 
mandalay imagesOn the road to Mandalay, 
 
mandalay imagesWhere the flyin’-fishes play, 
 
mandalay imagesAn’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

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