Surviving Survivor Island: Pulau Tiga


“Be careful of the monkeys. The monkeys like the woman. I don’t know why, but if you are a woman you should walk with your friend because the monkeys really like you.”

The instructions were simple. Walk with a friend and a monkey won’t assault you. At night, carry a flashlight so you don’t step on a snake. It’s called Survivor Island for a reason, right?

Survivor Island Group Shot

Survivor Island Group Shot

Over a below average lunch buffet of chicken bones cooked in curry, steamed vegetables and rice, I dropped my chopsticks mid-bite. A 4-foot long monitor lizard was casually walking across the grass just outside the pavilion. Later that night while playing a game of cards under the same pavilion a local wandered over and asked if we wanted to see a snake. Coiled around his arms he held a mid-size yellow ring snake that he just caught out back. Luckily I brought my bike light with me to safely navigate my way back to our cabin. Just as we approached, fist-sized crabs and large rats scurried away from the shining light into large deep holes at the base of the steps leading to our accommodation. We played a few more rounds of cards using mangrove leaves as poker chips while drinking Tiger beers to forget the proximity of the wild as we were also encouraged to ensure our window screens and doors were securely locked.

Pulau Tiga is a small, uninhabited island off of the west coast of Borneo, Malaysia in the South China Sea. As the first place to host the reality TV show Survivor, it’s commonly nicknamed Survivor Island. Surprisingly, there was no cheesy décor or leftover remnants of the year 2000 at Survivor Island Resort. In fact, for our one night stay on the island it was conveniently just us and two other families. That meant we had first dibs on exclusive empty beaches, food, snorkeling and breathtaking sunsets. Upon arrival we eagerly lazed around on rope hammocks underneath thatched roofs made from the palm trees. Not too bad for being on a remote island.

At 3 o’clock we joined a local guide for a 20 minute hike into the forest to experience a natural mud volcano. After walking uphill on a dirt path, eyes carefully scanning the forest for monkeys or any other natural ‘friend’, we finally arrived at what looked simply like a small pool of mud. Bubbles boiled while mosquito-like bugs the size of a quarter layered the top, casually hopping over each other to fill any gaps. Without thought, the middle-aged Dad from the French family we hiked along with took his shirt off and walked right into the dark goo followed by his 7-year-old daughter. I mean, it was the sole purpose of journey so why hesitate?

“Is it cold?” “What does it feel like?” “Is it deep?” I watched my travel buddies Ben and Nidya get in next. I still wasn’t convinced but it had to be done. Gulp. One foot after the other I slid into the slippery mess. It was thick and putrid. I envisioned it being soft like melting into a milkshake but in reality it was just mud. Heavy, with leafs and twigs engulfed in its concentrated mass. The bottom was like walking through a swamp, sinking with no firm bottom. My thoughts went to leaches.

So there we were. The three of us caked in mud, hesitant to submerge our top halves in any further. Our guide was encouraging as he snapped photos, suggesting to put it on our face and float in its density. Pictures snapped? Okay, I want out. That was the tricky part as it was deep and slimy. Even trickier was hiking downhill through the jungle with bare feet wearing nothing but a bathing suit as the rancid mud dried all over my body and face. With relief we arrived at the ocean and spent the next half hour wallowing in its warmth while cleansing ourselves of the crust. I do say however, it did wonders for my skin. Wink wink.

The following day we opted for a tour out to Snake Island. This simply consisted of us traveling about 15 minutes by boat to a small deserted island where highly venomous Yellow-lipped Sea Kraits or Banded Sea Kraits live between rocks and the sea. Before entering the dirt path our guide pointed to a sign stating that we are entering at our own risk into an area with poisonous snakes. One bite and you are dead within 5 minutes. This is when I started to have doubts. As we wound around to the side of the island, we began to climb over large boulders. The guide was further ahead, ducking his head around and underneath the rocks. It then occurred to us, he was looking for the snakes! That  meant they could be anywhere! Um, I don’t think I need to go any further.

Warning on Snake Island

Warning on Snake Island

My friends marched ahead, skipping from each boulder to the next to catch up with our guide. As they got further away and I stood alone on top of a large rock I started to wonder if it was smart for me to now be all alone. Both the guide and Nidya urged me on, and came to lend a hand so I could join the group. They had found the snakes, a handful of them lay coiled together underneath a large rock where the ocean met the land. It was enough to take a quick peek at the small, silvery serpents before rushing back to the safety of our boat.

Snake Island: Snakes!

Snake Island: Snakes!

We were lucky that day to witness a pod of dolphins dancing around our boat which provided an amusing spectacle. The island just next door was Sand Spit Island, a long stretch of golden sand that appeared as if it thrown up from the sea. Getting a closer glimpse while walking along it’s shore, which you can cross the width in a few long strides, it was disappointing to see all the plastic bottles and trash that covered it.

Shortly afterward we docked in the clear blue sea to have a snorkel. While aspects of the reef were damaged we still experienced an array of bright, neon fish of all shapes and sizes, including angel, clown and of course, Nemo.  Our guide was really awesome and attentive, pointing out fish as he swam along with us but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any sea turtles that day.

Nidya Snorkeling

Nidya Snorkeling

When it came time to pack up and leave Survivor Island, despite an amazing time of sun and adventure, I was ready to move on. I was done with bad food and questionable toilets although happily impressed with the staff. If you’re okay to scrape by without the luxury of a boutique resort, this is for you. It’s simple and different, and if I had do it all over again I have no regrets of experiencing something so unique.

To book, visit Amazing Borneo: http://www.amazing-borneo.com/daily-local-tour/2d1n-pulau-tiga-survivor-island-explorer-with-sandspit-a-snake-island.html

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Kuala Lumpar Food Safari


Malaysia Mural

Malaysia Mural

“Today is about a group of friends eating and sharing stories,” said Carlson from Urban Adventures upon greeting us at Bangsar Station LRT to begin our 4-hour walking tour amongst the best local street food Kuala Lumpur has to offer. In fact, Carlson would argue he took us to the “best of the best” and it is the only true walking tour in KL. I wouldn’t argue my day spent in the River City exploring the stimulating flavors of this Chinese, Indian and Malay melting pot was a highlight.

We began by walking through the residential Indian-influenced community of Brickfields and were told the history of the area while stopping to look at a traditional Brickfield home, a 75 year-old Muslim cemetery and Garland Alley, where fresh, fragrant jasmine from the Cameron Highlands is used for temples and offerings. Just the ladies from our small group of 7 were given a beautiful, colorful bracelet to wear.

Tarani Food Corner, our first official food stop and hands down my favorite of the day is small and family owned. The wife serves while the husband is the chef. We sat amongst the locals while rotating fans spraying mist provided a welcoming escape from the humidity. On banana leafs we ate with our right hand, mixing rice, spicy chicken masala, tangy mango pickles, lentil curry, and cabbage while using our thumb to spoon it into our mouths. We then finished it of with resam, a traditional Indian digestive. I left feeling overwhelmingly full unaware that was only our first dish out of 6 for the day.

Immediately following we stopped at a roadside vadai stall, which offered a variety of vegetarian fried treats. Most popular were lentil donuts, curry puffs with potato masala and of course, the undeniably awesome fried banana fritters. The donuts made from rice flour contain chili curry leaves, which are eaten to prevent grey hairs.

Vadai shop

Vadai shop

Continuing along we transitioned to the commercial side of what is known as Little India 2. We learned that this community, popular with Hindu’s, is rather new. It’s only been on the radar from 2007 and is often overshadowed by the original Little India, which is more Muslim dominant. However, our next treat was super sickly sweet. Gulap Jamun is a sticky syrup dessert ball. I was so full; I couldn’t even finish the bite size indulgence.

