Highlights of Malaysia: July 2019

In July last year, I had two special guests. My parents came to visit!

Firstly, a few caveats. I am only talking about peninsular Malaysia, as I still haven’t been to east Malaysia (Borneo). Whether or not our schedule reflected the “highlights” of Malaysia is subjective, and everyone’s best bits will be different. The options are also slightly dictated by season. My parents were here in July, when the west coast is technically in rainy season but is fine, and the weather on the east coast is dry, sunny and beautiful.

So, with a limited period of time and these seasonal conditions we managed to include the city life in KL, baby elephants, some history and culture on the west coast and a tropical island getaway on the east coast. I was pretty pleased with that!

Kuala Lumpur

The fun started in KL. There is obviously loads to do in the city, but we also wanted to relax and chat non-stop. My parents had to adjust to the new time zone and the humidity (don’t get them started on the humidity), so we just took in a few of the main points of interest and spent plenty of time chilling out.

We went up the KL Tower to get views over the city, including the Petronas Towers and the mountains beyond the city. We also mooched around the markets in Chinatown and Central Market (mooching is one of my mummy’s favourite activities), visited the National Mosque, had drinks on the rooftop helipad bar and the girls had a spa day together while my dad went to the National Museum (which he recommends – I still haven’t been).

Kuala Ganjah Elephant Sanctuary

Kuala Ganjah is a fairly easy day trip from KL – I think it took about 2 hours to drive there and is well worth the trip.

They don’t do elephant shows or allow people to ride the elephants, which some of the more questionable “sanctuaries” in Southeast Asia do. But they are rescued and have lived most of their lives in captivity, making it unrealistic that they would ever be released into the wild.

As a visitor, you get to help out with various elephant tasks. We chopped up sugar cane and bananas first. It was really lovely to feed them, for such big giants they were very gentle! Mostly they take the food from your hand with their trunk, and sometimes they raise their trunk and open their mouths so you just pop the treats right in there.

The highlight of the day was helping to bath the baby elephants in the river. A limited number of people can do this but the driver who took us to the sanctuary knew someone and phoned ahead to arrange this for us, which was great. There were 2-3 elephant keepers with each baby, presumably for our protection too and to make sure nobody does anything stupid.

We were able to give our designated baby elephant a wee rub and basically splash the water all over him and he seemed to love it! It was a lot of fun to be so close to these lovely big animals and it warmed my heart to see how much my parents enjoyed it too. This was something none of us had experienced before and I’m so glad we did it together.


Penang is an island on the north west coast of Malaysia, not too far from the border with Thailand. I have been here more times than I can remember now, including a full 2 weeks at the very beginning of our time in Malaysia. I know the place quite well and even though it’s not new to me anymore, I always recommend it for visitors and I’m always happy to go back. There is a lot to do in Penang, so every time I go it’s different.

The capital, Georgetown, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is mainly due to its well-preserved heritage buildings, which include distinctive Chinese-Malaysian shop houses. The shop is at street level and the family home is above. Similar ones can be found in Melaka and Singapore but they are best preserved in Penang. They are normally quite colourful at the front and look small, but they are long and narrow, stretching way back from the street (something to do with how colonial powers taxed windows, so this was a way to build bigger spaces without paying more tax).

The Peranakan people are those of Chinese/Malay mixed heritage, mainly based in Penang and Melaka, and both places really promote their history. They have a unique culture, cuisine, style of dress and there are several museums, galleries, shops and restaurants celebrating it all in Georgetown. On this trip, my parents and I went to the Peranakan Mansion, which once belonged to a wealthy tin tycoon from China who settled there with his (several) Malay wives. There is a very informative guided tour, with a mix of showing off antiques and architectural details along with personal histories, which I love. Every time I have been I hear a different story and this time my dad had the privilege of sitting in the mafia boss chair at the dinner table (pictured happily below).

Georgetown is also well known for its colonial heritage and its important role in World War 2. It was a very strategic port for the British empire until the Japanese occupied it (when the Brits swiftly left). There are impressive buildings and signs of this period of history along with the older Chinese shop houses, clan houses and temples. I’m no fan of colonialism, but the architecture in Georgetown is an interesting reminder of this time.

We also went walking around the clan jetties – old Chinese settlements which form a bit of a floating village of houses and shops built on wooden platforms. Each jetty is owned by a different “clan” or family, and they still live there today. They are quite interesting, but the main ones that you can walk around are very busy and mainly sell cheap souvenirs and durian. For anyone who doesn’t know, durian is the very strong smelling fruit which is banned on public transport and hotels due to its stench. Malaysians love it but it is certainly an acquired taste (one which, despite trying, I have not acquired).

All in all, I think Georgetown is a very picturesque city full of history, and I’ve also heard it described as “hip”, but I couldn’t possibly comment on that.

Lang Tengah

Lang Tengah is a little island on the east coast of Malaysia, which in my opinion is the most beautiful part of the country. I’ve been to the east coast several times (although just this once to Lang Tengah) and I love it. The ocean is turquoise, warm, clear, calm and very inviting and the beaches are sandy and lined with coconut trees. The islands are fairly untouched compared to those in Thailand and other more common destinations in the region. They are completely off limits during the east coast’s rainy season though, so I’m glad my parents were here in July and able to see them!

The islands are all a bit awkward to get to, as the boats only go at certain times of the day. This means you either have to stay the night before on the mainland to get an early boat, or travel during the day and get across to the islands later. When it’s just Joe and me, we take an overnight bus from KL and get the first boat out at 7am, but for some reason my parents didn’t fancy an 10 hour overnight bus. Although the alternative wasn’t great either. We arrived on the east coast the night before (by plane) and stayed one night so we could get the first boat out. This side of Malaysia is not so well developed and the standard of accommodation isn’t great. There’s also something about beaches in a tropical climate that attracts not just humans, but other wee creatures which may or may not lurk in run down hotel rooms. Unfortunately, I don’t think my mummy slept very well in these circumstances, but after a pretty calm 45 minute crossing the next morning we arrived at Lang Tengah which was in, her own words, paradise.

