Skip to content

open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Category Archives: Couchsurfing

The best way to ensure something will not happen is to plan on it. When traveling, I try to maintain as much flexibility as possible. Sometimes, I plan on spending a week in a place and am ready to leave after a few days, as was the case in BARIO. There are also times when I think I’ll go to a place for a couple days and end up spending a week or more. You never know how much you are going to like a place until you go there and there is no telling what you may find or who you may meet.

Due to its reputation as a premier food city, Penang was on the top of my list of places to visit in Malaysia. The plan was to spend about 3 days eating as much as possible, then move on and continue my journey. That was a month ago.

I contacted several CouchSurfing hosts and they all responded warmly, but none of them were able to host for the dates I’d be in town. The Penang CS group is fairly active and meets for dinner every Tuesday. It just so happened that I arrived on that day of the week and was able to join them for dinner. If I knew we were going to a vegetarian restaurant, I probably would have passed. After dinner I went for drinks with a few people from the group. That’s when it happened.

A classmate of Richard, one of the Penang CS people, happened to be at the place we ended up at and joined us. I’ve been to many places and met a lot of people, but no one like her. I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I met Michelle. We shared an instant connection of a magnitude I previously didn’t think possible and have been inseparable ever since.

In a matter of days I decided to abandon my plans for the rest of the trip and spend the remainder of the year in Penang. Nepal and India aren’t going anywhere and I knew that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I were to just walk away. It is a huge bonus that she lives in Penang, which is a truly beautiful city full of delicious food and wonderful people.

Rather than nearing the end of Nepal’s Anapurna Circuit, I’ve just found a longterm place to stay and am getting settled here in Penang. I haven’t doubted my decision for a second and feel better about it more and more each day. Ultimately, only time will tell what happens, but, I know at the very core of my being that I made the right choice.

Due to the unforeseen turn of events, the blog will transition from travel mode to life in Penang. It’s a wonderful place and I’m looking forward to learning more about it and sharing with whoever is interested. I prefer not to discuss personal matters here, but figured I owed an explanation for the curtailment of my trip. This blog will not turn into a sappy profession of love and will be immediately returning to its usual content of food, people, and culture. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Miri is an oil city in Sarawak that has transitioned to producing palm oil after its fossil fuel deposits began to run dry. The city itself is totally void of character and charm and reminds me of the bad parts of America. There are cars everywhere, way too many shopping malls for a place its size, and people are fat.

In Sibu I began to notice a change in the people. Instead of all smiles and welcoming faces, there were a lot more dirty looks and scowls. This was even more so in Miri. Not that there weren’t friendly people, but the place overall lacked the welcoming feeling I had grown accustomed to and quite fond of.

The saving grace of my time in Miri was my wonderful CouchSurfing host, Kate. Her dad is Malaysian Chinese from Miri and her mom is Thai. She spent the first 9 years of her life in Bangkok, then moved to Miri. Her boyfriend, Alex, was a really cool guy. He is half Iban (the indigenous people of the area) and half Scottish. He provided a ton of awesome background on the area and the people. Despite him spending all of his life and her spending most of hers in Miri, they feel the same way about the place as I do. While I was sorry for them having to live in such a place, I was selfishly happy to have them as company while I was there.

I wasn’t able to stay at Kate’s place, but she sent me to Dillenia Guesthouse. A dorm room costs 30 Ringgit ($10) per night, which is standard for Miri. Mrs. Lee, who runs the guesthouse was extremely sweet, warm, and welcoming. Dillenia is in a good location, close to the center of town.

Kate went out of her way to show me what Miri has to offer culinarily. The food wasn’t horrible, but was far from great. I wasn’t wowed by Miri’s most famous dish, kolo mee. It was my first time seeing pandan chicken, chicken wrapped in pandan leaves then fried. On my last night, Kate took me for seafood. Bamboo clams were yet another first for me. We also had mussels, which were quite good, and oysters, which were not very spectacular.

