Saturday, 23 July 2011

Our first taste of Thailand

Well, folks, we are here in Thailand!  It was a bit of an adventure getting here; we first took a bus from Georgetown to the airport, then flew into Bangkok.  We took the brand new speed train from the airport to downtown, then hopped on a subway to the train station to catch a train for Ayutthaya.  After Greg tried to book us tickets for Chaing Mai by accident (he was tired and not thinking straight) we got tickets for the correct train and hopped on.  The train was a bit ramshackle and it took us 2 hours instead of the usual 90 minutes to get there.  We decided to save a couple of bucks and walk to the guesthouse rather than take a tuk-tuk.  The first part of this journey required us to take a ferry, since Ayutthaya is an island city surrounded by 3 rivers which make a natural moat, and it was the capital city for the region in ancient times.  UNESCO has designated it a world heritage site due to the large number of ruins still standing.  The place was pretty crazy - everywhere you looked there was a different ancient temple.

Arriving at the guest house, we were immediately in love.  The people were very kind and helpful, and we had a giant room with a mini fridge, cable tv, wifi, hot water shower, and kettle, which we immediately used to prepare some ramen noodles for a late dinner.  The next morning we enjoyed an amazing free breakfast (crepes, fresh fruit, coffee, orange juice and yogurt for me, bacon, eggs and toast for Greg) and then rented some bikes to explore town.  The first stop was the train station to book tickets for the overnight train to Chaing Mai.  We then peddled out to the elephant kraal, where we saw lots of elephants, including babies!!  These elephants have been rescued from all sorts of different situations.  Some were used as logging elephants, some in tourism, and some were given up because the owners just couldn't afford to feed them anymore (elephants eat A LOT).  They had 4 baby elephants: two were about 9 months old and absolutely cheeky little gals, and two were only 5 months old and slept the whole time we were there.  We bought a basked of cucumbers to feed to the babies, and there was a mini-stampede as they tried to get their trunks on our food.  They would wrap their trunks around my arms and pull them to their mouths, looking for food.  They were amazingly strong and persistent!  It was a pretty amazing experience.

Baby elephant!  Can you see the look of sheer glee on my face??

Mama elephant.  She let us rub her ears and trunk.

OMG, baby elephant IN A BUCKET!

Greg feeding cucumbers to the babies.  

Bull elephants posing for us.  They used their trunks to demand money from us, which we gladly parted with.  Such strong, gentle creatures.

Moving onward (which was difficult), we went to a large temple to take in some of the ruins.  We got to climb this temple, and get a view of the region.

Tall temple.

Biking past the ruins.

Exhausted from the biking and the heat, we returned to the guest house and relaxed before heading out to the night market for food!  I would just like to say that the food in Thailand has been AMAZING so far.  Every meal we've had has been absolutely delicious.  That first night I got seafood Tom Yum, which was a very spicy soup with fish, squid, clams, mussels and some other delicious, indiscernible lumps of seafood.  It was rather too spicy for me, but so incredible that I ended up eating quite a bit of it.  Greg helped me out, much to his glee.  We capped off that evening with a boat tour around the island to see the temples illuminated at night.  It was beautiful, but we didn't see as many temples as we'd hoped.  Oh, I should add that the amazing people at the guesthouse gave us this tour for FREE because they are amazing.  They give a free boat tour to any guest who stays a minimum of 3 nights.

The next day we rented bikes again but stayed on the island to do the big temple tour.  We explored 2 temple sites in detail, and then just rode past and admired others.

Famous and frequently photographed Buddha head in a tree

Long row of crumbling Buddha statues

Taking a break in the shade.

More temples!

Piles of fruit (I think?) found at a market.  No durian in this picture!

The heat was getting to us quite a bit so we cut the temple tour a bit short, and found some amazing red curry soup for lunch.  It was exquisite - we got a giant bowl and split it, and it was hands down the best red curry I've ever had.

Red curry!!!

