The Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

The Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

Over the years I’ve become an increasingly adventurous traveler. I’ve gone canyoning in Vietnam, hiked the most active volcano in Bali, dived with sharks in Indonesia, paraglided in the Swiss Alps and endured a ten-day trek in the Himalayas. Not bad for a girl who used to be terrified of swimming pools.

So I was pleased to find that there are tons of world-class adventure activities in Jordan, from diving in the Red Sea to riding camels in the Wadi Rum desert. And although I was terrified for several of the activities (cough, camel-riding), I somehow managed to push through.

Here’s a summary of the adventure activities I’d recommending doing while in Jordan– even if you’re a scaredy-cat.

Diving in the Red Sea

While our initial itinerary didn’t include diving, when we headed Red Sea I requested we add in scuba. When in… the Red Sea, right?

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

The Red Sea has some of the best diving in the world, so I was extremely excited to strap on my fins again. And thankfully I’m already a certified diver- I did both my open-water and advanced in Thailand.

As soon as I leapt off the dive platform I was freezing- the Red Sea is certainly chillier than the bath-water seas of Thailand.

As I descended I started to see familiar marine life: clownfish, angelfish, pufferfish and lionfish. At one point I even saw an enormous sea slug- I’d estimate about 18 inches.

During the dive two big schools of fish passed by, and I couldn’t help but think of the Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish Bible story.

But it wasn’t the sea life that appealed to me most in the Red Sea- it was the coral. Looking down I saw colors of coral I’d never seen before: from lavender to saffron to periwinkle.

Dive boat meal - Red Sea

Bonus- after diving we had an incredible Jordanian lunch of grilled swordfish, grilled chicken, hummus, baba ganoush, fattoush and of course, pita. Dive-boat meal = nailed.

Where to dive in Jordan on your trip:

While I didn’t have time to dive them myself, the best dive sites in Jordan are King Abdullah and Cedar Pride, which you can access from the souther city of Aqaba. Tip- if you’re already in Jordan I’d consider also diving in Egypt, which has some of the best dive sites in the world. 

Riding a Jeep in the Wadi Rum Desert

Wadi Rum, or in Arabic, The Valley of the Moon, is a desert that is straight out of Indiana Jones, or perhaps Wilfred Thesiger’s travel journal.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

After a glass of mint tea, we boarded the Jeep and turned on our cameras.

I loved the photos I captured in Wadi Rum. The desert looked similar to the American Southwest with dramatic red rocks and undulating sand dunes.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

But of course, historically it was a bit different than the American Southwest. Our guides even dropped us off to see ancient Nabatean petroglyphs- see the etchings of camels, ostriches and men hunting below.

Adventure Activities in Jordan

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

Overall I’d highly recommend riding in the back of a Jeep in Wadi Rum, especially if you’re a shutterbug. Pro tip- photos will be much more atmospheric if you wear traditional red-and-white Bedouin headscarves. (And they’re super comfy too!)

 

Riding Camels in Wadi Rum

I won’t lie- after reading Liz’ post on falling off a camel in Jordan, I wasn’t sure if I was up for camel-riding. But as I’m so often afflicted with PTRD, or post-trip regret disorder, I knew I had to give camel-riding a go.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

When we first approached the camels my initial thought was, wow, that baby camel is adorable and dear god they are SO TALL.

Things were not looking good when Amanda mounted her camel and was promptly thrown off. I turned to Jessica and said, “We don’t have to do this! Should we do this?”

Jessica murmured and few words of encouragement (I was so freaked out that I don’t remember) and before I knew it we were moving.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

The sensation of riding a camel is quite different from riding a horse. You’re so far off the ground and camels rock you back and forth like a ship. Truthfully I never got used to the feeling and was a bit wary for both my body and my DSLR.

Dismounting was also frightening. To dismount the camel sits down in a fashion not unlike bowing.

But soon enough I was back on the ground where I belong.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

Overall I think this one camel-riding experience was enough for me- I think I’ll stick to horses.

Hiking in the Dana Biosphere Reserve

The Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, located in south-Central Jordan. After we dropped off our bags at Feynan Ecolodge, our accomodation for the night, we headed out for a hike in the reserve.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

 The reserve is beautiful, a rocky, moonlike landscape dotted with sandstone cliffs, acacia trees and Phoenician Juniper shrubs. It looked like a cross between the Serengeti and the moon.

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

But as much I love the outdoors, I love ancient history even more. Which is why I was so stoked to find out about all the Palaeolithic, Egyptian, Nabataean, and Roman settlements in Dana.

“When the Romans ruled, they sent criminals to work in the copper mines here,” said our travel guide. “The conditions were so bad you wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy.”

Best Adventure Activities in Jordan

During the Roman era criminals were sent to Feynan to mine copper in tiny tunnels, some dying after only a few days. Skeletons have been discovered with their Achilles heels cut, ensuring the prisoners wouldn’t be able to run away.

By the end of the hike I was asking my travel buddies, “Do you think I have enough service to download The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on my phone?” Julika, who is a medieval art historian, was even calling me out nerdiness. #NerdAlert

And even if you aren’t into Roman ruins, Dana has wonderful hiking. We finished off our hike by sitting down to watch the sunset as we sipped tea. All in all a magical experience.

Tips- when hiking in Dana make sure to wear good shoes and if you visit a Bedouin family, be respectful and don’t take a picture of the women’s faces.

Are you interested in adventure activities when you travel? Would any of these scare you?

I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board, but as always, all opinions are my own.

Saying Goodbye to the Backpacking Lifestyle: A Week in Hanoi and Halong Bay

Saying Goodbye to the Backpacking Lifestyle: A Week in Hanoi and Halong Bay

I have a confession. Despite its iffy reputation, I love backpacking.

And what do I mean by “backpacking”? Backpacking, by my loose and unofficial definition, is independent international travel on the cheap, typically done by young people from all over the world.

Hanoi

Backpacking has a lot of negative connotations- namely drunk teenagers partying on beaches. But I don’t think that reputation is always deserved- there are lots of young broke travelers who love to learn about local culture, languages and food.

And I’ve had some of the best memories of my life in hostels: cooking cheap meals in the communal kitchen, sitting down for a street noodles, cracking beers on the rooftop with travelers from all over the world.

Which is why remembering my time in Northern Vietnam, where I spent the last week of my four-month backpacking trip, makes me sad. Because I don’t know if I’ll ever go backpacking again- and even if I do, I don’t know if it will be the same.

Hanoi_Street_Scene

After traveling solo in Malaysia, I flew to Hanoi to meet up with Dylan, my English travel buddy. We spent a few days in Hanoi eating scrumptious street food like miến lươn, vermicelli noodles with eel, and bún bò nam bộ, spicy beef with rice noodles and peanuts.

IMG_0825

After a few days of eating street food and feigning interest in local monuments (Hanoi doesn’t have the best tourist sites, in my opinion), we headed for Halong Bay. There we embarked on the infamous Halong Bay booze cruise– a two-night, three-day boat trip around the bay.

I had pictured Halong Bay as a small bay you could circumnavigate in an hour. I soon discovered that Halong Bay is enormous– a beautiful bay with 2,000 islets and countless limestone karsts jutting out of the water.

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_3

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_5

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_4

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_2

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_1

Normally I’m not a huge partier but as this was my final week in Asia, I embraced the backpacker scene. I played Kings Cup across multiple tables, swam with phosphorescent plankton in the bay, danced barefoot to Calvin Harris and Sam Smith, laughed along to lascivious drinking games “What Are the Odds” and “Most Likely To.”

