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

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!

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.

Eating: Korea (a.k.a. Seoul Food)

When we first arrived in South Korea, I posted a picture similar to the one below on Facebook, using the following caption:

  • Food in Asia: 17,285,531 points
  • Food in South America: 10 points
Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

My all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea (Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea)

It’s no secret that Jason and I were both very excited for the food in Asia.  I alluded to it previously, but there is simply no contest between the food we had over the last 3 months in South America and the food we’ve savoured in just the first two weeks in Asia.

Perhaps we’re a little biased (Korean food being the food Jason grew up on and it being one of my favourite cuisines), but we really did give South American food a fair chance to win us over.  Before we left on our travels, I had read a lot about South American food being less than stellar; but, since I pretty much love all food (e.g.. Ethiopian, Indian, Lebanese, Russian, Persian, Vietnamese, Greek, etc), I was really looking forward to proving all the critics wrong by falling in love with South American food.

Sure, there were a few ‘stand-outs’ – like food in Peru (specifically Lima and Arequipa) and Argentina (specifically Buenos Aires) –  but more often than not, South American food was a little boring (at best) or inedible (at worst).  I’m not kidding about it being inedible.  We had our worse restaurant experience of our lives at a restaurant near Iguazu Falls. When our respective dishes arrived at the table, we both took one bite, gingerly spat it out, and concluded that we couldn’t eat anymore of it.  We even told our server how bad the food was, but all he did was shrug, hand us our bill, and clear away our full plates.  It was a sad day.

While 1 out of 10 meals in South America were good, almost every single meal we’ve had in Asia so far has been excellent.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Okay, enough hatin’ on South American food.  Let’s proceed with lovin’ Korean food.

Korean BBQ

The first picture I posted above was taken at this amazing BBQ joint that Dave found after his meticulous research on where and what to eat in Seoul.  Located in the Mapo district, which has been referred to as barbeque heaven by other travel bloggers, it’s one of dozens upon dozens of grill houses in that area.  But it’s THE one to go to if you only go to just one.  (Note: there’s a picture of a cannon on the restaurant’s orange sign).

Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

Delicious porky, fatty, scrambled egg mixture with grilled pork. Without a doubt, my all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea

This restaurant specializes in barbequing a specific cut of pork from around the diaphragm – lean and super flavourful.  A lot of the surrounding restaurants also offer this cut of pork, but this restaurant takes it to another (delicious) level.  On the domed grills that are used by a lot of BBQ restaurants, there’s a gutter around the edges that is normally just used to catch the rendered pork fat from the grilled meat.  This restaurant, however, pours scrambled eggs and places kimchi into these gutters, and once the rendered fat starts dripping in and the mixture cooks up, you scrape out delightful little spoonfuls of porky, fluffy, fatty, egg-y goodness.

It’s obvious that Koreans love their grilled meat.  We had several different types of barbeque while in Korea – one of the other notable barbeque meals was of a Jeju Island specialty: black pig.

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Topokki (rice cake snack)

Topokki is a very popular Korean snack that is typically found at street vendors.  It’s usually made of soft rice cake, fish cake, spring onion, and gochujang – a savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment.  I’ve only ever had the simple version of topokki back in Canada, so imagine my surprise when I saw this fully-loaded version:

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood toppoki (before shot)

Along with the typical ingredients, boiled egg, seafood, ramen noodles, dumplings, sausages, cabbage, carrots, onions, and mushrooms also joined the party.  It looked so different that, at first, we thought the server had brought us the wrong dish and almost sent it back.  But after a few minutes of stewing over the stove on the table, it reduced down to something more famliar-looking but a million times more delicious than any topokki dish I had ever had.  I still dream about it and regret not making a repeat visit.

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood topokki (after shot)

Daeji Bulgogi & Ssam (Spicy Pork & Lettuce wrap)

Ssam (literally translates to ‘wrapped’) is used to describe many Korean dishes where a leafy vegetable (e.g. lettuce, perilla leaf, napa cabbage) is used to wrap a piece of meat (e.g. pork belly, marinated beef).  Korean meat dishes are already awesome in itself, but wrap it in a fresh, crunchy leaf of lettuce, and it takes on a whole new level of yum.  I can’t even count the number of meals we had in Korea that included ssam, but the meal pictured below was one of my favourites.  We had it in Jeju Island and it was spicy, porky perfection.  My personal favourite ssam combination (in order from bottom layer to top): lettuce leaf, parilla leaf, rice, gochujang, kimchi, marinated fiddleheads, marinated squid, a slice of shitake mushroom, and a piece of spicy pork.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Check out all the amazing banchan dishes

I think all the little dishes of banchan (which literally translates to mean ‘side dish’ in English) made all the difference…which brings me to my next food topic.