I took a day-trip to nearby Niah National Park to see its famous caves. A car ride out there costs 60 Ringgit ($20) return and the drive is 90 minutes each way. The park entry fee is another 20 Ringgit and the ferry from the park to the area where the caves are is 1 Ringgit each way. The ferry ride literally takes 30 seconds. I seriously wonder why they didn’t just build a bridge, but did enjoy the novelty of the world’s shortest ferry ride. Unfortunately, the Painted Cave, which contains 40,000 year old petroglyphs, was closed for renovation. The caves I did see were amazing though. They were way bigger than I thought they would be and I was pleased with the experience.

My reason for going to Miri was to fly to Bario, a remote town in southeastern Sarawak that can only be accessed via plane (or an 18 hour drive in a 4WD vehicle) from Miri. Miri is also the access point for Mulu, home to the biggest cave and most popular mountain in Malaysian Borneo. If you plan to go to either Bario or Mulu and must pass through Miri, spend as little time as possible there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kuching, the Cat City, was my gateway from Singapore to Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Located on the northwest of the island, Kuching is a common port of arrival for visitors to Borneo.

Yet again, I was able to find a great CouchSurfing host. Elly already had an American Surfer named Jay staying with her when I arrived, but had no problem taking in another. The other Jay has been teaching English in Saigon for the last 3 years and was spending a few weeks in Borneo. The morning after I arrived Jay and I went to Bako National Park for 2 days and 1 night.

Bako National Park can only be accessed by boat and the ferry terminal is a 30 minute drive from Kuching. The cost of the boat is 90 ringgit ($30) return for up to four people. The park entry fee is 15 ringgit and a dorm room costs 15 ringgit per night.

The park is best known for its proboscis or “Dutch” monkeys. There are a range of hiking options at the park, but you can see the famous monkeys after just a short walk from the park center. The park center is inhabited by some “naughty” macaques and wild pigs that have interesting facial hair that makes them resemble American Civil War generals.

Jay and I arrived in the early afternoon and had time to hike to Tanjung Rhu Beach and back. The hike took about four hours and went through some pretty jungle and by the extremely underwhelming Tajor Waterfall. The water at the beach was extremely murky and bathwater-warm. The slope of the ground under the water was very gentle and you have to walk quite a ways out to reach waist-level. Once we made it to that point, we noticed a jellyfish. Then another. After a very cautious walk back, we made it to dry land un-stung.

Night walks are offered for 10 ringgit per person. Our walk lasted a little over 90 minutes and we saw green vipers, brown tree snakes, big centipedes, fireflies, a tarantula looking spider, a scorpion, and a stick bug. You can skip the organized walk and easily find all of those creatures yourself with a flashlight.

The last boat back to civilization leaves at 4pm and my traveling companion didn’t want to attempt either of the two longest walks at Bako. Instead, we opted for the “Big Circle.” The first half of the hike was on the same trail we had walked the day before, but instead of heading north to the beach, it turned south to start the loop. The walk was nice and going clockwise as we had definitely made it easier with the changes in elevation; the second half of the circle looks like it would be no fun to go up.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are offered at the Park’s restaurant. The food was not very good. The medley of frozen corn, peas, and carrots appeared in seemingly every noodle and rice dish. The prices were reasonably cheap considering the remote location. Dinner was 10-12 ringgit.

Bako National Park was good, but not great. With the accommodations and amenities offered, you certainly aren’t roughing it, but you can still see some decent jungle and go on some nice walks. It’s not a destination I would plan my schedule around, but is worth seeing if you are in the area.

When Elly picked us up from the ferry terminal, she was a third Surfer who was also American, but not a Jay. Kevin works in the Yunan province of China as a tour guide and is fluent in Mandarin. The four of us spent the next couple days together in Kuching.