I also destroyed my shoulder while tubing and probably needed a sling. But given the lack of medical facilities on a remote beach in Halong Bay, I drank a few extra 333’s to keep the pain down.

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_Dinner

Halong_Bay_Party_Boat_Sunset

IMG_1808

Bia_Hoi

When we returned to Hanoi, my shoulder still throbbing, I eased my pain with a group of new friends I had met on the boat.

We spent the next three days in typical backpacker fashion: drinking 10-cent beer in the streets, dancing in seedy nightclubs, waking up hungover to Vietnamese street food. It was lazy and indulgent and ridiculously fun.

Hanoi_Partying

Hanoi_Partying

Hanoi_Partying

Hanoi_Partying

Looking back on that week, I know it’s clouded in nostalgia. While now all I remember is freedom and non-stop fun, then I longed for security and long-term friendship.

But the further I get into a settled life, the more I miss backpacking. I miss doing whatever I want every single day. I miss meeting people from all over the world, and listening to all different kinds of accents and languages. I miss meals costing $2 and tasting like heaven.

I found a quote recently that really resonated with me, particularly in regards to travel. “We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.” Travel most poignantly reminds us that we can never recreate a moment- we will never be in the exact same place with the same people at the same point in our lives.

And if we try to return we’ll just be chasing ghosts- try as I might, I’ll never be a broke 23-year old wandering around Hanoi with a group of hilarious English and Australian travelers.

I wish I could think of something more uplifting as an end-note. But the longer I go without backpacking, the more I miss it.

What about you? Have you ever done a long-term backpacking trip? What do you think of the backpacker scene?

Where I stayed in Hanoi: I stayed at both Hanoi Backpackers: Downtown and Original. I much, much preferred Downtown as it more open and airy and close to lots of amazing street food.

What to eat in Hanoi: While I enjoyed the food in Southern Vietnam more than the north, I still relished every opportunity to enjoy my beloved Vietnamese food as much as possible. Hanoi street food is really good and normally costs $1.50 for a meal. The bánh cuốn, native to Northern Vietnam, was the best dish I tried.

My Favorite Moments in Jordan

My Favorite Moments in Jordan

Oh, Jordan. As you may have seen on Instagram, Amanda, Jessica, Julika and I could not have had more fun on our #GirlsGoneJordan campaign. While a lot of bloggers complain that press trips are awkward because they’re traveling with strangers, for us it was more like a work-trip with friends.

#GirlsGoneJordanTheGirls_8

Photo credit – Sateless Suitcase

Before jumping into more in-depth posts about Jordan, I wanted to share my favorite moments. Because there’s so much about my trip to Jordan- countless meals, laughs and just good old-fashioned travel moments- that I don’t want to forget.

Visiting Amman Citadel

I’m a sucker for ancient ruins, so I was stoked to visit the Amman Citadel on our first day in Amman.

Amman Citadel

Standing there, staring over the city, I realized that this was the first time in too long I had a. seen something older than 200 years old, and b. even touched my DSLR. That first day on Amman Citadel, I felt more like myself than I had in a long time.

But anyway, back to the citadel. The citadel dates back to the Bronze Age, around 1650 BC. Considering the amount of conquerors who have set foot there, it’s remarkable that it still stands: it was conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims.

Amman citadel dome

Amman Citadel blue dome

Random fact- did you know that when the Greeks conquered Amman in 331 BC, they renamed the city, “Philadephia?”

I loved being able to see Amman in all of its sprawling, sand-colored glory, as well as spot the Raghadan Flagpole, one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

VIew of Amman from the Citadel

And my favorite part of the citadel was this lone hand. And all of the spring wildflowers.

Amman_Citadel_hand

All in all visiting the Amman citadel was the perfect first day and a good introduction to the city.

Taking Camel Portraits in the Desert

Guys, I think I’ve found my calling- camel photography. Honestly I enjoyed taking photos of camels more than riding them- is that normal?

Wadi_rum_camel_saddles

I’ve always enjoyed portrait photography more than landscape or still life, but it had never occurred to me to apply human portrait photography techniques to an animal. Or a camel, specifically.

Wadi rum camels

Wadi rum camel

Wadi_rum_camels_standing

Wadi rum camels kissing

Wadi rum camels

My favorite shot was this camel “portrait.” I took a tip from Steve McCurry to square the eyes in the center of the frame and I think it worked. In fact this photo was my most liked Instagram photo ever!

Wadi rum camel

Having Kohl Eyeliner Done by a Bedouin Girl

The Bedouins traditionally wear kohl eyeliner for aesthetic reasons but also practical ones- to protect the eyes from dust and bright sunlight. Similar to why football players wear eye black.

And as we had seen Bedouin men and women all over Jordan with their trademark kohl, I was excited to visit a Bedouin family and learn how to make it ourselves.

Bedouin eyeliner application in Jordan

Photo credit Sateless Suitcase. And props for for retouching my skin so expertly, ha.

To make the kohl, all you do is burn black cotton and olive oil underneath a pan for about 10-15 minutes.

After the kohl was finished, the teenaged daughter applied it on all of us. It looked beautiful and kind of Jack Sparrow-esque.

It was especially beautiful on Jessica and Julika because of their green and blue eyes. Amanda looked straight-up like a Bedouin girl and well, I just looked like a white girl with eyeliner.

Drinking Mint Tea with a Diplomat’s Wife at Dana Biosphere Reserve

Having tea at sunset in Jordan

After a leisurely hike in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, the girls and I took a tea-break with a knowledgable and sweet Englishwoman. Her husband was a diplomat in Amman, and she had been living in Jordan for three years.

It was so interesting to chat with her and get a woman’s perspective on gender relations in Jordan. She told us that while Jordan is a relatively liberal country, in most parts traditional values run deep. She also told us that homosexuality occurs obviously but isn’t accepted, and that most sexual education is next-to-nothing.

And as we chatted and sipped our sweet mint tea, we watched the sun set over the desert. Not the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.

Sunset in the Feynan Reserve

Sigh, I would love to be a diplomat’s wife.

Floating (And Near-drowning) in the Dead Sea

When we drove up to the Dead Sea I was shocked- the Dead Sea is beautiful. The sea is navy blue, surrounded by salt-stained white cliffs. I guess the name “Dead Sea” doesn’t conjure a beautiful image- but that’s just bad marketing.

IMG_3496

Once we made our way down to the beach I was surprised again- the Dead Sea was rough that day, with three-foot tall waves crashing to the shore. I had pictured myself floating in a flat and tranquil sea, not frantically swimming against the current.

The third surprise came once I entered the water- the Dead Sea was so much saltier than I had imagined. While floating on my back I turned over to wet my hair- big mistake. I was instantly blinded and my mouth tasted like burnt turnips.

I tried to compose myself and wait for the burning in my eyes to subside, but I realized it was getting worse and called for the lifeguards.

Dead_sea_water

Realizing how ridiculous all this was (I swam on swim team for seven years), I couldn’t stop laughing as two lifeguards pulled me to shore. Once we reached the sand one lifeguard held me up as the other doused my eyes with water.

After that… interesting experience, I covered my body in black mud from the Dead Sea. Being… me, I was a bit overzealous with the mud application and even put it on my lips. This photo will illustrate that:

Dead Sea black mud

Don’t I look just like Goofy, the Disney cartoon character?

And although I ruined my bikini, my skin did felt quite soft after I took off the mud.