Lang Tengah is very small and has just two resorts. It’s a bit more peaceful than some of the other islands I’ve been to and a good choice for a more chilled out experience. It seems to be basically a mountainous rock covered in rainforest, with some little beaches around the edges, one of which we stayed on. I don’t think there are any roads or cars. One night we ventured down a short jungle path to another beach that was meant to have a good restaurant and came across a weird abandoned village on the way there, and a huge monitor lizard on the way back. This was quite enough adventure for us, and otherwise we spent the few days on our own little patch.

My dad, Joe and I went on a snorkel trip one afternoon, which was really fun although I don’t think the coral and sea life was as good as I’ve seen on different parts of the east coast (but that can just be luck on the day). Aside from that, we did a lot of floating happily around in the water near the beach and watching the baby sharks near the jetty. They were harmless little black tip sharks, which are quite cute and not remotely interested in us. We spent a lot of time chilling on the beach with our books, chatting, eating ice cream and generally having a lovely time. Our crossing back to the mainland unfortunately was not so smooth, but it was over quickly.

I was very pleased with the diversity of the Malaysian experience we managed to squeeze into the trip, without it being overly busy or stressful. I had a brilliant time travelling with my parents for those 3 weeks and I think they did too. At least that’s what they told me. Success!

6 Days in China

China offers a 6 day transit visa if you are making a stop there on your way to another destination, so we made use of this on the way back from the USA to Malaysia. I think it’s excellent, as I believe a normal visa for China is quite expensive and complicated. For this one, there are rules and you need to have everything booked in advance, but it’s free and given on arrival. As far as I know, the transit visa is only available when you fly into certain cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. One of the rules is that you have to remain within a certain distance of the city of arrival, which is not really a drawback, since China is huge and there is only so far you would go in 6 days anyway. We chose to spend time in Shanghai itself and the (relatively) nearby cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou.

The Bund, Shanghai

General observations

China is difficult. Firstly, there’s a huge language barrier. Most people either spoke no English or very little, and why should they? I don’t speak any Chinese languages and still took it upon myself to go there and expected somehow to communicate with people. It’s not that I think the whole world should speak the same language as me, but it was still a shock, because I do find that communicating in English is possible in most countries and it was such a consistent and widespread issue, even in Shanghai, dealing with staff in airports, train stations, restaurants, etc.

Even words that I thought I knew were challenging, because Mandarin is a tonal language, so you can’t just take a stab based on how it looks written in our alphabet. At the immigration counter in the airport I was asked where I was staying and I said Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. “HANGZHOU?” I thought the lady asked, looking horrified. I timidly confirmed and she told me quite forcefully that I was not allowed to go there. After mild panic and showing her the booking confirmation for our accommodation there, she went “Oh, HANGZHOU” (pronounced seemingly differently from whatever I said the first time) and everything was actually fine.

The real difficulty was the Chinese alphabet, because I couldn’t even attempt to pronounce things or type them into my phone for a translation. Which leads me to the next issue…

No google! This was a wake up call for me, as it made me realise how much I depend upon my phone and google-based apps, like maps, translation, general searches, facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Even with a Chinese SIM card and my Chinese phone, I struggled because almost everything I’ve installed on it was banned in China. I couldn’t even download the China-approved versions from my app store because my app store itself is powered by google, so was banned too and wouldn’t work!

The final general observation is not really necessary, but I feel it’s only fair to mention it because I made a similar point in my posts about India. People took photos of us A LOT. And videos. Again, as in India, I understand that we look different from the locals, and in China people seem very keen on taking lots of photos of themselves so perhaps they see it as less of an issue, but I still really don’t like it. I know I have like 30 followers, but I’m not a real celebrity guys.


We spent our first couple of nights staying in Tianzifang in the French Concession area of Shanghai. It’s a cute and quirky collection of small streets and alleyways with boutique-style shops and restaurants. Fun to wander through and mooch around the shops. We stayed in a very tiny little apartment that ordinarily might be used for storage, but somehow had a small bed, desk, washing machine, toilet and table in it.

On the first day I didn’t wander too far out of the area for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was experiencing the other side of the worst jetlag of my life, having started to adjust to the 13 hour difference in America, then suddenly being thrown 13 hours forward again after another long flight. Secondly, I had no maps available on my phone and was afraid of getting lost on foot with no way to contact Joe (who had to stay in to work remotely) because WhatsApp wouldn’t work on my phone and WeChat (the Chinese equivalent) wouldn’t work on his phone. Maybe this was unadventurous of me, but I was exhausted and happy to spend time around Tianzifang and having a sneaky daytime doze.

On the next day, I was feeling more confident and made my way to the Shanghai Tower on the underground, which was surprisingly easy to navigate. The Tower is amazingly high, which is one of the key things I look for in a tower. This is the second tallest building in the world, so the tallest I’ve ever been in, and has the world’s highest observation deck. The weather was not great when I was there, but the views were still impressive.

One evening we also went to the Bund, which is the waterfront area in the centre of the city. The side that we stood on had some of the more traditional looking government type buildings, and we looked over the water at the skyscrapers, including my old friend the Shanghai Tower. It’s pretty imposing and a fantastic waterfront.

As for the food in Shanghai, honestly, it was not to my liking. Of course I’m an awkward vegetarian but as a former meat-eater, I still understand the appeal of some cuisines which aren’t too vegetarian friendly. But I don’t think the food on offer here would have ever appealed to me. Everything just smelt a bit….intense.


We got to Hangzhou by train from Shanghai, a very pleasant experience once we were actually on the train and through the huge, stressful, airport-like stations and the Hangzhou underground. We stayed near the West Lake, which is so picturesque that it felt like visiting a smaller, rural town, but actually Hangzhou is a city of over 10 million people.

