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.

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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).

 

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.

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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!

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Falling in love with Yogyakarta

Everyone has heard of Jakarta, but I hadn’t heard of Yogyakarta before I started planning this trip to Indonesia. I have a lot to say about this city, but if you want the short version: I love Yogya and Yogya loves me (or at least someone there does, according to this water tank):

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It’s known as Yogya, Jogjakarta or Jogja to the locals, and people like me who want to pretend they’re locals. One of the reasons I loved this place so much is because I was made to feel like part of the community wherever I went. The people were overwhelmingly friendly to us, and I felt completely safe and at ease exploring and making friends here. It may be a sweeping generalisation to comment on the personality of ALL the people, but it’s one I’m happy to make, because in my experience it’s true and I want to acknowledge how much positive difference it made to my time here.

Apart from the people, why did I love Jogja so much?

Initially I chose it because it’s a good location from which to visit two major temples in Java – Borobudur (which is going to get a blog post all of it’s own!) and Prambanan. But I can’t understand why Jogja is not more well known as an amazing destination in its own right. The city itself reflects the open-minded people and culture, with the mosques taking inspiration from old Javanese and Hindu buildings rather than the dome-shaped mosques I’ve seen elsewhere. No skyscrapers or high-rise apartment blocks in sight. It’s a really fascinating place and doesn’t feel like anywhere I’ve been before.

Kraton: this is where we stayed. It’s basically a walled city within the city, and officially part of the Sultan’s palace. You can walk around the walls and have to go through the gates to get in or out, but they’re always open.

Yep, Jogja has a Sultan who has actual decision-making power, although it is a hereditary title. The current one has no sons and has named his eldest daughter as the heir, apparently with some resistance. Many people think his brother should be next (including said brother), but if you’re going to have a Sultan, it may as well be a woman.  That’s what I always say, and maybe Jogja will too when the time comes.

Kotagede: another area full of ancient buildings and ruins and mosques. Beautiful and interesting to walk around, especially if you have a lovely new friend to explore with like I did.

Alun Alun Kidul: this is one of two main squares in the Kraton area, with food stalls and the two trees challenge. If you can walk across the square blindfolded and still walk between the two trees then, congratulations, you’ll have good fortune! I didn’t try this so my future fortunes are as much in doubt as ever. There’s a buzzing atmosphere at night, with peddle cars taking people around the square, blaring music and blinged out with neon lights ranging from ‘I heart Jogja’ (can’t argue with that) to random cat and turtle designs (ok I can’t argue with that either).

If you want some cheese and chocolate on toast, this is also the place for you, but who are you and why do you want this? The blip in Indonesia’s otherwise amazing food for me has to be the disturbing trend of chocolate and cheese.

There was some kind of festival on in Alun Alun Lor, the other square, including a huge market and some kids on stage singing and dancing. It was possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I look at a lot of dogs on instagram.

Taman Sari: the water castle which was part of the palace and is now open to the public. It’s a bit run down, but in a kind of charming way.

Prambanan temple: unfortunately we didn’t get to spend a full day here, but we did get to watch the traditional Ramayana ballet here at night. It’s an outdoor performance, with the beautiful temples lit up behind the stage, traditional live music to accompany the show, and really impressive performers dancing, singing, backflipping and fire twirling across the stage. I managed to follow the story pretty well, partly because they had screens with some basic plot outlines, and partly because the story also featured in one of my favourite childhood movies, A Little Princess. So this was an extra delicious nostalgic treat for me.

Javanese pottery: one of the most fun things we did was making pottery with two ceramics students who have their own studio. We just happened to see a poster for it and spent a morning getting mucky and laughing and making disastrous items that we’ll call plates and cups. It takes about a week to finish off the firing and glazing processes and we were leaving the next day, so I suggested they keep our pieces and sell them. They didn’t seem interested in that offer for some reason, but kindly agreed to post them to KL for us when they’re ready. I want to use these myself, so please don’t bombard me with offers to buy them.

Ahh, Jogja, I miss you already.

This little piggie went to Jakarta

I may as well have been an actual little piggie if the reaction of local people was anything to go by. One of my lasting memories of my first day in Indonesia will be the crowds of children following us around the old town square trying to practice their English and take pictures of us. It was quite intense but I don’t want to complain about it because they were very endearing, sweet and polite. Except that girl who kept calling me “mister”.

What made me uncomfortable was that adults also openly stared at us, took photos of us often without asking, without attempting to say hello or speak to us like the children did. I saw one man pointing us out to his friends, by literally pointing at us. It’s hard to believe that we are that unusual a sight in a huge city like Jakarta. It is possible that there aren’t many tourists in the city, or that it’s just become socially acceptable to point at us here – the more people do it and we awkwardly smile, the more other people will do it. And there is a chance that I am the palest person in Indonesia, even with my “tan”.

We only had one day here so we spent time in the old town, including  Fatahilla Square, the History Museum and the Wayang (puppet) Museum. Puppet theatre is big here, and I’m hoping to go to a puppet show somewhere in Java after seeing the museum. They are very artistic and intricate; some of them cute, some of them downright sinister.

Then we took a tuk-tuk (actually called bajaj in Jakarta but I wanted to say “took a tuk-tuk”) to the National Monument. We went inside but the tickets to the very top were bizarrely sold out. I don’t really understand this as it was still early afternoon and didn’t seem very busy, but there was quite a good museum inside on the history of Indonesia, so as a nerdy traveller I enjoyed this.

Finally, I have to mention the absolutely delicious vegetarian food in Indonesia. The most popular street foods here generally involve spicy peanut sauce, deep fried crispy things, or both. Need I say more?