Sihanoukville in December 09. Same Same but Different.

If you are up with larks you may want to stay on the riverfront in Phnom Penh. However, if you are a late night owl, like us, falling in the door at 3 and wanting to sleep til noon, you may want to try somewhere else. The River Star hotel was fine in itself, but the jackhammering that commenced after 5hours sleep was not pleasant.

At 8am I was roused from my much needed slumber by the raucous sounds of machinery hitting concrete. Urgh…

I suffered and tried to doze, eventually getting up for breakfast. I ate my first banana pancake of the trip, while chatting to children who came up and deftly avoiding being sold anything (no mean feat!)  I struggled with the way-too-strong-Khmer coffee too, having forgotten how lethal it was.

Whilst munching brekkie we thought we’d better settle up our bill and check with reception about the bus we’d booked the night before. “Oh no,” they said, “there’s no booking here”. Oh dear. At the last minute they got us onto a bus leaving for Sihanoukville within the hour, and got us a driver to take us to the bus station. Phew.

Last time we were in PP, the buses were pretty woeful, with broken aircon, busted seats, overheated engines and crazed bus drivers. This time however, we got the Angkor Express bus and it was a world apart from our last experience. Double decker, nice seats with plenty of leg room, air-con that worked, an on-board toilet (!!) – AND we nabbed the 2 front seats on the top deck for a superb view as we travelled.

Around 3 and a half hours later we alighted in Snooky town, but could get a tuktuk for no less than $3US to take us to our hotel. Ripped. We knew $1 was probably right and were trying for $2, but they formed a consortium and refused to take us for less. Oh well.

As we neared the famed lion monument at the big roundabout, we marvelled at how many more buildings there were, banks everywhere, even a lit up Coke sign. A bumpy road took us to the top of Serendipity beach – it didn’t exist last time we were here. Now it was lined with hostels and bars. Ah progress…but it didn’t bode well for a relaxing time.

Coasters was the hotel we’d booked, and it had quite a good location, being on the beach. Well, the restaurant was on the beach. The bungalows were further back. The owner was Irish and very friendly, especially when he heard my surname which is a common Irish one.

We were delighted as we walked to our half-bungalow, to see our first big gecko on a wall nearby.

We were somewhat less delighted when we got to our room. It had a musty smell. What is that odour? I wondered…it was sooo familiar. Oh yes!! It smelled of cabbage! I think it was the bacteria in the bathroom, but best not to think about it too much.

Tummies were rumbling so we nabbed a table at the seaside (and I mean the waves were mere feet away from us), and ordered Amok and Luc Lac. It was lovely being by the ocean again as we ate, toes in the sand.

But as we looked further down Serendipity and Ochheuteal beaches, we saw that where once was the occasional bar/restaurant on the beach with space in between, now it was absolutely jam-packed with these places. See?

As we walked along them after dinner, we couldn’t help but notice there was hardly any beach left – partly due to bad storms back in July.  And each bar would have its own music blaring, so you’d be assaulted with a cacophony as you stumbled along, trying not to fall onto the rocks or into the sea.

I had to confess that the naysayers had been right – Sihanoukville is very much in the grip of overdevelopment. Would there be anywhere we could go that still had that relaxing chilled out vibe from 5 years ago?

Well, I’m pleased to say the answer is yes. But for that you’ll just have to stay tuned for future posts. Next up, the boat ride to the paradisical island known as Ko Rong Saloem, and Lazy Beach Bungalows.

Japanese punk and ska music. Cherry Cokes, Junior

When you think of music in japan, what comes to mind? Sickly sweet pop? J-rock? Visual kei with boys dressed as beautiful dolls? Rockabilly Elvises?

How about Irish Punk?

The best fun I had outside of the goth clubs in Tokyo was the Saturday we went to Shibuya to an all day Paddy punk gig.

Held the week after St Patricks Day, it featured artists playing in the Irish (or Boston Irish) punk genre – bands sounding like the Pogues, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. No bad thing right?

Yeah. Dead right :)

I’d researched before I hit Tokyo back in March to acquaint myself with the scene. And boy, did I get a shock! There are sooo many bands playing punk and ska that you could pretty much go to a gig any night of the week.

The bands that first prompted my interest were the Cherry Cokes, and Royal Shamrock, and ska band Oi Skall Mates, which I’d found on MySpace. I liked what I heard, and lucky for me, they had gigs when I was going to be in Tokyo – woohoo!

And so it was that, on little sleep and hungover to hell from goth club Theatic Alamode the night before, we trained it to Shibuya on 22nd March for the Wild Rover 5th Anniversary paddy punk festival day.


We weren’t really sure where we were going, and hadn’t been to club Asia before. Deciding to eat before we hit the bottle again, we stopped off at a 7-11, hoping to also get directions. We were just ingesting our sushi outside when a couple of western guys started talking to us, one Irish, one English.

They’d been to the gig and had seen the first band, but had come back to the 7-11 to eat and grab a few cheap beers. It just so happened they were friends with the organisers, and volunteered to not only show us the way, but get us in for half price! Wahey!!

We didn’t get half-price, but a good solid discount, and as soon as we got in, they introduced us around to their Japanese friends. Before long, one new mate was plying us with booze from a bottle he’d smuggled in his coat, and we were forgetting that we felt like shite. Just as well, cos the list of bands was as long as yer arm, and they were playing til late that night.


The vibe when we went into the first gig was out of this world.

Being amongst kids going nuts brought our energy levels right up, and the quality of the bands well surpassed expectations. We were told to watch a band called Junior – and they were a fantastic old school punk band. Others we saw ranged from irish folk, through to ska and the paddy punk we’d expected.

Junior


There were numerous bands playing bagpipes like native celts, and Japanese Irish dancers. They really embraced all aspects of the culture. There were even covers in punk or ska style of English songs we knew, so we could sing along. Like Junior before them, The Cherry Cokes were absolutely superb (and cute to boot!)


We did stay til the end, and it turned out to be the best day we had. I highly recommend getting yourself to a gig or if you can, an all day festival. I know I’ll be going back for more.

A fab article on this music genre is on the blog Shite n onions, here.

Bands to check out:

Punk
The Cherry Cokes
Junior
Radiots – Hiro from Cherry Cokes is guitarist
Sorry For a Frog
Stompin Bird

Ska/punk/new wave
The Autocratics
Dallax
Doberman
The Fatness (and band website)
The Japonicans
Moody Rudy
Plastic Gangsters
Redemption 97
Skaff-links
The Skabays
The Spyzz
Spiderz – psychobilly

Other useful sites:

Time Bomb Records
Tokyo Skazine - this has a huge lists of bands and venues where you can catch cool music
Punk Rock Confidential Japan – lists upcoming gigs
Punkafoolic – regular festival – upcoming gigs
Japan Live blog – alternative music generally in Tokyo
Rock of Japan blog

There are also heaps of bands within the psychobilly, deathrock, electro, indie, metal and other genres – just google search and look in MySpace to find bands you might like.

If you’re visiting Japan soon and love punk and ska, don’t just visit temples – discover the heart of the people by getting on down where they do! Go to a live gig and I guarantee you’ll have a amaaaaazing time.

(For those who need a fashi
on fix, some punk looks from Tokyo New Tribe are here and here.)

Storm in Batu Ferringhi; Currying favour in Georgetown

Just a quick one today to finish off my food blogging from Penang.

On my second afternoon in Penang, I decided I HAD to see Batu Ferringhi, the beach named for the foreigners who’ve been flocking there since the 70′s.  I wanted to enjoy one more sunset by the ocean. Alas, the bus from Georgetown, in peak time, took AN HOUR to get there!! So by the time I found a place where I could actually access the beach from the road, the sun was setting fast.

There are so many huge resorts that have their own private bit of beach fenced off, that it’s hard to find public space. At the western end I found a nice quiet Resort-less part of the beach with some beach bars and cafes. (This is definitely the part of the beach I’ll stay at when I come again).  I took my place on the sand and gazed, despite ominous clouds in the distance promising big storms ahead…

Sure enough, the clouds continued to darken the skies, bruising the sunset with every minute that passed. I grabbed a beer but had barely had a sip when the heavens opened and a wild electrical storm erupted. Cool!

OK, not so cool for sitting out and enjoying on the sand, but I found a spot in a cabana to enjoy the dramatic display.  A german family joined me and we chatted while the rain continued. When the rain  began to lighten, I decided it was time to hop on back to Georgetown and grab myself some tucker. This time I hired a cab :)

Back in my hotel room, I had a fantastic view of the elctrical storm from my windows.  Gotta love the coast. But by this time I was famished and needed a feed close to home.

For my final dinner, I could do no better than return to the Red Garden, and this time I couldn’t resist the Yum Cha/dim sum. I had char siu bow (a BBQ pork bun), steamed siu mai (pork dumplings) and har gow (shrimp/prawn dumplings).  Mouth watering!!

And, since Penang is meant to be THE best place for food, I had to have the KL Laksa.
Like the curry mee I had earlier, the spice paste came separate on the spoon, so I could adjust to my own taste.  It was absolutely scrummy.  I forgot that they bring you a big bottle when you ask for beer, and after eating these foods, I just couldn’t finish it. Oh well. After my big session the night before, I was hardly gonna wreck myself again, knowing I was flying back to KL next day. (And I still had a couple of cans in my bar fridge anyway, teehee).
And so I dragged myself a few doors up from my hotel in the morning, to Restoran Jaya. This place was always busy, day or night, and had a large variety of Indian and Malaysian dishes.
You know what I had for breakfast? Yeah, you know….
A hot, frothy teh tarik and roti canai!

Luscious Laksa in Penang

In my travel and food tales, we got as far as Penang. Where do I begin with Penang? The yummy food, the gorgeous colourful architecture, the great harbour, the delicious food…I was loath to leave Langkawi as I love the ocean so much, and the ferry ride was no picnic, as you may have read in my earlier post. But it was with real excitement that I strode out of my hotel to go in search of food and fun.

I asked one of the guys at reception where is good nearby for Malaysian food, and he told me, “Red Garden”. The best bit? It was just up the road, on Jalan Penang.

Red Garden is a foodcourt that is out doors yet undercover.  As it says, “Food Paradise & Night Market”. I descend the stairs and immediately feel the buzz – people everywhere are chowing down seated on white plastic chairs, or trying to decide between the numerous food stalls there. There was Thai food, Laksa, Satay, Fillipino food, Chinese Yum Cha, various noodle dishes, fish head soup, oyster vendors, nasi goreng and ayam… But for me, it had to be the Penang style laksa for my first meal. I went here:

and had this:

Penang, or Asam Laksa is different to the usual Laksa Lemak we’re more familiar with in the west, which has a coconut milk base. ‘Asam’ is ‘tamarind’ in Malay. This laksa has fish, pineapple, tamarind, lemongrass, galangal, chili and mint forming the flavour base of the soup, so it’s sweet, a little sour, a little spicy, and a whole lotta delicious. 

You can’t see the white rice noodles here, but they are lurking below. The fish was flaked and reminded me of tinned tuna actually, although often kambong fish or mackerel is used. This and the belacan (shrimp paste) provided the salty flavour.  The cucumber and mint were cooling, the spice provided by the galangal, lemongrass, chili, ginger and tumeric, sweetness provided by the pineapple, with the tamarind lending the sour note.

I expected to perhaps not like it, but I really enjoyed it. It is different from the coconut milk curry laksa, but no less delicious.  I totally cleaned the bowl! However, I had a little room left in my tummy..so I headed for the stay stand. I ate them before I could take any pictures, but the chicken satay sticks with accompanying peanut sauce were SUBLIME!

As I looked around, everywhere people were having a good time. It’s a really relaxed, friendly, fun place to eat. Oh, and servers come around and get you drinks – soft drinks, beer, whatever you want, and bring back your drink and change to your table. Now THAT’s service!  Be prepared though, if you ask for a beer you get a big bottle :)

On the way home, I had to stop for a teh tarik (the sweet, strong, milky frothy tea favoured in these parts).  A roadside stall was just the place to stop and have a brew.

I then dawdled home to rest up awhile. Later that night I had my most fun night out of the holiday…but I’ll leave that for another post. This one is all about the food, baby!

Next morning I was feeling a touch seedy due to the shenanigans of the night before, so starting the day with breakfast wasn’t high on my agenda. However, by the time I’d seen a few temples, shrines and mosques and covered most of the sights of Georgetown, I was ready for some food.  I saw a few places in Little India (yes, Penang has one too) that looked ok, but on Jalan Chulia, heading back towards Jalan Penang, I found this place that looked really nice.

As you can see, he had a lot of specials, but I wanted a roti canai (which is a typical Malaysian Indian breakfast). Alas, being a Panjabi place with northern Indian food, he didn’t do Roti Canai as such, but he made me a lovely hot Tandoori roti and served it with dahl – which is what roti canai is anyway. Some of the dahls and curries on offer:

The roti was beautifully textured and straight from the tandoor oven, the dahl lovely and light
. The Penang heat had knocked me around so much I had to have an icy cold coke to recover. And then a lie down!
Come 3/3.30 in the arvo I was ready to hit the pavement again and see some more sights…but first, lunch proper. Just across the road from the Oriental Hotel where I was staying, and next to the White House Hotel, is this great corner eatery, called Kafe 78.

There were many authentic local dishes on offer, but looking at this, I knew I had to have the Curry Mee.

And when it arrived, I was not disappointed.
Similar to laksa, Curry Mee has a cocount milk/fish broth base. Often it comes with various different noodles – yellow chow mein egg noodles, and rice (behoon) noodles. Mine was the lighter broth or White Curry Mee, and the spice paste came separate on the spoon, as you can see. You add it to your personal taste, and it then makes the broth a gorgeous red colour. It was really delicious and if I didn’t have to go see some more temples in the afternoon heat, would have stayed for another bowl!
It had cockles, prawns, fish balls, calamari, chicken, yummy fried tofu, crunchy fresh bean sprouts,
For more info on the various curry mee’s you have have throughout Penang, see http://www.what2seeonline.com/, and in particular this entry.
I decided to treat myself to a rickshaw to my next temple, but walking back through Little India, I came across the Restoran Ros Mutiara, which had a lady manager (you can see the feminine touch, can’t you?)
However, it wasn’t Nasi Kandar I was after (I’d already had the Curry Mee), but Ais Kachang. I was hot, and needed some sweet icy goodness, and they had a sign inside indicating they could provide me with just that.
Ais kachang, if you’ve never had it, is a beautiful dessert essentially composed of shaved ice, with sweet beans and corn kernels at its heart, and with sweet syrup and condensed milk drizzled over.  I know, to westerners, beans and corn in a dessert sounds really strange, but trust me, it works.  Though blurry, this pic shows the beans down below:

Mine was flavoured with rosewater, and coloured a sumptuous rose pink, as you can see. As I ate and it melted, it became a mauvey pink chilled soup. This dessert is SOOO refreshing, it leaves you with a zing in your mouth and a spring in your step.

And that is long enough for one post. Next up, my final 2 meals in Penang (sob!)

My Malaysian accommodation

Part of travelling is deciding where you are going to stay. Obviously this is influenced by how long you’re travelling. Since I don’t travel for more than 2 or 3 weeks these days, I can go for slightly nicer places than when I used to go to India for 3 months at a time.

I used to be a backpacker, but now I’m a bit older and earn a bit more, I’m more of a flashpacker. That is, I like a room with a bathroom all to myself, and maybe a bar fridge (if only to fill up water bottles and chill them in, as well as beer on the odd occasion, heh). 24 hr reception is also a plus, for when I come staggering in after a late night drinking session or club night.

I do love a hut on the beach mind you, and if I can get stunning seaviews mere footsteps from my door, then I’ll gladly trade comforts for views. There’s nothing like swinging in a hammock on your porch, gazing at the ocean while sipping a cool drink. I’ve done this on Phi Phi island (Thailand), Tioman Island (Malaysia) and Ko Samui (Thailand – back in 2000 before everything was flashy resorts, and you could actually get a hut on the beach for 15 US a night).

I can’t stand depressing rooms that are dirty and windowless, with no clean sheets or towels, but I don’t need air-con (a fan does me just fine, and often air-con is TOO cold for me). I also prefer not to be able to hear the occupants in the room next to me, or corridors, which is why I tend not to stay in hostels that much.

So here’s my rundown of the mid-range places I stayed at during my travels in Malaysia:

Kuala Lumpur

Citin Hotel – Jalan Pudu

I already mentioned in a previous post the Citin Hotel, and posted images so you could see how nice it was. I should point out I was upgraded to floor 10, with soaring city views, but I think this may happen with some regularity when they’re not full up. When I booked on the internet, straight after the booking was confirmed, it said ‘click on this link to see if you’re upgraded’. I didn’t click as I was in a hurry, but got upgraded when I got there. So, you never know.

It had great décor, comfy bed and pillows, was nice and clean with a lovely modern bathroom, had a wardrobe for clothes and even a safe for valuables in the wardrobe. See this post for more details.

Note: There is another Citin in Little India, near the masjid – don’t get them confused! Same chain, style and price.

Nightly rate: around 40 AUD.
Amenities: air-con, bar fridge, flat screen tv, toiletries, in-room safe, tea/coffee making facilities
Included: breakfast, internet on level 1 (if you can get on),
Best bit: the sweeping views.

Imperial Hotel – Changkat Bukit Bintang

When I returned to KL at the end of my trip, I chose to stay in the Bukit Bintang area, which is closer to the entertainment and shopping district (malls and food).

It was right near Jalan Alor, that hawker street I posted about before, as well as several other hawker stalls and café places around the Bukit Bintang Plaza. While I stayed in myself, I periodically peered out the window, and can attest that things run 24hrs around there. People were still up talking, eating and drinking until 6am.

The room was very nice and mod, contrary to what my footprints guide suggested (the phrase “don’t expect a gem at this price” almost put me off). Again, it has a good bed and pillows, desk, clean mod bathroom, alcove for clothes, spacious in area.

Nightly rate: around 46 AUD.
Amenities: air-con, bar fridge, tv, toiletries, and I think 24 hr reception.
Best bit: location is very central, yet virtually no street noise in the room.

Langkawi

Sunset Beach Resort – Pantai Tengah

This was the splurge of the trip. I wanted to check out the Balinese inspired, top-range villas with the gorgeous bathrooms, so I spent more than I usually would. The villas are set in leafy groves, so it is very tropical in feel.

The breakfast room/café faces the beach and is lovely, light and modern. Breakfast is included, but you have to be there by about 10.45. The (lady) staff are very friendly and talk to you by name, although they called me “green girl” for the duration of my stay, on account of my hair.

View from breakfast room

The villa itself was large, comfortable and styli
sh, with Balinese bedhead, wall hangings etc. The large bed is on a platform, and there’s a desk area and window seat if you like to lounge about. Of course there’s a tv and bar fridge, wardrobe area for clothes, and a choice of fan or air-con. The villas are very quiet, so I had REALLY good sleeps here

But the bathroom is the knockout. It is huge. It has a skylight ceiling so is always light and bright with an outdoor feel, and has a rock wall and pottery to add texture.

I almost wanted to set up a desk with my laptop there to write, so nice was the room, but I settled for the end of my bed.

There was a nice big shower, but the switch to turn the hot water on was so high up, I couldn’t reach it! I settled for daytime showers when the water was warmish.

There’s a front porch with 2 chairs if you like to have an afternoon or evening cocktail and people-watch, but I preferred to sit at the beach, myself. Speaking of which, there were more than enough deckchairs and sun-loungers on which to sun yourself.

The beach here is quiet, with no motorised watersports as at Pantai Cenang. Only the people at the resort sunbake here, which is good if you like it intimate, but not good if you like to feel you’re out among the masses. The water is deep enough to get wet and have a swim though, whereas at the other end of the beach it can be really shallow.

It is definitely a place for couples, not singles. A note on the tours: perhaps best to book with an operator on Cenang if you want to mix with other westerners. The island hopping tour I booked through here, consisted of me, an Indian couple on their honeymoon, and 2 Malaysian families who spoke only malay and to each other. NOT the social activity I was hoping for.

The places we visited were beautiful and enjoyable; I had my feet “massaged” by catfish, and I met some inquisitive monkeys!! I gave one a banana, which was probably  mistake, cos they came after my bag when I sat down :)

However,
as I was the only ‘whitie’, and everyone else at the places we visited was either Malaysian, Indian or Middle Eastern, I couldn’t get down to my bikini and swim. Everyone else swam fully clothed, and I would’ve felt like a Jezebel doing otherwise, so I didn’t get to swim at all  :(  But that was really the only downside, and easily avoided if you book through a backpacker place.

The sunset here on Thursday night, my second night there, was simply AMAAAAZING…

Nightly rate: around 70- 75 AUD (but there are cheaper villas)
Amenities: air-con, bar fridge, tv, toiletries, tea/coffee making facilities
Included: breakfast til 11am. Although wifi is possible here, you have to find a shop that sells the Wi-net cards – and I never did.
Best bit: feeling of luxury; the bathroom.

Given that on this occasion I was travelling alone (not the smartest move in Langkawi, I admit), I decided to move to the more happening part of the island at the next beach up – Pantai Cenang.

AB Motel – Pantai Cenang

This one gets the thumbs up from backpackers, so I was aware I was going downmarket for this one. As I only booked my room the day before, my choice was limited, and I ended up in a room in the main building rather than a bungalow.

It was also one of those rooms with a connecting room to the next one, and although it was bolted so there were no intrusions, it meant the noise carried from the next room.

There was an Arabic speaking family next to me, and the father in particular had a voice that carried. I had to put the tv on the drown the voices out, and then I was aware when I stayed up late, that I had to keep it turned down low. On my second morning they were up way before me and being vocal. I turned on the air-con and opened the balcony door for white noise.

On the plus side, I was on the second floor, and had views of the beach from my balcony (which had 2 chairs for enjoying the sunsets). Not only that, but in the room itself, I could hear the waves crashing onto the beach. Yeah!

The room itself had 2 double beds and was way bigger than I needed. There was a choice of fan or air-con. Again the bed and pillows were fine, and there was a tv, bar fridge, wardrobe, and choice of fan or air-con.

The bathroom was ok, but there was no toilet paper, so I went to a shop and bought a roll for 1RM. The shower was right near the toilet, so it got wet when I had a shower. But at least I could reach the hot water!

Being on the busier part of the beach meant that there was lot of watersport activities nearby, banana boating, parasailing etc, and the water was quite shallow. There were some seats and tables between the beach and the hotel, and on my first night, there was a bunch of drunken locals being really loud from 5 to 5.30am right outside. I had to get up early for the snorkelling tour later that day, so sorely missed my sleep – not happy, Jan!

However, there was a nice atmosphere at the beach, people walking along, playing football, throwing Frisbees, sunbaking etc, with beach restaurant/bars at night lighting up the coast. I really enjoyed feeling amongst it here, as opposed to the exclusivity of the resort at Tengah.

The snorkelling tour I booked here had a lot of Europeans, so there were no problems re: swimwear. It was nice to chat to other backpacker/travellers, too. Here’s a pic on Pulau Payar, the island marine park where we snorkelled.

Nightly rate: around 25 AUD
Amenities: TV, bar fridge, air-con, soap, onsite internet cafe (open til 11)
Best bit: the balcony views

Penang

Oriental Penang – Jalan Penang

I got an upper floor room again, and again there were sweeping views of the Penang skyline. I could see the harbour and the mountains (with spectacular lightning bolts during storms).

While the décor was dated, the bed was fine and bathroom clean enough. There was a TV, chairs, desk, 4ft high fridge, wardrobe.

However, you did not have the choice to turn off the air-con, and I found it FREEZING! Although a sign said to keep the windows closed, I opened them to let in some warm air and try to normalise the temperature. At night I had to sleep in my jumper; there were extra pillows but no extra blankets.

Being situated on Jalan Penang (one of THE three main streets), it was extremely central for the Georgetown sights, hawker stalls and cafes.

Nightly rate: around 25 AUD
Amenities: TV, fridge, air-con, soap, 24 hr reception,
Best bit: the skyline views

Hope that’s helped you see the sort of places you can get in that mid-price bracket. There is still more coming from my Malaysian trip, like the food, architecture and shenanigans in Penang, so stay tuned…