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

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

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!!!

The Islands of Indonesia

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!

The Beginning: Kuala Lumpur

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.

Istanbul A Few Days After The Attempted Military Coup

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!

An Ode to the Milano Bicicletta

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

 

Rollin’ On The (Mekong) River

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!