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Archive for September, 2012

As a nation, Malaysia boasts one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world, so it is no big surprise that our trip to the city of Melaka overlapped with Malaysia Day, a national holiday to commemorate the country’s formation. As usual, we had no idea of this before we arrived. Luckily we had booked a hostel in advance based on the recommendation of a bartender on Tioman Island, so we were all set to battle the crowds when we arrived. And were there ever crowds! Since Melaka is less than a two hour drive south of Kuala Lumpur, many people from KL made the short journey for the holiday weekend. The celebration was in full swing, with live music, fireworks and food filled streets.

Malaysia is a very young country, only celebrating their 55th birthday on this past Malaysia Day. As a port city, Melaka is a good representation of Malaysia’s long history of foreign control and struggle for independence. The city was captured by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, taken by the Dutch in the 1600s, then fell to the British in 1824. All of these nations exploited their military power to seize and utilize the port of Melaka as a major trading station. During WWII, Melaka was even occupied by Japanese before finally be liberated in 1948 to rejoin the current day nation of Malaysia.

These historic factors, including the heavy immigration of Indian and Chinese populations, make the food scene in Melaka a diverse and delicious endeavor. Its been awhile since we made food the main focus of one of our posts, but our passion for it hasn’t gone anywhere. We spent a good amount of time exploring the street food scene and local restaurants. One of our favorite dishes, roti canai, is an Indian style flat bread that is served with curry and/or chickpea dipping sauce. At only 1.60RM (or about 50 cents USD) it cannot be beat.

Based on a recommendation from the owner of our hostel, we headed out one night to try Capitol Satay, a famous restaurant in Melaka where you cook skewers of veggies and meat in a bubbling vat of peanut sauce at your table. We arrived to a “closed” sign, perhaps because of the holiday, and were quite disappointed; luckily, we noticed that the entire street is full of knock-off skewer restaurants imitating their renowned neighbor. We found a suitable alternative and decided to give it a shot. To put it plainly, the meal was cheap, fun and delicious.

The food stalls at the weekend night market on the popular Jonker Street are a good representation of Melaka’s melting pot. Everything from chicken rice, poh piah, potatoes on a stick, grilled seafood, stir-fried radish cakes, sushi, noodle bowls, sweet iced drinks like soya milk and hibiscus tea, dumplings, sago gula Melaka, shaved ice, and so much more are available.

Aside from chowing on food all day long, we managed to get ourselves out for a bit of sightseeing as well. As is evidenced by the multi-cultural food scene, the presence of diverse religions is also clear. In one block you can walk by an ancient Buddhist temple, a mosque, and a Christian church. One day when we were walking through the Dutch Square, we decided why not go inside the Church of Melaka? While the architecture wasn’t particularly impressive, there seemed to be a service about to begin so we grabbed a couple hymn books and sat down to join. After reading through a few pages, Mike looks up and says “Is this a memorial service?” It sure was, and next thing we know a casket is being wheeled in through the front door. It was an awkward moment to say the least, but we managed to squeeze out the side door before anyone could ask us to share a memory about the deceased. Phew, that was a close one.

After celebrating Malaysia Day and grubbing our way through Melaka, we were faced with the choice of how to best fill our two weeks of time before catching our October 2nd flight to Perth. Two weeks is certainly enough time to explore some of Malaysia’s great national parks and the well-known Cameron Highlands, but we realized that after 8 months on the road, we had hit a bit of a wall; we were not tired of traveling, we were tired from traveling. There was only one solution that we could see, so we did what any reasonable person would have done…We found another great island and decided to spend the remainder of our days here basking in the sun.

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The snoring began at 11:57pm on Tuesday September 18th on a night bus from Melaka to Kota Bharu. 40 minutes into the hurricane of noise coming from the seat behind me, I decided to whip out the computer and write this…

The guy on my bus right now clearly has a terrible case of sleep apnea, causing him to inhale massive gulps of air through his mouth, nostrils and what seems like many other holes on his face. I am seriously in fear that he might suck up all of the oxygen on this bus, leaving the rest of us dead. But that may actually be a nice reprieve. He is a true sasquatch, as I’ve come to call them. Just being a snorer does not make you a sasquatch. One crosses the line into sasquatch-dom when at least 5 different noises are produced while snoring.

I mean, how is Mike sleeping through this? I am in awe that those ear plugs are doing any good.

No clue how he does this

Me on the other hand, I am not so enthused. My thought right now: why the hell are we going to the Perhentian Islands anyway?

Me being really pissed off

My disdain for snorers started long ago, and has grown to a deep seated hatred over the course of this RTW trip. Let me share a few of the stories to help you understand why.

Zagreb, Croatia – March 28th, 2012. After taking the train in from Budapest, Mike and I stopped for the night in Zagreb before making the long haul down to Split early in the morning. We met one of our dorm mates, a nice college girl from the States, and enjoyed a fantastic Croatian/Italian feast up the street from our hostel. We climbed into bed, a few glasses of wine in us, and fell asleep rather quickly. After a few hours, *slam* goes the door, *sound of rustling clothing*, feet up the ladder, and BAM the most intense snoring I have ever heard begins faster than you can say fuck. I swing my head off the top bunk and say to Mike, “Oh my god, I’m going to kill those 2 guys!” and Mike’s like “What 2 guys?” I could not believe my ears, but that horrible sound was seriously only coming out of one person. It didn’t take long before my anger was boiling so high that we relocated ourselves to the couches in the common room.

The best couch bed in the world

Istanbul, Turkey – April 11th, 2012. We checked into our hostel, a lovely and clean place right in the heart of Sultanahmet, just a few blocks from the world famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. After an awesome day of sightseeing, we came back, showered up, and plopped ourselves into bed. After some time, a fellow dorm mate arrives and starts up snoring louder than I have ever heard in my life. This guy takes the cake by 255% over “man who sounds like two” from Zagreb. Unfortunately this hostel’s common area locked at midnight, so there was nowhere for us to go. I walked out in the lobby to sit and let my anger fester a bit, which prompted some questions from the front desk guy. I explained the situation. He said “just wake him up or stuff a dirty sock in his mouth; I used to do it all the time back when I was in the army.” Never before in my life did I imagine that I would shake a stranger awake for snoring…but, I did. And so did Mike. And so did another bunk mate. We shook this guy awake over and over and over and over and over again and he just kept at it. Snoring like mad. No one in our 12 person dorm room could sleep. Mike even resorted to taking a sleeping pill. Finally, after a few hours, I went back to my friend and the front desk and begged him to let us sleep in the lobby. He wouldn’t let us sleep on the couch, but agreed to something even better; we finally got some solace in another dorm room.

Tokyo, Japan – June 19th, 2012. One night Mike must have figured, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The previous night we’d discovered that we not only had a snorer in our dorm room, but a sleep talker as well, a very boisterous and animated sleep talker at that. In an effort to help ourselves sleep a bit more heavily on our second night in Tokyo, we shared some beverages with a few Aussies at our hostel. They must have done the job for Mike more than me, because he was out like a light as soon as his head hit the pillow. Soon enough sleep talker starts up. And not too long after a new arrival has added in his snores. Next thing I know, Mike has joined the crew too, and I had a god damn snoring/sleep babbling symphony on my hands. If you think snoring is bad, you don’t know anything until you’re in a room with 3 of them!

So there you have it, a brief history of my hate for snorers. Although, I will admit that I’ve had an epiphany on this bus ride tonight.

There is nothing I can do about said snorers, other than physically remove myself from the situation (although not really possible in this particular instance on the bus, I did consider throwing myself out the bus when sasquatch started up a few hours ago). Anyway, if I can’t control the situation, why not just laugh about it? People who willingly put themselves into a dorm room of strangers, knowing full well that everyone will hate them for snoring, are buffoons and buffoons deserve to be made fun of. After nine months on the road, and many encounters with snorers, I have finally learned that to remedy my hatred, all I have to do is laugh.

-Amy

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Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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Rastafarthais

What, you may be wondering, is the meaning of Rastafarthai? It’s quite simple actually, Rastafarai + Thai person = Rastafarthai. We started using this word to describe some of the locals who work on Railay Beach in Thailand, which we visited a few weeks back. And thanks to Google, we now speculate that we may in fact be the original coiners of this well suited term. Although we did not take any photos of said Rastafarthais, we did manage to pull one off the interweb. It was probably taken by some backpacker who pointed their camera way too close to the rasta’s face and then walked away, like we saw so many tourists do. I mean, how would you like it if someone walked into your office, took your picture, and then turned around and left without saying one word to you? #awkward. Anyway, without further ado, here is a visual of a real-life Rastafarthai.

We aren’t sure how dreadlocks and reggae made their way from the Caribbean to SE Asia, but think it’s worth mentioning since many of the activities on Railay are not exactly traditional Thai customs. Most are quite “hippy” really (i.e. tightrope walking, fire dancing, Connect Four, rock climbing, joint smoking, guitar playing…you get the picture). Sure, we’re taking some liberties here by drawing a parallel between rastas and hippies, but it’s not too far off really, is it?

Railay Beach is an interesting place. A drop dead gorgeous place. A relaxing place. An island paradise (that isn’t technically an island). A place with no cars, only footpaths and boats for transportation. A place where wealthy tourists staying at 5-star hotels mingle with backpackers sleeping in $3/night huts. And of course, there are the Rastafarthai who are a strange breed in this predominately Muslim region of southern Thailand.

While the ocean view from our bungalow and delicious food at “Mom’s Kitchen” made the thought of staying for weeks tempting, we decided to relocate to nearby Koh Lanta; while not as abundant as in Railay, the Rastafarthai culture seems to be gaining ground on Lanta as well.

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“Oh, you make visa run” was the response of a travel agent when we first inquired about booking a bus ticket to Vientiane. He was a bit surprised when we told him that we actually wanted to stay there. Bangkok, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are all bustling, world-renowned capital cities of SE Asia, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. And then there is Vientiane, often called the world’s sleepiest capital. For many travelers in SE Asia, Vientiane is nothing more than a place to go to renew their Thai visa. They cross the border and then head back to Chiang Mai or Bangkok the same day. We didn’t have high expectations, but didn’t want to dismiss Vientiane without giving it a try, so we decided to spend a couple days checking it out.

Like many other cities in the region, the mighty Mekong River is at the heart and soul of Vientiane. Here it is very wide and flows slowly beside the city creating a natural border with neighboring Thailand. As if saying “Welcome to Vientiane,” Mother Nature granted us a spectacular sunset over the river on the first evening. The fire-like reds and subtle purple hues in the sky were simply incredible.

Just 30 minutes outside of the city lays Xieng Khuan, known to many as the Buddha Park. It was a hellishly bumpy and dusty tuk-tuk ride to get there, but well worth the journey. The main attraction at this relatively small park is an enormous statue of Buddha lying on his side. When we say enormous, we mean it; the feet alone are about two meters tall! Although it may be a cop-out to say “pictures don’t do it justice,” we’re going to play that card anyway.

On our last day in town before boarding the night train to Bangkok, we felt obligated to visit Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa. This temple is the quintessential image of Vientiane, also featured on Laos’ currency. While not as stunning as the statues at the Buddha Park in our opinion, it too was worth a visit. It is an impressively symmetrical structure and worshiped as the holiest Buddhist temple in Laos due to a sliver of Buddha’s breast bone which is kept as a relic inside.

Our walks along the Mekong, visits to the Buddha Park and Great Stupa, and days spent wandering through markets on a quest to find tasty Laotian noodle bowls were all reasons we enjoyed our time in Vientiane. It is certainly deserving of more than its Visa run reputation, and we would encourage all who come to SE Asia to stop through Vientiane.

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