Island Fever

I had such a great time in Hawaii, but I’ve been insanely busy since I got back! Silly – I had an easy midterms week but the week after was crazy. I was actually supposed to go to New York this past weekend but had to cancel because of my homework. What a drag!!

Hawaii was great though. I got to see a lot of family and get a real nice tan to make all my friends in Pittsburgh super jealous.

One of the best things about Hawaii is the fruit. Every morning for breakfast I’d eat half a papaya, some mango, a kiwi or two, maybe even some mangosteen. I wish it were like that here! You can’t get much else besides apples and bananas unless you want to pay an arm and a leg. Since I was still in a bit of a tropical mood, we decided to splurge for this weekend’s breakfast.

Mango french toast. Yum. Mango isn’t just my favorite fruit – it’s my favorite food. The mangoes weren’t that great, but since you cook them it didn’t matter too much that they weren’t perfectly ripe. We also bought a loaf of freshly baked bread from the market for the occasion, and it definitely made the difference. Regular sandwich bread is not good enough for this french toast, I promise.

Mango French Toast
Original recipe here. Serves two.

Ingredients
1 mango, diced small (look at this post if you don’t know how to dice a mango)
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 C orange juice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla, divided
2 eggs
1/4 C milk
4 slices thick cut wheat bread

Instructions
1.
In a sauce pan over medium heat, simmer mango, corn starch, OJ, and cinnamon. Reduce to low heat and “mush” the mango a bit with a spoon.
2. Stir in maple syrup and half the vanilla and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
3. While the mango mixture cooks, prepare the toast. Heat a skillet over medium heat and spray with oil.
4. Mix together eggs, milk, and remaining vanilla in a shallow bowl (I like to use a square cake pan – the flat bottom really helps!). Dip the bread in the eggs and cook for a few minutes on each side.
5. Slice bread into halves and top with mangoes to serve.

Fly Lice

Christmas in Bangkok! By far the least Christmassy Christmas I’ve ever had. I went with one of my friends (hello, I know you’re reading) and her friend from home who was visiting. I didn’t take the same flight as them, so I got to have a fun three hours waiting at the airport by myself, but it was okay in the end. Just like Taipei, Bangkok was mostly temples, shopping, and street food, and I was okay with that.

Our first day, we wanted to go to some of the cool temples near the river. We pretty much got scammed by a tuk-tuk driver into taking a very expensive longboat instead of the public ferry, but as far as scams go, it wasn’t the end of the world. After that though, it was all ferry all the time. Definitely the coolest form of public transportation I’ve ever taken.

First stop: the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. It’s a gigantic statue of Buddha laying down, and it looks even bigger because it’s in a room barely big enough for it. Very impressive. The bottom of Buddha’s feet have a really intricate mother-of-pearl design, and the walls inside the building are painted as a huge, extremely detailed mural. After that, we went to Khao San Road and then Patpong Night Market. So much cheap shopping! Lots of cheesy souvenirs and bad knockoffs, sure, but I managed to find a few decent things. There were also plenty of food carts, so I might as well go into the street food now.

Pad thai pad thai pad thai. I think I had it three or four times, including Christmas dinner. Stir fried noodles with shrimp, egg, peanuts, sprouts, chili, lime, green onions, yum yum yum. Also satay, fresh squeezed juice, Thai tea, scrambled eggs with rice, mango sticky rice, fried bananas, red curry, green curry… We ate so many meals on the street. Pretty much everything I’ve had before, since Thai is tied with Mexican for my favorite cuisine, but obviously it was a lot cooler (and cheaper) eating Thai food in the street in Thailand than at a restaurant here in Los Angeles. What was new to me, though, was coconut pancakes. They’re not like fluffy pancakes, but rather a crunchy shell filled with cream and coconut shavings. We had those our second day, at the floating market.

We booked a day tour since everything we wanted to see that day was at least two hours outside the city. First stop was the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi. Plenty of boats and stalls were selling tourist crap, but I was way more interested in the real stuff. Little old ladies sitting in the water cutting fresh produce or handing bowls of hot noodles to people standing on the side of the canal. Definitely awesome to see. We took a boat through the market and then looped around through other parts of the canal where people actually live.

These houses were gorgeous! Sure, they were all a bit run down, but most were pretty big and almost all of them had tons of potted plants and other decorations out front. It was so beautiful. After that, we hopped back on the bus which took us to lunch.

