Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lobster Dinner

As we started geting to know some of the locals at the lodge, they let us in on a little secret.  The local village just down the beach sells lobster and the kitchen doesn't mind preparing it for you at dinner (for a small fee, of course).  So one day before volleyball we set off down the beach to see if we could source ourselves some fresh lobster.  You can see the village boats in the photo below.
The village was as you probably imagine - very basic with dirt paths, houses on stilts with chickens running around amongst other dogs and cats.  And most fascinating - cows on the beach!  A strange sight for sure, but when you think about it they are cows living on a small island so beach is really all they know. 

The village kids were also excited to see us and shouted "hello" and "what's your name" as we walked through.  The people were very friendly, even getting some waves from the adults, as we headed to the area we knew to to be the ad hoc fish stand (a lady sitting in a little pagoda with a scale).  Unfortunately, she was indeed the fish lady and not the lobster lady - she just shook her head at our lobster inquiries.

So we set off deeper in to the town to what looked like a little convienient store.  Another shaking head.  We persisted and soon enough with a few "Salam ala cum" greetings (hello) followed by "Lobster" we found somebody that led us to a house.

Arriving at the house we found a guy sitting on the porch and a couple small children running around.  He yelled upstairs and a lady came out with a calculator - showing us the price for a kilo of lobster.  Ok - fair price based on what the lodge told us.  We'll take one kilo, please. 

Once agreed, we walked to the beach where a young man jumped in hallowed out tree canoe and headed to the refrigerator (remember, the cages held just off shore to store live fish?).  I can only imagine a floating container full of live lobster to choose from!  He came back with 5 live lobsters for us in a bucket.  After the weigh in, they were a little over a kilo so we negotiated a final tweak to the total price, handed over the cash and we were on our way with five wiggling lobsters in a plastic grocery store bag!  Job done, sweet!

Walking back was an interesting stroll with me occasionally jumping when the bag jumped due to a lobster flicking his tail in protest of the close quarters.  Steph got a good laugh at me a couple times but I would have liked to have seen her carry the bag! 

Strolling up to the lodge, all of the guys quickly noticed we were carring a bag full of lobster  shouting, "Lobster!".  We found the chef and gave them to him for cooking.  A big thanks to the chefs in the photo for a well prepared platter of lobster.  We enjoyed it steamed with a very nice garlic butter sauce and a spicy tomato soup on the side.  Delicious!  What a treat.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sand Volleyball: Spot The White Guy!

I forgot to mention that in the lodge there was a sand volleyball court.  Oddly, this sat idle until late in the afternoon about an hour before sunset when all of the locals would randomly just appear for a few games.  Sitting on our porch the first night they needed an extra player and I was in!
Usually teams were 3-6 which varied by how many people were on the island that day.  The quality was low but I'm not great at volleyball either.  Funny enough, I was one of the taller players so they always wanted me to block and spike which I happily obliged when I could!  Luckily the net was a little low and there weren't any touch the net rules.  Back and forth it went with some good skill occasionally.  Communication was a constant problem causing points to be won and lost on both sides followed by huge roars of laughter.  Oh and my team was normally the victor, rock!
The volleyball was such good fun.  Usually it was me and the Malaysian guys, so I was able to get to know a few of them.  Even though we didn't speak much we had the sports bond and respect for each other.  Soon enough I was one of the guys and somebody they looked for when it was game time.

As you can imagine after 3 games of volleyball each evening in the hot weather, it was off to take a dip in the ocean to cool off and catch the sunset!  You can see me diving in after a big win I'm sure...
Oh and see if you can spot the white guy in the photos...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mantanani - Sun and Sand

With a few days under our belt in KK, it was time to do what you should in the tropics - hit the beach!  After the long journey through the cold, remember this, we were in serious need of some sun, sand and just some R 'n R.  It was time to grab a book, put our feet up in a hammock and get off the grid for a few days.

There were two things we were looking for: an island getaway and some simple laid back beach huts without all the fuss.  Luxury, nah, just plain and simple location on the beach.  Que Mantanani Island, a couple hour drive out of KK and 45 minute speed boat ride off the coast of Borneo in the south China sea.

"Welcome to the Mantanani Backpackers Lodge, Mr Josh", said the young man which snapped me back to reality after staring out at the white sand and turquoise water as I stepped off the speed boat.  "Hello my friend, it's good to be here!"