There isn’t much going on in Kuching. The Sarawak river runs through the center of town and is quite lovely when lit up at night. Elly took us on a one hour drive to Damai Beach. The water was very murky and the sand was far from golden. The Beach does host an annual Rainforest Music Festival each July that is supposed to be incredible.

Kuching has a few open air markets and plenty of restaurants. Other than some good laksa, the food wasn’t anything special. Elly made us a few dinners that were tasty and we all chowed down on some durian.

The city itself is not a place I’d want to spend a great deal of time, but is a good starting point for Sarawak and close to a few national parks and other points of interest.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The worst part of getting food poisoning on my last night in Jakarta was knowing that I had to fly to Singapore the next day. I was going to Singapore for one reason: to eat. My sickness lasted violently through the morning, but I still managed to make it to the airport and arrive safely in Singapore. Like Michael Jordan dropping 50 with the flu, I put mind over matter and got my eat on.

Last year, I met two great girls from Singapore in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. One of the girls, Esther, was leaving the day after I got in town, but was able to meet me for dinner that night. I had the iconic chicken rice as well as really good sting ray, mussels, and some Tiger beer. So much for food poisoning.

Esther and I were joined by my AMAZING CouchSurfing host, Jen. Jen is one of those people that remind me how beautiful humanity can be. She has a great outlook on life and treats people so well that it’s almost too much. Jen’s mom is a great cook and a wealth of information on Singapore and Malaysia. Believe it or not, but her food was actually the best thing I had to eat in Singapore.

Jen and I also met up with my other Singaporean friend I met last year, Charlotte. We had lunch, some great conversation, and walked around the water on Singapore’s east coast.

Earlier in the year, I showed a food loving CouchSurfer around Honolulu. It just so happened that Lily arrived in Singapore the same day as me. Joined by her friend Yen, we shared a few meals and did some catching up. We started with claypot rice, curried fish, and morning glory with shrimp paste and chili at a place Bourdain hit up on Layover on Gilang Street. That was followed by the king of fruits, durian.

Jen took Lily, Yen, and I for dinner in Little India. It wasn’t the best Indian I’ve had, but the company couldn’t be beat. Next, we met up with some of Jen’s friends, who were incredibly nice, and walked around the city. We went to a venue on Arab Street and met some more of Jen’s friends, then grinded down on some great Malay food.

Jen’s cousin was having an engagement party while I was in town. It was an honor to be able to attend a traditional Malaysian Muslim engagement party, something not too many foreigners get to do. The groom doesn’t attend, but his family goes on his behalf to collect presents from his future bride’s family and to negotiate things like who will keep the ring if they split up. As you may have imagined, there was food, lots and lots of very delicious, home cooked food.

After the party, we got to join some of Jen’s friends for visiting. After Ramadan, Muslims visit one another’s homes to celebrate and eat. It was really cool to experience this piece of culture as well.

Jen and I went to the Newton Hawker Center to have chili crab for my last dinner in Singapore, but it was CLOSED. There was some stupid Chinese ghost festival going on and the entire hawker center was shut down. I was devastated. We drowned our sorrows in durian and beer.

I booked a later flight so I could have another shot at chili crab. Once again, we were joined by Lily and Yen and had quite the adventure searching, but it wasn’t meant to be. Next time!

Singapore airport has the best airport eating I’ve ever come across, but it’s a secret. The staff canteen located on level P2 of Terminal 1 is a full blown hawker center in the airport! Almost everyone eating there was an employee, but the place is open to the public and very, very cheap.

I kept this post as brief as possible and had to leave out quite a bit. My three days in Singapore were unreal. It was perfect on every level and I will definitely be going back again to eat more! Seeing familiar faces and meeting new friends was just as good as eating all of the delicious food – well, almost.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Indonesia’s capital was unlike any other place I’d been in the country. For starters, it actually resembled a proper city, most notably when it comes to transportation. Like any other major city, traffic is a huge problem, but it’s still possible to get around Jakarta very affordably in a reasonable amount of time. There are bus only lanes that connect most of the major points in the city that are free from the shackles of rush hour traffic. The bus costs just 3500 IDR ($0.35) one way! Taxis are pricy, but bajaj and ojek are very cheap and convenient.

My CouchSurfing experience in Jakarta was definitely a first. I received an invitation to Surf at a guy from Singapore’s place and accepted. It wasn’t until after I arrived that I found out that my host was gay and had a big bed in his small studio for us to share. I’m a pretty open and tolerant guy and went with it. Herman was a gentleman and the sleeping situation was not an issue. He does dress rather….festive…and we received a lot of attention when he would show me around. Indonesia is a Muslim country and although Jakarta is a large city, it still has a somewhat conservative culture.

It was not a situation I would have sought out, but I’m glad I experienced it. Herman was a great host and, although he was extremely busy with work, still found time to show me around the city. We visited the National Monument at night, where I had some durian ice cream. He also showed me Jalan Jaksa, a bar street whose patrons are ex-pats, travelers, and locals looking to meet foreign friends. Herman likes to have a get loose on the weekend, but, unfortunately, I was only there Monday to Wednesday and didn’t get to experience club Stadium.

Herman isn’t as food driven as I am and, not being a local, wasn’t too aware of food from the area. He took me for some nasi padang, an assault of a couple dozen dishes, which is actually Sumatran. It was quite tasty and my favorites were rendang and calf brain. I had some really good chicken sate and mie ayam, noodles with chicken offal and water spinach. The best thing I had in Jakarta was chicken foot soup. Tragically, I got food poisoning on my last night in town. We went to an Indonesian place not far from Herman’s place and I ended up getting sick for the first time this trip. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t flying to Singapore – to eat – the next morning.

While Herman was working, I decided to skip the touristy stuff and get lost in the outskirts of town. It was eye opening. Jakarta has big buildings, sports cars and every other form of first world opulence, but the outskirts were a different story. I spent hours weaving my way through winding alleyways of the shantytowns on the city’s northern limits. The sights, sounds, and smells were those of abject poverty. I feel incredibly awkward taking pictures in those situations and didn’t take my camera out. Other than of a couple kids asking for money, the people were really friendly and welcoming. They did look very confused as to what I was doing there; I could tell they don’t get many foreign visitors. It’s never fun to see people with so little, but I always appreciate the opportunity to gain the perspective one only can by visiting such a place. I returned to the city center and they went about their business as usual.

Jakarta was quite a place for me. There were a range of situations that put me out of my comfort zone – in very different ways – and I’m grateful to have experienced them. The city is huge and possibilities are endless. It was nice coming to Jakarta after spending some time in the rest of Indonesia to see the contrast between the nation and its capital city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Bromo?”

“Bromo?”

“You want see Bromo?”

From the moment I arrived in Probolinggo until I boarded the bus to leave, I was constantly bombarded with offers to see Bromo. Mount Bromo is one of Indonesia’s top tourist destinations and the nearby town of Probolinggo is the staging area for most visitors. Locals know what draws people to their town and do everything they possibly can to cash in on it.

My ten hour journey from Denpasar ended up taking 15 hours and I didn’t get into town until 2am (buses in Indonesia are notoriously late). Despite arriving in the middle of the night, my CouchSurfing host Indrah and his parents woke up and warmly greeted me with tea and cookies. His family doesn’t speak much English, but they have really embraced CS and seem to truly enjoy it.

Indrah wasted no time and quickly briefed me on the options for viewing Bromo. It seems that the best way to go is via motorbike. In true Probolinggo fashion, the going rate for a bike is 250,000 ($25) per day. The standard for the rest of Indonesia is 50,000/day.

Indrah’s cousin, Budi, was kind enough to wake up ridiculously early in the morning to drive me up the mountain for sunrise. The lookout is about a 2 hour drive from Probolinggo and should only be attempted by people who know what they’re doing. You must go up a mountain on narrow, ash covered roads dotted with scores of giant crevices in total darkness. I was very thankful to have Budi!

The breathtaking sunrise from high above the clouds and volcanic terrain were reminiscent of Maui’s Haleakala National Park. Once the sun was up, we crossed the Sea of Sand and climbed the volcano. The climb itself isn’t very demanding and there are horses for hire if you don’t want to walk. From the top you can see the crater in the volcano’s center, which has a bubbling pool of hot volcano juice.

Bromo is also home to a very old and storied Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Poten. Indrah filled me in on the background and it’s quite fascinating, but I won’t bore you with the details. He helps out at a big annual festival where the people of the temple throw offerings into the volcano. It’s easy to forget that Bromo is still an active volcano; it’s most recent eruption was last January.

After our time on the mountain, Budi took me to his home in a nearby village. His family’s kitchen was very traditional and even included 2 cows and a sheep! Indrah often has CouchSurfers spend the night at his grandmother’s house, located next door to Budi’s, but it didn’t work out for my logistically. It was still really nice to spend a few hours in the village. Budi showed me all of the various fruit trees in his backyard and even got me a fresh coconut to drink.

The food highlight of Probolinggo was corn rice. As the name suggests, corn is mixed with rice. It is then topped with a variety of vegetables and fish. This was my first encounter with such a combination and it was really good. Luckily, I got to eat all of mine, some of Indrah’s and most of his sister’s!

Mount Bromo was magnificent and is definitely worth checking out. It’s unfortunate that rather than using the visitor traffic generated from Bromo to build a diversified and robust hospitality industry, Probolinggo just tries to suck every penny out of people coming to see the mountain. Groups of people from local tour agencies have already visited Indrah’s home and asked him to stop helping visitors see Bromo for free!

Probolinggo certainly has more to offer and the way it goes about handling visitors is not beneficial in the long run. Siem Reap is an excellent example of a community handling traffic from a major tourist attraction (Angkor Wat) in a smart, sustainable manner. Probolinggo needs to adopt a “Come for Bromo, stay for Probolinggo” strategy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bali has a bad rap. The Indonesian island is known as a bastian for bogans (Australian for redneck), with an Australian dying in Bali every 9 days. While Kuta is the epicenter of the madness, the tourist imprint definitely extends to the rest of the island. The capital, Denpassar, has significantly less foreign visitors and proved to be an amazing place.

Like anywhere else, the people make the place. My two CouchSurfing hosts for Denpasar, Nina and Lina, made Denpasar a special place for me. The food they introduced me to was so good it warranted its own post. When I wasn’t eating, I managed to see a few things around town.

Nina took me to see nearby Uluwatu, a temple located on a beautiful cliff and home to monkeys. One of the monkeys stole Nina’s glasses and held them captive up in a tree! She also took me to beautiful Padang Padang Beach for sunset.

After one of our many meals, Lina took me for a walk around a track that surrounds a national monument. The track features a stretch of stones imbedded in the pavement. If you feel pain while walking across the stones barefoot, it means you’re sick. After about a hundred meters, I appeared to become ill. That evening we hit up a night market and had some goat. The market was a decent size and I was the only non-Indonesian person there!

Lina’s brother is a Bali beach boy and took me to spend an afternoon with him and his friends at Double Six Beach. They surf, rent boards to tourists, and chill on the beach playing chess all day. It’s a lifestyle I envy and respect. That evening we all went to Kuta to experience the insanity. It was what it was and I had a great time.

My favorite part of Denpasar was visiting the little warungs and food places that my hosts frequent. Hanging out with locals and eating what they eat, where they eat it is one of my favorite things to do. They took me to so many awesome little places that I never would have went to on my own and knew exactly what to order.

I really enjoyed my time in Denpasar and it was all made possible by Nina and Lina. I highly recommend finding some locals and truly experiencing Bali’s capital city. It’s a great place!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.