Despite the dreary weather at the time (June), I would still say the West Lake is pretty and peaceful to walk or cycle around. Oh wait, it’s not peaceful at all to cycle around. You’re not allowed to do this, and people will shout, run at you and block your path in outrage if you do. Take it from me, I learned the hard way. The lake has a number of sights around it, including pagodas, bridges and a causeway. You can also rent a little boat and pootle around a small area of the lake. The whole area, apart from the city side, is surrounded by mountains. It’s definitely a beautiful place and I found it a much easier, calmer place to be than Shanghai.

The Lingyin Temple is another of Hangzhou’s highlights. It’s a huge complex on a mountainside just out of the city, apparently one of China’s biggest Buddhist temples. Being here made me really feel like I was in the China of movies and books. It’s surrounded by mountains, which were a bit cloudy and atmospheric, and we witnessed some kind of Buddhist ceremony in one of the temples. I’m pretty confused and upset that I can’t find any photographs from the temple, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was great.

At this point, I was also running out of clean clothes, having no ability to locate a laundry service with my linguistic and technological shortcomings, so I bought an adorable Buddha t-shirt that you’ll see me wearing in Suzhou below. I’ve since been told by a Chinese friend that the writing on the t-shirt means “stop talking”, which is excellent.

Hangzhou is also where I dropped my phone into water and somehow managed to communicate to a waitress (in a lovely vegetarian restaurant by the lake) that I wanted a bag of uncooked rice to put my phone in. Joe reasoned that they were bound to instantly understand what I was up to, with both rice and technology being well-known “things China is good at”. It wasn’t that simple but we got there in the end, and I’m still using that same heroic phone to this day.

I still wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the food, but we did eat much better in Hangzhou. It had a few nice vegetarian restaurants, possibly due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks, who are often vegetarian, in the area. My chopstick skills also greatly improved from “atrocious” to “fine”, perfectly demonstrated in this photo of me after awkwardly propelling a sweet and sour mushroom into my mouth.

A lil’ train related drama

After Hangzhou, the plan was to get a train directly to Suzhou and stay for one night there, and then head back to Shanghai for our flight the day after. There was some kind of major mix-up at Hangzhou train station, the details of which I can’t quite remember, possibly as a result of trauma. Basically, we somehow ended up at the gates to get to the platform without tickets, which were in a totally different wing of this huge station. About half an hour before the train was due to leave, Joe went on a mammoth trip across the station to buy tickets from the correct place, which seemingly was a series of machines, with no English language option, behind something like 100 other people waiting to use each one. I didn’t know any of this, because I was minding the bags beside the platform area. So after more than an hour, knowing the train had gone and Joe hadn’t come back, and having no way to contact him (due to the WhatsApp/WeChat issues mentioned above) I started to think about how exactly I was going to live the rest of my life alone in Hangzhou with a handful of cash and no clue about anything. I tried asking a few people for help, but nobody spoke English and as we’ve established, I don’t speak Mandarin either. Eventually Joe did come back with some tickets to Shanghai for one night instead, and new tickets for a day trip to Suzhou the day after that. It was a late train and we could only get standing tickets, but it seemed to be acceptable to sit down as long as you did it on the floor out of everyone’s way.

The glamorous suitcase isn’t even mine


When we did get to Suzhou, it was quite a charming place. It is described as a water town, because there are lots of little streams and rivers running through it. Suzhou seemed even more like a sweet little rural village, but is also a major city of over 4 million people. I don’t really know how they achieve this, but they must preserve the attractions and historic areas extremely well and protect them from being taken over to build corporate office spaces and other things modern city things.

Anyway, it was very pretty and I enjoyed it. The streets seemed narrow and there are lots of little bridges, tea houses, shops, pagodas and little boats on the water. We went into a silk museum which had traditional outfits from different periods of Chinese history and an area with actual silk worms working their magic, making more silk. We also had time to enjoy the sweetly named Humble Administrator’s Garden.

So, as I said at the beginning, I found China a challenging place to visit and I feel like I would still have that experience if I returned, despite having slightly more knowledge now of how things operate there. It was not my favourite place at the time, but writing this blog has reminded me of the great experiences we had there. Maybe I didn’t understand anything, maybe people pushed me and invaded my personal space every 5 seconds, and maybe I disliked the food and thought I was going to die alone in Hangzhou, but it was a fascinating fun trip. I highly recommend the transit visa for anyone travelling that way (once international travel becomes a viable option again). Stay safe!

USA! Chicago and Milwaukee

This is quite a diversion from my otherwise mainly Asian escapades, but taking things chronologically, my next significant trip last year was to the USA. I had been to Chicago before, so this time was less about seeing the sights and more about going to a wedding and catching up with friends and their dogs. I really love the city and recommend visiting.

One interesting part of this trip was my solo journey from Kuala Lumpur to Chicago, via Shanghai. I use the word “interesting” purely in hindsight, to be clear. It was severely dull at the time. I believe it took about 37 hours in total, including a 2 hour delay on board the plane at KL airport (ugh), 6 hour flight to Shanghai, overnight in an airport hotel, then a 14 hour flight to Chicago. I remember the time zones bamboozling me and totally destroying my body clock, as I was due to take off in Shanghai around 12 noon and land in Chicago approximately one hour later, local time. The time difference was about 13 hours, so basically completely upside down and back to front. It seemed like a lifetime of horrible plane food and bizarre movies, but I was very happy when I finally arrived!

In Chicago we went to a wedding – a weird one for me, as I hadn’t met the bride or groom before (they’re Joe’s friends, I’m not the world’s most dedicated wedding crasher) so I won’t write too much about their wedding here. Their photographer did use us as models (or you might prefer to say dummies) for the official photos though and look how cute we are! I’ve also added a couple of snaps of us dancing because I think they’re quite funny.

We stayed the whole time with my friends from Northern Ireland who moved to Chicago. I visited them in November for Thanksgiving a few years ago, which is when I did more of the tourist things (and a 5K on Thanksgiving morning, a.k.a. the turkey trot).

