High on the list of my favourite places to visit in India, and a very popular tourist destination with those who visit Kerala, Kochi is a wonderful blend of tropical, south Indian atmospheres and European colonial heritage (ie. Portuguese, Dutch and British).
Being so rich in history and having lots to offer, there are quite a few sights to take in. But history ain’t the only thing – with the Kochi-Muziris biennale which launched in 2012, the city is developing an intriguing arty spin. As my friend Vijay puts it “it may not be a Berlin or a London yet but it is getting there”.
So if you want to visit Kochi and make the most of it, why not spend a few more days there and give yourself enough time to make it justice? Read More
Research is the best way to prepare for any Euro Trip. Knowing where you’re going, what you want to see and most importantly how much it is going to cost you will make your trip will that much smoother. The internet is full of student travellers and bloggers equally interested in seeing all that Europe has to offer for as cheap as possible. You’ll find that many museums have days and times when they offer free admission and if not it is well worth checking for a student price. An ISIC card will give you student prices for anything from museums to hostels to trains and ferry tickets. Read More
Unlike the other countries we’ve visited in this trip we didn’t do much research or reading about Malaysia before arriving, so we knew very little about this country and we didn’t know what to expect.
Once we got to Georgetown we found out that the guesthouse we had booked online the day before was well outside the backpacking district in a posh part of town between Jalan Burma and Gurney drive, a scenic sea front promenade with many upmarket restaurants, hotels, skyscrapers and shopping centres. However, our guesthouse was not expensive at all, it was nice and cosy and the staff was brilliant.
With the historical centre (UNESCO heritage site since 2008) not so close, and with other attractions being out of town, we had to find an alternative to expensive taxis to keep our budget down while moving from one place to another. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a public bus system (Rapid Penang) – a very organized and efficient one indeed! Buses are so clean and modern, and some of them also have wi-fi. Would you believe it?
During our stay we learned that Malay people are about 50% of the population and the remaining 50% are mainly Indian and Chinese. Chinese are the owners of the economy and entrepreneurship is their second nature. An Indian-Malay told us and during Chinese new year the country stops, because Chinese people own most businesses and they don’t work during this period.
The other major component of the Malay society are Indians – most come from the state of Tamil Nadu in the south, and many of them are Muslim.
Pulau Pinang (this is the Malay name for Penang, the island where Georgetown is), like all Malaysia, is a big melting pot and this diversity is reflected in its cuisine. Locals will tell you they have the best food in Malaysia, and if you say, like we did, that you’ve heard that Kuala Lumpur is also supposed to have good food, they’ll tell you that you won’t find KL’s food good after having tried Penang’s delicacies.
Normally we would have done a lot of sightseeing (we did some of course) but our stay took inevitably (and rightly so) an intense gastronomic twist. Therefore we spent 4 days exploring… the food markets!!
What we will remember the most about Georgetown are the numerous food courts (the Hawkers centres), the fusion Indian, Chinese, Malay dishes, with their smell of spices and of course extra kilos we gained there.
Georgetown eateries you shouldn’t miss out on
Of course there are many places to go for food. The places below are, among the ones that were recommended to us by locals and other travellers, the ones that we tried and loved. Make sure you get a copy of ‘Penang Food Trail’, a free map for foodies, with restaurants and the types of specialities they offer. The map also includes a section with photos and notes about typical local dishes, including desserts.
One last note about Hawker centres. These are open air, street restaurants with many different food stalls. Usually there’ll be only one stall serving drinks and a few selling desserts (don’t miss Ice Kacang and Cendol, and if you are adventurous try durian at least once). Our main tip is to eat small portion of many dishes to maximise variety – there is only a limited number of lunches and dinners you can have but a limitless range of exotic delicacies to try!
Gurney drive hawker centre
Quite outside the historical centre, we wouldn’t have known about this night food market if we didn’t take this out-of-the-way guesthouse. Looi, the guesthouse owner, recommended this place to us and we went there for dinner on our first night in Georgetown. What a great way to get introduced to Penang’s food.
To see Gurney drive hawker centre on the map click here
Red garden food court
This is the most famous food hawker centre in Georgetown, straight in the middle of the action in Jalan Penang, centre of gravity of the backpacking and local night-life.
To see Red Garden food court on the map click here
Lorong baru (new lane), off Macalister street (Jalan Macalister)
We’d seen many food hawker centres in Macalister street from the bus on our way into town. On our last night we decided to give this one a try and it was worth – definitely.
Even though this food market is in the historical centre not many tourists end up here. We were lucky enough to try the delicious food they some of the stalls have. But don’t go there at night, as this food court is only open for lunch.
If you’ve been to India before, the smell of incense mixed with notes of curries and spices, Hindi music coming out loud from sari shops and images of Hindu deities are guaranteed to give an emotional twist. Try one of the many Indian restaurants in lebuh Queen, lebuh King or lebuh Bishop. Look for Nasi Kandar restaurants – in these restaurants you’ll get a plate with plain rice which you will be able to ‘decorate’ with as many types of curry (and meat or fish) as you want.
Greetings from Chiang Rai! Four days ago in Luang Prabang we took a slow boat to Houay Xai, a little town on the Mekong, across the river from Thailand. The trip lasted two days but we enjoyed some stunning and unspoiled scenery along the way (pictures coming soon), and it gave us a chance to catch up on our reading and our future travel plans. We spent the first night in Pak Beng, mid-way between Luang Prabang and Houay Xay. We left the boat, took a room in a guesthouse, and jumped back in the boat the morning after. At the end of the second day we arrived in Houay Xay but because it was too late, the border crossing was closed, and we had to stay overnight. Finally the day after we crossed the Mekong (and the border), got to Chiang Kong, cleared the customs and entered Thailand with a free 15-day stay permit. The thing is we should have arranged a visa beforehand, if we wanted a longer permit. But because we didn’t do so, we’ll have to sort out a visa extension in Chiang Mai, in a few days time, or leave the country briefly and re-enter at some stage (we are seriously considering going to Burma for a week, as Air Asia’s fares are very cheap at the moment). If we re-enter through the airport, as opposed to overland as we did, we would be granted a free 30 day visa.
Baan Warabordee – Our accommodation
In Chiang Kong we managed to take a bus to Chiang Rai, where we arrived two hours later. We got us a nice guesthouse called Baan Warabordee, which is down a quiet secondary road, but within walking distance from where the action is. Maybe not the cheapest accommodation we’ve found so far (500 bahts, about 12 euros) but the standard is excellent and eating out here is so cheap that it compensates for the extra amount we’re spending for the accommodation.
The night market
One of the things that we’ve loved since the very beginning is the night market. There is a big square at the back of it, with a bunch of food stalls and tables. At one end of the square there’s a stage where dance shows and concerts are performed.
The food is gorgeous, and as we said, extremely cheap – yesterday we had dinner with 60 bahts for both of us (the equivalent of 1.40€) 🙂
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
If you thought of religious art and architecture as a quite conservative form of expression, characterised by the re-iteration of a limited number of relevant, holy icons and symbols, you’ll feel a sense of displacement when you get into the white temple. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the designer of this unconventional religious building, has managed to mix Buddhist and secular references in the mural painting inside the Buddha abode. Don’t be surprised to find graphical representations of Superman, Batman, Spider-man, planes crashing on the twin towers, Pandora’s green Na’vis from Avatar and much more, in the context of a wider metaphor, with an image of Mara (a demon in the Buddhist tradition) in the background (Read more on this temple on wikipedia.)
Here are a few photos I’ve taken today. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures inside the abode but you can take pictures outside.
Responsible Hill-tribes treks – our experience and some tips
Chiang Rai is a very ethnically diverse province, with a number of hill-tribes living in the area. The tourism industry benefits from the presence of these tribes and expectedly the hill-tribe trek is a popular product, provided both by agencies and hotels/guesthouses. The problem is that not many of those who provide these tours are really concerned with giving back to these minorities. However there are some organizations who share part of their profits with the tribes, and engage in development projects aimed at improving the tribes conditions, while maintaining and preserving their traditions. One of these organization is Natural Focus, about which we found out through our lonely planet guide. Today we met Poo (please resist the temptation of making easy jokes!), who is Natural Focus’ project coordinator – he seems to be a very nice guy and what’s more important he’s very flexible. We agreed a one-night, two-day program with him, and tomorrow we’ll go to a Akha village, where we will stay overnight. The program includes staying with a Akha family, having a cultural exchange, and learning to cook a typical Akha lunch. We’re expecting a very exciting two days, and we’re sure we’ll be able to take one or two nice pictures 🙂 Another eco-tour organizations to look for in Chiang Rai is PDA. We visited their Hill-Tribe Museum yesterday and found it extremely informative and interesting. PDA also offers a range of tours and programs and, as a NGO, is involved in various community development initiatives including anti-human trafficking projects and AIDS education (read more on their website here).
The controversial long-neck Karen Padaung, or the human zoo
A few months before the trip we came across a documentary about this supposed ethnic group, whose women use to wear a neck coil that over time extends their neck. As we got curious about this unusual, picturesque thing, we thought we’d visit their village once in this area. However we changed our mind yesterday during our visit to the Hill-Tribe museum. As we asked the staff, we were told that these people, referred to as long-neck Karen, or Karen Padaung (sometimes written as Padong), are just Burmese refugees who were hired by a businessman and used as a human zoo type of tourist attraction. Tourists visiting the long-neck Karen village pay a fee, a part of which (maybe a thin part) goes to the villagers. Tour guides use to tell tourists that Karen Padaung people rely on farming for their living, but – we learned – there is no evidence of farming activities in the village or around, and it is quite likely that their only income comes from tourism (e.g. the fees I was talking about above and the sales of crafts). Someone says that, on a positive note, these Karen live in better conditions than most refugees, which may be true, however the Thai government doesn’t recognize them as Thai citizens, it tolerates their presence, but doesn’t allow them to move out of their area. Also, BBC news reported some times ago that some of these people were offered the possibility to move to other countries including New Zealand but the Thai government didn’t allow them to leave. Well… for us this was enough information to decide to boycott this type of tourism. Maybe we’re overreacting, but the idea of visiting a human zoo where people are not allowed to leave and decide what type of life they should be living, makes both of us uncomfortable. To see some images of long-neck women click here. Also, here is that short news video from the BBC news website I was mentioning above (if the video doesn’t start, then click ‘launch on a stand alone player’, or click here and open with your default media player).
That’s it for now. We’re looking forward to taking the tour with Poo tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some pictures of the Akha soon – and a recipe. Keep in touch!
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