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.

 

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‘The Lake House’- A day at Huay Tung Tao Lake

I love a good public holiday and it’s even better that you don’t know that one is coming. It’s like that for all the holidays/special days over here- I’m blisfully ignorant of ANY of them so when one comes up it’s a wonderful surprise.

Last Friday was a brand new holiday in Thailand as it is the birthday of the new King! We had the day off so I decided that I would explore my new home a little bit but also have a bit of a relax and chill out. I’ve been reading a really fantastic book and a public holiday sounded like the perfect time to get some serious page turning in.

I’ve also been reading some blogs about places to visit around Chiang Mai and found a lot of references to a national park about 10km out of town. So, I decided to ride out there and do some relaxing, some exploring and some people watching. According to all the blogs I’d read, not many tourists visited the lake, but loads of Thai families and groups of friends go out there for long picnic lunches. I really enjoy getting off the tourist track, so this sounded perfect- plus 10km isn’t too far on my bike and the track looked reasonably straight forward- an important component to note as I have the WORST sense of direction.

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So, I set off in the morning, after doing an awesome workout with my friend, Sammy, before it got too hot. I had a general idea of where I was going but there were some moments where the map took me on what I’m sure was actually a quicker (and probably more legal than what I thought looked more direct) route but which got me a little lost as the turns escalated and became less obvious. However, I soon got to a really love bike track which took me straight to the well signposted road to the lake. Upon arriving, some lovely Thai ladies waved me through the admission gate, the 50baht fee being waived due to the public holiday. I was NOT expecting this, so was pleasantly surprised as I’m sure you can imagine. This trip, due to my free method of transport and the public holiday, was becoming even cheaper than I imagined.

As I continued riding along the road toward the lake I reached a small crest in the road and suddenly, the lake was in view. Surrounded by mountains and lined by bamboo huts, it was idyllic and an extremely welcome sight after riding through the midday heat. I continued along the road which hugged the lake, cycling slowly, taking in the natural environment- the mountains, the fields, the water and trying to decide where along the lake I would stop for my lunch.

After circumnavigating the lake, I found my way back to a little inlet and I settled at one of the many restaurants lining the lake. There are LOADS of different restaurants but they are kind of a much of a muchness- they all have delicious seafood, noodle and rice dishes so it’s just a matter of choosing which one you want to settle at. I actually have no idea which one I stopped at but it was great. I ordered a seafood salad with an egg and some sticky rice and then found my way over to a floating hut where the lovely ladies brought my food over while I sat and stared at the beautiful scene in front of me.

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Next door to me on one side was a cute couple who were enjoying a romantic lunch and on the other side, an eerily familiar looking bunch of uni students accompanied by a guitar and lots of selfies who could have been my and my friends back home. As I ate my beautiful, fresh lunch, I felt completely relaxed as the sounds of nature, my neighbour’s guitar, and chatter which I could not understand washed over me.

It was the perfect place to just let myself chill and become totally absorbed in my book. Unfortunately, after a few hours, the menacing sounds of thunder broke my reverie and after the last two days of absolute DOWN POURS which were immediately preceded by a similar rumble, I decided I should probably leave straight away lest I get caught cycling through a monsoonal shower- not something I enjoy doing and not something I would wish upon anyone.

Sadly, I said goodbye to my hut, packed my book away in my backpack and cycled back around the lake to the road, along the bike path and along the more direct route to my apartment. Surprisingly, it didn’t rain at all- a dry spell which lasted all weekend and which resulted in some seriously sticky weather. I think I prefer the rain.

Regardless, I had a wonderful day which included so many of my favourite things. I don’t want to recommend you go to the lake if you get the chance because I kind of want it to stay a little hidden away, but that would be selfish of me. Please, visit this place and enjoy the serenity and peace it offers.

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Or go swimming… that’s what the students next to me did.

Love you all

xx

[Two] nights in Bangkok- Day One

Apologies for the heinously cliche blog title but I love me a good piece of politcially allegorical musical theatre and I love me a bit of Bangkok too.

But I think, only a bit.

I spent my first 2 days in the original Sin City of Thailand and it was everything I was expecting and more- overwhelming, busy, chaotic and delicious.

I knew I wanted to make the most out of my time in BKK but not be so wrecked by the time I arrived in CM for my volunteer experience so I definitely scheduled in both exciting activities and active relaxtion time.

Let’s begin!

I arrived at 8:30 on Sunday morning- not the best time to get to a new city, I’ll be honest. It’s tempting to let jet lag and the weariness of travel overwhelm you and just nap and so, knowing this, I chose (to the utter disbelief of everyone I met) to go on a cycle tour of the city in the afternoon followed by a food tour by tuk tuk which finished up around 11:30. Perfect!

And it was. I was picked up by a driver (a perk of my Stray Arrival Pack), got to my lovely hotel, the Dewan, in good time- mesmerised by the changing vistas outside the airconditioned comfort of the car as we sped along the highway and bustled through the traffic which is synonymous with many cities but especially Bangkok.

I checked in super easily, immediately found myself a coconut to sip on (unfortunately, it wasn’t very good- but fortunately, the only bad one I’ve had!) and wandered through a VERY quiet Khao San road area to the Stray Shop. It was dead- everyone was sleeping off big Saturday nights and the vibe was decidedly one of hazey regrets. I didn’t mind KS area, but to be honest, next time I’m in BKK I’d rather stay somewhere a bit less tourist focused, the bars and nightclub scene is just not really my jam and I found the constant presence of pasta, pizza and burgers intrusive. There were little street food vendors around but their prices were significantly higher than many of the places I’ve been since.

That said- the Dewan was awesome and I’d stay there again in a heart beat.

After popping into the Stray Shop to confirm all the details of my tours on Monday, I walked to the pier and caught the tourist boat down the river to where my bike tour was starting. It was so lovely and the cool breeze was stunning in  the heat. I was hoping to just catch the local boat but I wasn’t sure what boat was what and in my worry that I wouldn’t make in time for the tour, I caved. The tourist boat was probably much more expensive but ultimately? It’s hardly an issue. It was still only just over $1. It was a beautiful way of getting around the city and I would highly recommend the river over the road.

Once I located Co van Kessel bike tours, (right next to a Coffee Club- dubbed as being home of Australia’s favourite brunch… um, sure CC.) I grabbed lunch from a local hole in the wall and then, it was time for the tour! We had a few Dutchies (the man who originally started this now Thai run company was Dutch), a few Brits, a couple of Australians and a lady from the Philippines. I was the only one wearing a helmet so Mother, you should be proud I didn’t bow to peer pressure etc. The bikes were great quality and very comfortable.

The tour was so interesting! We rode through the back streets of China Town, around some very extravagant houses and past some places where it was clear the people were only just scraping by. We rode, precariously, through tiny alleys and even through busy market places. I will admit, I felt a bit intrusive at times and did wonder how good this voyuerism was for the community, but they didn’t really pay attention to this bevy of white folk trundling past on our cycles. We also boarded a shuttle ferry and went to the quieter side of the city and visited a temple which was just beautiful. I’m constantly struck by the respect and devotion that the Thai’s have toward their faith and while I’m glad that, as a Christian, I’m not bound to any physical expressions of my faith, but rather spiritual ones, it certainly causes me to pause and think if I’m really giving my faith the respect God’s glorious grace deserves.

We also visited the flower market- absolutely one of my favourite places in BKK. Filled with spices, tea, flowers and fruit, this place is a feast for the senses and the intricacies of the flower designs blow me and my fat fingers away. I almost bought my weights worth of spices and teas but showed a modicum of self control knowing I’m not allowed to bring anything into the country- least of all, tea (though that rule is probably more heavily monitored by my father than customs).

We finished up the tour, along with some fruit and random Thai snacks, at about 4:30, giving me time to walk to the meeting point for my next tour- the street food extravaganza!

This was run by Bangkok Food Tours and was faultless. We hopped into the waiting tuk tuks and were ferried around all night until we were full to bursting. We sampled some traditional Northern food (tom yum, duck larb, sticky rice, grilled tilapia, cucumber salad), had a version of pad see ew which you could get with either a runny egg or cooked, omeletteish egg. I got the runny egg and it was delicious. Because the egg was cracked in with the food, hot from the wok, it cooked slowly and became the most delicious sauce. We also had mango sticky rice, a few little desserts, longan, and pad thai from the most famous pad thai in BKK. It’s featured in a bunch of TV shows, the Guardian rated it as the best “fast food” in the world in 2014 and it is consistently busy. I had the modern version (which is the one I’d seen on Luke Nguyen’s show) and while it was delicious and looked amazing, it was a little sweet. I preferred my friend’s traditional version which was less attractive but less sweet. I’m yet to try any other Pad Thai over here though so it remains to be seen if it is the best.

We finished the night atop a rooftop bar overlooking the river where I had a mocktail and enjoyed the rain and the city lights. We were then each dropped around the city to our various hotels, concluding the night in comfort and style.

I slowly climbed the stairs to my room and collapsed into bed… looking forward to my floating market tour and massage which I had in store for tomorrow….

Though not before brushing my teeth with local water…a decision that thankfully, didn’t hamper too much of my much needed sleep.

Day Two, coming soon.

Amy xx