Where are we now?
We’ve now been in Chiang Mai, Thailand for just over a month this time around. It’s a haven for digital nomad expats–apparently, there are 40,000 expats living in Chiang Mai, and walking around town, I believe it. Living expenses are very low, internet is fast and widely available, and there’s lots of fun stuff going on all the time.
Yes, we cook
For those who may be unfamiliar, food in Thailand (especially street food) is cheap, convenient and delicious. So understandably, people we talk to are constantly amazed that we actually cook here (though, admittedly, most of the people we talk to are expats). They’re even more amazed that we cook daily, usually at least 2 meals every day. When you talk to expats who live here about getting a place with a kitchen, most will say “don’t bother.” But I say otherwise. If you’re planning to stay for any length of time, get a kitchen–even a little counter space and a sink is sufficient, as you really don’t need more than that, and electric appliances are very affordable. (More detail on that in the next post)
Here are my reasons.
1. It’s also inexpensive to buy and cook food at home
Even the Western-style grocery stores by us (Rimping and Tops) are cheap if you’re careful about what you buy. Interestingly, both Tops and Rimping are inside shopping malls, one very modern, and the other…well, let’s just say its heyday has passed. You can find basically any food item you could want from the Western world, but much of that category tends to be pretty expensive, so we’ve tried to stick mostly to what the locals might buy there.
But even better–there are tons of local markets all around. These markets can either be pop-up style like farmers’ markets back home, or they can be more established in an open-air, warehouse sort of building. The latter type might require a bit more courage, and ideally, an orientation from a local. You can find everything from a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, to recently butchered meats, freshly made curry paste, coconut milk squeezed while you wait, flowers and candles for visiting temples, and much more. They’re great places to find just about anything you’d want, inexpensively.
Admittedly, we haven’t taken advantage of local markets as much as we’d like to, but we’re going to start. This morning we tried one that’s more of the farmers’ market kind, at Baan Kang Wat, and maybe it’s just getting started, but it was rather small. We did find some delicious jam and a woman who sells hummus, but sadly she ran out by the time we got there. Frank did get a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, and we shared some nice local kombucha. But just remember, don’t shake your kombucha. I turned it upside down a couple times just to try to mix it and managed to explode it somewhat. Oh well!
2. You can control what goes into it
Since it seems like all the other expats eat out for every meal, I’ve heard complaints that restaurants use MSG, too much oil, and often that vegan/vegetarian food is not actually vegan/vegetarian. The reason for that last complaint is one that I’ve personally experienced. Many Thai cooks don’t realize that fish sauce and oyster sauce aren’t vegetarian by many people’s standards. They just think of the meat itself and not the sauces. Interestingly, though, sometimes if you order your meal vegetarian, they do often ask if you want egg. Coming from the US as a vegetarian, it’s interesting that here they would be more careful about eggs than about fish sauce or oyster sauce.
3. You’re probably tired of eating out for every meal
As much as we love restaurants, after 4 months of travel through Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, eating almost every single meal out, we were really getting tired of it. We absolutely love waking up, making some oatmeal, cutting up a bunch of fruit, making some tea, and relaxedly eating at home. This takes us maybe 5 minutes even when we’re not rushing. In the past, breakfast involved getting up and dressed, going out and often having to settle for something we didn’t actually want. If we were lucky we could find some kind of yogurt/fruit/muesli bowl, but that wasn’t always an option. Traditional Asian breakfasts are rarely vegetarian, and the “Western” alternative was often expensive and included some kind of unknown sausage, oily eggs and a couple pieces of white toast.
4. It’s fun to use ingredients that you don’t have at home
Bird’s eye chilies, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, kaffir lime leaves, Thai ginseng, passion fruit, star fruit, soursop, dragonfruit, many varieties of bananas, longan, rambutan, mangosteen, etc., etc. The list goes on and on. You may be lucky enough to have an Asian market at home, but odds are, these ingredients will never be as fresh or as cheap as they are here. And do we really want to support the importing of foods from all the way across the globe? So use them now while they’re local.
5. You can practice new skills
How many of us have a souvenir cookbook from a cooking class that’s just been sitting on a shelf? Use it! Another side benefit is that getting used to cooking in a tiny space will make anything back home seem luxurious.
In part 2, we’ll get down to the practical stuff.
Some more photos from Baan Kang Wat
Photos from a market we visited in Bangkok in June
As we mentioned in our other post, Kuala Lumpur is not exactly a place we’d choose to spend a ton of time, so the main reason we went to Kuala Lumpur was to get a 60-day Thai visa. Travelers from many countries can get visa exemptions or visas upon arrival in Thailand (30 days if arriving by air, 15 days by land). Not only had we already done this twice over the past couple months (and had heard they might be cracking down on it), but we had a feeling that we’d want to spend a bit more than 30 days in Thailand on this visit.
Upon reading posts on forums and Facebook groups, we were somewhat apprehensive about the Thai visa process in KL. From everything we’d read online, it seemed much more challenging to do it there than it would have been in Laos or Cambodia (or ideally, in the US). Citizens of certain countries can’t even apply for a Thai visa in Malaysia unless they’re permanent residents. Some people online said they were flat out refused the visa, even though they seemed to have all the required documents. Upon further research, those who were denied may have applied for the double-entry, and it seems that the Thai Embassy in KL only issues single-entry visas. Knowing all of that, getting ours in KL made the most sense for us, so we decided it was worth a try, especially since we only needed a single-entry visa.
The official requirements on the Thai Royal Embassy’s website are quite strict and even state that any foreign documents need to be either notarized by your home diplomatic/consular mission or a notary public and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. This alone probably would have taken a week to get. We decided that we would just be as prepared as we could reasonably be, arrive early, dress well, and be very polite. That really was the best we could do.
Fortunately, our guest house was right upstairs from a print shop run by a very nice Chinese couple. They got to know us pretty well over the days we spent collecting and printing out documents. They’re also responsible for our awesome new visa photos.
The Royal Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is located at 206 Jalan Ampang, about a 10-15 minute walk east of the Ampang Park LRT station. We noticed that many people arrived by taxi, but it’s actually very easy to get there by public transportation. Just make sure to cross to the north side of the street before leaving the mall area because there aren’t any other sane places to cross once you start walking.
We’d read that they open the gates at 9 AM to let people in and then start accepting applications at 9:30, so we decided to aim to get there around 8. Google Maps stated that it would take us over an hour to get there from our guesthouse, so we left at 7 and arrived at…7:35…whoops, guess we could have stopped for breakfast! We were by far the first ones in line and ended up waiting until 9:30 when they actually opened the gate. The man behind us in line actually seemed slightly peeved that he wasn’t first–apparently he does this a lot and is always first…sorry, dude! By the time they did open the gate, there were actually at least 25 people behind us in line, so we were glad to have gotten there early, even though it was way earlier than necessary.
Since we were first in line, we were very glad that we’d filled out our applications ahead of time. The embassy provides applications, but filling out the application is not exactly something we’d want to do while short on time. We took a number (the machine gives you two copies–be sure to hang onto both because they’ll ask you for the second one later). We sat down but only waited a minute or two before our number was called. We put on our nicest smiles and were “greeted” by the very surly woman behind the counter, who simply put her hand in the slot without even glancing up or saying a word. We first handed her our applications, photos, passports and signed passport copies. She glanced at them and told us to sit down until called up again. We waited patiently in the front row and watched many other people called up, then called up again for additional paperwork, then called up to pay and then leave. We were still waiting… We eventually were asked for just our ticket into Thailand then told to sit down again. Again, more people finished the process and left (did we mention that we’d been first in line?)…we waited and waited a bit more. After about an hour and a half total (and after really starting to get nervous that we’d be denied), we were asked for our 300 Ringgit (150 each), handed a receipt and told to return the next day.
Although we were starving by that time (it was almost 11, and we’d been up since 6:30), we felt pretty great and assumed that everything was fine. We met up with our friend Natalia right afterward, and she explained that that was how far she’d gotten with her Chinese visa the first time, only to be denied when she arrived the next day to pick it up. We knew we’d done our best, and we had several additional documents with us that they didn’t even request, so we put it out of our minds as much as possible.
To our great excitement, we showed up at the embassy the next day and received our passports back with visas inside. To pick them up, we just walked right in without a wait. All in all, it was an annoying process, but in the end, it was relatively straightforward and easy. And after hearing from Natalia about the Chinese visa, this was nothing. Fortunately, she managed to successfully get hers the second time, so it was a success all around!
Detailed Information for Getting a Thai Visa in Kuala Lumpur
- Original passport valid not less than 6 months with a [signed] copy of information page(s).
- Visa application form duly filled out with one 4×6 cm. sized photograph (white/blue background, taken within the past 6 months)
- Original Letter from employer to certify the employment
- Original letter for bank account confirmation from the bank and bank statement
- Confirmed air ticket [into and out of Thailand] and hotel booking [including name and address of the hotel]
- Supporting documents, i.e.
- Letter from the school/college/university certified by authorized school director and affixed by the seal of the school/college/university or
- Letter from the spouse and copy of marriage certificate and spouse’s identity card
There is a sign outside (we really wish we’d gotten a picture of) detailing what is acceptable dress at the embassy. Basically, they don’t allow shorts, t-shirts, sleeveless shirts or sandals. We’d both worn the nicest clothing we have with us, but it almost didn’t make the cut according to the sign (our nicer shoes are our sandals). From what we saw, they don’t stringently hold people to it though because we certainly saw women who looked like they’d just come from the beach and men in shorts, t-shirts and sandals. From our outside observation, though, it did sort of seem like those people were asked for more documents.
After spending a week in Kuala Lumpur, I think we can easily say that it’s one of our least favorite cities. To be fair, that might also have something to do with the fact that we were there during the time when the haze is at its worst every year, and this year just happened to be particularly bad. There are certainly a few interesting ways to spend your time, but mostly (as we discovered), it seems to be the place where everyone is waiting for visas. The fact that it’s a capital city and is the main hub of Air Asia makes it an ideal and inexpensive place to do so. It’s just, unfortunately, not the most pleasant of places to spend a week.
We were fortunate that we’d connected on Facebook with Natalia, a Polish girl we met only briefly at bar trivia in Kota Kinabalu, because it turned out that she was following us enough to realize that we were all in KL at the same time waiting for visas. She contacted us, and we wound up spending a nice bit of time together over a couple days. She had already been there for a week before we arrived because her Chinese visa was denied the first time–man, they are strict! And we thought the Thai visa was challenging. Fortunately, she did manage to get the visa on the second try…yay, Natalia! Hope you’re having a great time in Beijing!
The first time we hung out we took a trip out to the Batu Caves. And our second meeting the next day was quite miraculous, actually. We’d planned to meet for a movie, but we didn’t see Natalia in time, so we instead wandered around the fancy mall a bit and then went outside to view the Petronas Towers. We eventually made our way back inside and to the food court, ordered our food at the vegetarian restaurant…and ran into Natalia! Somehow, we’d timed it all just perfectly. Apparently, her train got stuck underground, and by the time she made it to meet us outside the movie, we’d already left. It was great hanging out together both times, and I hope we meet again someday!
Here are some highlights of our time in KL:
- Delicious Indian food on Leboh Ampang, which we returned to at least 5 times and never ate at the same restaurant twice
- Einstein Cafe, where they served very tasty vegetarian versions of local favorites and The Tapping Tapir’s local, natural sodas
- Arabesque’s delicious Middle Eastern food and very friendly Syrian owner. Bonnie got to play a series of backgammon games with him while we all chatted about his life and the situation in Syria
- The cats and iguanas living at our guesthouse
- The Islamic Arts Museum, which had gorgeous historical artifacts and impressive models of mosques and other Islamic-style architecture from around the world…and a wonderful gift shop! Based on internet advice, we were excited to try the restaurant there, but alas, for lack of any salt whatsoever and being spoiled by Frank’s mom’s cooking, it was not remotely worth the high cost.
- Sri Mahamariamman Temple, just around the corner from our guesthouse
- Petronas Towers, very interesting-looking and beautiful buildings
- Batu Caves, not only incredibly beautiful geologically but also an interesting visit to see the Hindu temple and sculptural depictions of the Ramayana
- We successfully got our 60-day Thai visas! We’ll talk about this in more detail in a later post.
On our way out, we spent our last night at the airport. It’s about an hour bus or train ride away from the city, and our flight left at 7AM. It just didn’t make sense to pay for a night at a guesthouse only to have to leave at 3AM. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones. Apparently, it’s so common to do this that several restaurants are open 24 hours a day, and there are designated resting areas in the terminal. Even with that, just about every carpeted space was covered with people sleeping. It’s not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep, but we didn’t care because we were too excited to get back to Chiang Mai!
The Town – Tanah Rata
After about 4 hours on a twisty, windy road, we made it up to the Cameron Highlands, specifically the town of Tanah Rata. Unfortunately, our first impression was not the best–lots of construction, road noise and car exhaust. From what others had told us about the place, we expected something pretty serene and quiet, but what we got was the opposite. Our hostel was located in the center of the town, which in our minds is basically a 2-storey, square-shaped strip mall…that’s the town. When we’d ask people where something was, they’d say “oh, it’s down the street and on the left,” to which we’d reply, “do you mean in this same building, the square?” They’d nod. We couldn’t quite believe that that was the entire town. After some exploring, we discovered that there is one other long bulding with shops along it, but yes, those two buildings are basically the town. In comparison to other mountain towns we’ve visited (looking at you, Sapa–you spoiled us), it really just doesn’t have much character. Mind you, this was our first impression, and it did get somewhat better over time. Another first impression was the chill in the air. We certainly welcomed the change, but it would have been nice to have a second blanket on the bed. And, although during the first couple days we thought we’d escaped the haze, it did eventually find us.