Gulap Jamun

Gulap Jamun

While walking through the equivalent of the ‘red light district’ we were told to look out for “special people,” although Carlson wouldn’t immediately tell us what to spot. Pimps lined the streets, each sitting on a chair protecting their open door, but they were not the special people he was referring to.

We stopped on a busy street corner where locals lined up to get a serve of cendol, the cool shaved ice dessert. An older woman served the shaved ice with coconut milk and plum sugar topped off with green rice jelly that looked like worms making the super sweet, yet refreshing treat popular with adults and children. The man then took his machete and in a few swift moves opened a coconut shell turning it into a revitalizing drink served out of a plastic bag. While our group relaxed consuming the celebrated 52-year-old cendol recipe we finally identified the special people Carlson was referring to.

The blind and disabled from all over Malaysia come to Brickfields for jobs. The Urut Tradisional PB Blind Massage, owned by Paralympic athletes, provides training and job opportunities within the local community and the most common is blind massage. It’s pretty awesome when you think about it.

Just across the road were the “best banana fritters in all of KL.” For 35 years the father and son team have been dishing out the famed “secret recipe” at this popular roadside stand. In fact, Carlson tells us they are doing so well that they both own 5-series BMW’s. Not too bad for a simple banana business.

At that point we fortunately had a quick break to use the clean bathrooms in KL Sentral before hopping the LRT to Pasar Seni LRT Station for our next and final stop, Chinatown. We spent a few minutes admiring a 125-year-old Taoist warrior temple and patted the lions out front for good luck before navigating the stalls of knock off bags, jewelry and watches in Jalan Petaling Market.

Taoist warrior temple

Taoist warrior temple

Over our final meal, which I had barely enough room left in me for, Carlson shared some of his personal stories. When he’s not helping his uncle with the business part time he studies law. But certain aspects of the food tour have taken its toll. He went from 68K to 122K in just four months and has since refrained from dining with his guests. That is until this last stop.

It was a fairly popular place in the heart of the action, likely considering it’s one of the few in Chinatown with air-conditioning. Then again, it’s also been around for over 60 years and known for its hokkain noodles, which of course we got. We then tried a huge range of dishes, from the pow (pork bun) to fried egg yoke noodles, penang char keuh teow served on a banana leaf and it was super yum to spicy Chinese laksa and low si fun, or what locals call rat tail noodles. It didn’t seem to stop. On the side we drank lime juice with sweet plums and cold Chinese tea.

Even more, Carlson was so encouraging, happy to order more and more and let us try whatever ticked our fancy. Our bellies were so full that  we wished the gang safe travels and fortunately were in walking distance to our accommodation. Unfortunately, despite being close by, we didn’t manage to beat the daily afternoon rain shower.

I would totally recommend this tour to anyone visiting KL. Carlson was friendly, affable and interesting. The tour was contained to a small group and personalized to our needs. They clearly have a daily spending budget so if you want a bottle of water or an extra serve of anything throughout the day it’s catered for.

Despite our bellies being maxed out we had a reservation that evening for fine dining at Fuego, part of Trioka Sky Dining. A bit heftier on the wallet than our budget courses that afternoon, Fuego is an open air restaurant on the 23rd floor specializing in South American cuisine. Yes, the food, service and drinks were all standout but the best part was the view, situated just across from the iconic Petronas Towers. The 6:30 seating is ideal for catching the magnificent towers by day, at sunset and dusk. I would totally eat there again and again.

There is a moral to this food driven story. If you are hungry, go to KL. You won’t be disappointed.

Klias River: No Monkey Business


Klias River Locals

Klias River Locals

A quick flash followed by a loud boom. I squealed with fear and anxiety – nothing unusual there – as my apprehension about being in our small boat on the Klias River in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo grew wider. “Uh oh” said our driver Musa, apathetic about the approaching storm. I replied curtly, “What do you mean, uh oh?”

He revved the engine over and over again but to no avail. It had officially died right there as we sat in the pitch black dark observing fireflies light up the bush like a schizophrenic Christmas tree.

The family of four from Cairns at the front seemed less concerned, despite the fact they weren’t sharing our covered roof. We later learned this wasn’t their first rodeo with failed engines while vacationing in Borneo.   A metal pole then appeared, and Musa repeatedly whipped it against the botched engine. Confused about how that would contribute to it actually starting, I still don’t know, but another rumble of thunder bellowed and I had enough.

There were other boats in the area but he never asked for help. We simply sat wading in the murky brown waters as their torch lights caught sight of us then steered away.  Small, single engine river cruisers line the mangrove banks of the Klias River offering tourists the opportunity to see the endangered, genital-nosed Proboscis Monkey as well as Long Tail Macaques and Silver Languor Monkeys by day and the natural firefly show at night, which is exactly how we had spent the earlier part of our day.

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“So, what’s the plan?” I finally said after about 20 minutes of silence. No response. Musa simply walked from his place by the engine and crossed over us and the small benches we were sitting on to the reach the front. Without hesitation he pulled his sweat drenched t-shirt over his head, and then removed his rubber flip flops one by one. Head first, he dove into the dark river below.

My jaw dropped and we all quickly faced each other wide eyed and stunned. “Did he really just jump in?” With one end of the thin rope tied to the boat, he slowly swam and pulled us about a kilometre to shore. Once we reached the dock we were quickly ushered off of the boat so that we could make it into the van to travel the approximate two hours back to Kota Kinabulu before the storm hit. But we all hesitated as Musa still waded in the unfriendly muddy water. “He’s a very good swimmer,” was the reply I received when I asked with uneasiness if he was okay. Finally a few hands lifted him out, and our small group gave a big applause. Musa – our hero – who unnecessarily swam us back to shore.

Borneo Star Cruises

Borneo Star Cruises

Despite the drastic change in events, I would still highly recommend touring the Klias River while in Borneo, especially if you can’t get to the Kinabatangan River located deeper in Sabah. While there are many river cruises along the Klias River, this Borneo Star Cruise tour was organized through Amazing Borneo and I must applaud their attentiveness and service. Joann spoke great English; we were picked up and dropped off in a timely fashion, welcomed with simple, immaculate bathrooms (very important) and were served a delicious home cooked Malaysian dinner. While the other companies were swarming with tourists in the dozens, our small group of ten was intimate and personalized. I would even recommend those with more time stay the night in one of their tranquil tee pee’s on the property’s Eco Fire Fly Camp. Plus, you can’t deny that Musa was awesome.

Eat, Poop, Sweat


Ubud was one of our most anticipated stops on our 10-day trip to Indonesia. Known for its lush rice patty fields, beautiful temples and an exquisite art scene, Ubud is an interesting mix of earthy-hippy mixed with high-end chic. Polo stores and one-off boutiques line touristy Monkey Forest Road interspersed amongst natural healers, yoga studios and art galleries.

