Traipsing around Penang

I woke up early this morning, determined to see all the wonderful street art sans the crowds of tourists. By early I mean I was out of the hostel by 8:30am, but still that's early for most backpackers – the hostel was dead quiet when I left!

Penang is famous for its unique street art, which pops up all over the capital of city of Georgetown, particularly in the Old Town. In 2012, Penang municipal council hired Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to create an attraction that not only brings in tourism but promotes awareness of the rich history in the area. Zacharevic went above and beyond his mission and transformed the old Chinese shop houses around the inner city into works of art that has now become a thriving tourist destination and talking point amongst locals. What made his artwork really unique was the way he incorporated 3D objects into his art. For example 'Boy on a Bike' is a painting of a boy on a motorcycle, except the motorcycle is real. This clever trick not only attracts crowds but encourages them to interact with the artwork.

As one of the drawcards to the city, there's plenty of maps to track down all the street art, yet I found it better to just wander and spot them randomly. However this morning I was in a rush to beat the tourists so I had the main ones marked out on my maps and hoped to spot more as I went. Armed with my trusty camera and tripod (I'd become one of those travellers!) I set out into the morning heat to get snapping. Even at 8:30am, the heat was stifling. I was wearing a long skirt and hat – cos you know, #doinitforInsta – and within minutes I was sweaty as anything.

I walked around what felt like the entire Old Town, snapping photos and admiring the never ending art. Just when you think you've seen it all, more appears! My favourites were the tiny pieces in hard to spot places. At around 10am I headed back to my hostel to shower and find a coffee. After refreshing and re-caffeinating, I came across a kooky museum that I just had to visit.

The Wonderfood Museum was all about the history of Malay food and how it intertwines with other countries such and India and China. Instead of the usual museum layout, with lots of words and not much else, this interactive museum has huge plastic replicas of their most famous dishes. I was walking amongst giant bowls of ayam laksa, past pots of char teow keow and kettles of kopi. The staff at the museum know how to play it as well, one girl walked around with me the entire time encouraging me to take goofy photos with all the food. It was hilarious, but I could imagine it would be a real laugh with a group of people. Though once I got over being awkward, it was fun. I left the museum feeling a bit silly but couldn't stop laughing to myself about the ridiculous photos I now had!

The following day was my last day in Penang before I left for Langkawi. Today I ventured further into Georgetown to Penang Times Square and the huge shopping malls. I'd been told about a little vegan cafe that had raw treats and I keen to find it. Before I found the cafe, I stumbled upon a pop-up market with local artisans showcasing their goods. There was a live band, lots of art and a few delicious little food stalls that I stayed here instead of going to the vegan cafe, which turned out to be a couple of doors down. That night I had one final dinner at Red Garden Food paradise before leaving for Langkawi the next day.

Bring on the beach and island life! I can't wait!

Penang Food Tour – Part 1

If there's a heaven, I may have found it. Home to world class street food, funky street art and upmarket shopping, Penang ticks off all the boxes! I had planned to stay here for a couple of days before deciding on my next moves and was keen to take in (aka eat all I could) in that time.

After checking into my hostel, the Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel, I had a quick shower to cool down before heading out to explore. I've learnt the best way to get your bearings is to just walk for an hour or two with no direction in mind and then find your way back home. I came across this method after spending many days wandering around slightly lost. So I set out with a general idea of which direction to head in to see what I could find.

The Old Town of the capital city George Town wasn't very big but full of hidden surprises. It was a charming area with crumbling brick walls, old men riding rickshaws and street vendors cooking up a storm in the streets. There was street art everywhere you looked and plenty of cutesy little stores to waste time and money in. I searched for some food, since I'd not eaten a proper meal since the day before and settled on Alley Cafe for an iced coffee and some churros. Not exactly a proper meal, but the sugar rush was enough to keep me going for the afternoon!

Not quite Malay cuisine but absolutely delicious!