Although there was lots of construction, street noise and car exhaust, the hostel itself – Orchid Lodge – really was a lovely place. The people it attracted were very nice, and we met some friends while we were there. The first night, the hostel owner (or who we think is the hostel owner) and his friends cooked us a great communal dinner. They placed sheets on the floor of the common space, and we all sat in a circle to eat. The food was healthy, plentiful and delicious! We also finally learned how to eat the giant, prehistoric-looking things that look massive mesquite pods. After dinner, we were talked into checking out the one bar in town. It was ok, and in a sense, you could tell that they had no competition; they certainly weren’t grateful for our business the way some places are. Incidentally, that same principle applied to the haircuts we got on the other side of the square.
One friend we actually met on our ride up there: Ben, from London. Our schedules lined up, so we wound up basically hanging out the entire time we were there, which was nice.
Hiking on Our Own
On our first full day, we signed up for a tour (that we’d go on the next day) that was highly recommended by others at our hostel, and then we went out to do some self-guided hiking. The trails aren’t super well marked, but we did manage to find one pretty easy trail and then part of a harder trail that went up a hill. It wasn’t the most beautiful hiking we’ve ever done, but it was nice to get out of the commercial area.
Tour with Eco Cameron
The next day was our all day tour, which we did with Eco Cameron. We were somewhat apprehensive about what the guide would be like based on our past experiences with tours, but we were completely pleasantly surprised. He was a local of Indian descent who apparently speaks 4 languages fluently: Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Hindi and English. And he said he dabbles in Japanese because so many of the tourists are from Japan. His English was great, he had a fantastic sense of humor, and we learned so much from him throughout the tour. We’d hoped that the name “Eco” had some real significance, which we found out it did: our guide also does extensive conservation work. They’re working through the schools to teach the younger generation the importance of protecting natural resources. It sounded like he does work all over the region as well as in the Cameron Highlands.
The tour started out with a jeep ride to the highest point in the area that you could drive to. We were warned by those who’d done the tour before us that we might just end up looking at clouds and fog, which ended up being the case for us. We climbed an old metal tower up into the clouds, and it was really quite beautiful. We couldn’t see the view, but it was definitely a unique experience, nonetheless.
From there we drove to see a tea plantation, and fortunately, it was harvest time, so we could see how the tea is harvested. The plants themselves are quite old, and only the young, bright green shoots are harvested. The workers use a sort of scissors with attached containers to cut the leaves and then carry the cuttings in huge bags on their backs. The guide explained to us about growing tea in different altitudes and that only certain altitudes are really ideal. He also explained the different types of tea (green, black, oolong, etc.) and that they all come from the same plant–they’re just processed differently.
Next was our visit to the mossy forest. Our guide explained the ecology of the forest and its importance to the wider system. He stressed that this is some of the only forest of its kind left in the area and that if it’s lost, the water supply of the area will be severely threatened. The moss soaks up the moisture from the clouds and then it trickles down to the valley below. He also described the ground as “chocolate cake,” which is quite apt. Our shoes got super muddy, and the drier parts are very spongy from all of the moss. The forest also contained huge biodiversity, including pitcher plants of all sizes.
The tea processing facility for the company BOH (Best of the Highlands) was our next stop. We got to see all the steps from harvesting to drying, oxidizing/fermenting, sorting, etc. And then we all sampled a cup of tea. There was also a museum that better explained the processing steps and the development of the company.
After lunch, we also visited a strawberry farm, butterfly farm, local museum and Buddhist temple. All were interesting but less notable than the first part of the day.
Now you’re probably asking, what was the food like in this tiny town? Well, we actually had some of the better Indian food that we’d had thus far on this trip. “Steamboat” is the local food culture of the area, but it just didn’t really appeal to us, and we’d basically already tried it in Georgetown, so we stuck to some known favorites. Both Singh Chapati and Cameron AA Curry House served delicious Indian food that actually listened to us when we ordered it spicy. I remembered to use my tried and true strategy of asking the server for the best thing on the menu, and it turned out well again this time (unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of what I ordered though…). That’s how I first discovered bindi masala years ago, which has since become one of our favorites. We also tried Barracks Cafe, which inhabits a former military barracks had some delicious and unique food, including a chickpea burger with apple chutney and a chicken tikka masala sandwich.
From there, Ben was off to the Perhentian Islands, while we had to go take care of our Thai visa in Kuala Lumpur. He said the islands were beautiful, so maybe we’ll return someday to check them out.
First thought I have to get off my chest….Chinese tourists….Chinese tourists everywhere! Oh and second thought, Indonesia’s haze is still the worst thing ever. Seriously, burning rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations affects every single person’s day, all day, every day, in a palpably, uncomfortably negative way. Don’t buy anything with palm oil unless you want to participate in ruining millions of people’s day! Including us, at the moment!
We actually had some pretty good days in Melaka, despite the haze, though
Our main reference for hearing “Melaka” was a restaurant we enjoy going to in Tucson that used to be called Seri Melaka (after several name changes, it’s apparently now Neo Malaysian Kitchen). To my chagrin, I had no idea that Melaka was even a city, though, until recently. And more than that, it was even possibly founded by a fugitive Hindu prince from Java, was the center of a trading empire that became a vassal state to Ming China in a local power struggle with Siam, was visited by the famous Admiral Cheng Ho, was later inhabited by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and the British and the Japanese and phew–there’s quite a history to read about!
The part of Melaka that we were in – Chinatown, on the edge of Little India – seemed a lot like a compressed version of Georgetown, to us. That is, while Georgetown had a lot of restaurants and hostels and quirky hipster gems of cafes, they were all spread out because of the thing we’ve noticed all around Malaysia: there are closed, rundown, or even abandoned-looking places interspersed in between. In this part of Melaka, though, there was hardly any of that kind of non-space, so it all seemed a lot smaller and even more walkable. Some of our favorites included:
- Calanthe Art Cafe, which serves coffee from all thirteen states of Malaysia, artfully made breakfasts and laksa, and has innumerable pretty and snazzy coffee drinks (coffee and passionfruit? yes please!)
- Cheng Ho Tea House, which is in a four-hundred year old building, has an all-vegetarian menu (including fake goose!), and a giant 3D sort of map of Cheng Ho’s travels made out of stone and concrete
- Inside Scoop, which had some local flavors we enjoyed (gula melaka, kopi and teh tarik), and some local flavors we…opposite-of-enjoyed (cempedak and durian) Well, Bonnie doesn’t mind them so much, but she still wouldn’t order a whole one.
- Selvam Restaurant – a banana leaf-style restaurant, which means they serve the Indian food on a big banana leaf and spoon out whatever you order from a limited menu, and may or may not give you utensils (hint: lean over the leaf if you’re eating with just your hand unless you want food in your lap)
- Chin Hua Vegetarian Food is a little hole-in-the-wall place that had a vegetarian buffet where…well, we honestly had no clue what we were eating. But it was pretty good, incredibly cheap, and vegetarian, so we were happy.