One activity which I was happy to repeat again was the architecture boat tour on the Chicago River. You get loads of great views, some information about the history of the city and famous buildings that make up the skyline, and this time (June) it wasn’t freezing! We also went to see two different shows – one was called ‘Ms. Blakk for President’, about America’s first drag queen presidential candidate (it was as fun as it sounds but also moving) and the other was “She the People”, a really funny (and all female) sketch show, which was also brilliant.

I love a walking tour anywhere, so we did one of those focussed on the gangster history of the city, drank wine, ate pizza and played with my friend’s adorable dogs.

We then went for a few days to Milwaukee, which was about 3 hours away by car in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee is known for a few things, two of which are beer and cheese. The timing was pretty good for me, as I didn’t drink beer before moving to Malaysia, where I’ve acquired quite the taste for it on a hot aftern… evening. And I’m still not a fully fledged vegan, despite my occasional efforts, so I fully indulged in the cheese as well. We went on two brewery tours – the Lakefront Brewery, which was fun, quirky and served fries with beer cheese sauce (as good as it sounds), and the Pabst Brewery, which gave a more historical educational tour, and also served beer and cheese.

All hail the queens of cheese!

On the way back to KL, we stopped for 6 days in China, so that’s up next!

Adventures in India, Part 2

Coming to you from an (almost) lockdowned Malaysia, at a time when it’s least likely that anyone will be interested in my trip to India almost a year ago. But here it is, the long awaited Part 2…

Agra (Uttar Pradesh)

Let me be honest first about Agra in general – it was very dirty. If you can imagine what a quite underdeveloped, busy, hot city with a barely functioning sewage system and cows doing as they please all over the place might smell like, well, you can imagine the scent of Agra. It was quite shocking for the city boasting India’s most famous attraction, but even the street where we stayed right beside the Taj Mahal was “squiffy”, as my mummy would say.

But I don’t regret going here. The Taj Mahal really is magnificent and beautiful. I was really amazed when I saw it for the first time, because it’s one of those things that is almost a figment of your imagination until you see it, and it actually looks like it does in pictures (except bigger and better). Unlike pretty much everything else around it, it’s pristine and glowing. I said magnificent already, but I’ll say it again. Magnificent!

A few more positive things that I’d like to say about Agra is that people were really nice, the food was good (but this was basically true everywhere we went in India), and they have some quirky rooftop bars. Not swanky rooftop bars. Haphazard little things on relatively small buildings about 4 storeys high where you can sometimes see the Taj and always hear the chaos of the streets below. One night we were sitting on one of these and saw a little boy on a roof a few streets over, just sitting there. I thought he was too far away to notice us among all the other rooftops and sights, but then he gave us an adorable little wave and it made my night.

Jaipur (Rajasthan)

Jaipur was very hot, humid, and overall pretty fun. It is famous for shopping and I really did love the markets. I read that you simply must haggle with the traders. If you show any interest in an item at all, expect the hard sell. I soon realised that having a general browse like I might do at home isn’t really possible, because when you genuinely don’t want something and try to walk away, the price reduces drastically and the pressure to buy is amped up. But always a fan of a bargain, I enjoyed playing the game, pretending not to want a pair of colourful Rajasthani slippers with actual bells on (as if I wouldn’t want these) and now can occasionally be seen and heard wearing them around Kuala Lumpur.

Jaipur is also full of very grand old buildings, forts and temples. We visited Nahargarh Fort up on the hills, the Hawa Mahal (an old pink stone palace) and sat by the lake at the Jal Mahal (palace in the middle of a lake). We initially planned to do more, but it was very hot, around 45 degrees centigrade, and humid. And I was growing impatient with the constant unwanted attention from locals taking photographs of us, with or without speaking to us or acknowledging that we were not just inanimate objects that had been placed in the city for peoples’ amusement. It wasn’t everyone, but it was a lot. I can understand children being innocently interested in some foreign looking people, or locals being generally welcoming and friendly of course, but I don’t think following someone around taking pictures of them because they look different is cool behaviour from fully grown adults. So if you ever see photos of me looking like a sweaty version of the unimpressed-sideways-glancing emoji, they’re probably from Jaipur.

In summary, India…wow. What a place! This was a trip that I’ll never forget and I’m so glad I had the chance to explore this country a little bit. It can be quite a stressful place to be and was undoubtedly a culture shock for me, but I would like to go back. Thankfully there’s quite a large population of Malaysians who are Indian or Indian-origin so I can keep enjoying the delicious food, for now.

Adventures in India, Part 1

It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything on this blog. I don’t think I’ll realistically catch up on everything, but one trip that I want to record is India. These so-called adventures (normal trip to India) took place in April. This is going to be in two parts, because there’s so much to say.

We spent about 2 weeks in northern India – starting in Amritsar, then moving on to New Delhi, Rishikesh and Agra, before finishing up in Jaipur. If you don’t feel like reading on I can summarise with the following: India was hot, chaotic, fascinating and a vegetarian’s dream. Oh and it’s true that there are cows everywhere. I was also asked some interesting questions like, “are those your original eyes?” For anyone else wondering, they are.

Amritsar (Punjab)

This was my first taste of India, and oh what a taste it was! Speaking literally, the food was fantastic here. Speaking culturally, I can only describe it as a shock. In fact, I would say the entire experience of India was a culture shock like no other for me.

When we first arrived, I was struck by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets, the madness of the roads, the noise, the dirt and encountering some very poor people living on the streets. These are the things that shocked me and which I had never seen to such an extent before.

Getting Indian SIM cards was an ordeal and a half, but aside from the SIM cards which we eventually got, the process also involved a guy taking these delightful mugshots of us after about 4 hours of scurrying around in the dusty heat trying to understand literally anything.


But it was definitely not all negative. In fact, Amritsar was probably my favourite place in India. We stayed in an Airbnb with a lovely couple who served us fresh aloo paratha (basically potato bread with some spices) each morning with some chutneys and yoghurt, arranged a driver to take us to main sights in the surrounding area and generally treated us very kindly. I really loved the food here. One of the local specialities is makhani dahl (black lentil dahl) which is now a favourite Indian dish of mine!

