Penang (and a bit of Cameron Highlands)

After the amazing dives in the Sipadan, I flew back to Kuala Lumpur where I ran into my German-Turkish friend Sarah (her favourite food is falafel), and then to the cold hills of the Cameron Highlands.

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The Cameron Highlands are a somewhat between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, but being up on a hill, offer some of the best weather in Malaysia (~15 degrees centigrade when I was there). They are home to the ‘BOH’ tea plantations of Malaysia… who knew tea plantations could be so beautiful?

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From there, it was onto the island of Penang. Now, having travelled Southeast Asia for so long, I have eaten some amazing food. Thai food is undoubtedly my favourite Asian cuisine, and I even thought I had eaten the best Indian food of my life in Kuala Lumpur. And then Penang comes along and knocks all of the other places out of the park.

Going in, I knew that Georgetown in Penang was food heaven. People I’d met while travelling told me it was their favourite food spot, and I even read articles online calling Georgetown the food capital of both Malaysia and Asia. But even with my expectations set that high, Penang managed to exceed my expectations. If you ever decide you want to try some of the best Asian food of your life, go here.

Malaysia has a large immigrant population and a lot of the dishes are a hybrid of Asian food and Muslim / Indian food. I simply cannot go into detail and write about all the dishes I ate, but I will write about my top 3 dishes (this was a really hard process):

Dish number 1: Roti canai

This one is simple, but so so delicious. I don’t understand why it hasn’t made its way to other places outside Malaysia / Singapore and parts of Indonesia. It’s a simple roti (more like a paratha) with some curry / dal to dip your roti in. A cheap breakfast staple, but also perfect for the mid-day hunger pangs. Some variations include adding toppings to the roti like egg, meats or cheese. The price for a dish like this? An enormous 25 cents!

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Dish number 2: Nasi lemak

Considered Malaysia’s national dish, this one is rice with dried pandan leaf, peanuts, sambal, egg and fried chicken or a lamb curry. It’s delicious, healthy and like every other dish in Malaysia, at an absurd price of around $2!

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Dish number 3: Nasi kandar

Saving the best for last…

This tastes like heaven! It’s similar to the nasi campur from Indonesia, where you have a pile of rice and you select the sides dishes for your meal from a whole bunch of options; only that this one is curries and not side dishes, and also tastes a million times better. This dish originated in Penang and is supposed to be of Malay – Indian origin.

You start out by selecting your rice: regular or biryani

You follow this by selecting your meat: you usually have an option of a lamb curry, a few chicken curries, and some fish curries, including fish head curry (Malaysia’s favourite!).

You then select your curry: you can stick to the curry of the meat you chose, or mix it up. I was recommended, and then usually selected a chicken leg with ‘mix’ curries – which means he puts a little of all the curries on offer. The end result is something so delicious, I have half a mind of booking a flight back to Penang right now.

The plate is probably 2 meals worth, but I was regularly eating one of these for lunch, and another for dinner! Price, you ask? $2!

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Now that we have the food highlights out of the way, I can talk about the rest of Georgetown.

It’s the second largest city in Malaysia and the first spot where the British settled in Malaysia. It’s tremendously historic and there’s a buffer zone in the city which is UNESCO World Heritage certified.

To mark this, the Malay government has set out 52 iron caricatures throughout the city that express a little of each area in Georgetown where they are placed. It took me a while, but I walked to all 52 of them. Some were insightful, some funny, and some not. But I’ve always maintained that the best way to explore a place is on foot, and just walking through the streets trying to find these caricatures took me to all these hidden ‘local’ spots and restaurants.

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In addition to the iron caricatures, Georgetown is full of street art, and even though maps will guide you to the more famous ones, you find something fun and unique around random bends on the streets.

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To sum: GO TO PENANG!

 

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Diving in the Sipadan

The best dives of my life!

After my trip to Melaka, I went back up to Kuala Lumpur for my flight to Tawau (closest airport connection to Sipadan) in Malaysian Borneo. My dive company (Scuba Junkie – RECOMMEND!) picked me up from the airport and drove me to the main town of Semporna, from where I took a ferry to the island of Mabul, where they have a resort and base for dives in the Sipadan. When you have to travel that far to get to a dive spot, you know it’s going to be a good one…

Sipadan is a tiny oceanic island in Malaysia that is rated as one of the top diving spots in the world. It rises 600 metres from the seabed, literally in the middle of nowhere, making it a hotspot for sharks, turtles, barracudas, jack fish, and plenty of other marine life.