And there were also some sites to see
For one, we were staying directly on Harmony Street, which…has its ups and downs, besides being conceptually interesting in having the major religions of Malaysia all peacefully worshipped on the same block. The ups include getting to see:
- Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, which is dedicated to Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism and dates back to 1645
- Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple, which is one of a couple Hindu temples claiming to be the oldest in Malaysia, and is mainly dedicated to a variant of Ganesh
- Kampung Kling Mosque, which is a beautiful mishmash of architectural styles ranging from Moorish to Asian to European to Indian, and, obviously, is a Muslim place of worship
The main downside was related directly to that last, the mosque, and partially was due to the fact that our second-story guesthouse room was directly in line with the mosque’s loudspeakers. Now, being woken up at the crack of dawn for a really LOUD call to prayer isn’t actually the worst thing, as annoying as it was after multiple days’ worth, though this youtube I found is a vastly better singer, and–unlike the one we heard–is standing a proper distance from the microphone, admittedly:
But being in our same guesthouse room for Eid Al-Adha and getting to hear the entirety of the holiday services on LOUDSPEAKER was flatly physically painful after a while, thanks to all those decibels. Bonnie put in earplugs, and it was still too loud to sleep.
We also saw some of the remaining fragments of A Famosa, a Portuguese fortress that once guarded the city, and the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, which was started all the way back in the 1500s, and was used as a base by St. Francis Xavier for his Asian travels. It’s a gorgeous ruin but is unfortunately filled with tchotchke-sellers, terrible would-be buskers, shrill pseudo-birdsong whistles and even graffiti in parts.
And, we saw just a little bit of Melaka-proper
Which was, honestly, mainly in service of getting some nice Indian food and seeing a movie to relax. The movie in question, offhand, was Sicario, which while being extremely violent, is also a very incisive social commentary and is gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins to best display some of our favorite desert from back home!
In some senses, Penang was a bit similar to Singapore: there’s a great diversity in the local population and culture (a mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian), and it’s a small island connected to peninsular Malaysia by bridges. It’s not a sovereign city-state, though, and is of course a part of Malaysia; it’s also not an economic powerhouse, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its own charm and history, naturally. We stayed mainly in George Town: the capital of the state of Penang, a quite old city founded by the British East India Company, and also in part a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We should note, our very first impression of the city was the Chinese festival occurring in almost every street and alley around us, which included things like incense logs eight or nine feet tall, ad hoc streetside temples, LOUD Chinese opera, piles of burning paper oblations, and Chinese pop singers (also LOUD) in glam-rock outfits. While that did, to the chagrin of our poor ears, color our first few nights, George Town itself was actually generally quiet and laid back, really.
The other thing that colored our experience: the haze
Colored everything a faint, smoky grey, that is. Also, this particular aspect of the environment was more to the chagrin of our respiratory systems, namely: an extending of colds that we already had, scratchy throats and coughing, and a persistent feeling for Frank that someone had given him a nice black eye, thanks to sinus pressure. It was a bit like being inside that moment when you’re by a campfire and the smoke keeps blowing in your face, but perpetually.
Thanks Obama! Actually, no, internet memes aside, it’s really more, “Thanks, Indonesia! You jerk of a country.” Granted, the wholesale burning of rainforest to clear it for vile palm oil plantations isn’t directly sponsored by the government, but it’s not exactly prevented either, and the complaints of neighboring, coughing and hacking countries are pretty much shrugged off. So, moral of the story: don’t buy or use or eat products with palm oil in them! Not only does it lead to massive destruction of important and rare ecosystems, it affects millions of people in the region negatively, to say little of the health of the people consuming it. It’s the devil’s oil!
*the Chinese cultural practice of burning gigantic piles of paper oblations in the middle of the already-prevailing palm oil funereal pall certainly didn’t help anything either. Thanks, Chinese locals!
The weird, omnipresent polarity in businesses
That is, every single storefront was either one or the other of two contrasting things: very successful, trendy and hip, or closed, falling apart, and abandoned. We never really did figure out what the deal with that dichotomy was, or why neighboring businesses could be so wildly different so consistently. In any case, here are a few places that did stand out for us amidst all the other end of the spectrum squalor:
- the nameless restaurant next to the big mosque that was only open from 10pm to 4am, and served tasty Indian-influenced Malay food…thanks for that one dinner when we got really hungry at midnight!
- Wheeler’s Coffee (we know you secretly own it, Jason!) for its rose-flavored latte and The Safe Room (though we never did try the liquid-nitrogen cooled popcorn) and the Moustache Houze for breakfasts and hanging out and using the WiFi – long and short of it, many of the cafes wouldn’t have seemed the slightest bit out of place in Tucson or Portland.
- Campbell House, for being a hotel waaaaay out of our price range and yet with an affordable and delicious restaurant where we could class it up
- Purrfect Cat Cafe for being the first cat cafe we’ve been to, though it’s interesting to note that while the Bengal cats they had were a great idea in being hypoallergenic, they’re way more playful than even slightly cuddly.
- Sushi Kitchen for having delicious vegan Japanese food. We actually went to both their Georgetown location and their super-outside-the-tourist-area location with our Grass Van friends (more on that later).
*honorable mention: the tacky jewelry stores with the lackadaisical security guards toting very sawed-off shotguns, because that’s not someone you want to cross, you know?
The Malaysian street food
Really, there’s two main sorts that we went to repeatedly. One was a particular fried noodle guy who looked like he’d been selling the same noodles for about 60 years. He had three types: flat and wide, medium and round, and tiny and round, all with the same savory flavor, sometimes with chili sauce, sometimes with fried onions. And: super incredibly affordable. It wasn’t enough for a meal unto itself, but it made for a fantastic snack. One of the nice things we’ve noticed with street food in Malaysia (and in Singapore) is that most things are ordered by size and have a corresponding price. You basically order by telling them how much your want to spend.
In a similar sense, we snacked for many days in a row at a stand that consisted of two continuously boiling pots of water and a smorgasbord of skewered bits of veggies, meats, mushrooms, sausages, and dumplings for curbside cooking. Then there was the large selection of sauces (spicy, salty, sweet and tangy, etc.) to spoon on top. So, basically, hot pot where you spend cents at a time on each color-coded-for-price skewer – it’s good stuff, and we’ve even pondered doing it for a party at home.
Penang’s Jewish Remnants
Although the places we’ve traveled so far aren’t exactly Jewish heritage hot spots, upon some research, we figured out that Malaysia once had a notable Jewish community, with Penang at its center. At one point, Penang had one of the only Jewish communities in Malaysia. Although there’s some evidence that Jews existed in Malaysia all the way back to the 9th century, it’s thought that Penang’s Jews arrived mostly from India in the 19th century. Some also came from Baghdad. When the Japanese invaded during WWII, many were evacuated to Singapore but some were imprisoned by the Japanese during that time. After the war, the majority immigrated to Australia, Singapore, Israel and the US. Only about 20 Jewish families remained in Penang by 1963, and Mordechai David Mordechai, the last Jew in Penang, died in 2011. Here are some other articles of interest: a visitor’s blog post, a news article about the last Jew, Jewish Times Asia article, article about remnants, and an American woman’s reflections.
After a bit of a trek outside of the tourist area, we managed to find the Jewish cemetery. It’s in a pretty out of the way spot, but it made us wonder what it must have looked like while the Jewish community was thriving in Penang. The cemetery is in decently good condition and is still open for burials.
