Kalaw to Inle Lake – What to Expect When You’re Trekking

Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place. There’re plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days on the hoof, some of them cheap – try one of the Shan tea houses – some of them pricey – check out the Everest Nepali Food Centre for curries bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich Westerners on luxury tours. There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days, between the large market, speakeasy style bars and the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe, which not only has a cracking selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.

DSCF2413.JPG

Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to take a trek to Inle Lake, about 70km West of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to price up the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town. At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed in by Robin, a 70 year old Sikh with a gentle smile. He talked us through his 3 day trek, walking about 20-25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. All together, including 3 meals a day (but not water) and a boat trip at the end, the trek cost about £65 for both of us, with an extra $10 fee each for our entry to the Inle Lake region, payed at the border. With prices this good and a seemingly unsurpassable knowledge of the area – Robin’s been doing this trek since the 90’s and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times – we signed up without bothering to schlep around town and haggle with anyone else.

DSCF2326

The first thing you should know if you’re considering trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is that this part of Myanmar (sort of North East-ish) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November – February). This took us by surprise when we stepped off of our night bus from the burning hot, sweat patch South at 8:00am, wearing only flip flops, shorts and T-shirts in the 3 degree chill. If you do head out to these silent mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night. It’s not always cold, though. By about 11am when the searing sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperature rises to 30 degrees and higher, a change in temperature totally bewildering to the body. During the hot season (March – May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off though – he does the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June – October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.

With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports. Take as little with you as you possibly can. One hiker we met along the way had packed his laptop for fear of it being nabbed on route, by day 2 he was regretting carrying the extra weight.

DSCF2075

We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers, just us, a honeymooning couple from Chile and three chatty Australian bro’s prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp. Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.

The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards. Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops are often grown side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic. Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.

DSCF2086

Thanks to the British, ahem, influence of Burmese agriculture, we gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that keep the farmers fed. The hike was hilly in places, but Robin would pause while we caught our breath to show us a root of ginger, or a sprig of herb that can cure diarrhoea. We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village. The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains with a top speed of 15kph. As an aside, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey and the best 11 hour train ride we’ve ever taken.

By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and things were going well. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route. We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meat  and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.

DSCF2257

The morning was misty and we drank our instant coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later. After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route and it seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.

DSCF2268DSCF2173

Day 2 was full of yet more gorgeous valleys, friendly villagers greeting us and, in one case, a group of lads showing off a squirrel they’d knocked out with a well aimed sling shot. The hills were much harder, our legs becoming rods of pain. We had blisters on our heels, on our soles, on our toes, between our toes, pretty much everywhere. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.

A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our woes. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us. Strangely, everyone else in our group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking whilst managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.

By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3 day trek when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window. The Australian lad banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t. In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water. This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.

DSCF2715

That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest their weary bones. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar. In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.

Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around, with areas in the North closed off because this is where they grow lots of naughty crops, or as in the case of the Rakhine State to the West, because the UN believe there’s an ongoing genocide taking place (which is probably true). It’s illegal to host tourists without a hard to obtain licence, so you can’t just turn up at a village and hope to find a cheap hostel. Your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.

Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride, and passing through these villages gives you a true picture of life for many Burmese people. We saw children harvesting chillis with their mothers, hands burning from too much capsaicin. We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields, followed by hardy shepherds. Spending just a few days amongst these people, who live from the land and beam from ear to ear with the joy of self sufficiency, away from the coach parties who’ve paid far too much for a 2 week excursion, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry was taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.

Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days, all of them backpackers, we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors. But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry. It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.

DSCF2324

For the last 10 kilometres or so, Robin had us taking the slopes down towards the lake at the speed of an intermediate inner city jogger. We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for its ruined pagodas. We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over. We were surrounded by wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.

DSCF2351DSCF2343

We took a boat from this Southern village to Nyaungshwe at the North of the lake, where cheap but decent accommodation can be found. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours, snapping away at the sights of this fast changing country, it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us, shrouded in the blue mist of morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys.  

DSCF2291


 

A Trip to Tonsai

After a few glorious days being pampered at a Centara resort in built up Ao Nang, it was time to say goodbye to close friends from home and hit the road, or more precisely, the sea, again.

We were headed to Tonsai, just for one night, before settling down in Koh Lanta for a month. Our trip to Tonsai, totally unplanned, arose out of a desire never to return to boring old Krabi town. Why go back to that washed out transport hub, full of weary folk just passing through and taking depressing photos by the big crab, when we could take a long-tail to mythical Tonsai and a ferry onward to Lanta?

nick-got-crabs-in-krabi-thailand

This turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Tonsai is a truly exceptional place, so exceptional that it is incredible that it really exists. Indeed, most of the time we were there we felt far removed from reality.

