Chiang Rai-nbow City

This post is long overdue! I’ve been pretty slack on blogging- it’s been busy and I rarely take my laptop home with me after work. Either I have something on in the evening or I want a quiet night in- laptop isn’t really needed for that… so the blogging has suffered a bit.

Time to catch up a bit!

In early October, there was a Buddhist holiday which coincided with a long weekend and so, Lisa, the amazing CEO of Thai Freedom House decided to take the staff on a trip to Chiang Rai and invited me to come along for the ride! And what a ride it was! I’m so grateful that I was able to go on this getaway, Chiang Rai was amazing and it was so lovely to get to know Lisa and some of the staff/students of the cafe better.

We hired a car, and started the long drive to Chiang Rai, stopping along the way to have coffee at the famous NGO Cabbages and Condoms which provides sexual health education to Thai people, gives out contraception and encourages safer sexual practices- especially in high risk places. Their cafe/hostel was super cute, lush and green- especially considering it was just off the highway, but the true drawcard was the creative and… appropriate decorations! Amongst the giant statues of condoms and posters with clever slogans, there was also this well dressed young lady-

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Not sure if I’ll buying the dress, but I certainly admire her ingenuity. While there I grabbed a postcard, resisting the condom related merchandise which I’m sure have made excellent souvenirs for people the world over.

We continued on, dropping our stuff at our super cute hostel called “Breakfast in the Garden” which did indeed, serve breakfast in their cute little garden, before picking up a student of ours who has now gone on to study English for International Communication at Chiang Rai University- one of the best unis in Thailand- and certainly the most beautiful! Sadly, she has to pay international student rates (much more expensive than Thai nationals) and freshmen cannot work through the term, meaning she needs to rely on donations and support from Lisa and TFH to pay for her accommodation and tuition. If you’d like to donate and support her education, please visit our website (thaifreedomhouse.org and note what the donation is for (Shan Student University Fund). It was so special to see her passion for her education and the joy she has in studying. She showed us around the university (which was SO beautiful) and the pride she had in it was really lovely to experience- I’m grateful I got to meet and spend time with this vibrant woman and I pray she can continue studying to achieve her dreams of setting up an NGO in her home town so children can receive the opportunities she has had.

Once we had taken a tour around the uni, we all hopped in the car and visited the spectacular White Temple or Wat Rong Khun which is the creation of a Thai artist and is like no other temple I’ve ever seen before. It’s entirely white, covered in glass which seems to be constantly being cleaned or replaced, and extremely ornate. Surrounding the temple itself are beautiful gardens and then, in distinct contrast, the lake of hell which thousands of hands are reaching out from. Hanging from the trees around the temple are the heads of various famous characters and people including, but not limited to Gollum, Hellboy and random old people (they’re probably people, I just don’t recognise them…).

 

The interior of temple is just as fascinating as the outside- inside is a beautiful mural which covers the entire room, starting from the back which depicts a hellish sort of state of modern society, littered with illustrations of pop culture figures- featuring Harry Potter and Voldemort, Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, Micheal Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and so many more- it became a sort of game to find all the different references as you moved around the walls. Remember, it is a place of worship so it’s best to stay reverent and not squeal when you find something- keep it to an awed “ooh…”

As you move toward the front of the temple, closer to the Buddha the picture moves to one of a heavenly paradise- I assuming a state of nirvana- which was so intricate, colourful and beautiful! You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple itself, so spend sometime soaking up the images and the selfie stick free atmosphere… because it’s the only place in Chiang Rai which you won’t see one!

After checking out the White Temple we headed back to the hostel, driving around the city to check out the layout of the land before having dinner and having an early night after our looooong day.

The next day we woke up to pouring rain- which thankfully abated after breakfast (but not before we had to get an uber about 500m because of the random torrential downpour which we were blessed with! Today was to be spent at the Black House and Blue Temple- it seems everything in Chiang Rai is named after a colour of the rainbow, although not entirely unjustifiably!

The Black House is an art installation which is set over a large property comprised of about 30 or so different buildings, built in traditional Thai Lanna style, but with non-traditional interior design. The Black House is a shrine to the darker side of humanity with the idea that by revealing the dark side, we can stop fearing it. Cue lots of bones, vulnerability, death, phallic imagery, and decay. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and explore and by this stage, we were blessed with bright sunshine- it would have been creepy in the gloom of the morning… but also miserably wet. Most of the installation is outside, making me exceptionally glad for the sunshine!