On the island there are two small villages seperated by the lodge.  It was simple.  No porters, conceirge, mini bar, pool, and the electricity was only on from 6pm to 6am.  As with most "backpacker" style accommodation it was simple.  Two story huts with the ground floor being a porch complete with chairs and hammocks.  Inside the rooms there were mattresses on the floor and a fan in the corner.  In total there were 12 huts along with common shared bathroom facilities and a big covered dining area where you could order freshly cooked food any time of the day.  The menu was also simple: almost any variation of noodles, rice and seafood which was as fresh as it gets.  Each evening they would go out to the "refrigerator", a container floating in the ocean just off the shore full of live fish, to retrive the night's fish offering.  At dinner time you could just choose your fish.
Initially we had booked 3 nights at the lodge, but that quickly evaporated after days of swinging in the hammocks, strolls on the beach and sunsets in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu.  We found that the island was a popular day trip from KK for snorkelling and diving, with most people staying just one night.  Every morning around 11am it almost seemed like a scene out of the movie The Beach, as we looked up from our leisurely activities to eye the new arrivals on the island - wondering where they were from, whether they were daytrippers or more leisurely travellers, etc.  We felt supremely comfortable on Mantanani.  We wanted to extend our stay, but for how long…

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Kota Kinabalu & Seafood

To pick up where we left off - we landed in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia on the island of Borneo and we desperately needed summer clothes to fit the new tropical climate.  Sweaters and long sleeve shirts don't have much place when its HOT and HUMID.

Luckily there was a mall right across the street where we spent more time than needed trying to find the cheapest clothes that, err, actually fit!  We quickly found that the Malays are bit more petite than the average American - especially the ladies!  Josh had an easier time, whereas I was trying the largest size they carried and couldn't get them past my thighs!  This is an XL?  It looks like it would fit a 12 year old!  Uh oh.  But as luck would have it we found a "Factory Outlet Store" where they stocked Western brands we recognized.  Score!

So after several painstaking hours of shopping we headed down to the waterfront to grab some food and tour the market.  One of the other things we will take away from KK is the seafood.  It's everywhere for breakfast, lunch and dinner - in the rice, noodles and even the veggies are cooked with the little dried anchovies for flavor!  The variety is endless as well - huge squid and shrimp plus all types of fish.  As you'd expect at the markets there were numerous stalls selling the day's fresh catch.  Just walking through the stalls was fascinating, if not a little fishy dodging fish juice spilling off the stalls in flip flops!

The market had lots of stalls selling fresh fruit and veg along with rows of tables with a grill at the back and pre-cooked seafood at the front ready to be reheated and eaten.  It was fun to look at but the idea of pre-cooked seafood just didn't sit well with us...

Amongst all of the seafood we did find one non-fish dish that Josh loved.  Its a veggie dish made of pickled cucumber and carrot, mixed with fresh pineapple and fresh chili.  Pickled in this case means sort of a salad mixture that's had time to soak and mix the flavors.  It sounds as strange as it comes but it was basically sweet chili veggies!

In addition to some new clothes, Josh needed a hair cut and to shave off the beard - it wasn't fitting of the new tropical environment - haha!  He hated seeing the beard go - he had good fun being the token Westerner with a thick beard - but he felt refreshed afterwards.

We also hit up the Gaya Street Sunday market - like many other street markets we've seen they sell a little of everything and it was definitely interesting.  The thing we most coveted from the market was the coffee!  Our hostel was serving local coffee - it was so thick and rich - but unfortunately we had no way to brew it and they didn't really sell packages that were airtight enough to send home.  Oh well - it's left us with fond memories of a delicious cup of jo.   

Oh and for those wondering how long we could take the seafood noodles and rice dishes, we finally broke down and had a large Pizza Hut pizza.  Pepperoni!  I'm not gonna lie, it was good!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sky on Fire

This is going to sound cliché but the sunsets have been nothing short of unreal since we arrived in Malaysia.  Case in point:

We headed down to the boardwalk of restaurants on the water for dinner one evening after a grueling day of shopping for a new summer wardrobe.  I setup the tripod and remote trigger to save some effort while we relaxed and sat on the edge of the boardwalk.  Snap - right as the sun tucked away beyond the horizon.  It was a nice sunset, as you can see.  We smiled, pleased for a good ending to the day with our feet dangling over the water...

Being patient, we stayed for the encore - the sun isn't always done when it falls below the horizon - while others around us set off to source some dinner.  We learned this lesson a few years ago in Istanbul where we grabbed one of our all time favorite photos.  Funny enough, in that instance we bailed after what we thought was only a semi-spectacular sunset (kind of like the above) but lucked out later.  I digress.  