Cut off from civilisation due to the enormous limestone cliffs that form the bay, Tonsai feels like an island. People there often talk of it being on island time, or comment on the joys of island life, but it is firmly attached to the mainland. It is inaccessible by road, like neighbouring and more upmarket Railay, preventing busloads of tourists arriving on day trips from Krabi. You can only reach it by long-tail boat, either direct from Ao Nang or transferring from an island hopping ferry.

tonsai-beach

Do not go to Tonsai if you want efficient service, constant access to electricity or a quiet evening. You will not find them here.

The good folks renting out the bungalows barely know what day it is, let alone whether they have any vacancies. You can find a place to rest your head from around 200 – 700 Baht depending on the size and the view. We can recommend Jungle View Resort for a clean, spacious bungalow high up in the canopy with the monkeys for 400 Baht per night (like most places in Tonsai, you can’t book in advance so just show up on the day). Whilst choosing our abode, we noticed a few places expanding and building more concrete apartments. Not only is this material awful at keeping out the heat in the tropical climate, it’s also pretty unsustainable. Vote with your feet and choose bamboo over concrete where you can.

the-view-from-jungle-hill-resort-tonsai-thailand

In most places, electricity runs from 6pm until 6am (sunset to sunrise) because why should they keep the generators running all day long? The joys of being off grid are numerous, but bear in mind that your chicken burger has probably not been refrigerated all day and may lead to the infamous Tonsai belly. That being said, the barbecue chicken at Mama’s Chicken‘ was delicious and left our guts intact.

As for a quiet night, this is a place to indulge your senses, open your mind and share your dreams. With several bars to choose from in this tiny enclave, there’s no shortage of nightlife and you’ll be welcomed in by the friendly community.

If you’re thinking of staying at the fairly new Tonsai Bay Resort and you reckon you’ll be cut off from the hippy free for all, think again. Those limestone cliffs have amazing acoustics and our midnight stroll through the swanky settlement showed us sad, sleepless souls. This resort is not Tonsai.

The real Tonsai village is set back from the sandy beach, which is fringed with rocks, a couple of longtails and crystal clear waters. The village is hidden by jungle and backed by enormous cliffs, creating a refreshing feeling of isolation. A friend tells us that years ago, everything was located on the beach but has been moved back over time. Sadly, and probably because of the above mentioned resort, the Great Wall of Tonsai has been built along the main road, cutting the village off from the jungle and keeping the ruffians in their place. On the plus side, this totalitarian concrete erection has become a canvas for astoundingly good street art. Sources inform us that it looks great after a mushroom shake.

In the village, among the rainbow painted, driftwood pillared bars, you’ll find an array of restaurants, as well as shacks serving shakes of all kinds. Some of them happy, some of them just fruity.

A good number of people visit Tonsai for the awesome rock climbing scene. We’re told it’s one of the best climbing sites in the world, and it certainly is a beautiful spot to climb. Looking up at the climbers, we noticed that their muscles were much larger than ours and decided to give it a miss. If we stayed for longer, we would have been convinced by someone to have a go. We’d also have gone for a kayak around the craggy bays and trekked to the Emerald Lake. Instead, we found a spot in Chill Out Bar and chilled out.

rock-climbing-in-tonsai-thailandrock-climber-in-tonsai-thailand

During this time, we met Kev and Frankii, a formerly hard grafting, but now happily unemployed (this isn’t quite true as they do a lot of volunteering out here) couple from Bournemouth, where we used to live. It was a surreal experience talking about our town, hearing all the place names spoken aloud in a place so different, so far away. But surreal is what Tonsai does best.

We spent our evening with these beautiful people, becoming one with the soft furnishings, watching the world drift gently by, reflecting on every passing moment.

a-place-to-relax-tonsai-thailandchill-out-bar-tonsai-thailand

When it became apparent that the scheduled fire show would not be happening (the word ‘scheduled’ means nothing in Tonsai), we took a walk on the beach. We were stunned by the majesty of the lit up cliffs, the colours emphasising their power, giving every nook and cranny an eerie consciousness. Beyond the clifftops, the stars glittered like whispers, forming patterns we’d never seen before. These distant suns reminded us of our insignificance and eventually guided us to bed.

tonsai-at-night-thailand

As our longtail took us out to sea early next morning, the cliffs stood proud with their earthy silence, an unspoken promise that they would still be here when we return. Yet who knows what will remain of the Tonsai that we found?


 

6 Reasons to Volunteer in a Hostel while You’re Travelling

After a disastrous week at Pasir Panjang, we started to wonder whether volunteering whilst travelling was such a good idea after all. Working a few hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food sounded like a great deal – it would cut down our expenses, would be a great opportunity to meet new people, as well as integrating into local life. We decided to give it another shot, and using our favourite website Workaway, landed ourselves a couple of weeks working in a party hostel in Georgetown, Penang.

We like staying in party hostels almost as much as Vodaphone likes paying their taxes, but 2 weeks free accommodation in Georgetown was too good an offer to pass up. We packed our backpacks, jumped on the plane and started planning where to have our first proper coffee when we arrived.

