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Malaysia

Monkey business and a beach hunt on Langkawi island, Malaysia

cold coconuts langkawi

We arrive in a propeller plane under the cover of night and have no idea what to expect. All we know is that after months of heavy travel, we need this beach escape bad! The question is…will Langkawi let us down like so many of South East Asia’s beaches have so far?

Within 30 minutes of touching down on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, the first lesson we learn is that Langkawi is much larger than we thought. After exploring the main beach for a few days, Cenang Beach, we rent a car, and head out to what we imagine are the dozens of gorgeous white sand beaches around the island. Our hotel is kind enough to arrange the rental process for us…

langkawi cenang beach

An interesting start… 

The next morning, the ‘rental’ car arrives, but this isn’t your ordinary Enterprise or Hertz experience. This very small Malaysian man drops off his very small, personal Malaysian vehicle – complete with KitKat wrappers, Chinese music tapes (yes, actual cassette tapes) and discarded Pistachio nut casings. We honestly don’t notice at first, as we are giddy with the excitement of driving after not having been behind a wheel for so many months. A few minutes ater we have to fill up the tank just a few minutes later (because yes, he delivered it on an empty tank), we realize that this is not the most official rental we’ve ever had.

But why worry! We play the random Chinese tapes until we can’t take it any more. We then opt for silence and watching the sun filter through the jungle canopy and catching glances of crystal blue water in the distance. Suddenly and simultaneously we both shout ‘Monkeys!!’ A family of at least thirty monkeys lines the guard railing on the side of the road, eating, playing and staring right back at us as we gawk out the window on the way past.

langkawi monkey crossingA world record awaits 

Our first stop is the famous Langkawi Cable Car, a trip to the top of a mountain – which promises stunning views over the Andaman Sea as far as to the islands in northern Thailand. Once at the top of the mountain, a world record awaits: the world’s longest curve suspension bridge, a 125-meter long Skywalk, swings softly as visitors cross (holding on for dear life).

Langkawi viewA little further north from the Cable Car station we find the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, which turns out to be an 800m hike up the mountain…a steep mountain. Okay, a VERY steep mountain. Already sweating buckets in our semi air-conditioned car, we unstick ourselves and head out into the crazy Malaysian heat and up the seemingly never-ending stairs. The falls are actually all but dried up – it’s the height of dry season – but there are cool pools of water on top we can’t wait to dip into.

langkawi monkeys swimming

Attack of the Monkeys! 

Except…within two minutes of our arrival, we find ourselves again shouting Monkeys! But this time it’s a warning. A gang of monkeys spits at us and chases us out of their spot. We take refuge in a covered picnic area and watch them tumble, play-fight, and swim. Despite their aggression toward us, watching them is really fun – but we definitely tip-toe out and back down the mountain to avoid their attention before setting off to find white sand beaches.

Unfortunately, it is ages before we find any sign of a comfortable beach…we follow the road around to the northwestern point of Langkawi, but if there are any beautiful beaches, they all belong to the luxury resorts we can not quite see, their landscaped properties hidden between the forest and the sea.

things to do in LangkawiInstead we follow a sign to Langkawi Falls, which ends up being a man-made, papier-mâché rock overpass over the road. From far away, this looks like the road cuts right through bedrock, but up close, we see it is no more real than a Flintstones cartoon. Holes in the ‘rocks’ reveal chicken wire and newspaper stuffing on the inside.

One of those WTF moments? Yes.

A total bust? No, but only because back at the car we meet an adorable monkey trying to get in our car. Thanks to our friendly monkey encounter earlier, we stand on guard until, finally, she hops to the ground and gives us the monkey equivalent of puppy dog eyes. She wants food – but we are starving ourselves and have nothing to share. So we slip into the car (she almost manages to get in with us), and head off in search of food and hopefully, a white sand beach.

monkey on our car langkawi
monkey lady langkawi

So… where’s the beach?

Thirty minutes later, tummies rumbling in full force, we finally arrive at Tanjung Rhu Beach, which is just as stunning as we had hoped: miles of white sand, crystal clear water, and only a handful of tourists, but the restaurants are a bit grungy and can not make vegetarian food (so they say) so we continue to starve for an hour or so while we soak up the sun on the beach.
things to do in LangkawiThere are two lagoons that meet to create a tangle of rivers and mangroves, which can be visited in small tour boats, but we are hungry, crabby and a bit crispy, so we drive back to Cenang Beach rather than doing any of the tours in the area.

Food, oh glorious food!

When we finally get there, we realize that, after a semi-successful day around Langkawi, Cenang is the best beach of all.

The sand is even whiter than others we have seen, softer like a light powder and the food options are so varied and delicious. On this night we opt for a fancy Italian meal to reward our starving bellies, but most days we split between an affordable organic restaurant and a super cheapie with rice and eggs for $1 down the road from our hotel at the time, the Mali Perdana hotel at the south end of the beach.

organic pasta dish on langkawiWe spend the rest of our time on the island relaxing on Cenang Beach, with the only decisions to make being where to eat for dinner and where to take in the stunning sunsets at night… the perfect vacation – finally!

sunset over cenang beach langkawi

Tips for traveling on/to Langkawi:

Tip 1: Do not rely on public transportation
This is mostly because there isn’t any public transportation (buses, trains, trams, that sort of thing). Plenty of cabs drive around, and this is a great way to get from one of the beach to the other (it’s a long, hot walk from end to end). But to get from Cenang to the other beaches we visited, taxi rates run between $20-$35 one way.

langkawi cenang beachTip 2: Rent a car
Instead of adding up all those taxi rides, both short and long, we wanted freedom on Langkawi and decided to rent a car. Sure, it may have felt like we were driving around in someone’s personal car. In fact, that was actually the case. But it was RM70, or $23, for two full days’ rental, plus gas.

Tip 3: There are two ways to get to Langkawi
One option is to take the ferry (3-4 hours) from Penang which costs RM60.00 ($20) one-way or RM115.00 ($38) round trip. There is only one ferry and it leave before 8am each day.

We chose to hop on a 25 minute flight instead. Firefly operates several daily flights from Penang and Subang Jaya (a Kuala Lumpur suburb) and AirAsia flights operate between Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur or even to/from Singapore. We booked just 12 hours in advance on Fireflyz.com and paid $30 each for our quick flight.

things to do in Langkawi

Where to stay on Langkawi:

There is a wide range of accommodation on Langkawi, from luxury resorts to backpacker hostels. While the luxe spots are tre chic, we recommend a mid-range or budget spot right on Cenang Beach where all the best food and ‘nightlife’ is centered (party spots are limited on this Muslim island).

Backpacker: D’Bayleaf (Dorms RM25/$8.50)

Mid-range: AB Motel  (between RM80 / $26 and RM200 / $67 per night. The cheaper rooms are across the street from the beach, and the bungalows right on the beach look great.