When we first arrived, we were awkwardly followed around by a young Indian boy who didn’t seem to speak English. Eventually, a man whom we assumed to be his grandfather walked up to speak with us. He showed us a few notable graves, and we asked him a couple questions; it turned out that he had known He said that he known Mordechai David Mordechai (the person mentioned above), but we wondered if maybe they had been good friends, both from the way he talked about him and because he had been recruited to take care of the cemetery after Mordechai’s death. In a less personal sense, it was interesting to see a Hindu family conscientiously taking care of a Jewish cemetery, both in it being a tangential reflection of our relationship and religious cooperation in general.
Articles that we read referred to a synagogue in Georgetown, but it actually took a bit of research to figure out exactly where it once was. Nowadays, it’s mostly forgotten and has been converted into a photography studio, but the new owner purchased the building knowing the history and supposedly has worked to maintain the historical integrity of it. Knowing that, it’s somewhat strange to note that there’s no plaque or anything of the sort to denote its history. Unfortunately, the studio was closed the day we visited, so we didn’t get the opportunity to speak to the owner or see the inside. A circle near the roof had been painted over, so we wondered if maybe it was once a star of David or another Jewish symbol.
As we walked back to our hostel after a long day, we happened to see a van covered in fake grass parked on the street and remarked at how interesting that was. We saw who we assumed to be the owner, but he looked busy with a project, so we kept walking. Upon further discussion, we decided to turn around and introduce ourselves, and we were glad we did! We met Tobi, Carolin and their son Max from Germany. Tobi and Carolin have been traveling the world together for something like 4 years, and Max was born along the way in Australia. They’re now on their way back to Germany in their grass-covered van. We’ll be very interested to hear how their journey goes!
We wound up spending quite a bit of time with them, which included an evening of walking around town and dinner at Sushi Kitchen, and then the next day, they drove us in the grass van way outside the tourist area to find Cloud Dreaming Vegan Cake House. Sadly, it was closed the day we went, but Sushi Kitchen’s second location was right next door, so we had another delicious dinner there. We eventually did find baked goods, but instead from street vendors, including funny-colored sticky rice and funny pink turtle bread. We already had plans to head to the Cameron Highlands, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend more time with our new friends. Someday, somewhere over the world, we’ll meet again!
There is just flatly too much to do in Singapore for one trip! That said, it’s not an ideal city for backpackers – it has a very successful economy and is very developed, and so is consequently very expensive relative to the rest of the region. Luckily, via Frank’s mom and our friend Arlene back in Tucson, we had a connection with Arlene’s nephew Rick and his wife Robin, and thus a place to stay while we were visiting! Thanks for making the trip possible for us, guys!
Singapore is a really interesting and unique place – after it was forced out of the nascent Malaysian nation, it was a city on its own with little resources and a hugely ethnically diverse population. That might have been a recipe for disaster, but Singapore was having none of that – it became a powerhouse economically, militarily, and in terms of local cohesiveness. Just in walking around, we saw many little examples spinning off from that history, including:
- The first fighter jets we’ve seen/heard in Asia, which besides making us nostalgic for Tucson, led us into an investigation of Singapore’s disproportionately large and advanced military, and all of the history and strategy that lead to that state of being
- All the little things that lead to the city being as amazingly clean and orderly as it is, especially in regards to public transportation (more on that below)
- The sheer diversity of people happily coexisting in the city, which is similar in a sense to the diversity of the United States, but with more linguistic variability and English as a lingua franca (other official languages are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil)
And really, many more things – but we should get into more specifics about what we got to see!
Frank’s been excited to visit this Hindu temple for a long time now. It’s the first temple devoted to Kali we’ve been able to visit; Kali is Frank’s Ishta Devata, so in a sense, it was even a kind of pilgrimage. The temple is right in the middle of Little India, and even in the middle of the day on a weekday was hugely busy with devotees. The outside is overflowing with statues depicting various stories and divinities, and inside there are numerous shrines to deities specific to certain aspects of life and regional beliefs, including a few we looked up out of curiosity, like:
- Sri Piriyachi Amman – goddess with a brutally violent legend, yet who is associated with childbirth and protecting children
- Sri Dandapani, a variant of a god of war, literally “god with a club”
- Sri Dakshinamoorthy, a variant of Shiva known as a teacher for those who haven’t found a human teacher yet
There are also more well-known gods and goddesses, of course, like Lakshmi and Saraswati, but the main aspect of the temple is the cordoned off path leading straight to the statue of Kali in the center – it’s all very beautiful and complex and busy, both in terms of aesthetics and in people praying, meditating, and conversing. Also, there is delicious free food distributed at the back of the temple for whomever would like some – yet another example of a temple really being used and cared for, which we much preferred to many of the temples we’ve seen that have just become tourist attractions.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Although it’s a large city full of skyscrapers, we were quite impressed by just how much green space there is all throughout the city. One great example is the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which actually took two days to explore, and we definitely didn’t hit every part of it. In a sense, it’s like New York’s Central Park; it’s a large, gardened section of the city with paths full of people meandering and jogging and grassy lawns for picnicking and wedding photos. Just, there are more monitor lizards. They’re big and tame and everywhere, and when they suddenly rustle dead leaves next you, you may or may not yelp and dance away.
There are numerous interesting exhibits to wander through, from nut and fruit trees of the region to a surprisingly beautiful and variegated foliage exhibition (who knew just leaves could have so many colors, patterns, and shapes?), to a gorgeous bougainvillea garden (even with having unique variants like giant white bougainvillea, still doesn’t beat Frank’s mom’s unique bicolor one she used to have, though), a pleasant herb garden, and a “healing garden” with medicinal plants…not as aesthetically pleasing, but interesting.
Frank’s favorite aspect was the “fragrant garden” – it had flowers that radiated aromas of all sorts, from citrus-y to the unpleasant “cream donut that went off two days ago” to the bizarre and head-swimmingly strong plant that smelled like some sort of ambrosia version of incense.
The crown jewel, however, was the National Orchid Garden. Featuring a huge garden of almost entirely just orchids (and a small section for bromeliads), there were enough unusual and beautiful varieties to rival and even beat out Orchid World in Barbados. And almost all, of course, interestingly without needing a greenhouse! Of course, that also meant we were hot and sweaty, but that’s being one degree off the equator for you.
Singapore Art Museum
This museum provoked a discussion between us: must art necessarily be beautiful to be art, or can it also be not at all beautiful and yet thought provoking? The other discussion that was provoked was during a free tour we happened to be on time for: just how annoying can that Indian couple be while interrupting both each other and the tour guide continuously?
The current motif the museum was centering its works around was “Utopias” – not in an idealized paradise sort of way, though, but rather a more depressing paradise-lost or flawed sort of manner. Installations included a (relatively tame) nude photography piece that had apparently set off protests and political scandal in Indonesia, a giant hollow metal ball that an artist had slowly rolled across Cambodia, a dieselpunk war machine made entirely out of paper and cardboard, and an unnerving, shiver-inducing disco ball/bomb piece with accompanying ominous audio placed inside a former chapel.