After lunch and exploring, we moved onto the stunning Blue Temple which is newly built and painted with the most incredible blue iridescent paint which, in the light of the sunset, was absolutely phenomenal to behold. Definitely worth a visit!! We also popped into a super cute little cafe that was styled just like a British Tea House and was perched upon the river. It was clearly a popular place and like everywhere in Chiang Rai, a selfie hub!!

On our final day, we visited the most amazing tea farm, perched on undulating green hills, with a beautiful blue backdrop. The kiosk was perched on top of these hills and had the most beautiful views- we sat outside and had a picnic, watching the tourists come and go, taking lots of selfies and doing some of the most hilarious poses. It was wonderfully entertaining.

After this, it was time to say goodbye and start the drive home, but on the way our interest was peaked by an interesting looking roadside temple which had menacing sculptures of mystical beasts eating people guarding its doors. Undettered (mostly) we drove in and hoped for the best. Somehow we stumbled into a HUGE and beautiful temple complex with so many different monuments to different Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses, all who are responsible for different aspects of ones life. It was a truly Thai experience- Lisa and I were the only white people I saw there- everyone else was Thai but we were all in states of awe over this pristine, brand new, vibrant theme park of eastern religion. Honestly, it felt like being in Disney land (Buddhaland) if you will- it was a total hit on the senses… overwhelming, especially after a weekend full of intense sensory experiences from the food, to the stories, to the scenery, and the COLOURS.

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We navigated the Chiang Mai traffic, arriving home in the early evening. I was planning to see a film with friends after getting home if I made it in time… and I did… but I didn’t see the film. After such a hectic few days, I truly relished the early night, market food and bed which awaited me.

I had an incredible time in Chiang Rai and am so thankful that I was able to go with the team from FBC. Massive thank you to Lisa for giving me the opportunity to go and truly feel like a member of the Free Bird family.

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Why would you do that?

It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.

6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.

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This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.

But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:

I couldn’t NOT do it.

But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.

Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.

Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.

So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.

Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.

So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:

“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”

And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:

“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”

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I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.

The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They  provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.

I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.

That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.

In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.

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I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.

This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.

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As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.

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This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.

While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.

Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.

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Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.

My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.

 

Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.

Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…

For good.

(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)

 

Do you Tuk Tuk too?

Chiang Mai is filled with cool stuff to do, no matter what you’re into.

There are stunning, flower filled gardens, ornate temples, interesting museums, fabulous food tours and cooking schools, beautiful hiking trails, stunning, ancient ruins, markets galore, malls, river cruises, kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, dirt bike riding, ziplining, volunteer opportunities… the list really is endless, and has something for everyone. I would have said that all bases had been covered and a truly different activity would be impossible to establish.

I would have been wrong.

Recently, I had the good fortune to win a trip with a newly established tour company:  “The Tuk Tuk Club”. These guys have worked in the industry for years but recently, saw a gap, had a brainwave and made their dream happen. It must have been hard work but it was worth it- their company and brand is exploding and their idea is amazing.

In short, you get to drive your own tuk tuk.

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Yep. One of those little open cab-cum-motorbike things that buzz around SE Asia. You actually get to learn how to drive one and then- once the guides are sure you’re not going to kill yourself or anyone else, tour around the countryside doing loads of super cool activities and seeing in close up the beautiful green vistas of Northern Thailand.

Our day started with a pick up from the centre of town before heading out into the suburbs of Chiang Mai (roughly 1/2-3/4 hr out of town) to meet our very own three wheeled tickets to total bliss. Although, this bliss wouldn’t be immediate. First, we had to learn how to drive these things.

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Anyone with a license can learn, but they are manual (or stick), so it will be easier if you’ve dealt with a clutch before. That said, the guides are super patient and soon, we all got our heads around the idea of accelerating with your right hand, pushing the clutch in with your left food, braking with your right foot and handling the gear stick with your left hand, regardless of where we came from or how long it had been since driving any sort of car.

After our training session, we headed out onto the roads- I was the front of the pack and started the day off with a bang by revving a little too hard and screaming out of the carpark like a bat (or tuk tuk) out of hell, but apart from my over zealous departure- we all handled this step up remarkably well.

Our first stop was two beautiful temples a few minutes away from each other- one of which catered more to the locals and one which was a bit fancier and more spectacular. The first involved a beautiful walk up to a natural cave area where a reclining Buddha lay and a gorgeous view awaited us. We could see the road which we had driven up to reach our spot- which was super cool in and of itself- but more than that, we could see where we were still yet to travel. This route in mind, we scrambled back down to our waiting tuk tuks and got back on the road again.

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This was a much longer journey, winding up and down mountain roads, going round bends and over crests. The road was smooth, easy to drive on and, for someone who hasn’t driven anything other than a pushbike in over 3 months, extremely enjoyable to explore. We drove in convoy at all times and our tuk tuks had been suped up so there was never any doubt that we would be able to reach our ultimate destination.

Soon, we turned off road and our tuk tuks showed how much grunt they actually had as we drove through a village- mud trails and pot holes included- before stopping at the Elephant Sanctuary. I was initially apprehensive when I won the tour as I knew there would be an Elephant Experience and I am morally, ethically and in all other ways opposed to elephant riding or elephants acting in a way which is unnatural for them. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear. This little family run organisation was far removed from the elephant parks who aimed only to entertain tourists. Their focus was on their elephants and what was best for them. While we had lunch, our guide explained that years ago, the existing park which used to be a riding park was bought out by someone else who had explained to the locals how damaging and cruel the practice was and the fact that very few tourists are interested in riding the elephants anymore. Sadly, some still do- and we saw tourists riding elephants later in the day, but this practice is, thankfully, dying out. The locals were a little skeptical but were eventually convinced, stopped any forms of cruelty and transformed their business to a rescue zone. This was particularly obvious with the 4 year old baby elephant who had clearly never been broken- he was too playful for us to go very close to him and the connection with his mahout- or carer- was clearly one of love.

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After lunch, we gave the elephants some of their lunch before walking behind them to the river- we couldn’t walk alongside these creatures as they’re wild animals- especially the baby- and super playful. Once we reached the river, the majesty of elephants came into full view and as we washed them, the game became to dodge their trunks, legs and sometimes bodies as they frolicked- an odd word when considering elephants but strangely appropriate!

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Much too soon, we left the elephants under the capable care of their mahouts before hopping into the back of a ute which took us to another river bank where we boarded some bamboo rafts and in a style reminiscent of the Venetian punters, floated down a meandering river. It was here we saw the riders and the contrast between these beasts of burden and the freed elephants we interacted with was palpable.

After relaxing on the river, we soon found ourselves floating in front of our majestic tuk tuks, patiently waiting for us to continue our journey. We drove back down the mountain, the wind blow drying our hair, the clean air and freedom cleansing any worries we may have had previous to this day of unique adventures.

Eventually, we reached home base, farewelled our noble steeds of tuk tuks and hopped back on the van to go back to the city.

I don’t know about the others but that night, as I walked home after dinner, I definitely looked at the tuk tuk drivers calling out to me in a different way.

‘I could do that! In fact, I did!’

It was such a fab day, filled with awesome people, a super professional tour company and the most unique transport I have ever experienced. I would do it all again in the shift of a gear.

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I won a competition with The Tuk Tuk Club and won a free trip with them so did not pay for this tour (obviously). This review is entirely based on my experiences and in no way reflects the free nature of the tour. Check out their tours- 1 day or 11 day. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. https://www.thetuktukclub.com/

 

Dream days to nightmare nights…

After I got home and cleansed myself from my cycle tour on Saturday, I explored George Town in the dying hours of light. It was a beautiful, beautiful evening and the light was that of a poetically, ambiguous sky. I wandered around Armenian Street, browsing through the market which had popped up there, and got my first henna tattoo!

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As the girl deftly patterned my skin with the thick reddish brown goo, I closed my eyes and surrendered to the world around me- the mix of languages filling my ears, the smells of the street food wafting around me- still not appealing to my rebellious stomach-, the damp heat and the cool breeze from the port brushing my unruly hair from about my face. I heard children laughing, the call to prayer, street vendors calling, live music from a nearby busker… it was a cacophony of easy, unassuming joy.

After getting my henna and nearly smudging it off immediately (thankfully I remembered just before ruining it completely), I walked around, snapping pics of the famous street art scattered around and perusing some little museums which were housed in coffee shops offering a break from the chaos of the market laden streets.

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Still not hungry, I stopped for a tea at one of these coffee houses and pulled out my guide to the George Town festival. There was a show on at an art space a few doors down from my Airbnb, starting in about half an hour. Excellent. I called them, asking them to put aside a ticket for me, and meandered back to Lebuh Malayu to see some local drama.

The play was a one woman show centred on a woman writing a letter to her daughter on the eve of her wedding. It was performed in Chinese with surtitles presented on a screen behind the actress. It was a really interesting piece, filled with insights about the cultural differences between the Chinese and Malaysian cultures, expectations on Chinese women when they are married and especially during pregnancy and childbirth, and then generally, on expectations for women in general. The actress was excellent and I really enjoyed the show. By the time it finished, I was well and truly ready for bed and made my way back home, filled to the brim with deep thoughts (and no dinner.)

I awoke the next morning hungry. I was excited but didn’t want to push it so I thought I’d wait for a while, set myself up for success and go hire a bike from a little shop near me (stop laughing at me for hiring a bike the day after an all day bike tour). The bike was a bit of a shock to the system after the incredible bikes I’d ridden on the Matahari tour but it did the job fine. I cycled around, taking pictures in the early morning sun, getting snaps of the graffiti minus the tourists who are much better at sleeping in than I am. But I was on a mission. Breakfast time. I cycled to Little India (also the home of more amazing street art) and settled on a little outdoor roti, chai and dosa/tosai spot which was filled with chatting Indian men. A good sign which I did well to heed. I had an egg dosa which was served with a sambal and some soupy curry to dip it in. It was delicious, not greasy and the perfect thing to fill me up for the day ahead. I then rode to the wet market, got my fill of utter madness and crowds for the day and experienced a slice of the ancient/modern contrast Penang has come to embody in my mind.

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I rode down to Beach St where another market was taking place- it was kind of small but in it I saw something I never had- a massage being given with giant knives. I had to get one- event just for 10 minutes. It felt strange, although that’s perhaps because I knew about the knives… it was nice nonetheless. There were also some flashmobs going on which was pretty cool and some cool market stalls. I had some nutmeg juice, bought a pair of leggings (which I would later come to love more than anything in the world) and stumbled upon a church service but it was already half way through.

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I then hopped on my bike to go and visit my mum’s old home- I’ve already waxed lyrical about this in another post, but the ride itself was quite lovely. The traffic in Penang is much less intimidating than CM and I was able to ride along the coast for a while which was absolutely stunning.

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After visiting the old RAAF bungalows, I rode back, aiming to make it to the hipster artists market. I got a little bit lost (predictably) but eventually made it there and was glad I did. There was more amazing street art, cool live music, some awesome local craft, a few baked goods to sample and I got to chat with a lovely lady who remembered the days when the RAAF was in town. She was about my mum’s age so I’d like to imagine they would have been friends.

I stayed at the market for a while before eventually riding home, checking out more street art on the way before going to Little India and settling on a vego place called Woodlands. I had a tali plate and a salty lassi- both fabulous. Honestly, the Indian food is so good in Penang and much less oily than the Malay food, it was all I wanted to eat. I sat and read in Woodlands for a while before heading back outside, only to find that the sun which had scorched my skin all morning has now clouded over and the rainy season was about to live up to its name. I pedalled hard to my bike rental place, said goodbye to my little fixie and proceeded to walk around the rest of the city, finding the last of the street art pieces on foot. Soon, the downpour became too much so I went back to my airbnb, picked up my backpack and found a cafe to sit, read and people watch in, as I finished up my time in beautiful Penang.

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Eventually, I braved the rain, had dinner (Indian again) and caught an uber out to the airport, farewelling this city which had totally seduced me.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. My flight was delayed from Penang, and then as my fb friends will know, I missed my flight from KL to Chiang Mai (not because of the delay but because of a case of mistaken gate identity) which led to me spending over 12 hours in KL airport. I do not recommend this particular travel adventure. Especially not when you have finished your book, your phone is dying fast and you don’t have a Malaysian adapter. I bought a portable charger (excellent device, a must for travelling, especially when using the GPS- it sucks the life out of your phone), a lot of tea and walked around the airport a lot.

It wasn’t the perfect end to my trip BUT my flight back to CM was super smooth, it wasn’t that expensive to change my ticket, and I had no one next to me. I also got a ST driver who was clean cut, honest and nice on the way home, and the sunset when I arrived in CM was stunning.

Travel teaches you a lot and even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t have changed any part of my trip.

Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.

 

Penang- Night One. A foodie tour for someone who doesn’t feel like food.

Visa runs are part of the life of a long term traveler- no one can escape them. I’m particularly fortunate that with my visa all I have to do is leave the country (even for like, 5 minutes) and walk back in and I have another 60 days to my name. But while leaving the country for 5 minutes is convenient, it’s a lot more fun to escape to a neighbouring country for a weekend away! Which is what I did when I went to Penang- and a lot more fun it was! You’ve already read about my love for the place and the memories it sort-of held for me (maybe. If you haven’t, pop back a post and there you’ll find my lyrical waxings on the magic of shared histories.), but in terms of the trip itself, I didn’t go into much detail. SO. That’s what this post (and the next) is for.

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I woke up stupidly early on Friday morning to be greeted by the same lovely uber driver who took me to the bus headquarters to buy my ticket to Mae Sai- once you find a good one, see if they have a card and if there’s anything important you need to, give them a call- who drove me to the airport. The flight there was a noneventful, apart from the fact that despite my quite small amount of breakfast I wasn’t hungry at all throughout the day apart from briefly in BKK where I couldn’t find anything resembling a health food apart from overpriced coconut water which I drank- potentially a bad idea. Once I got into Penang, I made my way to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus for 1.5 ringgit- pro tip, as soon as you get your cash out at the ATM in Malaysia, buy some water so you have some change for the bus- otherwise you’ll have to run back into the airport consequently missing the first bus. The bus ride across the island was interesting- everything seemed really quiet, probably due to the fact that I later learned that I arrived in the middle of an extra long, long weekend- this didn’t affect my travels at all- except that it was exceptionally quiet and exceptionally busy at times when I wasn’t expecting it.

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Anyway, I arrived at the station around 3 and walked the 5 minutes from the shopping centre to my AirBnb where I was met by my lovely mouse of a hostess. Her name was Annabel and she was so, so quiet! Her beautiful heritage house reflected this- very minimalist and seemed almost empty but the minimalism was highly stylised- she was an artist and a pianist, the grand piano acting as an interactive monument in and of itself. I was lucky enough to hear her play when I came home on Friday night. My room was basic but with high ceilings and lourved windows I would soon see on many of the buildings around this awesome town. I dropped my bags and Annabell whispered to me about the George Town Festival which was taking place that weekend- pointing out a few shows which were free or which she thought I might be interested it. She also gave me a few maps showing all the amazing street art and historical spots around GeorgeTown. Gratefully, I deposited these in my bag and headed out into the heat to begin my food tour.

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Having not had lunch, I was expecting to be extremely hungry but I just wasn’t feeling super great (I’m convinced that coconut water was off). Nevertheless, I trotted off to find my guide, Lily and go on my (private) tour! I toured with Delish Asia and they were seriously excellent. Lily not only showed me food, but she also talked to me about the history of Penang and the reasons behind the amazing mix of cultures and cuisines which Malaysia in general, but especially Penang can lay claim to. We tried Char Kuey Teow from the best cart in the city who had a huge line up in front of him, Squid with Morning Glory and a dark soy with sesame seeds, a noodle soup (not laksa…), roasted duck, nutmeg juice, cendol… and that was only in our first stop. I had a bite of everything and already I could feel myself becoming full. This was NOT ok.

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So, we walked for a while, checking out some of the oldest bars and markets in the city, relaxing at a converted shop house and taking happy snaps of the amazing street art. She showed me where the locals drink (aka- where I would NOT be, unless I had a group of friends with me, it was the seediest back alley I’ve seen… and that was literally it, no real inside- just milk crates in front of an open window.) and showed me one of the oldest book shops in the city where I managed to contain myself and not buy anything- thank God for only having carry on luggage! She showed me Harmony Street, where there’s a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Chinese temple, a church and a Buddhist temple all on the one street.

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After a little while, the initial food baby passed by and so we stopped in Little India- what I was most looking forward to. We explored a market, had some masala tea, some ginger tea, dosa (or tosai as it’s known in Penang), some roti chanai and a famed murtabak which my mother had told me so much about. I literally had one bite of the murtabak and just could not do anymore, sadly, but if I had been at full health, than this evening of my holiday would have been the greatest.

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After we finished off, Lily took me to a little coffee shop where she was meeting some friends who had been out (like the rest of Penang- it was SO crazy!) and we chatted a bit about her life as a timeout editor/researcher and now as a tour guide and a writer. I picked up some hot tips about the festival for Saturday night but declined their invitation to join them. I needed to be away from crowds.

 

In an attempt to walk off my food baby and the nausea which was unrelated to the relatively small amount of food I had eaten, I meandered my way through the crowds, down to the harbour, onto a clan jetty and just sat there- listening to the water and the distant sounds of revellers.

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It probably wasn’t my best idea in terms of personal safety- if I had been cornered it was the ocean (where I would have sunk… or that’s about it- but it was so peaceful and serene and I was so out of it that I didn’t even think about the consequences. Soon, I stumbled home, into the shower, onto my very comfy mattress and fell asleep- ready for another early morning tomorrow…

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Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.