Malaysia: A One Week Visit

Disclaimer: This blog post is referring to travels in July 2017.

George Town, Penang (4 nights) >> Kuala Lumpur (3 nights)  >> Melaka (1 night)

It was a brief visit to Malaysia but we enjoyed every minute. After the night train from Thailand, we made our way to George Town.

George Town, Penang

A UNESCO heritage Town in Penang, George Town was such a good spot for travellers. The town itself is very walkable, making it ideal for those on a budget. We didn’t have much time to do our research before we arrived but just by wandering around we stumbled upon beautiful old Chinese architecture, endless cafes and incredible street art. This is a hipsters playground.

George Town was even home to a Cat Cafe where we lost pretty much lost an entire morning to the cats.

The Cat Cafe in George Town.

For something different, we visited the Tech Dome which had a laser maze, climbing wall and a vertical free fall drop.

Josh did so well on the climbing wall, Jonny needed some attention in the laser maze.

Food wise, the night hawker stalls were a good option with freshly made satay chicken skewers.

May I present to you Satay Chicken 😋

On our last day in George Town, we strolled through the free Botanical Gardens. The monkeys picked on unsuspecting tourists planning to eat in the gardens- not cool if you were said tourist but otherwise providing further free entertainment for us. Note: do not bring food into the Botanical Gardens.

The free botanical gardens near George Town, Penang.

Chew Jetty should probably get a shout out because it is entirely built upon handmade stilts, literally buckets of concrete. It reminded me of a smaller and much more authentic Pier 39 in San Francisco with all the little shops and stalls.

Exploring Chew Jetty. We decided to mark the occasion with henna tattoos.

Kuala Lumpur

We caught a bus to Kuala Lumpur and stayed near Central Market which had lots of shops and stalls (great for buying souvenirs/gifts) and food places.

On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpar was Batu Caves. They were easy to get to as they were situated at the end of the metro line, but remember to save all your energy for the steps!

Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur.

We visited the Petronas Towers at dusk to watch the transition from day to night when the towers light up. Then it was time for our last supper with Joshua before he sadly departed back to the UK.

The mighty high Petronas towers in KL.

Melaka City

We took the morning bus to Melaka so we had all afternoon to explore. Melaka is another UNESCO world heritage site in Malaysia due to beautiul old architecture. We really enjoyed this town; the quaint streets, boat ride down the river, the red square and street art made it a great place for an afternoon visit.

The colourful town of Melaka.

We ate at two really yummy places: Kocik Kitchen and Calanthe Art Cafe. I had a Laksa curry at both I loved the dish so much- a lovely coconut based soup with noodles. I had both a prawn and chicken one and both were great.

From Melaka, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Singapore.

One month in Thailand

Bangkok >> Krabi >> Ko Phi-Phi Don >> Khanom >> Ko Tao >> Ko Phangan

Brits get a 30-day visa exemption for Thailand which makes it a popular destination for holiday makers, gap-year students and travellers. Not to mention the cost of living is low, the weather is great almost all year round and Thailand hosts some of the best beaches in the world. So it’s no surprise that it can feel like half of Blighty are there with you. Safe to say we were a little apprehensive about visiting Thailand.

However, contrary to our initial apprehension we were left wanting more! As a self-confessed beach bum, the majority of our time was spent island-hopping in South Thailand. And boy, is there a lot of islands – some completely deserted. Even the secret paradise beach that Leonardo Dicaprio found in the film ‘The Beach’ can be located in South Thailand – though that beach admittedly is quite touristy now.

Here is a taster of what Thailand has to offer and that’s before even mentioning the food…

One month of travel distilled into nine photos. Tricky.

Our route: 

I couldn’t produce the usual Google map route because we visited islands in Thailand, so instead you have this amateur markup.

A) Bangkok – 6 nights (over two trips)
B) Krabi – 4 nights in Ao Nang and 1 night in Krabi Town
C) Phi-Phi island – 2 nights
D) Khanom – 5 nights
E) Ko Tao – 9 nights
F) Ko Phangan – 5 nights
Plus 1 night on the overnight train to get to the Thai/Malaysian border.

The Thai food had to be one of the cuisines we were looking forward to the most and on the whole it didn’t disappoint but watch the chili- it blew India out the water.

Thai food was very tasty as long as it was of a ‘Farang’ or foreigner spice level! Our favourites were the classic Green Thai curry, Massaman curry, Pad Thai and Mango sticky rice for dessert.

Bangkok

We actually went to Bangkok twice; the first time after India and the second time after Vietnam. On our first trip to Bangkok we visited the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

Modelling the staple Thailand attire at Wat Phra Kraew and Wat Pho temples. Have you ever seen so much gold?

We stayed close to the notorious Khao San Road, a road famous (or infamous) for its bars and restaurants serving alcohol by the bucket. It was really fun, except for the fact I was still recovering from food poisoning in India so we didn’t hit the parties full force.

Khao San Road antics.

The second trip to Bangkok made up for that though with a lot of socialising and catching up with old friends.

Catching up with some old friends in Bangkok.

We checked out some of the humongous shopping centres complete with car showrooms and full gymnasiums. We also shamelessly went to Tesco Lotus just because it was like home.  Terminal 21 was particularly cool with each level represented by a different country, at the top was San Francisco with delicious food court.

The Golden Gate Bridge… in a shopping mall.

Krabi

We’d heard only good things about Krabi from other travellers so we decided to make this our next stop. Flights were really cheap too costing about £20 each. The main attraction of staying in Krabi is for island-hopping, aside from the bar crawls. It’s quite a big place and there are numerous places to stay- we chose Ao Nang which sounded like it would be lively and have lot of options for island-hopping.
June maybe wasn’t the best time of year for a visit because it was monsoon season. During our time in Krabi, I’d say 70 percent of the time it was overcast and 50 percent it just rained. A Thai massage became a great rainy day activity!

Singing in the rain.

Luckily, we did manage to get some breaks from the monsoon and enjoyed island hopping to Chicken Island (named after it’s shape) and Tup Island which connect by a sand bar at low tide.

The first deserted islands we visited via longboat. Pretty darn beautiful aren’t they?

We also went to Railay beach which you can only reach by boat. It had a beautiful cove (and monkeys!) and was popular with rock climbers. There were also nearby caves, one weird cave with penises in and one fairly normal cave (called Diamond Cave).

Railay beach and some strange caves.

Ko Phi-Phi Don

Ko Phi-Phi Don or Phi-Phi island was our next destination. Interesting fact, ‘Ko’ means ‘island’ in Thai.

We stayed for just two nights on the party island but managed to squeeze in a lot. The first afternoon, we got our bearings, stroked one hundred cats and lazed away on the beach with Chang beer and Jonny playing Ukelele.

Trippy snapchat filter.

The island-hopping boat trip from Phi-Phi was a full day stopping at the stunning Bamboo island, monkey beach, a gorgeous turquoise pool of water surrounded by rocks and Maya bay – famous because it was where the ‘The Beach’ was filmed. Getting to Maya bay was pretty funny as the water was too shallow for the boat to anchor so instead we had to rock climb and use a net to clamber up to gain access. We could then do the classic run through the palm trees, like Leonardo, to reveal the bay. Though it had got a little cloudy so it wasn’t quite the same beach.

Being like Leo and finding not-so-secret beaches (anymore) for the day.

Phi-Phi island although beautiful, did have a dark side: alcohol buckets at silly prices (£3.50 for a bucket of G&T), UV paint, beach and pool parties and even a bar with a boxing ring in the middle. As you can see in the photos below, we naturally stayed away from all this nonsense. This was also the night I lost my Thailand 7/11 toastie virginity – a staple most gap year students will mention.

Damn that toastie was worth it.

Khanom

This place was our retreat. A non-touristy town compared to the rest of the places we visited, with a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach.

Barely a soul around.

It is also home to pink albino dolphins and we were lucky enough to see two on a trip organised by our host.

Great 2 second capture by Mr Mansell of the speckled pink Dolphins.

We stayed at a really homely Homestay called Happy Resort and had a small bungalow all to ourselves with a kitchen so we could even make our own food- it was so nice to have cereal in the morning!

Our little bungalow complete with dog and hammock free of charge (and husband…just kidding).

Other highlights of our stay in Khanom were Hin Lat and Samet Chun waterfalls, the night market and Khanom Seafood restaurant which had an endless list of fresh seafood cooked in your preferred style. Scooters and motorbikes we £3 to rent all day so we took one each to get around.

Waterfalls, biking, hiking and eating- what else could you want?! Actually I could answer that, better roads would have been nice!

