Wanderlust Wednesday – a Mental Break in Langkawi

“So She ran away in her sleep, and dreamed of paradise" Coldplay - Taking some time out with day dreaming of Langkawi

There are so many places in the world that I want to visit, I wonder how I will ever have the time, let alone the funds! It can be a disparaging thought when choosing the next place to explore. Do I want a winter vacation or a summer holiday (I will pick summer every time), do I want to relax or do I want to jump out of a plane, do I want to dance all night long or curl up by a fire with a good book? Choosing a new place to visit is a task in its self.  Today, I am not dreaming about an unknown shore or a lonely mountain peak, but about a place I have already been, a place that I have sworn I will make it back to, a place that completely satisfied my desire for sunshine and adventure.  On this Wanderlust Wednesday I am dreaming about heading back to Langkawi, Malaysia.

Wanderlust dreaming of Langkawi, Malaysia - closest thing to complete paradise!

Why visit Langkawi? Apart from the pristine beaches, crystal clear water and soothing weather. Langkawi is still a relatively untouched must see destination by the backpacking crowd.  Most backpackers get caught up in the Thai full moon scene and never make it down to this charming archipelago – it may be that they are scared off by the alcohol restrictions. The infrastructure in Malaysia far outstrips several of its neighbours so the streets on Langkawi are well-lit and feel safe. The hotels and hostels are all amazing and still cheaper than you pay across the major touristy parts of Thailand.

Quick facts: Langkawi is a group of over 100 islands off the coast of Malaysia in the Andaman Sea near the Thailand border – the largest and most popular island is Pulau Langkawi. As Malaysia is a predominant Islamic country alcohol can be hard to find, however, on Pulau Langkawi you can purchase duty-free alcohol. The few islands that are populated are generally geared towards tourism, with it being a favourite holiday destination for the Malay.

Wanderlust dreaming of Langkawi, Malaysia - closest thing to complete paradise!

How to get there:

  • Fly – Langkawi has its own airport which you can get connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok
  • Ferry – if you are travelling around the main land there are plenty of ferries that go from the main land as well as the neighbouring island of Penang.  If you are travelling down from Thailand you can catch one from the Thai town of Satun.

Let’s talk about food: The British Empire colonised Malaysia and used it as a trading and military base with the rest of Asia, in doing so it has collected an extremely diverse population which has been reflected in the food. Malaysian food is often mistaken for chinese, however it generally uses a wider variety of vegetables and fruits and incorporates its large Indian populations love of curry into many of its dishes.  As a rule – if you don’t like things spicy or hot, ask for the REALLY MILD version of any dish.  If you do like things hot, I would still suggest starting low and working your way up as the Malay’s have a unique take on what constitutes a “little” chilli.  Malaysian food is one of my favourite cuisines – not only because of the chilli but because they often create a great mix of spice, fruit and fresh vegetables. Make sure you clean out your sinuses with a big bowl of fresh Tom Yum Soup.  Or instead of your boring toast for breakfast go in search for what some of the locals have – it’s often curry.

Wanderlust dreaming of Langkawi, Malaysia - closest thing to complete paradise!

When you feel like relaxing:

  • There is no end to the beautiful beaches that surround the main island of this archipelago – so even if you don’t make it to any of the smaller islands you can spend numerous days and hours lolling about on the sand with a coconut in hand. The main beaches are sparsely populated unlike the other major beach destinations on the beaten track.
  • If however, this is too crowded I suggest hiring a scooter or car and heading in search of a more private beach… there are plenty of them around!
  • If you feel like leaving the beach but not doing anything to strenuous – head up to the Langkawi Cable Car for spectacular views of the rainforest and the whole island.
  • Depending on what time of year you are there you may encounter some afternoon monsoon rains – I believe that this as an instruction from the earth to go have a nap.

Wanderlust dreaming of Langkawi, Malaysia - closest thing to complete paradise!