Lessons learned: the Dead Sea feels like contact solution, tastes horrendous and is actually quite beautiful. And black mud is no friend to bikinis.

Smoking All the Shisha

As a high schooler who grew up in Metro Detroit, I smoked a lot of shisha.  So I was excited to smoke “hubbly bubbly” as they say in Jordan, in the Middle East.

Shisha_Jordan

The first night we smoked shisha with our guides. I was pleased to find that our guide and I had the same favorite flavor, double apple. The other girls got lemon and mint.

We spent the next several hours failing to take cool pictures of each other and smoking shisha to the point of nausea. Also I gave the girls a smoke-ring blowing lesson, and they believed me when I said I could blow out a ship. (Gandalf reference- anyone?)

But this wasn’t our only shisha experience. On our last night in Jordan we all sipped Planter’s Punch and smoked shisha while watching the sun set over the Dead Sea. Needless to say it was a wonderful moment.

Buying Souvenirs

Why have an apartment if you’re not going to fill it with exotic souvenirs?

In Jordan I bought a ton of souvenirs: spices like sumac and za’atar, a traditional red-and-white Jordanian headscarf, salts from the Dead Sea, blue and white Palestinian pottery, kohl eyeliner and essential oils to wear as perfume: Jordanian rose, yellow musk, and camellia.

Jordanian_perfume

But my favorite souvenir (and most expensive) was this silver necklace that all four of us bought with our names in Arabic. Whenever I wear it everyone assumes I’m Middle Eastern.

Necklace with name in Arabic

Having Fun with My Girls

Wadi_rum_photography

 In Jordan I laughed more than I had in months, and it was so nice to spend the week with fellow travel addicts who understand my life.

#GirlsGoneJordanTheGirls_66

Photo Credit – Sateless Suitcase

And it was so much fun to brainstorm and learn from each other. I learned a ton about social media and photography, and finally learned how to shoot manual and edit in RAW.

Whether we were playing poker with cigarettes and coins or coming up with puns for Instagram like “petra-fying” (Get it?) we were having a blast. And probably making fun of each other.

Silly_face

Visiting Petra at Night

Petra at night

This moment was so beautiful and surreal it deserves a post of its own, but walking to Petra under starlight was one of the most incredible moments of my life.

Have you ever visited Jordan? If not, would you want to?

I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board, but as always, all opinions are my own.

My Two-Week Itinerary for Malaysia

My Two-Week Itinerary for Malaysia

While I didn’t know much about Malaysia before visiting, I quickly came to love it.

I journeyed to Malaysia overland from Thailand, and instantly the landscape changed: better, cleaner roads, no billboards, women in colorful headdresses, verdant rice paddies and wild, red-earthed jungle.

Second only to Singapore, Malaysia is the richest country in Southeast Asia, making public transit a breeze and the level of English impressively high. The high level of English made meeting locals much easier than in other parts of Southeast Asia, save Singapore.*

Melaka_Market

Malaysia is also extremely diverse, but I soon found that Malaysia is less of a melting pot and more of a stew. Malaysia is composed of three main ethnic groups that rarely intermarry: Malay (60%), Chinese (23%) and Indian (7%). Interestingly enough, these ethnic groups grow up speaking different languages, practicing different religions and eating different food.

For example, when I referred to a group of Chinese-Malay girls I had met as Malay, they retorted, “We’re not Malay! We’re Chinese.”

Malaysia isn’t a typical fixture on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. It’s fairly expensive for Southeast Asia and the alcohol isn’t cheap.

That being said there are pockets of the backpacking scene- Reggae Mansion in Kuala Lumpur, for example, as well as the Perhentian Islands.

If all you want to do is party, Malaysia is not the place. But if you’re interested in fascinating culture, hundreds of years of history and some of the best meals of your life, I’d whole-heartedly recommend Malaysia.

IMG_9817

Here are my recommendations for a two week Malaysia itinerary if you have limited time. I’ve also noted a few things that weren’t worth the hype (in my humble opinion) so you won’t waste your time.

Note- the recommended accommodation is geared towards budget-conscious travelers like myself, so if you’re not interested in hostels or guesthouses then skip that part!

Penang

Penang

It’s no secret that I loved Penang– between the beautiful Peranakan mansions and the splashes of street art all over the city, I fell hard for this little colonial city. I would highly recommend between 2-4 days there.

Eat:

Eat at hawker centres such as CF Hawker Centre and Red Garden Food Paradise for a wide variety of food and a mostly local experience.

Make sure to try Penang’s most famous local dish, Char Kuey Teow, saucy, stir-fried noodles with shrimp, bean sprouts, eggs and Chinese chives.

Also if you’re craving Indian head to Little India for dinner- I ate very well there!

Stay:

I really liked Roommates Penang, the self-titled “coziest guesthouse in Penang” for its central location, glacial AC, historic Chinese shophouse facade and reasonable price (RM 28, or $7.70 USD for a bed in the standard dorm). It could use a common room though.

Do:

While in Penang visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an opulent mansion that will teach you about Peranakan history, the Clan Jettiesthe historical docklands where Chinese-Malay clans have lived for more than a century and see all of the street art around Georgetown– I loved Ernest Zacharevic’s work in particular.

Cameron Highlands

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Cameron_Highlands

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Cameron_Highlands_1

While I personally didn’t really get The Cameron Highlands (truthfully I found them a bit boring), a lot of people love them. I will admit that they are a good place to escape the heat and take pictures of verdant tea fields, so head there if you’re dying to cool-down (totally reasonable in Malaysia.)

Kuala Lumpur

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Kuala_Lumpur

KL decidedly doesn’t have the best reputation- it’s not a beautiful city by any means, and is terrible for pedestrians, with lots of highways and shoddy sidewalks. That being said I loved my time there and found the contrast of colorful colonial architecture and 70s skyscrapers kind of charming. Plus, the food is AMAZING.

Eat: Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Curry_laksa

All of the street food. I spent a week there eating solely from dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants and couldn’t have been happier. I’d particularly recommend trying curry laksa, chicken rice (of course) and fish head bihun.

Stay:

Backpackers, get theeselves to Reggae Mansion.

I’ve stayed at 60-70+ hostels in my travels and NO JOKE, the Reggae Mansion is my favorite ever. It has three storeys, spotless cubby bunks (a must for privacy), great AC, a movie room, a hilarious owner and a rooftop bar where you can party, try karaoke and smoke shisha. My travel buddy and I stayed an entire week.

Do:

As a lover of Islamic art and architecture I enjoyed the Islamic Arts Museum. The Museum was very peaceful with few tourist and had centuries-old qur’ans, traditional clothing and tiles on display- well worth a visit.

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Batu_caves

If you’ve never been to India you might enjoy the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan that was built in 2006. Personally I found it a bit crowded, dirty and crawling with macaques. But if you’re interested in Hindu deities it might be worth a stop.

Note- ladies should cover up with a shawl and long skirt or you’ll have to rent a sarong at the gate.

Melaka

Melaka

While I didn’t adore Melaka quite as much as Penang, I still enjoyed the beautiful riverside city. Melaka was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch AND British, so naturally has lots of history.

Eat:

The Jonker Walk Night Market is a bustling market with tons of great eats- I had really good turnip cakes and pork buns there.

The best food I tried in Melaka was satay celup, which I had at Ban Li Xiang. If the idea of dipping food-on-a-stick into a vat of bubbling peanut sauce appeals to you, head there.

Finally I really like The Daily Fix, an adorable hipster coffee shop. I especially loved the vintage decor and free wifi.