The island of Sipadan used to have resorts on the island, but they were shut down by the Malaysian government in 2002 to preserve the dive sites around the island. Everyone who wants to dive in the Sipadan now has to stay in one of the nearby islands, and I stayed on the island of Mabul at Scuba Junkie’s resort.

The island is now marked by a naval outpost and a few officers who ensure the safety of the divers. While divers are allowed to step onto the island, we were restricted to a certain area of the beach and everything else was off limits. The government also issues only 120 permits per day for divers (including instructors), so you have to be lucky to get a permit – they get booked pretty fast. I was diving for a week straight, but only 1 of those days involved dives in the Sipadan. The other days I dove at the dive spots of Mabul and Kapalai, and though they were amazing dives, they just couldn’t compare to my dives in the Sipadan (which happened on day 2 of my trip). Luckily though, a permit for the Sipadan opened up, and I was able to go a second time, on my last dive day! I’m usually unlucky when it comes to these things, but I guess when it rains, it pours? Just thinking about those dives still makes me smile.

While I have nothing negative to say about any of the dives (besides some Chinese divers who were poking the marine life and grabbing turtles), I did find the island of Mabul as well as the town of Semporna lacking in terms of sanitation and marine life safety. The locals were helpful and sweet, but they don’t seem to care about the gifts of nature around them. They throw trash all over the place and in the water and even use non-sustainable methods of fishing (including dynamite). They steal turtle eggs and sell them, and would seemingly do anything to make a quick buck. Scuba Junkie has been actively trying to educate the locals, has a guarded turtle hatchery to ensure the turtle eggs hatch / the turtles survive, and even has a team whose only job is to ensure marine life safety; but as I have seen and learnt with the problems India faces, some people are beyond education too.

With that, I’ll leave you with some pictures from my dives. There are some amazing videos I have too, but WordPress doesn’t let me upload them on a free account. 😦

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Melaka

I took a short bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to the straits of Melaka – an ancient trading hub that played a major part in Malaysia’s history. Famous for its weekend walking street called the Jonker Walk, a cute city centre full of Dutch era buildings, the Nyonya people – descendants of Chinese migrants who settled in Malaysia / Singapore during the British rule, and as with all of Malaysia, delicious food.

The city itself is easy to navigate on a bicycle, and the whole place has a laid back vibe to it. Like every other place in Malaysia, Melaka is full of south Indian immigrants, so the Indian food is top quality too. I went to a special restaurant named after my friend Alvin, and filled my stomach with little balls of rice rolled in my palms. What I need to emphasise is just how amazing the Indian food in Malaysia tastes… it’s even better than Indian food in India!

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The city centre is marked by a little cluster of Dutch buildings, including a church. This is the centre, the touristy spot, the restaurant and bar hub, and the pretty much everything of the place. Expect touts and locals trying to sell you souvenirs too.  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_287cUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2884UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2868

The city isn’t full of activities and relaxing is pretty much the theme of the town. There’s a nice waterfront that runs along the city centre which is perfect for workouts, dinners and alcohol nights.

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There’s a lovely new mosque that’s been built by the straits where the sunsets are quiet and beautiful.

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All in all, Melaka is the perfect short getaway from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur. My stay was short and more of a filler for the days leading up to my scuba diving trip, and the city definitely delivered.

 

Back to blogging / status update

Keeping a blog while travelling is a hard job. Since my last post from Kuala Lumpur (back in January 2018), I have been on the road; and as I write this, I am in the last month of my round the world adventure.

When I started out this blog, it was both a way of journaling my travels as well as keeping my friends and family updated on the things I do / discover. But as I travelled, exploring took a priority, and blogging went somewhat to the back burner. Well, off the stove completely in this case. However, since this is my last month, I feel I must get back to the blog and update it to have a complete journal of all my travels. I might still be slow and tardy, but to those still reading this / wanting to read this, I hope to have some late posts coming in soon.

For a route update, after Malaysia, I visited Singapore, then Thailand, then back to India for a month, followed by 6 weeks in the United States and then back on the backpacker trail through Belgium, France and Italy (where I currently am).

 

Kuala Lumpur – the city of contrast and diversity

As the 5 readers of my blog know, I was unable to fly to Malaysia while on the road last year – because of VOA restrictions on Indian passports. I lost upwards of $500 in the process, and spent over a week moping about it. But I was home last October and during my sojourn, I got the visa and made my way to Kuala Lumpur… and so far, the $100 visa fee has been well worth it!