Ko Tao

We made Ko Tao mainly a diving trip, planning to do our Advanced Open Water PADI certification. The diving (and snorkelling) was incredible seeing so much underwater life including turtles, rays, barracudas, groupers, parrot  and bat fish and more. Sadly, we didn’t get to spot a Whale Shark which frequent the water around this area.

How to even begin to capture the diving and snorkelling to be had in Thailand.

We also went to Yuan Island which was gorgeous. The beaches and snorkelling around Ko Tao were great as well including Tanote Bay, Shark Bay, Freedom Beach and Mango Bay stopping at another view point.

Exploring Koh Tao on our non-diving days.


Koh Phangan

The home of the Full Moon Party! There wasn’t actually a full moon when we went but a half moon so instead we got tickets to the Half Moon party in the middle of the jungle! Josh, our third wheel, who had nothing better to do joyfully came out to meet us in Thailand. We had a lot of fun catching up and nursing his hangover the next day.

Half moon spectacular.

Besides partying, we enjoyed some of the beaches and waterfalls on the island.

Koh Phangan away from the parties.

Then it was onwards and upwards to Malaysia! The journey involved a boat, a long drive, one overnight train journey and a second train once we crossed the Malaysian border. It was long but actually didn’t feel too bad, the sleeper train had beds with curtains and all the transport ran very smoothly.

Nighty, night!

Thrissur Pooram – An Outsider’s Perspective

Thrissur – A city in the coconut-loving state of Kerela, southern India

Pooram  – A Hindu temple festival; fiery processions, mesmerising music, adorned elephants, huge numbers of excited devotees

I think we may have covered every base on the emotional spectrum during the 36 hour festival. On the Asian stint of our sabbatical trip, the Pooram festival in India was pretty much the only event we’d reserved on our calendar. We wanted to get an experience of a local festival, one not particularly geared up for extracting tourist ruppees. I can report that an experience is what we got!

Thrissur Pooram, “the mother of all Poorams” is described as “a grand assembly of Gods and Godesses… 36-hours non-stop with no loss of energy” Elephants-a-plenty, and 4 hours of fireworks in the early hours of the morning. Sounded great to us – To Thrissur!

Elephantastic?
We booked an AirBnB well in advance anticipating the majority of beds to be taken up. Accommodation was a complete pain in the arse. (More in “Advice” at the end)

We arrived the day before to acclimatise. Within minutes, we saw an elephant being ridden on the road amongst the honking rickshaws, motorbikes and taxis. I hadn’t applied much thought before arriving in India about the condition of the elephants, but shit do I feel awful for them. The problem with tradition I guess, elephant welfare was probably even more of an afterthought 200+ years ago.

Safe Space
The main festival area is on the inside of a ring road housing a large temple. Taking in the sights and lights at night-time was a fairly pleasant way to spend time. Even better from the Friday morning when the road closes. Being fairly fresh in India, exposed to madly packed up roads with every single bike and rickshaw blaring their horns is enough to make you stop where you’re standing and immediately assume the fetal position. I’m about used to it now though, but I’m still suprised traffic seems to flow without making the roads look like a scene from Final Destination.

Early doors of the festival – people were climbing wherever possible for a good view.. lots of opportunities later for close encounters with the elephants and performers
Braving the risk of electrocution for a good view 😐

Trance Inducing Horn 😎
With the festival underway, you can expect to see huge gatherings of devotees around the temples, with adorened elephants parked outside. Performers in traditional wear stand atop the poor bastards, spinning colourful umbrellas, whilst musicians play trance inducing horn and percussion instruments. The music is quite good, in that the group change up the beats and rhythm quite frequently, and in-time. There was one performance around 5:30 on the Friday outside the main temple where the crowd would cheer ferociously and lose their minds each time the group changed the beat. People were partying and waving around colourful balloons, this was probably the highlight of the whole festival actually.

This was dead good

By the evening, we agreed the music to foreign ears is incredibly repetitive. I still have the beat of the piercing cymbals in my head now. I don’t think it will ever leave, I’m a changed man now.