Anyway, a few minutes later we started to get some color.  Ok...some big color.  Looking at my watch is was still getting brighter nearly 20 minutes after the sun ducked under the horizon then...!  Brighter and brighter - more and more color!  Every wispy cloud was absorbing and reflecting an Easter-egg shade of color.  After a reposition, I captured the final image nearly 25 minutes after sunset with the water and sky both glowing like they were on fire.  Can you see Steph?  That was our view for this awesome display.

So please take this lesson with you...let sunset go for an encore.  The real show may only have just begun.

We will be back with a little more on Kota Kinabalu and our latest hangout, Mantanani Island, later.  Our little island paradise only has internet after they turn on the electricity from 6pm to 6am...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Forbidden City

What can I say about the Forbidden City - the infamous home to 24 emperors over a couple hundred years?  Dating back as far as the 1400s, its a huge complex of palaces, gardens and the royalty extravagance you'd expect.  On top of the 980 buildings, you can see artwork, golden cups, carved jade stones that took hundreds of horses and men to move from one side of the country to the other, along with narrow passages leading to gardens while hearing stories of empresses and concubines.  It's hard to imagine a time where EVERY one inside the walls had to be specifically allowed in by the emperor!  Not to mention the eunuchs (normally also servants) who carried their man hood around in little jars on their waist so they could be trusted not to infiltrate the royal blood lines.

Forbidden to all, just take a look at the security measures.  A 26 foot high wall surrounded by a 170 foot wide moat!  No wonder this place has a name like The Forbidden City.  People just had no idea what was inside the big walled city.  Now a days luckily it opens to visitors and not used as anything official.

Inside you start recognizing some of the symbolism at play in each of the buildings.  The outer buildings are arranged in groups of 3 to represent heaven while the inner buildings are arranged in groups of 6 representing earth.

At each entrance there are usually 2 gilded lions, one male and one female, guarding the doors (See the picture at the bottom).  Under the male lion's right paw is a ball representing imperial power.  Under the female's right paw is a baby symbolizing fertility.  We couldn't get over the women's claws and the baby...these were exceptionally detailed.

All of the buildings' roofs are glazed yellow tile, the color of the emperor. They are decorated with a man riding a phoenix leading a string of demons followed by an imperial dragon.  You can tell a building's importance by the number of little demons following the phoenix.  The more the better!  The one on the left was one of the main buildings used by the emperor while the one on the right is a minor building.  Only The Hall of Supreme Harmony had 10 demons.  No other building in imperial times could have that many.

And the buildings all have surreal sounding names:  Gate of Supreme Harmony, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Mental Cultivation, Gate of Divine Might, Palace of Tranquil Longevity and on it goes.

One other note.  We had read that the English audio guide was narrated by Roger Moore.  If it used to be, its not any more.  However, we did run into a tech upgrade in the tourist industry - GPS enabled audio guides!  You walk around and it just talks to you since it knows where you are.  It even had an electronic map with LED lights that lit up as you walked around.  Cool!  You can see Steph holding it in the photo.

Verdict - there wasn't as much to see as we expected, but it is full of ancient mystic, grand symbolism and historic significance.

More Forbidden City Photos

Temple of Heaven and Heavenly Bathrooms

The Temple of Heaven is one of the main symbols for Beijing as a city.  Its plastered everywhere.  First built in the 1400s this iconic building has been a driver for a lot of far east architecture over the years.  It is a complete wooden building without nails.  Frankly, it is one cool building!

To make a long story short, the Emperor of China was recognized as the son of heaven.  Twice a year he would come to pray and give sacrifices, showing respect to the heavens, for good harvests.  There is a long and complex ceremony that the Emperor himself had to perform.  It was believed that any small mistake in the ceremony would be a bad sign for the entire country in the next year.

Set inside a big park in Beijing, you can also see lots of Beijingers getting the day's exercise amongst the old cypress trees.  From hacky sack to yoga, to flag twirling, along with other wild and wacky exercise techniques.  Our favorite was the flag twirling.  A group of laides would gather, turn on some music and go to town twirling the flags.  This particular lady was exceptionally good with a very long flag.  It was cool watching as she whipped the flag around to the music trying to not let the flag touch the ground.  She was also gracious enough to let Steph have a try and give her a quick lesson.  Flick and turn your wrist as you twirl the flag, she motioned.  Steph eventually got the hang of it and made some fun flag shapes.

After a few hours of touring we stumbled into some heavenly bathrooms (see our previous post about rated bathrooms).  A four star rated loo!  Heavenly...

We also had a quick bite to eat and we've now well and truly learned that "spicy chicken" in China is beyond our spice comfort level!  When they say spicy they mean spicy!

I also put together this panoramic showing two of the other buildings in the complex.  We sat and had morning coffee with this view!  This place is a must for any visits to Beijing.  It was fun to photograph.  Here are the rest of the photos.

To round out the day we taxied over to a not-to-be-missed antiques market.  The Panjiayuan market sells everything from cheap trinkets to grand and expensive antiques (although you need to have a good eye to tell the real from the fake)!  After wondering a few rows we went around the corner, found another busy area, then rounded a corner again to find a huge roofed area as big as a warehouse with row after row of stuff!  Steph could have done some serious damage here if shipping it home weren't an issue!  We did walk away with a pair of Chinese dog bookends though which should make it back to KY in about 3 months time thanks to "surface" shipping from Beijing!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A few last Beijing notes

A couple more Chinese signs that made me smile...

I have a few more posts I need to write on some of the Beijing sites so be on the lookout for those.

In other news, Blogger, YouTube and Twitter have magically started working again!  Woohoo!

Flying south for the winter

We flew the coup, south, to Malaysia!

You read right - we left China and are now in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo in a city called Kota Kinabalu.  Its 85 F (30 C) degrees with 70% humidity as I sit here in the hotel lobby typing this blog.  For now it's a MUCH welcome change from the 25 F (-3 C) degrees in Beijing.

So why the big change?  Well, we weren't planning on making this big of a jump but two themes kept replaying.  First, after getting to China and investigating the many sites and activities across the country,  most of them would just be better with nicer weather - hiking, biking, exploring parks and temples, boats down the Yangtze, etc.  So, with Steph's just-in-case planning in getting us a double-entry Chinese visa, we decided we would see Beijing now and then come back and enjoy the rest of the country in a couple months.  Second, we were just flat tired of the cold!

We found a shockingly cheap flight on JetStar to Singapore and then another cheap flight over to Borneo.  Done.  Now the new plan is to work our way back up South East Asia where the weather is warm.

With our cheap fights to Kota Kinabalu, we had an odd 2:50am departure from Beijing and a long transfer in Singapore.  However, we did get one small surprise.  Singapore Airport.  This is a dream airport for a layover.  It's geared to be peaceful and help you pass the time.  They have a tropical butterfly garden (photo above), free foot massages, free movie theatre, roof top swimming pool, koi fish pond, outdoor cactus garden, sunflower garden, little crafts stations, the works!  Plus to top it off they play serene tranquil music throughout the entire place.  Lounging around you feel like you are floating on cloud 9.  For all the stress in travel, this is a good place to relax.

Upon arrival in Kota Kinabalu at 9pm we had one big problem.  We didn't have ANY warm weather clothes.  Shorts - no, Sandals - no,  and it was 79 night.

First things first, we put on the only t-shirts we had and headed to the outdoor clothes market to pick up some shorts (and a dress for Steph).  A little bad haggling later we both had a new, more suitable outfit, changed clothes and headed for dinner.

Across the street was a huge fish restaurant / market.  I really don't know how to describe this place.  It's a big outdoor structure with a mass of tables in the middle and fish restaurants surrounding it to make 3 sides of a square.  Out front of all the restaurants are lots of aquariums stocked full of seafood where you choose what you want to eat.  Talk about a new experience.  On top of the normal 10 people all trying to get you in their restaurant, you had to choose the live fish you wanted to eat!  The selection was huge but we had no idea which fish was what.  After finally choosing a place and sitting down to see the menu, we settled on a Black Pepper Beef dish with vegetable fried rice (because the seafood seemed strangely expensive and we weren't up for the challenge at 10pm).  It turned out to be a good decision not only because our dish was very tasty but the hostel owner told us afterwards that you could easily be ripped off buying seafood.

To eat seafood there you must always do the following: Choose your exact fish from the tank.  Literally point to it and watch them take it out of the tank.  The fish is priced per 100 grams so you have to watch them weight it and get an exact price for that fish.  From there the haggling kicks in.  You can negotiate a better price for the fish and all the extras you want with it - cooking style ( fried, boiled, steamed, bbq ), side dishes, dipping sauces, the works.  Once you agree a final price then you just have to hope they bring you the same fish on the plate.

Here is a short video clip of the Night Fish Market here in Kota Kinabalu to give you a better idea.

Sounds interesting for sure, but we think we'll now opt for the restaurant the hostel owner recommended to us - its much cheaper he said.

Now off to source a new tropical wardrobe...