Stay:

No recommendations here- I ended up staying in a charmless guesthouse as I wasn’t able to find an appealing hostel.

Do:

Walk the riverfront at sunset, visit historic St. Paul’s Church and stop by Cheng Hoon Teng, a beautiful Chinese temple where I worshipped with my hosts.

Despite my interest in colonial history I wasn’t a huge fan of A Famosa, the only remains of a Portuguese fort, or the Dutch graveyard, where most of the graves are actually English.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Obviously, this itinerary is just a suggestion and I haven’t been everywhere in Malaysia by any means. If I could go back I would visit the Perhentian Islands or Langkawi for beaches, Borneo for jungle and orangutans and Sipadan for some of the best scuba-diving in the world.

*(And while I’m all for speaking foreign languages, I speak three fluently after all, the level of English in a foreign country DOES matter if you care about meeting locals. You can’t speak every language unfortunately!)

Have you ever been to Malaysia? Where would you recommending going?

Roommates Penang and Reggae Mansion generously hosted my stay for two nights each. As always, all opinions are completely my own.

Solo Travel in Melaka: My Favorite Experiences

Solo Travel in Melaka: My Favorite Experiences

On my four-month world trip I did very little solo travel. Which frankly was fine- after two months of traveling solo in Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, I was burnt out on being alone.

So I felt torn when my travel buddy, Dylan, wanted to go to Singapore when I was dead-set on Melaka. I was concerned about both traveling alone and traveling alone as a woman in a Muslim country.

But despite my doubts I booked my bus trip to Melaka and vowed to meet up with Dylan in Hanoi.

Melaka

It turned out my worries were for nothing- traveling solo to Melaka worked out perfectly and I came to adore the historic and food-obsessed city. Melaka was ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British- how could I not find it interesting?

Here’s a little recap on the my favorite experiences in Melaka.

Melaka_Tourism

Eating Everything the Jonker Walk Night Market

In typical backpacker style I spent my first day in Melaka combing the streets in search of a hostel with a thirty-pound backpack. Always a good time.

So by the time I’d found a room, I was ravenous- hence why I ate all of the following at the Melaka Night Market.

Melaka_Food_Market

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_turnip

The best thing I ate was this little barbecue pork bun. So tiny but so tasty.

IMG_0377

Melaka_Food_Market

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Melaka

I’d highly recommend visiting the Melaka night market- I loved not only the food but also the bustling energy and ample photo opportunities.

Strolling the Magical Riverfront

The riverfront in Melaka was oh-so-romantic, dotted with old-fashioned street lamps and shuttered, red-roofed buildings.

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Melaka_riverfront

Melaka_Riverfront

While romantic riverfronts are uh, less enticing when you’re on your own, I still enjoyed snapping photos at sunset and savoring the cool river breeze, always a welcome feeling in crazy-humid Malaysia. Melaka_Riverfront_Night

Meeting a Local Girl and All Her Friends

Melaka

As you guys may have noticed, what interests me most about travel is local culture, something that can be hard to experience in Southeast Asia. So I was thrilled when Grace, a Melaka-native, reached out to me via Instagram and offered to meet me for coffee.

At coffee we clicked instantly, and soon I met all of her sweet and welcoming friends. Why can’t that happen in every city that you visit solo?

Trying Satay Celup for the First Time

On my second day in Melaka I told my host that I wanted to try satay celup, and suggested we go to Capitol Satay, a local satay joint I had read about.

“Uh no, that’s just for tourists. No one from Melaka goes there.” Melaka_Satay

So instead we headed to Ban Li Xiang, a restaurant on the outskirts of town. Ban Li Xiang, 万里香, which apparently translates to, “food so good you can smell it a thousand miles away.”

Here are the steps of eating satay celup, the perfect food for all of my fellow peanut sauce addicts:

  1. Walk over to refrigerator filled with various foods on a stick: quail eggs, eggs, liver, prawns, beef, chicken, etc. Melaka_Satay_Celup
  2. Wait for the large vat of peanut sauce in the middle of your table to heat up.
  3. Plop sticks into the peanut sauce, and wait for them to fully cook. IMG_0690
  4. Devour sticks, dripping in peanut sauce.
  5. Have waiter come over and count the sticks, and pay based on how many sticks you ate.

Having Indian Brunch

One morning the girls insisted we go out for Indian brunch. While I had just spend six weeks in India and even the idea of dahl made me feel nauseated, I reluctantly agreed.

But I’m glad I did- this brunch was bomb.

Melaka_Girls I loved the food- both the chai and roti prata were on point. IMG_0702

IMG_0703

Like the satay celup restaurant this brunch-place at Limonbongan cafeteria was on the outskirts of Melaka, as all the good food spots are. Hard-core foodies- definitely rent a car when in Melaka!

Worshipping a Buddhist Temple

While I’m not religious, worshipping a Chinese Buddhist temple was fascinating. The girls taught me how to pray there step-by-step, something I never would’ve known on my own.

First you touch the balls inside the dragon’s mouth for good luck.

Melaka_Chinese_temple

Melaka_Chinese_temple_Interior

Melaka_Chinese_temple_Ritual Then you take a container filled with sticks and shake them a bit, and pull out the longest one. Each stick coordinates to a fortune which you then look up in a book. Melaka_Chinese_temple_Fortune My fortune was the questionably translated fortune below:

Business just kept to what it is to be, not to go too far

Work harder for your merit and future undertaking

Be sincere in your household affairs

Marriage afraid of being cheated

Do not interfering other people’s affairs when you are out

Be cautious when you are driving

Illness, seek doctor treatment quickly

Health will be at risk during old age

 

And after you read your fortune, you burn it. I wasn’t entirely sure of the reason why, but I followed suit anyway. When in Melaka. Melaka_Chinese_temple_Fortune_Burning

Despite my apprehensions I truly had an amazing experience in Melaka- I adored the architecture, food and of course the people. Thanks to Grace and her group of friends for showing me around- it made my visit to Melaka that much better!

Have you visited Melaka?

How to Become an Au Pair in France

How to Become an Au Pair in France

One of the biggest reasons people visit my blog is to find out how to become an au pair in France. So today we are hearing from Marianne, an American au pair who is currently working in Brittany, France.

Here she walks us through every single step of the au pair application and tells us about her living situation in Brittany.

As many of you may know, I was an au pair in Paris, France back in 2012-13, so this is a post I’m super excited to share with you. Take it away, Marianne!

How to Become an Au Pair in France

When I started researching how to become an au pair I found that there were few resources on the internet, other than a couple blogs (some good posts I found were on Ashley Abroad, iminparisgonoles and relokate) that had really helpful pages on how to become an au pair in France.

So now that I’ve actually successfully completed the process, I thought I’d explain the process for those who’d like to do it as well. In this post I will address exactly what was needed from me, as an American, to become an au pair in France.

Just so we’re all clear, an au pair is a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Typically, au pairs take on a share of the family’s childcare and housework in exchange for free room and board as well as a small amount of spending money.

1. Set up an account on an au pair website

First, set up an account on an au pair website – there are many of these sites that pair au pairs with families but the most popular is Au Pair World. It’s kind of like a free OkCupid for au pairs and families.

You can go with an agency where they’ll do all the work for you and match you up with a family themselves, but this is rather expensive.

I decided to make an account on Au Pair World. You can add photos, description, specifications, age, etc. Fill this out thoroughly because the more information you put, the better.

You can also search through families’ photos and bios as well as contact them directly. My family contacted me directly but this will vary case to case.