The following fortnight was one of the strangest, most fun and surreal experiences of our lives and we’ll never forget it. This is why you should volunteer in a hostel while you’re travelling.

1. The other volunteers – There was Silvina, a feisty feminist from Uruguay who liked to discuss Derrida over instant coffee with vodka. Vanessa, a fresh-faced Chilean yoga instructor with an insatiable appetite for chips. Alex, who regaled us with tales of truckin’ and tankin’ in Nebraska while pouring endless tequila shots. Monika and Przemek, a gorgeous Polish couple who are so in love they changed the way we thought about marriage. Then there was Malik, technically not a volunteer but our sort of manager/ life coach/ the most positive person in the entire world. He would praise us constantly for completing the simplest of tasks and tell us to “Keep killin’ it killa,” if he caught us refilling the loo roll before being asked to do so. The only thing that could knock the Fresh Prince smile off of his face was the US election results. We danced in the street, drank too much and slept too little. It was the best of times and this beautiful bunch will be firm friends for the rest of our lives.

dsc_0480

2. The guests – Some guests leave a lasting impression. And some guests don’t leave. Zosia stayed so long, she quit her job in Australia and ended up becoming a volunteer. We’re glad she did, because with Nick’s suspected Dengue, we never would have been able to navigate Penang General Hospital without her. We formed the ‘Dengue Club’, and ever caring Zosia waited patiently for Nick’s test results and held his hand as he stumbled from room to room, to toilet, to room. Then there was Vinny, a dynamic Brazilian chef with a passion for samosas, who conspired with another guest to buy us a night in a hotel room because they thought we’d spent too long living in dorms. The kindness and generosity of people on the road never ceases to amaze us!

3. The perks – As well as free accommodation in the best part of town, we were treated to a little cash every day to pay for our food. We could have easily lived on this in Georgetown, but the food is so good that we usually spent a bit more. As well as this, we were given unlimited free drinks every night on the condition that we partied with the guests. This was bad news for our livers, but great news for our beer pong and flip cup skills.

dsc_0472

4.The satisfying work – Being unemployed and travelling the world is as fun as it sounds, but sometimes it’s nice to have a reason to get out of bed. Nick came to enjoy cleaning the bathrooms, using a high pressure bum gun to blast last night’s remnants off of the walls. He found a sense of satisfaction and pride in his work, especially when Silvina remarked that the bathrooms were now clean enough for her to shower without wearing flip flops. Ever competitive Flic found fun by racing to beat her personal best of changing 20 beds in 1 hour – a triumph that has not yet been bettered.

5. The food and drink – We’ve never been disappointed by the food in Penang, but working with people who are permanent residents took us to a new level of restaurant recommendations. We were invited to places the tourists don’t go and ate the best food we’ve ever tasted. We were also introduced to the last duty free off-licence on the island, and spent many late nights sitting on the plastic chairs that sprawled onto the road at beer corner, attempting to chat with locals and eating mysterious snacks from unmarked plastic bags.

beer-corner

6. The adventures – We didn’t get to see much daylight during our time at the party hostel. Unusually for us, most of the adventures we had in Penang took place well after the sun set. We did plan to visit the Kek Lok Si temple one day, but it was raining, which was a great way of not admitting that we couldn’t get off of the sofa due to our earth shattering hangovers. Even so, we had a successful group outing to the cinema and managed an occasional afternoon stroll. The most notable soiree was when Monika and Przemek decided to buy a ticket for a bus leaving at 5am, and made the sensible decision to stay up all night. We wondered from bar to bar, eventually being pulled magnetically to Reggae Bar with 5 puppies and a Ukrainian guitarist playing Bob Marley covers. We bought towers of beer and shisha pipes, and danced in that way that just feels right but probably looks like you’re suffering a minor stroke.

Monkia and Przemek missed their bus.

If you are thinking of volunteering while you’re travelling, check out the Workaway website. There are thousands of great opportunities, from house sitting to teaching to animal care – you’re bound to find something you love!



Not quite paradise, but still quite nice – travelling Langkawi on a budget

Langkawi is undoubtedly a spectacular place. We wouldn’t go as far as calling it a paradise, as most travel sites do, but it’s worth stopping off there to refresh your soul as you make your way around South East Asia, especially if you’ve just come from the crazy urban hotbox of Georgetown.

We arrived a little baffled as to the best way to spend our time there. It’s not the kind of place you can just hop on a bus and hope for the best, mainly because there are no buses (it seems public transport is illegal here) and the taxi fares are extortionate. Langkawi is crying out for Uber, but that’s another story. Here’s a few ways to get the most out of your stay and keep within your budget.

How to Get There

Langkawi is an archipelago of over 99 islands, and most backpackers arrive by boat, taking the 3 hour ferry from Penang for 80RM. The ferry leaves at 8:30am and 2:00pm each day. Tickets are available online, or from the ticket office which is a 2 minute walk from the ferry terminal. We took this one way, but the sea was so rough that Nick spent the entire time outside, spewing up 3 full sick bags. On the plus side, they did show Ip Man 3 on TV.

