Tag Archives: food

Phuket Part 1: Planes, trains, and automobiles

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Micah has a work visa, so he is allowed to stay in Malaysia for the entire year. I have a social pass, which means I am not allowed to work and I am only allowed to stay for 90 days before leaving the country. Fortunately, a “border run,” a weekend in a neighboring country, counts as leaving the country. Also fortunately, Malaysia is very close to many other countries in Southeast Asia and the travel is relatively cheap. My original 90 days is up at the end of November, so we decided to make our first excursion to Phuket, Thailand and spend a few days on the beach. Originally, we chose the dates and location to see the Loi Krathong celebrations. We considered Chiang Mai and Bangkok, but we read that Patong Beach in Phuket also has a big celebration. The cheaper airfare to Phuket made the decision. Unfortunately, whatever I was reading did not have the dates updated for 2014 or had the wrong information in general. We missed the festival by 1 day. We were really disappointed in missing out, but what can you do. Chalk it up to rookie travel planning, I guess.

But how are we supposed to get our surfboards to the airport??

But how are we supposed to get our surfboards to the airport??

The flight is only about 1.5 hours, so we planned a relatively early flight out on Friday morning and a relatively late flight back on Sunday night to maximize our time away. (This turned out to be a great choice.) A cab is not much more expensive than public transportation, but since we had the time to take public transit, we decided to do that. We took the subway from near our hotel to KL Sentral, the central train station and a train from KL Sentral to the airport. The express train had comfortable seats, it was air conditioned well, and overall it was a good ride with some nice views along the way. Carrying a backpack it was really easy, with anything more than a carry on size bag, the few extra ringgits for a cab would be worth it.

We arrived at the airport around 08:00am, with our flight around 10:15am. We had planned on grabbing something for breakfast at the airport, not knowing how the timing of the trains would work in our favor (or not), and we hadn’t even had coffee yet. The train terminal at the airport had a lot of choices, and the airport itself had a lot of choices. But we made the decision to first go through security before finding something to eat, not knowing how the various lines and screenings would impact us. The customs screening didn’t have a line, so it was quick to get through. In the US, I think customs and security are relatively close together. At least at the airports where I have traveled internationally, I don’t remember them being two vastly different screening areas. Here though, we got through customs and it looked like we had entered the terminal. There were newsstands and small shops, restaurants, places to sit and lounge while waiting for your flight…no sign of a further security screening. We decided to find our gate before acquiring breakfast, so we just kept following the signs. At this point, it’s looking less and less like the main concourse and more and more like a regular airport terminal hallway, and then we find security. The security procedure is the same as in the US, so that made it easier because it was so familiar: put your stuff on the conveyor belt, small toiletries are OK as long as they are in a separate baggie, no other liquids. You were allowed to keep your shoes on, so that was nice. Security managed, we kept on our way to our gate. Now there are just gates and seating areas, no more newsstands or shops and definitely no more restaurants. We passed a Dunkin Donuts and a small coffee cart near our gate, and that was it. The coffee cart was from a café chain we have seen in KL but not tried. They offer mostly Western food and it seems pricey, we could only imagine that the airport prices would be worse. We started at Dunkin Donuts where we tried to order egg sandwiches, but there was only one guy working and he said he couldn’t make any food; we could just have donuts. I like donuts, especially Dunkin Donuts, but we both wanted something with more nutritional value. So we went back to the coffee cart where they only had scones and muffins in the way of breakfast food. But we struck out, again. No muffins left, no scones left, only sandwiches- lunch type sandwiches, like chicken or tuna. We did end up with mochas, at least, but still nothing to eat. First airport cultural difference noted: No real food once you are inside security.

Getting a little stir crazy at the gate before boarding.

Getting a little stir crazy at the gate before boarding.

