Tasting Taiwan’s Night Market – Part 2

Sorry for the inexplicable long silence.

Krista Goon
Adele and me when I spoke at the Penang Women Chamber of Commerce CNY lunch

It gets harder and harder to blog when my time is so consumed by a zillion other things – mentoring, for instance (although I have officially completed my 6-month mentoring sessions with Adele and Janice).

gratitude note
A note from my mentee, Adele.

Also, business projects. When I say business projects, most people think it’s doing stuff for clients. Errr. Not exactly. I’m doing stuff for myself. Nic is tweaking his game for entrepreneurs while I’m creating some courses and follow-up products that can help our clients more. We still maintain and manage websites for clients but these days, we’re also focusing on creating more training materials for people who want to learn how to do it on their own.

I’m also working on a book with two other friends along the theme of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and that’s practically driving me up the wall – you wouldn’t believe the rounds of readings and edits and going back and forth with the women we’ve interviewed.

cathedral of holy spirit penang

Plus in between, I get pitched to speak. Nic and I did one for 200 Catholic students at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on 24 June, sharing about a community project Nic and I initiated called TSN Book Adoption Centre.

cathedral of holy spirit penang catholic mission day
The 200 uni students from Sabah and Sarawak.

Before that, I did one for my WomenBizSENSE meeting on 23 June where I taught the 40 ladies how to use time-saving apps and software for business.

catholic students mission day 2017 penang
I call this interfaith. I’m a Buddhist and I get to talk to Catholic students about what it means to serve your community. Start with a small, do-able project. Don’t try to conquer the world.

 

I’ve one coming up on 19 July – it’s one I’ve agreed to do for a new co-working space called Scoopoint along Weld Quay regarding women entrepreneurship. But speaking is something that I like to do as part of my repertoire as each speaking engagement allows me to find new ways to present and improve my ability to present.

Yeah, so those things take up my time. And in between, I want to read my fiction and business books. I want to go home to Banting and see my dad and sister and niece and nephew more.

OK, but today, I decided to make good on my promise. More on my Taiwan travels! (If you missed Part 1, here it is.)

taiwan night market game machine

So the evening we checked into our small but clean boutique hotel, we had a quick shower and went in search of the night market! The famed night markets of Taipei.

The nearest one to us was the Ningxia night market. I was excited because I was thinking of all the tasty snacks and street food awaiting us. It was 20 minutes of walking.

When you’re travelling, every kerb and corner shop looks interesting. We passed a women’s only gym which looked really hip (all that see-through glass makes the gals exercise with more effort as passers-by can see what they’re doing).

Taiwanese night markets often are a combination of entertainment (street magicians), gambling (games of chance for adults and kids!), snacks (grilled beef/squid/chicken, deep-fried everything from stinky tofu to chicken, pastries, fruits, sausages etc.), electronic gadgets and fashion.

taiwan night market game stall
Kitschy 80s game stall that attracts people to try their luck at winning.

 

In a seedier section of another night market that we passed by near Lung Shan Temple, it had shops where you could eat snake (cobra anyone?), drink snake bile, buy lingerie and drink alcohol. All businesses related to the supposed virility circle. I find it strange that we still need to kill hapless snakes just to satisfy some strange tradition (yes, that Chinese tradition that I do not agree with!).

Anyway, Ningxia was an introduction to the Taipei night market scene. Kids were seated in front of stalls playing games of chance. Mostly the machines were China-made. If there were no machine, it was a simple stall set-up with balloons that you had to burst in order to win a prize. Similar to our tikam-tikam. When we were browsing about, a few people were engaged in trying to get themselves a prize (which could be some soft toy). I think humans just like to win. The feeling of success is what we want, not so much the prize (which is why so many ‘Toyland’ shops are popping up in Queensbay Mall – sometimes these toys are so cheap and ugly and yet people still buy lots of tokens to get a chance to win one!).

As we had spent the whole day travelling (our flying schedule had started at 6am that morning but we had been at the Penang airport since 2am and the airport chairs aren’t the best for sleeping!), we took it easy. I was more eager to try some food than gamble to get a soft toy that is (poorly) made in China.

grilled wild boar sausage taiwan night market
Anything grilled is good. Taiwan’s grilled meats are top of the list.

The grilled wild boar sausage was good as it was piping hot and you could slather a few different sauces. The next place we stopped by was a “zhu zhar” stall with typical hawker style seating. They were frying up lots of stuff – beef koay teow, beef slices and soupy mee sua. The Taiwanese love their beefy dishes. We sat down on tiny stools at a metal table and ordered a soup. It was a dismal bowl of beef slices in ginger soup. The beef slices were tender but too miserly. The soup tasted good but maybe I was hungry. We shared the soup and decided we’d call for another dish.

Just then a local couple plopped themselves down in front of us. The table-sharing concept is common in Asian countries since space is limited and personal space isn’t quite as important, unlike Western countries.

They ordered stir fried beef slices. When their dish came, the guy was disgruntled. He started to mumble about how small the portion was. He started grumbling louder and even called the stall owner over to ask “Is this stir fried beef? So few beef slices! We’re not tourists you know. We’re local people.” He was getting pissed as the minutes ticked on. This was uncomfortable as we were like a foot away from him and his girlfriend (she too was mumbling away).

I was so glad to get away once we finished our food and decided to go away in search of other more filling snacks!

famous rice ball stall in taipei

As we strolled along, we saw this long line of people. Whenever you see a long line, you know the food’s good. And the long line of people were mostly locals. Patiently, they stood in line edging themselves nearer to a guy who was packing rice ball snacks. He should be famous going by the various newspaper clippings he had stuck onto his other stall (strangely he operated from a push cart on the road). I didn’t want to wait in line – I wasn’t that desperately hungry then.

famous rice ball stall ning xia night market
Apparently, “ku zhao wei” or tradtional taste is a big thing in Taiwan.

