Things to do in Chiang Mai

Things to do in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand but please don’t think that it’s simply a smaller version of Bangkok.

There are many different things to do in Chiang Mai and it has such a different vibe to Bangkok that you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in a different country altogether.

Chiang Mai is a sprawling city with the usual suburbs and shopping malls but it has so much more going for it.  It retains much of its traditional charm while attracting numerous co-working spaces which cater for the hordes of digital nomads and ex-pats who work from the city.

This article has been updated since it was first published.

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things to do in Chiang Mai

The 10 best things to do in Chiang Mai

Walk the old city of Chiang Mai

To begin with, the original old city is still contained within an impressive moat which runs right around the perimeter and which is still guarded by chunks of ancient brick walls and protective gates.

A plethora of chic coffee shops rub shoulders with street food vendors and there are temples old and new on every street corner.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the traffic problem is as bad as in Bangkok; however whilst it’s true that it can take forever to get anywhere due to the convoluted one-way system which funnels vehicles around the moat and in and out through the city walls, people are generally patient and not in a huge rush to get anywhere.

You’ll find trios of young teenagers zipping their scooters (that’s 3 school children to a scooter) between hand carts, tuk-tuks, songthaews and pedestrians in a fluid flow that can give you a headache if you ponder upon it too carefully, but somehow it all moves and everybody gets where they need to be eventually.

One street away from the perimeter roads and it’s very easy to amble around the leafy lanes and backstreets of the old city without any bother at all.  A couple of large roads dissect the old town into four main districts each with a distinct individuality.  Allow yourself the luxury of getting lost because if you walk far enough you will come to the moat, get your bearings and you will get yourself right back on track.

Get your copy of the Lonely Planet Guide here to make sure that you stay on track and to help you sort out the best temples to visit

things to do in Chiang Mai

At night time the old city has a magical quality.  It has an old-world charm but it feels quite safe as it wraps its protective arms around you.

People wander around in the semi-darkness passing through pools of light that the little lamps shine out whilst monks silently scurry here and there in their vivid orange robes.

There are literally hundreds of guesthouses within the old city walls – many of them are rooms in the original wooden teak houses that were built high up on stilts.  Most of them have courtyards or roof terraces and nearly all serve food and drink to whoever happens to wander past.

The lanes are narrow and leafy with flowers everywhere and at night the intoxicating scents of jasmine and frangipani blend with the sweet wood-smoke from barbeques. In the south west corner of the old city is a large park where people relax under the trees with a picnic, where you can take a massage in the open air with birdsong all around or you can join in and practice Tai Chi on the grass.

The focus point of the old city is the large open plaza which is dominated by the Three Kings Monument and where you’ll find the excellent museums.  There are often activities held in this space and it was here that I watched a couple of very good music concerts which were put on to celebrate the King’s birthday.

Walking street markets

One of the top things to do in Chiang Mai has to be shopping for artisan products in the markets.

Three different night markets dominate the city.  The biggest and the best is on a Sunday evening and takes over much of the old city and to date is the best night market that I have yet seen anywhere in the world.

At this market you can buy any number of excellent quality yet bargain priced gifts but especially silk purses, silver jewellery or bright lamps. Seafood is cooked over coals and rows of masseuses offer cut price Thai massages on lines of plastic chairs.

The Saturday night market, whilst slightly smaller, still contains the same high quality gifts, the stalls spill over into the temples’ yards and musicians and dancers entertain the crowds.  In every small gap people eat at small tables sitting on plastic chairs or they walk around with juice or fresh coconut water in their hands. On all other nights of the week the night market is set up a little way outside the East Gate where it’s just a little rougher around the edges than the other two and as it’s on the edge of the red light district can also be slightly spicier than the others!

things to do in Chiang Mai

Loy Krathong and Yee Ping Festivals

These separate festivals are often lumped together into one because both take place at around the same time in November.

Yee Ping is the festival where large paper lanterns are floated up into the night sky.  There is the commercially run event which takes place outside of the city where tourists can get their requisite photographs but it costs a whopping $100 and it’s dismissed with disdain by the local people.

It makes me giggle when I am told of the more meaningful private lantern release for Thais – I think that the entire population of Chiang Mai spills out onto the streets and even the airport has to close to ensure the safety of flights.

Lanterns are officially only supposed to be released on the one night (due to the airport closure) and while many tourists will pay their money to attend the out of town event, thousands more throng the streets which run from the East Gate to the main bridge over the River Ping and float away their lanterns en masse.

Loy Krathong involves making (or buying) a krathong which is a little boat made from banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles and setting it afloat on the river in the darkness.

Flimsy bamboo platforms had been constructed on the banks of the River Ping and myself and several travel bloggers spent a lovely evening wandering around and watching the festivities as well as launching our own krathongs on the water from one of the rickety decks.

I had a very personal moving experience wandering around the temples prior to the lantern release during these festivals but later on during the evening of Yee Ping I also enjoyed watching  the monks who were getting excitedly involved and helping people to launch their lanterns from the temple grounds whilst taking selfies on their phones.  I later met up with two travel blogger friends and we sent our own lantern soaring into the sky. To find out how mindfulness can help you to move on from past issues, check out one of my articles here

The Lady Boy Show

Walking through the night market there could be no doubt that we were in the right place as groups of lady boys stood around handing out flyers and encouraged us to go and see their show.

You would be hard pressed to guess that many of these immaculately turned out women were born anything but female with bodies to die for, tight fitting clothes and flawless makeup  although others deliberately tried to confuse with more androgynous looks or even sported the odd moustache.

A group of us paid our money and went into the show – which was an hour and a half of pure entertainment.  The series of songs all lip-synched and with the dancers wearing fabulous costumes ranged from sophisticated and stunningly beautiful performances, through the raunchy and fun Lady Marmalade set to out and out outrageous camp which involved the girls kissing the majority of men in the audience and touting outrageously for tips to be pushed into their cleavages.

The Doi Suthep Temple

A 40 minute scooter ride up the twisty mountain which looms above Chiang Mai will bring you to the bottom of a long flight of staircase flanked by long nagas or serpents.  These green tiled snakes guide you up to the temple where the faithful come to pay their respects and if you are blessed with clear skies you’ll be rewarded with some lovely views of the city far below.

things to do in Chiang Mai

To read how I was blessed by monks at Doi Suthep and how I was finally able to free myself of a whole ton of guilt that I had been carting around for more than six years click on this link.

The Summer Palace

A few kilometres further up the mountain above Doi Suthep is the Summer Palace.  The building itself is almost ordinary but it’s set in lovely gardens and grounds.

High above the city it has great views in the clear air and is a peaceful place to wander around. It’s worth visiting if you have hired a scooter as the road has very little traffic and with switchbacks up into the clouds the ride is interesting.

Please, please,  please, if you plan to ride a scooter anywhere on your travels, make sure that any accidents are covered in the small print.  You can get a quote from Alpha Travel Insurance here

As this is a royal palace you will need to make sure that you are dressed respectfully but if you need to cover your legs or shoulders you can hire something suitable at the entrance.

The Sticky Waterfalls

Four of us spent a fun day out in the countryside about an hour away from Chiang Mai when we bargained for and hired a songthaew and a driver for the day who drove us to the Sticky Waterfalls.

Water cascades down the hillside running fast but shallow over big smooth bubble-like boulders. We left our shoes at the bottom and stepping onto the rocks we were all surprised to discover that they were indeed ‘sticky’.

They have a slightly rough texture which ‘glues’ bare feet to them, enabling a safe clamber up through the warm water to the top.  In places where slippery algae had grown, ropes hung down so that you could safely haul yourself up – it was like a giant climbing frame and stacks of fun. Reaching the top, the four of us grinned like lunatics then pelted back down the wooden steps to do it all over again.

things to do in Chiang Mai

Temples

Whether you prefer gold, silver or the original brick, you will find a temple to suit you in Chiang Mai.

Many of the temples have giant brick structures secreted behind them when in times past they had to hide the precious artefacts and most are especially spectacular under the floodlights after dark.

Wat Lam Chang (temple of the tethered elephants) is the temple where the royal elephants were once stabled and all of the temples were hung with lanterns and where monks sat quietly chanting during the Yee Ping festival. The silver temple of Wat Srisuphan gives the impression that it’s floating as it shimmers with a purple glow in the dark or blindingly stabs at your eyes in the sunlight during the daytime and Wat Lok Molee has an especially good pair of guardians at the gate.

things to do in Chiang Mai

Digital nomads

Chiang Mai has a reputation as one of the best places from which digital nomads can work.  It’s well served with many co-working office spaces, good wifi and it has very reasonably priced accommodation in modern apartments in the suburbs.

I chose to avoid the upmarket end of town where most of the online workers tend to rent their apartments and I took a room in the Mango Guesthouse in the old city which was far more authentic for me, however I would regularly join with other bloggers and online workers for workshops, discussions and evenings out.

Several times I even got up at the crack of dawn to join a group led by Nathan from Fit Living Lifestyle doing circuit training under the trees in a park.

Supporting good causes.

After several weeks in Thailand I was rapidly becoming addicted to Thai massages and I was very happy to support two worthwhile projects in Chiang Mai.

Firstly, the Supattra Jino centre is staffed by blind and visually impaired masseuses where I had the best massage of my life (to date) by the extraordinary Thon. I explained to him that I had a problem with my knee and somehow by manipulation he managed to improve it by about 85%, something that no other masseuse had managed to do prior to him.  I told him that he was a fantastic masseuse and he simply shrugged and said ‘I’m Thai’ like it was a given that he was amazing. You can find these magic hands at 15/5 Sripoom Soi 1 in the north east corner of the old town.

The Women’s Massage Centre by Ex-Prisoners gives vocational training to female prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences.  They work in the centre giving various massages and the profits build up into a small pot of money which will help them to rebuild their lives once they are back out in the community and is another worthwhile cause to support (sadly, things may have changed in Chiang Mai since I was there as indicated in this news report)

things to do in Chiang Mai

Many people visit Chiang Mai with the intention of staying a couple of days but many of those end up staying longer or even relocate to the city.  I stayed there for four weeks and I grew to love the old town.

It began to feel like home as I got to know my hosts at the Mango Guesthouse local people around and about.

Bee made lovely fresh juices from her cart opposite Vincent and Diana in the Mango guesthouse and there were the other long term guests at the Mango with me.

Chema who was setting up a fish farm, Basilio who was in love with Bee and my Italian friend Enio who spent nearly a month in Chiang Mai taking Muy Thai (Thai kickboxing) classes and who discovered an unhealthy passion for the gross smelling durian fruit.

The food here in Chiang Mai is to die for and they make the most amazing Khao Soy – which turned out to be my number one dish of choice in Thailand.

Don’t discount Chiang Mai as being all about Bangkok’s second rated sister – it’s a fascinating city with much to offer but be careful – you may never want to leave!

things to do in Chiang Mai

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Hornbills in Malaysia

Hornbills in Malaysia

After arriving on Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island) off the west coast of Malaysia I found out that it was easy to see hornbills in Malaysia and I could even feed them.

 

Getting to Pangkor

 

I had chosen Pangkor Island because I wanted a beach and somewhere quiet to visit and unwind before I continued travelling in S E Asia.  I had just come to the end of a very fun couple of months volunteering in a hostel in Melaka, Malaysia and my friend Jochem, who always knows what sort of places I would like, recommended this small island over and above Langkawi or Tioman.

I took a bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to the town of Lumut and even though  I was a bit apprehensive because I knew that I had a ferry trip ahead of me and I HATE water, everything went smoothly.  I walked to the ferry port from the small bus station and I bought my ticket.  It was a smooth and quick crossing on the large catamaran and the hostel that I had booked was just a short stroll from the jetty on the island.

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One of the ferries over to Pangkor Island

I had chosen to stay in a fishing village which was on the east side of the island – again on Jochem’s recommendation – but I wasn’t disappointed and this was certainly the best place for me and any backpackers to stay.

The extremely friendly and homely hostel, the SPK Hostel (check here for up to date prices) is in the tiny town of Sungai Pinang Kecil where there are lots of places to eat and drink nearby.  There is a terrace with hammocks (always worth a star in my book) and the dorm that I was in was lovely and light and airy.

After checking in and dropping my rucksack off I arranged to hire a scooter the following morning and I went out to explore on foot.

Just up the road from the hostel is a huge and rather strange temple complex full of plaster figures.  The Fu Lin Kong Temple contains a replica ‘great wall of China’, pretty gardens and ponds containing fish and turtles.  It’s worth a look if only to see the beautiful gardens, the plaster tigers and the views back down to the sea.

The Fu Lin Kong Temple

Within spitting distance of the Chinese temple is the Hindi Sri Pathira Kaliamman temple that was in the process of being renovated and repainted in the usual Hindi bright colours.  All along the shore line below fishing boats in equally bright colours were tied up or were in various stages of construction.  This island is famous for making traditional wooden boats without any paper plans and in many cases, without nails!

I ate that evening at a tiny little restaurant where the chef cooked everything in his wok on the street before heading back to my hostel for an early night.

the Hindi Sri Pathira Kaliamman temple

Riding a scooter around the island

 

When I went to collect my scooter the following morning the hostel owner was chatting to a young German woman and expressing her reservations about renting a scooter to somebody who had never ridden before.  I offered to accompany Carina so that we could explore the island together; she could gain confidence riding alongside me and I would have company at the beach.

That was the beginning of a fun couple of days together and we covered just about all of the small island as Carina soon grew in confidence and had no problem handling the scooter on the roads.

Please, please, please don’t travel without a decent insurance and never think about getting on a scooter without a good policy.  If you are from the UK you can get a quote from Alpha Travel Insurance which is the company that I have been using.

Hornbills on Pangkor

 

I told Carina about the hornbills in Malaysia and especially here on Pangkor Island and she was also excited to go and see them.

Some of the hornbills on Pangkor are incredibly tame because many of the bar owners pop them little titbits of food.  These birds defy all logic with their huge beaks and their lumbering bodies and whilst normally quite rare and shy, here on Pangkor Island it’s a common sight to see a few birds hopping along the floor or playing in the trees and paying little attention to people.  Carina and I had been told of a man who regularly fed the birds every evening at dusk so we went along to find him.  I try to travel ethically so I was keen to find out how and why this man fed the birds.

Hornbills in Malaysia

We met Noordin and he explained how he had begun to put food out for the hornbills over 16 years previously when he first arrived on the island and set up his guesthouse.

Now his guest house is a supper stop for many of the birds as they fly home to roost in the trees in the jungle for the night and a regular tourist spot.  Noordin buys bananas every day which he chops up into small pieces and then he sits on the roadside outside his guesthouse at dusk every evening and he waits for the tourists and the birds.

Sometimes there can be thirty or more hornbills waiting on the cables above the street or hopping along the fence of the Sunset View Chalet and then it begins.  One at a time, you hold a piece of banana between your finger and thumb, raise your arm and wait.  One of the hornbills will swoop down and surprisingly delicately considering the size of them and their beaks, they will take the banana from you.

Once they have had their fill the birds head off for their trees to roost for the night.

Noordin pays for the fruit out of his own pocket every night – and often he has to drive to the other side of the island to buy suitable bananas.  He doesn’t charge people a fee and he won’t ask for a donation but I know he’s very grateful when people do give him some money towards the food for the birds.

Noordin could tell that Carina and I really wanted to know more about the hornbills so once everybody had left after the sunset feeding he invited us to jump onto our scooters and follow him and to see if we could spot the giant hornbills in their night roosts.  We didn’t find any that evening but we arranged to meet him the next day just after dawn for a breakfast of roti telur (a type of savoury pancake) and another ride out to look for the birds

We rode all around the island for a couple of hours searching out the best spots where Noordin knew that the far more elusive giant hornbills would hang out and we weren’t disappointed.  We did spot some – which were truly giants – and again later that evening when we repeated the process.  The majority of the hornbills on Pangkor Island are pied hornbills but no matter how many times you see them, they are always very special.

Pangkor Island Attractions – additional things to do on Pangkor.

Apart from feeding the hornbills there are other things to see and do on Pangkor despite its small size.

The Beaches on Pangkor Island

 

With long stretches of white sand or tiny rocky coves there’s a beach for everybody here on Pangkor.  Some beaches are backed with dense forests of coconut palms and others have music playing, beach bars or boat trips.

When I visited in February the water was as warm as a bath and the main tourist season hadn’t yet begun so there was plenty of space for everyone.

The best beaches are over on west side of the island but it’s a pleasant 40 minute scooter ride across on the one main island road if you are staying at the hostel in the fishing village.  It’s impossible to get lost riding around on this island although all of the locals suggested that you don’t take a scooter along the north east corner as the road is too dangerous.

I loved the north beach at Teluk Nipah and I ended up here nearly every day and this is where Carina and I got to know our Swedish friend called Hans.

Once we arrived at this beach we really fancied a swim in the calm sea but we could see that there might be a problem with monkeys who were lurking in the trees behind the beach.  I approached a kindly looking gentleman who was lying on a sunbed and I asked him to guard our possessions – not from possible thieves but from the monkeys.

Avoid these monkeys at all costs because they can be nasty and they will attack you if they think that you have food.  We saw them steal a guy’s clothes from the beach when he was swimming in the sea and another couple got trapped in the water when the monkeys chased them and ganged up on them along the shore line because they were eating ice-creams!

I was told by a local lady that the monkey problem has got a lot worse in recent years as many tourists, ignorant of the long term damage that they are doing, feed them and encourage them close into selfie photos.  They are now a real and dangerous pest, and I even saw them raid a roadside restaurant with little disregard for the people who were trying to eat and they will bite if they feel that they aren’t getting what they want!

Our soon to be new friend Hans was very happy to keep an eye on our clothes so we could swim in the sea without worry.

 

Visit the Dutch Fort.

 

The Dutch Fort on Pulau Pangkor is a tiny brick-walled enclosure set on a hill overlooking the bay, although trees now block much of the view.  Ride along the coast road too fast and you will miss it – as Carina and I managed to do. Twice!

The fort hasn’t been rebuilt in its entirety but there is enough of its footprint to show you its size (surprisingly small) and its strategic importance.

The tiny Dutch Fort

The Sacred Stone

 

On the road between the Dutch Fort and the floating mosque this large boulder is famous for a rather macabre reason.  It’s said to be the last place where a little girl was seen playing (or a boy depending on which version you listen to) and it still has some of the drawings that she made on the rock before she disappeared.

Folk law says that she was killed by a tiger (despite Pangkor being an island with no tigers) or taken by pirates, although in reality she probably sadly drowned or was killed by someone and her body thrown into the sea.

The Sacred Stone or Tiger Rock

The Floating Mosque – Masjid Terapong

 

This recently built mosque is really quite beautiful and if you want a good photo opportunity it’s best visited when the tide is high and there’s little wind.  When conditions are right, the mosque reflects in the water, although it is worth a visit at any time of the day.

Avoid prayer times unless you are Muslim, remove your shoes and cover yourself with one of the robes that are supplied at the entrance.  The mosque is decorated in green and blue tiles which match its aquatic setting.  Surrounded by water and reached along a wooden pier it’s a very calm and tranquil place to be and magical when the call to prayer,  the Azaan, echoes across the bay.

Masjid Terapong

Food

 

As you would expect on a small island with a large fishing fleet there is a heavy emphasis on fish and seafood all around the island.  Like much of Malaysia there is a big Chinese influence and traditional Malay foods and cuisine from the Indian sub-continent also feature.

Basically you can get just about anything and everything and there are countless small roadside restaurants with massive choices from their menus.

One evening, Ching Ching who knew the island well, took me over the road and down a tiny alleyway between two houses.  It was dark and seemed to lead nowhere, but then it opened out onto a large dockside which was lit with floodlights.

One of the fishing boats had come in and people were busy everywhere.  Gangs of men were unloading, passing boxes out along a human chain and others were sorting fish out on the huge tables.  Ice blocks were being smashed up and people haggling and weighing out fish in quantities to feed either a family or a small village.

I would never have dreamed to have walked down that tiny alleyway at any time of the day or the night if Ching Ching hadn’t been chatting to me in the hostel.  Later that evening she invited me to join her and eat some of the tiny fish that she had bought once she had cooked them.

You can travel to the most historic or beautiful places in the world but experiences with local people around their local districts beat most of the mainstream tourist attractions into touch most of the time.

Where to stay on Pangkor and how to get around the island

I stayed at the SPK Hostel in the fishing town of Sungai Pinang Kecil.  This town is the first stop for the ferry from Lamut on the mainland and the hostel is just a two minute walk from the jetty where you will land.

There are hotels and guesthouses all along the beaches and towns on the west side but at the time of writing, there were no backpackers’ hostels over there.  However, it’s very simple to hire a scooter (don’t forget that travel insurance!) and make your own way around the island (there is only one main road after all), or there are pink minivans that taxi people around.

if you don’t want to be hiring a scooter to cross the island to get to the beaches then you can stay on the outskirts of Teluk Nipah at Noordin’s place.

Noordin is the guy that is passionate about the hornbills has a guest house called the Sunset View Chalet and if you stay here you will be right on the doorstep for the sunset feedings.  His rooms are set in lush gardens and are also just a very short walk to a great beach and stacks of beachside restaurants.

There are many places to stay in this small island and I hope that they don’t develop too many more, but if you want one of the more mainstream hotels then head on over to the west and south west side of the island and Teluk Nipah.

Get your Lonely Planet guide here for Malaysia and discover what else this magical country can offer you.

If you also loved Pangkor Island and I have missed something out, please do comment below the pinned image so that others can also enjoy the island and will take the time to visit.

Pankor Island image for Pinterest

Pankor Island image for Pinterest

The best Muar food & the best Muar hostel

The best Muar food & the best Muar hostel

Muar food is the best!

Have you been to Muar?   Have you even heard of a town called Muar and did you know that its in Malaysia?  And have you tasted the food in Muar?

If you haven’t heard of this town which lies on the west coast of Malaysia about an hour south of Melaka then you aren’t alone.

Many foreign tourists and travelers bypass Muar as they travel between Melaka and Singapore but in my opinion they’re missing out.  Muar is famous for its food and in this article I’m going to tell you the top 5 foods to try in Muar: plus I’ll tell you where is the best place to stay.

Check out the position of Muar on the map below – it’s that small town on the coast below Melaka.

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Muar food: Where is Muar on the map?

Map of Muar

 

I spent a few days in Muar in January when I was volunteering at a hostel in Melaka. Myself and another volunteer – she was Linda from the Netherlands – caught a local bus one morning from Melaka Sentral. We were off to stay at a hostel that Linda had discovered on a previous trip – WakaLily’s Hostel – and which was a new hostel just outside the town.

First stop – coffee

 

Lily had offered to collect us once we had arrived at the bus station and would drive us to her hostel, so whilst we waited for her we went inside one of the famous coffee shops in Muar – the Kopi 434 Cafe.  This cosy coffee shop is decorated with warm wood panels inside and it’s famous for its coffee as well as the food and its atmosphere.

If you ask for a coffee (or a kopi) in Malaysia you will be served a coffee with sweet (condensed) milk. If you want a black coffee you need to ask for a kopi 0 – or coffee zero.  Every state in Malaysia is famous for its own type of coffee and they are often roasted with margarine or butter and sugar for extra flavour.

Image. Kopi 434 Muar, Muar food

Kopi 434 Cafe

Once we had finished our coffee, Lily duly arrived and whisked us off to her hostel.

WakaLily’s Hostel

 

Waka Lily’s Hostel is, as I said, a new hostel and Lily and her business partner CJ have worked hard to make it welcoming, functional and comfortable.

The hostel is beautifully decorated with an artist’s attention to colour and detail and with many homely touches.  Colourful cushions and rugs are scattered around.  There are small tables, displays of books and ornaments and even a guitar for the musically inclined to play.  The dormitory with its bunk beds has enormous floor to ceiling windows, air conditioning (always a good thing in the Malaysian heat and humidity) and it has the BEST duvets to snuggle under.

If you have never stayed in a hostel you really should give one a go. You can read more about staying in hostels via this link, although many hostels, including WakaLily’s offer private rooms if the thought of sleeping in close proximity to strangers freaks you out.

Think of it as a personal challenge, who knows, you might actually find that you enjoy it, not to mention making new friends and expanding your comfort zone.

WakaLily's Hostel, Muar

WakaLily’s Hostel, Muar

A bonus at this hostel is the kitchen where guests are welcome to cook their own food or re-heat takeaways, and it’s nice that there is just one huge area to mix and socialise.  On the main road outside the hostel there are some small traditional warungs (local, cheerful restaurants) where the choice for breakfast is overwhelming and usually extremely cheap.

Bathrooms at WakaLily’s include showers which have piping hot water (believe me that is not necessarily standard in South East Asia), and you will be given a towel on arrival too – another nice touch that is not necessarily standard across all hostels.

If you want to reserve a bed (or a private room) at WakaLily’s, click on this link for the most up-to-date prices

If you are still nervous about staying in hostels and you want to check out the etiquette of how to behave, plus arm yourself with the no-no’s try this link – Hostel Tips and how NOT to behave in a  hostel

WakaLily's Hostel, Muar

WakaLily’s Hostel, Muar

WakaLily’s is part of the Warm Showers network – a system which offers discounted or sometimes even free accommodation for people who are travelling or touring by bicycle.  I had never heard of this scheme before I got to Malaysia but cycling is big here and many cyclists stop by and stay for a night or two here.

For Linda and I, one of the best bits about this particular hostel is that Lily loves to socialise and she is keen to show guests around Muar.

On our first evening we were joined by Jacky (who is a friend of Lily’s) and along with another guest from Switzerland (Etienne),  we set out on our mission to eat our body weight in Muar food – and this theme seemed to continue throughout the next few days.

Due to the food induced coma I forgot to take detailed notes during my stay and so Lily has very kindly put together the following Top Five list of Muar food for you.  I have added in my own comments and memories plus I have given you more information about what to see and do around the town.

Best of Muar food

Otak-otak

This has to be Muar’s most famous delicacy.  I had tried it previously in both Melaka and Georgetown and I wasn’t a fan, but I had never tried the otak-otak in Muar!

Otak-otak is grilled spicy fish paste wrapped in atap leaves and it’s synonymous with Muar’s food scene.

The little parcels are small yet rich so you don’t need many for a quick snack as you wander around.  Basically otak-otak can be found easily in the town but especially along the street in Avenue 4, at the MCA Bentayan Food Court Centre and at Otak-otak Cheng Boi, No.28, Jalan Bentayan (8am to 4pm)

 

You can try your hand at some Malaysian recipes in the following book which you can order from Amazon:

 

Otak Otak

Otak-otak

One nice touch in the centre of Muar is that many of the main streets are colour coded.  Entire streets have been painted either yellow, red, blue or green.  Shop fronts, shutters and walls are a uniform colour which is actually quite pleasing to the eye and is very helpful when you are trying to find your way around.

Dodge down some of the alleyways and you will also find some good street art dotted around. There is not a lot, but enough to make it interesting to poke around the small back lanes – not that I need much encouraging to wander down any little street that looks different to the rest.

Mee Bandung

Mee Bandung is said to be the traditional creation of Muarians and it is pure heaven. Mee Bandung consists of noodles and eggs in a soup base of chilli, onion, spices, shrimp paste and dried shrimp.

Mee Bandung is one such dish that demonstrates the subtleties of Malaysian flavours.  The ingredients are similar to many other recipes yet the dish tastes distinctly different.

You can find the best Mee bandung (in Lily’s opinion) at Restaurant Mee Bandung Abu Bakar Hanipah, Jalan Abdullah or you could try Mee Bandung Muar, Tanjung Agas (open 10am to 4pm).  If you are outside the city centre then head about 1.5km north from WakaLily Hostel to Warung Sup Kambing, Batu 3 1/2, Parit Bunga  (between 2.15 and 6pm)

 

How about this cookbook from a Malaysian family kitchen?

Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen
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bicycle statue outside Muar

You can hire a bicycle from WakaLily’s Hostel and explore the surrounding countryside or pedal yourself into the town centre. My friend Linda had done this on her previous visit and she told me that she had spent a lovely time cycling alongside lush green rice fields and exploring the town and the beach area.

Pork satay

Satay is common throughout Malaysia and Indonesia but pork satay is rare in Malaysia. So if you like Malaysian style satay, don’t miss the chance to try it while you are in Muar.

Small pieces of pork are barbequed on little wooden skewers and eaten with a creamy, rich, peanut based sauce.  The coals (or wood) give the meat a slightly smoky flavour and the satay sauce is streets ahead any commercial sauce outside of S E Asia.

You can find the unusual pork satay at Ah Kow Satay & Yong Kee Coffee Shop, Avenue 4

 

Authentic Recipes from Malaysia
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Muar sunset

 

 

 

I have already shown you that Muar is on the coast; the Melaka Straits to be exact, and many Muarians take to the beachfront to walk, jog, bicycle or simply to sit and chat as they watch the sun go down.

Lily kindly took me to the beach promenade on my last evening.  We drove past the beautiful mosque set in parkland and we wandered along the seafront where we were treated to a magical sight.  The tide was very low and just covered the sand which set up all sorts of reflections in gold and amber with trees atmospherically silhouetted against the horizon. There was hardly a breath of wind as hundreds of people did their best to capture the scene with mobile phones and cameras.

As the sun went down the Iman began to call from the mosque and sounds of the call to prayer (the isak) which is hauntingly beautiful in Malaysia, gently floated across the park and seemed to roll softly around us and on out to sea.

Sup Kambing (mutton soup)

I never actually tried this dish but Lily assures me that it is good.  I guess it is soup made from lamb but when I return I will be sure to track it down at the Muar Soup House, 47, Jalan Sisi.  Lily sent me the following link to give you an idea of this dish! Click here

 

typical breakfast spread in a warung

What is a warung?

A warung is best described as a rustic cafe or small corner shop in S E Asia but they are especially found in Indonesia and Malaysia. Food is generally traditional and home-cooked by mum, dad or various aunties and you nearly always get an authentic experience eating at one.

More often than not they are simple and rustic but don’t let the appearances of many of them put you off.  These owners generally know their signature dishes inside out and usually have secret twists to their recipes that have been handed down through the generations,

Oyster omelette

Oh Chien – Nanyang style Teo Chew oyster omelette

The best place to try this is in Avenue 4

This is another dish that I didn’t actually have time to try, but you can watch a short video here which explains how it is made –             Click here for the video link

 

Like many towns in Malaysia, Muar is predominantly laid out on a grid system which can be pretty confusing if there are no dominant landmarks, such as a hill or a river on which to focus (Muar does have a river and a very pretty one at that), but as I am the world’s best at getting myself continuously lost any help and guidance is very welcome, and those coloured streets that I mentioned earlier in the article certainly help with that!

Bonus dish: Beef noodles

Tangkak Beef Noodle @Restaurant Kuang Fei

Whilst not in Muar town, if you visit Ledang Waterfall, I recommend that you stop off at Tangkak town to try this beef noodle dish.

Continue reading to find out more about our day out from Muar.

Muar's beef noodles

Ledang Waterfall

 

Myself, Linda and our Swiss friend Etienne jumped on a local bus and headed off towards the Ledang Waterfall.

After the bus had dropped us off on the main road we had to walk up through the rubber and palm oil plantations towards the National Park. We hiked up the steps and along little paths until we reached the top.  As far as waterfalls goes it certainly wasn’t one of the most spectacular but the setting and the views were perfect….and being cooler it was a respite from the heat and humidity.

walking through the palm oil plantations

The water was freezing where it had tumbled down from the high mountain peaks behind us so whilst myself and Linda were more than happy to half sit on a rock and allow the water to cool us as it passed, Etienne bravely plunged right in.

The best bit about the Ledang Waterfall was the fact that we almost had it to ourselves.  At one stage a large group of men trekked past – all studiously averting their eyes (Linda and I had put bikinis on as there were so few people around), but otherwise there were only a handful of local people and they were quite a long way below us.

I should clarify here, that being rural Malaysia, most people bathe in clothes although it is not mandatory. Unlike the muddy brown water in most of Asia’s rivers the water here was crystal clear and as we were alone in our part of the river (except for the guys that hiked past) we were in our bikinis.

We spent a few hours splashing around and building up an appetite so on Lily’s recommendation – with the sole purpose of a late lunch of the town’s famous beef noodles – we got off the bus on our way back to Muar at the small town called Tangkak.

Linda and Etienne at the waterfall

We were not disappointed.  Lunch was fantastic although one thing that I had learnt by now was to be suspicious of any dish in Malaysia which offered a ‘special’ upgrade.

Often this up-selling doesn’t mean that you get more succulent cuts of meat – it usually means that you get ‘spare parts’ which Asians are so especially fond of.

Lungs, intestines, kidney, brains and all the other ‘spare parts’ are just not my thing.

If you do visit Melaka or you are heading through Malaysia to or from Singapore do take the time to visit Muar and try the food –  you can order your Lonely Planet Guide Book at this link 

You can be sure of a warm welcome from Lily and CJ and you can be sure of some great tasting food.

 

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Spare parts!

And finally, here are two more cookery book recommendations for you:

 

What to do in Brunei

What to do in Brunei

I spent three nights in Brunei as I travelled across the north of Borneo island from one part of Malaysia to the other.  This article can be used as an itinerary for what to do in Brunei as well as giving you information on the best place to stay and why.  Personally I recommend that you stay on the edge of the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan unless you are heading for one of Brunei’s beaches.  Three nights will give you enough time not to rush around but the main sites of interest can be seen in one day if you are very quick.

The article will also help answer the following:

  • Is Brunei expensive?
  • Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit the country overland?
  • People say that Brunei is boring. Is this true?
  • Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?
  • Is Brunei worth a visit?

Brunei certainly won’t suit everybody but in my opinion Brunei IS worth a visit, especially if you are travelling around other S E Asian countries; if only so that you can experience a different culture and way of life.

 

Where is Brunei?

Brunei is on the north coast of the island of Borneo.  It is sandwiched between and divided by the huge Malaysian state of Sarawak, with a second Malaysian state, Sabah to taking up the north east corner.

The larger part of the island is taken up by some Indonesian states – see map below.

 

Map showing the position of Brunei in Borneo

Map showing the position of Brunei in Borneo

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I liked Brunei although I only had time to explore the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan and with a population of just 150,000 people it is very laid back – more so even than Vientiane in Laos – and that place was extremely laid back.

Things to do in Brunei - the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

The wealth of Brunei has come relatively recently in history from gas and oil reserves. The ruling Sultans have placed ever more emphasis on religion and they align themselves more with the Arab oil rich countries than the surrounding Asian countries but whilst the ‘new money’ has meant a spending spree on public buildings and infrastructure, Brunei somehow lacks the glitz of say Dubai or Bahrain.

It’s a little bit shabby and tired around the edges despite the huge cars on the roads and the mosques which creak under their heavy gold domes, but the people on the streets are friendly, the food is great and I think it’s definitely worth at least a couple of days of your time here.

The prosperity of the country has meant that many Bruneians don’t have to worry too much about hard work – although that’s not to say that there are no entrepreneurs, creative people and business men and women here.  Far from it for whilst foreigners from the Indian sub continent and other Asian countries supply much of the manual labour there are lots of new businesses springing up.  I was told many times by many people that the Bruneians major pastime is eating and this certainly seems true judging by the number of places to eat – although Brunei still has a long way to go in this regard if it is to beat Malaysia.

colourful produce at the Tamu Klanggeh Market

Tamu Klanggeh Market

 

Is Brunei expensive?

Yes….and no.  It depends!

The entrance to virtually all attractions is free and buses and water taxis are cheap. Conventional taxis are expensive and they are actually quite difficult to find on the streets but the city is compact enough to walk around if you can stand the heat and the humidity.

I was waiting on the local bus stop outside my hostel waiting to go to the main bus station when a man stopped and offered me a lift (I accepted) and on other occasions when I was walking around, people often stopped to ask if they could drop me anywhere.  If you are going to accept lifts from total strangers or hitch-hike please smarten up your instincts beforehand and don’t take any risks but I think that on balance Brunei is one of the safer places to be.

 

The water taxis

There are seemingly hundreds of water taxis buzzing around the river-front.  They criss-cross the river to take locals and tourists across to Kampung Ayer where 30,000 people live in the largest stilt village in the world.  These boats will also take you upriver to the small piers and the outlying suburbs or you can negotiate with the cheerful guys for a private trip into the jungle where you have a good chance of spotting proboscis monkeys or crocodiles; but bargain hard.

one of the best things to do in Brunei - wandering around Kampung Ayer

one of the best things to do in Brunei – wandering around Kampung Ayer

Food prices vary from cheap and cheerful in the markets and in the small cafes to expensive meals in the high-end restaurants; especially those aimed at tourists and ex-pats, and hotels and accommodation are higher priced than many other S E Asian countries (they are on a par with Singapore) but there is a new, very affordable kid on the block if you are open-minded about staying in a hostel.

The Lonely Planet Guide book for Brunei also covers Malaysia and Singapore – order your copy here

Where to stay in Brunei

I cannot recommend the AE Backpackers Hostel highly enough on many levels.

This is a new hostel just a 30 minute walk from the main city attractions.  The beds are in dormitories but no expense has been spared.  The staff are keen to welcome you and make you feel at home and will give you loads of information about the area, plus the place is kept spotlessly clean.  When I was there, Andy the owner actually gave me a lift into town on two occasions as he was driving that way and one evening he treated myself and some other guests to a satay meal.

You can find out more and book your stay at the AE Backpackers Hostel via this link.

Where to stay in Brunei? Why the AE Backpackers Hostel of course

Where to stay in Brunei? Why the AE Backpackers Hostel of course

A bonus is that the area around the AE Backpackers Hostel is full of places to eat and drink during the evening; unlike the city centre which closes down.  The hostel is also just a short walk from one of the water taxi piers and the bus stop is just outside.

If a hostel is not your thing (but why not give it a go, you might be a convert), you can get the latest up to date prices and accommodation in Brunei via this link to Agoda

 

I have heard Brunei is boring. Is that true?

It depends what you are looking for.  It actually seemed quite lonely to me because there are not that many people on the streets and at night the city centre is dead.  People tend to drive everywhere (partly to avoid the searing heat but also because fuel costs are so low) and they tend to eat out at the clusters of food outlets in the suburbs. It all feels very tranquil and calm, even on a Sunday morning when all the food stalls and the market open up alongside the Independence Field and the families come out for picnics and to let the children play and ride their bicycles.

 

Brunei culture

There are several things to do in the immediate city centre – all walkable – and if you have a car you can wander further afield and really delve into Brunei culture.

In one day I walked between and visited:

The Royal Regalia Museum – this museum is actually very interesting.  It contains information and artefacts depicting life as a Royal as well as a large collection of the sort of gifts that one Head of State or a Government will give to another.  You do have to wonder about some of these – imagine trying to buy a gift for an aunt or a brother who has everything, and then add political messages into the mix. You almost feel sorry for the recipient – maybe they should agree to stop swapping gifts and suggest visiting dignitaries sponsor a clouded leopard or donate to a hospice instead!

Inside the Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei

Inside the Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque – This is the enormous mosque in the city centre and despite its large golden domes I reckon it is beaten in the beauty stakes by the older mosque the ……which is just a 15 minute walk from the AE Backpackers Hostel.  But it’s still worth a visit and the grounds on the river bank are pretty (if bland).  Just avoid prayer time and dress respectfully – although you will be given a robe to wear when you enter.

The Old Custom House (now the Tourist Office) – This squat building is a reminder of colonial times and might, or might not, contain an art exhibition while you’re in town.

The riverfront promenade – There is a long walkway around much of the riverside which is good to stroll along and people watch.  You can hail a water taxi from here and the guys will certainly do their best to attract your attention.  I saw an annual boat race when I was in Brunei.  The long racing rowing boats blasted through the choppy waters and the water taxis dodged around them.  There were rumours that the Sultan might attend the race but if he were there I didn’t see him.

Boat race on the river with Kampung Ayer in the background

Boat race on the river with Kampung Ayer in the background

Tamu Klanggeh Market – This traditional fruit and vegetable market operates next to a little spur on the river.  Fresh produce is piled high on the stone tables and there is the usual bevy of cheap and cheerful food stalls at this bustling hive of activity.

The Chinese Temple – this large temple is the oldest in the city with its red pillars adding a splash of colour to the mostly bland beige and white of the rest of the city.  In fact, the colourless-ness of the city (I’m not sure if that is a real word but you understand what i mean) is possibly why Brunei might have a reputation if being boring. Everything attempts to be clean and white and sparkly – but instead it mostly manages to look tired and bland.

The Chinese Temple in Brunei

The Chinese Temple in Brunei

Kampung Ayer – On my second day in town I took a water taxi over to Kampung Ayer and spend a nice couple of hours wandering around the largest stilt village in the world.  Now this is worth a visit.  You could wander along the wooden board-walks for ages, getting lost down dead ends and snooping into homes, mosques, schools and fire stations. Just beware underfoot – of piles of cat poo on the boards and also rotten or even missing boards outside some of the less well-maintained homes.

I had to slow right down and tread very gingerly in some places; not sure if I would plummet into the murky river water below, but when you get tired of wandering around, simply find a jetty or an open space and a water taxi man will be sure to find you.

Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque – This mosque just 15 minutes walk from AE Backpackers was my favourite.  There are fountains and flowering shrubs and trees in the gardens and the tiles on the minarets are also pretty.  As usual, you will be asked to wear a robe if you are a non-Muslim but somebody will probably also show you around and answer any questions that you might have.  There is even an escalator up into the mosque – so the Sultan doesn’t have to walk up the stairs like the commoners!

the impressive entrance at the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

the impressive entrance at the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?

Yes, there is Sharia law but as you are not going to break any rules this will not affect you!  Also there is no requirement for non-Muslims women to cover their hair.  Alcohol is not on sale although you can import a small amount of alcohol for personal consumption – but as there is no shortage of different teas, coffees, juices or soft drinks available why bother?

Dress conservatively (cover your shoulders and knees and you will have no problems) and you will find that people are quick to smile and to ask where you are from.  There is no rule that says that you can’t wear shorts or a strappy top but as this would be offensive to the majority of the people who live here why would you?

Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit Brunei overland?

Brunei has a very interesting geographical outline on the map.  The country is split in two by the Sarawak state of Malaysia.  If you want to travel overland between the two Malaysian states on Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) you will collect 10 passport stamps. (I could have downloaded a professional looking map off the internet but this is more the reality of my travel life)

The bus route across Brunei

the bus went from the teaspoon to the orange peg to the pink peg to the memory stick to the lighter

I travelled from west to east.

  • I crossed Borneo from the town of Mira in the state of Sarawak heading onwards to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah. I exited Sarawak and I entered Brunei – stamp #1 & #2.

At this point I stayed for 2 nights in Brunei – pick up my bus route on the map at the teaspoon.

  • I exited by bus from Brunei and back into the bit of Sarawak that divides the country – stamps #3 & #4 (orange peg)
  • I exited Sarawak and crossed back into the eastern side of Brunei – stamps #5 & #6 (yellow peg)
  • I exited Brunei for the final time and crossed into the thin sliver of Sarawak that runs along the eastern border – stamps #7 & #8 (the black memory stick points here)
  • Despite both states being Malaysian there is a degree of autonomy in Borneo and to cross between Sarawak and Sabah gets you another 2 stamps #9 & #10 (and finally the lighter marks the exit)

You can fly in and out and you can cut out some of the borders by taking a ferry around the sea route but I love bus travel and it was fun to be popping off and on the bus with the local people at every immigration check.  We were all quite friendly after the 7 hour trip.  Look out for the local guy Danny at the bus station in Brunei who will help you with tickets and travel information about the border crossings.

colourful Dani will help you with the bus details

colourful Danny will help you with the bus details

 

To sum up: What to do in Brunei? Is it worth a visit?

Yes, I think so if you are exploring Borneo although I’m not sure it justifies a flight in and out just for itself.  There are other things to do outside the city centre, apparently the Brunei beaches are a great place to go and see the sunset, an (allegedly) tired theme park and access to the pristine rainforest but little else and it’s difficult to get around unless you have a car.

another view of the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

another view of the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

On a plus point, the wealth provided by the oil money so far has ensured that the loggers have not ravaged the rain forest to plant the palm oil cash crop as they have in neighbouring Malaysia.  The rainforest is largely untouched apart from where the highway was blasted through it and is apparently some of the best in the world but the Bruneians don’t seem to have much of an interested in promoting it to tourists either.

Get your Lonely Planet guide to Brunei, Malaysia (and Singapore) here and drop on by.  I adored both of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and would one hundred percent recommend either or both of those for an extended stay.

Read my other S E Asia guides, such as the perfect itinerary of Myanmar or the best things to see and do in Melaka and drop me an email or reply in the comments below if you have any questions on Brunei or anywhere else that I have travelled.

If you would like me to accompany you and tour Borneo and/or mainland Malaysia let me know.  I know that I will return and I can take some of the hassle out of your journey and show you some of its gems.

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Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane & Pakse

Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane & Pakse

Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Pakse

You can truly appreciate the diversity and the beauty of Laos when you travel the length of it.  Travel in Laos is not easy but it is worth the effort. The climate, the people, the clothes, the food and the scenery all change as you bounce south on the buses.  Central Laos from Vang Vieng, through Vientiane to Pakse is vast with some long travel days.

Up in the north, Luang Prabang the UNESCO World Heritage Site is possibly Laos’ touristic jewel in the crown, although you will have read how we had a much more authentic experience when we rocked up in Phonsovan during the Hmong New Year. 

Cold, sick and a little bit travel jaded, my friend Gosia and I made our way south to Vang Vieng.  This town has a reputation for booze, drugs and hard partying although too many sad and fatal incidences on its main tubing attraction have led to the authorities closing many of the riverside bars down which has changed its dynamic.

 

Tubing on the Mekong at Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

Don’t let the reputation put you off though as hordes of backpackers continue to crowd the streets and Vang Vieng is actually a charming town. 

It consists of a cluster of small streets and bars that crowd close to the river, You can choose to eat on decks hanging over the water, from low tables and on comfy floor cushions or you can cross the river on one of the narrow rickety bridges and walk in relatively peace and quiet or stay in one of the little wooden cabins which are dotted around here. 

The tubing is still here but it’s now a much calmer affair.  The couple of bars that remain open do their best to entice you to stay and get so drunk that you can’t walk – but it’s a bit like arriving late to the party.  Better to enjoy the tubing for what it is. 

A gentle three hour float down the river, passing under the shadows of the impressive limestone karst formations in relative silence. It’s a good idea to get some sort of a waterproof pouch for some cash and maybe your phone too – you can find a selection here at this link to Amazon

Travel in Laos; Vang Vieng

There are plenty of waterfalls and caves to visit close to Vang Vieng – and it’s easy to hire a scooter to get around them. The night life in the town is still pretty vibrant and unlike Luang Prabang, the locals just get on with their own lives, shrugging at the antics of some of the louder travellers. 

I have to do a ‘shout out’ here for the local hospital which is where I finally had to drag myself after days of sickness.  The ward looked a bit grim and bare – but the service was top class (within the restrictions that come with living in an extremely poor country).

Please, please, please don’t travel anywhere without purchasing travel insurance.  You can get a quote at this link from Alpha Travel Insurance

Travel in Laos; Vang Vieng

My doctor spoke good English and she agreed that they should run some tests to find out what was happening inside me.  The tests came back within THREE HOURS (eat your heart out NHS), although they didn’t have the capability to run all of the tests that I requested.  You can read my associated article about getting sick while travelling here

It was enough to rule out some exceptional nasties though and armed with antibiotics and Chinese medicines we moved on to Vientiane. 

Travel in Laos: Vientiane

On our route from Vang Vieng to Pakse we needed to stop off in Vientiane to sort our our visas for Vietnam.  I know that a lot of people say don’t bother and they would straightaway get the bus from Vientiane to Pakse, but in my opinion it is worth a look because  Vientiane must rank as one of the most laid back capital cities in the world.  It couldn’t be just because it was Christmas because it was not really celebrated in Laos.  It was hot, dusty and well, sleepy.  It was as if everything was just too much trouble so everybody seemed to be dozy.

We had an okay hostel in Vientiane with a pool which is always a bonus as we had to stay in this sleepy capital for 3 days while the Vietnamese Embassy staff processed our visa applications. There is a vast choice of places to stay at Agoda. Click here to check the latest places and prices.

To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.

Travel in Laos: Vang Vieng

Vientiane has plenty of temples although most are covered with a layer of sandy dust, It has its version of the Arc de Triomph (as do Paris and Barcelona), some good markets and some excellent and atmospheric open air eating places which line the riverbank.  Vientiane also has some stunning sunsets, lovely bread rolls and baguettes and cheap beer. 

I discovered the works of Colin Cotterill who writes beautifully and extremely humorously about Laos.  Although his novels about the reluctant coroner are set just after the end of the war and when the Lao PDR came into being, nothing really seems to have changed in Vientiane since that time! 

His characters showed me the city in a new light – I felt that I could understand the psyche of the Laos people a little bit better.

travel in Laos; Vientiane

Gosia, Jodi and myself celebrated Christmas 2015 dining on the banks of the iconic Mekong.

We sat on the decking in the dusty heat of the night watching the twinkling lights from the more affluent Thailand across the river and raised a glass and then some more to friends and family who were far away.