We waited in the seating area outside our gate for the flight to begin boarding. We soon noticed that people were bringing their boarding passes to the desk and it looked like they were checking in…again. I haven’t had to check in at the gate for what feels like a very long time, I barely remember doing that at all. Second real airport cultural difference noted: check in before your flight to go through security, check in again at the gate. We were confused about the purpose, but we did what everyone else was doing and handed our boarding passes and passports to the agent. She ripped off the half that they usually take at boarding and we sat back down and waited for the boarding announcement. It felt really strange to do that, but no one else seemed to think it was even remotely unusual. When the boarding announcement came, we couldn’t hear it very well and coupled with the locally accented English, we weren’t really sure what was going on. I would swear they only asked for certain rows, but nobody was moving besides the handful of premium seat folks. So we asked the agent at the gate what rows they were boarding. He just said, “Yes!” That was strange. We showed him our boarding pass. “Yes, OK! You may board!” Well…OK then…so we boarded.

The flight itself was fine, nothing out of the ordinary. When we landed in Phuket, we deplaned on the tarmac and got on a shuttle to take us to customs. Once we entered the customs and immigration building it was mass chaos. People were waiting in a “line” that snaked all the way to the door, and I use the term “line” loosely here. We got in it, not seeing any other options. There were no signs, in any language, suggesting where we should go. I was expecting a “Thai residents” line and an “everyone else” line, because that is what I’ve seen before, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. We didn’t know if we were in the right line, we didn’t know if there even was a right line. It wasn’t at all clear that we were where we needed to be, but it also wasn’t clear that we had other choices. It was really frustrating, mostly because we felt like there was no organization and we felt so out of our league in terms of “are we doing this right?” It was also frustrating because there were no restrooms inside customs, and we still hadn’t had anything more than a mocha since dinner the night before. I think if we weren’t grumpy from not having eaten, and if we had been waiting in a clearly marked queue, it might have been different. Still boring and frustrating, but at least not so nerve wracking. Eventually, they opened another desk, which helped with the huge crowd. We got in the line for the new desk and trusted that if we were in the wrong place, someone would direct us to the right place eventually. Fortunately, about an hour after landing we cleared customs and immigration and were allowed to enter Thailand. (That’s a weird convention. Were we not in Thailand when the plane landed? Are the runways and customs building on some sort of no man’s land?)

Runway in Phuket.  We haven't cleared customs and "entered" Thailand yet, so apparently this isn't really Thailand.

Runway in Phuket. We haven’t cleared customs and “entered” Thailand yet, so apparently this isn’t really Thailand.

Next adventure: getting to the hotel. I knew that you could get a taxi from the airport to the area where our hotel was for a set rate of 800 baht, around $25 USD, and I knew that there was a designated counter to get such a taxi at the set rate. If we tried hailing our own cab, we could end up paying a lot more. So we found the counter, bought the ticket, and were directed outside. It was a little intimidating to figure out where to actually get our cab, so I just held my ticket in front of me as we went outside and assumed someone would find me. This is pretty much what happened. We were waved over to another desk, where the agent checked my ticket, and she gestured vaguely “over there” for us to get our cab. There was a curb and loading area “over there” and also a crosswalk and another loading area across the street. We started walking and quickly realized we needed more information. I hate asking for help. I would much rather figure things out on my own than ask for help. Not the best strategy in life for getting things done efficiently, I admit. But I know when I’m over my head. I went back to confirm where we should go. We crossed the street, still with the ticket visible, and sure enough a driver greeted us, took our ticket, and brought us to his cab. The cab driver was very friendly but he didn’t know where our hotel was. I had the address written in English, but couldn’t find it written in Thai. He took us to “his friend” at a tour agency to check the address. I had read that cabs frequently do this, to sell you excursions or hotels, and I had mentioned this fact to Micah. We agreed we didn’t want to buy anything at the agency, because we wanted to make whatever arrangements we decided to make through our hotel. An agent came out to confirm the name and address. She returned a few minutes later, offering to arrange our transport back to the airport at the same rate. This seemed like a good idea to us, to get the regulated rate rather than take our chances, so we accepted. “Please come inside then, so I can finish arranging it.” Seemed reasonable. Micah said, “She just got us out of the car and into the tour agency where she can sell us stuff.” Dang! Sometimes I am so gullible, even when I know it’s coming. I’m proud to say that we did stand strong inside and did not buy any of the tours that were offered or anything else beyond our return trip. We reserved a cab for the way back to the airport, got back in our cab and to our hotel.