According to Eileen, if she were to write a book about our time in Ubud it would be entitled Eat, Poop, Sweat. Disappointedly, a little known illness termed “Bali Belly”, casually omitted from the original Eat, Pray, Love,  had us both lying in our air-conditioned room at Pertiwi Resort curled in a ball, limiting our ability to fully indulge head first into Ubud culture, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

After arriving, our first stop was the outdoor veranda at highly rated Three Monkey’s Café where we each ordered a club sandwich and lemon and ginger fizz and sat amongst the rice patties. We chatted about how we were both secretly nervous to enter the famed Sacred Monkey Forest but eager to buy some local crafts. Mostly, we were both excited for our cooking class the following morning but I felt weak and achy so we retired early to bed. And by early I mean 7 pm. Twelve hours of sleep later…

We were picked up for Paon Bali Cooking Class, rated the #2 activity in Ubud on Trip Advisor and highly recommended by a friend, by our adorably cute driver. Our first stop was the Ubud food market. They cleverly take you in small groups so you are able to maneuver around the sellers with ease, and the intimate time with the guide is an excellent way to learn firsthand about how they make their local prayer offerings from banana leaves and flowers amongst other items. We weaved through the small lanes until we came to the fruit section under the cover of a large building where we got to try some interestingly produce whose names now escape me. Onto the vegetables, women sat with green beans as long as arms, next to peppers as red as fire and thick purple eggplant. With a nauseous stomach, I attempted to divert my eyes from the decaying fish and the feral dogs roaming through the piles of garbage scattered around.

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The highlight itself was Puspa, the beautiful instructor and matriarch of the family home the class took place in. Once all 17 guests arrived, we were provided a welcome drink as we sat outside in the center of the complex and listened about Balinese traditions. It was fascinating to learn that culturally a woman always moves into the man’s home. If you don’t have a son, you typically will adopt one from another relative so the family can continue. But most heartwarming was the belief that there is no conflict in the home. Every evening the elder initiates discussions in the family temple so everyone can go to bed in peace, as they would have disclosed their worries or discontentment with the entire family.

Over an entire half-day we learned how to make 8 different Balinese courses. The class itself was so unbelievably organized, it had every participant involved at all times, whether it be chopping vegetables, plucking fresh lime leaves, sautéing garlic and chili or crushing it all in the ‘Bali blender’.While chatting away with other travelers, we learned that yellow sauce, salt and pepper, coconut oil, chili and palm sugar are essential ingredients to most dishes. While my stomach was not up for large consumption, Eileen rated both the chicken in coconut curry and tempe with peanut sauce as her favorites and we walked away with a nice recipe book of the day’s dishes to try at home. I’ll keep you posted on my unlikely outcome.

For dinner that evening we eagerly ventured to the much-anticipated Bebek Bengil aka Dirty Duck Diner, who specialize in fried duck. While the premises sit on a beautiful, lush green rice patty, we came at night not knowing that the view was half the pleasure and therefore sat in darkness listening to the buzz of a few far off quacks. When our ducks arrived so deep-fried that we couldn’t decipher between bone and meat, only by the hairs still intact on the skin, another early night called our names.

This was all after my AMAZING spa treatment at The Wibawa Spa mind you. Let me make it clear, imagine this scene: a soothing full body massage with essential oil to the sound of tranquil music. Next, a body scrub of turmeric and jasmine in which they first apply and let dry, then scrub off to exfoliate the skin. Afterwards, you’re covered in thick white yogurt. And finally, you soak in a bath of flower petals and then rinse in a shower under the night sky. The entire treatment was 1 h 45 minutes and would you believe what it cost me? I don’t think you will. It cost me $21. Enough said.

We braved the Sacred Monkey Forest the next day with much hesitation. The forest hosts over 500 macaques in addition to three holy temples. While roaming the grounds and admiring the beautiful sculptures covered in varying shades of moss and Indiana Jones like temples, things turned for the worse. Eileen provided this narrative afterward: “At 11:39 am today, Lisa Vecchio (30) was attacked by a macaques monkey (134). Witnesses report that after letting out a guttural scream she regained her composure. Vecchio left the scene and the macaques persisted, eventually giving up.” When leaving the park I was not only shook up and weary of any monkey in sight, but utterly speechless to spot a chubby 12-year-old boy with a stalk of bananas under his shirt. I’m just lucky I didn’t get bit.

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We ended our time in Ubud with a Legong Trance and Paradise Dance performance by Sekehe Gong Panca Artha at the Ubud Palace. The most mesmerizing aspect was the dancer’s ability to move their hands, eyes, and fingers all to the beat of instruments being played on the side of the stage. While we weren’t too sure what was going on, it was still a fascinating and impressive cultural experience.

On our way out of Ubud our driver stopped off at Jakawana coffee plantation. A small family run business overlooking beautiful rice patties, all guests receive a quick tour of the grounds, including local plants and herbs, along with an overview of the traditional coffee making process and a tasting of an impressive 12 coffees for free. The tastings included everything from herbal tea with turmeric to coconut coffee. For a steep $5, Eileen was brave (and I took a sip) to try the Kopi Luwak, a coffee bean digested and excreted from animals. Neither of us favored it, but it fit right in with our Ubud theme: eat, poop, sweat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charm of Gili Trawangan


Low tide bicycle

Gili Trawangan was once a hidden treasure that only backpackers knew about. A small island off of Lombak, there was a time where Internet bookings didn’t exist and half of the island was uninhibited. This has quickly changed, and in recent years development has escalated at an unfortunate pace. The evidence was apparent, but the renowned party island still has its unique charm.

Horse and buggy

Standing in the middle of the main street with luggage in tow after exiting our fast-boat from Bali, it was a surprising quick dash to the make-shift sidewalk to dodge a cidomo, the brightly colored horse and carriages that double as both people movers and local transport. A nice escape from bustling Melbourne, there are no cars on Gili T, so getting around consists of your two feet, a cidomo or a bike hire from the many vendors up and down the main drag. Come prepared knowing that most bikes are sea-rusted and it’s hit or miss to get a good one. Luckily Eileen, Louise and I found the Triplets, 3 pink and green matching bikes that were not only quality but made us look really fashionable in unison.

Black Penny Double Villa

Accommodation on the island can vary from boutique hotels for around $200 a night to a fan-only room down one of the back streets for about $15 a night. Like most places in Southeast Asia, it can be cheaper to not book ahead and haggle your way to a pillow, but we landed on Black Penny Villas in which we pre-booked via Agoda.com to be safe since it was over the Easter holidays. Our two bedroom villa, private plunge pool included, was in a great location halfway between sunset and the boat terminal. It was decent enough; despite some questionable Trip Advisor reviews however if I had my pick and was willing to shell out a bit more cash, I would stay at The Beach House or Scallywags Resort, two cute boutique hotels just next door. The most entertaining part was what happened to Eileen on our first night. She wrote, “Had a mishap last night when I couldn’t turn the lights out and the guy from the hotel had to help me. Was way more complicated by the fact that I was locked in my room like Rapunzel.” This was due to the fact that she turned in early being jetlagged but there is only one key for the room, and therefore we locked her in before having a night cap at the Irish bar across the street. When someone came in response to her phoning reception for help, she couldn’t open the door to let them in.

Fish pedicure

Our afternoons consisted of relaxing over spa treatments for incredibly cheap prices, yet ranged in quality and included pedicures, massages, body scrubs and ear candling (or at least that last one was just me) all to the tune of soothing music. I was tempted to get one of the fish pedicures where you put your feet in a small aquarium and let them nibble off your dead bits but was concerned about hygiene so opted out.

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Every night around 6 pm we would ride the Triplets to the west side of the island for a spectacular sunset. Bingtang in hand, we’d overlook the foggy backdrop of Bali’s famed Gunung Agung in the distance while pink, orange, and blue hues would magically change tones until the sky went black. Most places would also have fire pits and local entertainers doing impressive fire tricks and I was grateful that Louise showed me how to slow my shutter speed so I could capture some awesome action shots. Then came another challenge, riding in the pitch black dark, iPhone in hand to light the way as we peddled back to the bustling restaurant strip.