We ate a large fish which had been baked in a salt crust and plenty of veggies – fish for Gosia because fish is the traditional Christmas meal in Poland and we wore our Santa hats despite the heat.

Travel in Laos

The sleeping bus from Vientiane to Pakse 

The Vientiane to Pakse sleeper bus was like no other night bus that I had experienced before.  It was not possible to stand up straight on the top deck and there were no reclining seats.  There were no seats.  They had all been removed and partitions divided the length of the bus into boxes. 

Each box was 5’ 32 in length and about 3’ wide.  For two people!  I am 5’6” tall so I spent a very uncomfortable night and luckily I was travelling with Gosia rather than a stranger.  We rolled into our ‘coffin’ and settled down awkwardly.  As if the ‘beds’ were not challenging enough we hadn’t taken into account the rough road systems of Laos.  It was sort of fun, and it was certainly an adventure but we didn’t get much sleep.  If you are planning on any long trip, you might like to take a travel pillow for comfort – check this link for ideas

Travel in Laos

Pakse 

What can I say about Pakse except that most people use the town as a transport hub or as a start point for the Bolaven Plateau motorcycle loop.  Pakse to Vientiane or Pakse to Vang Vieng (or vice versa) seem to be the only reasons why people do come through this town.  Interestingly since writing this article I have heard from other people who actually liked it here – so don’t take my word for it.  If you have time check it out for yourself.

Gosia and I decided not to do the  Bolaven Plateau Loop because we were both in our own way exhausted. I explored the town, taking my book and hoping to find a nice quiet spot to relax by the river – but I was unable to find anywhere that wasn’t buried under piles of litter, plastic and filth. 

Get the latest information on the places that you pass through with the Lonely Planet Guidebooks – click here for the latest special offers such as 3 for 3

We caught up on our sleep and got a bus out the very next day.  Things were looking up – we were going to Champasak and then onwards to the 4000 Islands.

travel in Laos

Travel companions on this leg of the trip.  

Gosia – originally from Poland but with wanderlust in her soul. We travelled together for months from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap and Vietnam in between.  Gosia is the BEST travel companion.  Gosia has a wicked sense of humour and an infectious giggle. 

We laughed a lot, cried some and we got lots of attention as Gosia is stunningly beautiful. It was generally assumed that we were mother and daughter which, although I was pissed off that people didn’t think that I was only 34, gave me a nice warm feeling inside. 

I have one picture of Gosia which I took on Christmas day in her strange Christmas hat and when I was so sick later in Vietnam I would lie in my bunk and look at it just to cheer myself up. 

Rudi – a Frenchman who is in Canada (does that make him a French Canadian?) – who slept one night sandwiched between Gosia and myself (in separate single beds).  I still laugh when I think about the evening we spent playing silly songs via YouTube.  (sorry Rudi that you had to share a bathroom and my antibiotics were yet to kick in!) 

Cuong – the heart doctor from Vietnam who was a real sweetheart and who kept an eye on me, checking my medicines were acceptable and generally being nice.  I met with Cuong and one of his sons later in his home city of Hanoi.  THANK YOU Cuong. 

Jodi – a Canadian who lives in Taiwan.  I have to tell you that on her leaving day Jodi had it in her head that check-in for her flight was at a certain time.  Sitting in our dorm room it suddenly dawned on her that she had been looking at the departure time! 

The air turned blue, she stuffed everything into her rucksack and legged it out of the hostel with about twenty minutes to get to the airport.  A later text confirmed that she had made the flight by the skin of her teeth but Jodi was STILL WEARING her PYJAMAS!

And just in case you are wondering – here is my forever happy picture of Gosia in that hat!!!

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links

This article was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated and upgraded since then

 

Gosia's hat

The Smash the Pumpkin Project

Challenge links

The Smash the Pumpkin project challenges you to step outside your comfort zone. These are some of the ways that travel in Laos would fit into some of the categories.

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The Transporter challenge

Face your Fears

Mini-vans in the mountains, the sleeping bus and floating down the Meking in an inner tube; how many types of transport can you think of and how many have you tried?

Fear of heights, water or meeting new people – some of these may fill you with fear, others hold no challenge.  What causes you to feel anxious?

The Smash the Pumpkin project challenges your self beliefs with a series of emails that encourage you to step outside your comfort zone.  Click on the button below to find out more

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Cheerful cheap and free Melaka attractions

Cheerful cheap and free Melaka attractions

I put together this list of the best cheap and free Melaka attractions for you during the ten weeks that I stayed in Melaka.

I hope you will check some of them out when you visit.

Cheerful cheap and free Melaka attractions.

To get an understanding of the historical background of the city begin with one or both of the two free walking tours that the Tourist Information Centre organises. (Check with the tourist office for up to date information as they don’t run all year round).

The Old Melaka Heritage Tour

This tour takes you around the colonial district on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9.30am.  Learn about St Paul’s Church, La Famosa and the riverside and find out just how many times Melaka was conquered and occupied in the past.

Meeting point: the Tourist Information Centre: the walk takes 2.5 hours

The Tourist Information Centre is inside the modern looking building which is right on the roundabout (opposite the fountain) in what is known as Dutch Square at the end of Jonker Street.

Be there 20 minutes before the start of the tour to register.

Melaka attractions Dutch Square

Kampung Morten: traditional Malay village life.

This second free walking tour in Melaka will show you a different side of city life by guiding you around Kampung Morten.  See a traditional Malay village and meet the locals, whilst learning about the food that they eat, the clothes that they wear and see some of the small businesses that thrive here.

Meeting point: the Kampung Morten Fountain: the walk takes 1.5 hours and take place on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm

To get to Kampung Morten walk upriver following the path on the left-hand side where much of the street art is found.  Continue until you come to a small amusement park and a ferris wheel.  The path drops away from the river for a short while but search it out and continue along until you notice the buildings on your left change in character as you enter the village of Kampung Morten.

Keep an eye out on the road alongside you and just through the ‘gate’ to the village you will see a stone fountain which is the meeting point for this free walking tour.

Allow approximately 40 minutes to walk to the meeting point from Dutch Square and arrive 20 minutes before the start of the tour to register.

Melaka attractions

Vila Sentosa – a living museum.

Visit this traditional wooden home in the Malay settlement of Kampung Morten and learn about its history from one of the family members who still live there.

I met Ibrahim who was the youngest son of 12 children who were raised in the house. Ibrahim was a vet before he retired and he now shows people around his former family home. Ibrahim’s ancestors were originally from Java.

Ibrahim’s grandfather was the leader of a community that were forced to relocate to the present one when their land was purchased for redevelopment. This house, the grandest in the village of 96 houses, was completed 95 years ago.  Ibrahims grandfather received the Certificate of Honour from George IV and later the MBE and OBE for services to the community.

The house is ever so pretty and with the breeze coming in from all sides through open windows it was cool and peaceful. It was also very colourful and made of wood with a steep pitched and curved roof and was set in lush green gardens.

Inside, the house is just like a museum with original family pieces displayed, photos on the walls and the best family porcelain set on the table.

You may be allowed to strike the ancient gong – it is said that people who strike the gong while making a wish will see their wish granted, and you will usually be given a cup of tea in the sitting room.

If you visit Melaka, #villasentosamelaka is well worth a visit. Entrance is free although you can donate to its upkeep and to thank the family for giving their time to show you around.

Open daily between 9 – 5.  Admission is free but a donation towards the upkeep of the house and for the owners’ time would be appreciated.

Follow the directions for the Kampung Morten walking tour to the stone fountain but instead of stepping off onto the road continue following the river around the curve, keeping an eye on the houses to your left.  You are looking for a large green wooden house and garden with a big sign facing the river, ‘Vila Sentosa’.

Note: If you want to combine your visit to Vila Sentosa with the walking tour, allow 45 minutes at the living museum before back-tracking to the meeting point to register for the tour.

Melaka Riverside

Wander along the river with friends or sit and have a coffee or a beer and relax with a book.  You might spot one of the huge monitor lizards and you are almost guaranteed that one of the local people who live in Melaka will stop to chat to you.

Musical fountains

If you are wandering along the riverbank between 9.30 and 10pm you might catch the musical fountains with their music and light show.

Go to the small pedestrian bridge near to the Masjid (Mosque) Kampung Hulu and look upriver.  Just be aware that the fountains don’t always play and sometimes you will bizarrely just hear the music.

Boat tours in Melaka

Hop on one of the boats that go up and down the river for a 45 minute tour – both daytime and night time tours are good – boats often run late into the night and many come with a commentary.

Street Art in Melaka

Whilst nowhere near as good as the art in George Town the street art in Melaka wins due to its location.  There are some nice murals dotted around Melaka mostly painted along the riverbanks but if you explore the little alleyways that run behind the streets of China Town you will find many more.

Can you find Michael Jackson, the wishing well or the references to Harry Potter as you wander around?

The Jonker Walk Night Market

Melaka becomes very lively every Friday, Saturday & Sunday when traffic is banned from Jonker Walk and traders set up their market stalls.

Things get going about 6pm and continue until 11.30pm – give or take a bit.

There are lots of street food carts and you can shop for some of those gifts and trinkets that you want to take home with you.  To be honest, I have seen better walking street markets in Asia but the Jonker Walk night market in Melaka is still a good one.

For additional entertainment, near the bottom end of Jonker Street is a large stage which hosts karaoke or dance competitions whilst the night market is on.  Many of the Chinese Community Halls that line Jonker Street are also open and you can see residents watching DVDs, playing chess, line dancing and once, I even saw an orchestra playing.  So grab some street food and a chair and sit and enjoy the shows.

Temples, Mosques and Churches

Melaka has lots of temples, mosques and churches, some of which are hundreds of years old.  Grab a map from the tourist office and wander around and check them all out, but the biggest collection of the oldest ones are along Jalan Tokong which runs parallel to Jonker Walk.

You will notice that the architecture reflects the maritime heritage of Melaka and some of the minarets look like lighthouses.

Dress respectfully and don’t enter during the main prayer times, but otherwise you will be welcome in all of the places of worship.

The Sikh Temple at the end of Jalan Temenggong serves up basic but tasty meals three times a day.  All are welcome: just make sure that you wash your dishes after you and maybe pop a donation in for the temple.

The Floating Mosque in Melaka 

The Melaka Straits Mosque or to give it its proper title, the Masjid Selat Melaka really is one of the stars of Melaka in my opinion and well worth its own entry in this guide to cheap and free Melaka attractions.

The mosque was my favourite destination when I was leading the bicycle tours from Ringo’s Foyer Hostel.  The guests and I would get there just before dusk and settle down on the rocky jetty opposite and wait for the sun to set. No matter if we had a decent sunset, the sound of the call to prayer floating across the still water with the lights from the mosque reflected in the sea was always magical.

Local markets and food in Melaka

There are local food markets on a Saturday and a Sunday afternoon (4-8pm) and on a Tuesday evening (4-7pm).

Key the following locations into your map app for directions.

Saturday: Pasar Malam (night bazaar) Kota Laksamana

Sunday: Pasar Malam Bandar Hilir

Tuesday: Pasar Malam Kampung Lapan

I would need to devote an entire article solely to the food in Melaka but my best advice is to simply wander around.  Search out the Malay food courts for spicy fish dishes or the unusual but addictive sweet cendol, Little India for the banana leaf curries that you eat with your right hand or China Town for a massive variety of foods.

Chinese Hill

Explore the Sam Po Keng Temple and Princess Hang Po Li’s Well before walking to the top of Chinese Hill for views of Melaka.  On the way up you will pass many ancient Chinese tombs and graves. Make sure that you go into the room at the back of the Sam Po Keng temple and see the display that explains the history of the site.  Chinese Hill is a great spot to come for a sunset view over Melaka but don’t be tempted to eat any of the fruit from the trees that are dotted around the hill.  In the past the conquering armies would poison the water wells and legend has it that the fruit trees still contain this poison.

Ringo’s Foyer Hostel and the Famous Bicycle Tours

Even if you don’t stay at Ringo’s Foyer Hostel you can join them on one of their famous bike tours.  Pop in to reception and ask where and when they will be leaving.  During my time as a volunteer at the hostel I was one of the bicycle tour guides and we would usually set off between 5 and 6.30pm – although this can change at any time.

Preference will always be given to guests and the tours can be cancelled or altered due to the weather but they are always interesting and fun.

The most popular tours will take you to the ‘Floating Mosque’ for a spectacular sunset or to Chinese Hill.  Ringo’s will show you some of the alleyways with their street art and maybe you will stop by a deserted theatre.  Occasionally you may take a tour to a local night market or even stop at a toddy shop and sample palm wine.  Depending on the guide, you may stop on the way back for a group dinner or you might just make a detour for a beer by the river.

Hire a bicycle for the day

Hire a bicycle for the day and explore the town.  The city is more or less flat and easy to get around.  Don’t be daunted by the traffic either.  The drivers in Melaka may seem erratic but the majority of them are very patient and happy for you to wobble out in front of them.  Just make sure that you make plenty of eye contact, wave your arms like your life depends upon it and smile and wave thank you as you pass them.

Apart from the Floating Mosque you could head off to the beach (try Pantai Puteri) or you could cycle to St John’s Fort as well as any of the other places that are listed in this guide.

Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum

Do go and see the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum and tour a house that has been kept in the Peranakan style.  Several generations ago Chinese traders married Malay women and they developed a distinctive style of living which includes lots of colour and masses of bling.  In this family home you can learn about the lifestyle and see the luxury items on display in this house in Jalan Tan Cheng Lock which is parallel to Jonker Street.

Views of Melaka

You could ride up to the top of the Taming Sari Tower – or for similar money why not buy a drink at the nearby Pampas Skybar on the 41st floor of the largest building close to the hostel.  Relax for an hour or so as you take in the views and don’t forget to look up at the ceiling for a surprise!!

Directions for the skybar:  Walk out of the hostel and turn left towards the river.  At the river, follow the path to the left.  Continue until you come to a small amusement park and a ferris wheel.  Cross the river by the road bridge and then turn to the left and find the entrance to the skybar inside the first building that you come to.

The Woof Station

Pepper, Bella, Chewy, Mr Bean & Rocket are the 5 dogs belonging to of Sharine and Ace who own the Woof Station in Melaka.  They are 3 huskies, 1 samoyed and an Old English Sheepdog.

Unlike some similar establishments, the dogs at the Wood Station are the couple’s pets and go home with them each evening.

Ace & Sharine firmly place the well-being of their beloved pets first and educate visitors how they must act around the dogs.

If a dog chooses time out under a table, he or she is allowed to sleep and they play together quite naturally.

Visitors to the café must purchase a drink but we were not rushed out at all and spent a long time chatting and interacting with the dogs.

The excitement on the faces of visitors who had little contact with dogs was wonderful to see, as was the pleasure of travellers who were missing their pets back at home.

The Woof Station is a 30 minute walk from the bottom end of Jonker Street, or take a Grab taxi or an Uber cab.

You just need to buy a drink to cover your entrance and you can lounge on bean bags and play with the animals for as long as you like.

Swimming Pool in Melaka

There is an outside Olympic sized swimming pool right in the heart of the old town of Melaka.  Ladies are fine to wear a bikini – men must wear Speedos (that is, no baggy board shorts).  Knee length yoga pants or cycling pants are fine or you can buy a suitable pair at the shop at the pool.

Check the board outside the pool for the swimming session timetable and the latest prices.

Directions to the swimming pool: Turn right at the roundabout at Dutch Square. Take the first left along Jalan Kota and look for a little path on the right through the park next to a statue of a bullock cart.  The entrance to the swimming pool is in front of you.  At the time of writing the cost of entry was 5RM a session.

To sum up: Melaka attractions.

Melaka deserves to be more than simply a stopping off point en-route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but all too often, travellers book just one night in the town and dash around the key sights before moving on; and then they declare that there is not much to see or to keep them occupied.

The cultural mix that makes up Malaysia is very apparent in Melaka.

There is the distinctive Dutch sector, China Town and Little India.  There are also many remnants from the British occupation and of course there is a huge Malay/Muslim presence which all combine to make a very interesting experience here in Melaka.

Melaka is a proud city and you will constantly get people calling out to you ‘Welcome to Melaka’.  Take time to wander along the riverbank and check out some of the activities above.  Get to feel the soul of the city.  It may not be immediately obvious but it is there and it has a big heart.  Book more than a couple of nights and take the time to get to know Melaka.

I would obviously recommend that you stay at Ringo’s Foyer Hostel because I volunteered there for two months but if you prefer something different check out some alternative accommodation here – Agoda Booking

The following travel resources may make your trip planning easier

Get your guide book here from the Lonely Planet

Don’t forget your travel insurance from Alpha

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