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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.)
Even the outside of Harry Potter World was impressive- doesn’t this façade seriously look like London? The London stock brick was spot-on.
And then I spotted our first wizardly sighting of the day- The Night Bus.
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.
While on Platform 9 3/4 we spotted a not-realistic-at-all Hedwig, and then we boarded the Gryffindor-red Hogwarts Express.
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.
Our first beverage in Hogsmeade? Butter beer, of course.
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.
My knock-off @girleatworld pic. In full disclosure that’s my sister’s hand- as if my nails ever look that good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Have you ever visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Would you?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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).
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.
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?
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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.
Without a doubt, Koh Tao is one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.
Last fall I spent three weeks there and this spring I returned for two and a half. On both visits I only intended to stay a week, but well, Koh Tao is tough to quit.
Koh Tao is heaven for young people. A palm tree-fringed paradise where hour-long massages cost $6, where you can scuba-dive and fight muay thai and motorbike at your leisure, where partying is practically an art-form.
My memories of Koh Tao are equally distant and fond, so hazy it’s as if they belong to someone else.
Even though I was there only six months ago, I was a different girl. Back then I flitted around the world, unsure of myself or what I wanted to do. I was rootless. I vacillated between seeking adventure and food and travel and craving community and career growth and lasting friendship.
Similar to an addiction, travel evolved from a love to an escape to an obsession to a lifestyle. After nine years of obsessive travel, I traveled because it was all I knew how to do. I was equally scared for the future and determined to savor the present. When the dreaded question “What will I do when I get home?” arose, I cast it from my mind.
I lived simply and cheaply, my only shoes a pair of black flip flops, my hair usually wet and plaited to the side. I was a girl who felt wildly indulgent paying $40 a night for an air-conditioned bungalow, who considered staying out until two an early night. I worried a lot. I partied a lot. I had metric tons of free time but carried a deep guilt for not feeling constantly happy. After all, who was I to feel lonely in paradise? How dare I?
I was a girl I recognize but can’t remember being.
But I do remember some things about my time on Koh Tao. I remember the bathwater sea, the banana pancake truck parked in front of Ban’s, the bright long tail boats bobbing in the surf. I remember drinking frothy pineapple juice as the tourmaline sea glittered. I remember swaying in a hammock listening to Manu Chao, sniffling and feverish from too many nights out.
And needless to say, I miss that lifestyle at times. I miss blissing out under Tiger Balm massages while listening to the soft pulsing of the sea. I miss sipping lukewarm Changs on the beach at night, watching the fire dancers spin, the flames bright as stars.
But mostly, I feel time has given me clarity. I forgive the girl I was back then for being anxious and guilty once in a while, because of course I had rough days on the road. Of course I felt insecure about my future and longed for deeper friendships. One can only live untethered for so long without yearning for security.
In retrospect I see that I was far too hard on myself.
I doubt I will ever go back to Koh Tao- actually, I don’t want to. For me, it’s so intertwined with youth, both the uncertainty and the frivolity of it. I want the island to remain fixed in my mind just as it was when I was 23. Because I will never again be the girl I was on Koh Tao, for better or worse.
Koh Tao- what a special little piece of paradise.
Yes, you read that correctly. Coup. On May 22, 2014, the Thai military took control of the government and enforced curfew and martial law, banned political gatherings, censored the media and detained and arrested politicians.
As fate would have it, I had a flight to Bangkok booked for May 23.
So on my last night in Delhi, I weighed my options:
Cons- Coup. Potential imprisonment. Border crossings could be tricky.
Pros- Thailand. Already spent $200 on ticket. Nowhere else to go. THAILAND.
And as I half-joked to my parents, I’d rather be a political prisoner than spend one more day in India.
So off I flew to the Thai capital. And I’m glad I did. While I felt lukewarm about Bangkok the first time around, on my second visit I came to adore it.
And really, the coup didn’t change much. Yes, there was that pesky 10 p.m. curfew and the local TV channels were completely blocked. But mostly, it was Bangkok as usual: temples and Thai food, shopping malls and duck soup.