Amritsar is an old city. I saw no high rise or modern looking buildings at all. There was nothing familiar to me in any sense, but after the initial shock and feeling of being overwhelmed, I really appreciated the history and culture here.

The highlight was the Golden Temple, which is the most important temple in the Sikh religion. A close second was the Partition Museum, which was really interesting and well presented. We had a local driver arranged by our hosts who took us around the main places of interest, and as a Sikh himself he was a great companion at the temple and made sure we behaved ourselves and saw everything! Although we still had a language barrier, I would definitely recommend having a local driver or guide, as getting around in India alone as foreigners can be quite difficult and intimidating.


Another unexpected highlight was going to the India-Pakistan border from Amritsar. I don’t believe the India-Pakistan border is generally a safe place to be, but this one part called Attari-Wagah is fine. They conduct a ceremony there every night, which involves military displays on either side and then very briefly opening the gates between the two. The most surprising part of this was the build up. It was, like so many things in India, insane. Speakers blaring out what I would describe as Bollywood style music (although I’m no expert), the crowds going absolutely wild with India flags waving and painted on their faces, and just general mayhem, in a very joyous energetic way. At one point the main area between the viewing stands was cleared for women and children to come down and have a big raucous dance. Of course I joined in and it was such a funny happy experience, all the gals dancing together away from those pesky men for a change. Then the ceremony itself was fascinating. We couldn’t see too clearly on the Pakistan side but the uniforms and the style of marching etc. seemed very similar. The main difference I could see in the crowds was that the India side was extremely colourful and rowdy, whereas the Pakistan side appeared a bit more subdued.


Chandigarh (Haryana) & New Delhi

From Amritsar we took a bus (again with the help of our hosts) to Chandigarh, which was the most modern and “familiar” feeling city we visited in India. We only spent one night here to go to a cricket match, my first ever! It was actually pretty fun, the Indian fans were so full of joy and energy, I didn’t have to understand the game too much to enjoy myself.

From Chandigarh to New Delhi, where we met friends to celebrate their wedding. We had limited time here and the only thing we really did was attend the Mehndi ceremony for the wedding, which is when the bride and the female guests get their henna designs for the big day. The bride had the most intricate designs on her hands, arms, legs and feet, and the rest of us had some on our hands and wrists only. I absolutely loved this, as you can see from my excited little face and the number of photos I took of my own hands. (Also check out my gorgeous outfit, made to measure in Little India, KL!)


Rishikesh (Uttarakhand)

The wedding itself took place in Rishikesh. The Indian airline we were meant to fly with went bust the day before, so we took a 7 hour taxi instead. We took several inter-city taxis in India and they were all ridiculous experiences. They were very cheap for the distances and length of time the journeys took, but the driving in India is truly outrageous. There seems to be no concept of lanes, lots of horn-tooting, and the main tactic to avoid collisions with other vehicles is to SPEED UP and dodge. Still traumatised.

The wedding itself was extremely colourful, beautiful and fun. It was unlike any wedding I’ve ever attended. The groom entered on horse and cart, following a parade of dancers (including yours truly) down the street with a live band. There was no alcohol and honestly it didn’t matter. And finally, the food was all vegetarian and was bloody delicious.


Aside from the wedding, Rishikesh was actually a disappointment for me. I found it really dirty, noisy and crazily busy. Cows with big horns roamed small winding streets, in what I considered to be a menacing fashion. It was a very stressful place to be. This is the alleged birthplace of yoga. At the very least, it’s a big hub for yoga lovers and teachers, even if its not the birthplace. And while it’s a naturally beautiful place, I just didn’t get any of the secluded peace you might expect to find there. I didn’t look terribly hard, to be fair, but I was honestly pleased to get out of Rishikesh after a few days of the mayhem.

We also went to the famous ceremony along the Ganges which ends with everyone lighting little baskets of flowers on fire and setting them into the river, but bizarrely I don’t seem to have photos of that. Must have been having a spiritual moment or anxiously avoiding some cows. But here’s a view of the Ganges taken from a small hike we did into the foothills of Himalayas.

Rishikesh Ganges.jpg

I also got some great pictures of the monkeys who invaded our balcony too.



That’s all for now. Adventures in India, Part 2 (featuring Agra and Jaipur) coming soon to a blog* near you!


*this one.

Getting high in KL

Getting literally high off the ground, that is. This post is all about VIEWS.

A wise person* once said “I don’t really care about views”. But I happen to love views and KL is a great place to enjoy them.
*16-year-old girlfriend of 16-year-old Joe, said as he foolishly admired a view.


Joe’s mum paid us a flying visit recently on her way to Australia and it just so happened that all of our weekend activities involved being high up with great views of the city. Have I overused the word “view” yet? I don’t think so.

First, the heli lounge. The name says it all – helipad by day, cocktail bar by night. This place is kind of pretentious, but it’s hard to resist getting up on a rooftop in the middle of the city at night. After happy hour, there’s a minimum spend of RM100 per person, the equivalent of about 3 cocktails each. We really just wanted one drink and to enjoy the aforementioned VIEWS, but as wine is normally expensive and not very good in Malaysia, we decided to buy a decent bottle of wine from the list and take it home. Thus reaching the minimum spend and acquiring some good wine for a later date. It was an excellent idea until approximately 5 minutes later when we dropped the entire unopened bottle of wine, smashing it to smithereens. Maybe wine just isn’t destined to be part of our lives in KL. But check out those views!

The next day we went up the KL Tower – or Menara KL if you speak Malay, which I almost do. Going up a tall tower in a city is a typical tourist activity, but for good reason. It’s so fun to be able to see the sites and pick out familiar places from this height. It is potentially less fun for whoever is in our company, listening to us excitedly point out sites such as “that apartment we stayed for 4 days in October!” but there are always more mainstream options like the Petronas Towers to entertain them instead. You can go into the glass floored sky boxes, where you will pose for various pictures, whether you want to or not, as staff members basically shout generic poses at you until you do them for your photographs. Giggling through this experience is a highly recommended distraction from the fact that you’re standing on a glass floor at at 400 metres off the ground.