IMG_3997WMAt this point, it’s about 1:30pm. We have only had a bottle of water and a mocha all day. We aren’t even sure if we can check in to the hotel because check in isn’t supposed to start until 4. It seemed like a good idea to ask, anyway, and it turns out our room was ready! We dropped our bags and headed out to find the beach and find lunch. Our hotel was about a 10- or 15-minute walk to the beach. The benefits of being young, healthy, and adventurous: cheaper hotel a little farther away from the main attractions if you are willing to work a little to get where you want to go.
There were plenty of places to eat right along the beach, all with equally good views and I assume comparable prices and menus. Now the difficulty would be choosing one. My dad traveled for work quite a bit when I was younger, and when we went on family trips, I learned a very important rule: “Choose the restaurant with the most trucks. Truckers know where the good food is.” In a foreign country, we have expanded this rule to “Choose the hawker stall with the most local people, the locals know where the good food is. Or at least where it won’t make you sick.” In a tourist area, this gets further expanded to “Choose the place with the most people, period. We can’t all be wrong!” It turns out that we made an excellent choice and ended up back at that restaurant several times over the weekend. We had excellent curry for lunch and then stayed there drinking beer for a little bit, watching the ocean. One food service culture difference in Southeast Asia that I really like is that you have to flag down the servers, they don’t ask you every 10 minutes if you’re doing OK or if you need anything else. So you can sit there and drink your beer or eat your lunch or whatever and no one bothers you. When you want something, you raise your hand and someone comes over. It was a really nice, relaxing afternoon. We walked up and down the beach for a while and then headed back to the hotel to regroup, shower, and get ready for dinner.

How many things can you identify?  We were told it was all chicken or pork.  The 4 things we tried were really tasty!

How many things can you identify? We were told it was all chicken or pork. The 4 things we tried were really tasty!

The clerk at the front desk was really helpful. He grabbed a pre-printed map of the town drew us places to go, and places to stay away from. We specifically asked for street food and good local food, and he recommended the “night market” for street food. (I’m using quotes here, because he called it the black market. Black market in Southeast Asia does not seem to have the same connotation as it does in the U.S. Sure, you can buy “off brand” merchandise, but it’s all perfectly legal. In KL, they call similar markets the night market, because it’s set up in the evenings.) The night market did have great street food. We chose some satay (meat skewers) and noodles. I thought the noodles looked like Pad Thai, which is my favorite, and I was very excited to try it. I was beyond disappointed to find out they were just regular noodles though. We had bought two portions of it, but neither of us liked it enough to eat even half of one portion. So we went back for more satay and continued walking around. The satay was excellent, really delicious. We stuck with chicken and pork, though I kind of wish we had tried the octopus. But the stand we chose had a huge line of locals, while the stand selling the octopus seemed to have very little customers. (Remember: Always go where there are more locals, so no octopus satay for us.)

Octopus skewers

Octopus skewers

After dinner, we headed over to Bangla Road for a drink and some people watching. Bangla Road is the nightlife district, where the morals are more than a little loose. Living in Austin, we’ve been to a pretty good nightlife district on Sixth Street, but Sixth is nothing in comparison to Bangla Road. There were bars upon bars upon bars with strip clubs and other establishments advertising risqué entertainment- something called a ping pong show, we didn’t get the details- and many of the bars had stripper poles with girls dancing on them in full view from the street. Remember that island from Disney’s Pinnocchio? Pleasure Island, where the boys can do whatever they want and don’t have to follow any rules? That’s what Bangla Road is like. If you have a particular vice, any vice at all, you can indulge it on Bangla Road. And it’s all easy to find. You can’t take more than two steps without someone trying to sell you something, a trinket, a cigarette, a show, some “company”… Micah swears he saw someone with a list of prices for various illegal drugs.

Ranger Duck on Bangla Road. He likes to double wing his cocktails.

Ranger Duck on Bangla Road. He likes to double wing his cocktails.

We knew that all of this was what happens on Bangla Road, so we weren’t exactly surprised. I guess we were a little surprised in the extent of the hedonism, because reading a description about it and witnessing it for yourself are two very different things. What did surprise us, was the ubiquity of Cyrillic signs. Apparently Phuket is a very popular place for Russians to vacation. We saw nearly as much writing with the Cyrillic alphabet as we did with the Roman alphabet. Bangla Road featured a Russian Bar (that was the name of it, “Russian Bar”) advertising Russian strippers. Our theory is that this is where Russian mobsters go to retire.

Bangla Road also had street performers, some better than others.  This break-dance troupe was pretty good!

Bangla Road also had street performers, some better than others. This break-dance troupe was pretty good!

We picked a bar that was open to the street so we could people watch. We also thought we would be out of the way of the people selling things, but it turns out that the people selling trinkets walk right into the bars. The bar we chose had around 6 different serving areas with seating around each of them. Each serving area had a small shrine above it. I’m guessing they were Hindu, because the one I saw looked a lot like Ganesha, but I wasn’t close enough to get a really good look. While we were sitting there, one of the bartenders got up on a platform, prayed, took down all of the garlands that were hanging there, cleaned the shrine, and then hung new garlands. A little while later, one of the dancers at the bar brought over several garlands. The bartender hung them up, said a prayer, the dancer said a prayer, and then she went to work. They did this just as casually as if the dancer had asked for a glass of water. The contrast of a prayerful space quite literally in the middle of a den of hedonism was really incongruous. It was both strange and beautiful. Even a week later I’m still a little at a loss for words to describe it.

The nightclub life is not for us anymore, so we made it an early night. We were also ready for another shower- preferably in penicillin or, at the very least, hand sanitizer. I shudder to think about what we could have acquired if certain types of communicable diseases became aerosolized, if you know what I mean! Besides, we had a big day of island hopping coming up! And if there’s one thing you don’t want to be on a boat, it’s hungover.

Coming up: our Island Kayaking Excursion, and how to tip in a country where tipping is not generally a thing.

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Happy Yen’s Jungle Trek

Ranger Duck enjoyed his first jungle trek.

Ranger Duck enjoyed his first jungle trek.

One of my weekly, self-imposed “jobs” is to find things to do on the weekends.  We like hiking and outdoor activities in general, and one thing we’ve looked forward to experiencing in Malaysia is jungle trekking.  This past Monday was another holiday, Hari Raya Haji, to celebrate the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, so Micah had a 3 day weekend.  This seemed like an ideal time to take a day trip out of the city and find some jungle to trek in!  Jungle trekking in the highlands around KL is a really popular activity, so we knew it wouldn’t be very hard to find a place to trek and we knew that there would be opportunities within a reasonable distance from the city.  The hard part was going to be finding transportation.  Armed with my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, I started investigating options.  (Side note:  I love Lonely Planet.  I’ve never used them much before, but their KL and Malaysia books have been wonderful.  They suggest great things to do on a budget and include a lot of self-guided activities.  Lonely Planet has earned my undying love and affection.)

I found one or two that we could take public transportation to and some that we would need to rent a car.  There were some that would be best as an overnight trip due to the time it takes to get there.  Some were guided and some were “on your own.”  One of the treks that Lonely Planet recommends as an easy day trip from KL and an easy hike is a trek to Chiling Falls.  The book said you could do it on your own, but recommended hiring a guide.  Since we are rookie trekkers, we thought hiring a guide would be a good idea to take some of the pressure off of finding our way and being safe on the river crossings.  In particular, the book recommended Happy Yen.  Lonely Planet said Happy would come pick us up at our hotel, take care of all of our food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack), and of course be our guide on the trail.  Sounded good to us!  In fact, the tour package included much more than just the trek.  Happy calls his tour package “Self Awareness in the Rainforest Tour.”  In addition to transportation, food, and the trek itself, he talked about the history of Malaysia, he told us about Buddhism and Taoism, he pointed out local flora and fauna on the trek, brought us to a hot spring, and did some mental training about “mind over matter” at the hot springs pool.  It sounded like a lot to pack in to one day, but it all sounded great.  (Spoiler alert:  the day was awesome, Happy was awesome, and we can’t wait to do another trek- hopefully with Happy!)

The courtyard of the Buddhist temple.

The courtyard of the Buddhist temple.

Happy picked us up at our hotel and took us outside of KL to have breakfast at a local Indian restaurant.  When I made the reservation, he let us know that we would be going with another small party, a woman who runs a local tour and travel agency who was going to help him with marketing.  We got to meet Peggy, her two staffers, and her daughter at breakfast.  It was nice to get to know them before we started trekking together.  After breakfast, we began the day’s adventure by visiting a Buddhist temple and learning about different major world religions.  Actually, it was more like we learned about some big similarities between several major world religions.  (Happy was very clear about his own opinions, but never proselytized to us or otherwise advocated for a specific religion.)  It was interesting to have this discussion, and Happy worked to engage all of us in it.  Visiting the temple was a really nice start to the day.  It put me in a reflective mindset, ready to appreciate the world around me, before we started our trek.

We left the temple and drove to Kuala Kubu Bharu where we would start the trek, about 70 kilometers from KL.  Happy pointed out several different styles of local homes on the way, including homes on stilts, and pointed out the ways in which people utilize their space.  All of the homes we saw were one story and none of them were very big.  Many of them also had a commercial endeavor on the property, whether it was a food stall or something else, like a car repair business.  Happy told us that many of the residents commute to KL for work.  (I wouldn’t call the town a suburb in any way though.  It felt like a town that just happened to be in reasonably close proximity to a major city.)  Life outside of the city looks very different from life inside the city- it was very rural, the only reminder of urban living was the commuter rail on the outskirt of the town.

Suspension bridge over the river.  It swayed a little, but it was OK.

Suspension bridge over the river. It swayed a little, but it was OK.

We parked and loaded all of our valuables into a waterproof bag that one of our fellow trekkers carried in a back pack.  Happy told us to keep our cameras out, so I hiked with it around my neck for a bit, though it would end up in the waterproof bag before long.  After a short while, we came to a clearing with a map and some pavilions for picnics.  There was also a ranger hut/info booth.  I’m unclear if we had to pay a fee to enter the park or use the trail, or if Happy was just announcing his presence, or saying hi to a friend, or what actually happened there.  One of the benefits of hiring a guide- all of the minutiae of bureaucracy are taken care of and you can just take pictures.  There was a small suspension bridge over the river, only 4 people allowed at a time, and then we were on our way into the jungle!

The trail/stream bed.

The trail/stream bed.

The trail to Chiling Falls was about 3km and 90 minutes of trekking time.  On the way to the waterfall, Happy stopped us at several places to point out local plants or tells us about different animals he has seen along the trail.  We did not see anything larger than some dragonflies, but that was OK since some of the things he has seen include large snakes and wild boars.  Between the parking lot and the clearing, the trail was wide enough for two or three people to walk side by side.  After we crossed the suspension bridge into the jungle, the trail was really only wide enough for one person and ran through a stream bed in several places.  It was tricky when we passed other groups returning from the falls.  One group would have to stop and move to the side so the other group could pass.  We hiked along the river sometimes and at times we were farther away, but we could always hear the roar of it as it moved downstream.  I knew there would be 5 crossings, and I assumed they would be in places where the river was calm and/or shallow.  Hearing how fast the river was moving, on top of following this narrow trail that wasn’t totally clear in places, made me very glad we decided to hire a guide and not do it on our own.

This tree root looks like an elephant!

This tree root looks like an elephant!

At some point before the first river crossing we decided to put the camera away.  It had started raining and we elected to be safe and add the camera to the waterproof bag.  This was good, because the camera didn’t get ruined, but also unfortunate because we couldn’t take pictures of any of the river crossings.  I guess we could have stopped everyone, pulled out the camera, snapped a few shots, and repacked the waterproof bag.  But that seemed like a lot of hassle.  Plus, neither Micah nor I was carrying the bag, so that added another level of hassle to it.  (First lesson learned:  If we are going to do more treks, get our own waterproof bag.)  What I pictured about the river crossings (shallow places and/or slow moving water) was completely inaccurate.  We have had some good rainstorms in the week before our trek, so the river was moving very fast and perhaps it was a little higher than normal.  Happy said it wasn’t much different from normal, but I think he was probably trying to encourage us.  Most of the crossings were at least knee-deep, several of them were more like waist-deep.  He handled each crossing like he was crossing the street, but the rest of us struggled a bit.  You couldn’t see where you were placing your feet, so we often kicked boulders or stumbled over them or slipped on them or otherwise lost our balance in the current.  I don’t think anyone went all the way under, but we all got very, very wet.  It was really exciting, actually, and it added a fun level of adventure to the trek.  We also got to verify that Micah’s new watch is waterproof, so that was good.

Our intrepid adventurers at Chiling Waterfall.

Our intrepid adventurers at Chiling Waterfall.

Most of the trail went gently uphill, but it wasn’t very steep.  After the last river crossing, you had to carefully step over some large above-ground tree roots and scramble over some fallen trees.  Most of us were watching the path and our feet and all of a sudden, there were the Falls.  There was a small clearing with some large boulders and rocks to sit on, and a sort of beach where you could wade into the pool at the base of the waterfall.  Micah and our buddy Rick swam out to the rocks and jumped off.  I waded a little bit, but felt plenty wet already so I chose not to swim.  We ate our lunch, Happy made us coffee, we fed the fish, and then packed up and headed back down the trail.  On the trek down, we didn’t stop to learn about plants or discuss Tao philosophy like we did on the trek up, we just kept moving.
At this point, I could have happily ended the day, but we weren’t done!  We got back to the car, soaking wet.  We thought we would change into our dry clothes for the next stop.  Instead, Happy pulled out some plastic mats and we sat on those in our sopping clothes.  The next item on the itinerary was a visit to the local hot springs.  They are a natural hot springs, so the science nerds/enthusiasts in the car discussed the source of heat (geothermal) and then discussed whether there are any volcanoes in Malaysia (there aren’t).  Happy told us about the health benefits of the hot springs and he also told us that last week they were around 50C (122F).  I like a jacuzzi or hot tub as much as the next person, but that seemed really hot to me!

Happy douses Kate with 53C water.

Happy douses Kate with 53C water.

We get to the springs and he brought us over to a small pool, close to the source of the springs.  He asked us to line up our feet, then he filled a bucket and dumped the hot water over our legs.  It was really hot!  Later, we found out it was 53C (127F).  At this point, he brought us over to the larger pool, where we could wade and sit.  It felt a little cooler, probably because the nerve endings in my leg hadn’t regenerated yet.  I sat down and as my body acclimated to the temperature it actually felt really nice.  Turns out it was about 47C (116F).  We sat here for 10 or 15 minutes and Happy brought us back to the smaller pool.  He pulled out a bucket and helped us to use “mind over matter” techniques to acclimate to it and eventually we all dumped bucketfuls of the super hot water over our heads, chests, and backs.  It was still really hot, but it felt OK.  If the point of the hot springs is to help your circulation, that definitely got our blood moving!

Clockwise from top right: fish curry, curry pot prawns, vegetable (cabbage, I think), pork trotters.

Clockwise from top right: fish curry, curry pot prawns, vegetable (cabbage, I think), pork trotters.

By this point we are all thoroughly soaked.  We changed in the less-than-pristine bathrooms, carefully avoiding the standing water (hopefully from the bidet hose rather than from the toilet) on the floor of the stalls.  I also had my first “fully Malaysian” toilet experience!  A hole in the floor and no TP.  Mind over matter was the theme of the day!  Dry and clean-ish from the sulfury water of the hot springs, we went down the road for dinner.  Happy is a regular at this this restaurant, so he called in our order on the way and we had steaming hot, delicious food minutes after we sat down.  Curry pot prawns, fish curry, vegetable (cabbage, I think), and pork trotters.  It was all fantastic but the pork trotters were my favorite.  They were very tender and juicy with a delicious sauce.  He dropped us back at the hotel around 6pm, and I think we were in bed by 8:30.

For a first jungle trek experience, I was thrilled.  Happy Yen’s Self Awareness tour was a great day.  Happy is a really nice guy and a very knowledgeable guide.  We really loved this adventure.  We will likely hire him for a future jungle trek!

More pictures can be found here.

Food!

Adventures in Eating

So far, we have two de facto rules.  1.  If it’s offered to us, we will try it.  2.  If we have a choice, we won’t eat the same thing twice (yet).  We have been adventurous on our own, and tried a lot of things we couldn’t identify.  So far I haven’t had anything that I absolutely don’t like.  We really got to experience some great food when one of Micah’s colleagues invited us to visit some hawker stalls with her.  We let her order and we got to try a lot of different things that we probably would not have been brave enough to order on our own.  Most of the pictures below are from this excursion.

Malaysia is famous for its street food.  I love street food.  When the food truck craze started in Austin a few years ago, I was beyond excited.  My idea of a perfect vacation would be to go somewhere and try different street food every day.  I get to live that for a year!  The food carts here are called hawker stalls.  Eating at the hawker stalls is just as cheap as cooking for yourself, at least for a family of one or two.  When we went out with Micah’s colleague, we ate a lot of great food for RM13 each (read: 13 ringgits, currently, $1 USD equals about RM3.)  So we ate a great dinner for less than $10, combined.  Even on my best shopping trip, I don’t think we could both eat at home for less than $10 (including fish, chicken, rice, noodles, and vegetables).

Malaysia has three primary ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Indian.  Each group maintains a distinct culinary heritage, so it’s possible to get Chinese food (actual Chinese food, not American Chinese food), or Indian food, or Malay food.  All are equally common.  There are hawker stalls for each type of cuisine.  Just like American food trucks, each hawker stall sells a few different items.  There are lots of stalls together, so it’s easy to sample several things.  You can get things “to go” and you get a little packet or there are often picnic-type tables you can sit at.  If you decide to sit, you tell the hawker what table you’re at (they all have numbers), and they will bring your food over to you.  You get actual plates, chop sticks, and spoons/forks- very little paper stuff to throw away.  I am working under the assumption that these items get cleaned sufficiently, otherwise I could never eat at the stalls and it’s too delicious to avoid.

You’d think hawker stalls would be where all of our food adventures are, but you’d be wrong.  The hotel breakfast has an equal amount of food adventures!  We get a complimentary breakfast every day.  With all of the expats that stay here, they serve American breakfast items (eggs, sausage, potatoes), Asian breakfast items (rice, chicken, noodles, porridge), and European breakfast items (bread and fruit).  They also have a lot of brunch type items- salad fixings, cold cuts, and desserts.  (But breakfast closes at 10, I don’t know who eats salad before 10am.)  We’ve tried pretty much everything that’s been offered.  Except salad, I can’t bring myself to eat salad for breakfast.  The only food faux pas (that I am aware of) happened at breakfast.  It’s all served buffet style, and I was making a bowl of various fruit items.  Next to the fruit was a plate of what looked like cubed mango.  I love mango, so I took about a half dozen pieces.  I was feeling brave, and fairly confident it was mango, so I didn’t bother walking to the other side of the table to read the identification card.  I bit into one and it was waxy and salty.  I finished the bite, but it came close to being the first thing I could not bring myself to eat.  Micah had the same perception as I did when he tried it.  When I got up to refill my coffee, I decided to see what it was.  Edam cheese.  It’s amazing how much your expectation of food colors your opinion of it.  When I expected something sweet and fruity, I thought it was awful and I couldn’t eat it.  After I learned it was cheese, I got some crackers and enjoyed the rest of it!  Central Market in Texas has a motto: “Chew with your mind open.”  We are learning how true that really is.

Here is a gallery of some of the food we have tried.