When you feel like exploring:

  • If you have a bunch of energy, climb up the 500 stairs to the top of the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, when you reach the top you will be glad you dragged your swim suit all that way.
  • There are loads of boat tours that can take you around to the other islands nearby – such as Dayang Bunting Island which has a freshwater lake in the middle where you can take a quick dip.
  • Snorkelling is always a must – its not as good as you will find in other parts of South East Asia but if you aren’t too picky about how brightly coloured your fish are then it is still quite spectacular.
  • You can also do a tour through Kilim Karst Geoforest Park which is jam-packed full of monkeys, birds, insects, mangroves and stunning photo ops!

NOTE: Loads of tours offer eagle feeding as part of the experience – if you feel strongly against exploiting animals out of their natural feeding habits make sure you research your trip thoroughly first.

Shutting Down the Day Dream: Langkawi is the closest thing I have been to the fabled paradise, so much so that when I am having “one of those days” where you wish you were somewhere that would sooth your soul and help you relax, I immediately picture Langkawi – I definitely have to go back one of these days!

FINAL NOTE: Don’t trust the monkeys!

Wanderlust dreaming of Langkawi, Malaysia - closest thing to complete paradise!

Little sneaks stole someones tabacco right out of their back pocket! You have been warned!


25 Tips for Surviving South East Asia with your Sanity

Heading for a trip to South East Asia and not sure what to expect? Trying to get your head around all the stories (good and bad) to work out what to do? See below for a list of 25 tips on how to survive one of the most exciting, random and colourful regions in the world.

Night Noodle Markets

  1. “Thai time” is anytime except the specified time – no point getting angry that the bus is six hours late, pull up a piece of curb and get used to the wait.
  2. If you pay the actual price for ANYTHING – you’re being ripped off.  Having said that, sometimes think about what that last dollar you are haggling over means to you and what it will mean to the other person.

    Markets Luang Parbang

    Markets Luang Parbang

  3. A “little hot” means – very very hot, so hot your eyes will water and your lips will go numb. Chili eating contests are fun… just make sure you have a large beer handy to numb the pain.
  4. Prepare yourself for food poising so bad that you will wish you were dead – it will happen at least once.
  5. Don’t think about what the black stuff that soon covers your feet in sandals or thongs is as you tramp the city streets actually is.
  6. Embrace the taste of pancakes and fruit shakes. They are amazing!
  7. Sitting in a “friends bar” is the best way to cure a bucket hangover. Let the antics of Joey and Phoebe wash away the pain of the night before (Koh Phangan and Vang Vieng have the best ones complete with fruit shakes and pancakes)
  8. It is impossible to have only 1 bucket…Motos Saigon
  9. Have a few drinks with your fellow backpacker before you agree to spend the next few days travelling with them.
  10. Motos are fun… and dangerous – pack Band-Aids… lots of Band-Aids
  11. Try to acclimatise yourself to the hot weather by not using air con; don’t be disappointed if you don’t succeed.
  12. It is impossible to drown out the Cambodian/Vietnamese pop played on the local buses with your iPod.
  13. Don’t expect Western food to taste anything like you have ever tasted before – give it up otherwise your taste buds will hate you

    Cooking School Cambodia

    Cooking School Cambodia

  14. The longer you travel the less you use the hand sanitizer as you realise that it really makes no difference except in your head.
  15. Take a cooking class or three – best way to experience the local food, meet people and spend a pleasant evening.
  16. Don’t trust monkeys – they are cute and devious
  17. All material possessions are replaceable – repeat this to yourself as you realise something of yours has been stolen.
  18. Fire dancing is best left to the professionals if you care about your arm hair and dignity
  19. Nobody can get an audience moving and grooving like a Thai cover band.
  20. Careful when taking off your thongs (flip flops) when entering most shops and restaurants, someone else may mistake them as theirs and you will leave with mismatched thongs
  21. It is inevitable that your bus will break down… On a hill.Monkey Batu Caves
  22. Prepare to argue with other travelers about whether that girl, is in fact – a guy.
  23. All the good temples are at the top of hundreds of stairs… your thighs will burn baby burn!
  24. You will plot the DJ’s death once he has played the same song 6 times in the last two hours
  25. You are having the time of your life – don’t sweat the little things!
Paradise found: Langkawi

Paradise found: Langkawi

Oodles of Noodles – who can resist a Noodle Market?