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Dinner each nice was also a treat. It’s not uncommon for quality restaurants like The Beach House and Scallywags, amongst a few others, to have fresh seafood on display. The drill is you pick your seafood from an ice chest of lobster, prawns, fish, and more. They weigh it and once you give your nod of approval they immediately throw it on the grill. While you wait for it to cook there is a free salad bar. Lobsters averaged about $50, so the three of us shared one. Another night I had pepes, fish grilled in banana leaf. When we weren’t dining on seafood there were a range of options including the local staple nasi goreng (fried rice) to Thai and tons of western food. In fact, the most surprising element of my whole trip was how abundant western food was. I’m used to dining in countries where it’s okay to try the local stuff, in fact it’s encouraged, but this time around there was a lot of playing it safe.

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One of the most interesting days on Gili T was jumping onto the Triplets and discovering the whole island. We rode around feeling like we were the stars of Eat, Pray, Love. We first stopped off on the east side and sat under thatched roof huts drinking lime fizz while sun baking. We BYOS (bring your own snorkel) so it was very convenient to be able to laze around and then hop into the crystal clear water for a quick underwater exploration. Funnily though, when we asked for a snack from the large proprietor who was an enthusiastic fan of Bruno Mars, we received the reply, “the kitchen is closed. The chef is still asleep.” That’s island time for you. We were getting hungry for lunch though so hopped back onto the Triplets and took them for a ride in search of the remote, colorful beach hangout/restaurant/accommodation, The Exile. Riding down the dead center of the island, carefully maneuvering the bikes to avoid large rocks and unexpected holes in the dirt path, we witnessed where the locals stay when they’re not servicing the hordes of tourists. Horses and cattle grazed behind coconut trees, children raced their bikes, and workers hammered away further transforming the island to accommodate for more tourists.

In the evenings the various restaurants would turn into island clubs, with live music, reggae or remix popular international artists set to the tune of a relaxed beat. Like a wolf pack, the nine of us (us girls accompanied by a few of Louise’s volunteer friends) all hopped onto our bikes, rode through the dark streets after watching the sunset and eating $5 curries at a small Thai restaurant tucked away off of the main strip. We then settled on a night out dancing at Suma Suma where we drank Bintangs until the early morning, soaked ourselves in sweat, and listened to a local cover band do a heart wrenching rendition of Stand By Me and then hand the stage over to an Indonesian Rastafarian who imitated Bob Marley. What was most surprising was the amount of locals interspersed with the tourists, singing at the top of their lungs – many of which looked well under 18.

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The only way to close out this first part of our trip was to indulge in a final attempt of pure relaxation and the number one spot for it is Pearl Beach Lounge. If you spend a minimum of 100,000 R (approx. $10) you can use their beach loungers, free Wi-Fi and pool for the day. It’s such an amazing deal considering the coconut shrimp, calamari and duck pad thai are to die for. We spent one day roasting on the beach, only to discover the pool has a waterfall and swim up bar. After uncovering that, it was all Bintangs poolside and water aerobics under the crash of the waterfall. Our last evening we treated ourselves to fine dining at one of the nicest places on the whole island, Ko-ko-mo. We indulged in fresh seared tuna and crab raviolis then finished it off with the fallen chocolate dessert. The way that  Eileen described our dessert could also be our farewell to Gili T. “L & E devoured it at equally rapid paces. Both loved it, both sad it’s over.”

Bintang Can

A first touch of Indonesia


It’s very rare to be on a flight where you can almost guarantee the majority of the people on it are also going on vacation. But when you are, oh what a buzz it is. You can hear the excitement in voice tones, witness the change in character by the clothes people wear, the Bermuda shorts are on and the suit and tie are left at home. You can feel the energy in the air and at that point it hits you, vacation is here! This is at least what I felt on my Garuda Indonesia flight bound for Denpasar on Bali just a few weeks back.  Well, at least for the first hour or so. The novelty wore off over the near 6 hour flight.

I hadn’t really set myself any expectations before I left. Of course I read my Lonely Planet guidebook from front to back cover, but that was months ago while I was planning. I settled on a rough itinerary…one night visiting my friend and ex-colleague, now international volunteer, Louise at her host accommodation in Sanur on Bali, four nights mixing relaxation with a bit of party on Gili Trawangan off of Lombak, three nights getting a cultural buzz in Ubud, and finishing it off with boutique shopping and sipping cocktails in  Seminyak. Yup, as usual I had a plan but once I was on the plane itself is when it finally hit me that I hadn’t yet identified my must do/buy/eat list. Most importantly I didn’t even know what the most delicious local food was that I would just have to try.

Once I landed I discovered Bangi Kopitiam, the only café in the Denpasar airport. It was crowded but still a relief from all the hawkers who approach you for a taxi fare. I killed about 3 hours waiting for my friend Eileen to land from New York, passing the time familiarizing myself with the local beer Bintang, trying Mie Goreng aka Indonesian fried noodles and observing the locals. I was surprised to see the female servers wearing fuzzy bunny ears with hot pink sequins in the middle, embracing western Easter holiday traditions despite Bali being one of the largest Hindu regions of the world.

That evening we experienced expat life in Sanur, a coastal area in southeast Bali, as part of a going away party for a volunteer who needed to return back to Australia because she caught typhoid. It hit home that 3rd world diseases do exist and can be obtained by just about anyone. So, we said both hello and goodbye at Man Shed, a funky hangout with car and motorcycle memorabilia where both locals and expats frequent. It had a really cool vibe to it and I was so excited to be out and about with a cold Bintang in my hand, for less than $3 mind you! Afterwards, The Fire Station served up one of the best fried soft-shell crab and pork belly meals that I’ve had outside of Australia, for Australian prices though. That night I learned from the friend an important part of Bali culture. She told me, “sweeping is the biggest pastime on this island. That, and doing nothing.” I realized it was true when I woke up very early the next morning before catching our boat to Gili T to the sound of sweeping outside of Louise’s bedroom window, and roosters clucking in the early morning.

I sat in the front seat of the Gili Cat minibus after our 7:30 am pickup. My seatbelt didn’t work properly, apparently they normally don’t, but traffic is horrendous and so is the driving so I made the driver make it work. There is always a motorbike to be aware of, or multiple. I was dead tired so sat in silence and tuned in to the conversations happening in the back of the bus, but my mind was focused on what was happening on the outside of my dirty window. It took us over an hour to reach Padang Bai, the small port where budget boats set off for Lombak and its surrounding islands. The scenery rapidly changed from inter-city traffic, to lush green rice patties and finally the sea.

Gili Cat at least made things easy. They are Australian owned, so trusted over some of the cheaper, yet less reliable outfits. For an extra cost, it cost us 800,000 R or close to $80 AUD, they pick you up nearly anywhere on Bali, express boat to Lombak or the Gili Islands, and provide return transfer to most central areas on Bali. The check-in process was painless, and they have a neighbouring café that serves pretty good breakfast, I recommend the poached eggs, while you wait and a toilet to use before getting on the boat. The negative is that the boat had no upper deck, which meant we were all underneath, sweltering in the heat with barely a breeze guzzling down the free water they gave us, trying not think of the unthinkable while out in the open sea. The boat ride was about an hour and half, but as we approached Lombak to let some passengers off, then arrived on Gili Trawangan, I had never been so happy to see land.

Eileen and I kept a diary of our adventure in our notebook called “Wanderlust” – stay tuned for some excerpts from the trip and more about Gili T, Ubud and Seminyak coming your way!

