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.

Shanghai

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.

Hangzhou

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

Suzhou

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.

Mugshots2.jpg

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.

dav

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).

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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.

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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).