This meal was really different than I expected. Not at all spicy like Thai food usually is – just really fresh tasting. Tons of bell peppers, onions, tofu, pineapple, cashews, and – my favorite – broccoli. Then we were off to the River Kwai Bridge, and finally, the place I was excited for most: the Tiger Temple.

It’s a conservation center run by monks. Some tigers are born there, but a lot are brought in as cubs after their mothers are killed by poachers. There were so many tigers! You wait in line for a bit, and then get two volunteers assigned to you: one holds your hand and walks you from tiger to tiger, where you sit and rub their adorable tiger bellies for a bit, and another takes pictures for you. Besides that you can walk around the rest of the center on your own. They also have other animals, like boars and deer, and you might run into a monk taking a tiger for a walk. Such an unbelievable experience.

Right near Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, which is half official government buildings, half temple, all tourist attraction. We went on Christmas day. The buildings are really beautiful, completely covered in tile and gold. They have a free tour in English a couple times a day, and we were lucky enough to get there right as one was starting. We got to learn all about what the different statues represent, the types of architecture, the function of each of the government buildings, etc. Afterward we went to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It has something like 8,000 stalls, making it the largest in southeast Asia. It’s definitely a local market – souvenirs were actually hard to find amongst all the clothes, dishes, furniture, and food. We went more just to see the market than to do any actual shopping, but I did get something amazing:

Coconut ice cream, served in the coconut it was made from, topped with red beans, sticky rice, and pineapple jelly. Merry Christmas to me.

For our last days we laid on the beach and got tans, and then just walked around a bit. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is just walk around and look at people going about their business. The sidewalks in Bangkok are overly crowded with people cooking different foods, and any alley big enough to accomodate a market is filled with stalls of fresh fruit.

Thailand was amazing. I want to go back. Maybe not Bangkok – after five days, I definitely feel like I got a sense of what the city is about – but somewhere else definitely. Just for the food.

Danshui? Tamsui?

I am in America! It’s kind of weird being back, especially with how much happened since my exams ended, but I’m adjusting. Since my last post, I went to Taiwan, Thailand, back to mainland China, and finally came home. I’ll put it all into separate posts so I don’t completely overwhelm you (or me).

So. Taiwan. I went alone, very much against my mother’s wishes. Just stayed within Taipei. Six days of nonstop temples, shopping, and eating. For the most part, it was absolutely awesome. Traveling alone is amazing – you get to do whatever you want! No waiting for anyone else or worrying about what they want to do. You just go. If you want to get up early, you do it. If your alarm goes off and you don’t want to get up, you don’t. If you want to spend an extra half hour somewhere, go for it. You never feel bad about taking a long time messing with your camera because you want to get the perfect shot.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about Taipei though. For one, I was super stoked to speak Chinese. I thought it would be six days without English for me. Not the case. See, in Beijing, when people would speak to me, if I didn’t understand they would slow down and repeat themselves. In Taipei, they just switched to English. Another thing was spelling inconsistencies. Going from Chinese characters to English letters can be complicated sometimes because there are two systems for doing it, but as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine. Taipei needs to make up its mind. Is it Taipei or Taibei? Danshui or Tamsui? Beitou or Peitou? The names of the subway stations aren’t even consistent on the maps! Maps suck too. At subway stations and tourist areas there are maps of the neighborhood, which can be helpful, except up is never north. Up isn’t even usually the direction you’re facing. Up is wherever the mapmaker felt like putting it.

I stayed in Ximending 西門町, a cute commercial area on the western side of town. I pretty much tore this place apart shopping. It’s never ending, block after block of cheap clothes, shoes, and accessories.

I visited so many temples. Longshan, Baoan, Xingtian, Guandu, and plenty of others I can’t remember the names of. A few I didn’t even plan to go to, I just happened to walk by. Considering I am so completely not religious at all, I really love temples. It’s the smell of incense, the beautiful architecture, and just the sense of quiet you get when you walk in.

Gardens, too. It was a little rainy when I was there, but I still went to my fair share of parks. That photo is from the gardens at the Shilin Official Residence, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. It’s got this huge rose garden, too. I also went to the botanical gardens, 2-28 Peace Park, and attempted hiking in Yangmingshan National Park until the rain made me quit. So many historical buildings in the city, too, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, and, of course, Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

I also went to the Danshui/Tamsui district, which is a fishing village north of Taipei. I got to walk along the water and visit their morning market, which was very cool. For the most part, markets in Taipei aren’t super touristy – sure, their are tourists, but not a lot of souvenir crap for sale. This market, though, was by far the most real I’ve ever been to. Stalls selling fresh produce, bread, meat, tea, plants, you name it. Almost everyone selling food gives out samples, so all you have to do is walk through it a couple of times and you’ve had your fill of dried fruit and cookies. One stall was even giving out tangyuan 湯圓, one of my favorite Chinese desserts.