Japan 5,4,3,2,1


After spending two weeks traveling throughout Japan, from Tokyo to Kamakura to Takayama to Kyoto to Nara to Hiroshima to Miyajima and back to Tokyo, it seems nearly impossible to narrow my entire trip into just a few items. I fell in love and this trip reinvigorated how satisfying it can be to travel in a first world foreign country.

I saw my first diabatsu (The Great Buddha Kamakura), summited Mount Misen, and paid my respects at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There is just too much to tell. A few little words got me so far, but I’ll tell you my favorite – sumimasen (excuse me), here are my top five highlights:

5. The people – Ask a simple question to a shopkeeper, a roadside worker, or your server and in response you’ll receive the shuffle of little feet to immediately help however they can. I’ve never before witnessed a culture react with such immediacy to want to help; and when they couldn’t, because they merely didn’t speak my language or couldn’t understand, they would shuffle along further until they found someone who could. Every day I was mesmerized.

Not only that, but also many locals we met were genuinely interested in learning about us – where we were from, why we were there – and then when we responded that their country was very beautiful and we were having an amazing time, a smile would light up their face and they would bow in gratitude.

Holly would ask me daily, isn’t this the most perfect society? I don’t know that for sure, but I do know the best word to describe the people is simply, humble.

Coming back to Tokyo from Hiroshima it was about a 5 hour journey. We got off the train in Shinagawa, one stop from Tokyo Station. Nearly about to exit the station I all the sudden got a rush of shock, “guys, I left my backpack on the train. It has my passport in it, and I fly out tomorrow!” After a quick panic, I approached the train kiosk expecting the worse. In true Japanese fashion, the attendant told me to get on the next train to Tokyo Station, go to platform 17 and hand over the note I was given. Within 3o minutes, hassle-free I had my backpack and passport back safely in my hands, and I swear it wouldn’t have been this simple anywhere else.

Another example is while visiting busy Ginkakuji Temple (World Cultural Heritage Site), the line of tourists was very backed up. As it turned out, a Japanese woman was bent over a beetle on the sidewalk saying to it, “ hurry up little beetle, they’ll step on you. Shoo, before you get squashed.” I almost drowned a moth in my shower the other day but then thought of that woman and the beetle and decided to let the moth live.

4. The relatives – Holly, my former college roommate’s grandmother was Japanese and she had always vowed to one day see the country her grandmother told her so many stories about. Although her gram passed a few years ago, Holly got in touch with her grandmother’s sister, her only living relative in Japan and someone she had never met or spoken to before.

As one would imagine, leading up to the big meet and greet was very emotional and nerve racking, specifically for Holly. Neither of us knew what to expect. While we waited, we practiced our bows for the introduction, remembering the lower the bow the more respect it shows.

Holly’s great aunt and her husband, both in their late sixties picked us up from Tokyo Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. Although Holly cried immediately on introduction, we managed broken English and not much chitchat before being shuffled into an immaculate cab to make our way to lunch.

A beautiful surprise, they had reservations at a lovely, high-end Chinese restaurant on the fifty-second floor that overlooked the entire city. More then we ever could have asked for, we dined through a multi-course lunch, using an electronic translator (later in which they wouldn’t let us leave without) to communicate the stories of our lives. Even more, their hospitality was overly generous. Having received our itinerary via email in advance they had provided books and maps on the places we were visiting throughout our travels and even gave a small gift to me too.

Holly and her great aunt showed each other pictures of their families and animals while her uncle and I did our best to make small talk. As the food was served, Holly and I both teased each other in rapid English to just eat and keep smiling, even eat the weird bits, no matter how full we became. We moved on from lunch and it was enjoyable to just be led about the city by locals on our first official day in Tokyo, unaware of the plan ahead.

We stopped off at the Tokyo Metro Government Building Observatory, which provided a breathtaking view of the city.  In the tourist center on the ground floor we were given replica samurai swords to pose with. Then, we walked through one of the huge department stores in Shinjuku, impressed as the escalator wound up and up until we found ourselves on one of the infamous  ‘restaurant floors’. Finally, after enjoying a cup of tea we sadly said goodbye. After such a wonderful and pleasantly unpredictable day I don’t think I could have bowed any lower.

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3. Arashiyama – Cute shops, food variety and World Heritage Tenryuji Temple, what’s not to love? For one thing, it was so darn busy! Then again, how often do you get to experience a forest made solely of bamboo and pet monkey’s while you’re the one encaged?

With the foliage in full effect, Arashiyama in Kyoto’s western region is a major tourist destination. In fact, we didn’t even realize we were holidaying in the busiest time of year. The entire country flocks to places such as this strictly for the pure natural beauty of witnessing the changing of the leaves.

The bamboo forest was an absolute must on my top things to see and wow, was it impressive. The bamboo was so tall, and so many shades of green. Although it was crowded with tourists, and the path more of a road then actually being in the center of a forest, it was still very, very cool. In fact, we were approached by Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian TV host to answer some questions for his show.

After leaving the forest we simply wandered about the grounds of the area, embracing the foliage while taking silly snaps of each other against the colorful backdrop and just enjoyed the outdoors. We figured since we still had some daylight left, which was rare this time of year considering it got dark around 3 pm, we took the opportunity to explore Iwatayama Monkey Park further along in the village.

The information provided to us about visiting the monkeys was that it was a steep hike and not recommended in the summer months. Summer aside, wow that was a steep hike and I’m so thankful I had my hiking boots on. Before even reaching the top we discovered wild monkeys in the forest. At the summit, the lookout over Kyoto was stunning. The most interesting part, if you wanted to feed the monkeys you had to enter a cage. Because they were wild and territorial to the area being their natural habitat, the tables turned and we became the subject in the cage. The advantage was there was plenty of staff about, so even when outside admiring the view there were workers to ensure both the monkeys’ and us were safe. They do however have them trained to sit for a photo (whether that’s a good thing I’m still unsure).

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2. Visiting an onsen – I knew traveling by shinkhansen (bullet train) up to the Japanese Alps would be breathtaking as the leaves were changing to vibrant oranges, reds and greens. But on our way out of Tokyo when we passed Mt. Fuji in the distance it topped it all.

mt. fuji

Nestled just a few hours outside of Takayama, a small town outside the Japanese Alps, are a few natural onsens within the mountains themselves. Although this was our sole agenda item for visiting this region, unfortunately with lack of time we had to settle for plan b. We found ourselves bearing all, sitting in an infinity onsen overlooking the snowcapped Alps at Hotel Associa, a five star hotel just on the outskirts of town. Weird circumstances to be in the nude with your friends, yes, but the experience and the view of the snowcapped Alps didn’t even make us look twice.

Of course there is the whole onsen ritual that was an experience in itself before we got to that point. Public bathing is a huge part of the Japanese culture and is a regular ritual for people of all ages. While the baths are split by gender, it’s a fair mix of the young to very old.

There are rules and as a foreigner it’s important out of respect to follow them. Firstly, visible tattoos are a major no no. In fact, you can be evicted from an onsen if one is seen, as it’s very offensive considering they are associated with gangs and the Japanese mafia. We simply covered ours with Band-Aids.

But the first thing we were ‘warned’, or gently reminded of when entering the spa is that to bath in an onsen you’re completely in the nude amongst other guests.  While you are provided a towel, a very small one mind you, I took a deep breath and as they say, when in Rome.  Before entering the actual hot pools, you’re first expected to bath in one of the little stalls lined up outside of the hot springs, small wooden stools are provided and the expectation is you sit and scrub. Once clean, then you soak. This place had about 7 different hot baths to choose from, the water supplied from the local mountains and the natural minerals combined with the hot water made it impossible to not relax. Once done soaking, it’s back to the showers to rinse off before utilizing the hotels amenities such as hairdryers, combs and such.