Melati Tanjung  has rates at RM140 / $43 for beachfront bungalows

Luxury: Casa Del Mar boutique hotel is one of Malaysia’s accommodation darlings

Our pick: Temple Tree is a 5 minute cab ride from Cenang Beach, and one of our top hotel picks ever!

pool at temple tree langkawi malaysia

Where to eat around Cenang Beach

 

Hidden Langkawi is on the southern end of Tengah Beach, just south of Cenang Beach. They have cocktails, salads, burgers, tacos, a seafood platters and shareable appetizers such as fries and nachos. Great spot to watch the sunset.

Yellow Beach Cafe is on the southern end of Cenang Beach. It has western dishes, breakfasts, healthy options and pasta, pizza and a wide range of BBQ meat.

things to do in Langkawi

Have you been to Langkawi? Do you have any other recommendations to share for a trip to the island? 

 

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Tune Hotel, Downtown Kuala Lumpur | Malaysia

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay in countless hotels, and at over 500 days as nomads, we have stayed some of the best (and worst) accommodation the world has to offer. We cover everything from budget to luxury accommodation, and believe that any hotel worth recommending must be comfortable and clean, offer good value for money and treat people as guests, not clients. We have personally stayed in every hotel we recommend to you here on Globetrottergirls.com.

You get what you pay for.

We have all heard it before, usually when we have gotten a great deal on something that ends up breaking a few days (hours) post-purchase. The longer we spend on the road, however, we learn that with hotels, price may have very little to do with quality. The same room rate can get us a clean, comfortable guest house with owners who go out of their way and right next door, the same rate might be set for a dark, damp, dirty room and no idea who is even in charge.

kuala lumpur tune hotel

Tune hotels has set out to change all that. 

Employing the budget airlines no-frills approach, Tune Hotels have made it possible to quite literally only get what you pay for.

We were not sure what to expect when we booked in at the Tune Hotel Kuala Lumpur Downtown, but the Malaysian chain’s promise of a five-star bed at one-star prices was enough to get us in to check it out for ourselves. The bed was heavenly, but more on that in just a minute. Let’s start where you would normally start after arriving at the airport: the check-in desk.
Tune hotel kuala lumpur at nightThe check-in desk at the Tune hotel bears an uncanny similarity to the one in the Air Asia terminal we had checked into that morning. In fact, Tune hotels sits within the Tune Group, an entertainment and leisure brand started by the owners of Air Asia. This strong relationship is displayed in our room through the advertisement for Air Asia flights on the wall in our room.
tune hotel red bags
That’s right. Where most hotels have a cheesy watercolor painting, Tune has advertisements both in the room and above each room number down the hall. For rates as low as $8, we exchange our freedom from advertising in our sleep. It is a small price to pay, we say, for the sweet spot of quality accommodation and great location that our Tune hotel provides. Passports are handed back and forth, small talk is swapped and instead of a boarding pass, we are handed a room key. For $1.50 each, we also both get a towel and a toiletry kit and head off to our room.
tune hotels towel & shower setWe enter and slide the key into the slot which controls the room – fan or air con, TV & Wireless or not – depending on what extras we have thrown in for. We’ve opted NOT to try all of those extras to see how comfortable a very basic version of the accommodation can be. Upon first glance, we love our room immediately. It is basic, and not that big. The bathroom door is industrial, could be, say, in an airport – and actually has the word ‘Pull’ under the handle.
tune hotel airconditioning controlerBut the bathroom has a sparkling clean toilet and sink, a hair-dryer, and a separate shower room with a rain shower head. In the room itself, there is a flat screen TV (which won’t turn on unless we pay), a bed-side table, laptop-sized safe, and a bed – a big, comfortable and most definitely five-star bed with crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows. The shower, the hairdryer and the bed are three key ingredients for a perfect hotel room – and these all come in the most basic room rate.
tune hotel kuala lumpur bathroom & showerEven worn-in dorm rooms can cost more in a big city like KL, and Tune is miles from that type of accommodation. Instead, the hotel takes a luxury room and takes out everything we don’t really need: things like there not being a specific space for suitcases – that will have to do on the floor; no closet to hang your belongings – but there is an abundance of hooks. Even the nicest hotels overlook how important hooks are to a comfortable stay- Tune seems to have been paying attention there and we are grateful for it.
tune hotel kuala lumpur TV & safeThe other key ingredient to any hotel stay is the location. From our Tune Hotel Kuala Lumpur, we can see the Petronas Towers, which are just one stop away on the Monorail – which passes right by the hotel. There is a large mall across the street with shopping, restaurants, and a Starbucks with free wi-fi. There are two PCs in the lobby with free 30min of internet for guests. We were able to print our boarding passes free of charge as well (a rare perk).

For a more local experience, dozens of typical Malaysian hawker food stalls are within a few minutes’ walk of the hotel as well – we get two full plates of veggie food and drinks for under $6 total one night. In the mornings, we eat breakfast at the Subway located on the ground floor of the hotel, both ordering a breakfast sandwich and a coffee for $2.50 each.
tune hotel kuala lumpur subwayIt is entirely possible for room and board costs to run under $15 for a single traveler while staying at a Tune hotel in Malaysia, even where we are, in the heart of the capital. However, similar to the booking process on budget airline websites, guests will need to know months in advance of their stay. For example, I have trouble finding such a low room rate online, finally coming up with $8 for a single bed in January 2013 (I was searching in February 2012). 

In a nearby city called Ipoh in Malaysia, where Tune is opening another hotel in April, the lowest rate is $25, but we stayed at a different Ipoh hotel for the same price, one that included free water, free wi-fi, that same rain shower in a giant bathroom, and fairly decent cable TV, all included in the price. As with budget airlines, it seems there is a bit of research involved in booking with a no-frills hotel chain as well.
tune hotel kuala lumpur fine-tune options

Stand out features: The bed

In the end, paying either $30 or a lesser rate, Tune has gotten the most important aspect of the room just right. The bed is truly of a five-star comfort level. We sleep soundly, don’t even want to get out of it in the morning. The fact that there is a rain shower and a hair-dryer are just icing on the cake. The best part of this is that because Tune is a growing chain, this makes booking a comfortable bed like this easily predictable rather than hoping that that $25 Ipoh hotel has a nice bed. There is something to be said for knowing one can expect such a good night’s sleep.
Tune Hotel Kuala Lumpur MalaysiaRoom for improvement: The towels

This might seem a small complaint, but we were surprised at the scratchy, under-sized towels, especially as we paid for them in the towel/toiletry pack. Plus, the bed linens are just so fluffy…why can’t the towels be, too?