2. Find a family

My advice as far as picking a family: get to know them. Send emails back and forth, Skype with them, seriously think whether you could live with this family for a whole year.

How well do you feel like you can talk to them? Are they in a location that you like? This is your time to be picky because you don’t want to get there and find out that you’re unhappy in the situation.

In my case I almost agreed to be an au pair to one family merely because they were the first family to express interest in me. But when I skyped for the first time with my current family, I knew they were the ones. Even though we spoke to each other through garbled English and broken French, we could relate to each other and we found a way to communicate.

How to Become an Au Pair in France

3. Figure Out Which Visa You Need Based on your Nationality

If you are a citizen of the EU/EFTA (this link will tell you whether or not you are one) then follow these instructions. However if you’re not a citizen of the EU (like myself, if you’re from the United States) then continue with my steps.

4. Apply for Your Passport

This is kind of a given, but make sure you have a passport otherwise you won’t get very far. You can get the form online and apply for the passport in most post offices. They’ll even take your picture there!

5. Translate Your Diplomas

You’ll need to get copies of your diplomas (a good idea is to include both high school and college if you went to both) translated into French. I used OneHourTranslation because it was the cheapest translation service I could find ($.072 c. per word!) and they have it translated in under an hour.

Other services are much more expensive. I’ve heard that some people have just plugged the diplomas into Google Translate and they were fine, but this wasn’t something I wanted to bet on so I went with onehourtranslation. I ended up spending something like $10 to translate both my High School and College Diplomas.

[Editor’s note- I used Google Translate and it was totally fine. But of course I understand if you’d rather use a more reliable service.]

6. Make an Appointment With A Doctor

You will need to get a signed medical certificate that states that you are in good health. You can get a copy of the health certificate on the AuPairWorld website here.

Call your doctor and ask for a general physical, then bring the certificate you downloaded and printed out and have them sign it. If you don’t have a doctor – you can get a physical at most Planned Parenthood centers.

The only thing is this is a bit tricky – you can’t have the signed date be any more than three months away from the date you’ll be arriving in France.

How to Become an Au Pair in France

7. Ask Host Family To Register You In A French Language Course

To receive an au pair visa in France means the visa you will apply for will be a long-stay student visa. In order to receive a student visa you must be enrolled in a French language course. These are fairly easy courses of all levels, designed for people who are learning French as a foreign language.

Make sure that your family signs you up for a class otherwise you won’t be able to get your visa. 

8. Sign the Au Pair Contract and Send the Documents

Once you have found a family, they will send you over the au pair contract to sign. Scanning and emailing will work just fine, no need to actually post documents overseas.

Make sure you are very detailed in the description of your duties in the au pair contract. You want to make sure that you won’t end up being a maid for the family, or doing things that you may not have agreed to.

Be very clear and ask your questions now. Then when you’re done, scan and email the documents back to the family. Make sure you include all the following documents:

  • Au pair contract, signed by both parties
  • A copy of your diplomas, translated into French
  • A health certificate signed by a doctor, saying that you are in good health.
  • A photocopy of your passport
  • Motivation letter written in French (one page, totally okay to write in English then translate with Google Translate).

9. Host Family Takes Documents to be Approved

The host family will take the necessary documents to be approved. Once approved see #9. This can be a pain as the DIRRECTE may ask for additional documents to be sent.

For me, I ended up also needing to send a copy of my current resume and proof that I took French language classes. I used screenshots from the online portal at the university I had attended, but a transcript could work as well.

10. Have Host Family Mail Approved Contract and Certificate of Enrollment

You’ll need to have your host family mail you the approved au pair contract as well as the certificate of enrollment in a French language course as you will need the originals when you apply for your visa.

My family sent it by mail and it took about two weeks to arrive. I’m not sure if you can just take a scanned, approved contract to get your visa, but it was not something I wanted to test out.

[Editor’s note- as far as I understand your family has to send over a paper copy of the approved contract and certificate of enrollment, which of course is a total nuisance and should be done by scanning/emailing- oh, France. At least that was my situation as well.]

11. Make an Appointment to Apply For Your Visa at the Nearest French Consulate

To apply for your visa, you need to make an appointment. Depending on the French consulate you go to you may not be able to make an appointment that is any less than three weeks out. I made my appointment for the French consulate in San Francisco in late June and the earliest appointment I could make was July 25th! Something to be aware of.

In order to make an appointment go to this page (this one links to the consulate in San Francisco – you’ll want to find the equivalent at the consulate that is closest to you – just Google “French consulate” and then the state you live in) and find the link to make an appointment.

12. Book Your Flight

Depending on the time of year flights will be cheaper. I primarily used skyscanner to find the cheapest tickets, obsessively checking it each day. It has a unique feature that allows you to browse by date to find the cheapest day to fly.

You can also look for flights through Student Universe. They provide discounts for people under the age of 26, or if you’re a student.

I found that the sweet spot for cheapest flights is to purchase your ticket about 6 weeks before you wish to fly. I ended up purchasing my tickets about 6 weeks before I was set to leave and was able to get the cheapest ticket through Student Universe.

Keep in mind that flights will be the most expensive during the summer travel months and much cheaper in the fall or winter months. 

[Editor’s note- always request that your family pay for your flight. While not all will, some do so it’s worth asking. For reference, my family paid for my ticket.]

13. Apply For Your Student Visa

In order to work as an au pair you will apply for a student visa, or long séjour mention étudiant. Allow for at least three weeks before you leave for the visa to arrive. Find the nearest French consulate near you and search through their information. I needed to visit the consulate in San Francisco, and on their website it’s categorized as “long stay visa for au pair.” They had details on how to make an appointment, how much the visa will cost, everything you’ll need to bring, etc.

If you’re going to the French consulate, here’s what you’ll need:

1. Passport valid for at least three months after your return to the US + 1 photocopy of the identity pages. Your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, be valid for at least three months after your return to the US and have at least 2 blank visas pages left.

2. Processing fees ($68) – may vary for different consulates. (This changed – their website said $68 when I checked, I ended up being charged $138)

3. One application form (English version) filled out completely and signed by the applicant. This can be found on the consulate web page.

4. One ID picture glued/stapled onto the application form

5. “Au Pair” Contract approved by the French Ministry of Labour. This contract is obtained by the host family in France at the “Direction Départementale du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Formation Professionnelle -D.D.T.E.F.P.”

6. Proof of your previous studies (your most recent diplomas) – I’d take copies of both the English and French versions that you had translated.

7. Proof of registration or letter of enrollment in a language school specifying exact dates of attendance.

8. If you are not a U.S. citizen: a valid U.S. permanent residence card (“green card”) or a valid U.S. visa with valid I-94 or valid I-20, or an Advance Parole document.

9. One residence form duly filled out (upper part only) – you’ll find this on the consulate website.

10. E-ticket or reservation confirmation showing the departure date for Europe.

11. A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope from the US POST OFFICE ONLY – NO FEDEX / UPS / AIRBORNE EXPRESS accepted.

Keep in mind that you’ll have to make the appointment for a weekday, you’ll need all of your paperwork, and you’ll expect to wait three weeks before you’ll receive the visa. My appointment was at 9:30am, so I stayed with a friend in San Francisco.

Upon arriving at the French consulate, it took maybe 15 minutes to get everything done. They will make sure you have all of the correct paperwork, plus copies of everything. They’ll keep the copies after confirming the originals. Then I was fingerprinted and they took my photo.