Finally, we took a stroll through the Bukit Nanas, also known as KL Eco Park, which is a small rainforest reserve in the city. You can walk through the forest grounds or up on tree top canopies. Joe and I have done this walk before and I can safely say that it is WAY more fun when you do it out of the midday sun and without a hangover. And finally, the view of sunset from our apartment, and another one from a sneaky trip to the roof of our building.

Chinese New Year in KL

Gong xi fa cai! Happy New Year, little piggies*!

*May not be an exact translation.

This was my first time celebrating Chinese New Year (CNY) anywhere, so I’ll cover the basics for any other first timers. Firstly, it is based on the lunar calendar so the dates change every year. This year it started on Tuesday 5th February and ended on 19th February. So, definitely not in December which is when we decorated our Christmas tree in CNY dragons and piggies. Hehehe..

Secondly, each year is based on the Chinese zodiac, and this time it’s the year of the pig! This leads me onto an interesting fact about CNY in Malaysia.

Malaysia is a very multi-cultural society, but is still predominantly Muslim. One of the things that I’ve learned about Muslim culture is that pigs, or at least pork, is haram i.e. forbidden by Islamic law. This means that while the large Chinese population here bloody love pork and all things pig-related, the larger Malay Muslim population hate it. So in Malaysia, the year of the pig is not celebrated with images of the pig everywhere as it would be elsewhere, as this would be offensive to the Malay people. You can buy adorable little piggie accessories and you’ll see them in the Chinese shops and temples, but not in public places, which are decorated with lots of more generic (and lovely) CNY red decorations, flowers and displays of other important figures, like the god of prosperity. He looks quite fat and happy so I like him a lot.

Thean Hou CNY5

This is Thean Hou temple, one of my favourite places in KL. It has six tiers and is apparently one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia (sidenote: I feel like a lot of temples claim this fact, but it still may be true). Like most Chinese temples, it celebrates a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. I love the fact that it’s ok to mix these ideologies in one place, and I’ve heard people who describe themselves as Buddhists here say that it is not necessarily a religion but a way of life that anyone can choose to live by, alongside anything else you might believe in. The Chinese temples in Malaysia are such beautiful, welcoming places and this one perched on a hill over the city has to be one of the best.

The first time we visited Thean Hou was when we first arrived in KL, and it was decorated with yellow lanterns at that time. Just for some daytime pics and a comparison to CNY, here it is in September:

This time, for CNY, it was decorated with red lanterns, the colour of luck and happiness. Isn’t it just gorgeous?

One lovely tradition here over CNY is the “open house”. I actually can’t work out if this is common everywhere that celebrates it, or if it’s specific to the Malaysian Chinese. But what happens is that some Chinese families open their doors for family, friends and strangers to come in and share in their food, drink and revelry to celebrate the new year. We were lucky enough to be invited by someone we know to celebrate with his family.

The traditional gifts to give at CNY are angpao, little red envelopes with cash inside, and mandarin oranges. We also thought it would be cute to bring something from “home” to our hosts, but that’s hard to arrange last minute in KL, so I hope they enjoyed their unbranded Scottish shortbread with their tea (neither of us are Scottish, but close enough).

Apparently Malaysia has the best dragon and lion dance teams in the world, so I’m sorry that we only got to see one performance, but it was amazing! Overall, Chinese New Year has been a gorgeous, happy celebration in KL and it reminded me that it’s such a treat to live in this multicultural place.


Veganuary in Malaysia

This post is a little bit different because it’s specifically about food, which is another important part of my life in Malaysia and my #1 favourite thing. Specifically, it’s about my attempt to go vegan this January, or VEGANuary, as people are calling it. You can only really say this word by completely mis-pronouncing the word vegan, but that’s ok.

I am already a vegetarian and have been for just over a year. This “decision” was based on nothing more than a month-long experiment to see if I could do it, with no particularly strong ethical basis, health concerns or conviction. My journey began when I still lived in Belfast, where I was surrounded by familiar ingredients and cooking facilities, as well as plenty of excellent restaurants with vegetarian options. So I didn’t have to compromise on taste, variety or treating myself.

So, it’s possible that I would have continued to live a meat-free life without further educating myself, because it was easy. But I did start to read more about the benefits of a vegetarian diet, not just for me but for the planet (and obviously the animals). I’m not going to go into loads more detail on this, because I don’t want to preach about the ethics of it all, but it’s pretty convincing. I am just going to talk about my own choices and efforts to move to veganism in a non-judgemental and honest way.

Veganuary: why?

My views on and commitment to being vegetarian are always becoming stronger. I feel that, for me, there are many good reasons to give up meat and only one selfish reason to keep eating it. But that reason (wanting to) was based mostly on habit and has now disappeared. At the minute I have no desire to eat meat so it’s easy to be veggie. It’s what I want, in every sense.

But what I do still want is milk, cheese, cream, eggs, butter and more butter. But the reasons I believe in vegetarianism also apply logically to veganism. It’s the same argument and I actually think it’s the right thing for me to do, based on what I’ve learned about the dairy industry. Once I started to really think about this, I had to try it.

Veganuary in Australia

I started while in Australia, specifically New South Wales. Very little effort is required to be a vegan here. With a dark chocolate coconut milk ice cream in hand on day 1, I felt pretty good about it.

During the trip, we stayed with a lovely couple along the Great Ocean Road who kindly offered to cook dinner for us. We didn’t think it would be fair to accept the offer and then ask them to cook a vegan meal. This isn’t a great story for me, because by coincidence the vegetable pasta dish they made DID happen to be vegan, apart from the parmesan cheese I voluntarily, though absent-mindedly, sprinkled on top. Oops.