We walked along the shops and realized Taipei is very much Japanese-influenced. Historically, the Japanese came to Taiwan and stayed for 50 years until 1945. But unlike Malaya that was conquered and under Japanese rule, the Taiwanese generally like the Japanese. They are surprisingly positive and fondly open about the Japanese and their memories of Japanese in Taiwan. Hence, we saw lots of local sushi and sashimi shops (though I’m a bit wary of their fish and how fresh the fish is!) where locals would just sit and eat and down some beer.

rice ball snack vendor taipei taiwan
This is the rice ball snack guy. Nonstop business on a week day night.

When we had enough of walking, we headed back to City Suites Beimen. I never really have a fixed itinerary when we travel. We do what we feel like doing which is often the reason for many interesting surprises.

The interesting part is coming up – I didn’t know I had booked us into an artsy enclave and one that was walking distance to the wharf!

traditional chinese herbal tea taiwan
A herbal tea stall at the night market. The seller wasn’t friendly at all. Talk about brusque!

Travelling in Taiwan – Part 1

nic sim & krista goon
Nic and I at Jinguashi, a gold mining town up in the mountains.

I just got back from a lovely 10 days in Taiwan. I enjoyed every bit of my trip, even those days up in freezing cold Alishan mountains when I was in three layers of clothes and still felt the fingers of cold creeping up on me.

I admit it, I am a tropical gal. While I like spring weather (and it was spring weather, almost in Taipei when we landed on 29 March), I also love my sunshiny mornings. Those “throw open your window and feel the sun blazing” times were rare in Taipei; it was mostly grey and gloomy even at 10am!

The good thing was the gentle cold of 19 Celcius which made walking about a pleasant experience. Nic and I clocked each more than 10,000 steps a day (as faithfully recorded by my Apple app) and I actually lost some weight when I got back to Penang! All that walking daily did me good. So I did prove some people wrong. They told me I’d be eating so much street food that I’d come home 5 kg heavier.

But let me start in the beginning. Why would someone like me, someone who doesn’t read Mandarin, decide to visit Taipei?

I’d heard a lot about Taiwan from friends. I had wanted to go some years ago but other destinations came up (Bali, HK – multiple times, Phuket – twice, Chiangmai). I didn’t know why but this year, I felt the urge to visit Taiwan. It was quite a last minute trip as we had many projects going on – we had just launched a client’s website, we were rolling out a new system for our Redbox Easyweb clients, we were also having our Marketing Mojo in March and it seemed so many things came up on our schedule.

Yet, I knew more than anything Nic needed this trip. He had been working really hard and he needed the break. He’s not the sort to book holidays. In my family, I’m the one who sorts out flight bookings, hotel bookings, Airbnb bookings and plans the holiday itinerary. I’m the one who goes online diligently to research hotels, places to visit, things to eat, things to explore, MRT routes.

Taoyuan airport
At the Taoyuan airport

For this trip, I booked really late but it worked out fine eventually. A friend asked me to keep my itinerary – she implied that she might want mine the next time she goes to Taipei. I’m not so sure that my itinerary is the sort for most people. You see, Nic and I like the free and easy holiday gallivants – no fixed schedule, go as we please, decide on the morning itself what we’d like to see or do and let the discoveries along the way surprise us.

I never book tours because I despise them and their clockwork timings, the early morning calls, the shuttling from tourist spot to tourist spot. I would feel like a lamb and I would annoy the tourist guide as I like to mull over exhibits (if we’re in a museum) or take my own sweet time to check out stuff other people find intolerable.

So here’s my itinerary – if you have similar travel tastes, this could do for you. The thing is, I try not to be touristy. So we never went to Taipei 101 (oh I can hear your gasps of horror), we never went to Sun Moon Lake (I still don’t know where that place is!) and we never tried the stinky tofu.

29 March, first day

Flew Penang-KL on AirAsia (super early, 6.30am), layover in KLIA2 for 3 hours before we got on the 10.20am flight to Taipei. The flight took 4 hours. I booked AirAsiaGo which meant we got flights and hotel together. I’m not the type to find the lowest price for hotel and flights because I can’t stand over-researching. I am more concerned where my hotel is located and if it’s clean and quiet and most of all, if it is within minutes of the MRT.

However, I only needed the hotel for the first 5 days of my Taipei trip as I would be going to Alishan for 3 days and then back to Taipei (to an Airbnb) till we flew back to Penang. Sometimes I like using AirAsiaGo just for convenience sakes.

When we landed around 2.30pm, I was expecting a long crawl at the immigration/passport control. Surprisingly, the Taiwanese are pretty efficient. Many counters were open and the friendly yet firm immigration officers quickly processed the long queue of foreign visitors in a short time. When the officer hands your passport back to you, she actually smiles.

taoyuan airport
Fresh, bright and welcoming airport!

I loved the Taoyuan airport immediately – it was spacious, welcoming with real orchids and plants (AirAsia lands at Taoyuan airport terminal one – Taoyuan actually means peach garden). The next best thing, high-speed wifi that didn’t need a password! And then, the clean toilets. The toilets didn’t smell like toilets, unlike Malaysian airport toilets. The toilets were bright and sparkling clean.

We saw a huge crowd at the telco counters and decided we’d get a local SIM card too. The thing is, there were 3 different telcos side by side and each one had its own queue. We ultimately decided that we’d go with the longest queue as it seemed the most popular (which proved to be as well as a Malaysian guy told us that Chung Hwa was quite reliable across Taiwan).

The packages offered by all three telcos were similar and later we discovered that Chung Hwa Telecom (the one we chose anyway) had really good coverage even when we were up in the mountains. It was a reasonable deal – NT500 for 10 days of unlimited calls and data use. The telco staff even switched up the SIM for you in super speed.

I had initially wanted to rent a pocket wifi but we couldn’t decide on this till we landed. We would be getting wifi at our hotel and most public places in Taiwan so I figured a SIM card would be better. We needed the number so that our Taiwan friends could reach us (they don’t use WhatsApp, preferring to use Line and WeChat).

I believe pocket wifi is good if you’re travelling in a large group (4 or 6 persons) and want to share wifi but since it was only Nic and me, a SIM card was good enough. He could always share his wifi with me if I needed it. Not having wifi also gave me a much-needed break from WhatsApp!

The next thing was to get our Easycard – the Metro cards with preloaded credit so that we could travel easily on the MRT. It was NT1000 per card with a non-refundable NT100 deposit. The card was great for travel on buses too. We didn’t even finish using up the credit so we got back the rest of our money when we exchanged our Easycards on the day of our departure (conveniently at the Airport Express stop).

We weren’t in a hurry after collecting our luggage so we went in search of food at the airport. Our first meal upon landing was a piping hot bowl of pork balls with noodles at the food court one level below the arrival hall.

taiwanese pork ball noodles
Our first meal in Taiwan – shared, of course!

Nic always taught me this: always eat when you travel. You never know when you’d get to your next stop and if you’re hungry, you’re going to be grumpy. Not fun travelling if you’re grumpy! So even if the airplane food isn’t fine dining, we’d still order and eat in the plane first (as you never know how long the passport control queues are). And when we land, we will look for food first.

We were quite lucky as Joyce, my friend who lives in Taipei, puts it. March 2017 was the month that the airport metro was finally completed and we could now travel from Taoyuan Airport into Taipei (Main Station) in 36 minutes. Since it was just opened, we even had a promotional 50% discount off the NT160 fee. In the past, it was either taxis or buses going to Taipei Main Station which took an hour or so and cost more than NT1000. 

Even with the conversion rate (and our bloody devalued ringgit), it was only RM24 per person for 36 minutes of travel on the airport express metro into the city! How is it that our KLIA express is like RM50 for 28 minutes of travel? Something to think about, isn’t it? 

Going out of Malaysia can be enlightening in many ways. It helps us compare where we are in relation to the rest of the world. I really can’t help but question why is it that our airport express is so expensive? How does this encourage people to use the airport express? 

Taoyuan airport express
Waiting for our express ride into Taipei. Taoyuan is an adjacent district to Taipei.

Upon reaching Taipei Main Station, we opted to grab a taxi to our hotel, City Suites Beimen* on Chang An West Road. Actually our hotel wasn’t that far away. We could’ve walked from the Main Station all the way to the Beimen MRT exit and from there it was only a 10 minute walk to the hotel except that the MRT staff told us that it wasn’t reachable on foot! Very confusing indeed. 

*The hotel was new and clean. It wasn’t a big room and it didn’t have windows (though even if we had, we’d probably be staring at the next building – that’s how buildings are in Taipei. Like back to back). I thought I’d miss having a window but I didn’t. If you’re looking for a contemporary hotel within 10 minutes walk of the MRT station, try this one. The staff are young and polite and try their best to speak in English but we lapsed into Mandarin since we saw them struggling to communicate! 

Anyway, we got into a taxi (called ‘da di’) and there was a bit of jam along the road as a mass protest was going on. The Taiwanese take it in their stride. They’re cool about protests and demos unlike Malaysia. And taxis use the meter so taxi rides are affordable and our short ride was about NT105 (when you get into the taxi, the base price is already NT70). When we reached the hotel, it was already 6pm and getting dark. We decided to shower before we headed out to the Ning Xia night market, some 20 minutes away on foot. 

Since this has been a super long post, I’ll keep the Ning Xia night market for the next post! 

nic sim & krista goon
Excited to be in Taiwan! Pardon the horrible double chin selfie!

Bali Dreaming

I’ve been meaning to add more to my Bali trip posts but so many things got in the way. I have been trying to reduce the number of projects I am involved in, this year as a way to slow down and reclaim some peace and quiet for myself. I am still involved with copywriting (usually for clients who want custom-designed websites) but I am slowly also reducing this from my plate too.

bali dream resort ubud
This is Bali Dream Resort, a little hidden gem in the paddy fields of Gianyar, Ubud.

Anyway, I am back and that is all that matters.

I still hanker for Bali because it was simply an amazing island. The people were lovely and everyone had time to stop and chat which is saying a lot! I am not saying people in Penang aren’t friendly but there’s magic in Bali.

rice fields of ubud
The view of rice fields just behind our hotel room

Nic and I spent our entire 6 days in Ubud, wandering about on the rented scooter (strangely branded Scoopy) from Bali Dream Resort. Everyone whizzes about on scooters in Ubud and by everyone I mean the locals as well as the angmohs. And boy are there plenty of angmohs! Ubud is artistic and cultural but it is also a haven for yoga studios and vegan cafes and juice bars. As I mentioned, people here retire to bed early. By 10pm, most cafes and shops are already closed. This was something to be grateful for, as it meant we returned to our hotel and slept early too!

The sun rises really early in Bali so by 6am, it is bright and sunny (somewhat like our 10am in Malaysia). I remember waking up at 8am and feeling the heat of the sun on my face from the window.

When we arrived at the Bali Ngurah Rai airport, we were raring to go despite the fact that we had woken up at 5am to catch the Penang-KL flight at 6.50am. We had landed in KLIA2 on transit but whiled away our time till 10.50am before our KL-Bali flight called. Jana, who is a regular visitor to Bali, told us that we can walk out and hail a Bluebird taxi instead of taking the airport taxis.

I felt annoyed at being harassed by a super persistent young chap who kept tailing us as we walked out of the airport arrival area. He kept asking us what price we wanted. Anyway, we managed to cross the road just outside of the airport and quickly jumped into a Bluebird taxi.Taxi fees from the airport to Ubud are about RM90 one-way for an hour plus trip.

Nic Sim
Nic in his relaxed mode atop the bamboo tree house

The taxi driver was called Wayan (yes, everyone is either Wayan, Made, Komang or Ketut – they’re really telling you their family ties and hierarchy. Wayan is the first born, Made is number two, Komang or Nyoman is the third while Ketut is the fourth. I was curious – what happens if there is a fifth child? Wayan the taxi man tells me the title Wayan gets reused! To know if the person is a male or female, there is a Ie or Nie attached such as Wayan Ie for a male firstborn or Wayan Nie for a female firstborn). During our entire trip, we met a few Wayans, read about one Nyoman (who owned an art gallery) and more.

It was interesting to have a conversation with a local – a first for me as a traveller. I love going to Thailand – that’s a country I’ve visited many times already – but I never have had a proper conversation with the locals. My Thai is limited to short phrases and words so it’s usually English or nothing.

In Bali, Nic and I had an excellent time conversing with the locals because Bahasa Indonesia shares the same roots as our BM. At breakfast each morning, we spoke at length to the resort’s staff and satisfied our own curiosity of the many different things we observed. The other resort guests at the other tables often looked our way as we chatted animatedly to the staff. We looked like Chinese (and for most travellers, this meant China people) but we spoke the local language.

For once, we could speak and understand each other and exchange information about our own countries.

Our taxi driver managed to persuade us to stop by 2 places on our way to Bali Dream Resort. One was a large silver jewellery shop in Celuk. It was a hot day so the air-conditioned shop (which was clean and modern) was a welcome respite. We pretended to be interested in the silver earrings, rings and more but I wasn’t in the mood to buy anything. I just wanted to check in at our hotel and have a cool shower. Fortunately, the girls at the shop didn’t bug us to try on anything so we left after 20 minutes. I believe the taxi driver gets something for popping by with tourists.

bali swimming pool resort
The view of the glorious pool from our room

I thought this was the end of the silliness but he brought us to a place that offered us free kopi luwak. What is it with tourist traps like these? Is it a first-time visitor’s curse? I don’t drink coffee but we got out of the taxi and strolled into this mini garden with a meandering path.

The petite girl in charge gave us a running commentary on the coffee plants, cocoa plants etc. I did inform her that we are from Malaysia and yes, we have the same plants/shrubs in our country. Finally, we stopped in front of a cage. She pointed out the Asian palm civet cat which was lying curled up in a ball inside the cage. The animal gazed at us with boredom and misery spilling out of its eyes.

bali temple architecture
Balinese temples are so iconic. This was taken near the Celuk silver shop.

If you don’t know about the civet or cat shit coffee, try this Wikipedia entry on kopi luwak. I did try this coffee once when a friend brought it back to Penang but since I am no coffee aficionado, I had no idea if I was drinking good coffee or not. I wasn’t so much disgusted about the process as I was about the commercialisation of the coffee and the force-feeding of coffee cherries to the civet cats. Just so you know, kopi luwak of all kinds and brands are sold in supermarkets in Bali. It’s like Penang white coffee. Everyone and their uncles are hawking this coffee.

Finally, we were asked to climb up a bamboo tree house and have a seat while the girl went off to prepare some sample drinks for us. She came back with a tray of shot glasses with colourful powders. Each glass was labelled. She poured hot water into each glass and encouraged us to try the different teas – red ginger tea, lemongrass tea, lemon tea, roselle tea, mangosteen (peel) tea and more. Luckily Nic mentioned he didn’t want any kopi luwak so that wasn’t served. Our taxi driver, Wayan, sat with us. He was served a larger cup of coffee (that was perhaps his “treat” for bringing us there).

bali swimming pool resort
I know, I am crazy over the pool. Our hotel had not one but two pools.

I really didn’t want to buy any but our sense of obligation got the better of us (after all, we sampled some 10 types of teas and sat around chatting for a good half hour while enjoying the evening breeze at the top of the bamboo tree house). We bought a small packet of lemongrass tea for an atrocious amount of rupiah.

I was thinking, if we don’t get going to our resort and check in, I was going to show my displeasure. I was already quite sticky and hot by this time, traipsing around a coffee plantation and all.

Perhaps Wayan just wanted his free cuppa but whatever it was, he started to head towards Jalan Penestenan Kelod, Gianyar. The roads were narrow but I was enthralled by the passing scenery and Balinese architecture. It seemed there was a temple around every corner or a pair of stone carvings adorning each home entrance.

Women in traditional attire (kebaya with sarong and colourful sashes) were swaying delicately down the narrow pathways and roads. They’d sashay down the road with piles of carefully arranged fruit and offerings balanced atop their heads. It was such a delight to watch!

(Later, I realized these women were on their way to the local temple for prayers. It seemed that every other day some prayers or ceremony was happening in Ubud and you’d be amazed at the scores of women who’d carry offerings on top of their heads).

Wayan got lost a few times trying to locate our hotel. Eventually, he stopped us at the side of a road so that we could ask around. It turned out that our hotel couldn’t be accessed by car; the pathway was simply too narrow. The hotel sent a golf cart around to pick up our luggage while I went to the reception for the check-in.

All my tiredness flew away the moment we were led to our room. We were steps away from a serene pool! That was such a balm for my fatigued soul. Since it was already quite late (5pm ish), we decided to just rest and relax in our hotel. Travelling can be tiring despite the fun and excitement. We also settled for a quick dinner of nasi goreng at the hotel cafe.

indonesia teas in bali
Indonesian teas of all colours in Bali

Stay tuned for the next episode.

 

When Ducks Can Make You Filthy Rich

We just got home from a lovely, absolutely lovely 6 days in Ubud, Bali. What have I been missing all this while? I always thought Bali was ultra commercial until Jeanette and Mariam kept urging me to go and experience it for myself. I am so appreciative that I did. I can’t believe this island has eluded me for so long.

nic sim & krista goon
Nic likes to make crazy faces when I take selfies. This is one of those moments when we were waiting out the rain at Wayan Kunang-Kunang’s.

Sorry if I sound like a complete fan-girl of Bali. I am enthralled. Head over heels. I think I shall retire there and start my resort.

A friend asked me what I found special.

Ubud has all the right architecture right down to the old, gnarled frangipani trees the locals call “pokok Jepun”. This is not to be mistaken with “Jepang” as Jepang is how the Balinese call the Japanese. So I am still puzzled about the difference between Jepun and Jepang.

bali temple statue

Perhaps I shall ask the Balinese the next time I get there (see? I am already planning my next trip despite the fact that I hate connecting flights. We had to take a Penang-KL flight, transit a few hours and then take KL-Denpasar. The same thing when we came back.)

Anyway, I loved that Ubud is like a village. It is small enough to feel familiar yet full of interesting nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered. Like the words I saw written on a white wall behind a goal post near Jalan Hanoman – “100% Love Is The Goal”. These little amusing moments strike me as whimsical yet fitted perfectly with the character of Ubud people (the angmohs and the locals alike).

Over the years, Nic and I realized that the vacations we craved weren’t just about going some place famous and taking snaps all day long. I was never that sort to begin with. Nic and I love meandering down little lanes, stopping for a chat and a drink, taking a longer time just to savour the day. That’s how our perfect little holidays end up anyway.

We never liked overwhelming ourselves with the must-do’s and the must-see. I think part of the reason is that we both strive to find meaningful connections with the people and the places we visit. So this time, we didn’t see Tanah Lot nor did we go up to Kintamani. We didn’t do Mount Batur or Goa Gajah or watch dolphins. We knew that we’d be back and we’d have plenty more trips to do so.

Ubud stone statues
Ubud is known for its excellent stone carvers

What we did do was make friends with the locals. We met Wayan Kunang-Kunang when we ran into his shop to take shelter from the tropical storm (you never want to ride a scooter when rain pelts you like bullets). We met Made Lasil at Neka Art Museum and he showed us how to play the bamboo instrument called ‘rindik’. We exchanged stories with Eka, Deksri, Mellany and Sari, the wonderful staff at Bali Dream Resort where we stayed and had a good time learning Indonesian words and finding that we had so much in common. Others like Wayan, our taxi driver, was so thankful when Nic gave him more than he asked for in taxi fees.

bali dream resort ubud
The delightful resort we stayed at…Bali Dream Resort, tucked away in Jalan Penestanan.

We learnt so much about Nyoman Sumetro, the owner of Bebek Tepi Sawah restaurant, when we toured the art gallery located next to the famous restaurant. Sure, we had stopped by to partake in the famous bebek or crispy duck (Mariam exhorted me to try it) and truth be told, Nic’s ikan gurami panggang tasted a lot better than my ultra-crispy half bebek! Bebek Tepi Sawah is so successful that it spawned more than a few outlets across Indonesia and there is even one in Singapore. That explained the Ferrari parked right out front! (It was covered modestly with a silver plastic car cover but nothing can hide the voluptuous shape.) Another bebek place that I didn’t get to try was Bebek Bengil a.k.a Dirty Duck Diner along Monkey Forest Road. Bengil is the local word for dirt (or “daki”) hence dirty duck. Perhaps next round!

ubud rice field
The rice paddy fields behind our resort

It is conversations with the locals that I loved best. It was funny to know that what we call “telur mata kerbau” is called “telur mata sapi” over there. It became a joke among the staff of Bali Dream Resort because each morning, as we ordered our American breakfast, they’d ask us how we’d like our eggs. We’d all laugh when we said “telur mata sapi” and then they’d repeat to us “telur mata kerbau” with a straight face but later burst out laughing because they couldn’t help it.

swimming pool ubud
The pool, just steps away from our room

Ubud is a slower pace of life, where shops are shuttered at 9pm (even Starbucks Ubud) and people are in bed by 10pm. The air is cool in the evenings because of all the rice terraces, trees and rivers.  Ubud is also the place where you will find a “pura” or temple every couple of steps. Religious and cultural events are a nightly feature.

One night, we witnessed a full procession of traditionally-dressed Balians as they celebrated yet another religious festival in full pomp. A Caucasian lady with a yoga mat slung over her shoulder asked us if we knew what was being celebrated (Ubud attracts a lot of Caucasians on a health and rejuvenation mission – yoga, vegan food, smoothies, retreats, the full works). We had no idea. But the procession went its way and finally she stopped a Balian and asked him what it was all about.

Pengosekan in Ubud is where Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love found Ketut Liyer, the palm reader whom we were told, only read foreign palms (he also charges higher rates). Ketut Liyer is old, in his 80s and still ranks as the most famous palm reader in all of Bali, thanks to the book and the movie.

ubud bali pool

Family life, having kids and being spiritual are a mainstay of the Ubud people. Nic and I felt a bit like oddities because Wayan, our taxi driver thought we were both on our honeymoon as we didn’t have any kids tagging along! (Ubud is very family-friendly. Families with kids in tow are everywhere, mostly Caucasian. This is not the sleazy Bangla Road of Phuket where lady boys are openly parading. I read later that there is a happening gay scene in Ubud which I seriously witnessed not!)

So consider this an amuse bouche for more of Ubud tales to come. I shall be back with more!

Oh My Country!

One of the reasons I have a blog is that it allows me to write what often bogs or bugs me. All my life writing has been a therapy. I find that I am happiest when I get to write, and it can be in a journal or in a blog.

Getting home after a few days in Singapore can be a study of extreme contrasts. I have many friends in the island republic – most of them are Malaysians with a sprinkling of Singaporeans.

I don’t indulge in much retail therapy over there. Mostly I am there to meet friends and try to uncover hidden gems which could be food, people or places. In most cases, it is the company that matters, not so much the gastronomy.

Each time I land in Changi, I feel even more morose. Neil Humphreys, a Brit who wrote a series of books about Singapore, says that upon landing in Changi International Airport, if you fail to be impressed, you are either a liar or Helen Keller.

I am apt to agree.

Read moreOh My Country!

The Queer, The Exotic & The Melancholy

I wrote this when I was in Phuket about 3 weeks ago when I was on holiday. We were at Patong, the most popular tourist beach area in Phuket. It’s akin to Batu Feringghi but with lots more flavour.

We’d stayed at the southern and quieter stretch of Patong but from our hotel, it was only a 10-minute walk to the infamous Bang La Road. During the day, this stretch of road is harmless but after 9pm, the road becomes a throbbing night life full of people and gawkers. I wrote this piece as a means to figure out the conundrum that is Phuket, Thailand.

Read moreThe Queer, The Exotic & The Melancholy

My Kerala Trip: Kuruva Isle

This was a post I wrote after I came back from our India trip in 2010 with the Paul Penders team. I didn’t get around to posting it up so here it is.

One of the places we visited was Kuruva Island which was 20 minutes away from VanaMoolika. This was our jaunt in the forest as we were going to an island to partake in nature.

Where's the island?
Where's the island?

The four Innova’s were again packed with all of us. I felt excited as we were told we were going to an island. Coming from an island like Penang, I had my ideas about islands. I also heard we had to pay an entry fee to get to the island.

Entry fee list for Kuruva Island
Entry fee list for Kuruva Island

When we got out of the MPVs, I was looking for a visible island. None that I could see! I could see paddy fields and a bit of a jungle path.

The thing in India is, one never really knows what’s happening. The drivers speak Malayalam so that’s alien to our ears. Finally we were told that the island could be seen after a few minutes walking. We all hung about waiting for things to get settled. While waiting, I saw an interesting tea shack near the fee collection booth. Made with all natural materials, it was a roughly put together shack – an Internet cafe! And this British motorcycle too! It’s truly antique stuff.

Seen outside the "Internet cafe" - a very old British motorbike

It was almost noon and getting fairly warm. After what seemed like eternity, we were herded down the path through the paddy fields. At that time of the year, the fields were emerald carpets! Not a soul to be seen though. It was just the bunch of us – a motley and noisy bunch!

Crossing the river in a bamboo raft to get to Kuruva Island
Crossing the river in a bamboo raft to get to Kuruva Island

After a few minutes of traipsing, we came out to a clearing which ended at a muddy river, the colour of ‘teh tarik’. Bamboo rafts were tied to the bank. These rafts were our transport over to the island which was about 100 meters away.

The raft journey barely took 10 minutes. Our raft man didn’t need to do much work except pull his way across the river – a thick rope was strung across the river and he just guided the raft across this way. I didn’t see any birds or fish during this river crossing. I thought we were looking for biodiversity! It was exceedingly quiet for an island teeming with nature.

Loaded up on the raft
Loaded up on the raft

After we got off the raft, we crossed a bamboo bridge and finally, we were on Kuruva Island!

After getting off the raft, we walked on a bamboo bridge
After getting off the raft, we walked on a bamboo bridge

Coming from Malaysia where our jungles are thick and humid, the walk on Kuruva Island wasn’t really a jungle experience. It was more of a thick forest than a jungle proper. What made it pleasant was the weather. It was not as humid as Malaysia so the leisurely walk didn’t drench us in sweat. We didn’t see any animals except a lone macaque and some butterflies. Notably missing too were bird calls and the incessant humming of the jungle (which is so prevalent in Malaysia).

Truth be told, we didn’t walk the entire length of the island so what we saw was possibly 20% of Kuruva. It was an interesting walk though despite not seeing any animals. Maybe I was expecting to see tiger tracks or wild boar tracks (we saw some wild boar poop though….). Maybe I watch too many National Geographic TV programmes!

My Kerala Trip: Discovering Sankar

Another India post – a much delayed one!

On our final day in Sopanam, we had a plan. It was a plan borne out of the desire to see Kochi city, at least before we flew back to KL. Towns and such are located a distance from each other so we left Sopanam with our luggage all packed on top of our Innova. We would go to the airport directly after entering Kochi.

Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive
Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive

We didn’t have a plan for Kochi – Uma deftly instructed our driver to drop us off at M.G Road. In the end, we didn’t get to M.G. Road for traffic reasons.

It was a Saturday but traffic entering Kochi was as bad as on a week day. Even the trip from Sopanam to Kochi took us more than an hour.

We were angsty from all that sitting in the car and with the way our driver drove, we were dicing with death at every sharp turn! In the end, we vent our frustrations by conversing with each other in Bahasa Malaysia.

See? Our national language is very useful overseas because you can bitch in that language and no one will know.

Finally he dropped us off at a busy part of town where a few shopping complexes were. Everyone had a stare fest at us because we were different. Some thought we were Japanese and tried to tempt us with “konnichi wa?” There we were, Yvonne who was Dutch, Uma was Malaysian Indian and me, Nic, Faye and Gwen were Malaysian Chinese.

Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!
Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!

We were hungry too and the first shopping mall we entered had a Marrybrown outlet! I have only eaten once in Marrybrown when it was in Penang and despite it being a Malaysian franchise, I had no desire to eat Marrybrown in Kochi. Uma then went off to buy her Enthiraan CD while we hung around, waiting for her.

A quick prata lunch in Kochi
A quick prata lunch in Kochi

Once she was done, we decided we really had to have lunch. Off we went in search of food. We landed at a typical Indian restaurant selling dosa (thosai to you and me) and roti prata (roti canai). We wanted to shop and look around more so having prata was the fastest way to gulp down our food. Though it was the last day, we still didn’t take any chances and decided to have hot drinks like milk tea instead of the plain water served to us in typical stainless steel cups.

Again it was funny to be stared at. In the restaurant, everyone looked up at us as we entered. It was a 2-storey restaurant with upstairs seating. However, the rule was, if you wanted to eat banana leaf rice, you sat upstairs. If you wanted to eat other stuff, you sat downstairs. After taking the stairs up and learning of this quirky rule, we all came downstairs again. Indian restaurants seem to run low on electricity – they’re badly lit and very dim.

Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport
Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport

Finally with our meal done in super fast timing, we trooped out. Already it was past noon and we had 30 more minutes before we had to get back to the Innova. Our driver seemed intent on hurrying us and worried that we’d not make it to the airport on time. (We had plenty of time except that the AirAsia staff in Kochi took a heck of a long time in checking the 5 of us and our luggage in.)

In the end, we didn’t buy anything at all due to the time constraints though Gwen tried some ice cream and vadai.

We still each had lots of Indian rupees and thought perhaps we could have some McDonalds at the airport. After all, how much of prata and dhal curry can one eat right? I was excited at reaching Kochi Airport and the thought of biting into a luscious beef burger made me cheer up.

This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!
This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!

The Kochi Airport is fairly large but we had to show our passports in order to enter! Unless one was legitimately travelling (taking a plane that day), one could not simply waltz into the airport.

Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage
Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage

I didn’t know if the security was high as it was nearing the New Delhi Commonwealth Games (which would be held in a couple of days and no one wanted to jeopardize the security of the host nation). Once inside, I spotted a shop where I knew I could spend my rupees. (It was the Himalaya Herbals shop where they sold their products comparatively cheap.)

A familiar brand greets us!
A familiar brand greets us!

But first, where was McDonalds?

There was none. Not a fastfood outlet in sight! The airport had food kiosks which sold masala tea and snacks like vadai at reasonable prices (and were mighty tasty too unlike the crappy sandwiches we get at the Penang airport food kiosks).

An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang
An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang

As we reached the airport earlier than the others, we had plenty of time to spare. I spotted Sankar’s, an unassuming bookstore near the departure lounge. It was small but its size did belie the selections! The books were incredibly varied, from business to Ayurveda (this is Kerala we’re talking about) and even some eclectic books which I think I will never find in Borders. As the books are printed in India, the prices were comparatively cheaper. Novels were going for RM20 to RM28. Thick autobiographies selling for RM35. It was a gleeful time as I went from shelf to shelf picking out books. Then I realized I had already checked in the luggage and how many books could I carry into the plane?

What a conundrum isn’t it? To come face to face with the loveliest little bookstore in Kochi Airport and have to DECIDE which books NOT to buy because we had some constraints in carrying these books! (Sankar’s is found in most major airports in India so if you are going to India, stop by their bookstores. They’re very worth your while.)

I heard that there were more well-stocked bookstores in the city but Sankar’s would do for me. The Indian salesman was polite and smiled happily as we complimented his good selection. It seemed I wanted every book. Kerala, a friend told me, has the highest literacy rate in the whole of India.

I had to tear myself away from the bookstore as I had finally spent all my available rupees!

A Little Bookshop Story

I don’t have much space on my bookshelf anymore. In fact books are spilling off the shelves, perched precariously as they are. Yet as any diehard bookworm will tell you, there is nothing like coming home with a bagful of delicious finds from the bookshop with a big silly grin as if we’d discovered the most precious gems in the world.

To me, there really is nothing like a book.

As a child, I’d spent countless hours with my head stuck in a book. I was quite embarrassed to be called bookish and nerdy but that was essentially what I was.

Back then, it was all for the joy and pleasure of reading and letting stories carry me up and away to lands I could only imagine.

Until today, that book habit has stayed. Of course my repertoire includes lots of marketing and business books, besides the fiction and memoirs which I read.

Each country I travel to, I make it a point to poke my head into a bookshop.

In Cochin airport, before departing India, I found Sankar’s which despite its relatively small size, sold fantastic contemporary titles aside the usual Ayurvedic books on health and healing. You guessed it. Although I had checked in my luggage, I decided to hand carry the pile of books – the selections were that enticing, not to mention cheap!

The books were of good quality, printed on quality paper and not the see-through type of paper we usually associate with Indian reprints. Added to this, after conversion from rupee to ringgit, it was really inexpensive and worth buying.

When I was in Hong Kong in March this year, again one of my quests was to find at least one of the three bookshops I had jotted down. With real estate being what it is in HK, bookshops should be quite interesting. I mentioned to Nic that we really should look for Flow, a secondhand bookshop in Central, before we left. We wandered down some narrow streets in Central and almost gave up as the warren of tightly packed shops and confusing signboards completely overwhelmed us.

Evening market scene in Central, Hong Kong
Evening market scene in Central, Hong Kong

It was one of those evenings where dusk really fell fast – we felt chilly and had to duck into Lan Fong Yuen cafe for a rest and a cup of its famous milk tea (only to discover that they proudly proclaimed the milk was imported from Malaysia!). Once we felt rested and re-energized by the tea, we stood outside the tiny cafe and casually glanced around us. What did we find but Flow the bookshop, just a few steps away from Lan Fong Yuen!

Lan Fong Yuen, the famous nai-cha place in Central, HK
Lan Fong Yuen, the famous nai-cha place in Central, HK

Flow was on the first floor, above a contemporary Thai restaurant on Lyndhurst Terrace. We looked around for a way to go up, only to find the stairs were located behind the restaurant!

We finally found Flow organic bookshop!
We finally found Flow organic bookshop!

Up two short flights of stairs and we entered into a book haven. It wasn’t much bigger than my hall at home but oh the eclectic titles made me swoon. Books of all shapes and sizes, of all subjects, even audio CDs were available. From design to spirituality, from fiction to Chinese history, you name it – Flow had it and at reasonable prices too. (I found out about Flow from this article – it was one of HK’s best indie book nooks.)

Flow bookshop, above Cafe Siam
Flow bookshop, above Cafe Siam

If it were not for the fact that we had to rush off to attend an Irish dance performance (that month being the Hong Kong Arts Festival and we specifically bought tickets for this performance), Nic and I would have been stuck in Flow till closing time. When we got back to SP’s apartment that night, we gushed so much about this secondhand bookshop that she visited it a few times after we left HK. I said I would visit Flow again the next time I visit HK.

About a week ago, SP emailed, saying that Flow would be closing up as rent prices in HK was rising dramatically. I was saddened! Flow was one of the best finds during our trip to HK, much better than any of the cafes or museums we’d been to. On its Facebook page, it said it had been 13+ years at its present location and they were having a sale prior to moving. I hope Flow is moving but not closing up!

Of course, in Penang I have my regular secondhand bookshop in 2020 in Midlands One-Stop. I go by every now and then to check out its stash of Terry Pratchett books.

Everyone in KL and PJ – at least all my bookworm friends – had told me that I should go to Book Excess in Amcorp Mall. I have been to Payless Books but friends literally persuaded me that I should go to Amcorp Mall to see for myself.

And so I did. The place was huge and its books were new and affordable and I wanted to take every book home. It was like finding a pot of gold! Every book simply cried out to be taken home.

I had to make some choices – I knew I wanted them but I knew my shelf space was running out. I so wanted to read Agatha Christie’s autobiography and Paul Coelho’s memoir. But you know what, I did buy Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France as well as a book on beading. The rest were pure business books. We bought so many books we qualified automatically for their member discount card.

It’s a blessing and curse sometimes to give in to my book-buying spirit!

Meandering Down Hatyai Streets

One of those things I enjoyed was exploring Hatyai on my own, on the final day.

image of Hatyai town, Thailand
One of the quieter streets of Hatyai

This was after the morning market adventure. I am not a big shopper so my idea was to check things out and buy only if it caught my fancy. It was blazing hot as I walked down tiny streets, far less busy than the main thoroughfare, and I thought, really far from the Malaysian tourists.

image of a little back street of Hatyai
Working class neighbourhood in Hatyai

As this was the last day, I wanted to see things at my own pace. Our bus was leaving at 5pm so I had a few more hours. Our bags were already packed so the only thing was to return to the hotel and return the keycard to the reception. So I wasn’t really in a hurry at all. Plus I had a little bit more Thai baht left and wanted to spend it all. It wasn’t worth carting home and exchanging it at the money changer.

The hotel breakfast wasn’t anything to shout about so I was quite hungry when I left Lee Gardens Plaza. I decided to see what the locals were eating. I read that if you are alone and undecided on the food of choice, just follow the locals and eat what they eat. You can’t go wrong. Local food can be very appetizing.

Down a narrow and quiet street I walked. This was definitely not a tourist street as it looked, smelled and sounded like a working class neighbourhood. Quaint shops with dark interiors beckoned as I ambled past. I had no itinerary. I was in no rush. It was about noon so a number of locals were shuffling into these shops for their lunch. Unlike Penang, it wasn’t about variety. Each shop sold one type of food – either rice with roast chicken or braised pork with salted vegetables. Each shop looked very family-run with everyone from young to old helping out. But the shops were clean with cool, dark interiors and mostly Chinese appearance.

Simple lunch fare for Hatyai folks
Simple lunch fare for Hatyai folks

A plate of white rice with braised pork sounded like a good lunch so I entered one of the shops and sat down. The stool was tiny, so was the wooden table. Anyway, it was only 40 Baht or RM4. They served me quickly and to my delight, the rice came with a small plastic bowl of pepper soup and some salted vegetable by the side. My lunch tasted very good indeed that day.

image of braised pork rice with soup

There’s something inherently wanton and liberating about a foreign town, being on one’s own and taking time to really enjoy one’s simple meal. Other customers were chattering away in Thai but I was lost in my own reverie. For a moment, I thought that bliss was really this – a meal made with heart, in a town I could get indelibly lost in.

inside the quaint shop, a respite from the heat outside
Inside the quaint shop, a respite from the heat outside

After a leisurely lunch, I was eager to traipse and see more of working Hatyai. No one called out to me and asked me to buy things (you get this in the more touristy areas).

Peanut seller in Hatyai

Along the way, I saw a man sitting at the kerb, selling peanuts. I didn’t really want any, not after the meal I had but he was so endearing – he actually offered me peanuts to try. I smiled, took some and went my way but not before snapping a photo of him. His toothless grin told me he was happy that I made him a ‘star’ in some way.

I continued to explore, not knowing where I was going. I hoped I wouldn’t get lost but even if I did, I knew that all I had to do was jump into a tuk-tuk and tell him to go to Lee Gardens Plaza.

image of salted seafood for sale

My brains were almost fried because the noon-day heat beat down without mercy. Yet the lure of the smelly market was too strong. I didn’t know which street I went into but it had stalls selling salted fish of all types. Hatyai is dirty and worn but it also charmed me in a way.

image of market in Hatyai

When I finally found my way back to the hotel, I met up with Cecilia and her family. We decided to spend our last baht in Swensen’s while waiting for our bus to arrive.

I like meandering down musty, working-class neighbourhoods and watching the locals work and go about their daily lives. What about you? Do you like this part of travelling too?