Overall: The Tune Hotel Kuala Lumpur

As we said at the start, at Tune, you get what you pay for. Guests have to be on-board with the no-frills approach from the start in order to enjoy this type of hotel. Paying extra for TV and Wi-Fi, towels, and to have the cleaning lady come more often than once every three days is part of the deal. From what we witness in Kuala Lumpur, however, is that Tune appeals to a range of travelers. We saw both young and very old travelers, Asians, Westerners, families and couples. We loved the experience, and are keen to try another Tune hotel in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, or maybe even Britain, where Tune is rolling out 17 hotels through 2015.
Tune Hotel Kuala Lumpur MalaysiaLocation: 316 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, 50100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Price: Doubles from RM25 / $8
LGBT Friendly: not sure
Digital Nomad Friendly:
yes
Amenities: Rain shower, hairdryer, wi-fi (extra charge), internet station in the lobby (30 minutes free usage), flatscreen TV (extra charge), Subway restaurant in the lobby
Website: http://www.tunehotels.com/our-hotels/downtown-kl

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The Best Beaches in the World – Globetrottergirls Edition

caribbean vacation

This year will go down in history as the year of the beach for the two of us!

All those days in the office before we started traveling long-term, our thoughts would drift to what it would be like to live on the beach and wake up to the crashing of waves on the shore, the sound of seagulls and being barefoot through the sand. Well in 2012 we certainly got our wish in a year that saw us living over five months on the beach. We spend longer stints in Mexico and Costa Rica, and took trips to the sandy shores of Singapore, Malaysia, India and our number one spot that often gets overlooked by its famous neighbor Thailand.

Read on to find out what the five best beaches were for us in 2012:

5. Varkala, India

While we didn’t see what all the hype was about on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, we did fall for the cliffs of Varkala, about an hour north of Trivandrum in the far south of India. What the laid-back village lacks in culture is easily made up for by walking the paths along the gorgeous cliffs, looking out over the wide beaches below. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for every traveler’s budget, and the sunsets here were breathtaking.

Varkala Beach India best beaches in the world4. Samara, Costa Rica

Long-time readers will know that Samara has been a favorite beach of ours since we first ended up there on whim back in 2011. This October we were lucky enough to return for a few days and were excited to find that this Costa Rican beach hasn’t lost any of its charm. Although the waves of  Samara are perfect for newbie surfers, the long stretch of sandy beach feels empty even in the high season, with restaurants and hotels well hidden behind the palm trees that line the shore. In a country so popular with international tourists, Samara is one of the few secret spots that combines a great selection of accommodation and relatively few tourists.

Samara Beach Costa Rica

3. Langkawi, Malaysia

We had never even heard of Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast in the Andaman Sea, but somehow we found ourselves promising a Canadian expat we would go there when she so passionately insisted we visit the favorite part of her adopted country. We ended up spending a week there, and Cenang Beach was by far our favorite beach on the island. Powdery, soft white sand, clear and shallow water, palm trees and incredible sunsets. This is really the perfect vacation island for travelers from near and far, and we’re not sure why Langkawi hasn’t made it on any of the many “Best Beaches in the world” lists yet.

Langkawi Malaysia best beaches in the world2. Mahahual, Mexico

Odds are, you have never heard of Mahahual, unless maybe you have taken a short Caribbean cruise. A popular cruise port once or twice a week in high season, Mahahual is otherwise a small, relaxed fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula with incredibly warm, turquoise water. This was the closest place from the remote beach house we housesat this past summer, and we found every excuse to make the trip. Making sure not to be there on ‘cruise ship day’ we would lay in the rows of empty sun chairs lined up along the beach, working on our tans and sipping cool Mexican beer. Heaven on Earth!

Mahahual Mexico

1. Otres Beach and Koh Rong, Cambodia

Cambodia takes the crown for our favorite beach in 2012! There are actually TWO beaches here that tie for first: Otres Beach, on the mainland, and Long Beach on the little known island of Koh Rong. Just a quick tuk-tuk ride from the popular beach town of Sihanoukville, a trip to Otres Beach means avoiding the touts selling tourist trinkets, and focusing on what is important: relaxing in your sun chair with a cool coconut, staring out at sea. The few restaurants and bars here are of better quality than in town and somehow it feels like the sunsets are, too!

best beaches in the worldFor those of you who are serious about your deserted beaches, Koh Rong’s Long Beach was an amazing experience. The small island two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville only has a handful of guest houses and not much to offer in the way of diversion, but with the seven mile stretch of crystal clear water on the other side of the island, we could have cared less. We were particularly unimpressed with the side of the island where the port is and even considered leaving a day early, until we were told about a path that leads over to the other side of the island. It is an hour-long hike across an entirely untamed islands, which included much tripping, a bit of falling, profuse sweating, more swearing and a 75m descent straight down by clinging to a rope that mysteriously appears the minute you need it to finish the way down. Walking out into the clearest water we have ever seen, however, made the hike entirely worth it. Of course, we found out later you can rent a boat, round-trip, for $25 to take you and ten of your closest friends from the port on a 15-minute ride around to the otherwise deserted Long Beach. But we preferred working hard to reach our absolute favorite beach of 2012!

Koh Rong Cambodia best beaches in the world

Now we want to know from you – what are the best beaches in the world for you?

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700 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

elephants

This is our seventh time reflecting on a set of 100 days of constant travel. After 700 days, it seems silly to refer to this major life event as a trip, really. This truly is a lifestyle, even if we gave it all up tomorrow – which we absolutely have no plans to do.

And yet, these past 100 days have been some of the most vibrant, intense, emotionally charged days yet. This period of time has been spent immersed entirely in South East Asia, wrapped up in all of the chaos, glamor, spice, color, ups, downs, shocks and peace that co-exist in this part of the world.

Countless wow moments

700 days ago, we would most likely have imagined that climbing into a cage of four two-hundred pound tigers or bathing massive elephants in a river would be a major event in any 100-day period, but this experience was just one of a handful of moments that really got our adrenaline pumping in these last 100 days. Thaipusam, the Hindu festival based on self-mutilation as devotion to the gods, although no threat to us, was equally intense. (watch our video in Penang, Malaysia here).

dani & jess with elephants and tigers in thailand
Playing with big cats and elephants in Thailand

The anguish caused by learning about the wrath the Khmer Rouge unleashed on the people of Cambodia was the most shocking of all. We knew so little about Pol Pot’s maniacal genocide here in Cambodia before arriving but it will be a lifetime before we forget witnessing the sight of 9,000 skulls and discarded clothes of thousands of slaughtered Cambodians at the Killing Fields, the images at Tuol Sleng, the former school turned torture prison in Phnom Penh, or being shown around the ‘Killing Caves’ near Battambang.