My favourite Sydney festival is on at the moment  – the Sydney International food Festival!  Seriously can you think of a better festival?

  • No overpriced ticket
  • No standing in line for hours to get into VIP areas only to then have your view restricted by the overly large heads that are in front of you
  • No standing in the sun all day
  • Great food
  • Great wine
  • You can leave, and come back
  • Your ears don’t ring for days
  • There is a greater variety of activities/eating opportunities
  • And most importantly – clean port-a-loos!

My favourite part of the festival is the Noodle Markets, which are running at the moment through the middle of the week in Hyde Park. What’s involved is all of Sydney’s best Asian restaurants (it has to be mentioned some of it’s not so good) put on a stall and sell their specialty – whether that it is Dim Sum, Spring Rolls, Peking Duck or noodles.  The fifty odd medieval style tents sprawl through Hyde Park emitting delicious smells throughout the whole city centre.  I find myself absently meandering towards them even when I have a perfectly good dinner waiting for me at home – who can resist a noodle market?

Noodle Markets in Kuala Lumper – who can resist?

However, as I sit under the trees (which have multi coloured spot lights shone onto them in order to give them a ghostly eerie look – what happened to good old-fashioned fairy lights?) gorging on my third duck pancake I can’t help but feel it’s missing the mark.

In review its most definitely not the food that’s letting the team down (that’s spectacular!!) – it’s the atmosphere.  It’s a weak attempt to generate the excitement that could be had at a real noodle market.

My first complaint was with the lighting.  On my first trip to South East Asia I took at least half a role (this was before I had upgraded to digital – and as I haven’t yet scanned any of my analogue pictures I can’t supply the evidence) of pictures of the extreme wiring.  I needed evidence for people back home, who wouldn’t comprehend nearly a hundred wires crisscrossing across the street with lanterns hanging off of them. One of my favourite markets is in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon), where bustling streets are lit with the soft light of fluorescent once it has shone through paper-mache.  Now I am not saying that the city of Sydney should have branched out and created an obvious fire hazard, but I am sure it would have been possible to have more lines of lanterns and fairy lights flowing across the green other than the token few that lined the entrance.

My next point of order was with the entertainment. It was a strange mix of different themes that may have blended well if they weren’t all done at half-mast.  First, the stage, where a strange noise was erupting from, to quote my Irish friend “Oh God what is that… is she doing the Mariah Arms?” – it wasn’t pleasant or soothing, it was grating and, even I (tone-deaf and with no sense of rhythm) could hear that the performer was missing and loosing half of the notes.  What was worse was that this performer was followed by a guy with a guitar who morosely sang into the microphone only to be drowned out by the crowds that were now swarming in front of the food stands – he may as well not have been there.  As I stared at the stage I had a flash back to the food markets in Chang Rai on the northern Thai border.  At the time I was staying above a pub in a room that was costing no more than $2 a night on a mattress that had some very suspicious look stains (a sleeping sheet is the one thing I wont travel without!). Obviously I didn’t want to hang in my room all night and the pub downstairs was a little too loud and glary for the peace and quiet my body was craving. Instead I trundled over to the night markets, it was early so I was able to get a good table and pile my plates with a sample of everything.  As I sat there the night slowly got darker and crowds start appearing.  Unlike most markets it’s not dominated by the tourist crowd, this was somewhere the locals come to have a fun family night out as well – in fact in the square there are only a few other tourists dotted around.  Whole families would pull together tables, sitting around laughing while eating the biggest BBQ fish I have ever seen, or dropping noodles and meat into a sizzling pot that is reminisce of Macbeth’s witches.  Then, almost a hush, falls over the crowd as the stage at the front of the room lights up, I turn with everyone else towards the bright dazzling lights, chicken skewer still in hand.  Out walks a transvestite clad in more sequins than you would see in a 1950’s Vegas cancan! Her head is framed with giant yellow feathers, which move and dance as though they were a natural appendage.  As she begins to sing and dance the whole room is in a thrall.  After she finishes her two songs a cabaret style act comes out and the whole crowd bellows its applause – I look around and watch people eagerly stuffy food into their mouths and chat away with part of their attention always focused on the stage ahead.  This is what dinner entertainment should be – enthralling enough that a part of your mind is always drawn to it, but not so all-consuming that you forget the delicious food in front of you.