The first thing you notice as you step out of the airport is a Famous Amos cookies counter and the (extremely humid) heat. But once your body adapts to the heat, and you have a cookie in your mouth, you can start to notice what a lovely city Kuala Lumpur is. I landed in the afternoon, and getting to the central station was a breeze. They have a high speed train that connects both their airport terminals (one for the nicer carriers, and the other for the cheapskate carriers (which people like me fly)), and once you’re in the centre, you can get to pretty much anywhere with their extensive metro service.

My hostel was located in the Bukit Bintang area – which is one of the most happening spots in the city. It’s surrounded by malls, a food street, a party street, a bunch of cafes, and most important of all – a 24 hour McDonald’s. In my first evening I was woken up from my afternoon siesta by some Malay buskers playing a popular Hindi song right under my room’s window. I was irritated, but once I got over the fact that they disturbed my beauty sleep, I took to them and started looking forward to them playing each evening. They have a new set of buskers come in to play everyday, and they play a mix of Malay, English and Hindi songs, and sometimes involve the crowds, when you can shake and dance with them too!

For my first few days in Kuala Lumpur, (including New Year’s Eve), I was joined by Stephanie – who was an absolute joy to travel with. She dances with buskers, buys me Red Bull and even shares a late night beer and shawarma! Can a man ask for more?

We started our tourist trail the right way – by starting with a rest day. We walked around the malls, up to the Petronas Towers, and the KLCC Park.

The following day we made a trip up to the Batu Caves, situated just outside Kuala Lumpur, but easily reachable by their metro. There’s a whole bunch of steps you climb to see what is a rather underwhelming temple, but it’s still a journey worth making. There’s a dark cave tour you can sign up for halfway up the steps to main temple, and there’s even a newly opened Ramayana temple that depicts the story of the Ramayana – and those two, along with the big statue at the bottom, were better than the main temple itself in my opinion.

For New Year’s Eve, KLCC Park, which is right by the Petronas Towers hosts live performances and an ‘epic’ midnight firework display every New Year’s Eve – and that’s where we decided to bring in the new year. We started the evening with some sushi, and then settled down with a bottle of wine and some snackies at a quiet spot in the park, just outside the area cordoned off for the performances. Malaysia is a Muslim country, so there wasn’t going to be any alcohol inside the even; but they are extremely liberal, and you can walk with an open bottle of liquor on the streets. Closer to midnight, we made our way to the event area, and it was absolute chaos. The attendees (which were mostly men) tried to push their way to the front, even though there was nowhere to go… maybe getting squeezed up against other dudes is their way of enjoying New Year’s Eve. 90% of them were of south Asian origin – so I guess the pinky walk they do in India translates to straight up grinding in Malaysia! Anyway; the fireworks at midnight were actually pretty epic and I’m glad we picked KLCC Park to spend New Year’s Eve.

For New Year’s Day we had planned to relax at an infinity pool that was part of an Airbnb we had booked, but then cancelled on us a couple of weeks out. In return for not leaving him a bad review, he agreed to let us use the pool in his apartment complex, and that seemed like a fair trade. However, he didn’t arrange proper access for us, and the guard refused to let us through. After much cajoling, the guard let us get a quick picture, but that is all we got. Can you imagine swimming in a pool with that view though? Argh. Fuck you Vic from Airbnb for taking that experience away from me.

After the infinity pool rejection, we went to the top of the Petronas Towers for sunset, but like every other sunrise or sunset that involves me, it was overcast. The view from the top was absolutely splendid though.

Besides all of that, there’s not much to do in Kuala Lumpur. They have a big square, few mosques and a few museums, but none that really standout or are must-sees. Not for me anyway. There is a nice bar called the Heli Bar – that used to be a helipad on top of a skyscraper – but is now a good spot to watch the sun go down.

Between all of this, we also partook in an activity most of us enjoy doing… eating.

The internet is right people – Kuala Lumpur does have some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Malay food is delicious, but their Chinese and Indian food is some of the best food I have eaten in my life. The Indian food is even better than Indian food in India!

There’s the Petaling Street in Chinatown, Little India and a whole bunch of food courts within the malls. The famous food street Jalan Alor was right behind my hostel and serves some of the best food from all of Asia. Malay, Chinese, Mongolian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani, Indian, you name it. And all sooo good. They say Penang, which is in the northern part of peninsular Malaysia, has the best food Malaysia has to offer. It’s hard to believe food can get any better than this – but I’m so curious to find out. The whole over eating has also got me 10 pounds heavier in just 10 days… my parents will be overjoyed to hear that. I’m not too pleased though.