But this was a small blip as far as Australia was concerned. If I had stayed there longer, I’m fairly sure I’d have continued Veganuary with relative ease and pleasure.

Veganuary in Malaysia

The food scene is amazing but a little bit more complex in Malaysia.

The cheapest way to eat in KL is to eat out. Food is a really important part of Malay culture. For example, I’ve learned that “dah makan?” (have you eaten?) can be used as a general greeting instead of saying hello, or how are you.

The food of KL is particularly diverse. You’ll find a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, but it’s also pretty easy to find Italian and other western food. They just love FOOD, all of it. Here we are enjoying an 8 course tasting menu at a vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant in KL (with a Malay twist, i.e. more spicy than expected).


A vegetarian can survive eating in all kinds of places here, but my favourites are the Indian restaurants. There are loads of them, where the food is cheap, delicious and in most cases, completely or mostly vegetarian.

This isn’t the best example of banana leaf curry, but it’s the only picture I have, taken in our first few weeks here. You usually get LOADS of rice which they’ll top up unnecessarily, 3 vegetable side dishes, sometimes dips and pickles, and not pictured here – they finish off with 3 vegetable curries that they’ll pour over the rice. I would say the average cost for one is about RM6, around £1.


However, a lot of the Indian dishes are probably not vegan. I say “probably” because I often adopt a policy of blissful ignorance when eating out. I have been more aware and careful about my choices since January, but I’m sure I’ve still eaten dairy.

Since Veganuary, I am vegan when cooking or eating at home. We cook our own versions of local dishes and sometimes make a nut roast and all the (meat-free) trimmings on a Sunday. I’ve replaced milk with various alternatives like soy, almond or coconut milk and they’re all perfectly yummy in coffee, with granola, or whatever. Did I mention that I have always LOVED drinking milk? Well, I have. I think there’s nothing better than something rich and chocolatey with a glass of cold milk. So if I can replace milk with non-dairy alternatives and still enjoy life, it’s possible for anyone.

What I’m finding more difficult is identifying things which contain dairy, but not in an obvious way. Not eating an egg is a simple choice, but when it comes to pastry, some types of pasta, condiments, sauces, soups and, tragically for me, lots of Indian food, it’s not so obvious.

My future as a vegan?

I cannot strictly call myself a vegan, because I know that I have eaten dairy and will most likely continue to do so, at least occasionally, while I’m living in Malaysia. But this will mostly be accidental and/or relatively incidental. I am still a vegetarian and at the moment I’m happy to have cut down significantly on dairy, because it moves me in what I see as the right direction, and will make more of an impact than not trying at all. I don’t think I’m going to change the world on my own, but my conscience is (relatively) clear in the knowledge that I’m trying.

Here’s a collage of some food I’ve taken pictures of recently, at home and eating out, including various Indian dishes, our vegan roast dinner, Malay spicy fried rice, and the world’s most delicious big samosa (probably not vegan, sigh).


Bali: what’s the big deal?

Unlike the stereotypical Bali traveller, I wasn’t on a spiritual quest to “find myself” or party hard, but I was on a quest to have fun and relax after the weird misadventures of Lombok. And I was quite hopeful, because at least people go to Bali and, with it being so popular, I assume they enjoy it. I have even heard real-life humans say they love Bali.

People famously go to the island to “eat, pray, love”. Or in my case, eat badly, pray not get scammed, and love leaving. Overall I didn’t actually hate it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it or understand the hype. Some of its best attributes were overshadowed by its worst ones.


Those best attributes include gorgeous sunsets, unique cliffside temples, beautiful scenery and some cute animals. I saw two monkeys having a HUG for goodness sake. These things are definitely to be enjoyed and appreciated.

I also met another sweet cat here, who did things like steal my breakfast and drink water from the swimming pool. What a weirdo.


Bali’s worst attributes, in my experience, include some really poor food, dodgy taxi drivers and a general culture of taking advantage of tourists. And also some (different) monkeys terrorising and biting people.

Our first experience after clambering elegantly off the boat from Lombok was being approached, surrounded, shouted at and then followed by a mob of pushy taxi drivers as we tried to order a Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia). I prefer Grab because you know who your driver is and the price is fair, agreed beforehand, and based on distance/time of day, rather than how much of a mug (i.e. tourist) you appear to be. It turned out that Bali has similar rules to Lombok, in that some areas are off limits to Grab and only local taxis are available. So, with tails between our legs, we eventually gave in to one persistent driver and haggled with him over the price to take us to our accommodation. Feeling that we were being overcharged but without any other choice, we went on our way.

He stopped along the way insisting we try some local coffee for free at some place he “recommended”. Tasting was free, but with a sales pitch and presumably set up so that we would buy this stuff and he would get a commission for having brought us. We didn’t buy any because we didn’t want any. This kind of thing isn’t too objectionable, but I don’t like it and on a long journey, it was a waste of time. I mean, just taking us to our destination would have been fine… oh wait, he didn’t even do that!

Arriving in the town where we were staying, he suddenly asked us to either pay more or get out here. His reason was that he didn’t know the address of our accommodation. We calmly and, I thought, quite reasonably, explained that we would tell him the address. You know, how ALL TAXI JOURNEYS WORK. He said he’d do that if we paid more. We explained that we negotiated the (already inflated) price on the understanding that he would take us to our actual destination. He wasn’t having it, and I was afraid that things would get more heated if we insisted, so we got out and at this point were able to order a Grab.

Throughout our stay, several times we were asked to pay more than the stated fare for a taxi for stupid reasons, including “bad traffic” before having set off on a journey that was then devoid of traffic. One driver who reluctantly agreed to accept the original fare then drove us to the wrong place. We didn’t rent a scooter because we read that police often target tourists and fine/ bribe them to avoid getting into trouble for minor violations or made up offences. We probably would have been ok, but I was getting the heebie-jeebies about Bali and didn’t want to take any chances.