(I have to admit, I did break the curfew as one night my travel buddy and I sneaked out at 11 p.m. for a massage. Gasp!)
After six weeks in rural India, Bangkok might as well have been Boston. It was so modern.
I spent my entire first day lapping up modernity at Siam Paragon, Bangkok’s swankiest shopping mall. I nearly died of bliss as I sipped a vanilla latte, scrolled through my phone and savored the long-forgotten feel of air-conditioning on my face.
I also stopped at H&M and the beauty country to stock up on Southeast Asia essentials: MAC Studio Fix and Bobbi Brown bronzer. And in the spirit of the girliest, most self-induldgent day ever, then I got a mani pedi. And they had OPI which never happens.
So after I got that out of my system, I went hunting for two of my favorite things in Southeast Asia: food and wet markets.
Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market
Khlong Lat Mayom is a floating market on the outskirts of Bangkok, with colorful wooden boats, delicious food and bright umbrellas. And it was a locals-only affair- my travel buddy Joe and I were the only tourists there!
Another perk? The vendors gave out free samples. Don’t mind if I do.
Joe and I noticed all the locals were eating fried carp- or rather, some sort of crispy bottom feeder. So we hurried over to get ours too.
Well, it wasn’t very good so we tried again. Our second lunch (ahem), was a spicy seafood salad. Delicious.
By the end of the morning I decided that out of all the markets I’ve visited in Bangkok, Khlong Lat Mayom is by far my favorite.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
On Sunday we headed to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, or JJ’s, to score a few bargains and see what all the fuss was about. Chatuchak is enormous; I found the sprawl a bit overwhelming but most enjoyed stalls 2-4, where trendy Thai designers hawk their wares (Thanks Alex in Wanderland for pointing me in the right direction!)
While I came armed with plenty of baht and the intent to more or less buy a new wardrobe, I only walked away with a pair of feather earrings. In the end it was too sticky to try on clothes, and at nearly 5′ 8” tall, I’m not exactly Thai-sized anyway.
I really wish I had bought one of these.
But no matter, I still enjoyed spending an afternoon at Chatuchak, and relished the opportunity to have some bánh cuốn. Hey, I love Thai food, but sometimes I just need me some Vietnamese.
Taking the Ferry to the Lots of Temples
As I learned on my last visit in Thailand, the Chao Phraya River Express Ferry is the best way to squeeze in lots of sites while enjoying a breeze.
Our first stop was Wat Pho, the beautiful, gold-coated reclining Buddha…
then the surrounding temples, which were also stunning…
and to finish, the stately Grand Palace.
(Note- make sure you dress respectfully for all these temples! Ladies, think shawls and long skirts.)
But soon we were sweltering in the Bangkok sun so we retreated back to the hostel.
A huge reason I liked Bangkok more the second time was due to the upgrade in accommodation. While last time I bunked up in a cockroach-infested hostel on Khao San Road, this time I stayed at Lub d.
Lub d has two locations: Siam Square and Silom. We chose Silom, a ritzy district where the sois are filled with cheap and tasty eats.
My friend had never stayed in a hostel so I figured Lub d was a gentle segue into the backpacker scene. And Lub d was everything I had bargained for; clean, beautifully designed and staffed with incredibly sweet and helpful employees.
And across the street from Lub d Silom is a stall serving one of the meals of my life. There’s only one menu item- duck soup- and it will blow your mind. Have you ever see anything so beautiful?
Coup or no coup, I loved Bangkok. And I honestly think I’d fly back just for that soup- though I’ll pass on the government overthrow next time.
Would you have flown to Thailand in the middle of a military coup? Am I crazy?
Lub d generously hosted our stay for two nights. As always, all opinions are completely my own.
(Note- buy MAC makeup before you get to Bangkok because it was crazy marked up.)
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India was, for lack of a better word, the most hard-core trip of my life. At various points in my six weeks I was struggling to breathe from the stench of cow shit, vomiting from (many) bouts of food poisoning, violently shivering in a wind-whipped tent, nearly passing out from sunstroke in the Himalayas and doing vinyasa in 110-degree heat.
Travel writers wax poetic on how India is a Technicolor, multi-sensory travel experience- and yes, it is that. But for me, India was much a spiritual overhaul as it was a descent into chaos.
For better or worse, shit went down.
A human-powered ferris wheel. No biggie.
Here are the craziest things that happened to me in India:
I left my wallet on the plane in Delhi.
This one is kind of embarrassing. I’ve only been to, oh, 38 countries, and boarded countless international flights. But after passing customs in Delhi, I realized I was sans wallet.
After two hours of frantic waiting, an airport employee returned the wallet to me with all the credit cards intact, my confirmation number written in blue pen on the leather (a funny story to tell when I pull it out nowadays).
I will forever be grateful to the kind employees of Indira Gandhi International Airport.
I was attacked by monkeys on an early morning run.
Per our Indian wellness pledge, McCall and I woke up at 6 a.m. every day to run. One morning, we passed a trash heap and a pack of macaques leapt out and corralled McCall. Hissing and baring their teeth, McCall kicked at them and yelled, “HEY!”
Seconds later, she shouted “RUN!” and we started sprinting back towards the yoga school.
Later, when I regaled the tale to my uncle, instead of being shocked that I was attacked by monkeys, he said, “Wait. You went running at 6 a.m.?” Ha.
And just in case you’re ever attacked; leading primatologists suggest you “Form an “O” with your mouth, lean toward them with your body and head, and raise your eyebrows.
Also, apparently monkeys are more afraid of men than women. That’s not even fair.
I saw a corpse floating in the Ganges
We were standing at the edge of the Ganges in Rishikesh when I saw a white shape floating quickly down the river. As it came closer, I saw it was a blue-tinged, water-logged corpse.
While my yoga school classmates claimed it was a cow, sorry guys, it wasn’t- it was a human corpse with a head full of black hair.
A week after the corpse incident, my classmates wanted to take a dip in the Ganges, which up until that point I was all for. But considering the corpse we had just seen, I opted out. Everyone called me a square.
I went white-water rafting with an infant.
Every day at yoga school, I would watch as white-water rafters drifted down the Ganges in bright blue rafts. “I want to do that,” I sighed.
So one day, to my delight, we headed down to the Ganges to white-water raft.
Soon into our rafting trip two Indian families boarded the raft, the men in blue jeans and loafers, the women in saris. And to our dismay, one woman was holding her ten-month old daughter.
The child was terrified, sobbing hysterically as huge waves rained down upon us. “Pani, pani!” said the mom, pointing to the water.
Also, as an aside, most Indians can’t swim.
Anyway, maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t understand the logic in bringing a baby white-water rafting.
I nearly died in the Himalayas.
Okay, okay. Maybe I’m being dramatic. But I could’ve at least broken a leg.
One morning we were hiking down a snowy hill, and I fell and slipped. After sliding down about 15 feet, heading for the edge of the mountain, I managed to grab hold of a rhododendron bush.
And thank god, as there wasn’t much past it.
I was circled by men at night in Delhi.
In India men have a curious habit of forming a circle around you, as if they were corralling you. It’s rather terrifying.
After dinner in Delhi, my friends (one girl, one guy) and I stopped at the India Gate. We were just walking around the park and stopped to do a few yoga poses. Within seconds, a group of about 15-20 men formed a circle around us. My guy friend grabbed us both by the arms and pushed his way out of the crowd.
My guy friend was genuinely shocked. “Is this what you girls go through all the time?”
(Note- my female friend I had would never have gone to a park at night alone, and only went because we had a guy with us. Unfortunately, we still live in world where two women alone in a park at night in India is a very bad idea.)
I had a guru.
How could I talk about India without mentioning my guru and meditation teacher, Swami Ji?
Swami Ji, who referred to me as “sluggish baby”, is one of the funniest and good-hearted people I’ve ever met in my life.
A lover of selfies, Swami Ji would have us pose as a class while he took a selfie with his 13.1 megapixel smartphone.
He liked to meditate anywhere and everywhere. I can still picture his voice perfectly; whenever we asked a question, he would reply, “Yessssssss… baby…”
He introduced us to many forms of meditation, including moon meditation, in which we laid on our backs, stared at the moon and then closed our eyes and tried to remember the moon. And laughing meditation, in which we laughed hysterically for an hour straight.
Thank you, India. It was real. And crazy.
So what about you? What’s the “craziest” country you’ve ever been to?
As a note, this post is just a summary of my anecdotal experiences. It in no way speaks for all of India, just what happened to me.
It’s no secret that I had a spectacular time trekking the Indian Himalaya. (Read Part I and Part II of my experience here.)
But often when travelers decide to hike the Himalayas, they head to Nepal. I get it- Nepal is home to the tallest mountains in the world: Everest, K2, Annapurna. But most of us aren’t looking for a one-in-three chance of death (Annapurna) or a ten-week trek (Everest); we just want to enjoy nature and see big mountains.
Which is why I whole-heartedly recommend the Indian Himalaya; it’s uncrowded, cheap and absolutely beautiful. And why hike in Nepal, which is becoming increasingly touristy, crowded and expensive, when you can have the Indian Himalaya all to yourself?
And I mean all to yourself. We came across eight other hikers in our entire eight-day trek.
We chose to hike the absolutely beautiful Kuari Pass Trek in the Garhwal Mountains. Our trek started and ended in Rishikesh, and lasted 10 days total: two days in transit, and eight days of hiking.
Things to consider when planning your Indian Himalaya trek:
What do you want to see?
Hankering for ancient monasteries? Head to Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist region. Verdant forests? Think Sikkim. Stunning mountain vistas? The Garhwal Mountains, especially around Nanda Devi. (This was my trek!)
Independent hiking or with a trekking company?
Personally, I didn’t even consider independent trekking as I’m not an experienced enough hiker. But on my trek we met four hikers who were hiking independently so it can be done.
Picking a trekking company:
When in doubt, check TripAdvisor. Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure, came highly recommended on TripAdvisor, ranked #1 in Rishikesh and with a Certificate of Excellence.
I absolutely adored Red Chilli- there wasn’t a kink in the whole operation. We had charming guides, delicious food and smooth logistics. Really I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Plus, the value for your money is incredible.
One thing to note is some trekking operators prefer to take on a certain number of clients; for example, Red Chilli has a minimum of four hikers and a maximum of ten. If you have a smaller or larger group, you will pay an additional fee.
How much will your trek will cost?
We had a group of four, and each of us paid $440 USD. Costs became incrementally cheaper with more trekkers:
Group of 2 pax INR 34000 per person
Group of 3 pax INR 28500 per person
Group of 4-5 pax INR 25000 per person
Group of 6-7 pax INR 22500 per person
Group of 8-10pax INR 20000 per person
Note: we paid 50% of the total in advance as a deposit, and there was a 3.09% government service tax.
And don’t forget to factor in tips for your guides and porters! We tipped our guides $75 each, and our porters $40 each.
What does the trek include?
Our trek included transportation to and from Rishikesh, one night in a hotel, tents, three meals a day and all permits and entrance fees. This also included a staff of two guides, five porters, one cook and a team of mules.
Our trek didn’t include sleeping bags, but they could be rented for 100 rupees ($1.50 USD) a day. (Pro tip- bring a silk liner if you’re planning on renting!)
Difficulty of the trek:
If you’re an avid and experienced hiker, then a difficult hike may be right up your alley. Our trek was moderate which was the perfect difficulty level for me; challenging but bearable.
Time of year:
As a rule, the best times to hike the Himalayas are spring (March-May) and fall (September to November). The summer months are monsoon season and the winter months are quite cold, so spring and fall are optimal.
We did our trek in May and the weather was sunny most days.
How long your trek will last:
If you’re short on time, a five-day trek might be perfect. Our trek lasted ten days total: two days of transit, eight days of trekking. For me this was the perfect length; any longer and I think I would’ve lost it.
What to pack for a Himalayan trek:
Day-pack- I absolutely adore this backpack, and it was essential for carting around my snacks, Camelbak and extra layers on the trail.
Sleeping bag- I love, love, love my Marmot Angel Fire and am so glad I brought it. (I also slept in it for the entire month of Yoga Teacher Training!) But if you’re renting a sleeping bag from the trekking company, pack a silk sleeping bag liner- they’re also great for grimy hostels.
Power bars – While Red Chilli supplied us with snacks on the trail, sometimes I was glad to have a Luna Bar or two.
Camelbak – for quick hydration. This went straight in the daypack and was an absolute lifesaver.
iPhone and headphones – great for taking photos and listening to music. To save battery life, I turned off a bunch of my phone’s functions with this list.
Solar charger – Not essential, but great if you’re on a longer trek and need to charge your phone. Note- pre-charge it in an outlet before the trek- the solar function didn’t seem to work very well.
Face wipes – to clear away sweat and grime after a long day.
Headlamp – Essential for midnight or pre-dawn bathroom runs.
Pain killers - I packed Advil for headaches and back pain.
Sunscreen with SPF 50 – Essential when you’re hiking at high-altitude. And don’t forget your your ears and the tops of your hands- that’s where we got burnt the worst! Consider bringing aloe vera too if you burn easily.
Small scissors, Neosporin, band-aids – a godsend to those of us who blister!
Kindle - great for lazy post-trekking afternoons. Bonus points if the light is built-in.
Plastic bags – for dirty or wet clothes.
Note- pack warm, with lots of layers. Ski socks are especially great for cold nights!
My usual outfit: a tank top or t-shirt and Hot Chillys thermal top, with a fleece and rain coat in my bag. For bottoms I wore either athletic shorts or Hot Chillys thermal leggings layered with Zella leggings on top. For my shoes I wore hiking boots and socks, with a dorky wool hat and sunglasses to finish off the look.
Hiking boots and socks
Ski socks for sleep
Flip flops – to change into post trekking. SO nice!
Sunglasses with UV protection
Hot Chillys thermal top and bottom - I’m a lifelong fan of Hot Chillys, so silky and warm or cool depending on what you need!
Leggings and/or hiking pants
Tons of tank tops or undershirts
Pijamas – in my case, a big t-shirt and athletic shorts
Rain cover for both day-pack and backpack
Would you ever trek the Indian Himalaya?
Red Chilli Adventure did not pay or perk me in any way for this mention- I really just loved them this much! And the Amazon links in this post grant me a small commission at no extra cost to you- thanks for helping keep Ashley Abroad afloat.
Before leaving India I knew I’d have to make one last stop- the Taj Majal.
The Taj Majal is located in Agra, a few hours south of New Delhi. Built in memory of the Emperor’s third and favorite wife Mumtāz Mahal, the Taj Majal is one of the world’s most beautiful examples of Mughal architecture in the world. But you already knew that, right?
Honestly, I didn’t really want to see the Taj Majal. I kind of resent “the things you have to see while traveling” because the list is just so damn long.
So we awoke before dawn to see the Taj Majal in all its splendor. Impressions? It was smaller than I thought but the early morning light turned the marble a pretty shade of pink-orange conch shell. And dawn turned out to be an excellent time to visit, as the temperature is cool and the crowds are minimal.
Of course, we took the super touristy optical illusion and Princess-Di-on-a-bench shots. Obviously.
And okay no, the Taj Majal isn’t my favorite tourist attraction in Asia. (I’m looking at you, Angkor Wat.) But I’m still glad to have laid eyes on it, and am especially grateful we went at dawn.
Mini Taj Majal Travel Guide:
Where we stayed: the ITC Mughal. It’s a steal with SPG points!
Where we ate: Peshawri. Amazing!
How we got there: We hired a private car from Le Meridién and it was a huge rip-off- something like $80 a person! Unfortunately all the trains were booked weeks in advance so we couldn’t take a train. The highways were an absolute joy though- a world away from the dirt roads on the way to Rishikesh!
Is the Taj Majal on your bucket list?
After a month of Yoga Teacher Training and 10 days hiking the Himalayas, we were back to civilization in New Delhi.
In the past five weeks, I had eaten meat once (goat stew), drunk one beer (Kingfisher- blergh), completed 100+ hours of yoga in 110-degree heat and lost countless pounds due to extreme physical exercise and a diet of lentils.
It was time for some fun. And some air-conditioning.
So after dropping off Alice at the airport, Joe, McCall and I headed straight to Le Méridien, courtesy of McCall’s SPG points.
I was thrilled not only to stay in a luxury hotel, but to feel air-conditioning on my skin and to have power that didn’t go out 15 times a day.
And then in one of those ironic, are-you-flipping-kidding-me-India moments, the power went out in the entire hotel while I was in the elevator. India, you got me good.
On our first night back in civilization, we gussied ourselves up and headed to Le Méridien’s cocktail lounge for some complimentary snacks and champagne. Upon the first sip of bubbly, I was reminded why I will never give up alcohol for a prolonged period of time ever again.
That night we headed to Varq, a swanky restaurant where Joe sweetly bought us dinner along with many bottles of wine. I have generally good feelings about the night but don’t remember precise details- apparently champagne and I had too intense a reunion.
The next day we headed to Agra to see the Taj Majal, an adventure that deserves its own post.
When we returned to Delhi, we stayed at Leela Palace, one of the most luxurious hotels in India.
And how did we come to stay in such a nice hotel, you may be wondering? Well hours before the Himalayan trek I realized I had forgotten to book a hotel for our return so I shot my dad a quick email- I needed a cheap hotel in Delhi, please put it on my credit card.
But instead of booking a crappy hotel on my card, he booked a really nice hotel on his.
When we waltzed in, a string quartet and a lobby full of lilies greeted us. My singular thought was, OH MY GOD THANK YOU SO MUCH DAD.
Sidenote- my dad is ridiculously thoughtful and knew I would be craving luxury after not showering for 10 days. When I asked why he chose Leela Palace he said, “It seemed like the kind of hotel where I would stay.” The man has good taste.
Also what’s great about India is that this five-star hotel cost only $200 a night- a bargain.
Apologies for the poor iPhone photos, but Leela Palace was amazing. The bed was made of angel’s wings and the bathtub had a TV and was about four feet deep. As we settled into our room, a waiter brought us homemade lemon iced tea on a silver tray.
While we only got one night in the lap of luxury, it sure was blissful.
Have I ever mentioned how much I adore room service?
One night we went to Bukhara, a fancy restaurant where the Clintons have dined. Okay yeah, Bukhara is touristy and wildly overpriced for India. But the food was insane- I don’t think I’ll ever stop dreaming of the ridiculously tender lamb skewers.
Cooking class Delhi
We also did some cultural stuff, okay?
I love home-cooking classes, so on our last night in India we signed up for Farheen Cooking Class. Farheen, our chatty, pink-cheeked instructor, taught us how to make lots of our Indian favorites: chapati, parantha, chai, paneer butter masala and lentils.
I learned a ton. Who knew chapati and roti are the same thing, just called by different names?
Also Farheen told us that North Indian cuisine is spicier and uses mustard seed oil and wheat flour, while South Indian relies on coconut oil and rice or white chickpea flour. Someday I’d love to travel to South India to taste the difference firsthand.
When we asked if her husband helped in the kitchen, Farheen laughed. “Men in India don’t cook!”
She also taught us tikka means cooked in a tandoor. I probably should’ve known that.
The spices used to make chai…
Homemade chai, which is crazy delicious…
Making paneer butter masala, my favorite…
So yeah, we had a great time in Delhi. We both ate and slept in style, capping off our trip with a bit of luxury.
And then- Joe and I were off to Thailand. With only one problem- we were flying into Bangkok during a military coup. So stay tuned for that adventure!
Mini Luxury Delhi Guide
Where to stay: Le Méridien, Leela Palace
Where to eat: Varq, Bukhara
What to do: The Red Fort, home-cooking class
Have you ever visited Delhi? Did you live it up like we did or travel more moderately?