photos of victims at tuol sleng prison
Nearly 2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, was killed under the Khmer Rouge regime 1975 – 1979

Heartwarming moments through Housesitting

We’ll be talking in much more detail about our passion for housesitting in the coming months, but the course of our journey has been re-directed now several times due to the location of our housesits. At the start of these last 100 days we were on our way to a housesit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, to care for ZZ, a rather complicated cat belonging to a Canadian ex-pat couple. What we didn’t know is that during that housesit, we would secure our next one – right back in Chiang Mai a month later. This time we cared for Fred, a selectively sweet (he hates men!) little dog, a housesitting gig we found through our favorite housesitting website Housecarers.com.

housesitting in chiang mai thailand
The joys of housesitting: an adorable puppy, having friends over for dinner, shopping at the market, and home-made Costa Rican breakfast when you feel like it

Why go back to Chiang Mai? A life of constant moving on can mean a lot of saying goodbye and a limited number of deep friendships. Housesitting has been such a major boost to our morale as it (usually) gives us a cat or a dog to cuddle with and a couch to cuddle up on, a kitchen to make comfort food and try out new recipes. Housesitting allows us time and space to get to the business of our businesses. In short, during these housesits, we tend to get sh*t done!

Ultimate sophistication, absolute destitution

These last 100 days have taught us a great many lessons. Another is that almost nowhere in the world is quite like this region when it comes to the lifestyle contrasts. Sometimes, we take in these contrasts on a macro-level – on a long bus ride through Thailand, for example, starting in the sophisticated city of Chiang Mai in the north, passing through chains of small villages that time has forgotten. In bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, these contrasts can be seen on a micro-level, within the frame of one simple photograph. Here, mega-malls tower over slums, Gucci and Prada can be found as easily as third-hand television remote controls for sale in the market.

Despite these contrasts, Thailand and Malaysia are very developed in comparison to Cambodia, where we end these 100 days. We are still trying to come to terms with what happened here, and the incredible survival of the Khmer people after the Pol Pot regime. So while a 150km bus journey takes five hours on spottily paved roads, it is amazing at how far Cambodia seems to have come since over one quarter of the population was brutally slaughtered 30-odd years ago. Of course, what this means is that, unlike Malaysia or Thailand, overland travel in Cambodia is an entirely different experience.

contrasts in South East Asia

Transportation in South East Asia

One aspect of travel in South East Asia in general that is fascinating to us is the developed presence of quality domestic air travel options. In Central America we would have never considered flying between countries, let along within the same country, but here in South East Asia, flights join train travel and buses as viable transportation options.

air asia plane malaysiaAnd yet while crossing borders at 30,000 feet is a breeze, we still enjoyed the land border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia the most. It was a grueling 22 hour transportation night/day from Chiang Mai to Battambang, we successfully avoided the dreaded Thai-Cambodian border scam. After 700 days we realize that we still enjoy the nitty-gritty as much as anything else, and that the journey is really more important than the destination.

Eating in South East Asia

There are plenty aspects of travel we adore – people-watching, absorbing customs, scoping out great hotels. But if we are truly honest, the food has fueled much of our passions in the last 100 days. Put simply – South East Asia has been a vegetarian’s foodie paradise.

We are spoiled for choice here. New spices, flavors, colors, textures are constantly on our tongues, along with western food as good as at home. We drink coconut water and eat rice every day – and never tire of this. While we expected Chiang Mai’s veggie options to trump all other food experiences in the last period of time, we have eaten incredibly well in Cambodia and Malaysia as well. Read our Tops and Flops for details on our delicious food options.

food in south east asia

An important discovery

We have to admit something: Initially part of the purpose of ‘the trip’ was to discover a place in the world to settle down in, to find our own personal paradise. 700 days in and we still have yet to find the perfect place, but we now know that we can rule out South East Asia. No matter where we go, we are truly Latin at heart. Looking back at our favorite places of all time, we continue to highlight Mexico, Italy, Paris, Lisbon as influenced by a spicy Latin mentality that resonates with our hearts. We feel pretty good about the fact that we still have all of South America left to discover (not that we have any idea when we’ll ever end up there!)

What the future holds

Inspired by all of our bellies’ content, we have finally made the decision to visit India. We will start slowly with the sub-continent, spending just five weeks in the southern state of Kerala before flying back to the States for a wedding and a housesit. We could have gone to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma…all countries that sit ever higher on our list of dream destinations, but we are ready and willing to get our first taste of India now. In fact, we can hardly wait. So, after a short stint in one of the world’s most modern cities – Singapore, we will finally make our way to India.

we are going to india next month

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Thaipusam in Penang: Incredible Images of a painful Hindu tradition

Thaipusam 2012 in Penang Malaysia

What is going on here?! The Thaipusam festival

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated each year on the full moon in either January or February each year by the Tamil community. Originating from the Tamil Nadu region of India and Northern Sri Lanka, the Thaipusam celebrations also take place in Malaysia and Singapore, where there are also large representations of the Tamil community.

The name ThaiPusam comes from the Tamil month ‘Thai’, during which the celebrations take place, and ‘pusam’, the name of the star at its highest point during the festival.

thaipusam 2012 in penang malaysia

A procession of coconuts and spears

The festival commemorates the victory of the Hindu god Lord Murugan over the demon Tarakusaran with a ‘vel’, or spear, and thus ridding them of evil.

Although the festival is celebrated over two days, devotees begin a period of fasting and prayer a full 48 hours before Thaipusam. Here in Malaysia, the biggest Thaipusam festivities take place at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, where over one million devotees join the 13-kilometer long procession from Central KL to the Caves.

thaipusam man with spears through mouthLucky for us, Penang has the second-biggest festivities of the country, with over 200,000 people flocking to the island for it – us included! Here in Penang, the procession starts at a temple in Georgetown’s Little India neighborhood and makes its way over several kilometers to Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on top of a hill outside of town.

thaipusam 2012 family with hooksOn the first day of Thaipusam, a statue of Lord Murugan is carried to the temple and devotees smash coconuts as an offering to the deity.

On the second day, devotees shave their heads and make their pilgrimage to the temple while performing acts of devotion. This often includes ‘kavadi’-bearers (kavadi meaning burden) who carry their burden – ranging from a simple milk pot to the more extreme mortification of flesh.

thaipusam 2012 penang shaving head

Why go through all of this pain?

This self-mutilation is done with a spear, resembling the vel’ Murugan used to vanquish the evil demon Tarakusaran. Many devotees only pierce their tongue for this occasion, but it is hard not to notice the hundreds, even thousands, who pierce their cheeks with vels, or undergo even more extreme pain to thank Murugan.

thaipusam 2012 devotee with spear & hooksThe more pain endured by the devotee, the greater the merits bestowed upon them by the god of war Murugan.

thaipusam 2012 walking on nailsThe pierced tongue also prevents the devotees from speaking, which is another sign of atonement.

devotee with tongue piercing at thaipusamThe hooks in the back are another form of burden that a kavadi-bearer can endure, and some of the devotees do not only have hooks in their backs, but also pull another devotee behind them by those hooks.

thaipusam 2012 hooks of devoteesAnother burden is the decorated canopy which is carried to the temples on the shoulders of the devotee. Some of the kavadi-bearers only carry the canopy, while others have additional piercings and hooks.

thaipusam 2012 with canopy & spearsWhile many of the devotees are Indians, there are also a surprising number of Chinese kavadi-bearers in the procession.

thaipusam 2012 penang chinese devoteesEven if only one person in the family is a kavadi-bearer, the entire family dresses up in their traditional saris and supports their family member in their act of devotion for Lord Muruga.

thaipusam 2012 hindu familiesSinging, dancing, drums, and loud music are also a big part of the celebrations.

Thaipusam in Malaysia: Watch the Video

Before devotees make their way up to the temple on top of the hill, they have to take their shoes off. With more than 200,000 people, there are hundreds of shoes waiting for their owners to return…

thaipusam penang shoes of devoteesCow milk and the silver jars in which the milk is kept and transported up on top of the hill can be purchased at the many stands around the temple.

milk & jarsAnd of course there is plenty of delicious Indian food – and sweets!

indian sweetsAt the end of the second day, the chariot is brought back to Little India in a procession back into town from Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple, and arrvies there just before dawn on the following day.

penang hindu templeDon’t try this at home!

You might notice a distinct lack of blood here in these images, considering the amount of flesh just recently pierced. Some say this is due to the fasting, or an all-vegetarian diet, and both most likely play a role, as it is due in part to low blood pressure which results from the fasting. The devotees also do not suffer from scars when the piercings are removed, thanks to a special healing mixture of powders and creams tested over the centuries. Each year, at least a few inexperienced foreigners attempt to take full part in the festivities, and wind up getting fairly hurt. So while this is a once-in-a-lifetime festival to visit – we say leave your ‘vels’ at home!

thaipusam 2012 penang devotees with hooks & spears

You can see more photos of Thaipusam in Penang in our photo album on Facebook.

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Polaroid of the week: The entrance to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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polaroid of the week malaysia kuala lumpur batu cavesAs we found out this week, the Batu Caves serve as a triple attraction for visitors.  On their own, they are actually a series of beautiful limestone caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur which double as one of the biggest Hindu shrines outside of India. The caves have been used for various religious purposes since the 17th century, but were dedicated to the Hindu religion in 1890, when the first Hindu shrine was constructed inside of the cave. Now, Hindu pilgrims from all over Malaysia, South East Asia and as far as Australia make their way to the Batu Caves and this is the main location for the Thaipusam Festival in January/February, during which 1 million Indians flock to the caves in a 13 km pilgrimage from central Kuala Lumpur, showing their devotion to Lord Muruga by piercing their skin with metal hooks, spikes, even skewers.

The golden statue towering in front of the cave is the largest representation of  the Hindu Deity Lord Muruga in the world, standing 42.7 m (140 ft) tall. All year round, Hindus dressed in traditional Indian saris come to the caves to worship the Hindu deities, carrying silver containers of milk on their heads as offerings for Lord Muruga, climbing the 272 stairs to the mouth of the caves.

The most spectacular Temple Cave has 100 meter high ceilings, houses several Hindu shrines, and is home to dozens of long-tailed Macaque monkeys who delight visitors by scurrying up and down the open side of the cave.  On our visit we spotted at least 30 different monkeys of all ages, including adorable babies clinging to mama’s belly and small springy toddlers getting their tiny hands on some huge bananas.

 

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Polaroid of the week: Cute monkey lady in Langkawi, Malaysia

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polaroid of the week malaysia langkawi monkey ladyIsn’t she lovely! We took our rental car for a spin around the island of Langkawi beyond the beautiful Cenang beach and discovered it was monkey business as usual wherever we went. While winding up the roads to the north we passed over 20 monkeys relaxing on the side of the road. We watched a family of monkeys cool off in the pools of a waterfall we reached on a hike.

But the prize for the most adorable monkey goes to this sweet lady who was ‘waiting for us’ on the roof of our car (read: trying to break into our car). Staring up at us with those big green eyes, she seemed hungry. Unfortunately she picked the wrong pair, as we were starving too and had nothing to share. The three of us stood and stared at each other before we eventually got in the car and went off in search of a big post-hike lunch without her…

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: Campbell House | Penang, Malaysia

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Traveling 365 days of the year means we stay in countless hotels, and at almost two years as nomads, we have stayed some of the best (and worst) accommodation the world has to offer. We cover everything from budget to luxury accommodation, and believe that any hotel worth recommending must be comfortable and clean, offer good value for money and treat people as guests, not clients. We have personally stayed in every hotel we recommend to you here on Globetrottergirls.com. This week: Campbell House in Penang, Malaysia.

The day is scorching in Penang, and just hoofing it with our luggage a few blocks through Chinatown has been tough. We’re hot and thirsty by the time we get to Campbell House, where we are due to spend our last night during the incredible Thaipusam holiday.

It turns out that our stay at Campbell House ends up being just as much of a highlight as the festivities!

The deliciously cool air quickly soothes our burnt skin and we are warmly welcomed by the smiling owners, husband and wife team Roberto and Nardya. Within a few minutes we have checked in, discussed life in London, talked about our onward travel plans, and Nardya has solved a major transportation issue for us. We can fly to our next stop, the island of Langkawi, for the same price as the ferry – and have a whole extra afternoon in Penang, she explains. As a sufferer of seasickness, I am pretty sure I can see the halo above Nardya’s head as the duo exit to run an errand in the sweltering Malaysian afternoon heat.

campbell house hotel penangQuick problem solving and customer service – all second nature to this pair who both have backgrounds in high end hospitality back in Europe. Roberto is a lover of colonial buildings, and it was he who discovered the property a few years back. Originally built in 1903, it has always served as a hotel of some type, but had sat vacant for years before Roberto and Nardya lovingly restored it to create Campbell House.