1. Robot Restaurant & karaoke – From dinosaurs to robots in 30 seconds, described by my travel crew as a trip through fantasyland with lights.

Recently featured on Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Tokyo days before we landed, Holly had her heart dead set on going to the Robot Restaurant. All we knew in advance was there were robots, flashing lights, go go dancers and some sort of average meal involved.

Earlier that day, Holly, Jaime, Sarah, Amit and I roamed around the crazy, cartooned and decorative neighborhood of Harajuku. This is where the weird and the wild come to shop on Takeshita Street, or what most English speakers refer to as “take a sh#t street.” After devouring crepes it was off to the wacky shops to comb through wigs and playful apparel. At that point it was decided, we would embrace Harajuku culture and go to the Robot Restaurant in character, even Amit. As the only male in a group, we appropriately chose the yellow-hair Kurt Cobain look for him. While the other girls had on bright blue, green and pink wigs, somehow my black and red bobbed wig coupled with my galactic dress and clunky necklace had me labeled Betty Rubble.

While we got some looks while lining up for the show, the evening as a whole is where it really came together. Entering the venue was like walking into a casino times a thousand, millions of neon lights, flashing bulbs and sparkly glowing plastic. The show itself, I can’t even begin to describe – an attack on all your senses in a good way.  Each scene is introduced in Japanese so as an English speaker all you see is chaos, all you hear is music and all you feel is confusion crossed with excitement.

It opens with loud drums. Dancers are on each side of the small room in red or white half-dressed costumes. Before you know it a dinosaur roams to the middle of the floor, then there is a panda riding a cow, more drums, robots, glow sticks, the audience clapping to the beat…you have know idea what’s actually happening but your smiling and laughing…and then its over.

We figured if there was anytime to try the Japanese pastime of karaoke, then after a show such as the Robot Restaurant it’s the next best thing to follow.  The most difficult task at Joysound was negotiating every hour in broken English for an extension on our time in our private room. That’s right, we sang for 3 hours straight, wigs in tact at most times and it was consented as the best night ever. We may have had a few language barriers, be it the alcohol or our lack of Japanese. For example, I said on repeat to the waiter, what felt like every five minutes, our order of 2 wines, 2 beers, 3 shochu then would confirm how much time we had remaining and then in unison we agreed, one more hour! Then again, because we couldn’t master the controls for the machine in Japanese, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was on repeat nine times in a row.

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In addition to all the above, the food itself is a reason to see Japan and for me my priority on this trip was to consume, and consume I did. If we didn’t’ know what something was on a menu we guessed and crossed our fingers it was tasty. There were some surprises, but due the regularity of pictures accompanying most dishes on the menu it was easy to choose. See my post here for full details!

And finally none of the above would have been as enjoyable with the laughs and smiles of good friends to share it with. 

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Jaime and I have traveled Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa together and vow to visit a new country each year. We’re the ultimate team of planner and navigator and she is my most trusted travel partner.

roeAside for my gratefulness of Jaime’s excellent group steering on this trip, a few highlights have to be when she championed and ate the fresh, salty roe at Tsujiki Fish Market, the not-to-be-eaten but one assumes you are meant to consume everything on the plate dandelion at Kappa Sushi and her ability to sing to Katy Perry in a bright blue wig, followed by an all nighter dancing at Jumanji and eating ramen at 7 am. Then again, there’s nothing like feeling 16 again singing to the Spice Girls while sipping on Zima.

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The most amount of time Holly and I have spent together since we departed as college roommates in 2005 was the two weeks we spent backpacking in Belgium, Holland, Poland and Prague in 2007. I knew that visiting Japan was her top bucket list item and I couldn’t imagine having experienced this amazing trip without her. I cannot fail to mention however her amazing ability to be completely unaware of our surroundings, like when we got off the train in Takayama and she said, “so we’re in Kyoto, right?” Or the time she left for a bottle of wine around the block in her pajamas and an hour and half later pulled up in a cab.deer

She’s also an avid deer lover and I’ve never met anyone so fearless to approach and attempt to hug wild deer as if they were dogs. And lastly, her ability to sleep on trains, in bars, and everywhere else.

sleepin on trains

Thanks girls for an unforgettable adventure!

Kamakura diabatsu

My Japanese Culinary Adventure


Diafuku

Diafuku

When asked the purpose of my recent trip to Japan my reply was simple, “I’m going there to eat.” And it was true. But never would I have anticipated not only the variety, but also the regularity of how often I would consume local foods. From tiny baitfish over rice for lunch to curry katsu for breakfast and never enough diafuku in between, here is a brief, or actually a quite long-winded journey through my Japanese culinary adventure.

After an exhausting journey Holly and I were finally in Tokyo. Forget showers and freshening up, we wanted to hit the town immediately but first we needed to satisfy the grumble in our stomachs. This would be our first attempt at socializing in a new culture so identifying the right place for our first meal was a bit intimidating. We ended up at a small ramen shop in Shinjuku. The options were simple, ramen or ramen and you paid first by vending machine, but of course we didn’t realize that until we asked for the bill.

Shinjuku Ramen

Shinjuku Ramen

There are vending machines on nearly every street corner serving all purposes. We moved hotels the next morning and Holly tried her hand at some vending machine Boss Coffee, sponsored by Tommy Lee Jones of course and it even came out hot. Further along on our trip we even stumbled across a beer vending machine. So cool. After a while we began to spot the machines that were only 100 yen, the cheapest it comes.

Later that evening while waiting for Jaime to arrive, we found a small bar and nibbled on cold, salted edamame and tried our hand at some local Asahi beer and wine.

Edamame

Edamame

Once Jaime arrived we ducked into the first yakitori shop we could find. We ordered the assortment and some sake. The ‘assortment’ didn’t go down so well however, there were some dubious meats and textures on the skewers and we were questioning the plausibility that we were actually eating heart.

Sake

Sake

One of Tokyo’s must do’s is to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. If you’re not brave enough to attempt being one of the 120 they allow in at 5 am to witness the live tuna auction, you can wander the outside market before tasting sushi caught fresh that very day. We made it to the market a bit late, but that didn’t stop us from trying a range of the days finest in one of the small ten seat sushi bars adjacent. It was a bit of gamble on how we split the serves however. After Holly and I popped a small orange fish roe ball into our mouths as a test and both declared it awful, we dared Jaime and she took one for the team and ate the whopping whole thing. Yuck! Holly also had bad luck with a rubbery white fish that took about 5 minutes to chew and swallow, followed by onion sushi that left her breath less than desirable. Somehow I lucked out with fresh salmon, unagi and other varieties.

We then spent the afternoon walking around Hama Rikyu Gardens and had our first traditional tea ceremony experience in Matsu-no-ochaya teahouse. After taking our shoes off before entering the wooden building, we read the directions provided carefully, remembering to bow after being served. Cross-legged on the tatami mats, we overlooked the beautiful lake, a bit hung over yet the whole experience including drinking the green tea in three big gulps made me feel very zen.

Following on we visited Senso-ji Shrine, one of my favorite spots of the trip and fumbled in the dark in Asakusa to find a highly recommended tempura restaurant, as this area of Tokyo is known for its tempura. Lightly fried, not overly greasy prawns accompanied by rice, cabbage and of course some wine, we had our first meal on traditional tatami mats while studying our Lonely Planet books on how to spend the evening.

We ended up at Popeye’s, a craft beer lover’s haven, which houses over 120 beers on tap. Yes, all on tap! It was quite impressive, as the craft beer scene in Japan is growing and I tried everything from Japanese stouts, porters, IBAs and winter ale to my first pumpkin beer of the year, albeit it was Rogues.

Popeyes' craft beer bar

Popeye’s

The next day while on a day trip to Kamakura, a small town an hour outside of Tokyo, we lunched at recommended Bowls Café. Cheap and clean with affordably priced donburi lunch specials, I started with octopus and miso soup before divulging into my rice bowl topped with fresh raw tuna. But boy did Holly get a surprise. What looked like little bean sprouts on the top of her rice bowl was far from her assumption. At closer look, each individual little white stem actually seemed to have tiny eyes! Yes, she was served a heaping amount of the local delicacy baitfish atop her rice. We all took a few bites but unfortunately no one could get the whole dish down.

On my personal list of dining adventures was to visit one of the izakaya’s housed under the Yamanote Station tracks. We met up with Crystal, former Mountbatten alumni and colleague of Jaime who is currently living in Tokyo. She took us to Andy’s Izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub full of salary men, cigarette smoke and a surplus of food. We ordered enough to share and it seemed as if it wouldn’t stop coming; tempura, scallops, mushrooms, udon and it went on. Crystal also introduced us to shochu; similar to vodka, it’s a clear distilled liquor fermented from potatoes typically mixed with cold green tea.

We were off to colorful Harjuku by mid-day the next afternoon and hadn’t even had a snack. Luckily busy Takeshita Street is lined with crepe shops from sweet to savory and it was the perfect treat to hold us over until dinner.

Angel Hearts crepes, Harajuku

Angel Hearts crepes, Harajuku

Nestled in the basement of Tokyo Station is Ramen Street, with shop after shop of ramen establishments. Although I was a bit unimpressed, we stopped for lunch the next morning for some traditional ramen.

Ramen Street, ramen

Ramen Street, ramen

Later on that day after exploring the grounds of the Imperial Palace we stopped at Jonathan’s, a small diner to regroup for the evening. Jaime had some Fanta, and it was green!

Green Fanta

Green Fanta

That evening was a highlight. We met up with Crystal again in the Ebisu neighborhood. Slowly walking down the street she had us quickly duck into what just looked like a simple storefront. Once inside the food hall it was a bazaar of little stalls, one after the other with a maximum of 6 seats at each, specializing in a different dish. It was called Ebisu Yokocho. We found a small little place where we could cook  meat over the grill in the center of the table. On the menu was everything from pig tongue to heart to loin and neck however we kept it simple with some chorizo, skirt, pork and salads. It was delicious and somewhere we never would have stumbled across without the help of our expat friend.

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The next morning we made the five hour journey to Takayama, a small town in the Japanese Alps who specialize in two amazing things to consume: hida beef and sake. Hida is one of the best grades of beef from the Hida District and can be served as steak, yakiniku, sukiyaki, or shabu shabu. It’s absolutely delicious. Takayama’s old town is lined with sake breweries and you can actually taste the difference of the quality, as the regions cool climate makes it ideal. We stopped in Niki Shuzo Sake Brewery and tried everything from the local favorite to a seasonal specialty.

Soba is another Takayama specialty, specifically when hida beef is added to it. Kyoyo is a lovely, dark restaurant with friendly staff from a local family. I ordered the hida soba of course while Jaime tried the cold soba (buckwheat noodles dipped in broth). To start I ordered houba miso, a local delicacy of miso with shitake and leek grilled on a magnolia leaf. We followed it with some tofu topped with miso and finally crab legs grilled by the owner’s mother right in front of us.

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During the day we couldn’t stop snacking. Every roadside stand we passed one of us would rush for fried hida beef dough balls, pork buns or croquettes. Our final meal in Takayama was at Tengu, a small ten seat curry restaurant and that’s is all they serve. The hida beef curry melted in my mouth like butter. There was no fat and just the right amount of spice. I’m still thinking about it.

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Slurp, slurp, snot, snot, slurp. The louder you slurp or burb, the more appreciative of how good the meal is. This is what I listened to while sat in a small udon shop in Kyoto’s Higashiyama neighborhood sampling prawn tempura udon. As we continued to walk throughout the day we were constantly surrounded by food. Jaime snatched up takoyaki, or  fried octopus balls while Holly grabbed some candied fruit.

That evening at Finlandia Bar the girls tried some local cocktails while I learned to appreciate different Japanese beers. They didn’t serve Red Bull, but they did Red Bear, vodka flavored to taste just like Red Bull. Jaime had the waiter serve up his favorite concoction which consisted of a wasabi liquor yet was quite refreshing with ginger ale.  The dimly lit bar was a great place to stop off in Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district and the bartender was very friendly and spoke excellent English, recommending to Jaime which Japanese whisky to try next and offered us some dinner suggestions.

Red Bear Vodka

Red Bear Vodka

After meeting the brew master of Pabst Blue Ribbon China at an Irish pub, he recommended the best sushi restaurant in Kyoto, Kappa Sushi by Mayuzumi Group. Located in our favorite Kyoto neighborhood of Pontocho, it had been days since we’ve actually had sushi. How was that possible? We ordered from an extensive menu of fresh fish, each to our own taste. The fatty tuna was praised and I have to agree it was by far the best I’ve ever had. Yet, when Holly and I ordered the mozuku seaweed with vinegar it was far from what we expected. Slimy, snot like texture of green ooze we both slurped it up, laughing as it dribbled from our mouths. I must admit it did taste good though.

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At this point we felt oddly healthy, yet bloated. We blamed it on all the salt we consumed daily.

On a day trip to Nara we feared the end of our trip was approaching and still had some food items on our agenda we’ve yet to try.  I finally got myself the green tea ice cream all the kids were eating. After a day of petting wild deer and visiting temples we desperately scouted for a place to eat gyoza, or Japanese dumplings. Finally we found a small diner-like eatery where we each got our own personal large serve of gyoza, kimchi, spring rolls and noodles.

Curry katsu for breakfast wasn’t initially what I was craving the next morning but boy oh boy was it tasty. Fried pork cutlets in a brown gravy sauce over rice, it was awesome. Holly had croquettes for the 5th day in a row.

We moved on to Hiroshima and as part of our daily tradition stocked up on diafuku for the journey, a Japanese sweet of red bean in a doughy round rice cake. After arriving we scouted out an okonomiyaki eatery – a savory egg and noodle pancake. We stumbled upon an okonmiyaki food hall, with little stalls next to stalls all grilling the dish either with Chinese or udon noodles fresh in front of you while you waited. The serves were enormous but somehow we ended up eating it all.

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That night we took the ferry over to the quiet, serene island of Miyajima. We stayed at a lovely guesthouse that served us an amazing 8-course meal, while tranquil music played in the background. This was our Thanksgiving feast. Fresh oysters, sashimi, fried fish, soup, and green tea ice cream for dessert…it went on.

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Before leaving we stopped off for more oysters, a delicacy in Hiroshima where we ate them fried in curry after they were cooked fresh on the street corner. Accompanied by a local Miyajima beer it was the perfect way to end our last stop on our culinary journey.

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One thing we never go to try though was blowfish. Interestingly we learned that the majority of people who die of its poison aren’t at restaurants but from inexperienced cooks at home.

blowfish

Blowfish

It’s been less then fours days since I’ve returned from Japan and nearly dinnertime. Luckily for me a new Japanese restaurant recently opened up down the street and I just ordered some curry katsu to satisfy my cravings.

Sydney lightening storm

All for gold


It happened to me. I had heard horror stories from time and time again but somehow in my arrogant travel-god mindset I thought I could escape it.

It’s 6.55 am. I’m rinsing my morning breath out with tap water from an airport hotel sink. My underwear have been put back on inside out and I just sniffed the armpits of the shirt I wore yesterday and then slept in, to see how bad the damage really is before putting it back on.

On my way to Melbourne Airport I was tense, fearing that I would miss the first leg of my long haul flight. So tense in fact, I was gripping my knee with one hand while the other was balled in a fist; giving my cab driving glaring glances anytime he slowed down or didn’t take the plunge and make a life-threatening pass by another car.  But I made it.

Even worse, I was the second to the last person to board the plane on my second leg outbound to Tokyo. I didn’t even get a chance to make it through to duty free. It was exhausting. Little did I know I’d be sitting on the runway for 2.5 hours while a horrific lightening storm engulfed Sydney. Now I feared being struck by lightening. The plane never took off that evening.

I spent the next hour or so going through immigration in reverse, then wondering why my luggage never appeared on the carrousel. There were 6 of us from Melbourne, none of our luggage made the transfer. It was the lightening’s fault.

We bound together in line to request our airport hotel voucher, along with the passengers of the other 6 flights cancelled that evening. Luckily a lovely Japanese lady bit the bullet and requested we get ours immediately, we didn’t have any luggage after all. Relieved to get a room, we then stood in line for another hour waiting for a taxi. At least I made some new friends out of it.

So here’s the funny thing. I didn’t follow the rules. You know, the standard international traveler rules. I had no clean clothes, no toothbrush or deodorant and by luck managed to sneak my phone charger in last minute otherwise would have been worse off. How could I ignore my own rules?

Flying is such an important part of my life. I have packing down to a science. I own different suitcases and travel bags for every different purpose: overnight duffle, weekend duffle, weekend wheely, work wheely, summer trip wheely backpack, long trip wheely backpack, long trip wheely duffle…I can go on. Ensuring I only pack what I can physically carry, at the same time guaranteeing I have enough outfits to not have to duplicate when possible.

When going through security my eyes scan the lines like a hawk seeing prey. I squirm at children, dodge baby strollers and avoid the elderly at all costs. I can predict the Qantas Lounge’s meals by time of day and day of the week. I know when to eat, sleep, drink, watch, and read to maximize my sleep time.

I have memorized two different frequent flyer numbers by heart. My phone apps are synced to weather in multiple cities, airline check in, currency converters, and offline maps.  My favorite day to fly is the first of the month; it’s when a new inflight magazine becomes available. I want to chat with pilots as often as I’m given the chance.

But at the end of the day I will pay for loyalty. I must admit one of my biggest bucket list items is to become Gold on Qantas. I’m envious of those who board the plane first and those that get to use the special line when going through security.

Despite my pride as the almighty entitled traveler, the tables had turned that day boarding my flight to Japan a few weeks ago. I was lucky that in the end it worked out and I arrived at a similar time to my old college roommate Holly. It made the 1.5-hour journey on the Narita Express to Tokyo, then navigating from Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, to our hotel a few blocks away a major relief.

As I logged into my Qantas Frequent Flyer account today I was overjoyed at what I saw. As of my hassle-free flight back to Australia on November 30, 2013 I am now officially Gold status!

More on Japan coming soon!

Junk of the Heart


Finding a flawless junk boat to cruise the picture perfect waters of Ha Long Bay isn’t an easy task. They can range $30 for a one night, two day cruise to up to a couple of hundred. You can go economical, with an extra dash of rats to compliment the grime, or pay a premium for a bit more comfort knowing your odds of sinking may be in your favor and the seafood has been caught fresh that day.

Divine Hanoi Rendezvous Hotel didn’t give us much of a choice when they offered the option aboard Oriental Sails, in which they partner with. For $119 USD a pop, we knew we were on the steeper end of the scale, potentially sacrificing a late night party and a backpacker social scene for elegance and safety. I thought go with the recommendation and know we are booked in, rather then scour the internet and take a bigger risk with another chain.

We were picked up bright and early from the hotel after finishing off our complimentary breakfast of the staple Vietnamese dish of pho. After stepping into the van to begin our four hour journey our predictions were confirmed; two Vietnamese couples and a young French/Italian pair accompanied by her parents. And that was it, the lot. Or so we thought…until minutes after leaving the center of Hanoi to set off to the coast we pulled over to let some stragglers on. And we were in luck, 3 cute Kiwi guys!

The journey northeast was slightly bumpy but overall a breeze, as the cushy bus with a/c was a treat in the exhausting northern heat. We stopped off at a lacquer factory which supports disabled people with affects of agent-orange who create beautifully sculpted lacquer figurines and hand sewn, life-like pictures of Vietnamese countryside’s, flowers, sunsets and more.

After a few hours of our tour guide Tuan, who tried incredibly and sincerely to get a good vibe amongst the group by initiating corny ice breaker games and getting a bit of karaoke going on the bus, we arrived at the port in the Gulf of Tonkin to board the beauty otherwise known as Oriental Sails Deluxe. What’s a shame is that the “junk boats”, modeled off of the Chinese sailing vessel design, were stripped of their signature brown wooden exterior with towering, powerful sails to be painted all white in a need to make them all look the same, the assumption that it would be more aesthetically pleasing to tourists. I think looking back this mistake will be one for the history books to have ruined the symbolic look and value of the vessels.

Taking in the masses of boats polluting the bay and getting ready to sail for the night, we settled into our cabins and were greeted with a welcome drink before sitting for lunch. This is where it began to get really good! Amazing seaweed, fried fish, octopus, beef, pear and the list goes on. Tuan joked with us about being served dog, something that is quite a delicacy to locals however they typically keep it off of tourist menus as it doesn’t appeal to too many. Really, wonder why? Poor Rover.

Amazing Cave

The bay, being a Unesco World Heritage Site, is full of jutting limestone cliffs, tucked away caves, and clear aqua water. We stopped off for a visit to the Amazing Cave (Sung Sot Cave) and a kayak along the outskirts of the bay. Always a word of advice to kayakers is to hug the land. Unfortunately for some other tourists, we witnessed them being run over by a junk boat, their kayak submerged and their life vests kept them afloat and visible to be rescued. Only in Vietnam do you get run over by a junk boat.

After returning from the long and strenuous, yet breathtaking (literally) kayak adventure, some bought beer, snacks and cigarettes from the “floating markets”, or more realistically, women in wooden boats offering cheaper alternatives to the overpriced snacks aboard our vessel. Still, it was a perfect picture to take. Then as the sun set we photographed and observed the boys doing flips off the top deck into the ocean. One guy was nearly inches from a giant jellyfish with tentacles approximately two feet long. The water was so clear we could see it from the deck, and all I could think was, man, I’m so glad I’m not in that water and up here safe just watching.

The trip itself was one of the most memorable of all of the places in Vietnam. The striking landscape of large lime stones contrasting against the calm sea is unforgettable. We were truly at ease and finally on vacation; something much appreciated after the busyness of Hanoi. The food at dinner was endless: crabs, shrimps with their heads on, vegetables cut into flower décor, fresh fish. It was exquisite. Afterwards the Americans girls and Kiwi boys sat up all night learning new card games and swapping stories until the French mother stormed up and told us abruptly in a language we didn’t understand, hands flaring, that it was time to go to bed.

The next morning, after paying the bill for beverages I consumed aboard, I joined the $1,000,000 Dong club. That’s less than $50 USD. Yes, what beautiful place!

The Gang: The Americans, the Kiwis, and Tuan the tour guide!