If you prefer not to make this gut wrenching trip, you can get pretty cheap local flights from within Malaysia, as well as some international flights via Air Asia. We found that flying from Penang was about the same price as taking the ferry, and only takes 20 minutes. You do the maths.

If you’re coming to Langkawi the other way, from Thailand, you can take a speedboat from Koh Lipe. It’s a little pricey at 140RM each, but it only takes an hour and the sea was pleasantly calm for our trip. Plus, you have an excuse to visit Koh Lipe with it’s crystal clear waters and quality pancake scene.

Where to Stay

Langkawi can seem a bit anti-backpacker with it’s overpriced resorts and stately hotels lining the coast. Yet it is possible to have a good night’s sleep on a tight budget here. We strongly recommend that you stay at the cosy, clean and welcoming Soluna Guesthouse near Pantai Cenang. Tucked away amongst gorgeous rice paddies, complete with white heron and water buffalo, the main shopping strip and long sandy beach is only a 5 minute walk away, through some fields, past clucking chickens and cats lazing in the sun.

rice-paddies-langkawi-malaysia

Check their website for current prices, but when we stayed it was only 20RM for a dorm bed, or 45RM for a double room with a fan. They also have private A/C options, but Langkawi gets cool at night so we didn’t go for this. They’re not on booking.com, so you can just turn up. However, to avoid disappointment we advise you call or email them to book in advance. Oh, and they have hot showers too, in case you weren’t convinced already.

soluna-guesthouse-langkawi-malaysia

What to Eat

As you’ve probably noticed by now, food is a priority for us wherever we go. Langkawi definitely loses a few paradise points for the lack of hawkers and it’s overpriced and uninspiring restaurants, especially on the main Pantai Cenang strip. Most blogs push the bbq seafood here, and we have no doubt that it tastes great. However, when the live seafood is priced per kg, it isn’t going to be kind to your wallet.

Yet you can still get some great meals here, and if you’re strapped for cash, we urge you to visit Bella Restaurant at Pantai Cenang. Here you’ll find mostly local food at fair prices. Breakfast here is a must – sip teh tarik and tuck in to  some nasi lemak, or order a kopi and treat yourself to some roti canai (Malayisan style pancakes) with a variety of flavours, including the winning banana and nutella. All for about 5RM too!

If you find it a cop out to eat in the same place all the time, explore the main strip for something that takes your fancy, and there sure is plenty of choice. A reasonable price per dish is 10-15 RM, although this is definitely unreasonable compared to elsewhere in Malaysia. It’s easy to get ripped off here, so always check the menu before taking a seat.

You should also try to visit a night market during your stay – check Travelfish for days and times. Here you can stock up on satay, pancakes, murtabak and that Malaysian delicacy, the deep fried burger! These markets, with their hawkers and hustlers, are bad for your health but great for your budget with each dish costing around 1-2RM.

night-market-langkawi-malaysianight-market-langkawi-malaysia-2

You’ve probably heard that Langkawi is duty free, and this is correct. However, don’t go expecting bargain booze on every corner (actually, the best corner for cheap beer in Malaysia is Georgetown’s Beer Corner). Remember, this is Malaysia, not Calais in the 90’s, so alcohol is frowned upon in most places. The majority of Malaysians come to Langkawi to avoid paying taxes on kitchenware and chocolate, which is interesting but doesn’t exactly scream ‘PARTYYY!’. Drinking out will cost about the same as anywhere else in Malaysia, and the discount on alcohol in shops is usually quite disappointing. Anyway, if you want to get tipsy, your best bet is to have a few tinnies on the beach and avoid the bars.

What To Do

So, you’ve arrived, settled in to Soluna and checked out Pantai Cenang. We know what you’re thinking – the beach is ok, fairly long with off white sand, certainly better than England (although Langkawi often feels a lot like Cornwall). Still, you don’t want to pay to rent a deck chair and a parasol, and the watersports are lacklustre and overpriced. It’s probably raining too, just like Cornwall,  so the beach is not looking like a viable option for the next couple of days. Yeah, we’ve been here too.

Think you can tell the difference between Langkawi and Cornwall? Take our quiz!

What you want to do now is go back to Soluna and hire a scooter (usually about 35RM per day) or a car for about 60RM per day. We chose to hire a car because of the constant rain, but scooters are also rather nifty for exploring some of the smaller villages. Now you’ve got some wheels you are free to explore the interior of the island, which is where Langkawi’s true beauty lies.

First off, head out to the Langkawi Sky Cab for some awesome views of the island. It’ll cost you 45RM for the Sky Cab entry fee, plus an extra 5RM to walk the iconic Sky Bridge. But for 50RM, you get to travel on Malaysia’s longest mono-line cable car (it’s never been made clear if there are any others in the country) to the top of Machincang Mountain. Up there, you’ll be 708 metres above sea level, affording views of the entire archipelago, and even some of the Thai islands on a clear day. We admit that waking the Sky Bridge sounds a bit cheesy, but it was a fantastic experience and our friend Tugce absolutely loved it – except for the lengthy climb back up to the cable car station!

If you visited the Sky Cab at the weekend and it’s crammed with tourists, the best thing to do is to come back another day. But don’t head home just yet – keep going past the Sky Cab site and follow the signs to the Seven Wells Waterfall. Here, you can hike up to the various stages of the waterfall and swim wherever you want. We found that it wasn’t too busy, and as most people forget to bring their swimming costume, you’ll have the pools to yourself! Just watch out for the monkeys because they stole our crisps.

There are two other notable waterfalls on the island that are definitely worth a visit. Temerun Waterfall is a sight to behold, with several rapid courses flowing over the side. It’s an easy climb up to the main basin, and here you’re likely to find the local lads daring each other to jump from the rocks. Join them if you’re feeling brave – we weren’t. Before you leave, make sure you try the beef rendang burrito from the shack in the car park. Mexican-Malayisan fusion at its finest!

Durian Perangin Waterfall was also a majestic wonder, although the lack of durians there may disappoint some visitors – not Flic though, she detests the king of fruit. We found this to be a quiet spot to refresh after a humid day of hiking, and there was plenty of space to have a picnic and even a few hawkers selling cheap hot corn and noodles.

The next place you should visit is Air Hangat Village for the salt water hot springs. The salt water, present thanks to the area’s low water table, is renowned for its health benefits. The locals claim it will ease your arthritis, boost your immune system and increase your general wellbeing. Whether this is medically verifiable or not, it’s rather satisfying to sit knee deep in a hot spring amid the lush green plains of the island. There’s also a reflexology path made of small stones, arranged to inflict maximum pain and discomfort. Walk what may be the world’s only homeopathic gauntlet if you dare.

If you still have more time with your moped, we recommend visiting Mount Raya (also known as Gunung Raya) in the middle of the island for a superb view of the archipelago. It will take you about 30 minutes to drive all the way to the top, past cheeky monkeys and fallen trees, an adventure in itself. At the summit, you can pay 10RM to take a lift to the viewing tower, and you get a free drink with this too. With the low clouds and our stingy temperaments, we didn’t do this, but we have heard from other travellers that it’s well worth it on a clear day.

mount-raya-langkawi-malaysiamount-raya-langkawi-malaysia-2

Of course, if the weather is fine and you have more time on the island, Langkawi’s beaches are worth a look. Whilst we believe that the word ‘paradise’ is used far too often in connection with Langkawi, there are some cool coves to consider. We recommend visiting the section of Tanjung Rhu Beach by Teluk Ewa Jetty. To get there,  you have to drive through Tanjung Rhu Resort and agree to their terms and conditions, but entry is absolutely free. When you reach the beach, you’ll have a cracking view of a few atolls rising from the waters and it’s usually fairly quiet there. Surprisingly, the Malaysian restaurants there offer delicious meals at some of the lowest prices we found on the island.

nick-on-the-beach

We had a great time just driving around the island, through the tiny kampongs, past highlighter-pen-green rice paddies and thriving woodlands. Just like a day out in Cornwall, you’ll come across tourist attractions that may take your fancy every few kilometers. Usually they have low entry fees so you may as well check them out. Just a final word of warning – avoid the Langkawi Buffalo Park because it was awful. Little more than a walk through a cow shed, we were deeply underwhelmed by this rural ‘attraction’, although Flic enjoyed taking photos of the photogenic buffalo.

buffalo-farm-langkawi-malaysia


Street Art and Coffee Shop tour of Georgetown, Penang

There aren’t many things we love as much coffee, but great street art has to be one of those things. When we heard that Georgetown had commissioned street artist Ernest Zacharevic to create some beautiful work on their city walls, alongside the art that was already there in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we were intrigued and excited. However, we found many of the maps and guides designed to help you find the art were outdated or inaccurate. Travellers with only a few days in Georgetown became exasperated by this wild goose chase, so we have designed an updated version. What’s more, we’ve united our two passions so this map also includes the best coffee shops to be found along the way! One of the beautiful things about street art is that it is ever changing and evolving, so we’ll have to go back to Georgetown, with its rich cultural diversity and astoundingly good food, soon to make another updated map. It’s a hard life.

  1. Start at Black Kettle on the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street). Here you’ll find a sprawling coffee shop and bakery, with skilled baristas working with Australian coffee beans and a bakery section that any Paris boulangerie would be proud of. It’s a bit pricey, but you can kick start your tour with a high quality cup and a sugary breakfast.black-kettleblack-kettle2
  2. When you leave Black Kettle, turn left and walk along Beach Street. Turn right onto Lebuh Ah Quee to see three pieces of street art – ‘Old Motorcycle’, ‘Burned’ and a boy walking his pet dinosaur. A little further on, take the dodgy looking alleyway on your right and you’ll find Bruce Lee fighting a cat.

    jet-li-street-art

  3. Keep walking up the alleyway and turn right when you get the Beach Street. You’ll see Easy Brew on your left, selling coffee from 24 different countries and offering a free roasting demonstration. Try the cowboy coffee, which comes with a flavouring tray of butter, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon sticks.
  4. Exit Easy Brew and turn left. Take a left onto Gat Lebuh Armenian and you will see ‘Skippy’, a big ginger cat, on your left, and ‘Cat 102’ and ‘Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat’ on your right.
  5. Just past ‘Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat’, you will see Da Shu Xia Seafood house on your left. You won’t miss it because half of the restaurant is a massive wooden boat. Order the Penang White Coffee here (unless it’s Wednesday – The Boat is closed on Wednesday) to try the other end of the coffee spectrum – instant coffee. Malaysian’s are crazy about their instant coffee and some of it is actually not that bad. We usually steer well clear of instant, but this stuff, complete with artificial creamer, is probably the best instant coffee you’ll ever drink.the-boat
  6. Leave The Boat and turn left, then turn left again onto Lebuh Victoria. On your right you will see Awesome Canteen. This is part of the rightly famous China House group and employs some of the best baristas in Penang. Try the pricey but delicious Japanese cold brew Chemex for a clean, fruity cup.
  7. Leave Awesome Canteen and turn right. Here you will see ‘Brother and Sister’ street art.brother-and-sister-reaching
  8. Continue on Lebuh Victoria, then turn right onto Lebuh Chulia. You will see ‘Children Playing Basketball’ on your right, and ‘Brother and Sister on a Swing’ to your left.
  9. A little further down Lebuh Chulia, you will come across Kopi and Toast on your left. This is where the local cool kids come to hang out. Grab a kopi and some kaya toast if you’re feeling a bit peckish. From here you can also explore the Jetty villages – ramshackle huts built on concrete poles protruding from the water. They’re fun to explore, but we couldn’t find any coffee or street art there!
  10. From Kopi and Toast, turn right and walk back down Lebuh Chulia and then take a right onto Beach Street. On your left, you will find Coffee on the Table, where you can get a 3D coffee! These adorable creations surprised us because not only did they look amazing, they tasted great too!coffee-on-the-table-3d-coffeecoffee-on-the-table
  11. Exit Coffee on the Table and turn left. Immediately on your left you will see a car park with 2 large scale pieces.noahs-art-street-artsketchy-wall-street-art
  12. Continue along Beach Street and then turn left onto Lebuh Gereja. Here you will find the famous Old Town White Coffee, a favourite amongst the geriatric population. They sell a cheap and robust kopi, and you can make it part of a combo meal if you’re in the mood for some curry mee!old-town-white-coffee
  13. Leave Old Town and go back to Beach Street, continuing in the same direction. Just past Bishop Street on your left, you will see another large work through an archway. You can also get a reasonably priced massage here until 3am!trumpet-man
  14. Turn around and walk down Bishop Street. On the corner of Bishop and King Street you will see this purple tree.purple-tree-street-art
  15. Keep walking along Bishop Street, turn left onto Masjid Kapitan Keling and the right onto Lorong Stewart. The Alley coffee shop will be on your left and you can grab a beautiful ristretto and some churros and cronuts here! They also have free drinking water and WiFi.the-alley-2the-alley
  16. Leave The Alley and continue along Lorong Stewart. On the side of the awesome Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel, you will see (appropriately) a large scale tiger. Visit the hostel bar if you’re in the mood for  a cheap beer and a game of table tennis with a friendly crowd.tipsy-tiger-street-art
  17. Keep walking along Lorong Stewart and you will see ‘The Boatman’ on the corner of Lebuh Klang.man-in-boat-street-art
  18. Keep walking along Lorong Stewart, and just before you reach the always bustling Love Lane, you will see ‘Electric Man’ and ‘The Dancer’.
  19. Continue in the same direction and you’ll pass a creatively decorated electricity meter.electricity-meter-street-art
  20. Keep walking and on your left you will see this large blue girl holding herself up.girl-balancing-on-windows-street-art
  21. Carry on down the road, past the cat cafe (we can recommend the cats but not the coffee) and on your right by the Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel you will see ‘The Man and The Mouth’.
  22. Keep walking until you get to Jalan Penang and turn right. On your right you will see ‘Trishaw Man’. You might even catch a glimpse of the artist’s inspiration!
    trishaw-man-street-arttrishaw-man
  23. Turn around and head back down Jalan Penang. On your left you will find Maxim’s Gelato. This isn’t a coffee shop, but they do incredible mocha, tiramisu and espresso gelato, so we think it has a place on this tour!maxims-gellato
  24. Keep walking along Jalan Penang and turn left onto Chulia Street. On the side of Hotel Chulia Mansion you will find two bold pieces.
  25. Make your way along Chulia and turn left onto Love Lane. Drop into Wheelers for a rich, thick espresso and laid back vibes.
  26. Turn left out of Wheelers, left onto Chulia Street and right onto Carnavon. Continue along Carnavon until the road splits into a V shape, then turn around and walk back up the other side of the ‘V’. Here you will see a white rabbit disappearing down a rabbit hole.rabbit-hole-street-art
  27. Keep following the road as it branches off to the right and continue on to Cannon Street. On your right you will see ‘Boy Reaching’ and on your left you will see three cats.
  28. Turn around and walk back down Canon Street, then turn right on to Armenian Street. Down the first alley on your left you will see these two pieces.
  29. Go back to Armenian Street and turn left. On your left you will see this dragon art and ‘Three Dolls’.
  30. A bit further down Armenian Street you will see this colourful cat.cat-and-coloured-circles-street-art
  31. Walk a little further down Armenian street and you will find Kopi Loewak on your right. This coffee shop specialises in Luwak coffee – the most expensive coffee in the world. At 38RM, this is probably the lowest priced Luwak you’re ever likely to find and it is well worth it. These part-digested coffee cherries have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. This process is thought to improve the taste of the coffee because of selection and fermentation. Kopi Loewak brew their civet coffee using the siphon method. This produces a full flavoured, clean mouthful and is quite a spectacle to see.
  32. Exit Kopi Loewak and turn right. On your left you will see the most famous piece of street art in all of Penang -‘Brother and Sister on a Bike’.brother-and-sister-on-bicycle-street-artAnd this iconic portrayal of Penang life brings us to the end of our tour! We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring Georgetown as much as we did, and you had your fill of fine coffee too. There’s plenty more to do in this fine city, and we’re certain that there are many more pieces of street art that we haven’t documented here. So, go out an explore some more and get in touch with us if you have any new finds! But first, time to enjoy some of Penang’s famous food.

 

High on Hedgehogs

It’s not every day you have the chance to attend a hedgehog appreciation evening, so when we saw an advert in the superb Penang Free Sheet calling all hedgehog owners and adorers to meet at The Lightbulb Cafe in George Town, we knew we had to go.

Leaving our Uber and heading through the monsoon rain to the ultra-hip Lightbulb, we didn’t know what to expect. As we introduced ourselves to the group of young hedgehog enthusiasts, they seemed baffled as to our presence there. However, far from giving us a prickly welcome, they were eager to get us acquainted with their cute little erinaceinae (that’s Latin for hedgehog in case you were wondering).

hedgehog-3

We ordered some shockingly overpriced lemon and ginger teas, and without further ado we were we haphazardly handling hedgehogs in the hipster haunt. We learned that these spiny creatures are a popular pet in Malaysia, as well as many other parts of Asia. The majority are a breed of African hedgehog which is much smaller than the wild UK variety that we’re familiar with. Entirely domesticated, they are fed cat food, but also meal worms as a treat, and would probably not survive in the wild. Although feeding a hedgehog cat food sounds a bit odd, all of them looked very healthy so it must do them good!

hedgehog

Neither of us had ever handled a hedgehog before, and it was pretty strange at first. Their spines weren’t as prickly as expected, but felt plasticy, as if they were made for a toy hedgehog instead. Their clawed feet were reminiscent of those on the pet guinea pigs and hamsters from our formative years, and their bellies were soft, silky and satisfying to tickle. All the while the little hogs sniffed away at us with their prominent snouts. Being virtually blind, they rely heavily on smell to guide them through life, so they like to become familiar with your aroma. This complete lack of spatial awareness also means that if you let them walk on a table, you have to be very careful that they don’t just walk right off the edge. It’s a responsibility we weren’t expecting to have.

Most of the hedgehog fanciers in attendance were breeders themselves, owning from 3 to 30 animals each. Breeding hedgehogs sounds like a lucrative operation. Some sought after breeds, such as the pasty albinos with bright red eyes, can sell for 600 RM each. When you consider that the median monthly income in Malaysia is only around 400 RM, they’re a potential goldmine.

albino-hedgehog

Whilst we’re still not sure if we’d ever own a hedgehog ourselves (they’ve got nothing on cats),  it’s obvious that they make nifty little pets. With their fluffy bellies crying out for a tickle, and their almost strokable spikes, they score high on the cute factor. The owners’ adoration for the rodents was infectious, and there was definitely something soothing about spending time in their presence.

Even though the price of the tea was extortionate, it was just about worth it for an evening with some delightfully friendly locals and the for their sniffling snugly hedgehogs.

hedgehog-2

24 hours in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur was probably great once. It might be great again one day, but for now it’s just a network of building sites connected by a web of dirty, smelly alleyways. For some reason, we thought it was a good idea to spend 4 nights in KL. This was far too long. Luckily we had an awesome Couchsurfing host, so we didn’t pay for accommodation. If you find yourself in the city for a day, here’s a suggested tour to help you enjoy your 24 hours.

Top tip: Download Uber before you arrive. We usually like to walk around cities, but it’s often impossible in KL. The public transport system is poorly planned and badly connected, so even if you get the LRT or Monorail as close as possible to where you want to go, you will usually find a 40ft concrete wall or a dual carriageway between you and your destination.

8:00 – Start at Old Town White Coffee for breakfast – This is where locals eat their breakfast if they fancy something other than chicken rice. They serve great coffee and offer a sumptuous selection of baked goods – a great way to start the day!  Try some traditional Kaya toast or go for the French toast if you’re feeling continental . There are loads of these around the city, so it’s easy to find one near wherever you’re staying. Sure, it’s a chain, but trust us, it’s way better than Starbucks.

Old Town White Coffee.jpg

9:00 – LRT to Batu Caves – For once the LRT actually drops you off near your intended destination, although the Port Klang line that goes to Batu Caves only runs one train every 45 minutes at off-peak times. It’s best to go early in the day before it gets too hot because you have to climb 272 steps to get to the top. That, and you might be cajoled into a bit of manual labour along the way. Nick had to carry 2 heavy buckets of rocks all the way to the top and no one explained why.

nick-carrying-buckets-of-rocks-to-batu-caves

The 140ft tall gold Murugan statue that guards the caves is surely impressive when it isn’t surrounded by scaffolding, and the 400 million year old caves must be spectacular when they’re not covered in discarded building materials and rubbish. On the plus side, a lot of monkeys hang out in the caves, so that’s pretty cool. Just hold on to your sunglasses!

batu-caves-under-construction

monkeys-at-the-batu-caves

12:00 – Central Market for lunch – Get the LRT to Pasar Seni, take the exit where the open sewer flows into the river and walk to Central Market. There are some lovely souvenirs on offer here and a food court where you can grab some reasonably priced nasi goreng or Thai chicken. It’s not the best food court we’ve ever been to (KL’s got nothing on Singapore), but the food is fairly tasty, served quickly and you can get fresh fruit juices and cheapish bottles of Skol lager – inexplicably the lowest priced beer in most Malaysian restaurants. There’s also a 3D illusion art museum on the second floor, if you like that kind of thing.

Top tip: If you go to the museum and then pretend to change your mind about visiting, they’ll give you a discount coupon.

14:00 – Menara KL / KL Tower – The viewing platform here is 100m higher than the Petronas Towers Sky Bridge and costs less. Get the free, but usually packed, GOKL bus from Pasar Seni to KL Tower, then get the free shuttle bus from the bottom of the hill on Jalan Punchak to the base of the tower. There are 2 different viewing platforms, but we recommend just paying for the first one because it’s half the price and almost as high as the second one. The view is pretty impressive too, despite what they tell you at the ticket counter!

menara-kl-tower

view-from-kl-tower

16:30 – Amusement Square at Berjaya – Take the Monorail from Bukit Nanas to Bukit Bintang and walk to Berjaya Times Square. On the 6th floor you’ll find Amusement Square – probably the best arcade we’ve ever been to. Battle it out on Time Crisis 4, speed your way to victory on Mario Cart and try not to pee in your pants while playing Dark Escape 4D. We were lucky enough to visit on their 30th Anniversary, so we paid RM50 for both of us and had unlimited plays on all of the games. Nick thought he’d died and gone to heaven! Keep an eye out for special promotions like this on the Times Square website.

amusement-square-at-berjaya-times-square-kuala-lumpur

19:00 – Wong Ah Wah for dinner – Walk to Jalan Alor (otherwise known as food street) and at the far end you will find Wong Ah Wah. Famous for its BBQ chicken wings, it is a sprawling restaurant with tables and chairs all over the ‘road’. The servers carry walkie talkies and bark your order at the relevant hawker chef from your table – it’s a slick operation. We can recommend the satay and the sambal prawns!

food-street-kuala-lumpur

21:00 – Grab a drink at the Heli Lounge Bar – you can walk here from Wong Ah Wah in about 15 minutes, or get an Uber for about RM3. We didn’t actually go there because they wouldn’t let us in with our cut-offs and flip-flops, but we’ve heard great things from fellow travellers. We did see it from KL Tower and thought it looked pretty cool, so if we ever have to go back to KL this will definitely be on our list. Heli pad by day, bar by night, the Heli Lounge Bar is on the roof of Menara KH and has no fence or safety rails to stop you from plummeting to your death. It’s probably best not to drink too much here, but drinking is generally frowned upon in KL anyway.

heli-lounge-bar-kuala-lumpur

Photograph stolen from the Heli Lounge Bar Facebook page

22:00 – View the Petronas Towers at night – get the monorail from Raja Chukan to Bukit Nanas, then change to the Kelana Jaya line and get the LRT to KLCC. You can exit the station right at the foot of the Petronas Towers, then walk around the KLCC Park to get a great view of them lit up. We think the twin towers look much more impressive from the outside than the inside, plus it’s free to look at them from the park.

patronus-twin-towers-kuala-lumpur

Our ‘24 hours’ ends here because, if like us, you didn’t want to pay for accommodation, it’s probably time to head back to your Couchsurfer host and pass out with exhaustion.