Banchan (small side dishes)

Banchan (Seoul, South Korea)

Delicious banchan

One of my favourite things about Korean meals are the little plates of banchan (side dishes) that are served with every meal.  It adds so many different types of flavours and textures to a relatively simple meal.  Typically, only one dish is the star (e.g. spicy pork) but when you add on 10 different types of banchan, then you have a full blown feast.  Sometimes, I can have just banchan with a bowl of rice and be totally satisfied.

Banchan (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood banchan on Jeju Island

Some of my favourite banchan dishes include:

  • kimchi (especially the cabbage, radish and cucumber kind)
  • miyeok muchim (marinated seaweed)
  • yeongeun jorim (marinated lotus flower root)
  • kongnamul (bean sprouts in sesame oil)
  • gosari (marinated fiddleheads)
  • shitake mushrooms
  • ojingeo (marinated squid)
  • dobu (marinated tofu)
  • takuan (sweet pickled yellow radish)
  • chapchae (glass noodles)
  • myeolchijeot (salted anchovies)

Seafood

Cooked octopus (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Interesting seafood on Jeju Island

The seafood in Korea is also amazing – especially at Jeju Island.  It’s also not for the faint of heart.  One interesting (and initially scary) seafood experience involved live abalone.

Aside from live clams in Greece, I had never eaten anything that still moved.  Also, clams in Greece were much easier to eat than abalone – they’re small so you can just quickly pop them in your mouth and gulp them down.  Abalone are pretty big and tough in texture – so you have to chew pretty thoroughly.

Live abalone (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Live abalone on Jeju Island (For the live-action version, click the video link above.

What’s more, the live abalone were very lively so it’s pretty difficult to psych yourself up enough to eat something that might grab onto your tongue and hang on for dear life.  After some back and forth, I popped one in my mouth.  Let’s just say it’s not my favourite raw seafood.  It’s chewy, a little crunchy, and kind of tough.  I’d much rather have them cooked.

We had more raw seafood (although nothing else moved) on Jeju Island.

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Unfortunately, not as good as Japanese sashimi.

Korean sashimi is very fresh since it’s still swimming in tanks when we arrive at the restaurant; but not as good as Japanese sashimi.  I’ve watched a food show once explaining how Japanese sushi and sashimi are aged, which allows it to achieve its full, rich flavour and a softer texture.  Korean sashimi was a bit too fresh, so it was a bit chewy and not very flavourful.  That’s probably why it’s served with gochujang – the savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment that’s commonly used in many Korean dishes.

Another great way to serve seafood in Korean dish is a seafood jjigae (or stew).  It starts off like this and is quite photogenic 😉

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (before shot)

After it reaches a boil and simmers for a few minutes, it combines into a tasty, spicy, super flavourful soup or stew.  It’s served with a bowl of rice (you can pour it over the rice or dip spoonfuls of rice into your bowl of stew) and is personally one of my favourite Korean seafood dishes.

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (after shot)

This is another version we had on Jeju Island.  This one was crammed full of seafood – crayfish, crab, shrimp, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, clams – basically the whole ocean.

Seafood jjigae (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae on Jeju Island

The fish dish below is a slightly different version.  The flavour is a lot more concentrated and it’s more of a sauce than stew.

Spicy fish & sauce (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy fish & sauce on Jeju Island

Noodles

Noodles are probably my all-time favourite food – especially noodle soup.  Korea has so many different types of noodle dishes, it’s hard to narrow down just a few.

Jajangmyeon (Noodles with Black Bean sauce) is an old favourite of Jason’s.  It originated from China and is made from thick white wheat flour noodles (the best ones are handmade) and covered in a thick sauce that is made from a salty black soybean paste, diced pork and vegetables.  It’s a simple dish but oh-so-delicious!

Jajangmyeon (Seoul, South Korea)

Jajangmyeon in Seoul. It only cost CDN$2!!

Naengmyeon (Cold noodles in soup) is not very photogenic, but is a delicious, cool treat during the hot, steamy summers in Seoul.  Long, thin chewy noodles are served in a chilled, tangy broth with julienned cucumbers, slices of korean pear, and a boiled egg.  Optional condiments include spicy mustard and vinegar.