I was told I would receive the visa in the mail in 2-3 weeks and I received it just over a week later. It was incredibly easy, but I hear it does not go easily for everyone.

14. Once You Arrive in France, Register With The URSSAF

Ask your host family to register you with the URSSAF. Your family may give you this ahead of time but it’s not required before you leave. You’ll just need to get it done within the first eight days of being in France. This will cover your social security and health insurance while you’re in France and your host family should take care of this for you.

15. Register with the OFII

Within three months of arrival you’ll need to register with the OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration). This will make you officially a resident of France during your stay. In my case this just involved sending the confirmed OFII paperwork via the mail to the necessary administrations. The paperwork is complete when the visa office sends it back (with the visa/passport) to you. This is something very important to remember when packing, otherwise you’ll need to have a family member send it over.

I suggest bringing the paper and then handing it over to your host parents once you get to France, they will know what to do with it.

. . . . . . . . . . .

There you have it! Lots of steps and a lot of work, but with good time management and the drive to have such a unique experience, it can be accomplished. The whole process was fairly easy, considering how many things needed to be done.

 

What to Expect When You Arrive:

Expect to not be able to understand the language. Even if you’ve had French education, the actual spoken French will be very different from what you studied.

I thought that I had an alright comprehension of French and when I got to France, I found it to be very difficult to speak and understand conversations. It helped that all of the family friends that I met were very welcoming and happy to help me learn. Every family will be different so you may not have a situation that is anything like my own.

Bretagne Red Door, au pair

My situation: I live with my host family and their two children and I work about 30 hours a week, which is the max that you’re allowed to work. My host family pays for my French language classes, my cell phone, my gas for the car that they provide for me (because I drive the children to and from school), and they give me 85 euro/week. I paid for my own airline tickets.

I live with the family but I have my own living quarters. I also am welcome at all of their meals and they will purchase any food I may want. I am free to do whatever I want in my free time. On holidays that the children have from school, I have time off and I can travel freely.

My Schedule: Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri: 7:30 – 9:00am and 4:30 – 6:30/7pm, Wednesday: 7:30am – 6:30/7pm. These are average times, sometimes they vary greatly. Weekends I am free.

Other examples:

Friend #1: Works 30 hours at 80 euro/week. Two very young children. Language classes and cell phone provided by the parents.

Friend #2: Works 30 hours at 100 euro/week for three boys. School is not paid for by the parents but cell phone is provided. During school holidays Friend #2 is sometimes required to travel and work with the family.

Would you like to be an au pair in France?

Marianne_au_pair Originally from California, Marianne lives in western France where she currently is working as an au pair and struggling daily with the French language. A lover of dogs, bicycling, bread, and chocolate, she does freelance marketing and web design, and writes at www.californienne.com. She can be reached by email at californienneblog@gmail.com.

What to Eat in Malaysia: The Best Dishes I Tried (And The Worst!)

What to Eat in Malaysia: The Best Dishes I Tried (And The Worst!)

I’m partnering with Flights.com to share all about what to eat in Malaysia. If you love experiencing new food when you travel, like me, check out this article on the 7 Best Restaurants in the World

Malaysian food, guys. We need to talk about it.

First off, it’s amazing. Malaysian food is a blend of Indian, Chinese and Indonesian influences, so uh, how could it not be good?

Secondly it’s surprising. I’ve honestly never been so surprised and delighted by a national cuisine. There were gummy textures, ingredients I’d never seen and myriad flavors and culinary influences.

So in this post I want to share with you my Malay food diary- the greatest hits, and a few dishes that didn’t quite live up to the hype.

You might be thinking, “Wow, you ate all of this in two weeks?” Yes, yes I did. And if anything I wish I had eaten more- but hey, I can always go back right?

IMG_0374

LOVED.

Curry Laksa // Kuala Lumpur

I would give my firstborn child if I could just have curry laksa one more time. (Okay fine, that’s hyperbole. But I would drive at least an hour.)

Curry laksa is my favorite iteration of laksa- a bowl of a curried coconut broth, thin yellow egg noodles, fried tofu and cuttlefish. This dish is also called curry mee. Whatever you call it, I freaking love it.

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Curry_laksa

Satay celup // Melaka

An assortment of veggies, eggs and meats, all cooked in peanut sauce? Delicious. Essentially satay celup is like Malaysian-style fondue but with meat on a stick and peanut sauce. Truly a new favorite.

IMG_0690

Chicken rice // Everywhere

My daily staple in Malaysia was without doubt chicken rice. In Malaysia I became quite the chicken rice connoisseur.

After lots of trial and error, I decided my favorite chicken rice is saucy, savory chicken accompanied by chicken rice balls, iced tea and chicken foot soup. Yum.

Penang

I especially love chicken rice accompanied by a big plate of greens (pictured below) because it makes me feel healthy, even if I’ve eaten six meals that day.

IMG_0322

Kuih // Melaka

One sweltering afternoon in Melaka I tried kuih, bite-sized tea snacks that are found in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and several regions of China.

As a prolific snacker, I loved eating such a wide assortment of treats at one meal. I tasted nasi lemak, sambal and rice, curry puff and fried shrimp ball.

On the sweeter side I tried pulut kueh, coconut sticky rice with palm sugar, and kuih ketayap, a little green burrito dyed with pandan leaf and stuffed with palm sugar.

kueh kueh

Chai and roti prata // Melaka

While in Melaka I joined a group of Malaysian girls for an Indian-style brunch.

For only a couple of dollars we had an Indian feast- flaky, buttery roti prata dipped in a light and spicy dahl, with sweet and spicy chai to accompany.

Considering I had just spent six weeks in India eating exclusively Indian food, I wasn’t about to grab seconds, but I still loved chai and roti prata as a one-off breakfast.

IMG_0703

IMG_0702

Putu Mayam // Georgetown, Penang

Putu mayam was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had- freshly steamed pandan noodles topped with palm sugar and fresh-grated coconut.

I discovered it at a market in Penang, and fell in love with the soft, gummy noodles and the flavor explosion (forgive me) of pandan, palm sugar and coconut. It was truly like nothing else I’ve ever tasted.

IMG_0037

IMG_0036

Banana and peanut fritter // Georgetown, Penang

I also discovered this banana and peanut fritter at a food market in Penang. Such a tasty snack, and cooked banana with crunchy peanuts brought me back to the beloved grilled PB&Js of my childhood.

IMG_0042

Nasi Ulam Nyonya // Georgetown, Penang

Nasi Ulam Nyonya, also known as Nyonya herbal rice, is a Peranakan dish of fragrant and herb-strewn rice. As far as I could tell, it was simply steamed rice with herbs, lime, shallots and belacan (shrimp paste). YUM.

Here’s a recipe if you’d like to make it yourself!

IMG_0050

LIKED.

Penang Char Kuey Teow // Georgetown, Penang

Char Kuey Teow (Chinese : 炒粿條,炒河粉, thanks Wikipedia) is a Chinese dish of flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, bean sprouts, eggs, Chinese chives and both light and dark soy sauce.

I scarfed down lots of Char Kuey Teow while in Penang, though I must say- it’s a pretty heavy dish for such a hot and humid city! Afterwards I always felt like napping.

It reminded me of a lot of the Thai stir-fried noodle dish phat si io, as its flavor savory, heavy and soy-saucey.

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Penang_food

 

Popiah // Georgetown, Penang

Popiah is a Chinese wheat crêpe stuffed with Chinese sausage, prawns, hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts, caramelized onion and cooked carrot and turnip. In Singapore I literally had it daily- I loveee me some popiah.