Krabi, Phi Phi, Phuket, Surat Thani, Bangkok, and back home

I needed an appropriate end to my Southeast Asian sojourn, and what better way to spend my last 2 weeks than in the as-yet-unexplored-by-Mazahir parts of Thailand? They got great street food, easily accessible and cheap hostels, amazing nature spots, supermarkets at every corner selling you everything you could ever need, and in my opinion, the perfect blend of Asian and western life. It really is one of my favourite countries.

I flew into Krabi town from Laos, and on my first night I witnessed a Chinese man brushing his teeth in bed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, maybe I just attract the weird Chinese. But trust me, every long term traveller I’ve met has had a few of these encounters. There’s over 1.2 billion of them, and the strange ones are everywhere!

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Had to take this because how else would people believe me?

Top thing to do from Krabi town is to go to Tiger Cave Temple. It’s a misnomer. There were no tigers and no caves. There were, maybe, a few hollow rock formations – but they don’t count as caves in my book. They say the place got its name from a cave that was discovered with tiger paw prints. But I also saw no such paw prints. They must get this error corrected ASAP.

Anyway, the highlight of this temple visit is a 1,237 step climb to the top of a temple for some spectacular aerial views of Krabi. I know the number accurately because it is advertised, and to put things into perspective, that’s like climbing a 70 story building.

I struggled, oh how I struggled. But there are certain things you need to do in life for a few Instagram likes, and this is one of those things. I huffed and I puffed, and no I did not blow anything down, but actually made my way to the top. And guess what? OVERCAST.

Rain Gods: 1, Mazahir: 0.

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After a couple of days in Krabi town, I switched bases and moved to Ao Nang Beach, Krabi. Made a day trip to Railay Beach from there, got massages, partied, met some really awesome people (wink wink), and had such a nice, relaxing time. Even channeled my inner basic white bitch and got in some beach yoga. Good times, good times.

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Stopped over at the Phi Phi Islands from there, visited Maya Bay (from the movie The Beach), snorkelled with some fishies, dropped my snorkel mask in the water and pissed off the junk boat driver who dove in and found it when I couldn’t, watched an amazing sunset from the junk boat, and scuba-ed with some white-tip reef sharks.

Now I don’t know what it is about islands like Phi Phi, but I absolutely love them. Wouldn’t it be amazing to live on an island where you can just walk from one end to the other?

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I even spent two days in Phuket even though everyone told me it was trashy and full of hookers. Phuket was the last major tourist spot in Thailand that I was still to see, and I just had to go! It was indeed trashy, and even though I found an 11 Eleven supermarket that is obviously better than any 7 Eleven supermarket anyone has ever been to, I’d say skip it.

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We’re now into the final week people, and there was still one tiny thing left that I hadn’t done in Southeast Asia – take a night train. So I made my way up to Surat Thani to take a night train to Bangkok. I was joined by my friend Stefan and we first spent the day exploring Surat Thani, and at around midnight got on the the train to Bangkok together. The second class compartment is a bogie with upper and lower bunk beds along the side and are extremely comfortable. I slept like a baby.

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Once in Bangkok, there wasn’t much left for me to explore. I had spent so much time in the city over the months of travel that I had no tourist spot (not one that interests me anyway) left unexplored. I also just needed time to reflect on the 6 and a half months that had passed so quickly. I ate my favourite Thai dishes (still pad Thai, with pad kra paw in second), walked for hours and hours with just my own thoughts, read a little, and took the last picture of my trip – the fast moving city traffic of Bangkok.

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Do I have final thoughts? Yeah, but the journey isn’t over yet. Expect an update soon. 🙂

Laos

Laos… lazy, lazy Laos. If you ever make your way here, and you should, my only advice would be to head to a restaurant at least 30 min before you think you’re going to get hungry. Time slows down in this country, and Lao PDR, that is Lao: Peoples’ Democratic Republic officially, but Lao: Please Don’t Rush as every travel blog you read will tell you, really lives up to its slow paced life tag.

I flew into Luang Prabang, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site… aren’t they all in Southeast Asia? After Luang Prabang, I went up to the less touristy villages of Nong Khiaw (was touristy) and Muang Ngoi (not very touristy), then south to Vang Vieng which is famous for its tubing and parties by the river (liked tubing, did not enjoy or partake in the riverside-drink-till-you-are-about-to-die-partying), and then to the capital of Vientiane (it’s a city, good food).

That is all. This country is lazy, and I am lazy too.

Look at some pictures:

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The beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls.

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Hiking in Nong Khiaw.
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View from the top.
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Also from the top, and one of my favourite pictures of the entire trip.

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Playing with some village puppers.
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Laos’ Arc de Triomphe.
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Sunset in Vientiane.