The moment of realisation – “Damn, the music IS pretty repetitive”

Indian Summer
One thing to note is that it is freaking hot. I’m talking 40 degrees celcius hot. It’s properly dangerous to be exposed to the sunlight for any extended period of time, which is an easy mistake to make when you’re an excited Westerner and the festival is a novelty. The daytime is taken up by the game “Hunt shade, or literally die”

Local companies hand out fans and hats. Clever marketing.. If you don’t die, you’re more likely to spend money with them

Bhang for buck
One interesting point Mrs Mansell made was that the festival experience was slightly odd to us without alcohol.. I’m pretty sure that would sound crazy to a local, but we hit up many music festivals in Europe and getting boozed is commonplace. Alcohol is the second most consumed fluid after air. That said, “bhang” (edibal cannibis) is legal from government controlled shops, maybe that’s how the younger crowd found the repetitive music so mesmerising for so long..

These guys are probably bhanged up. Speaking of Selfies..

Travelling before the age of front-facing camera equipped smartphones must’ve been bliss
“Selfie?” “Selfie?” As a Westerner, this is the most common interaction you’ll have with the locals. The frequency increases somewhat if you have blonde hair, or if you’re 6’4″. Top tip, take it in your stride and do it. If you don’t, a photo of your mush will end up on their phone anyway! The best selfies are when someone tries to stealthily get a picture with you without you noticing. If you notice, pull a stupid face. Another good tactic is to dodge them or run away (In a joking manner, don’t actually run for your life) the guys I did this to found it hilarious.
We had a bit of a downer when late into the main evening we found ourselves “Selfie-ing” (Yeah sure, why not) when a separate boystrous group of guys got involved too. I hadn’t realised at the time but lady Mansell was subjected to over-excited, touchy-feely hands belonging to this second group of young men. This was a real shame as I had read comments online before the festival about this sort of issue. Up until that point, we hadn’t had a problem, and this blog post would’ve wholly encouraged you to dismiss those comments. The way women are treated and regarded in India in general could be the topic of a separate blog post, and then some.. Anyway, we agreed the best step forward would be if I covered the rear in all future Selfies!

My face may suggest otherwise, but thankfully these guys were not touching me inappropriately
This guy is your favourite, right?

4 hours of fireworks*
The fireworks were a big draw for us. The appeal was the 4 hour duration, the odd timing from 2AM on the Saturday plus the general reputation online. The fireworks did not start at 2AM, we heard different times from all sorts of people. In fact this situation was a common occurance throughout the festival. We heard and partially saw a massive display from our nearby hotel room at around 3AM. This lasted about 3 minutes. After this a firework was set off every couple of minutes, probably for about 4 hours. There is a lesson here about managing expectations! In truth, the short display was impresive with an incredible noise. It sounded like a warzone, with the night being lit up to look as if the sun was shining. From memory there were two displays of this magnitude which both lasted about 3 minutes… So 6 minutes of the 240 minutes originally advertised were quality!

I don’t have a photo of the fireworks, so, here is your favourite man instead

The humbling tale of Mr Loiterer
A vivid memory of mine.. we were speaking for quite some time to a local chap from Kerela whilst the processions ran into the night. He was well travelled, firmly middle class and genuinely a pleasant, interesting guy. Roughly halfway through our 45 minute chat, I began to notice a very old looking man lingering around. We’d gotten used to people staring at us intently, but this guy was loitering whilst we were deep in conversation. Once we parted ways with the friendly Kerela based chap, I could see in the corner of my eye the old boy was still hanging around. Mrs Mansell and I managed to lose each other (photo opportunities, large crowds…) As I was looking around for the top of her head, I spotted Mr Loiterer, who kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Mansell towards the elephants. Still he hung around, and it became clear that he wanted nothing, other than to just be around us. The most memorable point was when I offered him some of our water, he made a noise that I would liken to a young boy getting the exact gift they wanted on their birthday. I have a degree in Engineering, and therefore have no emotional intelligence, but if I did function like a normal human being I’m sure it would’ve pulled on my heart strings.

Whoops

Thirssur Pooram 2018?
The 2017 edition of Thrissur Pooram didn’t encourage me enough to consider visiting again in 2018.. But if you find yourself in the south of India at the right time, I would recommend the festival for the experience. I think your stories from Thrissur Pooram will be more interesting than your stories about sunbathing on the beaches of Goa!

A Naieve Westerner’s Summary
The Good
A very “local” experience – I can recall seeing perhaps 10 – 20 other obvious Westerners.

Eye opening – I’d never been to a festival like this, I don’t know too many others that have. Everything was new.. that’s good right?!

Performance – The processions and performances are mesmorising, colourful and awe-inspiring.

Fireworks – Although brief, the displays made night look like day and sounded like a scene from an action film in a cinema with a world class sound system.. In fact, that multiplied by 10.

Price – Hey the festival is free too!

The Bad
Elephant welfare – I can imagine this being a huge turn off for many people.

The Temperature – The date of the festival is dictated by a celestial event, which happens to be around April or May when it is frickin’ hot. Manageable by limiting sun exposure and making the most of the post sunset processions.

Timetable – Every experience was a chance encounter for us, which wasn’t really a bad thing.. Others may like to have a schedule. Information was available online but it’s really difficult to digest, probably because of my lack of knowledge of the history and Hinduism.

Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands – Every 3 seconds, someone is affected by Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands. That’s another one. And another. Whoops sorry that’s not useful. Ok, I reckon different people handle this risk differently. You could refuse all Selfies, run away or position ladies tactfully if you’re in a group. And another.

 And another..

Advice
Location – Try to stay somewhere close to the main ring road for easy access/escape.

Accommodation – Book your bed early, and get in touch with your host or hotel in advance. If you really want, do as many Indian nationals do and sleep rough for the night (That wasn’t for us, we stumped up a relatively large sum for a room) From our accommodation experience, long story short, avoid the AirBnb host below, and prepare to be ripped off and/or shouted at by your friendly hosts at Raj Mahal Lodge.

🖕😑🖕

Sunshine – Manage your time in direct sunlight, and carry a hat, sunscreen and water (easy to buy bottled)

Food – There were some decent restaurants on the south side main roads connecting to the main ring road. The breakfast buffet we had on Sunday at Pooram International Hotel made me a happy Westerner. I expected more street food vendors.. most were selling sweets.

Respite – Need a break from the noise, crowds and heat? Just do it.. find shade or an AC hotel restaurant and relax. There will still be processions, elephants and music when you’re finished, trust me!

Maps – Probably not needed so much, but download the Thrissur area on offline Google Maps.

Locals – Talk to people! The majority of people we spoke to were jubilant, happy to be there and curious as to why you’re there. You never know who you’ll meet.

Most importantly – Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, enjoy yourself, etc etc etc 😁

You can read our other blog posts about India here:

The Good, The Bad and The Useful of Travelling in India

Kerala, South India: Our 2-week itinerary

India: The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan in 2 weeks

HELLO!

Three weeks into our 4.5 month trip around Asia and we decided to start a blog! There is so much we have discovered about Sri Lanka already and we have realised that photos, whilst they are great, do not always capture the stories and experiences behind them. So hopefully you’ll enjoy reading this blog! We hope to:

a) allow family & friends to follow us on our journey

b) inform other travellers about areas we have visited

c) inspire others to travel

Firstly, I should provide some background to our journey so far. We are a married couple living in the UK, who decided to take a 6-month sabbatical or career break from our jobs to do some travelling! To make this sound slightly less glamorous, this didn’t happen without months of planning including saving for 18 months, deciding what to do with our rented flat and all our furniture, car (in the end we decided to end the lease and sell our furniture and car) booking the travel, budgeting, getting vaccinations and so on. Perhaps one day we’ll write a separate blog entry on the planning side alone as there would certainly be enough to fill it!

But for now, let’s focus on the travelling part because that’s definitely the most exciting…

We made the choice to do two trips; the first one in Asia and the second in South America. Our trip started on 5th April 2017 and our itinerary is three weeks in Sri Lanka, one month in India and then three months getting from Bangkok to Bali with a few days in Hong Kong on our way back to the UK in mid-August.

Our budget allowed for a typical back-packing style trip and that suited us because it gave us more flexibility to travel around. We booked all our main flights with STA travel as they offered a round-the-world ticket at a decent price and the option to move flights easily with their multi-flex pass. As for accommodation we just booked our first few nights via Booking.com and opted to leave the rest of the trip open.

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Photo: Us about to depart at Heathrow airport for our 4.5 month trip around Asia with probably far too many bags!

So that’s us! And now we have almost finished our 3-weeks in Sri Lanka which have been amazing! We really challenged ourselves by moving to a new destination in Sri Lanka every 2-3 days but that in itself has been a great experience to speak to lots of different people, stay in lots of different places and really get a sense of different regions in Sri Lanka. I think we’re both still in holiday mode and it hasn’t really sunk in that we’re out here until 22nd August so we know we may not be able to keep up that pace!

We’ll now write a separate blog entry on our time so far in Sri Lanka…

Much lovings,

Sara & Jonny