I wandered through the loud and colourful streets of Little India and down to the Chew Jetty where you could see the main land from the jetty edge. I found several pieces of the Insta-famous street art which I made a mental note to come back to when there weren't so many tourists around.

Later than afternoon I met up with my Irish friend and we had the yummiest Indian meal in Little India. I opted for a Thali set meal and a garlic naan, which set me back all of $AUD8. It was a huge meal and I had to waddle out of the place full to the brim of Indian goodness. Little did I know I would be eating alot of Indian here… and I wasn't complaining! We wandered down Chulia Street and Love Lane before retreating back to our respective hostels for the night. The lack of sleep from the night before on the train was starting to take effect and I needed some zzz's.

Part of my delicious Indian Thali meal

The following morning I woke up and found breakfast at Wheeler Coffee. It was very Western but I was a sucker for a proper brekkie! They did a really good scrambled egg bagel! My day was spent walking the endless streets, finding new street art and sampling some delicious street food. That afternoon I made friends with some people from my hostel and we went to get dinner at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre. Food didn't get much for expensive that AUD$5 so you can imagine the amount of food we consumed! The satay chicken was absolutely delicious but my favourite is char keow teow, the sticky, stir fry noodles. After dinner we caught an Uber to this new art installation that has just been put up. The Avatar Secret Garden in Tanjung Tokong is inspired the famous movie, Avatar and it certainly gives you the impression you're walking through Pandora.

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre – aka FOOD HEAVEN!

We arrived about 9pm and it was already super-packed. The free admission and beautiful lights have brought the crowds in droves and it was a bit of a push and shove affair. The exhibit wasn't very big and during the day would look very dull but at night, the colours of the lights glowing amongst the huge trees was absolutely stunning. It was like they'd planned the lights in a way that would look brilliant through a camera lens. Every shot I took I was in awe! And all I was doing was clicking the shutter!

The art installation is only open for a few months so if you're in Penang before the end of the year, definitely check it out. It's free and fun and you can get some fab pictures!

After we walked through the exhibit we headed back to the hostel and parted ways for the night. Tomorrow I was planning to get up early and see all the street art murals before the hordes of tourists came through. . . And to eat more street food :p

J. X

Making My Way to Malaysia..

The time had come to leave Thailand and while it was sad to leave this beautiful friendly country, it was time to move onto another. This time, Malaysia!

I had decided to take the real traveller option and head south via an overnight train. The flights weren't much more expensive but I had time to kill and it would be interesting to see more of the country by rail. I'd done a couple of overnight trains before so I knew what to expect and after the awful buses in Nepal, it would seem like luxury!

My train was to leave at 3:30pm and not get into Padar Besar until 9:30am the next morning! I found my train compartment and dragged my huge backpack through the tiny aisle. There was a large Malay family sitting right where my seat was but after some confusion I realised only three of the ten people were actually catching the train, the rest were just there to say goodbye. Thankfully the rest of the train wasn't that busy so I actually had plenty of space to spread about my (many) belongings!

The train slowly made its way out of Bangkok, stopping at smaller stations along the way. Hawkers came on at every stop with baskets of snacks and drinks. As I watched the countryside whizz by, I decided that I quite liked train travel. It was nice to not have to deal with the busy Thai traffic! As the sun began to set, the stewards came through the cabin changing our seats into beds and I realised I'd made the rookie error of choosing a top bunk. Thinking I was being clever by choosing the higher bunk, I was rudely mistaken as the bottom bunk was not only wider but completely blocked out the light. My narrow top bunk had a sliver of bright light shining through the curtain which ended up staying on all night. I managed to block out most of the light but next time I'll know to choose the more spacious bottom bunk! I didn't fall asleep until around midnight but it was definitely less interrupted than sleeping on an overnight bus!

Before I knew it, the night had come and gone and we were at the border in Padar Besar by mid-morning. A quick walk through the very casual immigration office and I was officially in Malaysia. From here I had to catch another train to Butterworth, which took about two hours. This was more like a subway than a train and every stop people filed in an out, squeezing into the busy compartments. I made friends with an Irish girl who was doing the same journey as me, which was good because it made be sure that I was actually going the right way!

Finally we reached Butterworth station and there was one more bit of transit before I reached Penang. A ferry ride across the Penang Strait where the cool sea air was very welcome and I was finally in Penang! The Irish girl and I shared a taxi to Georgetown and by 4pm I was in my hostel, thankful to not have to lug my huge backpack around anymore! 24 hours later I'd finally reached my destination! While it certainly was an experience to travel via the overnight train, I don't think I'll be doing that journey again for awhile!

Now to explore Penang! Famous for being the foodie capital of South East Asia, I am so ready to explore!

J. x

I FOUND HEAVEN! The Unicorn Cafe in Bangkok

Alright, I'm going to be honest here. As I planned out my trip which had taken a very different turn to what I imagined before I left Australia, I had one thing in mind that I HAD to do. Ever since I heard about Bangkok's Unicorn Cafe on BuzzFeed it became a high priority thing to do on my bucket list. I didn't necessarily need to stop in Bangkok, I've been there twice before but because it's where the Unicorn Cafe was, I had to go there. I also wanted to get a dome lens for my GoPro but that's hardly as exciting as UNICORNS!

I caught the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and arrived around 5:30am. The bus ride actually wasn't too bad but it might be because I was comparing it to the woeful ones in Nepal! It was drizzling rain when i arrived in Bangkok and I was secretly pleased because it had been so hot in Chiang Mai! I got a taxi to my hostel (and paid to much, bloody Bangkok already ripping me off!) and wasn't able to check in but could shower and eat the free breakfast so I took advantage of both those things happily!

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I spent most of it wandering through some of Bangkok's biggest shopping malls. MRK, Siam Discovery and Siam Paragon were full of beautiful shops but for this broke backpacker it was merely a browsing affair. Besides I could hardly fit anything else into my backpack! I tracked down a dome lens after much searching and that satisfied my spending craving thankfully.

The following morning I set out to find this magical wonderland called the Unicorn Cafe. It actually wasn't as far as I thought, just a few stops on the BTS. The closest stop for the Unicorn cafe is Chong Nonsi and from there it was about a five minute walk. The pink shop is tucked away in a back street of a business-y district of Bangkok. It looks a little out of place but the packed building proves that no matter where you are, if theres unicorns then people will come!

I arrived to a pink wonderland, filled with plush My Little Pony's, a big Unicorn statue and wallpaper covered in unicorns. It was a girly overload and I loved it! The place itself was tiny and it was walk to walk full of magic. I'd arrived at peak time and most places were already filled with people dressed up in unicorn onesies and drinking rainbow coloured drinks. Managing to grab a little table to myself I looked through the sugar-laden menu to find something delicious to eat. The prices were a little more expensive than I'd been allocating for meals but i figured I could call this morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea so decided to lash out! It's amazing how you justify things when you really want something!

I ordered a Galaxy Italian soda and a Chocolate Toast. I could already feel the sugar crash that would be happening later! As I sat and watching everyone around me, I couldn't help but wish I had someone to share this fun and hilarious experience with. My food came and I devoured it. It wasn't the best thing I've ever eaten but the whole spectacle of the brightly coloured food and drinks made up for it! Besides I wasn't here for the food, i was here for the unicorns!

As I finished a girl walked in and asked if we could share a table because there were no free ones. We struck up a conversation and I discovered she was from Holland and here on a business trip. She'd ducked out from her program for the day to come and see the Unicorn Cafe. She was lots of fun and I ended up staying another hour as we acted like little girls, wearing the Unicorn onesies and ordering more rainbow coloured food. I was glad that we'd met because it had made my experience of the Unicorn Cafe what I had hoped! A hilariously fun time!

She had to leave to go back to her seminar and I was starting to feel the effects of the sugar crash so we shared a taxi and said our goodbyes. Today was one of the reasons why I love travelling. Literally anything could happen! I could have enjoyed my chocolate toast on my own and left the Unicorn Cafe feeling a little unsatisfied but instead I left with a new friend and feeling like I'd had the proper Unicorn Cafe experience 🙂

I had a quick wander through another very fancy shopping mall, the Emporium before heading back to my hostel to chill out for the rest of the afternoon. All that sugar had evaporated and I was buggered!

The following morning I checked out of my hostel and headed to the train station. I was bound for Penang and it was going to take two trains and a ferry to get there! I'll let you know how I go!

J. X

Visiting the Highest Point in Thailand!

It was another early start for me as I was playing tourist again today. This time I was off to Doi Inthanon National Park – the highest point in Thailand. Technically it was part of the Himalayan mountain ranges but I must admit after hiking to Everest Base Camp, every other mountain seemed like a small bump in the ground but I put aside my mountain snobbery and was ready to see the view from the top!

The van picked me up from my AirBnb apartment and we headed off. There was about eight other people in my group and we shared small talk as the van scuttled along the busy highway. We drove for about forty-five minutes before stopping for a food break. One thing about these tours, they like to make sure you never go hungry. I was thankful there was somewhere to get coffee because I was still a bit tired from yesterdays efforts to Chiang Rai. We continued on for about an hour, making the steady climb up the mountain to the top. We drove high into the clouds and I could feel the temperature starting to drop. Thankfully one of the girls from my group yesterday warned me that it can get quite chilly up the top of Doi Inthanon so I had dressed appropriately . There were a few people in today's group who would definitely be feeling the cold in their shorts and singlets!

We reached the top and stepped out into the foggy, cool air. Walking through a small information centre about the National Park, where I learnt the highest point in Thailand was 2565 metres above sea level (similar to Lukla, which was only our starting point for Base Camp!) we followed the wooden path that lead us through to the peak. It was hardly a walk to brag about but the chilly air was a refreshing change from the heat of Chiang Mai! Today was a bit more of a 'stop – take a photo – get back in the van' show. I'd barely had a chance to wander around before we were being ushered on to the next spot. Ah the joy of organised day trips!

Our next stop was the two stupas dedicated to the King and Queens's 60th birthday anniversary. These huge purple and gold stupas and their immaculate gardens would have had a brilliant view on a clear day however today was so foggy that sometimes we couldn't even see both temples at the same time! Nonetheless, the beautifully kept gardens were lovely to wander through.

Our next stop was a horticultural project set up by the late king. This beautiful garden was set up to educate hill tribe people about farming and land allocation. There are an abundance of different types of flora in this royal garden. It is beautifully kept with cool-temperature plants, rice terraces, coffee plantations and a strawberry orchard among some of the types of gardens there. I walked through amazed at all the beautiful gardens and flowers! Obviously my mum's love for gardening has rubbed off a little bit!

We were then taken to our spot for lunch near a huge waterfall. It was another buffet-style lunch with some local dishes. After lunch we wandered up to the waterfall and got in line to take photos. As it was the middle of the day, it was packed with tourists. The serene location was sort of ruined by the tourists but I guess nothing can avoid that! We jumped back in the van after a couple of hours and headed to our final stop, another hill tribe village. This one was a little more authentic but it still felt a bit weird to just wander through someone's backyard and peer into their home. I know they are just trying to make some money and give us foreigners an insight into their life but I couldn't help and feel like I was just an intruder. At least this time we weren't being constantly pressured into buying things like the village yesterday.

After the village visit it was time to head back to Chiang Mai. The drive only took about an hour and it was late afternoon by the time I got home. I rode my bike to the night market to visit my favourite two stalls. I discovered them when I first arrived in Chiang Mai and have become quite the frequent visitor! The Pad Thai lady who cooks a mean Pad Thai for AUD$2 and the mango sticky rice lady who serves the biggest portion of mango sticky rice for just AUD$2! For $4 I have a delicious two course meal which I get to take away and eat in my apartment. It's a tough life but someone has to live it I guess! 😛

My days in Chiang Mai are coming to an end! I have two days left which I'm a little sad about. It's been a lovely two weeks here and I feel like i really know my way around the place. This is honestly my favourite way to travel. Slowly and thoroughly! I'll be heading to Bangkok and then onto Malaysia for the second time! Stay tuned!

J. X

Visiting the White Temple & Golden Triangle

After my stint being a Chiang Mai local, I felt it was time to act be a tourist again and see what everyone else was coming here to see. I had originally planned to stay in Chiang Rai for a couple of days but changed my mind because they only thing I really wanted to see there was Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, which could be done on a day tour. I chose one where I could combine seeing the White Temple and the Golden Triangle – talk about killing two birds with one stone!

I was picked up at 7am by my vivacious guide Sara, who I think used to be a Steven. I'd see a few ladyboys around Chiang Mai but it definitely wasnt as prominent as in the south of Thailand. There's always that initial awkward moment with ladyboys, standing in front of you is a girl with a deep voice and big hands. Nonetheless, Sara was lovely and had this thick, lucious hair I could only dream of having. As we drove along the busy highway towards Chiang Rai she gave us a lowdown of the history of North Thailand. We were smack in the centre of the Lanna Kingdom, a fact that people from the North like to remind us of. It's like they prefer to say they're Lanna people instead of Thai people, which I guess would be a similar rivalry to people from NSW and QLD. We drove for about and hour and a half before having a quick stop at a small hot spring. It was more of a large market that had a tiny but smelly hot spring in the centre of it. I tracked down an iced coffee to wake me up and chatted to some of the others in the group. We were a mixed bunch from all over but the conversation was the same. "Where are you from", "How long have you been travelling for?", "Where to next". It's such a predictable conversation between travellers, but I guess it's always a good way to break the ice. 

Jumping back in the van we drove for another hour or so before reaching Wat Rong Khun or more commonly known as the White temple. It was one of those rare occasions where you see something in real life that you've been looking at online and you're still impressed with what you see. The huge, intricately designed temple glowed under the clear, blue sky. We'd arrived at the perfect time, the clouds had cleared and honestly it hurt to look at this giant structure in front of us, the white was blinding.

Wat Rong Khun is the masterpiece by local artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. After years of the temple being abandoned, Kositpipat decided to reconstruct the temple, as an offering to Buddha. Kositpipat vision is simple, one must overcome hell (the cycle of death and rebirth) to reach heaven and nirvana. Instead of the traditional temples, ornate with gold trimmings, Kositpipat has used white to cover the exterior of the main hall, symbolising the purity of Buddha and fragments of glistening mirror to reflect his wisdom. To reach the main hall, visitors must cross a bridge over the 'sea of suffering' which is represented by hundreds of ghostly hands reaching out in eerie desperation, personifying untamed desire and greed. Once past the sea of suffering, it gets even more interesting.

Instead of intricately designed, golden arcs and arches inside the main hall, Wat Rong Khun is emblazoned with an unusual juxtaposition of Buddha and pop culture references, such as Superman and Michael Jackson. It's a strange contrast, which drew controversy amongst the Thai people for disprecting the Buddhist faith, however its a clever move to attract the younger generation towards the temple. By using modern images, Kositpipat has given a cool new outlook on the faith, attracting not only thousands of tourists but the younger Thai generation. 

I wandered around the temple complex, completely smitten with the tiny details, like the small skulls lining the fence posts, the Marvel superheroes sporadically popping up around the place and the shimmering silver prayer charms that hung from the roof of the walkway. Even the bathroom was this grand golden building that could have easily been mistaken for another temple! The only bad part of the temple was the hordes of tourists around the place, if I'd stayed in Chiang Rai overnight I could have gone earlier to avoid the crowds but it was just too easy to go with a tour and be led around.

After about an hour and a half at the temple, we jumped back in the van to our next destination. We had a quick stop at a hill tribe village which didnt feel authentic at all! It was basically a set-up of huts filled with touristy souvenirs. I'd heard about the exploitation of hill tribes and it suddenly was very apparent. The rest of the group had the same thought as me and it was a quick walk through the 'village' before getting back in the van to go towards the Golden Triangle. It was another hour or so and we were getting close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos. It was pretty exciting actually, even though the Golden Triangle is such a popular tourist hotspot, it felt like we were crossing foreign borders! I don't know, perhaps that's just my inner geography nerd coming out!

Stopping for lunch first, we had a buffet style meal before heading up to a lookout that gave us a perfect view of the Golden Triangle. Fun fact – the Golden Triangle has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world and as a result, most of the heroin in the world came from here. This was until the early 21st century when Afghanistan took over and became the worlds largest producer. The Thai people are quick to abolish rumours that opium is still produced this far north. They say that the late King came to North Thailand to negotiate deals with illegal opium farmers. In exchange of changing their crops to something less damaging as opium – such as tropical fruits – these farmers who are usually also refugees, will receive Thai citizenship. It seemed like a sweet deal however fruits and vegetables don't bring on quite the profit as opium once did so it's believed that undercover opium sales are still occurring, mainly on Myanmar's borders though. This is proven by evidence that opium production has tripled since 2006 however as it seems to not be officially on Thai soil but criss-crossing between the waters of the Mekong, the locals are pressing hard to spread word that North Thailand is out of the opium trade.

We took our obligatory photos with the view of the Mekong River and looked out to the grassy plains of Myanmar and Laos. It's funny to thing that just a stretch of water separates these countries, but I guess its not different to an imaginary line that make up land border crossings. Some of the group took the boat cruise along the Mekong that stopped on the edges of each of these countries. The rest of us stayed behind and wandered around the markets surrounding the area. From the tourists eye, the Golden Triangle seemed like one big tourist trap, though it was interesting to think that all around us was potentially one of the biggest drug trades in the world!

After the rest of the group got back from their tri-country boat ride we got back in the van and headed south to Chiang Mai. It was a long drive and we didn't get back until about 9:30pm. It was a big day and I was glad to be back in my little apartment for a solid nights sleep! Tomorrow I head to Doi Inthanon National Park to go to the highest point in Thailand!

J. X

Chiang Mai in Visuals

I spent two weeks in Chiang Mai to unwind after Nepal. I went straight from working 45+ hours a week to hiking to the base of Mt Everest and it wa time for this gal to have a holiday. This was my first time I’d spent such a long period alone but it was definitely worth it. I spent my days cycling around Chiang Mai, finding new cafes every day, wandering through temples and resisting the urge to buy everything! Chiang Mai is a city set-up for someone who just wants to stay in one place. It’s so easy to get around, the accomodation is cheap and the food is delicious. Chiang Mai is a popular spot for digital nomads to reside and I can totally understand why! If I ever succeed at becoming a digital nomad this is where I’ll be coming to live!

Below is a few snaps of my time here. I did touristy stuff towards the end of my stay which I’ll post soon! For now, here’s some of Chiang Mai in pictures.

J. X

What Phra Singh

Wat Suan Doi
My diet was shot to bits in Chiang Mai. This brownie at The Barn was amazing!
I think I ate pad thai nearly every second day. For AUD$2 why not!?

Rustic & Blue
Wat Phra Singh
Breakfast at Rustic & Blue
Black jelly – I think it’s coffee?
The Barn: Eatery Design

Coffee from a world class latte artist!
Beautiful frangipanis outside my Airbnb apartment
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang