The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia: Running for the Hills

BOH tea fields, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The gorgeous tea fields in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

By now, we had been in Malaysia for over three weeks.  That’s over three weeks of 38°C weather – sticky, humid, need-to-shower-twice-a-day-maybe-three-times-some-days weather.  It was time for a break.  So we ran for the hills.  Well, we ran for the hill station of Malaysia: the Cameron Highlands.

In the 1930s, the Cameron Highlands was developed into a hill station (or a summer retreat) for the British stationed in Malaysia, who wanted to escape the intense Malaysian heat.  Stationed around the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia that’s accessible by car, the average daily temperature is 18°C.

The Cameron Highlands are made up of several small towns.  We stayed in Cameron Highlands for a few days and set up camp in the main town, Tanah Rata.

Tanah Rata (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

The main town of Tanah Rata

Father's Guest House (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

We stayed at the clean and friendly Father’s Guest House. Would definitely recommend this guest house.

We rented a motobike on our first full day and decided to take the main highway and explore the nearby towns.

Motorcycling around the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Our ride for the day

The Cameron Highlands is known for their tea plantations and there are several scattered around the area, mainly owned by duopolies: BOH and Cameron Valley/Bharat tea plantations.

Cameron Valley tea fields (Malaysia)

Taking in the views over Cameron Valley tea fields

We were advised by locals to check out the Cameron Valley tea plantation just south of Tanah Rata.  There are two tea houses, go to the second one if you are going south from Tanah Rata – the views are better.

Cameron Valley tea fields (Malaysia)

Enjoying the views from the cafe

Cameron Valley/Bharat tea plantation had a small, quiet cafe that overlooked the tea fields and served freshly brewed tea and warm scones.  It was a huge difference from the tourist-rammed restaurant at the BOH tea plantation so I can definitely see why the locals recommended it.

Tea and scones (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Warm fluffy scones, clotted cream & fresh strawberry jam

The day started off cloudy but the sun started peeking out soon after we finished out last scone.  By the time we made it down into the tea fields, it felt like a beautiful spring day.

Cameron Valley tea fields (Malaysia)

Wandering amongst the tea fields at Cameron Valley

Cameron Valley tea fields (Malaysia)

Basking in the sun and taking in the views

We motored by a kitschy little memorabilia museum called the Time Tunnel, which was crammed full of collectibles and paraphernalia from what life was like in Malaysia prior to World War II.  We spent an hour or so getting lost amongst all the vintage displays and reading through all the various exhibits on the history of Cameron Highlands.

Time Tunnel (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

The entrance to the Time Tunnel memorabilia museum

Time Tunnel (Brinchang, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Awesome vintage memorabilia all over the walls

Even though, during the day, the temperature can climb up to 25°C, after the sun sets and mist crawls in, the temperature dips into the low teens – making it perfect weather for hotpot!  In the Cameron Highlands, they call it Steamboat.  No matter what you call it or where you have it, it’s always delicious.

Hotpot (aka Steamboat) in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Steamy, savoury hotpot (aka Steamboat) in the town of Tanah Rata

The following day, we booked a day tour with one of the many tour companies in town and checked out a couple of the other local tourist hotspots:

The BOH tea plantation & tea fields

BOH tea fields, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Beautiful view of BOH tea fields in the morning

BOH tea fields, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Our guide teaching about the process of harvesting tea leaves

The supposedly easy jaunt through the Mossy Forest…

Mossy Forest (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

An “easy stroll” through the Mossy Forest

…that required tricky climbs down moss-covered vines and tree trunks…

Mossy Forest (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Jason went down first, so he could catch me in case I slipped off the vines

…and face-to-face encounters with carnivorous plants…

The carnivorous plant in the Mossy Forest (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

The carnivorous plant (a.k.a Pitcher Plant, Monkey Cup) in the Mossy Forest – not big enough to eat people…just bugs.

We stopped by the butterfly museum.  Where we saw 2 butterflies and then an endless number of creepy looking insects…

Leaf bug (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

A bug pretending to be a leaf!

Handling scorpions (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

My husband pretending to enjoy holding the poisonous scorpion

Saturday night market in Brinchang (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Locals and tourists jammed into the Saturday night market in Brinchang

We heard the place to be on a Saturday night was the night market in Brinchang.  Even though it was raining, locals and tourists were out in full force.

Meat on a stick (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Meat on a stick

Strawberries on a stick (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Strawberries on a stick

We noticed a certain theme amongst food items:

Honeycomb on a stick (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Even honeycomb on a stick

Of course no night market is complete without huge vats of rice and noodles.

Humongous woks of noodles and rice (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Humongous woks of noodles and rice

We enjoyed the cool mountain air and tea & scones the most.  And it was nice to be covered in sweaters, as opposed to just sweat, for a few days.

Rolling mountains (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia)

Rolling mountains and cool misty air

Eating: Penang

Congee breakfast in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Breakfast of champions: congee with stewed pork, duck, tofu, and mustard greens.

George Town is the capital city of Penang.  Penang is the food capital of Malaysia.  So we had our expectations set REALLY high for this city.  Recipe for failure? Um, no.  More like recipe for the best Indian/Malay/Chinese food we’ve had since we arrived in Malaysia!

Before we even arrived in George Town, I emailed my friend Andrea who was just here with her husband six months earlier.  We both follow this excellent food blog called EatingAsia.  Andrea had contacted the talented blogger and received an email containing a couple of resources – most notably an amazing self-guided food tour that she published in the Wall Street Journal.

Coconut tarts in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Coconut tarts at Leong Chee Kee, a hidden little bakery at the back of a parking lot off of  Lebuh Cintra

During our twelve-day stay in George Town, we blocked off a full day to do the food tour.  We made sure we woke up early and hungry and slowly ate our way through the city.  The tour had us zigzaggin’ all over the colonial core of George Town – which was fine by us because we needed all that walking to burn off all the food we were consuming.  The walking tour took us past places like Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town…

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

…to the Dim Sum institution, Aik Hoe – where elderly men socialize all morning over pots of hot tea and baskets of har gow (shrimp dumplings)…

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Dim Sum at 8 in the morning – busiest time of the day

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Locals catching up on daily news and gossip over dim sum

..to little inconspicuous shops that specialized in making only one thing like Henry Yap’s yu char kwai (Chinese fritter) shop…

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Henry Yap’s fritter shop

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Deep frying the sticks of fluffy dough

…to the sweets-laden shelves and flower-lined stalls of little India…

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Stacks of sweets outside a shop in little India

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Garlands of plastic flowers line the stalls in little India

…to the longest-standing fort in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis.  Just to name a few.  And that’s all in one day.

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis (George Town, Malaysia)

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis

The food tour isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach – and the trick to surviving the day was to graze (not gorge) at each stop.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to make it even halfway through the tour.  The intense heat doesn’t help either, so make sure to stay cool and hydrated.

Cool & Sweet

Luckily, there are a lot of places that serve cool delightful bowls of sweets.  They might look a little strange but they are so tasty and refreshing in the 40ºC heat.

Cendol

This sweet, refreshing dessert gets its name from the green, chewy noodle that’s featured in this dish.  It’s made from rice flour and coloured using a local herb called “pandan“.   The bowl is filled with shaved ice, topped with red beans, cendol noodles, and drowned in coconut milk and gula (palm sugar syrup).

Cendol (George Town, Malaysia)

A cool and refreshing bowl of Cendol

Ice Kacang

Another refreshing dessert option is Ice Kacang – a colourful mix of sweet corn, grass jelly, red beans over shaved ice and drenched in palm sugar syrup, rose syrup and evaporated milk.  This little bowl packs a huge explosion of flavours that work surprisingly well together.  Between Cendol or Ice Kacang, I personally enjoyed the latter more.

Ice Kacang (George Town, Malaysia)

A delicious and colourful bowl of Ice Kacang

Kopi

Kopi (coffee) is everywhere in George Town.  That’s because kopitiams (traditional coffee shops) are to Malaysia as Tim Hortons are to Canada.  Locals love to sit for hours over a kopi and catch up over the day’s news and gossip.  One of the better coffee shops we visited was Toon Leong (corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll).  We ordered the perfect glass of kopi peng (iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk)

Kopi Peng (George Town, Malaysia)

An ice-cold glass of coffee with condensed milk

Fruit Shakes

Malaysia offers a huge variety of fresh local fruit (mango, watermelon,guava, rambutan, star fruit, etc), so it’s no surprise that the fruit shakes and fruit juices are amazing.  Fresh, sweet, and thirst-quenching – they’re available everywhere.  My personal favourite was the lime juice from the juice stand at the corner of Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia,

Fruit shakes (George Town, Malaysia)

A huge glass of fresh watermelon juice

Besides the food tour articles, the map in the picture below was absolutely indispensable during our stay in George Town.  It contains pictures and descriptions of all the signature Malaysian dishes. along with locations of restaurants/stalls/stands that serve them.  They’re available in almost all hostels and guesthouses so make sure to pick one up.

Penang Street Food map (George Town, Malaysia)

Penang’s food map: don’t leave home without it

With this in your back pocket, you’ll be able to create your own food tour.  Malaysians really know what they’re doing when it comes to food – especially in Penang, where the food choices are seemingly unending.  Drawing from Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian influences, Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot of drool-worthy flavours. (Hmmm..’melting pot’ and ‘drool’ should not be used in the same sentence.)

Indian-influence

I think one of the best things about visiting Malaysia is that it feels like you’re also visiting India.  The Indian food in Penang was amazing.  We found that we had Indian food more often than we had anticipated – only because it was so amazingly delicious.  We craved it every single day.

Roti Canai

My personal favourite was Roti Canai – flatbread that’s pulled really thin, folded, and then grilled in oil.  The perfect version is flat, crispy and flaky on the outside but fluffy on the inside.

Roti Canai (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai – fluffy, chewy, and crispy all at the same time

My favourite version is found on Jalan Penang at a outdoor food stand called Sup Hameed.  Order it with the fish curry for only RM1.00 ($0.33 CDN).  We probably had it half a dozen times at .  Simply phenomenal.

Roti Canai and fish curry (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai and fish curry for RM1.00 at Sup Hameed

Curry and Naan

Another simple meal was various curries and dahl (a type of lentil stew) served with garlic naan (an oven-baked flatbread).  So good and deceptively filling.

Curry and naan (George Town, Malaysia)

Garlic naan and curries

Thosai

We stumbled upon the restaurant Veloo Villas in little India and tried their amazing Thosai, a crispy fermented crepe or pancake.  It served a variety a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl –  which you scrape up with crispy pieces of Thosai.  Little did we know, Veloo Villas was also listed on the self-guided food tour I mentioned above, so we happily sampled it again on our food tour day.

Thosai (George Town, Malaysia)

Thosai with a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl

Banana leaf set at Veloo Villas (George Town, Malaysia)

Mutton curry with rice on a banana leaf

Thali

Thali is the ultimate meal for indecisive eaters.  You know the ones who hum and haw at a menu for 20 minutes before they finally decide on what they’ll have as their appetizer?  Thali is basically a platter of various dishes served in small metal bowls.  You can choose various combinations but I think Jason and I must have both ordered the super-sized version – 11 dishes!  It was really fun to eat as every dish was a surprise.  I recognized maybe one or two of the dishes (dahl and a chutney) but everything else was completely foreign.  Dishes ranged from curries, pickles, yogurt, dahl, vegetables, chutney, rice, roti and a dessert.  We were set for the rest of the day after this meal.

Thali (George Town, Malaysia)

The super-sized Thali sampler set that I was definitely unable to finish.

Chinese-influence

I personally LOVED the Chinese-influenced dishes in Penang.  I may be biased since it’s the food of my people, but the Malaysian twist in Chinese dishes was awesome.

Wan Tan Mee

This dish made it onto my ‘Top 5 Dishes from our Travels’ list.  The humble Wan Tan Mee (pork or shrimp dumplings & noodles).  This dish is comfort food for me since I grew up eating it.  But I’ve only ever had the soup version.  We tried the dry version in George Town at a little hawker stall on Lebuh Chulia (they start setting up right in front of the furniture store in the evenings).

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls on Lebuh Chulia

And this dish changed my life.  Well, at least when it comes to food.  I now refer to time as “Before WanTan Mee” and “After Wan Tan Mee“.  The yellow noodles are perfectly springy and chewy and are served in a dark soy sauce/sesame oil dressing.  Simple but so mind-blowingly good.

You don’t have to take my word for it though, just check out the long lines that form in front of the stall every night.  The husband and wife team move so quickly and efficiently that it’s hard not to be in awe.

Wan Tan Mee stall (George Town, Malaysia)

The best Wan Tan Mee stall in George Town (Lebuh Chulia in front of the furniture store)

We must’ve have come back to the stall at least half a dozen times throughout our stay in George Town.  We even came back one night when it was raining so hard that the streets started flooding.  We were pretty certain the stand would be closed – but we wanted to check anyway.  We were absolutely delighted to see it was still open.  Only the hard-core Wan Tan Mee-lovers were out:  the two of us and another pair that sat across from us, huddled under the sheet-metal roof of the closest building.

Wan Tan Mee in the rain (George Town, Malaysia)

Die-hard fans brave torrential rain to enjoy a hearty plate of Wan Tan Mee

And considering how many times we had this amazing dish, I surprisingly don’t have a single good photo of it.  Although, I think the photo below explains it well – I always scarfed it down before I remembered to stop and take a picture.

Wan Tan Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

Enjoying my first plate (of many) of Wan Tan Mee

Dim Sum

Another favourite of ours – we ended making repeat visits to Aik Hoe (6 Lebuh Carnarvon) for a cheap and tasty breakfast.  I’ve had a lot of Dim Sum in my life and I can definitely understand why this place is now an institution in George Town.

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious little plates of Dim Sum

The Dim Sum was so fresh since the restaurant was always packed – they were constantly churning out new batches.  The har gow (shrimp dumplings) was made perfectly.  And make sure to also try the made-to-order xiao long bau (soup-filled dumplings)

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Giant steamer baskets of Dim Sum

Hot Pot

I’m already a huge fan of Hot Pot at home.  There’s nothing more satisfying than cooking up your own food and dipping it into the perfect bowl of DIY sauce.  We passed by this hot pot stall (near Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane) a couple of times before we decided to give it a go.

Hot Pot food stall in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hot Pot food stall (Pay-as-you-eat)

Personally, I think it’s a little gimmicky but it’s still fun.  And great for a quick snack!  You just grab a couple of skewers of meat/vegetables/seafood, cook them up in one of the vats of broth, and dip them into various sauces that you spoon onto your plate.

Hot Pot food stall (George Town, Malaysia)

Deciding between all the different skewers for Hot Pot

Southern Chinese

We tried to look for turkey on Canadian Thanksgiving day but we had to settle for braised duck instead.  We visited the popular Tek Sen (18 & 20 Lebuh Carnarvon) – beloved by locals and tourists alike.  Having been around for almost half a century, it’s built a solid reputation and a strong local following.  Serving mainly Southern Chinese food (Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, Sichuan), you’ll likely be able to find something that will suit any palate.

Tek Sen menu (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious southern Chinese meal at Tek Sen

We ended ordering a mini-feast: braised duck, stir-fried pea shoots, and braised tofu.  Thanksgiving: Malaysian-style!

Tek Sen meal (George Town, Malaysia)

Our Canadian Thanksgiving meal – Malaysian style.

Duck Kuay Teow Th’ng

Kuay Teow Th’ng (Flat rice noodles in soup) is divine.  My favourite version is the duck meat.  It’s hearty and comforting, yet light and delicate at the same time.

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

My favourite version was the duck. Pictured here is another delicious option: pork and fish balls!

Silky smooth rice noodles. thin slices of seasoned duck meat, and finely-chopped scallions come together perfectly in a delicately-flavoured consomme.

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

No time to stop for picture-taking

Hainanese Chicken Rice

This dish sounds very simple but every aspect of it needs to be prepared perfectly for the whole dish to work.  The chicken: delicately flavoured, the skin is thin and crispy, and the meat is juicy and tender.  The rice: seasoned and lightly dressed with oil.  The extras: thin slices of cucumber to soak up the grease, slices of green onion for flavour, and a bowl of light chicken broth to wash it down.  The crowning touch: the perfect house-made hot sauce.  My favourite version is found at Wen Chang Hainan Chicken Rice (63 Lebuh Cintra)

Hainanese chicken rice (George Town, Malaysia)

How does a concept as simple as chicken and rice be so delicious and complex in flavour?

Hokkien Mee

It took us a long time to discover this delicious dish.  I think it was on Day 11 of our 12-days in George Town that we stumbled upon this excellent version in the massive group of food stalls right outside Gurney Plaza.  When you finally decide to rent a car or bike to get out of the downtown core, make sure to drop by for a bowl of hearty, spicy goodness.  A thick, fragrant prawn and pork-based broth surrounds the springy yellow noodles and rice vermicelli.  It packs just enough heat and the strong prawn-flavour is rounded out by a slight sweetness.  I didn’t expect this dish to be this delicious and really regretted discovering it so late in our stay in George Town.

Hokkien Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

The blue spoon really looks good with the spicy red bowl of Hokkien Mee.

Malay-influence

Mee Goreng

You’ll likely see Mee Goreng available all over George Town.  It’s a popular dish in Penang.  But if you want to try a special version, head to Hameed’s food court stall (one of a handful of food stalls that are still open in the sad-looking food court next to Fort Cornwallis) and try the Mee Goreng Sotong.  The super-spicy sambal sotong sauce that’s spooned on top of the yellow noodles might bring tears to your eyes (it’s up to you whether they’re tears of joy or tears of pain).  Chewy strands of squid, cubes of potato, chopped green onions and a squirt of lime round out this fiery plate of noodles.

Mee Goreng Sotong (George Town, Malaysia)

Fiery plate of Mee Goreng Sotong

Satay

Seasoned, skewered, and grilled meats over hot coals or wood fire.  Everything tastes good on a stick!  Especially when it’s served with an amazing chili sauce, crunchy cucumber slices and pieces of sweet onion.

Satay (George Town, Malaysia)

Satay served with fresh cucumbers and sweet onion

Nasi Kandar

This simple meal originates from Penang and quite simply consists of steamed rice and various curries, meats, and vegetables.  As part of our self-guided food tour, we tried the version served at Toon Leong coffee shop.  The term nasi kandar originates from  Malaysian street hawkers who used to carry around their food by balancing two large containers of nasi (rice) and curry that hung from either ends of a long kandar (pole).

Nasi Kandar (George Town, Malaysia)

Nasi Kandar: fall-off-the-bone chicken curry and rice version

Assam Laksa

Also referred to as Penang Laksa, this is the dish that catapulted Malaysia into A-list celebrity/Can’t-go-anywhere-without-being-by-hounded-by-paparazzi status.  It’s the only noodle dish in Penang that uses a fish-based broth.  The broth is a wonderful medley of  poached mackeral, lemongrass, chillies and assam (tamarind) – ingredients that give this dish its unique tangy and savoury flavour.  It’s served with thick  rice noodles and then topped with sliced cucumbers, lettuce, red chilies, and tons of fresh mint leaves!  It’s an amazing dish that’s different from all other types of laksa sold in Malaysia.  I haven’t been able to have it again since we’ve left – so make sure you get your fill before you leave Penang.

Assam Laksa (George Town, Malaysia)

Flavour explosion: Assam Laksa (Penang’s own version of Laksa)

So there you have it: a comprehensive run-down of our food adventure in Penang.  George Town was an exceptional city and is definitely one of the highlights of our travels in Southeast Asia so far.

We arrived with high expectations and left with huge smiles, full bellies, and tastebuds still tingling.

George Town, Malaysia: The One You Bring Home to Meet the Parents

Street art, George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Street art in George Town – creative use of different mediums

Next up on the menu travel itinerary was Penang, Malaysia.  Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia and we’ve heard about its gastronomic prowess even before we left on our travels.  So for that very reason, we had to make it part of our travels plans.  Yah, I wasn’t kidding when I described how Jason and I sometimes make travel plans based purely on food.

Dim sum (George Town, Malaysia)

Dim sum snack

As excited as we were for visiting George Town for its renowned food culture, the capital city of the ‘food capital of Malaysia’ does have way more to offer than just delicious food.  We ended up staying in George Town for 12 awesome days because there was so much to eat, see, and do.

George Town is located on the island of Penang, which is on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.  It’s a beautiful, well-preserved historical city which still feels like a small colonial town.  And thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2008, the historical colonial core of the city will hopefully stay well-preserved.

Shophouses in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

The second story window of a shophouse in George Town, Malaysia

Colourful buldings in the historical core of George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Colourful buildings along Campbell Street in George Town, Malaysia

Queen Victoria Clock Tower (George Town, Malaysia)

The Queen Victoria Clock Tower in George Town, Malaysia

We spent the first few days on the outskirts of George Town – just a couple of of kilometres from Batu Ferringhi.  Batu Ferringhi is a famous beach area in Penang but since we had just come from the beautiful Perhentian Islands, we couldn’t help but we couldn’t help but feel like “beach snobs”.  The area has some decent stretches of white sand beaches, but we were there for the carnival-like atmosphere of its open-air night markets.  An endless amount of stalls line the main road and after awhile, you start seeing the same wares over and over again.

Night Market stalls in Batu Ferringhi (Penang, Malaysia)

Night Market stalls in Batu Ferringhi

The markets can get really crowded so when you start feeling a little claustrophobic, you can stop at the many hawker food centres and grab a bite.  They’re like glorified outdoor food courts and you’re guaranteed to find something to suit your taste.  You order at one of the food vendors, they deliver it to your table, and you pay for you dish when it arrives.  I think it’s a great system – there’s no need to flag down a busy server at the end of your meal to settle up.  You just pat your full belly and waltz on out.  It’s the legit form of dine-‘n’-dash.

Red Garden Food Paradise in George Town, Malaysia

A Hawker Food Centre (Red Garden Food Paradise) in George Town, Malaysia

After seeing these all over Vietnam during our honeymoon, we finally broke down and tried them: Fish spas!

Fish spa (Penang, Malaysia)

Fish Spa near Batu Ferringhi

The concept seems really weird, but when you see enough of them, it sort of becomes the norm (which we learned later as they are literally at EVERY street corner in Thailand).  You stick your bare feet and legs into a giant tank of fish and these ravenous little buggers eat all the dead skin off your feet – leaving you with baby smooth feet.  Gross, yes? But oh so needed after 3 months of trekking in South America!

Fish spa (Penang, Malaysia)

A very ticklish experience at a local fish spa!

It’s actually a very ticklish torturous sensation since the fish in Malaysian fish spas are a little bigger –  you can definitely feel their little teeth nibbling at you.  We bought 30 minutes of fish time but it took us over 10 minutes justto  get used to the feeling enough to keep our feet in the tanks.  At the end though, our feet were pretty baby soft.

After a couple of days in the outskirts, we moved into the colonial core of George Town into one of the converted shophouses.  The historical centre of George Town is covered with original shophouses – some dating back to the 1800s.  Some of these original shophouses still house olden day tradesmen who hammer away at hot iron, labour over antique sewing machines, or construct paper lanterns.  You feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you walk down these streets

Original shophouses in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Original shophouses in George Town, Malaysia

Blue window (George Town, Malaysia)

Weathered concrete wall and wooden window shutters – I loved the colours

Other shophouses have been converted into guesthouses – like the one we stayed in for a few days.  Nazlina has two guestrooms upstairs and teaches cooking courses on the mainfloor.

Nazlina's guesthouse (George Town, Malaysia)

The converted shophouse we stayed in for a few days in George Town

A great example of a beautifully refurbished structure is China House.  Exposed beams, heritage textiles, and warehouse light fixtures juxtoposes modern and heritage into one space.  Several interconnected shophouses have been converted into a massive music, food, drinks, and art locale.  The front area serves as a restaurant and cafe (we had an amazing rum cake there!), while the back is an artsy, deconstructed bar/lounge area

China House (George Town, Malaysia)

The cafe/restaurant part of China House. These is where all the hipsters would likely hang out, if George Town had hipsters.

China House (George Town, Malaysia)

Overhead shot of all the cakes, pies, and desserts in China House. The rum cake was REALLY good

Climb the rickety stairs to check out the second floor art galleries

China House (George Town, Malaysia)

The art gallery on the 2nd floor of China House

One of my favourite things about George Town (besides the awesome food) is its  incredible arts culture.  The whole city is dotted with fascinating street art, music and art festivals run throughout the year, and artisan shops abound.

Artisan shops (George Town, Malaysia)

Handmade quilts hang outside artisan shops

Street art (George Town, Malaysia)

Interesting street art around the city

Street art in George Town, Malaysia

More street art around the city. This one was hidden behind a building

It makes this city so much fun to explore on foot or by bike.  In fact, we rented bikes several times to check out all the street art.

Tandem biking in George Town, Malaysia

Tandem bikes are really hard to ride. It’s a little like when I go Salsa dancing – I always want to lead 😛

The city provides a street art map (that you can find in almost all hostels and guesthouses) which indicates the location of all the street art locations.  It was a great resource for a DIY street art tour.

Bike-themed street art (George Town, Malaysia)

Bike-themed street art!

Street art in George Town, Malaysia

You can interact with some street art pieces 🙂

The “wire art” was especially interesting because each art piece represented a cultural or historical fact about the city.

Wire art (George Town, Malaysia)

An example of wire art. This one was about Jimmy Choo and how his shoe empire stated right in the building the art was attached to.

Wire art (George Town, Malaysia)

Chickens trying to avoid being made dinner

Wire art (George Town, Malaysia)

Sharing a meal with some street art

We rented this awesome novelty bike during one of the street art tour days.

Novelty Bike (George Town, Malaysia)

We rented this cheesy novelty bike one day. (We seemed to have had a thing for novelty bikes in George Town..haha)

We would navigate through the city in search for each street art piece and I would jump out of the bike to take a picture.  Some pieces were in plain sight while for others, you had to search really hard for it (Actually there was one we never found – we think the building that it was attached to was demolished)

Novelty Bike (George Town, Malaysia)

Drivers hated us but pedestrians loved us. We held up a lane of traffic while people walking around waved at us like we were celebrities

Once, after coming back from taking a photo of the street art, I returned to Jason and the bike and saw this:

Novelty Bike (George Town, Malaysia)

My husband getting mobbed?!

I thought he was being mobbed by a group of angry Malaysians. But it turned out that they were all fascinated by this novelty bike.  We became B-list celebrities (B for Bike..haha) while we were riding around town in this bike – people would stop and wave at us as we pedaled by.

Novelty Bike (George Town, Malaysia)

Nope – everyone wanted to meet the couple putting around town in the cheesy bike

Even though we had left the beach behind in the Perhentian Islands, we didn’t leave the beach weather behind.  Temperatures soared to a sweaty, sticky 38ºC (it felt even hotter with the humidity!) on a daily basis so when things got too unbearable we ran to the malls (you remember how Malaysians had a thing for malls?) for multiple air-conditioning breaks. Komtar Complex has a pretty popular mall, as well as the tallest building in Penang.  Five ringgit ($1.60 CDN) will get you to the 60th floor, which has a panoramic observation deck.  The views were pretty spectacular up there and gave you a 360º view of the island.

View of Penang Island from Komtar Tower (George Town, Malaysia)

The view of Penang Island from the 60th floor of Komtar Tower

View of Penang Island from Komtar Tower (George Town, Malaysia)

Jason looking out the windows of the observation deck in Komtar Tower

We also rented a motorbike one day and got to explore a little further outside the colonial core.

Motorcyling around the Penang (Malaysia)

Motorcyling around the island of Penang

We headed over to Penang National Park with the intent of hiking over to the other side of the park to to Monkey beach.  But it turned out the entrance of the park was already overrun with monkeys.  Good thing too – because we never actually made it to Monkey Beach.  The hike got really tedious, mosquitos started eating us alive, and at one point the heat just did us in.

Monkeys at Penang National Park (Penang, Malaysia)

Monkeying around at the entrance of Penang National Park

Monkeys at Penang National Park (Penang, Malaysia)

Hmmm…not sure how we’re going to get home now…

We hiked for an hour into the park and ended up turning back before we got to our destination.  It was a little disappointing – a two hour hike with nothing to show for.  Oh well – at least the scenery at the entrance of the park was pretty nice.

The pier outside Penang National Park (Penang, Malaysia)

The pier outside Penang National Park

We rode back towards town and saw this awesome floating mosque, also known as Masjid Terapun.

Floating mosque in Penang, Malaysia

The floating mosque in Penang

We stopped to check it out in person and the awesome guide at the entrance gave us this super informative tour of the mosque and a beautiful explanation of Islam.  Prior to starting the tour though, we had to don some pretty unflattering outfits.

Floating mosque in Penang, Malaysia

Jason had to cover his legs before stepping into the floating mosque

Floating mosque in Penang, Malaysia

I had to cover everything before stepping into the floating mosque

The mosque was beautiful – both inside and out.

Inside the floating mosque in Penang, Malaysia

Inside the floating mosque

Ceiling of the floating mosque (Penang, Malaysia)

Looking straight up at the ceiling of the mosque

Our stay in George Town was simply exceptional.  We fell so deeply in love with this city that if we could, we would bring it home to meet our parents.  George Town is the whole package – fascinating history, cultural diversity, an awesome arts vibe, and beautiful architecture.  And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – the food!  More about food in my next post, but until then, here’s a parting shot of the beautiful city of George Town.

Sunset over George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Sunset over George Town

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia: A Whole New World

Note from the author: Sorry for the radio silence! It’s been a wonderfully busy Christmas season and we’ve been really busy stuffing our faces with turkey and….well, stuffing 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying the holidays too!

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Sunset over the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Have you ever tried something that ended up opening up a whole new world for you?  I’m not talking about something like discovering you love seafood one day, after a lifetime of avoiding it – although that’s still a pretty awesome turning point in life.

Fresh seafood (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Fresh seafood

I’m talking about discovering something that literally opens up a completely foreign and beautiful new world that you’ve never before experienced.  That’s what happened to me and Jason in Malaysia – specifically the Perhentian Islands.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Beautiful white sand beaches on Perhentian Besar

View of Perhentian Kecil from Perhentian Besar (Malaysia)

View of Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian”) from Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian”)

The Perhentian Islands are off the northeastern coast of peninsular Malaysia and home to beautiful pristine white sand beaches and untouched reefs and sealife.  The Perhentian Islands are still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism.  Turquoise blue sea surrounds the islands that are covered in tropical jungle, with few trails, no roads, and no ATMs.  Hotels and dorm options are relatively basic – you won’t find any 5-star options on the islands.  I’m pretty sure this is as close to a secluded island paradise as I’ve ever been but I’m sure it won’t last long.

White sand beaches in front of Universal Diver (Perhentian Besar, Malaysia)

White sand beaches in front of our dive shop. Universal Diver

We arrived here in early October, just before the monsoon season was set to hit.  I’m glad we had done our research before settling on a route through Malaysia or we would’ve missed the window to dive in the Perhentians.  The weather was perfect for the beach – scorchingly hot and sunny with the occasional afternoon storm to cool things off for the evening.

Approaching storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

One of the rare storms we experienced was magnificent to watch. It approached slowly and ominously from the mainland.

After the storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

After the storm passed, a gorgeous sunset light up the sky

On the bigger of the Perhentian Islands – Perhentian Besar – we discovered the wonderful world of scuba diving.  I don’t know what took us so long to try it.  I don’t really blame Jason since he’s never really been that comfortable in the water, but I LOVE water.  I was probably a fish in some past life.  I grew up immersed in a pool on a weekly basis: swimming classes, life-saving workshops, synchronized swimming lessons – I’ve done them all.  I love beach vacations, most of my favourite travel destinations are on the coast, and I live on Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto. 😛

One exception though – I don’t really like snorkeling.  Something about salt water always leaking into my mask and up my nose just turns me off from it.  So maybe that’s why I was never really that interested in scuba diving.

However, during our scuba lessons, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that clearing your scuba mask of water was a cinch –  so suddenly a leaking mask was no longer an issue.  I was also a little nervous for Jason being able to equalize his ears underwater since his ears are a little sensitive to equalization during flights.  Again, no issues!

Descent Line (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending via a line on our first open water dive

Taking your first breath underwater is a really strange experience, as is trusting that your scuba regulator will continue to deliver air to you as you descend deeper and deeper into the turquoise water.  But once you wrap your head around that, this whole new world underwater is unlike anything you’ll have experienced before.

Gearing up (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Getting ready and gearing up on the boat. It’s always a little chaotic above water

At the surface, it’s often a bit chaotic with the wind and waves and other divers entering the water.  Once you go below the surface, all that chaos disappears and you find that the deeper you go, the calmer it becomes.  Everything goes quiet and all movement seems to slow down.  The feeling of weightlessness is also incredibly relaxing.

Descending into the blue (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending into the blue

And as your eyes start focusing into the blue water, this beautiful world starts emerging from the depths.  Impressive sea fans, colourful corals, and hypnotic anemone cover the sea floor and rock walls.  Massive schools of neon yellow fish flash by.

Beautiful soft sea coral (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Beautiful soft sea coral

Anemone swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Anemone swaying in the current

Us swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Us swaying in the current

Jason and I took our PADI Open Water certification course at Universal Diver. The staff there was so friendly and welcoming.  Their divemasters and instructors were amazing.  And the dive shop’s operation and equipment were set up so well

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School: where we spent most of our time when we weren’t in the water

Universal Diver Dive Boat (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Boat

Our dive gear (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our dive gear

Our instructor, Alvaro, was excellent.  He was very safety-conscious yet fun, strict yet laid-back at the same time – which was perfect for an Open Water course.

Dive briefing (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our group getting briefed before one of our final open water dives

Scuba theory class (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia0

Looking too happy to be learning scuba diving theory

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates

Open Water students are typically brand new to diving and it can be nerve-wracking if you don’t feel like you can trust your instructor.  But, Alvaro was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to the theory and very thorough when it came to the practical instruction.

Perfect formation (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our instructor was always scolding us for bumping into each other or swimming over each other.  The rare time we actually swam in perfect formation!

We met two girls from Sweden, Ellen and Josephine, who had just arrived straight from Sweden and kicking off their two months of travel in Southeast Asia.  They were very sweet and funny and we had a great time spending the next five days with them in the water and on land over our many shared meals.

Diving buddies (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Jason and I with Ellen and Josephine, our diving course buddies

Speaking of meals, we were lucky enough to uncover some pretty decent food options on the island.  We visited every single one of the beach resorts on the eastern side of Perhentian Besar.  The best food was found at Mama’s Place – which required a 10 to 15 minute hike through the jungle.

Tom Yum noodles (Mama's Place. Perhentian Islands)

Tom yam noodle soup – perfect balance of savoury and tart.  Malaysia’s version of Thailand’s Tom Yum

(Maggi Goreng (Mama's Place, Perhentian Islands)

Maggi Goreng – stir fried Maggi instant noodles with a fried egg

Curry Noodles (Mama's Place Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Curry Noodles

Tuna Bay Resort also had well-prepared dishes and the best iced coffee but they were more expensive than the other restaurants.

Kuey Tiew  (Tuna Bay Resort, Perhentians, Malaysia)

Kuey Tiew – a popular fried noodle dish made of flat rice noodles. I ordered the whole steamed fish (first picture above)

We also had many meals at Cocohut since they were the closest option – fortunately, their food wasn’t half bad.

Tom Yam noodle soup (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Tom Yam noodle soup – not a very authentic version

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Sambal Fish (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Sambal Fish – fish marinated in sambal (a sweet and spicy chili paste)

After a final written exam (94% baby! Yes, I’m a nerd even when it comes to scuba diving), 3.5 days of exercises and assessments, we all got a passing grade from our instructor!  Yay – certified Open Water divers!

Graduation! (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Graduation Day!

The four of us celebrated with a dinner at Cocohut and then joined the staff and other divers at the dive shop for a night of raucous behaviour and…things that shall go unmentioned in this blog.  Let’s just say that everyone (i.e. both divers and staff) lucked out as I forgot to bring my camera along.  I guess what happens in the Perhentian Islands, stays in the Perhentian Island 😉

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: A Steamy Concrete Jungle

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The impressive Petronas Towers at night

The last few weeks in Korea and Japan felt like a vacation…yes, a vacation from our travels.  As weird as that sounds, it’s probably the best way to describe it.  Being with Jason’s family in Korea and then travelling with Jeanne and Dave in Japan felt like we were taking a bit of a break from our usual world of hostels, shared bathrooms, and eating at street stalls.

Don’t get me wrong, we love eating at street stalls, but we also love eating at good restaurants.  So after our “vacation” in Korea and Japan, we got back into “travel mode” after parting ways with Jeanne and Dave.

Up next in our travel adventures was Malaysia – specifically the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur (known as KL by the cool people – and obviously we are cool *wink*).  We were really excited to visit this city and were looking forward to experiencing the mix of modern metropolis with old-world orient.

What we were NOT prepared for was the oppressive (to the point of almost unbearable) humidity and heat.  On a daily basis, the temperature hovered around 35°C, and with humidity it felt like 44°C!  That kind of heat is fine if you’re on a beach but not if you’re stuck in a concrete jungle.

Although KL boasts several modern transit systems that interconnect, we found this multi-transit system really confusing and difficult to navigate.  After a few weeks in Korea and Japan, we had become a little spoiled by their clean, fast, and efficient metro systems.  KL has monorail lines, commuter train lines, and skytrain lines that all tangled up into a jumbled mess.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A confusing network of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges around the city. Notice the lack of sidewalks.

We decided to try our hand at exploring the city by foot.  But the pedestrian infrastructure also proved to be confusing and difficult to navigate.  Networks of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges that connect from building to building replaced normal pedestrian sidewalks.  Trying to get from point A to point B meant either scampering across a 6-lane highway or taking a 30-minute detour through underground tunnels and pedestrian bridges.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Bridges over random waterways. It’s liked they built all the buildings without any sort of plan of how they would get people from one building to another.

We spent our first day walking around our neighbouhood while trying to stay in the shade.  Jason had read about the indoor hawker stall food centre called Lot 10 Hutong.  Described as a “gourmet heritage village”, it pulls together a hand-picked lot of the best hawker stalls across Malaysia and places them in an clean, air-conditioned indoor food-court.  Normally, I prefer the grimier, authentic street food experience.  But in this ridiculous heat, “indoor” and ‘air-conditioning” were right up my alley.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Lot 10 Hutong: a gourmet heritage village

Jason and I both got Chinese-influenced dishes.  I ordered a delicious wine chicken & mushroom noodle soup and he got a claypot chicken rice dish.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Wine Chicken & mushroom noodle soup

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Claypot chicken rice

After cooling off and filling up, we were ready for round two of exploration.  However, we quickly found out that Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have many sights to take in – people mainly come here for two things: shopping and eating.

Shopping

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The expansive amusement park inside one of the malls – puts West Edmonton Mall to shame!

The malls in Malaysia are insane!  Now normally, I love shopping and have no problem with spending hours in malls and markets perusing the sales racks.  However, backpacking for 6 months means you have to be really, really picky with what you pick up along the way.  “Do I really want to carry this around for the next few months?” is a question we ask ourselves a lot.  Sure, we can ship things home, but that would get really expensive really quickly and we were already on a tight budget.

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason trying to figure out how to exit the massive mall complex

So unfortunately, no shopping for this girl.  Jason, on the other hand, was ecstatic about our limited shopping opportunities.  But even though we weren’t planning to do much shopping in Kuala Lumpur, we still ended up visiting quite a few malls – mainly to escape the heat and take advantage of the air conditioning and relatively clean bathrooms…. and of course, the bowling alleys!

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The 20-lane bowling alley inside the mall. Look at that picture-perfect form!

One of the few sights to see in the city is the iconic Petronas Towers.  It IS pretty impressive to see up close (from the outside) – especially when it’s all lit up at night.  Attached to the Petronas Towers is a massive high-end mall (of course!)

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Unflatteringly-angled selfie with the Petronas Towers.

Eating

Since shopping wasn’t really part of our plan, that just leaves eating on the agenda – which we both had no problems with.

An interesting area to visit in KL is Petaling Street/Chinatown.  Pirated CDs, fake Louis Vuitton purses, and street food stalls are crammed into the narrow and bustling pedestrian streets.

Petaling Street (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The packed narrow streets of Chinatown

Jason snacked on a banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumpling, while I found an awesome little spicy beef rice noodle stand in a back alley

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Malaysian culture is a fascinating mix of predominantly Indian, Chinese, Malay.  This ethnic mix, along with its geographic location, allows for many influences in Malaysian cuisine – Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian.  All of that cultural diversity will naturally lead to a melting pot of unique flavours and dishes.

Gravy beef over rice

Gravy beef over rice

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Mee Goreng – a spicy and tasty fried noodle dish that is very popular in Malaysia

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Another version of Mee Goreng

Our eyes and tastebuds were delighted to find this amazing food street, Jalan Alor, almost right next to where we were staying.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The popular food street, Jalan Alor

We walked right past it during the day, barely giving it a second glance.  During the daylight hours, it’s pretty easy to miss – but when the sun sets, this street comes to life.  Hawker stalls jostle for space on the streets while restaurants set up plastic stools and tables that spill over the sidewalk right onto the street.

Skewered meat and seafood (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Everything tastes better on a stick, right?

Seafood stall on Jalan Alor

A seafood stall open for business

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Tables were packed with locals – the best sign of good food

We ordered a feast that night: soy-glazed chicken wings, deep fried frog legs, and curry noodles – with a few cold pints of beer to wash it all down.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason just moments away from inhaling the bowl of curry noodles

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A meal fit for (Malaysian) royalty

Yes, the food was delicious, but irritated with the frustrating pedestrian infrastructure and the oppressive heat, we decided to hightail it out of Kuala Lumpur after only 2.5 days – the shortest we’ve spent in any one place so far.  Off to the beach – the only place one should be in 44°C weather!

Eating: Tokyo

Ramen noodle shop table set-up (Tokyo, Japan)

A typical set-up at a ramen noodle shop

The food awesomness continued from Korea into Japan.  Actually, it might be more accurate to describe it as: the food awesomeness only got better in Japan.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but Jason and I were really not ready for how amazing the food was going to be Korea after 3 months of South American food.  Little did we know, we were just warming up in Korea.  Our tastebuds were in for the greatest time of their lives in Japan.

We only spent four short days in Tokyo, so we had to make sure we were strategic in our food adventures.  Some of the things we had on our list was:

Ramen

Ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen meal with onigiri (rice balls)

Ramen is all the craze lately in Toronto.  In a span of a year, a dozen or so ramen shops popped up and ravenous Torontonians gobbled it down.  I was one of those ravenous Torontonians.

Ramen cook (Tokyo, Japan)

A ramen cook preparing to serve the noodles

Ramen is an cultural icon in Japan.  It’s also an art-form – traditional ramen chefs will argue that the perfect bowl of ramen noodle takes a lot of time and practice to achieve.  The noodles need to be al dente and the broth has to be perfectly seasoned, simmered, and reduced. Then it needs to be quickly slurped up, whilst making as much noise as possible.  That shows the cook that you’re really enjoying his ramen.

Paper bib for ramen (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason sporting a restaurant-supplied bib. Ready for all the ramen slurping!

There’s a method of serving ramen in Tokyo that has been around for 50+ years but has only recently become hugely popular.  I don’t think it’s really caught on in Toronto as I’ve never seen anyone order it (or perhaps I just haven’t been looking out for it).  I first saw it on a TV cooking show – a specific episode featuring ramen in Japan.

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth. One of my favourite ramen meals

Known as tsukemen, it’s basically ramen that you dip into broth (as opposed to being served in broth).  First, you choose the type of broth you want.  If you’re lucky, the vending machine will have pictures

Noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (with pictures)

If you’re unlucky, then you have to stare at the machine with a glazed-over expression, until the cook notices and comes over to help you out.

Retro noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (without pictures)

Then you choose the portion of noodle you want. The sizes will range from a small portion to sometimes, an extra-large portion.

Ramen noodle portions (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen noodle portions. I ordered the medium the first time and it wasn’t enough 😦

They’re all the same price, so it’s tempting to order the largest portion.  But waste would be frowned upon, so choose wisely.  I made the mistake of ordering too small a portion the first time (It was a medium!) and ended up digging into Jason’s ramen stash.  The next time, I ordered much too large of a portion (XL) and had to waddle uncomfortably out of the ramen shop.  I know, first-world problems.

Tsukemen with all the fixings (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with all the fixings (and an XL noodle portion!)

I think it’s the perfect way to eat ramen.  The ramen noodles don’t go mushy from sitting in broth.  The broth is thicker (almost like a thin sauce) and much more flavourful.  The noodles are the perfect combination of thick and chewy – an ideal vehicle for the thicker broth.  As you dip the noodle in the broth, the thick broth coats each noodle in its entirety.  Simply perfect.  Once you’ve had it, you might find it difficult to go back to conventional ramen.

Tsukemen (Tokyo, Japan)

Fast-food tsukemen

Soba

Soba noodles in broth & tempura (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & tempura

Sometimes overlooked by noodle-lovers vying for the hugely popular ramen, this simple and delicious noodle dish deserves a cult following too.  Soba can be served in a hot broth, as pictured above.  Or served on the side for dipping into a hot broth (looks like someone is learning a thing or two from ramen)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth

Or for the indecisive, you can have soba AND a deep-fried oyster fritter over rice.

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice

But my personal favourite is zaru soba, where the soba noodles are served chilled with a dipping sauce.  The dipping sauce is called soba tsuyu, in which you can should mix scallions and wasabi.  It’s especially refreshing during the hot summer months.

Zaru soba meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Chilled (zaru) soba meal

Izakaya

Okay, izakaya isn’t a type of food.  But it IS a type of food experience.  Best described as a Japanese pub, these little establishments serves chilled beer, sake, and (my favourite part) delightful little dishes of food (similar to tapas).

Izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

An izakaya in Ebisu district

They’re hugely popular with Japanese businessmen who, after a long day at work, aren’t ready to head back home yet.  The izakaya scene has also become quite popular in Toronto, but sadly, it doesn’t hold a candle to the izakaya experience in Tokyo.

We made out way to Ebisu district – known for its dense population of izakayas – and popped our head through random doorways until we discovered this little locals-only joint.

Locals in an izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

Locals in an izakaya in the Ebisu district

No English menus out front and no English writing on the walls – it obviously didn’t cater to tourists.  Yes! Our favourite type of spot.  We managed to score the last available table tucked away near the back and tried to figure out what the locals were ordering.  Luckily, the server handed us a small hand-written English menu after it became clear we didn’t know what we were doing.

Japanese izakaya menu (Tokyo, Japan)

We stared at this Japanese menu for awhile until the server handed us a small English menu

Izakayas are known to serve more adventurous fare, so we ordered chicken heart skewers, duck gizzard skewers, as well as the ‘chef’s choice’ specialty.

An unknown meat skewer (Tokyo, Japan)

An unknown meat skewer that was delicious!

Tofu izakaya dish (Tokyo, Japan)

A tofu dish

Whole mackarel sashimi (Tokyo, Japan)

Whole mackarel sashimi

After polishing off the sake and food, we discovered that we were still hungry, so we settled up and headed out to find another izakaya.  By now, it was a little later in the evening, so normally reserved and polite businessmen had started to take to the streets with song and dance.  It made for pretty good local entertainment.

Sake by the glass (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering and pouring sake by the glass

We decided to order sake by the glass this time, and I learned about this very cool custom.  When ordered by the glass, sake is poured by the server into a large sake glass that’s placed into a small wooden container.  To show that the establishment is generous with their liquor, the server pours the sake until it overflows the glass and fills the wooden container as well.  As you slowly finish the sake in your glass, you pour the overflow sake from the container into your glass.

Conveyer Belt Sushi

There are few things more magical than sushi that arrives via conveyer belt.  Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.  But conveyer belt (or kaiten) sushi restaurants ARE a very happy place.  There’s no waiting for the server to come over with a menu, or waiting for the chef to prepare your meal – you just grab whatever you fancy off the moving belt.

Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

We sat right by the chefs station

Or if you’re sushi connoisseurs like us (ha!) and nothing on the conveyer belt does it for you, you can yell out for the sushi chef to make you something à la carte.

Jeanne found us a great little kaiten sushi place called Pintokana in Roppongi district. It was our first night in Tokyo and we went a little crazy…good crazy. I don’t have that many pictures of the sushi we ate because my hands were busy picking up sushi off the belt stuffing sushi in my face.

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Uni (sea urchin) sushi. One of my faves!

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

I don’t really remember. Cuttlefish sushi?

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Tuna avocado sushi

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Squid (ika) sushi

Chirashizushi

Chirashizushi is a bowl of rice topped with a variety of sashimi and additional garnishes.  The four of us had chirashizushi for breakfast the morning we had hoped to visit the Tsukiji fish market.  It was closed but this more than made up for that disappointment.

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason’s breakfast: Roasted eel over a bed of rice

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jeanne & Dave’s breakfast: Fatty and lean tuna & fish eggs over a bed of rice

Uni & ikura over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

My breakfast: Uni (sea urchin) & ikura (fish eggs) over rice

And yes, that IS what you think it is – a huge helping of fresh uni (sea urchin) in my breakfast bowl 🙂  This dish probably topped everything else I had eaten in Tokyo.  I think I moaned in ecstasy after every single bite (much to the annoyance of everyone else at the table) 😛  Seriously AH-MAZ-ING.

Snacks

This little piece of perfection is called tamagoyaki.  It’s a type of grilled egg that’s slightly sweet and savoury.  Sprinkle a few drops of soy sauce on it to bring out the flavour.  The version pictured below is probably the best I’ve ever tasted.  Fluffy, tasty and hot off the grill.

Tamagoyaki (sweet & savoury grilled egg) near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The best version of tamagoyaki I’ve ever had. It was melt in your mouth.

The Japanese are constantly on the go.  So it’s not surprise to see that a lot of their food is designed to be mobile.  Onigiri (rice balls) are small but filling and designed so that you can eat them neatly with one hand.  They’re available everywhere in Tokyo (e.g. convenience stores, food stalls, vending machines).

Onigiri (Tsukiji Fish market, Tokyo, Japan)

I LOVED onigiri (rice ball). Every chance I got, I would pick one up. (which is pretty easy to do when they’re available everywhere)

Traditional Sushi

Of course I have to end off my post on food in Tokyo with a classic.

Platter of sushi (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

Platter of sushi

I hate to admit it but sushi in Japan really IS better – the fish is fresher and of better quality, there’s more variety, and the fish to rice ratio is perfect.  Our last night in Tokyo was spent gorging on excellent sushi.

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district

Toro sushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Toro (fatty tuna) sushi

And there you have it – Japan takes the win!  Hands down, Japan has offered us the best food experience in our travels so far.  Let’s see what Southeast Asia will bring to the (dining) table.

Tokyo, Japan: Worth Breaking My Travel Rule

Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Traditional Japanese dress exhibit in Edo-Tokyo Museum

It’s been about 8 years since my last visit to Japan.  I normally don’t like visiting the same place twice – it’s actually a travel rule of mine.  Why go to the same place, when there are so many places left in the world to discover?

Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan

Jason walking down one of Tokyo’s typical streets at night – aglow with neon signs from every angle.

But once we arrived in Japan, I was definitely happy that I broke that rule.  Besides, there were good reasons: 1) Jason had never been to Japan  2) Technically, I’m not visiting the same place twice.  I visited Nagoya and Kyoto in 2005 – this time we’ll be in Tokyo.  3) Japan is pretty awesome.

Some small examples of Japan’s awesomeness:

Efficiency

Soap, faucet, dryer - all in one (Tokyo, Japan)

Soap, faucet, dryer – all in one!

The Japanese know how to get things done – and done well.  Even small things like this public bathroom sink.  Soap dispenser on the left side, water faucet in the middle, and hand dryer on the right.  Just think of all the wasted steps we take from the sink to the hand dryer in Canada!

Ordering soba noodles (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

A soba noodle restaurant that allows you to order via a vending machine out front.

There are so many restaurants in Tokyo where you order through a vending machine up front, hand your order tickets to the chef, and voila! a quick and delicious bowl of noodles.  Right there, you’ve eliminated the need for a server and a cashier.  The cook doesn’t need to handle the money, so he can concentrate on quickly dishing out your lunch.  Genius!

Transportation

Tokyo's metro system (Tokyo, Japan)

One of Tokyo’s metro stations – safety gates and signs indicating when a train is arriving.

Safe, clean, fast, and expansive.  Tokyo’s metro system will get you almost anywhere, in no time flat, without any hassle.  Safety barriers at most stations will make sure you arrive in one piece.  It’s a little on the pricey side (minimum fare is about $1.70/ride compared to Seoul’s $0.90/ride but still nowhere near Toronto’s extortionate $3/ride) but you definitely get what you pay for (unlike the TTC in Toronto).

Courtesy

Even if YOU bumped into someone else on the subway, they will most likely bow and apologize.  And I thought Canadians overused “I’m sorry”.  Joking aside, it was a refreshing change to be around polite and courteous people after 3 months of being pushed out of the way in South America.

Snacks

Chip aisle in 7-11 store (Tokyo, Japan)

Chip aisle in a 7-11 store

Japan is the world leader of snacks.  The variety and volume is astounding.  I personally cannot get enough of chips and I can spend 10 minutes standing in front of the chip aisle just trying to select something new to try – wasabi-flavoured chips, seaweed puffs, ramen-flavoured crisps, shrimp crackers.  The world is my oyster. Oh! Oyster-flavoured chips are pretty delish too.

Details

Hair ties supplied with your ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

The perfect accompaniment to any ramen meal

I’ve been to my fair share of ramen noodle houses in Toronto.  And some of them are really good – rivaling some of the ones we’ve had here in Tokyo.  But I’ve never been to a ramen noodle house that provides hair ties.  No more strands of long hair falling into my face while I slurp up tasty, soupy ramen!

Jeanne and Dave had planned to spend 4 days in Tokyo, after our two weeks with family in Korea.  It would’ve been a nice, romantic way to end their 3 weeks of travel in Asia.  That is, until Jason and I decided to invite ourselves along at the last minute. 🙂

Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan

Checking out the local restaurant in our neighbourhood (Akasaka district)

We ended staying in a roomy apartment in the Akasaka district.  It’s a pretty great area: full of excellent restaurants and shops, right next to the entertainment district Roppongi, and close to several metro lines.

The awesome thing about travelling with Jeanne and Dave is that Dave is an excellent vacation planner.  Jason and I were not in the habit of planning since we’ve been travelling for so long and taking our time at each place we visited.  Usually, our planning goes like this: “So what do you want to do today?”

So it was pretty great to have Dave plan out our 4 days in Tokyo.  Four days isn’t a lot of time to see a city that’s larger than life, so planning our time there became a lot more important.

What’s a visit to Japan without taking in a Sumo wrestling match?

Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo (National Sumo stadium)

Checkin’ out the gun show Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo

The best seats in the house are on the bottom level.  This area is split into sections and Sumo fans sit on seat cushions directly on the floor.  They’re fairly big cushions so they’re not as uncomfortable as you’d think.  They also serve as ways for fans to express disappointment.  We were told by Jeanne’s friend who lives in Tokyo that when fans are unhappy with a ruling or outcome, they throw their seat cushion onto the ring/judge/wrestler.  Technically, it’s prohibited but people still do it anyway.

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

It was our first time at a Sumo match and we didn’t really know what to expect.  The only thing we knew about Sumo are the stereotypes of fat men pushing each other.  A Sumo tournament starts early in the afternoon with the more junior competitors vying for the sparse crowd’s attention.  It builds up over the next 4-5 hours until the top division of wrestlers make their appearance – with much fanfare.

Makuuchi division, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

The top wrestlers (makuuchi division) come out with huge fanfare for the final round of competitions of the night.

The top division (called makuuchi) are the best wrestlers of the country  and receive the most attention from the (now) packed arena.   The top of this group is the yokozuna.

A Makuuchi bout, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

Two wrestlers from the Makuuchi division about to square off.

The most exciting bout of the night (IMO) was that between the yokozuna and the wrestler who ranked just under him (ozeki).  You’ll have to view the video below to see what happens.  Let’s just say seat cushions flew.

Tokyo can be a pretty chaotic city.  With over 13 million people living in the Tokyo prefecture, some peace and quiet can be pretty hard to come by.  Luckily, Tokyo has its fair share of giant parks.  Once inside, it’s hard to imagine you’re still in Tokyo.  We visited Shinjuku Gyeon (or Shinjuku park) – one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks.  Inside, amongst forested areas,  there’s a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a sprawling English landscape garden, and a formal French garden.

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Dave and Jeanne posing in the traditional Japanese landscape garden

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Perfectly manicured trees next to the Taiwan Pavillion

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Lots of artists throughout the park trying to capture the tranquility on canvas

We also visited the Meiji Shrine (adjacent to another popular park – Yoyogi park).

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan (Shibuya district)

Entering the main area of the Meiji Shrine

Water basin in front of the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

It’s customary to wash your hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine. Apparently, there’s a very specific way to do it. But I don’t think any of us knew how to.

We were even lucky enough to see a traditional Shinto wedding procession.  It was beautiful to watch.

Traditional Shinto wedding, Meiji Shrine (Tokyo, Japan)

Traditional Shinto wedding processions. Very solemn and beautiful affair.

We followed that with some shopping time in popular shopping districts: Shibuya and Harajuku.  All the Harajuku girls must’ve been in school, I spotted only a few and I couldn’t take any pictures quick enough – they must’ve been rushing off to class.

Crowded shopping streets of Shibuya district (Tokyo, Japan)

Shopping in the very popular and crowded Shibuya district

Harajuku shopping district (Tokyo, Japan)

Where are the Harajuku girls??

Shibuya is also home to the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.  We settled into one of the window seats in Starbucks, which gives you a great birdseye view of the intersection.  It was kinda nuts.  During particularly busy crossings, it doesn’t even look like an intersection anymore – more like an outdoor concert!

Shibuya Crossing (Tokyo, Japan)

View of the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (Shibuya Crossing)

We wanted to visit the Tsukiji fish market one morning to have fresh sushi for breakfast.  Apparently, you can pick out fresh fish at the market and get one of the nearby food stalls to prepare it for your breakfast.  Sushi = breakfast of champions!

We went to sleep with visions of sushi dancing in our heads, but when we arrived at the fish market the next day, we were sadly greeted with an empty market.

Inside the Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Inside the Tsukiji fish market when it was closed. Only one lonely employee was doing some overtime to finish up some work…must have been goofing off the day before.

They were closed for a national holiday and we had to fly out of Tokyo later that day.  Our dreams of fresh sushi for breakfast were dashed!  We stood in the front of the fish market for awhile, lamenting our fate when a kind security guard noticed our sad little group.  He told us about a smaller market nearby that was still open.

Smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji. It was still packed with many stalls of delicious-looking seafood.

A little disappointed that Tsukiji was closed, but happy that we would still be able to have fresh fish for breakfast, we started whetting our appetite with free sashimi samples as we staked out a good breakfast restaurant.

Sashimi samples near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Some stalls even gave away free sashimi samples! yum! (or sketchy?)

We decided on this restarant pictured below (we really appreciated menus with pictures in Tokyo) and excitedly ordered four bowls of fresh sashimi over a bowl of rice.

A restaurant that served sashimi over rice near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Our breakfast restaurant that served fresh sashimi over rice.

Perfect bowls of fresh sashimi over a bed of rice arrived and as we dug in, no further words were exchanged until every bowl was licked clean.  It was everything we had hoped it would be…and more.

Sashimi over rice for breakfast (Tokyo, Japan)

A perfect bowl of sashimi over rice = breakfast of champions!

Even though Jason and I invited ourselves along to Tokyo, we DID spend a little time apart to give Jeanne and Dave some time alone (I’m sure Jeanne can only take her little brother for so long..haha)

Shinjuku Gyeon (Taiwan Pavillion) Tokyo, Japan

Little brother and big sister hamming it up in front of the Taiwan Pavillion in Shinjuku park

Jason and I checked out the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  It was really interesting to learn about the history of Tokyo and how it grew from the its origins as the little fishing village of Edo.

Traditional dress exhibit (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

Traditional dress exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Strolled along the Sumida river banks by moonlight.

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River (Tokyo, Japan)

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River

And ate a lot more ramen, soba, and sushi 🙂

Tempura and soba noodle soup (Tokyo, Japan)

Tempura and soba noodle soup

It was a quick and wonderful four days in Tokyo.  We would definitely want to come back one day.  I can’t wait to break my travel rule again.