There is so much advice online about all the ways you might be scammed here. What annoys me most is the attitude behind some of these posts, for example, almost proudly informing you that you WILL get scammed on your first visit, as if it’s a rite of passage. An inevitable thing that you have to go through to be part of the experienced-Bali-traveller club. A badge of honour. Or that, because it’s well documented, it’s your own fault if something bad happens. Umm…NO! It’s not fair, it’s not acceptable and it’s not “cool” to say you’ve been through it. I don’t think it should be encouraged or accepted as part of the deal. And what about those poor souls seeking inner peace and the meaning of life? Do they all end up nervous wrecks, realising they can only find happiness (on Bali) by being hyper-alert and suspicious at every turn while en route to the nearest wellness retreat to recover?

Maybe I let it get to me too much, maybe we were unlucky, but I can’t understand how so many people, especially those looking for some space and calm in their lives, really enjoy this place. We did get around different parts of the island, and some were better than others, but I feel like even on a good day, it’s quite nice at best.

Well maybe comparing it to a grey rainy day in the UK, looking at a spreadsheet and eating a soggy sandwich at your desk, it’s a better place to be. But comparing it to other destinations very nearby, where you can also experience a mix of culture, history, temples, beaches, cliffs, forests, and monkeys that might bite you at any moment because you looked at them sideways – it doesn’t stack up. I’m pretty confident that you can achieve all of the above with a little more fun, affordability and peace of mind elsewhere in Indonesia.

One thing I haven’t talked about much on this blog is being a vegetarian, but I would like to say that travelling as a vegetarian in Indonesia is generally a very easy and delicious experience. Exhibit A: tempeh. It’s the yummier version of tofu, made of fermented soybeans and with a much nicer texture and flavour. I know it might sound gross, but it’s not. Just trust me, it’s great, and the whole world should be eating it. Anyway, I did eat some nice food in Bali, but we went to some highly rated vegetarian spots and found them really disappointing.

Let’s end with the positives again, because it truly wasn’t all bad. Pictured below in no particular order are some of my favourite things that I would recommend in Bali: the temples at Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, learning to make coconut oil, the monkey forest and the Ubud water palace.


….and AS IF I didn’t take a picture of the hugging monkeys!




Lombok: meh

I am sure my 4 to 5 readers have been truly devastated by my lack of activity recently, but I’m back now. There’s a lot to catch up on, particularly my adventures in Australia (spoiler alert: I got pecked by an emu), but I want to finish up the Indonesia trip first.

Expressing my views on Lombok is quite the moral dilemma for me: basically I hated it, but I want more people to go there.

I had loved Indonesia so far, and Lombok was billed as the more chilled out, laid back, less touristic version of more well-known destinations – “like Bali 20 years ago”. Beautiful beaches, mountains and waterfalls without the tacky bars and crowds of pretentious travellers, finding themselves and updating their blogs (cough).

To be fair, it is a beautiful island and the scenery is excellent. So it’s a shame that it’s quite dirty and the beaches are visibly polluted with plastic. Apparently there is no refuse collection on the island, so people tend to throw their rubbish into the sea or burn it – both unpleasant and environmentally horrible options.

As for the “not touristy” claims – I beg to differ. I did expect that there would be people making their living trying to sell to us, and I don’t have any objection to that. But I didn’t appreciate people stopping their cars or scooters at the side of the road to try and sell us stuff as we walked along the pavement. Then driving on and pulling over to repeat this again, but pushier, 10 steps later after we’ve already said no thanks. We had people selling everything from souvenirs, jewellery, boat trips, drugs and taxi services following us around the town, waiting for us to come out from shops or restaurants to pressure us again. One guy actually came into a restaurant and sat at our table, then the one beside it, trying to make us sign a very suspect agreement to hire a scooter while we were trying to get some lunch. Basically, I didn’t feel comfortable exploring this place on my own, which is a big deal for me, and didn’t particularly enjoy going out at all as I always felt we were about to be scammed, followed or harassed. Once I started feeling on edge, that suspicion and lack of trust in the back of my mind was unfair to the people who were honest and reasonable. The atmosphere was bad for everyone. There was also an unpleasant situation at the place where we stayed, but it’s not fair to tar the whole island with that nasty brush, so I won’t go there.

I’m aware that it’s difficult to criticise Lombok without sounding heartless and insensitive. It is often hit by earthquakes and there was some serious damage done in August last year. This naturally caused devastation to the people who lost family and shelter but also their income source, as tourists are less willing to go there. I can see how such a disaster would leave people feeling desperate, and it somewhat explains the more aggressive tactics we encountered. I get that – but I still can’t pretend I had a good time.

We were warned to avoid certain areas as they were not safe, that there were some temples and sights where tourists were targetted by criminals, and to watch out for scams. Having read a lot of other peoples’ experiences in Lombok, this is not unique to us or to the fact that we visited in the months following an earthquake. I know lots of people enjoy it and have a great time, but plenty of people also report the negative experience that I had.

Logic tells me that people who need tourism to thrive would be aware of the fact that visitors who have a nice time are more likely to talk about it and recommend it to others, thus boosting future tourism, etc. I feel this all over Malaysia, where the locals are friendly, kind and keen to know that you are being treated well and enjoying their country. On one view, it’s because they’re nice (and I believe that), but even taking a pragmatic view, they feel that tourism and their international reputation is important, so they treat people well. At the risk of sounding really patronising, it’s a shame that a similar culture hasn’t developed in Lombok.

I’m in a catch-22 situation when it comes to describing this part of the trip. I believe that if more people visit, creating more stability and sustainable income, the incidents of scamming, crime or generally making people feel harassed and uneasy would subside, so the right thing to do would be to encourage more people to go. But I can’t recommend it as a destination based on my experience, because I simply didn’t enjoy it. For now I can rest assured that I’m not exactly a major influencer and my opinion, one way or another, is not going to change anything. But I do hope that something changes, because the situation as it was during my time there was not positive for anyone.

Let’s finish on a high. Here are some of the best bits, including the pool, sunsets on the beach, and a cat that joined me for a beer: