Friday, November 30, 2012

Melaka, Malaysia – Yargh!

We rolled into Melaka, Malaysia with Chalain, Chris and Dan, just in time for Malaysia to remind us that it is in fact monsoon season. The gang stuck around for a night, but soon, had to go back to Yangon, Burma to go back to work where they are employed at an international school leaving us to explore the port town ourselves.

Melaka is a smaller city, but has a huge history as the center of a maritime power in their own right with a modern claim-to-fame as a pirate stopover in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The hostel was set in the middle of Chinatown, which had a plethora of shops and whatnot, including hipster-ish t-shirts shop.
The main Chinatown district was dominated by “Jonker’s Walk,” which had many shops, and presented us with a classic conundrum.
Food is always one of the best parts about new places, with “Baba Nonya” cuisine being a feature in Melaka. “Baba Nonya” is the name of the culture that was birthed when Chinese laborers cane to Melaka and intermarried with Malay women.
We always want to try the new foods, but there’s a fine line between being adventurous and trying the local foods and eating something that we know we don’t have the stomach for.
For example, Jojo’s Patthai in Bangkok is clean, good and we know we’re going to get something tasty and satisfying. I’ve also seen people chopping up large pieces of warm meat on pieces of cardboard that are sitting on the sidewalk. We’re going to avoid that one…
There were two restaurants on Jonker’s Walk that personified this dichotomy, Geographers Cafe and Famosa Chicken Rice Balls.
Geographers came highly recommended in the Rough Guide book we’ve been using, while Famosa came highly recommended by the slough of locals sitting at the table.
Both of them had very traditional advertisements, intended to draw in very different crowds. Famosa had small, cold, roasted chickens hanging on meat-hooks in a glass case at the entrance while Geographer’s was proud to offer Guinness on tap.
The Geographer’s Cafe is in a two story building with an outdoor patio. It was fully air-conditioned and decorated kind with plenty of wood and earth tones. Flat screen televisions rotated through professional pictures of the different dishes, with their names written in Malay and English. The food was good and they had some fresh rolls, which is one of Leslie’s favorites. It was a very modern restaurant and would have fit in quite well in Seattle.
Famosa Chicken Rice Balls, which would have stuck out like a sore thumb, assuming it wasn’t shut down by the health inspector for hanging room-temperature, cooked chicken hanging in the store window. Nevertheless, in we went to try a new experience.
This was a one-story restaurant with a sprawling layout and two “kitchens”. The big one in back took care of most of the prep-work and major cooking. I use the word “kitchen” to describe the front space connected to the cashier stand by the front door for lack of a better word, but it’s not really accurate. It contained a cash register, full roasted chickens hanging from meat hooks and a machine that pumped out rice balls. Half-dozen teenagers laughed and giggled while putting together orders. It seemed a little bit like a very Malaysian take on a 1950s diner.
There were no small tables, with most being for about eight. The people who were already sitting had ordered communal food.
We sat at one of the tables and soon had a teenager come over and take our order; six rice balls and half a chicken. It was a small order, but we thought that was smart with an unknown food.
I walked over to a small newspaper clipping on the wall and learned that Famosa had four restaurants and was known for their new-fangled machine that could crank out 50 rice balls a minute in a more sanitary manner than the traditional hand-rolled method.
Soon, the food came back. The rice balls were made out of milled rice that had been formed into pieces the size of a golf ball, they were gelatinous and reminded me of dumplings. They had little flavor to themselves. Fortunately, a gravy-boat like thing of red chili sauce accompanied them, which was good, but spicy.
The chicken had been de-boned, but was still quite identifiable as a bird, complete with light meat, dark meat and skin. It had been chopped into bite-sized pieces, so was easy to eat.
This is the part where I’d love to tell you it was great, but it wasn’t. It was bland rice balls and chicken that was luke-warm at best. The sauce was good, but sauce alone does not make a meal.
Towards the end of our meal, we looked over and saw one of the weirdest looking deserts I’ve ever seen.
It was a silver bowl, piled high with ice-looking things and topped with green-gelatinous-worm looking things and red beans.
We ordered the “cendol” and I’m proud to say that I can tell you this was actually really good. We didn’t know much about what was in it at the time, but later learned that the basics are shaved ice and coconut milk. There’s a big pile of that topped with the green-worm things, that are rice-gelatin and the obvious red beans. The entire thing is then smothered in palm sugar.
The cendol was great, but it wasn’t very filling, and we didn’t want to order more chicken rice balls. Fortunately, Geographer’s is only two blocks away, and they have fresh rolls… and Guinness on tap.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pulau Tioman – Islands!

Taking the night bus from KL to ferry terminal would have been okay if it weren’t for arriving there at 3am. Bryan stretched on the benches and went to sleep while I read. I was too excited to see one of my best friends Chalain, her husband Chris, and their fellow teacher friends, Jessica and Dan. Chalain and Chris are international teachers in Burma, and because they get so much time off during the year they often take trips around S.E. Asia. Luckily, it worked out that we were able to join them. They arrived about an hour after us, and we quickly learned Chalain is pregnant with a baby girl. We were able to catch up for the next 7 hours before the first ferry left for Tioman.

Tioman Island was about ready to close for the next couple months as it was turning into rainy season, and as a result, there were very few people on the island. There were no cars and most of the people inhabited only the outskirts of the island as most of it is protected.
We ended up staying at the same place Chalain and Chris were staying. Both of our bungalows had amazing views of the ocean and we were often surrounded by monkeys. Walking back to our bungalows at night felt surreal at times as we were the only ones. It felt as if we were on Gilligan’s Island. We were lucky that some of the restaurants even had food for us to eat.
The snorkeling was also amazing. I have never seen so much coral so close to the shore. In fact, it would have been quite dangerous to randomly jump into the ocean as a lot of the coral went right up below the surface. We were able to see hundreds of fish just a few feet away from the beach.
The week was spent walking around the island, reading, snorkeling, eating a lot of food, taking pictures of monkeys, talking and listening to music on the balcony of Chalain and Chris’s bungalow, playing combobuster, getting bit by sand fleas (sorry Chris), and most importantly, relaxing with good company. We also saw lots of creatures, including those big monitor lizards.
Overall, life was good on the island and luckily we didn’t have to say goodbye to our friends on Tioman.
Next stop, Malaka, Malaysia.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Overnight buses are rough, but even worse than the overnight bus is the almost overnight bus. We pulled into “KL” at 3am after having taken the “overnight” bus from Hat Yai and learning that all the cool people refer to Kuala Lumpur as “KL”.

We met a few people on the train, including James, who is a Californian expat who lives in Bangkok after having met a Thai woman. He needed to go to KL on business. Our first step was to look for food, which at 3am, meant we’re going to a nearby McDonald’s after a stop at the ATM to get some Malaysian Ringgit (3 ringgit to the dollar). Fortunately, they had internet and we learned some great news.
On October 20th, we became an Aunt and Uncle when Aubrey Christine Boehm was born to my sister Jennifer and her husband Michael. It was a very exciting moment, so we bought a round of hash browns for the two of us, James and James’ friend that had joined us.
Around six o’clock we went into Chinatown to find a hostel and after checking a few places ended up at the Birdsnest, which smelled like a log cabin in the middle of the city. It was on a busy street, but it was only 40 ringgit ($13), so we were pretty happy.
To be fair, KL wasn’t really somewhere we wanted to go. We’re pretty tired of the big cities as they all seem to run together after awhile. That said, we needed to go here because we needed to get a tourist visa for India and we knew it would be easy to find a laptop repair place, as the laptop had given up on Koh Phangan. We were pretty sure it was just a battery issue, but it still needed to be taken care of.
Our longer plan was to head from KL over to the Tioman Islands where we would meet our good friends Chelain and Chris, who are teachers at the international school in Burma. Our goal was to turn in our passports to get the Indian visas, go to Tioman and pick up the passports when we got back to KL.
Our first stop was a little shop in Chinatown that would help us get the passport photos, then we headed with James towards the financial center, which is the site of the twin Petronas Towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world up until 2006. We hung around with James and learned what it’s like being an expat in Thailand until he had to go his meeting. The Prince and Princess of Thailand are pretty interesting characters, but you can look that up if you’re interested.
We ran some errands and hung around in a coffeeshop allowing Leslie to devour Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince.
Most importantly, we found a Mexican fast-food joint for lunch. It was absolutely divine. It was probably pretty standard fair, likely around the quality of a Taco Bell, but it was the first time we’ve had anything like a proper burrito in six months.
That night, we turned in pretty early as we were still tired, but James and I explored a little more, hitting up the Central Market and an Indian dance performance by the local university.
The next day saw James leave KL and us hop on the free bus to head towards a laptop repair place I had found on the internet.
Kuala Lumpur is a great mix of different cultures and traditions combined with modern convenience and economics. The free bus across town highlighted this as we were brought from the heart of Chinatown, through Little India and eventually to Bukit Bintang, which translates to “Starry Hill” or “Hill of the Stars” or something like that. The literal translation is “Hill Stars”.
Bukit Bintang is the center of the shopping and party district of KL. Huge mega malls line the street as local boutique shops are as easy to find as H&M. There’s a plethora of food places that look like they could be straight out of an American mini-mall and serve similar foods. We got a couple donuts that reminded us of home.
At the same time, there’s more traditional food shops available, with open-air seating in the bottom floor of buildings and dried chicken, duck and fish hanging in the open air. You can split the difference if you want as well and get Malaysian style food served in western style restaurants.
Our goal was the laptop store though, so after walking past a huge H&M and learning that motorbikes are not going to slow down for you if you jaywalk we ducked into a five story mall that sold nothing but electronics; computers, laptops, tablets, phones, wires, televisions, etc. The sheer volume of electronic gadgets at this place was mind-boggling. Lots of the stores were kiosks, with goods under glass cases and someone selling something over the top, “new computer,” says one “what you want?” asks another and of course… “where you going?”
I had written down a name in my booklet, “Kadai Komputer.” We went to the fourth floor for computer repair. I thought my note was going to help find the recommended shop, but every shop was labeled “Kadai Komputer”. I think it means “Computer Repair.” Eventually, we found the repair shop and confirmed it was just a battery issue. We blew our budget for the day and moved on.
A block off of the main drag in Bukit Bintang is a strip of Chinese food joints that are authentic and supposedly really good. Well, we found them authentic, but I don’t know about “really good”. We ate it, but we did not go back.
The Chinese food also gave us a hankering for something “normal”, so we turned to Trip Advisor and found a burger and beer joint called Taps.
It wasn’t labeled as expensive on TripAdvisor, but I guess their idea of expensive and our idea is quite different. It was by far the most expensive meal we’ve had in Asia, but it was awesome. Big, juicy burgers with IPA imported from Scotland. The burger wasn’t quite “normal” as the standard burger came with a fried egg and the burger itself was stuffed with guacamole. It made one helluva mess, but was absolutely great.
The next day we prioritized the visa and made the trip to the company that processing visa for India. (It’s been outsourced). It was an Indian holiday, the office was closed.
We went to explore “Central Market” where we found stalls, a very good food court that became our go-to cheap eats place, and the highlight… fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. These have been pretty common ever since we hit Thailand, but they’ve usually been $10+, which is more than we are willing to spend. This time, it was only $2 for 10 minutes.
It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced. These fish were larger than the ones in Bangkok at about 4 inches long. As soon as you put your feet in the water the fish swarmed around them, chomping as much dead skin as they could. It was quite difficult to keep your feet in the water at first, as it tickled like mad, but soon, you got used to it. It was still weird to have fish eating your feet. I found it was easier if I looked away and thought of something else. Towards the end of our time a French woman put her feet in and most of the fish swarmed to her. I couldn’t help but wonder what that woman did that made the fish like her feet so much.
The Food Court was excellent. There were about two dozen different restarurants with Mee Goreng and Nasi Goreng (fried noodles and rice) being the staples. You could get a plethora of different options for the meats, veggies and sauces. Noodle soups were available as well as dried fish, but we generally avoided those.
Leslie absolutely loved the juice place that was stuck in the middle of the court. They would throw whole fruits and vegetables into the juicer and whip up fresh juice in a few seconds for a dollar or two.
The previous evening, Leslie had found a KL app on Trip Advisor that had a “Photography Walk.” We kicked ourself thinking, “we need to do more TripAdvisor walks!” Then we did the walk, which was obviously done by some computer program built for helping cars navigate the city. After it tried to get us to take a left onto a freeway on-ramp we kinda gave up on it.
It did point us towards the KL tower though, so we ended up in a massive walk across town, when we later realized there was a much better bus to take.
The Tower was pretty cool, but it was going to be near $100 for a meal, so we decided against it and walked around the grounds.
Then Malaysia decided to remind us it was monsoon season. We had remembered to bring raincoats on the trip, but they were back in the hotel room. About twenty minutes of walking through an absolute deluge brought us back to the sky train and finally, back home.
The next day, we returned to the office to try and get visas for India, only to learn that it is not possible to get an Indian tourist visa from Malaysia if you’re on a tourist visa. Mission fail.
This meant that we were going to have to return to a capital city to try and get the visa somewhere else, but it wasn’t time to worry about that. It was time to go meet up with Chelain and Chris on the east coast of Malaysia.
Next stop, Pulau Tioman.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Koh Phangan, Thailand – Deserted Beach

The day before we left Koh Tao, we were sitting in probably the most comfortable chairs in the world at a bar right next to the beach. We had delicious iced coffee, good books, and a vast view of the ocean. I remember telling Bryan how we should stay here one more day, so I could do this “tomorrow” too. He looked at me and said, “it’s time to go.” I was a little disappointed but when we finally arrived to our bungalow in Koh Phangan (pronouched like “Woah” with a K, then “Pah-nyong”), I looked at Bryan and said, “why haven’t we been here the whole time.”

We left Koh Tao early the morning after “the worlds most comfortable chairs” day and found a group of Germans who were going to the same side of the island in Koh Phanang we were. They were going to a different beach than us, but same side. This was important because the roads to the East side of the island really aren’t roads at all and taxis hate driving it unless they are paid a lot. Having a big group made it a lot cheaper, just a tad cheaper than the shuttle taxi which only leaves once a day near the ferry terminal.
Our taxi looked more like Bryan’s little white Nissan truck but with a cover in the back and two benches on each side for people. After a bumpy and adventurous ride, we finally made it back to one of our favorite places in the world.
The Treehouse was one of our favorite places when we traveled through S.E. Asia 3 1/2 years ago. Pam and her Thai husband were the owners of the Treehouse in Koh Chang, but when they divorced she moved to Koh Panang to start another Treehouse. She gave a lot of love and care to the place, decorating it with flowers and colorful walls and mosquito nets. The food was good and it was quiet and peaceful. Unfortunately, we heard they had to vacate the place and the Treehouse was no longer the Treehouse, but we wanted to make sure this was true.
The Treehouse was completely abandoned and it looked like a ghost town. We went and saw our old bungalow and while it still looked pretty in tact, the bungalow next to it had a tree on top of it. It was sad. Later we learned that Pam had to leave because she was not Thai and was no longer married to her Thai husband. We also learned that the Treehouse property has been bought by a big resort type company. Sad. We left and went to the Bungalows the next beach over (just a 5 minute walk through the jungle) and made it to Mai Pen Rai.
There aren’t many places like it in the world. Mai Pen Rai is owned by a local family, the bungalows have vast ocean views for $15-20 a night, the beach is small and nestled in between the jungle, there was one restaurant (two more during high season), power was on only a couple hours during the day and night, and there was no hot water. Life was simple here and it gave us the opportunity to be away from technology and the craziness of the world.
Our bungalow was one of the best. It was placed on top of a high rock, overlooking nothing but the Sea and our balcony had a hammock. Enough said. I could stay here a long time, and currently, this is my favorite place in the world winner…yes, I said winner! :)
Getting to our bungalow from Mai Pen Rai Reception/restaurant was a bit adventurous at times, though. We had to walk on high rocks, walk by crazy looking spiders, make sure not to step on those big Monitor lizards, and make sure not to bump our heads on the rock tunnel (it is crucial to duck the entire way through the tunnel). This is just another reason this place is the current winner in my eyes.
Really, we didn’t do much. We lived simply…drank fresh fruit lassies, ate delicious local foods, read, listened to music, took pictures around the island, swam in the sea for exercise, and just relaxed. There was hardly anyone around. I think the most people I saw was about 10 in the restaurant. This gave us the opportunity to form wonderful friendships with people who also thought Mai Pen Rai was something special.
Later in the week we met, Cecille, a solo traveller in her 40′s from Switzerland. We ended up doing a two hour trek through the jungle with her for a day trip. It was hot, adventurous, and many up and down paths. We finally made it to the beach, and while it was nice, it was way bigger, more expensive (stupid resorts), and not as nice as Mai Pen Rai. We ate lunch and then made our way back to Mai Pen Rai using a long tail water taxi. Hiking back was not an option as we would not have made it back before dark. Plus, we needed an excuse to finally ride on a long tail boat.
A week and half later, it was time to go to Malaysia. This was a sad sad day, mostly because I had the terrible thought that this place would also turn into some big expensive resort with hot water, 24 hour power, and expensive food. I want it to always stay the same, and I hope the owners will forever hold on to such a magical place.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Koh Tao, Thailand – Beach Time!

It was 3AM when the night bus from Bangkok pulled into Chumpon. We got off the bus and 20 or so people got shepharded into the back of an extra-long pickup with bench seats for the short ride to the ferry. After four hours of attempting to sleep on a plastic picnic table we boarded the slow boat to Koh Tao, Thailand. “Tao” is prounced like if you were trying to say “Teacher”, but only got out the “T” before hitting yourself in the thumb with a hammer. “T-OW!”

the pickup
Thailand is a big country. For comparison sake, Thailand is about 500,000 square kilometers. Germany is about 350,000, but most importantly for this blog, Koh Tao is about 21. There are three island chains in the Gulf of Siam. Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. “Koh” is Thai for “island”.
Koh Phangan was by far our favorite location last time we were in Asia, so we decided to go back. Unfortunately for us, Koh Phangan is also the site of the world famous Full Moon Party, which is an absolutely massive beach party known for techno music, massive amounts of drugs and general debauchery. We might have gone ten years ago, but now, it’s just a huge event that’s going to fill up guesthouses. We decided to go to Koh Tao until the Full Moon crowd passes.
We got off the boat in Koh Tao with bout three dozen other travelers and a couple locals. We were all immediately slammed with people trying to put us up in their guesthouses, but we walked past the touts and caught a “taxi” to Hat Sai Ree. “Hat”, “Had” and “Haad” are all different spellings of the Thai word for “beach”.
More people get their PADI Open Water SCUBA diving certification on Koh Tao than any other place in the world, including Leslie and I, three years ago. It was fun, we were glad we did it, but this time, we were here just for the island and the small town of Sairee.
Lizard at 3am! Waiting to get on the boat!

After the very uncomfortable bus ride, he found a place to sleep before getting on the boat.

Beautiful Sunrise!
“Taxis” in the southern islands of Thailand are pickup trucks with metal benches running along the side of the back. Riders sit up above the bed of the truck. There are no seat belts. Usually, the only safety feature is a roll-bar and if you’re really lucky, there will be a canopy to keep the sun and rain off.
This one had no roll bar and no canopy. When we arrived in Sairee we got off and walked towards a restaurant we used to frequent. Fortunately, the restaurant was still there, but prices had doubled and quality had been cut in half.
We found a bungalow for 300 baht ($10), although this one was not the nicest. Cold water showers, a bathroom that was open to the outside and it lacked a bug net. That said, it was 300 baht in one of the more expensive islands in Thailand, so we didn’t complain too much.
bungalow porch

I should probably explain at this point that most Thais don’t like the beach. In most of Asia, dark skin is seen as a mark of being lower-class, so Asians try to avoid the sun and buy products with whitening cream. So the sun burns you, the sand is a mess and gets everywhere and it’s altogether too hot. Most Thais don’t understand Westerners desire to hang out on the beach.

You can see this reflected in the mid-sized beach town that is Sairee. There’s dozens of shops and restaurants, but they’re geared towards the backpacking crowd. Dive shops are often filled with Western workers (often Aussies) and many of the popular restaurants are the same. Restaurants advertise western movies that they play nightly to entice customers.

That said, the places run by Westerners are almost always more expensive. We ended up spending a disproportionate amount of time at a restaurant/pub called Moon Bar. It was cheaper, but most importantly, you could claim a table by the beach to put your stuff while swimming in the ocean. We got adopted by a grey and white dog that kept hanging around Leslie.
Make no bones about it, we went to this part of Thailand to go to the beach. We’ve skipped the beaches almost everywhere else we’ve been, because we knew that once we reached southern Thailand, we would see some of the world’s best beaches, and Koh Tao didn’t diappoint.
Pristine sand ran up and down the beach as boats floated offshore, anchored to the ground. “Long-tailed taxis,” which are skinny, brightly decorated boats that run on outboard motors. The propellers whirls twelve feet off the back of the boat, giving the famous boat its name. Mid-sized, weather worn fishing vessels float with a couple yachts for richer people and a plethora of dive boats, with their SCUBA Shop name painted on the side.
For us though, we mostly splash and jump around the water in between spurts of hanging out on the beach.
I think I got stung by something at one point though, because we were walking back to our bungalow when I realized my left quad had gone numb. We found the doctor’s office, but he was closed for the day, so went to one of the half-dozen pharmacies. The pharmacist recommended some Tiger Balm. I don’t know if it helped or not, but the leg returned to normal a few days later.
We also made an attempt at getting to a more remote beach on the other side of the island, but they wanted $20 to get there, which is almost 1/2 of our daily budget. We decided against it, but after a couple days in our beatup, dirty and bug-ridden bungalow, we decided to splurge and checked into the In Touch Bungalows for a day.

Air-conditioning, dirt-free floors, movies and no bugs was our expected reward for the day. Ever single one of those came true.
Unfortunately, after about two hours the bathroom began to smell like a poorly maintained Honey Bucket… and these weird little slugs began appearing in the bathroom.
No matter though, we shut the door to the bathroom and flinging slugs out the window became a chore to accomplish every few hours.
We spent our day watching terrible television and some movies, but they were in English, so it was great. It was a clean, modern mattress, so we wanted to sleep in. The little town of Sairee was going to look like the apex of civilization compared to the beach we had in mind for Koh Phangan, so we wanted to take full advantage of our chance to sleep in a modern bed.
We spent one last day hanging out on the beach of Koh Tao, watched “American Reunion” in an air-conditioned beach bar and purchased a ferry ticket to Koh Phangan.