Climbing Mount Kinabalu (on the cheap!)

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I climbed the highest mountain in South East Asia yesterday. I can’t feel my legs. 4,095m up in the sky, all the pain was worth it.

Mountain shadow - sunrise at the summit

Mountain shadow – sunrise at the summit

I wasn’t always sure I’d get the chance to climb Kinabalu due to different things I’d heard about cost and availability but when I stayed at the lovely North Borneo Cabin in Kota Kinabalu the owner told me about the deal at Jungle Jack’s and so I jumped at the chance and left the next day.

Mount Kinabalu

Jungle Jack’s

Jungle Jack’s is just outside the National Park. Jack is an absolute diamond and completely runs the show. We were provided with steaming hot showers, kitchen and food supplies as well as dinner in a local restaurant. Cute dogs for company – always an added bonus. 420 ringgit (£110) included 3 nights accommodation (the second night is spent in a lodge on the mountain), all food, entrance to the park and trekking guides – bargain. 

After 6 months on the road and next to no exercise I wasn’t sure how my body was going to respond to climbing over 8km and 2,000m. It was tough but worth every step. The first 6km to the lodge for the night weren’t too bad especially as you can take your time. No rush to get to the lodge where you have dinner and get some kip before an early start for the summit at 1.30am the next day. Despite getting up at such an unearthly hour this was by far the most fun part as you literally get to scramble up rock faces, pull yourself along cliff edges with rope and battle through ice cold winds in the dark. Adrenaline is a fine wonder.

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I cannot describe how cold it was at the summit. We just about managed to stick around for half an hour to make the most of the incredible colour changing skies as the sun came up. It didn’t take long to get back to the lodge for a rest and second breakfast before we faced what I hadn’t realised would be the most challenging part. The decent was horrible. The first few kilometres weren’t so bad as you’re still running off the high of your achievement. But the last 3 nearly killed me. I felt like my legs were detached from my body and simply refusing to work. Even though I’m still walking like an old lady I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Tiger Balm Theme Park – Wait…What??

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I’m still determined to blog about the more bizarre or unexpected elements of travel and this place certainly qualifies. I was recommended by a friend to go here for a taste of something different from Singapore (you’ll discover its gardens, sky scrapers and endless shopping malls with no help). When you’re done with the city’s futuristic delights, head to Haw Par Villa.

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With more Chinese mythology than you can shake a stick at, this unusual attraction was created by the Burmese-Chinese entrepreneur brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par responsible for the world renowned Tiger Balm company. I’ve made my way through my fair share of this magic cream on the many mosquito bites I’ve acquired on the road, so I couldn’t help but wonder what a “theme park” also known as Tiger Balm Gardens would entail. The answer – not what you think.

Haw Par Villa

The park comprises a series of hilarious gaudy statues and dioramas teaching traditional Chinese values providing an insight into Buddhist and Confucianist beliefs as well as a lazy stroll in an unique environment and a good giggle. Theme Park it may not be in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a fun and free way to wile away a couple of hours in outside the box Singapore.

Top tip: look for the old lady’s nipple.

Lunch at the Gurdwara

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I thought I had Melaka in Malaysia pretty much all figured out before I arrived but my first day still managed to surprise me. I’m staying at Jalan Jalan which is a great social hostel. Lee who works there runs regular lunch and dinner clubs for people to head out for food in more interesting locations, so yesterday I had lunch in a Sikh temple.

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Having washed our feet and donned scarves to cover our heads and shoulders we entered the main prayer room complete with chanting guru and paid a small donation that goes towards the Sikh concept of langar – a free kitchen where people of any ethnicity or religion are served food for free. We sat down at one of the many silver benches and were greeted by the canteen volunteers with helpings of poppadoms, chapatis, rice and a selection of delicious vegetarian curries. Equality is a principal central to Sikhism and so after eating we washed up and cleaned the tables in order to share in this wonderful ideal.

I ♥ Penang

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OK so Penang is ultimately a tourist town. Its been preserved and promoted as a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason; it’s cute, it’s fascinating and most importantly, it’s very yummy. You occasionally get some hipster backpackers complaining of touristy places like this, that it’s not “real” or whatever. So maybe it’s well polished, but who cares? Get over yourselves and enjoy it! Here are my top…5? I’m lazy. And yes, most of them will probably be food oriented.

NUMBER 1 – Chendul

I just ate this. It’s amazing. They have similar desserts throughout SE Asia and to be honest I usually avoid them because they generally looks like a big gloopy sugary fluorescent mess in a bowl. The chendul recommendation however paid off. This particular sweet tooth fix consists of green (coloured from pandan leaf), rice flour noodles with coconut milk and palm sugar poured on top of shaved ice which they literally grind down from huge blocks of in front of you. Sounds horrendous, tastes unforgettable. Find the famous Teo Chew stall at the top of Lebuh Keng Kwee where it meets Penang Road.

Penang

Chendul

NUMBER 2 – Hot Puthu

Oh dear number two and another dessert. But they’re just that good! I have to thank Jeremy who is currently residing in Penang as a food tour guide for this one. Hot Puthu is a fantastic concoction of coconut crumbly goodness. The lady on the corner of Lebuh China and Lebuh Penang (from 5pm until she runs out) steams up these delicate cakes of rice flour and shredded coconut (apparently she grates 60 coconuts a day!) and tops them off with some sort of caramelised brown sugar and more freshly grated coconut. Top tip – amazing as cold leftovers for breakfast.

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Hot puthu

Clearly I am coconut obsessed – remember this one?

NUMBER 3 – The Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)

Admittedly sometimes I get drawn to buildings because they are simply stunning to look at regardless of their historical importance. This one however has an excellent dose of both. On a spontaneous rickshaw ride around Georgetown, my charming driver Ali pointed out this mesmerising cornflower blue house on the corner of Lebuh Leith and Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. The creation of the famous Chinese rags to riches entrepreneur Cheong Fatt Tze holds an intricate combination of Chinese, British and Dutch design and an incredible story of the intriguing original proprietor and his family.

The Blue Mansion

The Blue Mansion

NUMBER 4 – Nasi Kandar

More food. Come on, this is pretty much the capital of foodie culture in South East Asia. Nasi kandar is a Malay dish from Penang which basically consists of a decent helping of steamed rice and whatever curries and side dishes you fancy piled on top – kind of like curry pick and mix! Lebuh Chulia (also known as backpacker street) has a wide range of offerings for decent nasi kandar experiences, but the most famous (and oldest in the whole of Malaysia) is at Hameediyah on Lebuh Campbell. This is my best effort so far from Kassim Mustafa (Lebuh Chulia): prawn curry, curried vegetables, steamed okra, a couple of spicy sauces and a side of coconut sambal.

Nasi kandar

Nasi kandar

NUMBER 5 –  Ambra juice

With all that food you’ll need something to wash it down with. The Islamic culture here tends to keep beer drinking at bay unlike in other parts of Asia, so the best way to quench your thirst has to be this bright green liquid with loads of ice and a cheeky salted plum at the bottom. Ambra is a tiny green fruit with a similar taste to a green apple and an addictive sweet sour flavour.

Ambra juice with salted plum

Ambra juice with salted plum

I could write more and more about the variety of fantastic food on offer here. If I stay in this town any longer, they will have to air lift me out of my hostel. Just come and discover it for yourself. Oh and by the way, stay at Cocoa Mews. Such a cute place with the friendliest and most helpful staff in the world – thanks Arthur and Howie for all the tips and advice!

Thaipusam – Hindu Freak-On

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I wasn’t planning spending so long in Kuala Lumpur but when I heard that Malaysia’s biggest Hindu festival was kicking off I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see cool stuff! Self mutilation through multiple body piercings in devotion to one of their gods? Yes please.

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Batu Caves by night

I went twice to Batu Caves where over one million Malay Indians and other visitors come together to celebrate Thaipusam every year. The first time a taxi driver had told me the best time to go was the night before the main day (Tuesday 3rd) so off I went with my lovely Canadian friends and we were overwhelmed by the crowd, the noise, the smells and true to form, Hindu devotees expressing their faith and seeking penance from the deity Lord Murugan through outrageous 30kg floats (kavadis) attached to their bodies, body piercings, shaved heads and silver bowls of milk, honey or sandalwood carried atop their heads up the 272 steps to the biggest Hindu shrine outside of India. Many of the locals actually start their celebrations at the Hindu temple Sri Maha Mariamann which was 200m from my hostel in China Town. They walk 15km from there carrying a lit up silver chariot all the way to Batu Caves as a further sign of their piety.

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Carrying the kavadi

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Back piercings – bells of devotion

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Even the babbas get their heads shaved

Devotees dressed for the occasion with gifts for the deity

Devotees dressed for the occasion with gifts for the deity

Taking it in at Thaipusam

Taking it in at Thaipusam

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Power cut!

The second time I went was on the official day of Thaipusam to seek even greater sights of religious devotion. It was worth going back to see the festivities in full swing by daylight. The whole place was packed and covered with market stalls selling all sorts of Indian food and clothing with traditional music booming from every corner.

Batu Caves by day

Batu Caves by day

Kadavi

Kadavi

One point something million creates a lot of rubbish...

One point something million creates a lot of rubbish…

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Hooks in the skin

Kadavi pierced into the body

Kadavi pierced into the body

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I was lucky to be in Malaysia for this significant date in the Hindu calendar. It was truly impressive. However I was told by a local Indian Malay staying in my hostel that the event used to be even more extreme five years ago, but now it’s become more controlled and politicised. It was certainly a commercial event; big names and companies were there for promotional gain. He also told me that he personally doesn’t like going anymore for this reason and that he finds it too difficult with the crowds to connect spiritually with the deity. I asked him if he ever thinks that the people who pull out all the stops with their kavadis and piercings ever do it just to show off and he said: “Girl, you hit the nail on the head”.

Paradise is full of surprises

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This deserves a blog post all of its own. Strolling down Phra Nang, I was greeted with the most unique shrine I have ever come across. I’d remembered reading about it somewhere, but had no idea it was here!

Can you tell what it s yet?

Can you tell what it s yet?

So yeah, it’s basically a cave full of penises. That’s right.

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Apparently there was once a beautiful Indian princess who was killed in a shipwreck and washed up to shore. Local fishermen believe that her spirit dwells in the cave and so they make her offerings of phallic symbols to protect them not only from dangers out at sea, but also in hope of fertility. This explains it better…

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This guy has got bucket loads of fertility coming his way.

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Not sure what this one is all about!

Anyway it was a nice surprise to what was already pure paradise. If I was an Indian princess killed at sea, I would definitely be happy residing here for all of eternity. 

Paradise Found: Take II

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So today I finally found what I’ve been looking for all these years – a beach that actually compares to the mighty West Bay on Roatan in Honduras. It was a happy accident. We thought we were getting the boat to the famous Railay around the corner from Ao Nang in Krabi province, but by luck our boat driver decided to drive us past Railay and dropped us off at the jaw dropping Phra Nang. It was busy, of course it was, but no matter. This is the most picturesque beach I’ve found by far in Thailand: crystal clear and aqua water, white sand, insane karst formations, green fringes and to top it off, long tails selling lunch and fruit shakes – what more could you ask for?

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Ethnic print heaven in Warorot Market, Chiang Mai

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I nearly died in this place. Travelling with my mother is bringing out my inner consumerist and yet I can’t buy stuff (well not much…) because there’s only so much the backpack can handle! No idea what it’s called but the awesome cafe upstairs is Thamel Coffee – it’s down a street full of ethnic clothing and hippy prints galore in the Warorot market area. I don’t want to ever go back to work wear! One day when I have a place of my own (when?) I will coat it in ethnic prints and fabrics and it will be my escape from the world of red and navy.

Hippy Shop

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Thamel Coffee Shop

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Hopefully this cute Chinese man will also come with your experience.

Midnight Chicken!

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Bumped into the these two full moon lovelies last night who took me to a secret street vendor for “midnight chicken” (amongst many other mystery meats and spicy vegetable concoctions). Possibly the best fried chicken in Chiang Mai?

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Third dinner lads?

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Midnight Chicken

This has fed my hunger to search out more late night food vendors…but I’ve only got one day left!! I’ll have to come back.

Chiang Mai’s Ladyboy Cabaret

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Some of these ladies genuinely make better women than I do. From the downright scary to the mind-bendingly beautiful, the girls at Chiang Mai’s ladyboy cabaret shake their tail feathers to a set of salsa numbers and pop classics with unlimited sass and pout. It’s really not as tacky as you might think either. In my opinion they truly represent girl power, or really, self-empowerment full stop. I’ve somehow been three times now so there must be something to it! Entertainment for all – I took my mum and there were even two toddlers there, why not?!

Ladyboy Cabaret

Edge of your seat...

Edge of your seat type material

The show starts at 9.30pm at the Anusarn night market (part of the night bazaar) and entry is 200 baht which includes a free drink. Get there early to get a good seat!