Asian Civilizations Museum
The ACM seemed to be one of the more famous museums in Singapore, so we decided to check it out as well. Set along a very pretty river waterfront, it displays historical artifacts from all across Southeast Asia and Oceania. The artifacts themselves were interesting, but the more engaging part was really getting to work through the way the various civilizations of the region (the modern versions of which we’ve been traveling through for months) interacted over the centuries. A small exhibit on Singapore’s relatively short but still significant history happened to be up when we were there, and, also the whole museum is free, so you can’t go wrong there.
Singapore Public Transport
Is crazypants good. There are buses constantly going in seemingly every direction, and to startlingly precise locations even in residential areas, to boot. In fact, the buses were so useful that we flipflopped our usual preference of preferring the metro, though the subway was perfectly good as well. With the cards we were able to borrow from Robin, it was also eminently affordable – yes, the buses admittedly do take longer than a cab (about an hour from where we were staying to most things), we weren’t in any rush.
Lightsabers and Exercise
Speaking of the metro (#awkwardsegue), we got to take a pretty unique exercise class under a metro overpass. Thanks to Kevin and Imgur, we discovered the Saber Authority, a group who gets together to practice fighting with lightsabers. We’ll put a link there just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t seen a Star Wars movie (Frank: We know you saw it, Mom, even if it was on a bad first date, heh). The Saber Authority’s lightsabers are durable and slightly flexible plastic, so they can be whacked into each other fairly hard, and also do the trademark light and noises really well. The actual class, which had both drills and sparring, is based on Filipino martial arts and aikido, so it’s both more legit than randomly playing around (which would still be fun, of course) and is great exercise.
Speaking of exercise (#bettersegue), Singapore is the first city we’ve seen in Asia or Oceania with people exercising everywhere. Granted, some of the roads in Thailand and Vietnam would be borderline suicidal to try to jog on, but it was really refreshing to see both people running along the roads and park paths and exercising in huge groups in school fields.
Dinner With Zoe!
We also got to meet up with a friend we’d made in Chiang Mai during a Tantric yoga retreat, Zoe! Hi Zoe! She’s a Singapore local, and was kind enough to meet us at Keng Eng Kee, a local outdoor restaurant for chili crab. Chili crab, while being exciting in being crab and a national dish, is unfortunately way the hell out of our budget. Nonetheless, we rallied and tried coffee-glazed ribs and salted egg calamari, both flavorful and delicious!
Zoe also explained some ins and outs of Singapore culture to us, including the local analogue of social security, which promotes financial literacy and gives each person discrete savings that they can keep track of – it’s pretty cool. Hope the upcoming election goes the way she wants it to!
Gardens By The Bay
Regardless of whether we had seen them in Hitman: Agent 47, the Gardens by the Bay definitely caught our eye each time they slid into view from a bus. One can easily see why they were put into a near-future science fiction movie – they’re like botanical gardens that time-traveled from the future. To our sadness, we only got to them when we’d really run out of time, and so didn’t get to see the inside of the snazzy dome-greenhouses they have. We did make a point of checking out the skywalk in the Supertree Grove, which are huge towers that combine horticultural architecture and solar power, though!
Shopping in Funan DigitaLife Mall and Sim Lim Square
Well, we attempted to shop in Sim Lim Square. But it was just a big building full of dingy, dubious shops and jerks who laughed in our faces when asked questions and then tried to get us to spend hundreds of dollars in the next breath. So, nuts to that place.
Funan DigitaLife Mall, on the other hand, is six floors of friendly, helpful, and clean shopping. Aside from a few restaurants (where we tried kaya toast), it’s exclusively devoted to electronics, cameras, computers, games, gadgets and similar. Shopping in Singapore? Shop in Funan – we found everything we were looking for there.
And, the food really doesn’t have to be expensive
Contrary to popular opinion, that is. The trick is to look for hawker stalls and food courts, the former of which are a lot like Portland foodtruck pods, and the latter of which are like mall food courts in the USA, but Asian-themed and much more affordable. In the first one we went to, for example, we tried starfruit juice, carrot cake (hint: the cake is a lie! #Portalreference), and duck over noodles. It’s good stuff, and for cheap.
For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Singapore’s airport has a bit of a reputation. To give you an idea, it’s often the first thing people enthusiastically mention when you tell them that you’re going to Singapore, and if you look it up on Google, the airport has a 4.6 rating with over 1,100 reviews. Even within the airport, just about every station (even bathrooms, security and immigration) asks you for feedback on a touchscreen computer. We were in terminal 1, and although we’d allowed some extra time, we didn’t quite have enough time to visit the Butterfly Garden, Sunflower Garden, Orchid Garden, 12-meter tall slide, video games or movie theaters at the other terminals. If we hadn’t checked our bags, we could have gone swimming in the rooftop pool in our terminal. However, if one were so inclined, there was at least one store in the swanky shopping area where you could buy swimsuits and flip flops. Our terminal also featured the Social Tree, Cactus Garden, Piazza Garden, claw games to win prizes, Be A Changi Millionaire (a game for those who’d spent at least S$30), and various other art installations and attractions. Next time we’ll have make a day of it.
One of the reasons Bonnie and I travel without planning very far (if at all) in advance is that we’re banking on the chance to meet interesting people, and to take advantage of the interesting opportunities that often come with them. Case in point: our new friend Louise! We met her at the ROR Festival where she was giving a talk on pangolins and conservation – I wanted to talk with her not only because she gave a great lecture, but also because pangolins were my all-time favorite animal when I was growing up. Hence, it was to our delight that she offered we might tag along on some work she had to do that directly relates to pangolins and saving them from poaching. On top of that, we’d been very much wanting to explore the rainforest, but had been finding it almost impossible to do it without an expensive, touristy tour, so bonus was compounding upon bonus!
First of all, Brunei
We’d been pondering going to Brunei anyway, as it turns out – we had found the idea of a small, peaceful monarchy keeping to itself in the midst of Malaysian Borneo intriguing, despite the naysaying of other travelers. Namely, mostly Australians decrying it because of confiscated cigarettes at the border and being unable to drink because alcohol is outlawed. But hey, neither of those is really a problem for us! To explain a little, Brunei is indeed tiny, but is also wealthy all out of proportion to its size because of oil wealth – thus, along with seemingly quite effective government and Muslim cultural values, its best adjectives are “relaxing, peaceful, and unassuming.” It also has a huge portion of almost untouched rainforest relative to its overall size, making it great for the research Louise is doing.
There are three options for getting into Brunei: by plane, by bus, and by boat. By plane was a bit too expensive from where we were in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia; going by bus, there are seven checkpoints to get through (check out that little leg of Brunei in the east, and imagine getting across all those borders to get to the main part). So we went by ferry, but actually ended up spending an extra night in KK because of the ferry clerks misinforming us about which ferry to get on. Womp womp. But hey, with our extra day in KK we got to see Hitman: Agent 47 and get some fun ideas for Singapore because of it, so we had that going for us, which is nice. Little sidenote for other travelers: when you get to Labuan to switch ferries, take the time to immediately go pay the exit/entry tax before you go grab lunch, otherwise you’ll be sweating in the tiny ticket office room and then sprinting to catch the next ferry because you didn’t think to check about that. Like us.