Naengmyeon (Suburbs of Seoul, South Korea)

Naengmyeon in the outskirts of Seoul

Bibim guksu (Cold mixed noodles)

It was REALLY hot in Korea, even during the autumn months, so we really enjoyed the cold dishes.  Another one of my favourites was the Bibim guksu (cold mixed noodles) we had on Jeju Island.  Thin wheat flour noodles are covered in a strong, spicy sauce made with red chili powder, gochujang, garlic, vinegar, and sugar – and sometimes a dash of sesame oil.

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Bibim guksu on Jeju Island

The best part is mixing it.  The restaurant supplied a plastic glove and Jason’s mom just dove right in – mixing up the sauce, noodles, and sliced vegetables by hand.  So so SO good!

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Mixing bibim guksu by hand 🙂

Kimbap (Seaweed rice roll)

Last but not least, the humble kimbap (seaweed rice roll).  I would describe it as the Korean sushi, although raw fish is not typically used as an ingredient.   Instead, various cooked meats, sweet egg or fish is used along with various cooked, fresh or picked vegetables.  It’s a personal favourite of mine and Jason makes an excellent version.

Kimbap (Seoul, South Korea)

The perfect snack – kimbap!

We’ve had kimbap many times in Canada but I really learned to appreciate the simple and delicious snack in Korea.  It’s perfect for those moments in between meals, when you need sometime to hold you over.  It’s also a pretty mobile dish, when wrapped up in foil like a burrito, so you can eat it while on the go (or getting your hair permed).  Versatile, simple, travel-sized, and tasty – the perfect snack.

Did I miss a favourite Korean dish of yours?  Leave a comment below or feel free to elaborate on any of the dishes I mentioned above.  I love chatting about food 🙂

Triple-date on Korea’s Honeymoon Island

Warning: Some (and by some, I mean two) explicit images below.  You’ve been warned.  Drag an Excel spreadsheet over your internet browser window if you’re at work. 

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

The eastern side of Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) on Jeju Island

Jason’s parents were so sweet to treat all of us to 4 days at a beautiful tropical island just south of Korea’s mainland: Jeju Island.  Known by locals as ‘Honeymoon Island’, it’s a popular Korean vacation spot and (as noted by its nickname) a popular honeymoon destination.  In fact, Jason’s parents came here for their honeymoon in the 70s.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

The exact same waterfalls that Jason’s parents took a picture in front of during their honeymoon 30 years ago.

Initially, this had all the ingredients for an awkward weekend – even my brother commented on how it was going to be awkward going on a triple-date/long weekend/couples getaway with my in-laws.  But I’ve enjoyed travelling with Jason’s parents before and love spending time with Jeanne and Dave, so I had no doubt that it would be a grand ol’ time.

Horseback riding, Jeju Island, South Korea

You know it’s gonna be a good time when they dress you up like this for horseback riding!

As we were waiting in the airport for our flight to Jeju Island (by the way, it’s considered an international flight even though Jeju Island is considered to be part of Korea), my mother-in-law (MIL) asked whether we would like to go horseback riding, trekking through a national park, climb a volcano crater, and visit a circus.

Jeju Circus World, Jeju Island, South Korea

A Chinese circus troupe called Circus World. Surprisingly impressive feats. I guess we were expecting just some clowns and flowers that squirt water

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That sounds like an awesome, action-packed long weekend!”

“No,” my MIL replied, “That’s just on the first day”

Jeju Island, South Korea

Eight activities a day?!

And then it hit me: we were going on an Asian holiday tour.  I had been on one before 5 years ago when I visited my dad’s family in China so I had an idea of what we were in for.  For those who have been lucky enough to have never been on an Asian tour, let me break it down for you.  People of some Asian races (i.e. Korean, Chinese, Japanese) love maximizing the value of their money.  They typically perceive something to be of higher value if they get more of it.  So when it comes to holiday tours, the more activities you can cram into the allotted time-frame, the better the value.

Ecoland, Jeju Island, South Korea

The four of us hamming it up on Jeju Island

So thus began our whirlwind ‘Honeymoon Island’ vacation.  For 4 days, we woke up every morning at 7:30am to a packed itinerary.  On average, we would have 7-8 activities scheduled per day.  I have to admit, it was pretty exhausting.  It probably didn’t help that we had all originally envisioned a long weekend of relaxing and lazing about on the beach.

The southern coast of Jeju Island, South Korea

Not-so-relaxing beach time on Jeju Island

But once we shrugged our shoulders and decided to go along for the ride, it wasn’t all bad.  The entire island is is 75% cheesy tourist traps and 25% beautiful natural wonders.  And amongst the 30 individual activities/sights/events we enjoyed/endured, there were quite a few gems.

We started off slowly and visited an impressive botanical garden called “Spirited Garden”.  The bonsai trees were beautiful and we enjoyed the leisurely stroll through the peaceful garden grounds.

Bonsai Tree in Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

One of the many beautiful Bonsai Trees in the botanical garden

Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We visited a beautiful little waterfall (Cheonjiyeon Falls) that Jason’s parents also visited over 30 years ago on their honeymoon.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We checked out the eerie underground Manjanggul lava tubes.  Flowing rivers of lava carved out these massive caves.

Manjanggul lava tubes, Jeju Island, South Korea

Inside the lava tubes. Funny story: Jason’s uncle hid behind a rock, jumped out, and scared the pants off this random couple, thinking it was me and Jason.

Then things got a little kooky at (what we dubbed) “Randomland”.  There was an indoor ice sculpture exhibit and a whole bunch of 3D scenes that you can take a picture with.  We had a great time taking cheesy pictures and cracking up at the ridiculousness.

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Putting our acting skills to good use

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Obviously, the acting abilities run in the family

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

I think I packed on a few pounds (and apparently, a few feet) after indulging in too much delicious Korean food.

After “Randomland”, things got even stranger.

When Jason and I first started our travels in June, my friend (who will remain unnamed) sent me a link (NSFW) and insisted we go there when we travelled to Korea.  It’s deceptively called Jeju Loveland.  It really should be called Jeju Sexland,  When my friend first told me about this place, I thought “Korea is pretty big – not sure if I’ll actually come across it”.  But when I found out that this outrageous theme park was actually on Jeju Island, I knew we had to add an extra activity onto the itinerary.

Jeanne was not so keen on the idea and who can blame her? It would be kinda weird going to a sex theme park with your parents.  Nonetheless,I somehow managed to get it onto the schedule.

Once we entered Jeju Loveland, this was the first thing we saw:

Jeju Loveland Jeju, South Korea

Welcome to Jeju Sexland Loveland!

Jeanne and Dave immediately bolted and disappeared into the park.  Soon after, Jason’s mom wandered off too.  So it was just Jason, my father-in-law (FIL), and I wandering through the very risque theme park.  The picture below is probably the only safe picture I can post here. If you want to see what else this park had to offer, you can click the link above. (Or here, if you don’t want to scroll up).  Seriously, this place was hilarious.

Jeju Loveland, Jeju, South Korea

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I’m not sure why such a racy theme park exists on Jeju Island.  Perhaps because it’s known as a honeymoon destination and the tourism board wants to get all the newlywed couples in the mood?

Even the island’s natural rock formations were in on it:

Jeju Island, South Korea

Phallic rock formations off the coast of Jeju

Speaking of natural rock formations, this one was one of the highlights of Jeju Island: Seongsan Ilchulbong (or Sunrise Peak).

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

In front of the volcanic tuff cone

Formed by volcanic activity, this tuff cone and crater are one of the few well-preserved specimens of its kind.  This site map gives you a sense of what it looks like from the air.

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And this is what it really looks like from the air (Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website)  Pretty impressive-looking, eh?

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

Aeriel view of Seongsan Ilchulbong.  Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website

It’s a short 20-minute climb to the top.  The views from the top weren’t too shabby either.

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northeast

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View of Jeanne, Dave and I at the top

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northwest

It was a great way to end our trip.  Okay, who am I kidding?  We ended our trip with a massive Korean feast (of course).  On the menu: Jeju Black Pig.  Don’t ask…it’s a Jeju Island specialty.

Black pig, Jeju, South Korea

Jeju Black pig BBQ. Loved the vents that sucked out all the BBQ smells. Don’t you hate it when you leave a Korean BBQ restaurant and smell like you’ve been marinating in kalbi sauce?

Yes, we complained about the cheesiness, the ridiculousness, and the jam-packed schedule – but in the end, we had a lot of good ol’ family fun (sex theme park and all).  Thanks, mom and dad, for treating all of us to a wonderful time!