The interior design harks back to Penang’s past as a major trading post between east and west. I am immediately struck by the antique accent pieces, Persian rugs and smooth hardwood floors throughout the building. The third floor terrace is a quiet outdoor place to enjoy a drink, but we spend time relaxing in the Library on the second floor, where hundreds of paperbacks, magazines and novels fill vintage armoires and soft sofas beckon us to sink in and read for hours.

campbell house hotel penangOnce our room is ready, we are barely through the door when we begin to wish we could stay longer. When designing Campbell House, the original room dimensions were kept rather than putting up walls to cram more rooms into the same space. That means that the ten individually designed rooms in this boutique hotel are quite large, with lofted ceilings and exposed wooden beams making the rooms feel grand, yet comfortable, livable yet luxurious.

room campbell house hotel penangFor all the commitment to an old-world feel, this room has mod cons we didn’t even expect. There is a large flat screen TV (and an incredible selection of DVDs downstairs to choose from) and an iPod/iPhone docking station. But the best part is our own Nespresso machine direct from Harrods in London. A piping hot, no mess coffee first thing in the morning in my white robe and slippers? Yes, please! There is also a carafe of fresh ice tea and another of filtered water in the mini-fridge and a kettle to make tea as well. The wet room is spacious, and as always, a rain shower-head always makes me weak in the knees. The colorful Peranakan tiles only add to the colonial charm. There is a complimentary pure organic cotton bag with locally made toiletries to take, but we minimalists leave that for the next guests.

coffee & ice tea at campbell house hotel penangOn paper, staying in a city-center colonial building might sound romantic, but we usually find them incredibly noisy, as old world construction does not block out the honking and humming of mopeds. This is not a problem here. The stained glass windows have been extra soundproofed and the noise from outside is minimal. The shutters keep out the much of the light and we make sure to take that extra lie-in on the incredibly comfortable king-size bed. Breakfast is served in the Il Bacaro restaurant downstairs, and though we are not given a menu, a full breakfast of fresh fruits, three different types of homemade bread and eggs any style lands on our table along with a carrot and ginger juice for me, and a freshly squeezed orange juice for Dani.

breakfast and restaurant at campbell house hotel penang

Stand out feature: Location 

Campbell House is the perfect base for visiting George Town, Penang’s cultural heartbeat. Located on a main road in a clean, quiet part of Chinatown, Little India is also within a 15-minute stroll and the ferry can be reached by cab in under ten minutes. In the other direction, 1st Avenue Mall is a ten-minute walk, as is the Komtar Tower, Penang’s highest building and the 6th tallest in Malaysia. Being so close to everything, you can easily stop in to refresh and relax, but be careful or you may sink right in to the bed, or end up watching a DVD and then ordering up dinner from the restaurant…

library at campbell house hotel penang

Room for improvement: Wi-Fi reach 

The hotel’s website advertises in-room Wi-Fi, but in reality the signal is patchy and hardly works in our room, though it works perfectly fine in the Library.  Not just digital nomads or business travelers, but most people nowadays are used to having Wi-Fi access across their devices, if even just to stream a video on an iPad or make a quick Skype call home. This was the only ‘miss’ that we could find here.

Campbell House Penang – Our verdict

Unlike the majority of upmarket hotels in South East Asia, which tend toward formulaic approach and reserved owners, Campbell House provides an unprecedented level of personalized luxury with fabulous amenities to match. It is upscale but not posh, classy but not snobbish and its owners are genuinely helpful, knowledgeable and make you feel right at home in all the hotel’s colonial splendor.

colonial campbell house hotel penang

Campbell House Penang – The Details:

Location: 106 Lebuh Campbell, 10100 Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Price: Doubles from RM380 / $125
LGBT Friendly: yes
Digital Nomad Friendly:
without in-room wi-fi on the 2nd floor, unfortunately not quite (yet)
Amenities: Complimentary breakfast, free wi-fi in the Library and public spaces, Italian restaurant Il Bacaro, DVD library, fresh iced tea and water, Campbell House branded organic toiletries and our very own Nespresso machine.
Website: www.campbellhousepenang.com

Find special rates for Campbell House Penang on Booking.com

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Temple Tree at Bon Ton | Langkawi, Malaysia

hotel tip of the week

Every time I see a rickety old building, I am reminded of our incredibly relaxing stay at Temple Tree Langkawi..

Of all the hotels in all the cities we have visited, we have never stayed anywhere quite like this resort. The property consists of eight antique villas from various Malaysian states, which were meticulously taken down piece by piece, sent to Langkawi and rebuilt here on site. The collection of houses are as multicultural as Malaysia itself – with representations of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian styles. Each villa is individually designed, with a rough-luxe style that left us giddy when we first walked in to our loft in the Oriental building.

villas at temple tree langkawiAfter a few weeks of heavy travel, we arrived here with an ever-growing list of things to get done – write posts, edit video, and then there’s that business I want to get to launching…Instead, we drink a delicious Chardonnay and take baths side by side in two wooden tubs in our bathroom.
bathroom and bathrub at temple tree langkawiNext door, there are two showers in the wet room – complete with rain shower heads, organic exfoliating soap and a clay jar with shampoo (refilled daily). After the baths and the white fluffy towels, we climb into a device which, disguised as a bed, could also be some top secret experiment to create the deepest night’s sleep possible. We are enveloped by fluffy white pillows and several smaller colorful ones, and need only a crisp high thread count sheet to cover up in the humid Malaysian night.

room at temple tree langkawiThe deep trance, otherwise known as nine entire hours of uninterrupted sleep, ends only by the piercing call of an unfamiliar exotic bird hanging out just outside the window. Breakfast is brought in each evening for the next day, so that in the morning we can grab it out of the fridge, make coffee and tea, and dig in on the fresh bread, jams, butter, fruits, yogurt and two big pieces of spiced pineapple rum cake. Cake…for breakfast? Nom…nom…nom…nom

breakfast at temple tree langkawiSure, we could have held off and had the cake after lunch, but the entire experience felt so decadent that we devoured it on the worn-in red leather couch while we watched a DVD on our 42-inch flat screen TV. Cake and a film for breakfast? Paradise! Without even mentioning our work needing to be finished, we followed the beckoning of the long, luxurious lap pool when the film ended. Here we read, felt the breeze through the palm trees and the long reeds in the fields behind us. We are served ice water in large tumblers, slice of lemon and all.

pool at temple tree langkawi malaysiaEventually, we figure we’ve got to go explore the island, and so we manage to pack up and leave for the beach, a five minute cab ride away. We eat, we lay, we swim and frolic and couldn’t be happier to be in Langkawi. And yet the only place I wanted to be was back at home…at Temple Tree.

deco at bon ton temple tree langkawiNot everything is perfect, of course, but the problems are predicted and dealt with before we even have time to notice. Take for example my arch-nemesis – the mosquito. Because the buildings are very old, there are plenty of open spots for mosquitoes to get through – but we are bitten less here than anywhere else we have stayed in Malaysia, thanks to the mosquito zappers that the staff plugs in each evening at dusk when they come in and pull down your mosquito net and bring your breakfast for the next day.