Later that night we went to the night market for another snack, and Greg finally got the BBQ'd meat on a stick he'd been craving.  I got a banana waffle (amazing!) and then we made a monumental decision: eat durian.  We felt it was something we had to try since it is so prevalent in Asia, and very much talked about as well.  I knew that most people find it to taste disgusting, and I expected that I would dislike it.  Everywhere we've been in Asia we've smelled the evil durian.. on buses, in trains, on the street, in the markets.... it's everywhere.  And it smells like a giant pile of rotting fruit.  Sickly sweet, but rotting.  We bought the smallest amount of durian we could find, and then took it away from the street market since I didn't want to be responsible for ruining anyone's dinner with the stench of durian.  We cracked it open and surprisingly it really didn't smell that much (is it just the peel that stinks??)  I picked up a lump and the first revolting thing I noticed was its creaminess.  It was heavy, and white and CREAMY.  Gag.  Against my better judgement, I put a lump in my mouth and immediately recoiled in horror.  There was no way I could possible swallow that festering lump of fruit.  I spat it out, but the taste lingered.  It was as though a fish had died a week ago and was slowly decomposing in my mouth, along with a slight sweet flavour and the aroma of burning garbage.  WOW.  I was in utter shock that something could taste that bad.  Greg was a bit flabbergasted at my reaction, since he had a few bites of it and really didn't think it was that terrible.  Although he did think it was too sweet (I have no idea where he got that from - it really didn't taste that sweet to me).  We then got a plate of rice and stir fried vegetables to wash the taste of durian out of our mouths, and headed back to the guest house.

On our final day in Ayutthaya, we decided to just take it easy and relax around the guest house until it was time to hop on the train.  We sadly bid farewell to the amazing people at the Prom Tong mansion and I highly recommend that if any of you find yourselves in Ayutthaya in the near future, you must stay at the Prom Tong Mansion.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Encore Presentation

For all you Bernard fans out there, here's a little something just for you:

Bernard, in all his glory.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Taste of Penang

Our most recent stop on our great Asian tour was Georgetown, Penang, in the north of Malaysia.  When we left the Perhentians, our initial plan was to go to Kota Bahru for the night, and then catch a bus the next day for Penang.  However, when we got off the boat from the Perhentians, we found out there was a minibus leaving that morning directly for Georgetown.  We decided to take this bus as it would save us a lot of travel time.  The ride itself was on a beautiful windy road through the jungle.  The bus would frequently get stuck behind giant logging trucks filled with enormous trees, and we'd be forced to go very slowly.  We still made good time, and got to Georgetown before nightfall.
The Lonely Planet recommended a couple of hostels in Chinatown, and so we gave the minibus driver an address of a hostel before we set out.  Well, instead of dropping us there, he dropped us at a different hostel that he was told by his employer to drop us at (or so he says).  This hostel was quite cheap, offered free wifi and looked quite clean, but out of principle we did not want to stay there.  So we checked out about 5 other hostels, all of which were slightly more expensive but offered about the same thing (except for one very sketchy place that was filthy).  Deciding to save a buck, we returned to the first hostel and booked a room for $8 CAD/night.  The people we met on the minibus also decided to stay there, so we had friends in the building which was nice.
After settling in, we headed off to the night market for food.  Penang is known primarily for its delicious food, as it has had a long multicultural history with large populations of Chinese, Thai, Indians and Malaysians calling it home.  These cultures have all mixed together, and created some delicious food.  The local special is assam lemak, which is a spicy and sour fish noodle soup, with the sour taste coming from the assam (in English: tamarind paste).  Greg quite enjoyed it, but it was rather too sour for my taste.
Incredible Indian food in Little India.  That mango lassi was *amazing*
The other thing Penang is known for is its beautiful colonial architecture.  The British controlled Penang as a port for many years, and many of the old mansions and government buildings remain.  All this mixed in with Buddhist and Indian temples made for a very interesting city!
Anglican Church in Georgetown

We also had a couple of days to leave the city and explore the island.  Our first trek was to Kok Lek Si temple, which is the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia.  It was very impressive!  Beautiful colours everywhere, and of course lots of street hawkers selling all sorts of random souvenirs.  The top of the hill is crowned by a giant statue of Buddha.
View of the temple from the street

In front of a fountain in the temple with our new friend, Jen, who we met in the Perhentians

Being 'round' in the round gate

Candles in front of a statue of Buddha

Giant Buddha statue

Our final full day in Penang we went to Penang National Park, which according to my mom's googling is the smallest national park in the world.  Our initial plan was to hike to monkey beach to see some monkeys and go for a swim.  But when we arrived at the park office, we were told there were baby turtles at the turtle hatchery!  I insisted that we go see the turtles, and we joined with a friendly American couple for the hike.  It was only ~3.5km each way, but there was a lot of hill climbing, and with the heat, we were utterly exhausted by the end.  The turtle hatchery was created to increase the population of sea turtles.  It's on a beach that is a popular nesting site for the turtles, and once the mothers lay the eggs, the conservation folk go and dig up the nests and put the eggs in incubators in the hatchery.  Once the eggs hatch, they put the turtles in a large bin of water, and release them back into the wild.  This reduces the number of turtles that are eaten by predators either in the nest or on their trek from the nest to the ocean.
Meromictic Lake. Mark, I will give you a cold beer if you can tell me what a meromictic lake is without googling it!

Baby sea turtles waiting to be released into the wild

Reward after the hike: an amazing chocolate banana crepe-type thing.  We stopped for cold lime juice at a tiny stall on the side of the road outside the park gates. Who knew they'd have such deliciousness??

All in all, Penang was a very interesting place to spend a few days.  This was our last stop in Malaysia: next up, Thailand!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Chilling out in the Perhentians

After a speedy cab ride and an adventurous boat ride, we arrived on the beautiful Perhentian islands!  We decided to go to the small island, as we were told it was cheaper and easier to get around.  After being forced to pay RM 2 per person to get from our boat to the shore via a smaller boat, we collapsed on the sand (quite literally, it was freaking hot!!).  Greg watched the bags while I tried to find lodging.  We settled on a place called Lemon Grass where we had our own small cabin with a fan and mosquito net for RM 60/night.  There were lots of other backpackers staying there, and there was a great porch overlooking the beach where we sat at night and played Euchre.  After settling in, we immediately hopped in the water to cool off, and then relaxed under a beach umbrella on the sand.  Stupidly, we did not realize that you had to pay for the privilege of an umbrella, so we were out 10 more ringgits.

I found us a lovely place to stay 

 Lunch at a lovely restaurant overlooking the jungle.

 Philip: do you recognize these rocks??

For dinner, we went to a popular restaurant on the beach, and I decided to deviate from my diet of rice and noodles, and decided to try the Vegetarian BBQ special, which consisted of blackcurrant juice, stir-fried vegetables and roti canai. I still can't figure out why the BBQ special involved a choice between stir-fried vegetables and fresh salad.  Greg was almost finished his meal by the time my food arrived, and it consisted of a raw salad of cabbage, onions and carrots.  Since I'm trying to stay away from raw fruit and vegetables, I told the waitress that she brought me the wrong meal.  After a great deal of language confusion, I was told that I did in fact receive stir-fried veggies, which was a pretty ridiculous lie.

The next day we decided to hike around the island.  Our goal was to hike to the fishing village on the southern tip of the island.  The trail took us along the shore, and it was a lovely hike. On the way back, we stopped at an isolated beach and went for a swim.
The trail was a red brick pathway, so it was impossible to get lost (well, I wouldn't put it past Greg, actually...)

Fishing village

Beautiful isolated beach

Our final day we signed up for a snorkeling trip, where we got to use our waterproof camera. Our first stop was at Turtle Point, where we caught glimpses of sea turtles.  Unfortunately there were tonnes of sea wasps in the water, which are pretty much invisible and deliver a very painful sting!  They are not dangerous, just horribly annoying.  Luckily our other snorkeling stops were fairly wasp-free.
A spectacular parrot fish.  You could actually hear them scraping the coral with their mouths (beaks?) underwater.


This guy just looked poisonous.

Pretty colours

Greg swimming in a school of fish

This little guy came over to say 'hello'

Next stop: Georgetown, Penang!

Living in the lap of luxury in Kuala Lumpur

First, I must apologize for the delay in blogs!  It's been 8 days since I last posted (shame on Erika), but I will remedy that in the next few days.  
When I last left off, we were departing Tioman Island.  We spent a night in Mersing to get some quality trip planning done.  There is not much to see in Mersing except boats, stray cats and, well, that's about it.  So we hopped on a bus for KL!  The Lonely Planet had some rather unsavory descriptions for the budget accommodations in KL; these descriptions involved the phrases 'brothel' and 'bed bugs' so we splurged for a hotel.  We got a great deal on Expedia for a new hotel/residences that'd just opened, so we had our own giant bathroom, bedroom, living room and kitchen. The kitchen included a small fridge/freezer and stove top, but nary a pot, plate, fork or knife in the suite.  We had 2 mugs, 2 water glasses and 2 spoons.  Not sure who goes traveling and brings their own pots!  That night we feasted on ramen noodles, beer, crackers and cheese in our suite, watched cable tv, swam in the rooftop pool and just generally enjoyed the luxury.
View from our hotel room.  We were on the 22nd floor.

Enjoying some delicious "draft beer"

Dinner on night two was curry (in a bag!)

The next day, we wandered KL on foot and saw the Petronas Towers, Chinatown and Little India.  Greg bought a badly needed belt in Chinatown, and we practiced our bargaining.  It was so nice to be able to return to our nice hotel and wash the dirt and grime of the city off, and curl up in bed and watch a movie (Date Night was on tv!)   

Petronas Towers

Field where Malaysia's Independence was declared in 1957.

On our last day, sadly we checked out of our hotel at noon, dropped our bags at the train station and headed off to the bird park.  The bird park was actually about a block away from the train station, but due to the brilliant city planning and construction, we actually couldn't walk there.  We ended up taking a train one stop, and then backtracking to the park.  KL Bird Park claims to have the world's largest walk-in aviary, which is pretty great for the birds that are allowed to roam free.  Unfortunately, a lot of the birds were still in cages, like the ostriches, emus, hawks, cassowaries and owls.  
Birdie enjoying some corn

We ate lunch at the treetop restaurant at the bird park.  Greg was trying to defend his meal from some hungry watchful birds.

I got to touch a grey-headed fishing eagle.  

After the bird park, we returned to collect our bags and hop on an overnight train to the north of Malaysia, as our next stop was the Perhentian Islands!  The train ride was actually surprisingly comfortable, even though we slept with our bags and arrived 3 hours late.  
Self-portrait taken in bed on the train

Next stop: more island relaxing in the Perhentians!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Lazy Days on Tioman Island

After Singapore, we headed off to Tioman Island, which was apparently voted one of the top 10 most beautiful places in the world according to Life magazine (according to a Norwegian family Greg met on the island, anyways).  It's quite spectacular: dense jungle, white sandy beaches, turquoise water.
A rare picture of Greg

Due to a severe lack of foresight, we had limited funds and no access to a bank machine, so we lived rather frugally on the island.  We had a small cabin (technically 3 small cabins - there was an outbreak of broken toilets) in a lovely garden on the hillside, inhabited by a cat in heat who woke us up several times in the middle of the night with her yowling.  Luckily, there is no duty on the island, so we were able to drink quite cheaply.  Happy hour prices were 3 beers for 10 ringgit, which is about $1CAD per beer.  At the store, Greg bought a beer for 67 cents!!  It was pretty ridiculous.
The island is also full of wild housecats.  We saw quite a few adorable kittens too.  Greg made friends with this guy, who I christened Bernard (pronounced BER-nerd) in honour of Philip.
Poor Bernard was a scruffy fellow.  We did not touch him for fear of disease.

So we spent our 3 days on the island swimming, snorkeling, drinking, eating, playing cards, reading and just generally being lazy on the beach.  It was incredible.
For lack of any more interesting stories, here are some pictures:
 Sunset on the beach.

 A tree full of GIANT Malaysian Fruit Bats.  They were terrifying.  Practically the size of crows, they'd be flying all around at night.  Here is a close-up picture of one taken at the zoo:
Back to Tioman pictures:
There were lots of giant monitor lizards swimming around the streams and trundling across the beaches.  This one was about 1.5 meters long.

Fishy seen while snorkeling.  In addition to all the fishies, I also saw a colourful sting ray hiding under a rock.  Yay waterproof camera!
Greg hates this picture, but nuts to him!  I may look rather ridiculous (sun in my eyes!) I still think it's cute :)

Next: a day in Mersing to plan the next stage of our journey!