One of the coolest things I did was bathe in the hot springs up in Beitou, north of the city. There are a bunch of resort spas where you pay a ton of money for your own private tub, but I chose instead to go to the public outdoor baths. It’s less than US$1 to get in, and it’s where all the locals go. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I was able to sneak one. Each pool is a different temperature, most of them being hot but one is ice cold. You’re supposed to go to the coolest hot one, then into the cold, then to the next hottest, back into the cold, and so on, to “balance” your body. I couldn’t handle the hottest one though – it was about 120 degrees!!

You have to wear a swimsuit, thank goodness, because I was one of only a few people there younger than 60. All the old men wear Speedos, and all the old women wear the kind of one piece swimsuits with an attached skirt that goes down to their knees. I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my bikini, especially with all of my tattoos and whatnot, but then an obvious tourist walked in and took off his shirt. His chest, arms, and shoulders had Chinese characters scattered on them, so all attention was immediately diverted to him. His tattoos did not make sense. I didn’t know all of the characters, but a lot of it was just random words.

Besides that, basically all I did was eat. Begin the food porn. In six days, I ate in restaurants only twice – street food all day, everyday. The restaurants I did go to, though, were vegetarian buffets. It’s not really a buffet because you pay by the weight of your tray, but whatever. They’re a big deal in Taipei, which made me extremely happy. So many veggies! So much tofu! Happy Alyssa!

Other than that, night markets. In five nights, I went to seven night markets. For the most part, especially in the big ones like Shilin and Shida, the shopping is just regular stores. What makes the change between regular shopping area to night market is all the food carts that come out, selling the most amazing food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Actually, right near the Shilin market is the Shilin food court. Stall after stall of noodles, seafood, these yummy egg pancake things, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, and fried chicken. Taipei loves fried chicken. Actually, out of all the stalls, only one had a line – over 50 people waiting in line for fried chicken. I decided to see what it was all about, which was a very good decision. It was just regular fried chicken until they sprinkled some sort of spice on it. Just the right amount of heat and extra flavor. Amazing.

At Shida, I saw another big crowd around a food stall. Pro tip: if you see a huge line of locals waiting in line for food, get in that line. When you get to the front of the line, they hand you a basket which you fill with noodles, fresh veggies, tofu, meatballs, whatever. You pay for whatever is in the basket, then they cook it all and you choose your sauce. I’m not sure what I chose since I didn’t understand the Chinese and ended up just pointing at one, but it was delicious. Super cheap, too.

Besides that is the night market snacks. So many carts selling fresh cut fruit; when you walk by the hand you little pieces of strawberry or mango on toothpicks hoping you’ll buy some. I ended up getting a guava one of the nights. At the Raohe market, I saw a cart selling fried crab for NT$180, or about US$6. I thought that was a little expensive for a little crab since most of my meals were around $150 max, but it looked good, so I decided to go for it. Next thing I know, the lady hands me a paper bag filled with no less than four crabs inside. I stood on the sidewalk for at least a half hour, crab all over my face and hands. That’s how you know you’re living your life right.

The desserts are great too. I had waffles with strawberry ice cream and raspberry compote one night (top left), and almost every market had these little pancake things (bottom right). Only NT$10 a piece, and they’re filled with red bean or custard. At the Jingmei market I had some fantastic shave ice. They had a huge spread of all sorts of different things: red beans, tangyuan, mochi, sweet potato, jellies, and some things I’ve never even seen before. You fill a bowl with whatever you want, and then the shave ice goes on top with some kind of syrup. I definitely recognized the flavor of the syrup, but I couldn’t think of the name at the time. I want to say it might have been tamarind, but it was awhile ago that I ate it so I’m really not sure.

That was pretty much my time in Taipei. Eating, shopping, and taking pictures. It was a great time. I would definitely recommend traveling alone, and I would love to do it again sometime.

The Final Countdown

My finals are over!! Finally. (Haha bad puns.) Glad I don’t have to deal with them anymore, but it does mean that this semester is actually over. Considering I was supposed to be studying all last week, I did quite a bit. Knocked out a few good bucket list items.