The room also comes equipped with all-natural bug spray, a local all-natural antihistamine, called Gamat, which reduces swelling and itching if we had been bit. We also find flashlights, international adapters, and a pool buddy – a wooden box to carry sunscreen, water and books back and forth to the pool each day. Beautiful typically Asian sarongs hang in the closet and are free for us to use both at the pool and even to bring to the beach. We can purchase them at the end of the stay for only $8 each…a fair price, but we don’t as we both already have our own.

temple tree hotel langkawi malaysia

The price of the sarong represents a wider aspect of Temple Tree Langkawi that we love, and that is that the Value For Money factor here is fabulous. The room rate starts at just under $200 a night, but what would you pay to feel entirely carefree? Both Temple Tree and the neighboring Bon Ton resort (same owner, same general design concept) have top-quality restaurants with both Malaysian and the Mediterranean options. We opted for Mediterranean the night we ate Bon Ton, including goat cheese and eggplant bruschetta, four cheese pizza tapas, and a spinach, rocket, olive and Halloumi salad with chunks of fresh avocado and pistachios. As we watched the fire red sunset, we calculated the bill: under $30 for two at a luxury resort. Not bad… We were too full to sample the dessert plates, something we now regret when thinking about the chocolate plate, the cheese plate, or the more creative desserts like the ‘Ice Cream Sandwich Duo’ – a gingerbread sandwich with local Kaya ice-cream in the middle and a brownie sandwich with chocolate ice-cream and caramelized bananas.

dinner at bon bon temple tree langkawiIt should be noted that Temple Tree Langkawi is located 10 minutes from the airport, and take-offs and landings are a part of the stay here but there are so few that this is more of an interesting novelty than anything bothersome. Something had to break up the blissful solitude, like a little ‘pinch me’ to make us realize just how lucky we were to have been here…Some people have mentioned on Tripadvisor that Temple Tree should be more open about the number of cats that live on site.

The owner, Narelle, is an animal lover, and has opened up a shelter on the island, LASSie. Some of the cats and a few dogs live here on site. The others are located at a nearby shelter. Although I am allergic to cats, between the breeze and the open windows, I had no problems and Dani (our resident cat-lover) was in heaven, of course. In fact, having our pet cat hop through the window made Temple Tree feel even more like home.
cats at bonton temple tree langkawi

Stand Out feature – Take me to my Villa, darling

We love the antique vase on the antique chest of drawers, that bed, the showers and did we mention the incredible lighting that makes just about any mood possible?  There were so many stand-out features here, but the overriding feature is the feeling of having our own loft inside of a three-loft Oriental villa. For the money, you do not get a standard (however creatively designed) hotel room. At Temple Tree you get to live inside of a colonial Malaysian villa and feel absolutely at home.

temple tree hotel langkawi

Room for Improvement – The Breakfast

The truth is, that while we loved the breakfast that first morning, it would have gotten boring to eat this every morning throughout a week’s vacation.  Guests might prefer a bit of choice or varied choices each day. An easy solution might be to offer a slip of paper with a limited menu (fruit, instant oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, toast and/or yoghurt, plus fruit and that delicious cake) that guests fill out which is picked up in the evening during turn-down service.

Overall: Temple Tree Langkawi

Temple Tree is easily the best option for a stay on Langkawi, and we would go so far as to call this resort a destination itself. You may come for the island feeling, but you will stay (or at least want to) for all the luxury minus the stuffiness.

temple tree hotel langkawi malaysia

Location: Temple Tree at Bon Ton, Pantai Cenang, Langkawi, 07000, Malaysia
Price: From RM650 / $200
LGBT Friendly: yes
Digital Nomad Friendly:
Yes/No Wi-fi is a bit patchy and temptation to relax is irresistible…
Amenities: Complimentary in-room breakfast, free wi-fi, two on-site restaurants, DVD library
Website: www.templetree.com.my

Check Booking.com.for special discounted rates at Temple Tree Langkawi

For more information about Bon Ton’s LASSie Animal Shelter, visit langkawilassie.org.my.

 

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Day 601 to Day 700: The Tops and Flops

cold coconuts langkawi

Last Saturday we reflected on the last 100 days which we spent exclusively in South East Asia – Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. We came across an interesting observation: while there have been countless ‘Tops’ moments, these last 100 days have had surprisingly few ‘Flops’. Read on for the highs, lows, travel recommendations, fellow online entrepreneurs and bloggers we met and a whole lot of delicious food!

Top travel moments

Playing with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand
When you get to Thailand, you will immediately be bombarded with options to get up close and personal with elephants – but making the right choice is key. If you visit the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, you will learn about the terrifying torture that work/tourism elephants undergo, a process called ‘breaking’ the elephants, in order to make them docile enough for work (you can learn more about it and watch a video here, but warning – this is heartbreaking stuff). Essentially, they torture the wild out, and then continue to mistreat and abuse these amazing creatures throughout their 70+ years. Luckily Lek, the tiny owner of the Elephant Nature Park has made it her life’s work to save as many elephants as she can, giving them a second chance at a happy life. No elephant riding here, and no circus tricks either. Instead, along with our friends Shannon and Ana, we washed, fed and just enjoyed seeing the elephants in a safe, happy environment amongst friends.

elephant nature park thailand

Thaipusam
This is one of those must-see experiences in life. The extreme nature of the self-mutilation, the bright colors, the loud music, thousands of Indians gathering, worshiping, and some taking as many pictures as the tourists is almost more stimulation than simple minds like ours can handle. But when we heard that we were actually going to be in Malaysia during Thaipusam, we made sure to be in Penang to experience it. We opted to avoid the 1 million plus crowd expected in Kuala Lumpur, deciding that the over 200,000 gathered at the second biggest procession in the country would do just fine. This was easily one of the highlights of our entire 700 days on the road thus far.

Thaipusam 2012 in Penang Malaysia

Hiking in the Cameron Highlands
Malaysia is seriously sweltering, so the prospect of cooler weather in the mountains brought us out to Cameron Highlands. We thought we’d visit the Boh tea plantation (which we did), have tea and scones (which we did) and visit the Mossy Forest, an area of forest completely covered in moss (which we did). But when we set off for a short morning hike, we did not expect to be challenged the way we were. Initially, the hike was a piece of cake, but by the end we found ourselves hiking up and down steep ravines, shocked each time we passed a marker and had only gone one-fifth of a kilometer. Sinking in to muddy pools with our boots, washing off our faces in babbling brook that caused these extremes, exerting ourselves, the challenge of this hike felt great, as did scarfing down the delicious treats at the nearby strawberry farm directly after. These treats included strawberry sundae, strawberry pancakes, spinach and strawberry salad, even deep fried strawberry ice cream.

hiking in the cameron highlands malaysia

Meeting so many like-minded travelers, bloggers and expats
There is something in the air here in South East Asia, a specific scent that attracts nomads from around the world. It could be the cheap prices, good food or great internet connection – but it also has something to do with the sense of community over here. In just a few months, we have managed to meet so many inspiring, interesting people IRL (In Real Life) who are all out there living a life like ours. These include:

Keith of Velvet Escape, Mei of Cumi&Ciki, James of Nomadic Notes, Corey of Where’s Waldner, Shannon of A Little Adrift, Christine & Drew of Almost Fearless, Erin & Simon of Neverending Voyage, Raymond of Man on the Lam, Daniel of Canvas of Light, David of MalaysiaAsia, Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps, Dustin the Skinny Backpacker, Betsy and Warren of Married with Luggage, Christy and Kali from Technosyncratic, Lash, Shawna and Chais of Full Course Travel, Heather of Ginger Nomads, Dina & Ryan of VagabondQuest, Jodi of Legal Nomads, Dave of What’s Dave Doing, MonicaMcCarthy, Jen of Directionally Challenged, Tom & Lieve, Alex of Hejorama, John the JetSetCitizen, Ian from Where Sidewalks End, and we’re afraid we might be forgetting a few.

meeting other bloggers & friends on the roadFavorite places

Cenang Beach on Langkawi, Malaysia
To be honest, when we decided to fly to South East Asia last year, we thought we would island hop and beach bum our way around South East Asia. But we haven’t been impressed by most of the islands and beaches – until we got to Langkawi. The island’s Cenang Beach was exactly what we were looking for: white, powdery sand, coconut palm trees and crystal clear shallow water. We spent a couple of days in what turned out to be our favorite boutique hotel so far and, although we meant to move on to Koh Lipe in Thailand from there, we ended up enjoying the laid-back vibe here too much and spent eight days sunbathing, swimming, walking up and down the beach and taking in the stunning sunsets every night.

cenang beach langkawi malaysia

Kampot, Cambodia
At first glance, Kampot doesn’t look like much – especially if you arrive during midday when everyone is taking refuge from the heat. The wide dusty streets are strewn with building material, as everything in this town seems to be under construction. But after a while, this little French colonial city set on the Kampot river really grew on us. The people are so friendly and laid-back, and as soon as the sun starts to set, everyone comes out to play volleyball, cycle and walk along the riverfront. There are tours to see the salt fields and the pepper farms (Kampot pepper is apparently world-famous), and an old Hindu shrine in a cave nearby. All the construction, you soon realize, is due to growth – hotels, shops and a big new tourist market are set to be finished shortly. Go there soon, we say, as this is the kind of city you know is going to feel entirely different in a few years’ time.

kampot cambodia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
We fell instantly in love with Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang in the Andaman Sea. The colonial town is a fascinating mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culture and is filled with Hindu temples, Chinese Buddhist temples and mosques alike. Despite the merciless heat, we explored different parts of this bustling city every day, admiring the charming crumbling architecture and discovering new foods on the many hawker food stands, although we must admit that our stomachs were dedicated to Little India, where we had some of the best Indian meals we have ever had!

georgetown penang malaysia

Most disappointing place(s)

Ipoh, Malaysia
We were lucky enough to only have gone to one place that we didn’t really like. On the way from the Cameron Highlands to Penang, we made a stop in Ipoh, won over by the description in the Lonely Planet which reads: A town with an elegant lay-out and design…Chock-full of faded tropical mansions and a few green lungs…showcasing elegant colonial architecture and the magnificent train station known locally as the Taj Mahal.

Sounds great, right? Well…we were underwhelmed on arrival and increasingly disappointed the more we asked locals what there was to see and their reply was usually, ‘We have a nice mall,’ (which wasn’t very nice at all). After 700 days we’re pretty good at nosing out interesting aspects of almost every place we visit. We can say this: Ipoh seems an easy, nice place to live for families but, as plenty of Malaysians confirmed for us after our visit there, for tourists, Ipoh is no more than quick rest stop on the way to Penang.

crumbling houses in ipoh

Travel recommendations

Budget airlines in South East Asia

As we wrote in the 700 days Reflections post, traveling overland still feels like the most authentic way we travel, but budget airlines – AirAsia, Firefly and others – make air travel here in S.E.A. such an attractive option by shaving hours off your travel time for prices that still lie comfortably within your budget.

Buses still connect the dots between cities most effectively, trains cover longer distances comfortably but best of all, short and long distance flights are available at incredibly cheap fares. In the last one hundred days, we have taken four flights, three of which were domestic (departure and arrival in the same country). One flight connected us from the Malaysian island of Penang to the neighboring island of Langkawi. Booked less than 24 hours beforehand, the flight cost just a few dollars more than the ferry, but was only 25 minutes rather than four hours of bouncing up and down in the ocean. For $50 we flew internationally between Malaysia and Thailand, and we have booked our flights to India across an ocean for under $100 each as well.

air asia plane

Stay near the Skytrain in Bangkok, Thailand

On our first stay in Bangkok we made the mistake of staying far away from the Skytrain, which meant we relied on tuktuks and taxis – which are often involved in scams. The Skytrain is clean and new, efficient, cheap at $0.50 a ride, and not only helps you avoid scams, but also the crippling Bangkok traffic jams. When you fly to Bangkok, the Skytrain is the fastest and most air-conditioned way into the city as well!

bangkok skytrain

Top food moments

Banana leaf meal in Little India, Kuala Lumpur
We both have been huge fans of Indian food for many years, and we are not sure how we didn’t know about Banana Leaf Rice until this past January when our friend James took us out for one in Brickfields (Little India) in Kuala Lumpur. They are a Southern Indian specialty and are an assortment of vegetables, rice, curry and poppadum served on a big banana leaf. The Indians eat these traditionally with their hands, but while our friend Corey along with James didn’t blink twice and tucked in, we both still used a fork…

banana leaf rice in kuala lumpur malaysia

Vegetarian Chinese buffets in Malaysia
Neither of us loves Chinese food, but on a friend’s recommendation we tried out a veggie buffet at a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur and we were hooked! Knowing that everything was meat free, we piled our plates high with veggies, mushrooms, salads, rice and a selection of seitan, tempeh and tofu. The owner of Campbell House recommended a similar vegetarian Chinese buffet around the corner, and for around $1.50 each we stuffed ourselves silly with healthy, delicious food. Our only regret is that we didn’t try this earlier!

vegetarian chinese buffets malaysia

Worst travel moments

Okay, we wouldn’t recommend a trip to Ipoh, but our stay there was still far from being considered a bad travel moment. To be honest, we haven’t had any bad travel days in the last 100 days.

Top travel mishaps

No travel mishaps either! We have thought long and hard, but we couldn’t come up with anything that we could state under ‘mishap’. Of course we picked the wrong hotel here and there, ate a few unexciting meals, but overall, the last 100 days went surprisingly smoothly.

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