While I didn’t like the popiah in Penang quite as much as the one I had in Singapore, it was still tasty.

IMG_9885

Fish head bihun // Kuala Lumpur

I’m the first to admit that sometimes I’m too adventurous of an eater for my own good. Grilled lamb hearts in Istanbul? Yes, please. Civet poo coffee in Bali? Small intestine sausage in France? Yes, please. Actually, I loved all those dishes dearly.

But sometimes my white-girl, Midwest-born and bred stomach has trouble keeping up with my food-obsessed mouth. Let’s just say fish head bihun and I didn’t work out.

Fish head bihun is essentially a rice vermicelli noodle soup with chunks of fried fish-head. While I somewhat liked the dish, after a few bites I knew I would be sick.

Soon after taking this picture I experienced the worst food poisoning I had since a fruit farm tour in the Mekong Delta. Fun.

IMG_0199

Pineapple cookies // Melaka

Pineapple cookies are famous in Melaka. But once I finally got my hands on one (they’re hard to buy individually) I wasn’t terribly impressed. As always, I have to admit I prefer American cookies to any other.

IMG_0711

DIDN’T LOVE.

Cendol // Melaka

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but cendol was downright the most bizarre dessert I’ve ever encountered. Imagine a bowl of green jelly noodles that taste like worms, topped with red beans, shaved ice and palm sugar. With a little receptacle of more green jelly noodles in case you didn’t get enough.

Frankly I’m not sure how any of these ingredients go together, much less in a dessert. But to each their own.

IMG_0395

Peranakan laksa // Kuala Lumpur

On my final night in Malaysia I had Peranakan laksa.

Laksa was one of those dishes I wanted so badly to love. I tried Peranakan laksa, asam laksa (okay, at a mall) and laksa in Singapore. I sadly always found it a little… bland. The only one I liked was curry laksa- but hey, you can’t win ’em all.

 Have you ever tried Malaysian food? What did you think?

Eating Penang: A Private Culinary Tour of Georgetown, Malaysia

Eating Penang: A Private Culinary Tour of Georgetown, Malaysia

You guys didn’t think I was done writing about Penang, did you? Because I seriously loved that city too much to pen just a one-off post.

My last day in Penang wasn’t the typical travel day- it was a private culinary tour, which trust me, is not the norm in my travels. But considering how much I love food tours- see here and here– I couldn’t resist experiencing one in a private car.

Here are the highlights of my very special last day in Penang.

Having Breakfast at a Wet Market

Our Penang-born guide, C. K. Low, picked Dylan and me up in an old-school burgundy Benz at 9 a.m. sharp. As soon as I felt the air-conditioning I couldn’t help but look forward to the day ahead of me.

IMG_0045

C. K. Low and Dylan enjoying iced coffees and banana fritters.

Under C.K. Low’s expert guidance we sampled everything from banana peanut fritters to char kway teow, Penang’s signature noodle dish.

I won’t go into too much detail as a Malaysian food post is coming very soon to an inbox near you. But seriously guys- yum.

kueh kueh1

Clockwise from upper left- char kway teow, putu mayam, putu mayam being steamed, the banana and peanut fritter.

Visiting a Thai Buddhist Temple, Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram

Next we headed to Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram (Thai: วัดไชยมังคลาราม). While the Buddha was not quite as quite as splendrous as the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, the temple was certainly beautiful, peaceful and nearly void of visitors.

I also loved hearing about C. K. Low’s Thai ancestry while at the temple, as he explained the strong Thai influence in Penang.

Thai_temple_penang

Penang2

Visiting a Traditional Soy Sauce Factory

I’m not sure if this is normal, but I absolutely love soy sauce. So I was excited to see a soy sauce factory up close- and how beautiful are these pots?

IMG_0078

IMG_0079

We also got to taste the soy sauce, which naturally, was delicious- thick and syrupy and bubbling with that addictive umami flavor. It was a far cry from La Choy, a.k.a. liquid salt.

Trying Nyonya Food at Pinang Peranakan Restaurant

Our next stop? Nyonya appetizers at Pinang Peranakan Restaurant.

From the moment I walked into the building (which dates back to 1880!) I was in love: tall airy ceilings, a red and green tile floor, a British Colonial meets Straits-Chinese feel.

While Dylan and I were much too full from breakfast for an entire meal, we ordered Peranakan top hats, or Koay Pai Tee.

IMG_0086

Honestly though I wasn’t over the moon about the top hats- they kind of remind me of wedding hors d’oeuvres. But on my next visit to Penang I fully intend to return to Pinang Peranakan Restaurant for a full Peranakan meal.

Spotting the Ocean

Yeah. No explanation necessary here. Can you imagine waking up to this view everyday?

IMG_0118

Finding Tons of Colonial Mansions

As I’ve mentioned in other posts (Penang, Macau, Singapore), I’m fascinated by colonial history and architecture in Asia.

So at the end of our tour, I asked C. K. Low if we could see Penang’s colonial mansions. And I was not disappointed. While some were a bit shabby, others were in immaculate condition. But shabby or not, I still relished the chance to see such unique and historical architecture.

Sigh. Aren’t they just dreamy?

IMG_0128

IMG_0103

Colonial_Mansion_Penang_4

As we were driving Dylan, who hails from England, said, “Look, there’s a cricket pavilion!” which I never would have known. One of the benefits of traveling with a Brit is definitely their ability to identify relics of a British colonial past. (That and I’ve met some who travel with teabags, which is genius.)

All in all the tour reminded me of why I loved Penang so much- you’re never more than a stone’s throw from a colonial mansion or a really, really good meal.

Have you ever gone on a private culinary tour?

 A big thanks to Rasa Malaysia Penang Private Tour for hosting me and showing me what I should be eating in Penang.

Also after reading TripAdvisor reviews, I would definitely recommend requesting C. K. Low. He was very personable and professional, and lots of people on TripAdvisor experienced no-shows with other drivers.

Nerding Out at Harry Potter World

Nerding Out at Harry Potter World

Long before I was a traveler, I was a nerd. My favorite movie ever is Lord of the Rings, I played Pokémon until I was a senior in high school (no, but seriously) and I’m a lifelong Harry Potter fan.

I’ve not only read all the Harry Potter books in English (obviously), I’ve read quite a few in Spanish and French. And on my 11th birthday I was a smidge disappointed that I didn’t receive an owl.

So you’ll understand why I had to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios while in Florida over the holidays, even if it meant a five-hour round-trip drive.

And considering I’d been promising my baby sister, Bee, a trip to Disney for oh say, the last decade, I decided to kill two birds with one sorcerer’s stone. (Sorry, I had to.)

Processed with VSCOcam with e3 preset

Even the outside of Harry Potter World was impressive- doesn’t this façade seriously look like London? The London stock brick was spot-on. Harry Potter World

And then I spotted our first wizardly sighting of the day- The Night Bus. Harry Potter World

Next we moseyed over to King’s Cross. While “living” in London last year I transferred at King’s Cross almost daily, so walking inside made me feel a bit nostalgic for London, a city I miss every single day.

Harry Potter World

Harry Potter World

While on Platform 9 3/4 we spotted a not-realistic-at-all Hedwig, and then we boarded the Gryffindor-red Hogwarts Express.

Harry Potter World

Sadly, the Hogwarts Express ride was a bit cheesy. First off, I totally expected a sweet-filled trolley to roll by. But no chocolate frogs for this girl-  only lame sound effects and and the shadow of Death Eaters in the window.

But soon we were we were in Hogsmeade. From the second I saw Hogsmeade I was enchanted by everything from the crooked chimneys to the snowy roofs. Save the Floridian humidity, it was just like the real thing.

Harry Potter World
Harry Potter World Harry Potter World

Our first beverage in Hogsmeade? Butter beer, of course. Harry Potter World

Butter beer was sadly… not very good. First of all, no alcohol (to be expected of course), and secondly it tasted like cloyingly sweet butterscotch.

Harry Potter World

My knock-off @girleatworld pic. In full disclosure that’s my sister’s hand- as if my nails ever look that good.

Harry Potter World

Next we beelined for Hogwarts, which houses the best ride in the park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. During the ride we tried not to vomit as we encountered everything from Dumbledore’s office to giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest. Harry Potter World

Harry Potter World  The sorting hat talks while you wait in line. So great.

Before leaving Hogsmeade we stopped at the Three Broomsticks for a pretty mediocre lunch, and then headed for Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley was equally as impressive as Hogsmeade: a labyrinth of dark, narrow alleys, capped with giant, fire-breathing dragon.

Harry Potter World

Harry Potter World Harry Potter World

Ollivanders Wand Shop, where wands cost $40 plus dollars. I was surprised to see a lot of people buying them- quoi?

The absolute surprise of the day was Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. First of all, the old-fashioned, baby pink interior was adorable, and secondly the ice cream was gourmet. And y’all know I don’t use that word that lightly. Harry Potter World
I adored my salted caramel blondie cone, and my sister lapped up her sticky toffee pudding in a cup. Unfortunately I didn’t get to taste the other inventive and seemingly delicious flavors: Earl Grey and lavender, clotted cream, chocolate chili and strawberry and peanut butter.

Can Florean Fortescue’s please be a national franchise? I’d be so down.

After we demolished our ice cream cones my sister dragged me out of Harry Potter World to see some parts of Universal Studios. Having seen almost everything, I begrudgingly obliged her.

Despite a few minor let-downs, I loved Harry Potter World. And while I totally should’ve gotten an owl back in the day, seeing the faux Harry Potter World was still pretty wonderful.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Have you ever visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Would you?

Penang is for Street Art and Hawker Centre Lovers

Penang is for Street Art and Hawker Centre Lovers

Want to know something kind of crazy? On my four-month round-the-world trip, during which I visited 10 countries total, I visited only three new countries.

And the only new one in Southeast Asia? Malaysia.

But thankfully, Malaysia was so historical and surprising and different from anywhere else I’ve been (besides Singapore, perhaps), that it made me feel like a less lame traveler.

Out of all the Malaysian cities I saw, I fell hardest for Penang. From the crumbling Chinese shophouses to the Peranakan mansions to the creative bursts of street art all over the city, Penang was a dream for this colonial history-loving traveler.

Two_Week_Malaysia_Itinerary_Penang_shophouses I bunked up in Georgetown, Penang’s historic and touristic center, for four nights. It turned out four nights was too short a sojourn, and I found myself wishing for more time at trip’s end.

I missed a lot: the Photography Museum, Kek Lok Si Temple, a Peranakan cooking class. What can I say? It was about a zillion degrees outside and after more than three months of travel I just wanted to soak in my surroundings, rather than bop from tourist site to tourist site.

But despite my wishes to avoid any and all humidity, I managed to see, eat and do quite a lot.

IMG_9675 IMG_9661

Visiting the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Since childhood I’ve had a fascination with both colonialism and the inner workings of Chinese households. (Which probably stemmed from Ties That Bind, Ties That Break. Anyhow.) Penang3 Which is why I absolutely loved the Pinang Peranakan Mansion– an immaculately restored Straits-Chinese home filled with turn-of-the-century treasures like Victorian furniture, vintage china and bedazzled Nonya slippers.

I spent hours there taking photographs and examining the hundreds of antiques on display, as well as fervently wishing I could time-travel back to early twentieth-century Penang and attend a soirée at a wealthy Peranakan trader’s home. Alas.

IMG_9713

Wandering the Clan Jetties

The clan jetties of Georgetown have stood for more than a century. They began as sheds used as resting places for the dock-workers, and eventually developed into communal dwellings with a Chinese clan occupying each jetty. (Interestingly, the same six clans still occupy the jetties.) IMG_9837

I found it neat that people still live in the stilt houses- while wandering I spotted motorbikes, pet cats and laundry flapping in the wind. While there were lots of tourists, the jetties truly still are family homes.

While there’s nothing to do at the clan jetties per se, they’re worth a wander while in Georgetown. IMG_9859

Searching for Beautiful Street Art

I apologize for these overexposed street art photos- in Penang I made the fatal mistake of trying to take photographs in Asia during the day.

But despite these so-so pictures, the street art in Georgetown was seriously impressive. My British travel buddy Dylan and I spent an entire afternoon combing side streets and found some beautiful murals. And waited our turn to pose with them of course. IMG_9820 IMG_9828 IMG_9832

I particularly loved work by Lithuanian-born arutist Ernest Zacharevic. Most of his work depicts Malaysian children doing everyday things like swinging on a swingset, playing basketball or flying a kite. But what makes his work so special is the 3-D nature of his work, with the inclusion of real objects.

IMG_9896 IMG_9899 IMG_9817 IMG_9804 IMG_9904 IMG_9936 IMG_9937

Eating at the Hawker Centres

When in Malaysia eat as the Malaysians eat, right?

In Penang I was delighted to find Singapore-style hawker centres, filled with a similar mixture of Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian stalls I came to love in the Little Red Dot.

CF Hawker Centre

One particularly sweltering afternoon while seeking cold water and fans, Dylan and I popped into the CF Hawker Centre. There we noshed on wanton mee and popiah, though sadly neither were quite as good the ones I had in Singapore.

I particularly appreciated the… unsavory selection of Western food, which included “Hawaii Chicken with Cheese”, “Chicken Gordon Bleu” and “Jumbo Sausage with Black Pepper Sauce.”

IMG_9891 IMG_9885

Red Garden Food Paradise

Our second hawker centre of the trip was Red Garden Food Paradise.

When we arrived for dinner we were far too early- the vendors hadn’t even started grilling. So we filled our stomachs (and our time) with a round of beers, which as always in Malaysia, was over-priced.

(To be fair I guess that’s what you should probably expect in a predominantly Muslim country.) IMG_9967

And when at long last the vendors started cooking, we tucked into chicken rice (soon to become my Malaysian staple), stewed eel (blergh) and chicken satay with peanut sauce (a favorite of mine from my time in Indonesia).

IMG_9974

Staying at Roommates Penang

While in Penang Dylan and I stayed in at Roommates Penang, a quaint hostel located in central Georgetown. I absolutely loved the traditional Chinese shophouse façade, as well as the location: Roommates is located near all the UNESCO sites, street art and hawker centres.

IMG_2833

I’ve stayed in dozens of hostels in Asia, and I can safely say Roommates is a good one- first off, the AC was glacial- essential in Malaysia in June. Secondly, I loved the privacy of the cubby bunks, and that the dorms only fit four people.

One downside was the lack of a common area- as someone who is always looking to meet other travelers I would’ve loved an area to socialize. Still, watching illegally downloaded Game of Thrones in our private, air-conditioned cubby bunks was pretty glorious.

Have you ever visited Penang? 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 A big thanks to Roommates Penang for hosting me in Penang. While they offered me two nights, I stayed a few more because I sincerely enjoyed my stay.