I finally had conveyor belt sushi – something I’ve wanted to do forever, but it’s a little difficult when you’re eating vegetarian. They did have one of those yummy egg sushis though. Basically the way it works is sushi on small plates comes around on a conveyor belt and you take whatever you want. The cost of each plate depends on the color – that purple plate was my one splurge item. Crab and crab roe. Yummy. No, I did not eat all those plates by myself. I’m not that much of a fatty, I was with a friend!

I also took a ferry out to Cheung Chau for a day, one of the smaller islands in Hong Kong. There’s a small neighborhood and a couple beaches and trails. It’s actually so small that there aren’t any cars on the entire island! Everyone just gets around on bikes, even little old ladies. Most of them use training wheels though, which I thought was pretty adorable. Cheung Chau is where they have the bun festival every year, but that isn’t until spring. I don’t actually know much about it except that people climb up this gigantic structure covered in buns. It sounds pretty weird. The buns were delicious though! Just steamed bread with red bean inside, my favorite.

Like most tiny little islands, Cheung Chau also has amazing seafood. We had a gigantic meal of ginger crab, clams with bell peppers in some sort of gravy sauce, steamed shrimp, some kind of fish, and mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are also called pissing shrimp, and they’re sort of purplish inside. Really good but not worth all the effort it took to get their shells open.

Whenever I have a really great meal here I’m always shocked by how cheap everything is. All the seafood I could possibly stuff my face with, and so fresh. It came out to less than US$10 per person. Really, the little places with folding tables and plastic chairs are always the best.

On Saturday I went to Ozone, the highest bar in the world. It’s on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton in the ICC building.

Super swanky, super expensive. The view was really nice, but honestly I more just went so I could check it off the list. I had an unbelievably overpriced “dragontini,” which was delicious, and got really sad when I remembered I won’t be able to do any of this when I get back home. I don’t turn 21 until next August, so it’s all pretty miserable.

Sunday was probably my best day ever in Hong Kong. The plan was: wake up early to watch the live stream of the dance show at CMU, go to Tuen Mun where my local friend lives for a nice lunch, study, and then finish up with a free concert. I made it through the dance show (which was AWESOME guys, so proud of you! and so jealous I wasn’t in it this semester!), but then about ten minutes before I was going to leave for Tuen Mun I started feeling really sick. Spent the rest of the day going back and forth between sleeping and throwing up my guts. It was a fun time. I still don’t know what got me so sick, but I woke up on Monday feeling great again.

So that was my week, besides two finals and an essay. The next couple of weeks until I go home are going to be absolutely crazy, so I don’t know how much time I’ll have for blogging. I’m off to Taipei tomorrow, then Bangkok and back to mainland China before I leave Asia for good. Well, not for good, but for now at least. I’ll be back.

Someone Ate All the Buns

Last week I went to an absolutely amazing dim sum place in Mongkok. Definitely one of the best in Hong Kong. On a weeknight, we only had to wait a little over a half hour, but I tried to go again on Sunday afternoon and was told to come back in three hours.

This weekend a friend from school was here, so I got to be a cool local and show him around. We went to the observatory on the 100th floor of the ICC building, plus basically every market ever: ladies’ market, Fa Yuen market (well, what’s left of it after the fire last week), goldfish market, bird market, flower market, jade market, Temple Street night market… Lots of walking. And eating. I made a video, so instead of telling you about it, I’ll just show you.

This is the last week of classes, and I’m feeling pretty sad. I have 26 days until I go home, and 15 of those days will be spent in other countries. I don’t want to go home! I don’t want to leave this:

Most of all, I don’t want to go back to school and have to deal with snow.

66 Degrees Fahrenheit

That’s the lowest temperature ever recorded in Singapore. That is also the #1 reason I am moving to Singapore.

I had such an amazing weekend! We did so much in two and a half days. It was me and one of the girls who went with me to Malaysia, which was really nice. Even though we arrived late Thursday night, we got to an early start on Friday so we could do as much as possible. We planned it out so that we spent most of our time around the downtown area, that way we could enjoy the nice weather and walk from place to place. First stop: Chinatown.

All of the buildings are super adorable in a cheesy Disneyland sort of way, and every shop just has tables full of useless crap – exactly what we all know and love about Chinatown. The best were all of the t-shirts listing all the strange things that are illegal in Singapore, like chewing gum and dancing in public without a permit.

By 11:30 we were already hungry for lunch, since our lavish breakfast at the hostel was just white bread and Nutella. There was a street full of food carts, which we were really excited about, but even by noon none of them were open! Instead we sat down at a little place with tons of different types of fruit juice and some snack food. That’s a huge difference between Hong Kong and Singapore – juice. Real juice is so difficult to find here, but there’s an abundance of “juice drink.” Anything that says “orange juice” is really a lot closer to Sunny D than anything else, and the only way to guarantee it’s actual OJ is to get the ones imported from Florida that are super expensive.

My friend got lime juice, which was more like limeade and really refreshing, and I got a coconut. Literally, a coconut chopped open. You can’t get fresher than that. They also had watermelon, papaya, guava, mango, dragon fruit, and even sugar cane. We weren’t really sure how you get juice from a sugar cane, which in case you’re unfamiliar looks like a big stick, but someone ordered it while we were eating. They have a machine that literally just squishes the sugar cane and you hold a cup underneath to collect all the juice that comes out. Afterward you’re left with a big pulpy thing that used to be the sugar cane, and a big glass of juice! We also got a platter of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb satay with deliiiicious peanut sauce – one of the things I loved eating as a kid. I don’t think I had ever had lamb before, either, but it just tasted like beef to me. That peanut sauce was amazing though, with just the right amount of spice to it. After we finished I started dipping the cucumber garnish into it just to eat more!

Next stop was Marina Bay. From there you can see the beautiful skyline, the Marina Bay Sands hotel (it’s like three buildings with a boat on top, very strange), the big Durian building, and most importantly, the Merlion.

They are obsessed with this Merlion thing. It’s literally a lion mermaid. The one in Marina Bay is the original, but there are several other statues around Singapore, and more souvenirs than you could ever want. Apparently the meaning behind it is that Singapore means “lion city” in Malay, but it started as a fishing village, so the statue combines those two ideas in a kind of cheesy way. Also at Marina Bay is the Singapore Flyer, a huuuuge Ferris wheel, but we wanted to wait until nighttime for that.

We walked to an area called Kampong Glam, which is like a Malay/Muslim version of Chinatown. A woman pointed us down one of the roads, Haji Lane, saying there were “tons of cute little boutiques down there” – that was the beginning of our good luck that day.

Every store on that street became a struggle for me not to spend tons of money. A lot of the stores reminded me of Anthropologie, and they were almost all Singaporean designers. So many buildings were covered in gorgeous graffiti murals, too. Seriously, favorite street ever!

After that, we were hungry for another snack, so we walked by a Moroccan restaurant nearby. There was an older couple sitting outside, and a woman told us the food was really great and suggested we eat there. She was very interested in where we were from, why we were visiting, etc; she said she had moved from Texas to Singapore, so she loved meeting American tourists. Can you believe that?! Moving from Texas, to Singapore? We were so surprised!

We ordered a chickpea dish in a tomato sauce and baba ghanoush. Moroccan food is very interesting – they have the same dishes I’ve eaten a million times but they’re a little different. For example, this baba ghanoush had tons of cilantro in it, which I had never seen before, but was absolutely delicious! The Texan lady was right, the food there was really good. When she finished her food, she said goodbye to us, and a few minutes later the woman running the restaurant told us she had paid for our food. Literally, our mouths were wide open in shock. That’s definitely one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me! That was our second round of good luck for the day.

After that, we decided to head back toward the Flyer, but we had a stop to make first: Kenko Foot Reflexology and Fish Spa. Yes, that’s right. I paid money to put my feet in a fish tank for twenty minutes and let the fish eat off my dead skin.

Honestly, it tickled more than anything. The fish are so small, and when they nibble on you it feels like a little vibration. I couldn’t keep my feet in there for longer than about a minute at a time because it just tickled way too much.

By the time we were done getting eaten, it was raining too hard for the Flyer to fly. It looked like it was letting up a little though, so we walked back to Marina bay to the Helix Bridge. It’s actually a DNA double helix! There are even little lights along the ground that say “a,” “t,” “c,” and “g,” but I couldn’t find if it’s actually the sequence for anything.

Finally, the Flyer was back up and running. You can see all of Marina Bay from the top! I am so glad we waited until nighttime, because all the lights were absolutely beautiful.

By now, it’s like nine o’clock. We’ve been going going going all day nonstop for about twelve hours, and we’re hungry. We take the train over to Newton Food Centre, which is described online as a “food orgy,” and that’s exactly what it was. Tons and tons of food. Everywhere. You can’t walk three feet without someone shoving a menu in your face telling you that their chili crab is “the best.” Funny, because almost every place uses the exact same pictures on their menu! We found the one with the cheapest chili crab, $3.50 for 100g, and sat down.

This is where we had good luck numbers 3 and 4. A couple leaving right as we sat down suggested we order the “fried dough,” which was really great for sopping up all the chili sauce from the crab, and the guy who sat down after them gave us pretty good instructions on how to break open the crab. This was the messiest meal I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.

The picture on the bottom right is stingray. My friend really wanted to try it, but I was pretty scared. I mean, before this trip, I hadn’t eaten meat in almost nine years, and now you’re asking me to eat a stingray?! I said I would taste it. Just a little bit. Wow, I ate way more than a little bit. It was delicious! We were expecting it to be sort of chewy or something, but it was more just like a really dense fish, and not a really fishy flavor, either. It’s grilled, with a spicy chili sauce on top, plus you squeeze lime juice all over it. I had never eaten a crab before either, so this day was full of new adventures in food! Plus, we got to try sugar cane juice. It wasn’t as sweet as I expected, actually, and had a bit of a vegetable flavor, if that makes any sense.

We had sufficiently worked our way into food comas and were ready for bed. After navigating the bus system back (every bus stop lists every stop for all the buses that go there – so useful!!) we stopped in the bar under our hostel for a Singapore Sling. It’s pretty much the tourist drink of choice there. It looks nice and girly, but it was pretty strong, and I didn’t finish it. Also, I’m not sure how close this bar sticks to the original recipe – I guess everywhere does it a little differently – but here is the original from the Raffles Hotel in case you want to try it for yourself. Wikipedia says that should be a pineapple, not a lemon wedge, and it shouldn’t have any ice, so honestly who knows what I was drinking.

On Saturday we got up early again and made our way to Sentosa. It’s a super touristy resort island – they even have a Universal Studios – but we just went for the beach.

It’s all manmade, but still gorgeous. The sand is so soft and the water was ridiculously warm. One of the beaches, Palawan, has a bridge to a teeny little island that is apparently the southernmost point in continental Asia, which was kind of cool. I fell asleep on the beach and got a nice tan. Just to make all of you in Pittsburgh jealous.

We went to a food court for lunch and I got “fried carrot cake.” I knew it obviously wasn’t carrot cake in the way we think about it; the picture looked like an omelet. This is what I got:

It was DELICIOUS. There was a bunch of egg underneath, so the photo wasn’t a complete lie at least. There was definitely no carrots in here, though. I thought it was just rice noodles or something, but Wikipedia says it’s actually made from radishes, and it has the name “carrot cake” because the word for radish can also refer to carrots. Also, the Wiki picture looks like what I had, so whatever picture they were using at this place is just completely wrong I guess.

Saturday night we went to the Night Safari. It’s a separate section of the zoo that’s only open from 7:30pm to midnight. Some places you can walk around, including a room full of bats that fly right by you oh my god I was screaming, but most of the animals you can only see from the tram ride. Animals like elephants, tigers, and hyenas are in a contained area, but all the different types of deer and cattle are pretty much free roaming. There were even a couple of Malayan tapirs grazing just a couple feet away from where I was sitting on the tram!

Finally on Sunday morning, before we had to go to the airport, we borrowed a couple of bikes from the hostel and rode around East Coast Park. There’s a pier where tons of people camp out to fish, and we even saw a guy catch a couple of stingrays. The bike ride was a really nice, relaxing way to end the weekend.

We stopped at a cute ice cream shop by the bus stop, Ice Cream Chefs. They had such interesting flavors, like milk tea, creme brulee, passion kiwi, durian, and adzuki (red) bean. I got pandan flavor with some cookie crumbs mixed into it. I’m definitely going to keep some of these flavors in mind when I bust out my ice cream maker again next summer – I bet milk tea wouldn’t be too difficult to make.

Overall, I had a really wonderful time in Singapore, but one thing was nagging me the entire time: it’s so not Asian there. Everyone speaks English first, unlike Hong Kong where people always try Cantonese with me, and especially in the downtown area everyone is white. Besides the weather and coconut trees, if you had said to me I was in the US, I would have believed you. I thought Hong Kong was pretty westernized, but it’s nothing compared to Singapore. Maybe it’s different if you’re outside of the really touristy areas, but I honestly felt like I left Asia for the weekend.

Kuala, not Koala

Just warning you, this is going to be a really long post.

I spent last weekend in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Not a long trip – just Thursday night through Sunday afternoon. Considering the limited time we had, we did quite a lot. It was a jam-packed, exhausting weekend.

Sidebar: classes are officially cancelled today because Hong Kong is under a Typhoon Signal level 8, meaning winds are at or above 63km/h and Typhoon Nesat is approximately 350km away. Gonna be honest, I’m a little freaked out… I’ve never been in a storm like this before!

First of all, remember back around Mid Autumn Festival when I was super sad I didn’t get to try more mooncakes? Especially the frozen kind? I had been hoping they would get cheaper after the holiday, but by the time I went to look they were all sold out. I was super depressed – I really wanted to try them! Well, guess what I found at the airport?

That’s right. Snowy mooncakes. The one on the left is strawberry and mung bean, and the one on the right is coffee with chocolate in the center. Oh my god, these things were worth the wait. The outside, instead of being a doughy sort of pastry like the regular ones, is basically just mochi. Yum!

Then came the flight. Four hours long, but at least the view was okay.

Friday morning, we got up early and made our way 13km outside the city to the Batu Caves. They’re these gigantic limestone caves that double as a Hindu temple. Some temple buildings and statues are outside the cave, including the 140ft gold statue of Murugan (I Wikipedia‘d that one) standing next to the 272 steps leading up to the cave. All along the steps are KAJILLIONS of monkeys. Tourists must feed them all the time, because they’re all over and they’re really comfortable around the people. I got some pretty close up pictures, and one even reached out and grabbed my ankle after I took its photo! This was extremely shocking because I’ve gotten so used to never seeing animals. Around Hong Kong, the only animals I see are bugs and pet dogs, barely ever even birds, let alone monkeys. Even hiking out on Lantau I never saw any animals! To come to Kuala Lumpur and see all these animals was such a change.

Once you finally get up to the caves, you basically just stand there in awe. I won’t try to explain how beautiful and just huge they are because I will never do it justice. Although I will say it’s the most perfect place for a temple if there ever was one. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

After we left the main temple cave, we went into what’s called the Dark Caves. Just like in Hong Kong, these people aren’t very creative with names. The caves are literally pitch black inside, and filled with all sorts of gross things like bats, cockroaches, centipedes, and the world’s rarest spider. They neglected to tell us all of this until after we paid for the tour. I swear, three hours later I still felt like there were bugs crawling all over my legs.

At the bottom of the caves, we found a small Indian restaurant for lunch. Well, to put it more accurately, the restaurant found us. One of the biggest differences between HK and KL, besides the animals, is the people in restaurants. In HK, the doors to restaurants stay closed and the people working there don’t really care whether or not you come in. In KL, they act like those annoying girls at the mall kiosks that sell curling irons. “Come in here! Our food is great! Are you hungry? Come eat! So cheap, so delicious, come in, come in!!”

See that? That would be rice with lentils and green beans and cauliflower and squash all on top of a banana leaf. The fact that they serve it on a banana leaf is ridiculously cool, but you know what’s even cooler? The fact that it’s all 100% vegetarian. Oh my god I love Malaysia and its high Hindu population. All the Indian vegetarian food I ate made me so happy. And those green beans were out-of-this-world delicious.

After the Batu Caves, we made our way back to KL and got on the Hop On Hop Off bus. It’s a tour bus where you can buy a ticket for 24 or 48 hours and it stops at all the different touristy locations within the city. You can get on at any stop, get off whenever you see something cool, and then get back on again when you’re done. It even has audio commentary about whatever you’re going towards next! It’s a really neat idea, but it only runs in one direction, which is a pretty big bummer. Anyway, we took it to the Kuala Lumpur Orchid Garden, and then to the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world.

Did I mention who I was travelling with? It was me, a girl from New York, and two girls from Japan. Everywhere we went, people would ask us where we’re from. “The two of us are from the US, and they’re from Japan.” “…but … why are you together?”

As a relaxing way to end a long day, we decided to go to a fish spa. What’s a fish spa, you ask? Basically you put your feet into a pool of small fish and they nibble off all the dead skin. Sounds wonderful. It’s just such a weird idea that we wanted to try it. Well, it took us so long to finally get to the mall where the fish spa was supposed to be, and then it was closed for remodeling! What a disappointment! We were able to, at least, find a really good Malaysian restaurant in the mall, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

We had everything the waiter recommended. A spicy chicken dish, prawns, pineapple fried rice, an egg “flower” (basically scrambled egg with vegetables), and some sort of veggie. I don’t know what kind of vegetable that was, but I wish I did because it definitely stole the show. The whole dish is really garlicky (my favorite), with both the stems and the leaves. The stems are pretty crunchy, like broccoli almost, and the leaves reminded me a lot of kale chips. Ugh, just talking about it is making me want to eat it again.

Saturday morning, we were up bright and early again, off to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center. It’s located about two hours outside of Kuala Lumpur, so it takes a really long time to get there. We decided not to book a tour, since everything we read online said the only thing the tour is good for is transportation – once you’re there, it’s the same whether or not you’re with a tour group. So, we hopped on a train, took it to the very last stop, and then rode the bus for an hour.

We were in Middle-of-the-Forest, Malaysia, just south of I-Have-No-Idea-Where-We-Are. The bus only takes you so far, so after that you have to take a taxi the last 14km. The only problem is, once you’re that far out in the boonies, there aren’t really taxis, just people with cars who want to make an extra couple of bucks. Consequently, we were given a ride by a toothless old Malaysian man with an Aloha shirt and a 1980s Corolla. Don’t freak out, Mom. Somehow, going with him was the best decision we could have made – he must spend all his time waiting around for confused tourists in need of a ride to the sanctuary. Not only did he know the way by heart, but he also showed us where to buy tickets for the bus back to KL and was even waiting patiently for us outside the sanctuary when the activities were over, like a dad picking up his preteen daughter and her friends after a movie. All that for 60 ringgits? I’ll take it. Even if he had no teeth.

Once there, we watched a video about the elephant relocation program – basically, they move elephants that are pillaging farms to a new habitat. The only reason they eat the crops, though, is because their natural habitats are being destroyed to make room for the farms. It sounds mean, but I guess it’s better to move them than to have them killed by angry farmers. The elephants at the Center are trained to help move the “problem” elephants, since being around other elephants seems to help comfort them during the transport and keeps them from getting scared and possibly hurting people.

After being thoroughly depressed by the movie, we got to feed the elephants, ride them, and then “bathe” with them in the river. I felt bad for the elephants giving rides; they seemed so bored just walking in a circle over and over again. The ones in the water, though, seemed like they were having tons of fun with the people. They would spray everyone with their trunks, and loved splashing around. It was seriously one of the coolest experiences of my life.

After we became official “Elefriends” (their word, not mine) we made our way back to the city and headed over to Little India. It’s only about two blocks long, but packed with restaurants, produce markets, and tons of stores selling beautiful sari fabric. I kind of wish I had bought some.

We passed by a bakery called Venusitas that had the most beautiful, colorful displays in the window. It all looked so good, I ended up buying a box with one of everything just so I could try it all. Most of it was way too sugary for me, but still nice to have a bite or two. For the most part, they all had just a plain, sweet flavor, but some had hints of coconut, and one cookie was even a bit lemony.

Again, we ate delicious Indian food. We were accosted by a man in an orange polo shirt telling us we absolutely had to eat at his restaurant. We decided to trust him, and I had naan with two really good types of curry and one other sauce that was good but way too intense with the lime.

Finally, it was time to go back to Hong Kong. We had a little bit of time on Sunday morning before we had to leave for the airport, so we spent about half an hour at the Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple, just a few minutes’ walk from our hostel. After this trip, I officially love Hindu temples. They are all so colorful and fun to look at! The statues are beautiful.

For our last meal at the airport, we went to Marrybrown, the Malaysian competitor to KFC. (KFC is a HUGE deal in KL. I’m talking way bigger than McDonald’s, and it’s not out of the ordinary to see KFC’s with two floors. I realized it’s probably because of the religious groups there – predominantly Hindu and Muslim.) Looking at the menu, my eyes immediately jumped to the #5 combo, a veggie burger with curly fries and a drink. Veggie burger?! CURLY FRIES?! Talk about exciting!

Well, at least the fries were good. What looked like a delicious veggie burger in the photo turned out to be hash browns and lettuce in a bun. Not kidding, hash browns. Straight up potato. No yummy Boca patty, no vegetables smushed into a disk, nope. A McDonald’s style hash brown. I got chicken nuggets afterward to supplement my “meal.”

I never thought in my whole life I would travel to Malaysia. It was never really on my “list,” you know? I didn’t know anything about the country until I booked the flights and started doing a bit of research! But I had such an amazing time and I am so happy I went. Can’t wait for more weekend trips like this one!