Also, once you get to Brunei’s capital, BSB, there may or not be a taxi or any sort of transport available for the 30km to the city from the ferry dock. We were lucky enough to get a taxi sort of ride from a random guy who happened to be loitering there (and quick-sketch portraits from an art student Korean gal we shared the car with!), but that could have easily gone a very different way. Also, unless you get one of the more expensive hotels, your hotel may or may not be halfway out of the capital at the back end of long series of mechanic shops and alleys run by stray dogs. Like ours was.
Bandar Seri Begawan
But that said, most of the capital seems, like I said above, to be peaceful and unassuming – even at the back of all the mechanic shops. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that much of it even seems like a giant country club, complete with grassy lawns and fancy but classy architecture.
Even though we were delayed by a day, we actually ended up having the perfect amount of time to see what we wanted to see. Number one was the Royal Regalia Museum, which displays both the various clothing and ceremonial weapons used in a Bruneian coronation ceremony (hint: lots and lots and lots of gold-plated everything, including a hand to hold the sultan’s chin) and all the gifts given by various countries upon said coronation. It’s nice on two counts: it amounts to being something of a hugely varied art museum, and it’s free. Oh and it’s also very air conditioned. So it’s nice on three counts, then.
Number two was the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, which, like the rest of the city, is fancy but also generally understated and not overdone in its decoration and style. I have to say, having just driven by the other big mosque in the city, I think I might have rathered to have seen that other one – it looked way more colorful – but I appreciated the simple white and gold exterior of this one.
Last was a quick survey of the water village, a historical area of the city that exists entirely over water on stilts and boardwalks. This we did after crossing a very long rickety, swaying, rotting wooden bridge that we initially shied away from, but then we remembered our time hanging out with the Moab Monkeys. Then we just had to cross the bridge.
Foodwise, we simply had to try the national dish of Brunei, ambuyat, partly because it’s a vegetarian national dish, and partly because it sounded so bonkers. And lo, it totally was bonkers. A side order of ambuyat netted us a big pot of translucent, mucus-y goop – it’s eaten (aka, slurped and chew-swallowed) by pinching a smidge with springy, connected chopsticks, twirling until you get a smaller blob from the big blob, dipping said blobbie in a condiment, and then pretending it’s a vegetarian oyster. Except an oyster that’s still alive and trying to fight back. My opinion? It would actually be really good with dessert-themed condiments, given its perfectly flavorless on its own, but with the sauces they gave us, mm-mm, nopers.
We also got to watch a nature documentary and hang out with some of the good people at 1stop Brunei Wildlife, which lead into…
The rainforest! And what we were doing there.
So. Brunei has oil wealth, check. But oil is non-renewable…and now the country is starting to think about that, and how it can’t be passing out government jobs to everyone, and how most people here don’t know entrepreneurship or private enterprise very well….and how that might lead to developers moving in and logging, and cutting down the rainforest for other things, like the endless palm oil plantations we saw in Sabah.
How does this tie into us hanging out in the rainforest? Well, Louise and the crew from 1stop have set up several cameras out in an almost untouched area to capture images of wildlife that pass likely-looking areas. The cameras snap photos – in both daylight color and infrared – when they sense an animal’s presence, and every image of wildlife seen is valuable for general wildlife research. They’re also hoping to build evidence of the presence of all sorts of species, evidence that could possibly be used to help slow down development of the rainforest. All of our hiking was to get to the cameras, check their batteries and replace the memory cards to see what photos had been collected.
Aw, yeah. Rainforest.
First, though, we started with some night-spotting: walking very, very slowly out into the pitch-black forest, shining flashlights and headlamps in all directions, looking for eye-shine from animals (we saw some slow lorises…lorisii?) and some other oddities, like a gorgeous red and blue puffball of a sleeping bird, bright alien-looking ginger flowers, small orchid-looking flowers and a scuttling crab in a stream. And heard lots of fun noises, like the kind that lead our new Bruneian friend Nazri to spin towards me and whisper with wide eyes, “Did you hear that too?!” Yes, yes I did, and yes I did wonder whether I was in a horror movie for a moment.
We spent the night on the floor of the common room of an Iban longhouse – they were some wonderfully hospitable folk, for which we were very grateful. Also, interestingly, Iban people were once the famous headhunters of Borneo, but nowadays they farm durian. Unless that’s just a cover….but no, they were super friendly and generous; they’re really cool.
By day, the rainforest was much more colorful and expansive than the green tunnel it had seemed to be at night. It was actually nicely shady for the most part, thanks to the extensive tree canopy above – a boon which also was of great benefit when heavy rains started later in the day, and the same canopy acted as a kind of giant, leaky umbrella. I should slip in a small note somewhere in here: leeches. Wriggly, sticky, inch-wormy, bloodsucking leeches that crawl up under your clothing and stick to sometimes very awkward places. Leeches. Most of the time (but not always), it was possible to feel the moment they’d latch on and then pull them off immediately. Bonnie, however, ended up with two very happy (and fat) leeches at the end of the day that she didn’t notice until she changed her clothes. #bodyhorror
While the hiking was often quite challenging, especially after the rains came and made everything about five times as slippery and muddy, being in the rainforest was pretty amazing. And that’s especially true given how almost untouched this particular rainforest was – we were one of only five or six people that had been around there for probably decades. The sheer abundance of life, variability and oftentimes strangeness of it, and the epic scale of it all (re: endless, cloud strewn jungle glimpsed from an abandoned military outpost at the tip-top of a narrow ridge) is absolutely going to stick in our memories. And, the photos taken from Louise’s cameras were a great success – she got everything from argus pheasant to wild boar to civet cat to squirrel to something of a holy grail: a clouded leopard!
Sabah, Borneo, to be precise. We spent the past several days volunteering at the ROR (Rhythms of Rimba) Wildlife Festival in Sepilok. The Borneo ROR is a 2-day outdoor festival of art, music and adventure, bringing together wildlife conservation organizations and scientists from Sabah and around the world.
Frank worked to manage the flow of traffic up to the “human nest,” a rope net handmade and suspended over the lake by the Moab Monkeys, designed to give festival goers an idea of how animals live in the rainforest. Frank got to see some of their amazing highlining tricks up close as they walked the anchoring lines from the trees to the net. They also set up a slackline near the festival entrance so people could try it out for themselves.
Bonnie worked at a booth near the entrance to the festival, helping to direct traffic and selling merchandise. It was a fun location because she was able to see all of the wonderful masks that people made for the festival. The purchase of a ticket entitled each person to download a mask template from Wintercroft, four that were specifically designed for the festival to represent four threatened species in the area. You can purchase templates on their website. People made and decorated masks at home and then a contest was held each afternoon of the festival to judge the best masks. Bonnie’s favorite was an incredibly intricate elephant mask that looked like it was covered in henna tattoos.
Since pangolins were Frank’s favorite animal when he was younger, Bonnie wanted to make sure he’d have an opportunity to hear the presentation about them. Louise Fletcher from IUCN/SCC Pangolin Specialist Group spoke about her work with them, and then Frank got to speak with her briefly afterward. Sadly, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world and are critically endangered. Apparently, they’re poached to be used as meat, for their scales and for the illegal pet trade.
After our work was done, we took a walk through the canopy walkway, high above the ground. It’s quite amazing to view the rainforest from above and try to imagine what it might be like to live in the treetops.
In the days before the festival, we had the opportunity to visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Jocelyn, Bonnie’s friend from high school and one of the festival organizers, works with these organizations locally. Check out her work here! Thanks, Jocelyn, for giving us the opportunity to work at the festival!
We also enjoyed some delicious food from Lindung Gallery Restaurant and then attempted to help with the fancy dessert for the VIP dinner by making chocolate domes; it didn’t pan out, alas, but it was still an interesting volunteer task to dip balloons in chocolate.
Let’s see, what else have we done so far in Chiang Mai…
Muay Thai fights!
We went with a couple people from Lantern House Backpackers, along with discounted tickets; thus, we learned a great deal about teaching English in South Korea from a pleasant Canadian fellow while watching people beat each other up!
Who, you might ask, were beating each other up on a raised platform amidst multiple cheap bars and cheap tables with cheap seats? Well, there were several rounds of slight and yet very hard hitting teenagers, for one. Now we can conclusively say we’ve seen one teenager knock another one out cold. There were also the more main-event, more professional seeming older fighters, of course, which were interesting, but not as interesting as the two female fights. One was between two Thai women, and was one of the more technically impressive fights Frank had seen in a while (at least since seeing Ronda Rousey do her thing only days before, anyway). The other was between a Thai woman and an American woman, and it was a complete throw-down. Muay Thai fighters aren’t exactly known for bobbing and weaving, either, and these women lived up to that reputation and took it on the chin in a battle of attrition that went the distance.
There were a couple unexpected things, also: one was a strange little interlude wherein a group of teenage fighters (and one very obese teen) tied on blindfolds, and then play-fought while completely blind. Or maybe actually fought, in moments? It was both comical and wince-inducing to see them stumbling around. Or another way to look at it:
As amusing as that was, however, the real highlight was an a choreographed exhibition of krabi krabong, the traditional Thai weapons-based martial art. Thus: two guys acting out a pretty solid-fight scene with two swords each, including moments both comic and skillful.
Yoga and Meditation Retreats!
Which were actually quite a contrast from each other. Both were affordable, one remarkably so, and the other especially so because we caught an early-bird price at the beginning of the month we were here, but other than that, they were almost on either end of a spectrum.
The first was a Buddhist meditation retreat through Wat Suan Dok, a large and beautiful temple on the west side of the old city. They have a “monk chat” program that encourages people to come and, as the name suggests, chat with the monks to learn about their lifestyle and for the monks to practice English. Tangenting from this is the meditation retreat we attended, which is a silent couple of days at the International Meditation Center a good bit outside of Chiang Mai. We learned – and practiced for pretty solid amounts of time – concentration, walking, and Vipassana meditations. We also learned a great deal about the life of Buddhist monks in Thailand during a question and answer session towards the end of the retreat. Unfortunately, some rather strident people took it upon themselves to use that time to challenge the monk’s beliefs about diet and women, which he handled well enough that it wasn’t nearly as awkward as it could have been. Luckily, Bonnie came to his rescue and stood up for him, to the audible agreement of several other people in the crowd.
At that retreat we also got to practice some qi gong, a Chinese exercise similar in some ways to kung fu, thanks to Dr. Anchalee Gibbins. Bonnie and I even made a special trip later on to see her perform tai chi for the queen’s birthday!
The second retreat was through Tantra Yoga Chiang Mai. It was at a similar meditation center, though this one was an ashram built to more Hindu specifications, and was beautiful in its symbolic architecture. Here we learned about several topics over five days, including tantric philosophy, lucid dreaming, and tantric meditation. Incidentally, contrary to pop culture (and to our simultaneous appreciation and disappointment), “tantric” doesn’t necessarily mean “sex.” We were happily occupied with what there was, in any case, even with waking up at 4am for meditation and yoga to enhance our chances of lucid dreaming. It also helped that there was delicious and creative vegetarian food for every meal!
Also, some movies.
They’re cheap, come with assigned seats, and are a perfect break when we’re tired of walking in the heat. And so, we saw:
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – BOMP. BOMP. BOMP BOMP BOMP. BOMP. BOMP BOMP BOMP.
Inside Out – Based in part on the work of one of our idols, Dr. Paul Ekman, this movie is like a really engaging, narrative manual of emotions and psychology. Which makes it sound a little dry (it’s not), and is actually one of our favorite movies now.
Fantastic Four – Fantastic Four….is not so much one of our favorite movies now. From the director of Chronicle, which was great, there’s a similar moody, dark-science, pensive atmosphere to this one, which really fits the material. But, yeah, like everyone and their mother has said, with anything more than a surface inspection, it’s really just not good.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – No, we didn’t see it twice, it’s just the theme song is really catchy. And it’s basically another Mission Impossible movie, and hence, a little formulaic, but you know what you’re getting into – and, it has a strong, eminently capable female character for once. Winning!
We also learned stuff.
Frank took an art class at NoiNa Art Studio, specifically, drawing with pencil – it was an almost silent experience, but filled with learning and a great time perhaps because of that.
Bonnie spent the day at Thai Farm Cooking School. The school picked up Bonnie and the other 9 students in the morning, and the first stop was at a beautiful local market where she learned about the various ingredients. They then drove to the farm and took a short tour of the various plants. Apparently, they grow all of their own herbs (cilantro, green onion, lemongrass, etc.), galangal, kaffir lime, etc. organically. The setup was such that each student had his own preparation and cooking space, one thing that we haven’t had in our cooking classes up until now. So it was great to actually do all of the cooking independently after the demonstration from the wonderful teacher, Garnet. Step by step, she learned to make curry paste from scratch, soups, curries, stir-fries, spring rolls and desserts and then received a beautiful, full-color recipe book at the end. Bonnie had read in another blog that it was actually a good idea to take a class in which they also make meat (of course with vegetarian options)–that way it’s easy to know which items usually include fish sauce, oyster sauce, etc. This class was great in this way because the vegetarian alternatives were automatically given for every dish.
And another temple
This one was the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (usually known as Wat Doi Suthep, but that’s just the name of the mountain). Unfortunately, it was a bit more of a tourist trap than we’d expected, considering that’s about 30 minutes up a steep windy road, but we still enjoyed it. The views were certainly spectacular. Bonnie noted that you can’t actually see your surroundings while you’re in the temple itself, only while you’re in the outer courtyards. Frank suggested that maybe it’s on purpose, and they wouldn’t want worshipers to be distracted by the views. Walking the many steps leading up to the temple compound is apparently supposed to be meditative–and maybe it is to some extent–but the bottom of the steps is covered with vendors selling everything from fruit to clothing and other souvenirs.
And another museum
We visited the Art in Paradise illusion art museum. We weren’t quite sure what it was, as guidebooks don’t really give you a very good idea, but all the reviews on Trip Advisor were great. The walls are covered with paintings that made to look like they’re popping out from the wall. Some pieces work better than others, but overall it’s a fun experience. Oftentimes there was a sticker on the floor telling the photographer where to stand for an optimal photo, so that was helpful. We did think that the 300 Baht ticket price was a bit steep though.