Entertainment in Chang Rai Noodle Markets

I actually breathed a great sigh of relief when the sounds of giant symbols and drums drowned out the stage music.  I turned towards the sound expecting to be able to easily spot the dragon that should be dancing in the wake of the drums.  It took me a good ten minutes to spot the dragon! It fell well below disappointment… it wasn’t a full dragon – it was a head and a tail, with no body. I know I shouldn’t compare but when faced with such a pathetic excuse for a dragon I was instantly reminded of Chinese New Year in Chang Mai (North Thailand again) where every few seconds the crowd would part to let through one of three brightly coloured dragons.  When the dragons would meet each other through the fray of bodies an intricate dance would take place pushing the swelling crowd out of the way for a few moments before they would separate and once again be lost. Considering how much space was in the designated park I do feel that they could have at least added in a few more legs to their dragon.

Dragons in Chang Mai

This was also the first Noodle Market that I have been to where I didn’t have the option of placing my feet in a giant tank of water with little fish who delight in eating the dead skin from the soles.  To make this a truly authentic experience there need to be a few stalls selling items such as slogan T-Shirts or porcelain bowls – and most importantly the fish!

I know I may be asking a bit much in my complaints of the atmosphere but I feel that with such an excellent array of food that lifting up these somewhat smaller and insignificant details will expand the whole experience.  There is the potential here to really heighten the enjoyment of eating the amazing food with a great atmosphere.

If you disagree/agree with me please let me know your thoughts?

Chocolate Addict in George Town goes Choctober!

Chocolate is my favourite food group.  I can eat it any time of the day or night, when I am hungry or not, happy or sad – there is always room for chocolate.  My friends and family have been appalled for years as they watch me devour my fourth kit-kat for the day or eat chocolate cake for breakfast.  I am forever astounded that people can ask what flavour milkshake you would like – there is only one answer – Chocolate.

This last week I discovered that I had spent nearly $40 on chocolate alone… when I relayed this information to a friend she was shocked and appalled (I, however, was thinking – thats all, surely I have eaten more than that…).  She then pointed out that I could give up chocolate and put that money to a better cause, I gently scoffed at her and the subject was dropped.  A couple of days later she posted on my facebook a link to the Choctober Charity Fundraiser – Oh dear, she clearly doesn’t know me very well…

Just for kicks I took a look at the page and to my surprise got quite enthusiastic about the charity Reclink Australia – they use sporting and art activities to enhance the lives of disadvantage people.  This includes the homeless, the poor and the disabled.  In my life chocolate is something that gives me great pleasure and happiness, but in giving it up for a month I may be able to help others have that same happiness.  It feels like a cause well suited to the challenge.  Only problem is no one believes I can do it!

My dissidents do have grounds to be concerned, I have been known to head to the shops at 10 o’clock at night to satisfy my cravings.  In particular, my addiction became a real issue while I was travelling around south East Asia.  Before I left everybody warned me that finding real dairy products would be hard.  With naivety I wept over cheese (my second favourite food group), pushed all thoughts of cereal to the back of my mind and braised my shoulders.  I could do it – no sweat, who needs dairy everyday, totally overrated! I forgot that dairy is used to make chocolate – its in the name after all “Dairy Milk”!

My first day in Kuala Lumper, we spent the day walking around markets trying not to by thousands of DVD’s that we would have to lug around for the next 4 months.  It was hot and humid, I was exhausted and feeling cranky.  I knew what would cheer me up and help me ignore my sore legs… chocolate.  On the way home I stopped off at supermarket and I bought a Snickers… what a shock.  It wasn’t real chocolate.  It wasn’t even the stuff that Australian think is close to chocolate (I actually really like Australian Chocolate and think that the whatever they put in it to stop it melting in the heat makes it more fun) – it was chalky and overly sweet, there was a distinct lack of coco and too much malt.  Also, I think it had been sitting on that shelf for a while judging by the layer of dust that was on the wrapper.

For the next few days as we started travelling north I searched in vain for chocolate that tasted more like chocolate and came up cold.  Finally we reach Penang.  In all honesty I didn’t find Penang that interesting or fun, I preferred the island group next door called Langkawai (when I think of Paradise I think of Langkawai), but what Penang had was a chocolate factory.

In the morning we went to the Information centre to get a map of George Town and to ask what to do.  I strongly advise people to always ask the information desk what’s going on.  This particular information desk was very helpful and very friendly. The pulled out a map and drew us a route that we could walk that would go past all of the main attractions, they also told us a great place to get breakfast – that also happened to be right next to one of the first stops. Malaysia has a large Indian population which means that once your taste buds have been burnt off by the spectacular Malaysian Curries you can give them a small holiday by trying some of the equally amazing Indian food. Breakfast this morning was an Indian chicken curry with garlic beans and naan – not a bad start to the day.

We spent the morning looking at the sea front that was fortified by the English when Malaysia was still a colony and Penang was an important trading port and military base.  We visited the giant English colonial buildings that have been converted into parliament house and other government buildings.

After lunch we headed into the city to look at a few of the beautiful temples that dot the city.  Including one Chinese temple that was blessed by snakes and that apparently has a few boa constrictors that call it home… we didn’t stay for too long.

Chinese Temple – with real snakes…

By mid afternoon we were tired so we looked down at the map and saw one more item circled.  We almost decided not to go but reasoned that we had seen everything else on the map – including the giant blue mansion – that we should see this last dot.

It was a chocolate factory.

We stood outside it for a moment, taking in deep breaths.  What better way to finish our walking tour of Penang than to see chocolate – in fact what better way to end a walking tour in any city in the world, it should be part of the walking tour tradition if you ask me!

The Closest I was going to get to Chocolate

Hesitantly we walked into the air-conditioned building, instantly our nostrils were affronted with the smell of coco so I inhaled deeply and felt all of my muscles instantly relax (I know I have a problem).  A quick glance at the price guide board hanging behind the cash register told us that a tour was out of the question, so we decided to just look at the many different chocolates that were on the shelves… who needs to see how its made anyway, all we needed was the end product.

Only problem was that within a few minutes we discovered that the chocolate on the shelves was also out of our price range.  I almost broke down and cried right in the middle of the store as I held a piece of chocolate fudge and worked out the conversion into AUD.  After fifteen minutes of just looking at chocolate I couldn’t handle it any longer, we had to leave the air conditioning or else I was going to do something my bank account would regret.  As we were leaving we saw a pack the chocolate covered almonds… they were half price!  We splurged out and purchased a bag and headed out quickly back into the heat.

A few streets later I became concerned that the chocolate would melt in the sunshine… plus I couldn’t handle being so close to chocolate and not being able to eat it.  We found a nice spot in the shade to sit and watch people.  We sat there for half an hour and devoured the whole bag of chocolate covered almonds – bliss.

Perfect Spot for People Watching and Eating Chocolate Covered Almonds

The next day we jumped on the ferry and headed to Langkawi where we found pristine beaches, watermelon cakes and tobacco chewing monkeys.  The most important discovery on Langkawi was working out how to survive Asia without chocolate.  Our hostel manager, an Irish ex-pat called Neve who could paint the living room, fill up an inflatable pool and check in new guests all at the same time while still sipping on her tiger told me about Oreos.  Unlike all other chocolate in Asia, Oreos still tasted somewhat similar.  It wasn’t chocolate but it was a way to get through the next four months – I confess I became a pack a day addict!

Despite my chocolate addiction I am convinced that I will be able to abstain for the month of October.  Not only because I want to prove all of those who have said I cant do it wrong, not only because I want to stretch my will power muscle and not only because my waist line will benefit – but primarily because its for a good cause.  If, me giving up chocolate can help others have some happiness in life then that’s worth it!

If you would like to help support me through this Choctober please see the below link: