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Category Archives: Malaysia

Southeast Asia is home to a some great street food cities, but a few stand out above the rest, most notably Singapore and Penang. My 3 day eating stopover in the latter turned into a 3 month semi-residency that allowed me to taste quite a bit of what Penang has to offer. It was delicious! Like Singapore, Penang has substantial Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian populations and this cultural composition is reflected in the dining options.

Most days for me started with a breakfast of roti canai at New Krishna in Little India. Roti Canai is Malaysian Indian flatbreads served with an assortment of curries. Krishna also makes a mean chicken masala dosa. My late night staple was also Kapitan has a few locations in town that are open 24 hours a day serving up the best tandoori chicken naan set I’ve ever had. Another Indian favorite in Penang was Veloo Villas, which makes exceptional banana leaf sets.

While Indian food served as the bookends of my day, much of the rest was filled with Chinese. Penang hosts many hawker centers and my personal favorite was on 7th Avenue, which was also a 5 minute walk from my apartment. Local Hokkien Chinese specialties include char kway teow, laksa, hokkien mee, chee cheong fun, rojak, and many more.

Nasi Kandar is possibly the most iconic dish of Penang and there is no shortage of quality establishments churning out the ricey deliciousness all day and all night. Line Clear ranks among the best and despite the tourist influx resulting from Mr. Bourdain visiting, it’s still mostly locals eating there.

There are plenty of guesthouses in Penang, mostly concentrated in and around Love Lane (a 2 minute walk from Little India). You can find a decent, private room for about $10/night. Like the rest of Malaysia, alcohol is expensive compared to the cost of everything else. By far, my favorite drinking establishment is Antarabangsa. Located on the fringe of Little India, Antarabangsa is a small shop where you buy your beer as you would in a convenience store, then drink it outside on plastic chairs and tables; it’s grimy, cheap, and absolutely perfect.

Penang is the perfect size, offers incredible food, and is a must-visit for anyone in the region. Be warned: you may fall in love and stay for much longer than anticipated!

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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.

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Borneo. The name inspired visions of wild jungle and indigenous peoples carrying on a way of life that has changed little for hundreds of years. My yearning for adventure took me to the Malaysian part of the island, which is also shared by Brunei and Indonesia. Searching for the most authentic, real Borneo experience brought me to Bario.

Bario can only be accessed via prop plane or an 18 hour drive in a 4WD vehicle from Miri. A oneway plane ticket only runs about $30. The town of Bario itself has already abandoned the traditional way of life, has nothing of substance to offer visitors, and the food is horrible. Accessible by boat or a very scenic and beautiful 2-4 hour hike, nearby Pa’lungan was said to be the last vestige of the Borneo that was.

Unfortunately, even Pa’lungan has fallen victim to the changing world. The town is literally dying. Once children reach 6 years of age, they move to Bario for school and only visit on weekends and holidays. When it’s time for high school they are sent to either Miri or Kuching and only come back home for holidays. Few return home for good after university.

The old-growth forests that I dreamt of are also lost forever due to logging; the major treks from Pa’lungan take you through secondary growth forests along logging roads. If you are looking to join indigenous people using blowguns to hunt monkeys hiding in thousand year old trees, this is definitely not the place.

In recent years, the aging population of Pa’lungan has been using tourism to generate revenue, with a number of homestays popping up in the small village. I arrived during rice planting season and at a time when several guides were in the jungle with a large group. The village was virtually deserted, but I was taken in by an incredible man named Balang Mudut.

Although Balang Mudut isn’t in the business of operating a homestay, he let me stay at his home. He and his wife, Doreen, were like having parents in Pa’lungan. Their genuine and tremendous hospitality was among the best I have ever received anywhere in the world. They fed me extremely fresh, very delicious food and even let me help plant in the paddy. It truly put the “home” in homestay and was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. If you visit Pa’lungan, Balang Mudut’s cell number is 01119198810. Call and let him know you’re friends with Jay from Hawaii.

The only available trekking guide in town was a man named Mado, who also operates a guesthouse. DO NOT DO BUSINESS WITH THIS MAN in any capacity. He tried to grossly overcharge me for a trek and I managed to talk him down to just overcharging me. We were supposed to spend 5 days in the jungle. Without me asking, he repeatedly boasted that his farm was organic. The sprayers and containers of RoundUp laying around his farmhouse were the final straw for me. Midway through the second day of our five day jungle trek we had been in the jungle for just a total of four hours, with the bulk of the time spent at his house or “organic” farm. I later found out that he has a reputation for short changing and even stealing from visitors.

Disillusioned, I left Bario early. There was no problem moving my flight up a few days and it only cost $5 to change the ticket. Bario was definitely not what I had hoped it would be, but meeting Balang Mudut and Doreen more than made the trip worthwhile. You don’t always find what you expect and may even encounter a Mado, but, fortunately, there are Balang Muduts too.

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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.

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Kapit is your quintessential lazy little town on a river and my favorite place in Sarawak. The only way to reach Kapit is by boat from Sibu. A oneway ticket runs about 25 ringgit ($8) and the ride takes a couple hours.

Lodging is not cheap and there are no dorms/hostels. The least expensive hotel I could find was 50 ringgit per night, but there was a catch. In addition to the usual “no durians” sign, this hotel also prohibited guests from bringing chickens in the building. You know you’re in the country when hotels post “no chickens” signs! I visited Kapit with Kevin, who I had met CouchSurfing in Kuching. This worked out well since, in addition to having excellent company, we were able to split the cost of the room.

Being a sleepy little town, there isn’t too much going on in Kapit. The central market is definitely the heart of Kapit and we spent plenty of time there, tasting, watching, and interacting.

Kevin sparked a conversation with a woman who was selling something she claimed to be octopus, but I think she just didn’t know the English word for what it was. The lady was really nice and ended up making us umai, a ceviche like dish unique to Sarawak. It was really tasty and we also got to try some fruits I’d never even seen before. Our presence brought a great deal of attention to the stall as we were the only foreigners in town.

Outside of our great experience at the market, the food in Kapit wasn’t anything special. There is a small night market with food stalls, but it was unremarkable. The market featured an abundance of sate and chicken dishes, but little else. Kapit definitely proved that the food doesn’t have to be great in order for me to enjoy a place.

As far as nightlife is concerned, Kapit literally has a couple bars. Kevin and I checked them out at about 9pm on a Thursday night and they were empty. We returned a few hours later and found that one was totally packed. It was surprising to see so much activity in a little town on a weeknight. We were given VIP treatment by the locals and had a great time.

Kapit was a great place to relax and enjoy the simple life, but still had the option of getting loose with the local youth. The lack of foreign visitors creates an atmosphere where you are welcomed and greeted with smiling faces. There are similar places throughout the region, but it was very refreshing to visit this one in Sarawak.

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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.

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