Tuesday, 17 April 2012

10 days in Sabah and Sarawak!!!

I must start by saying Sabah is one awesome state!!!! It is sooo underrated I want to cry!!! You can do everything in one state!!! You can climb up Mount Kinabalu (4,095 metres above sea level!!), you can dive around Sipadan Island (top 5 dive site in the world), you can stay in a longhouse (there are 32 ethnic groups!), check out Orang Utans and proboscis monkeys (I call em dickface monkey), just to name a few.

A couple things that I recommend:

. I've had locals laughing at me for wanting to go there. Land of rocks and wind, they say. Thank god I went anyway. And staying at Tampat Do Aman definitely made the experience worthwhile.

Tip of Borneo is literally what it is. It is were the Sulu Sea and the South China Sea meets. Being there at sunset is breathtaking. At Tampat Do Aman, which is run by Howard Stanton, a friendly British chap married to a Rungus girl, you can rent a bike and bike around the area. There are at least 3 private, pristine beaches in the area. Absolutely untouched. GORGEOUS.

I would camp out there the next time I go back. Howard also conducts survival classes in the jungle, which I didn't get a chance to try but would love to.

At night, the stars littered the sky. Down below, the water sparkled with tiny bright blue dots. I think they were plankton or smtg. And then, I swear this happened. I was looking up at the moon, on the beach...you know how the moon is always "following" you? This one, was following us, and then it just accelerated and overtook us!!!! Unbelievable!

Anyways back at Tampat do Aman, it has a longhouse type room as well as little huts with tents in them. The toilet is very eco-friendly. It looks like a toilet but it there is no flush. So once you've done your business, there is a bag of dirt for you to "bury" your end product. As for the shower, it does not have a roof and it opens out to the jungle. There isn't any hot water but the combination of refreshing cold water and the view made it an awesome shower. I didn't want to get out!

It was an awesome experience, not to mention the local Rungus community which was very friendly and welcoming!

Next, SEPILOK Rehabilitation Centre/Rainforest Discovery Centre/Proboscis Monkey Labuk Bay (I heard there will be a rehab centre for sun bears - the smallest bear species, soon)

I stayed at Sepilok Jungle Resort for RM30 a night in a mix dorm-style room. The resort is run by a local Hakka family. The stay was good but the food and laundry was extremely overpriced. It was really close to the Orang Utan rehab centre though.


I have heard great reviews for Uncle Tan's package (lodging and tour). I was told the price was reasonable and the experience was well worth it.

I did go up the river, but I wouldn't recommend the package that I took which was overpriced and wasn't all that great.

Up this river, if you're lucky, you'll get to see pygmy elephants, crocodiles, orang utans, Macaque monkeys, and all sorts of birds.

And of course any of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. The marine park is a cluster of islands comprising Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulug, all only 10 - 20 minute speedboat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu.

I went to Pulau Sapi on recommendation and I loved it!

I also called boatman Idrus (016-8472129) to bring me around Pulau Gaya to check out the seagypsy community. It was an interesting experience to see how they live.

Back in Kota Kinabalu city, I went to Top 10 Restaurant in Donggongon. They serve all kinds of exotic meat from snake (python), crocodiles, bats, and one dish to try is Hinava.

It is a Kadazan Dusun dish, also known as pickled Spanish mackerel (ikan tenggiri). This is an absolutely delicious combination of spanking fresh fish, red chillies, shredded ginger and sliced shallots, the whole lot drenched with lime juice which 'cooks’ the fish. The beer is very cheap as well. RM3 for a can of Red Horse beer (produced by San Miguel). They have at least 10 different kind of imported beer. I must warn you though, during dinner, you can see rats and roaches hanging out there as well. ;)

I had couchsurfed in KK so I cannot recommend any hostel but I met a couple people who stayed at Borneo Beachhouse. It is near the airport and no complaints so far.

There is also the MONSOPIAD CULTURAL VILLAGE in KK. Nestled besides the Penampang River are the many traditional buildings that make up the Monsopiad Cultural village, a living museum located 16 km or about half an hour away from the KK City Centre. Monsopiad was a fearsome warrior who lived in the village of Kuai nearly 200 years ago.

At the village, there are Kadazan dance performance, a quick tour/guide about their traditional games and..... their alcoholic beverages. There are Tapai/LeeHing and Talak for you to try, which was the highlight of the tour, to me at least. They also sell Tapai in bottles.

And Qbar on Thursdays! Please do not go there if you're uncomfortable with your own sexuality. We were entertained by a bunch of cross-dressers lip-synching to the likes of Whitney Houston to Mariah Carey. I must say they were really good!

And then there is Kuching. To be honest I didnt enjoy the city much. But if you do want to give the city a chance, I recommend staying at Singgahsana Lodge for RM30 a night in a mixed dorm. And I DO NOT RECOMMEND doing the river cruise for RM19. Take the Tambang(river taxi) for RM0.50 and walk around the Malay villages. Much cheaper and better way to see part of the city. The next time I go back to Sarawak, I'll definitely hit the Mulu Caves. I also went to ANAH RAIS longhouse which was about an hour away, and I felt it was overpriced and overrated.

I did liked the Sarawak Cultural Village. Tucked away at the foothills of legendary Mount Santubong, 35 km from Kuching is Sarawak's fascinating cultural showcase, which is also the venue for the World Harvest Festival and the Rainforest World Music Festival, an internationally renowned festival.

This living museum depicts the heritage of the major racial groups in Sarawak and conveniently portrays their respective lifestyle amidst 14 acres of tropical vegetation. It is a good way to see Sarawak's ethnic diversity at a glance.

I didn't get a chance to see Bako National Park... so another one my list to check off.

So there! My little Borneo experience.... there is definitely much more to see... I'll be back soon!!!!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Seven days in Seoul, South Korea

Seeing Seoul for the first time, my way.

1.00 MYR = 372.458 KRW

Sat - Jan 28

6:45 am Touched down at Incheon Airport, took the bus "limousine" (it's just a nice bus - not a limo at all) for 15,000 won to Lotte Hotel, Jamsil.

I was surprised to find my phone wasn't working even with roaming services... apparently Japan and Korea are on a 4G network or smtg... too high tech for us Malaysian phone services

Matt (my British friend who is working here as an English teacher) came and got me in a cab at about 9am... we crashed for a couple hours.

2:00 pm We went to a popular shopping area, Myeongdong. There we had Matt's favourite, Kim Chi jigae (a variety of jjigae, or stew-like Korean dish, made with kimchi and other ingredients, such as scallions, onions, diced tofu, pork, and seafood, although pork and seafood are generally not used in the same recipe)

As usual I made my round at H&M and bought some hepi socks for my friends.

When we got back, Matt bought Kimbap (Gimbap or kimbap is a popular Korean dish made from steamed white rice (bap) and various other ingredients, rolled in gim (sheets of dried seaweed) and served in bite-size slices. 2,000 won from Family Mart.

It looks like the Japanese Futomaki.

As for dinner, we went to get Chicken and Beer at Love Me Tender with Ben, a fellow English teacher from Columbus, Ohio. Apparently fried chicken tenders and beer is like a big thing in Seoul. Every corner you turn, there is a chicken and beer place. It's the perfect combo, really.

After that, we went to Sincheon station, which is only one stop away. We went to Western Gold Bar, had a couple Hite dry finish beer (2,000 won a bottle). There was a bunch of drunk American girls taking picture with the Korean staff with their mustache-drawn fingers over their lips. Classy.

Then we found Ho Bar. Yes I love the name too. Apparently it's a huge chain of bars in Seoul. They were out of beer, so we had vodka and cranberry juice all night. I made friends with 2 Korean girls. One was extremely drunk and loved me to bits, and another more sober and really pretty. And then the 2 bitches next to their table started bitching to the sober one. If this had happened anywhere else, I was sure a catfight would ensue. Instead, the girl was kinda responding to their bitching, in a very ladylike way.

At that point, I was a little angsty and was overly-protective over my new found friends. Yes, it happens after consuming that much alcohol, at that time of the night. I found out that they were bitching bout that drunk girl, saying she was acting like a whore. I would curse them out.... if only I spoke Korean, or they, English. Feeling frustrated, I went to the bar manager instead and ask if they throw people out of bars in Korea. I said those bitches were harassing my friend. I said I would even pay for their drinks to shut them up.

Then he sent one of the waiters over and spoke to them. It was settled immediately. I was trying to get Matt or Ben to find out what he had said but their Korean was too limited to understand. Oh well.

At some point, we left the bar and took the taxi back. Apparently, (according to Matt) the taxi was taking us in circles, even though we were only about 5 minutes away from Ben's house. In the end, he just paid him 3,000 won (the metre came up to about 7,000 won) and got out of the taxi.

Before I know it, the taxi driver was holding on to Matt, and yelling something in Korean. Being a little tipsy and not knowing Korean, I really didnt know what to do. Matt just told me to go far, far away and he was going to make a run for it. The taxi driver was holding on to his belt loops, using both hands! He said he was gonna punch him in the gut and run off.

So I ran off, and waited around for like 10 minutes. And then decided I could scare the taxi driver with my swiss army knife (yes, these are the times you are grateful you always have it on u). But then before that I had to pee... so I squat between 2 cars and did my business.. and then a cop car drove by me. I think one of em actually saw me.

In the end, the taxi driver left after the cops interfered. But at that point, we still had no idea where we were. Then all of a sudden Matt said the building actually looked like the back of his apartment (carpark).

All I wanted to go home at that point. So I jumped about a 5-feet down, sliding down the side, to see if it was his apartment. The whole time the cops were yelling at me telling me not to jump.

Matt followed suit and sure enough. We were home. And this was how I spent my first night in Seoul.

Attempting to knife the taxi driver, peeing in front of the cops, and jumping off buildings.

Sun - Jan 29

9:00 am Matt's three alarm clocks were going off!! we were up and went to Gangnam subway station to get the bus to Jisan Forest Resort to get some snowboarding done. We ended up going to the wrong location and after running around for about two hours, traveling about for three, we finally called it quits, headed back to the apartment to just chill out for a bit.

We went to get some Korean BBQ on the way home, and stuffed our face with meat. It was delicious but really, at that point, we were cold, tired and hungry. Anything would taste good.

Later at night, we went to a Kimbap store around the corner. (Kimbap restaurants chains are the healthy equivalent to fast food joints. The meals they sell are often thought of as “simple home foods”, which are made quickly and sold cheaply. Most of the dishes on the menu is under 5,000 won. Kimbap (sushi rolls), jigae (stews), ramen or udon (noodles dishes) and rice meals such as bibimbap are all standard platter of most kimbap shop. There is a water dispenser (free), and you can get unlimited kimchi and soup!!

I tried Jjajangmyeon for the first time for 2,500 won.(a popular Korean dish, derived from the Chinese dish zha jiang mian. It consists of wheat noodles topped with a thick sauce made of chunjang (a salty black soybean paste), diced meat and vegetables, and sometimes also seafood).

Mon - Jan 30

9:00 am I went to the artsy Insa-dong Street. The souvenir shops have a pretty good selection and price lower than a lot of other tourist areas. There were also a lot of restaurants tucked away in the many alleys along the street.

It was a really cold morning. So I had a Ho Ddeok (호떡) (The flour shells are filled with cinnamon and sugar. They were deep-fried in oil. Each one is 1,000 won.

I went to Jongno Gwanhun restaurant famous for it's dumpling soup or manduguk. (a variety of Korean soup (guk) made by boiling mandu (dumplings) in a beef broth.) There were only three in the soup but they were huge!!! there were also some beef slices (6,000 won).

After that, I walked to City Hall station. I kept walking in circles but cant find the building!!! There was a UN exhibition on the North/South Korean war from 1950-1953. Pretty interesting stuff. After that, I took the train to Dangdaemon station. Everyone said I have to go there for shopping. So went, and saw a stall selling Tteokbokki. (also known as Ddeokbokki is a popular Korean snack food which is commonly purchased from street vendors or Pojangmacha. Originally it was called tteok jjim (떡찜), and was a braised dish of sliced rice cake, meat, eggs, and seasoning (similar to Chinese Malaysian chilli sauce)) usually a bowl of hot soup comes with it (2500 won).

I failed to find the famous Dongdaemon area again and instead went to Dongdaemon shopping centre. It turned out to be a textile wholesale mall. Two failures in one day!!!

So I took the bus and the subway back to Matt's.

We went to get dinner at this famous noodle place with Ben. I really like the lamein type noodle with lala. The restaurant actually makes the noodles infront of the customers.

After that, Ben went off to the gym. Yeah, I know. Matt and I went to Cheers bar around the corner. The jug of Cass beer was massive!! and it was only 14,000 won.

Tues - Jan 31

8:00 am Matt and I took the taxi to Lotte Mart which is literally next to Lotte Department Store and thank God, this time, the shuttle bus showed up. I was off to Yangji Ski Resort which is about an hour away. There was a couple from Hong Kong with their little girl on the bus. It was nice to hear a familiar language.

The ski lift and the snowboard rental came up to 72,500 won, inclusive of a 30 per cent discount for foreigners. Not too bad I would say, considering it was from 9am to 5pm.

I love snowboarding but to be honest, I've only done it twice before. The first time at Vermont and the second somewhere in Michigan. So I was a little rusty and I thought the snowboots looked a little different. I didnt even know how to tighten it!

Anyways, I was kind of hanging around by one of the ski lift, just kinda surveying my surroundings, really had no idea what I'm gonna do. Then I decided to ask a girl where the beginner's route was. Surpriseee!!!!! she spoke in English!!! So I asked if I can tag along with them coz I really had no idea what I was doing. She said ok!

So that girl, Emily, is a 16-year-old Korean high schooler and she was with about 5 others schoolmates. They didn't mind that I tagged along.

Fun bunch I would say. They were "impressed" with my snowboarding abilities. They were far too kind... While I wasn't afraid of the height or the level of the route, and I barely fell, I wasn't really using the right techniques and Emily actually tried to teach me the right way. But she kinda gave up.

Oh well. They had to leave at about 11 plus anyway. So we said our goodbyes. I went to get some lunch, and then back to snowboarding. By about 3pm, it was snowing hard and without googles, it was really hard to see where you're going, especially at that speed. So I kinda just chilled out, read my book, ordered a roll of Kimbap for 2,500 won and a cup of soup.

5:20 pm Time to board the bus back to Jamsil. It was snowing hard at this point and we had only gotten back at about 7 pm.

It took forever for the taxi driver to figure out Matt's address when I got in at Lotte Hotel. Thank God, finally he figured it out and with the help of his GPS, he got me back to Matt's apartment.

9:30 pm I took a shower and immediately headed off to Itaewon (a very American city district). When I finally found Braai Republic bar, a bunch of couchsurfers were already there. Elliot, a friend I met during my internship in Washington DC back in Fall of 2007 was there already. ChanMin, whom I've met a couple months ago in Malaysia was there as well. It was kind of weird coz most of the people there were Americans... didn't feel like I was in Korea at all.

We did some catching up, met a couple of people, and then headed to another bar (full of Americans as well) for some wings and Cass Beer. I was dead tired by then and decided to catch the last subway back. I made it just in time, and then walked back from the subway station to Matt's apartment. This was about 1:30 am. It was a 30 minute walk. I gotta admit I was a little paranoid at first. But seeing all kinds of "normal-looking" people walking about, guys, girls, young and old walking about, I felt better. South Korea is generally a safe place.

Weds - Feb 1

I really just lazed around today. Went on Facebook, check my emails. I only went to the Kimbap store around the corner for lunch spicy seafood noodle soup for 4500 won). Then came back.

When Matt got back from work, we went to Coex Mall. It is a huge, weirdly shaped mall. We got dinner at the food court. KimChi, some meat with rice 9500 won. ChanMin came to meet us after work at about 9pm, and then we went to a nearby bar for drinks. The whole time we were there, every customer was a Korean men. He said it's common in Korea that male colleagues only invite other meal colleagues for drinks after work. Apparently because most girls or women have their men or family to return to. Also, at hoff bars (most Korean bars), you cant just order drinks. You have to order a dish as well.

Thurs - Feb 2

6:15 am I got to Lotte Hotel, a little too early as the pick up was at 7am. Oh well, better early than to miss the pick up.

Along the way, the driver picked up an Australian guy from Sydney, and then we were transfered to a small bus. Our guide was Yana, a cute Korean girl. There were a Singaporean couple, a girl form Hong Kong, an Indian guy from South Africa, and another Australian older lady with us.

Yana was telling us a little about the history of South Korea as well as the war with North Korea. She said the government is starting to collect unification taxes this year to prepare to be united with North Korea. She also said that defectors were given USD25,000 for them to start their new life in South Korea.

The last stop was at a souvenir shop at the unification village (or known as Tongilchon is in the northern area of the Civilian Control Line and has 133 families and a total of 493 residents. There is an agricultural marketing center here sells local farm produce) This is where I bought a can of silkworms.

The bus dropped me off at a famous restaurant known for their ginseng chicken soup or samgyetang. (a variety of guk or Korean soup, which primarily consists of a whole young chicken and Korean ginseng. It is also stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng, dried seeded jujube fruits, garlic, and ginger.

7:00 pm We went to a Korean BBQ place near Matt's school. Michelle, their colleague, a Korean girl joined Ben, Matt and I. I tried Makgeolli fo the first time! (also known as Makkoli or Makuly(takju) (and referred to in English as "Korean rice wine"), is an alcoholic beverage native to Korea. It is made from a mixture of wheat and rice, which gives it a milky, off-white color, and sweetness. It is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled rice, wheat and water, and is about 6–8% alcohol by volume)

It was served in a bowl and Michelle said it's tradition to bottoms up your first drink. I think I like it because of the tinge of sourness to it. We also had soju with beer (called somaek, a portmanteau of the words soju and maekju (맥주 beer)) two shots of soju (a distilled beverage native to Korea. Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to sugars added in the manufacturing process. It is usually consumed neat)

For unlimited meat, it was 10,000 won a person and with the alcohol, we paid a total of 15,000 won a person. What a deal!!!

Then we walked to a German bar for a couple German beers. Clair, a scottish English teacher came to join us as well!

Fri - Feb 3

I was supposed to drop by the YBM school to join one of Matt's classes but the other kids were having exams and I would be a "distraction". Oh well. So I took a taxi to the Garak fish market instead. It's only about 5 minutes drive.

The market was massive. I went to a lady who was just sitting in front of the heater, daydreaming, and asked her where I can find live octopus or Sannakji. (is a variety of hoe, or raw dish, in Korean cuisine. It consists of live nakji (a small octopus) that has been cut into small pieces and served immediately, usually lightly seasoned with sesame and sesame oil. The nakji pieces are usually still squirming on the plate)

By asking I meant point at the Korean characters in my little notepad that says live octupus). Coincidentally, she has em. She signaled me to come into a shop and pointed at an aquarium/tank filled with octupus. Then she started speaking to me in Mandarin. I was thankful and started conversing in my awful but comprehensible Mandarin. She asked me to pick my octupus. I really had no idea which one to pick. So she randomly picked one out of the tank. I had a splash of fishy water in my face coz its tentacles were moving about frantically. Prolly realising it's fate. It was 10,000 won for one octupus.

She showed me where I can get it served. So I held the squirimg octopus in a black plastic back and walked about two blocks to a restaurant. The lady also spoke mandarin, and I asked her to cut it up. I ordered a bottle of soju as well (9,000 won)

After that, I went to Coex Mall and tried to look for a restaurant that serves black pork (The pig is bred in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, under the trademarked name Kagoshima Kurobuta (かごしま黒豚, lit. Kagoshima black pig) So I went back to the mall and had beef udon soup instead.

Then I checked out the KimChi museum for 3,000 won.

After that I headed back to Matt's at about 4pm. Took a short nap until he got back. We then went to the same Kimbap store again and I had my favourite Jajangmyeon.

We then went to Gangnam by taxi. And went to Woodstock bar to meet some of Matt's friends as well as ChanMin. Again, it was filled with Americans... a majority of them English teachers. The wall behind the bar was filled with vinyls. After a couple of beers, I fell asleep in the bar!!!

When I woke up, we were going to a Noribang (translates directly as 'Song Room') I'm really not a fan of Karaoke but it was pretty fun this time around. Being tipsy and just yelling out lungs out. We sang some Spice Girls number, to Red Hot Chilli Peppers. ChanMin and Matt even sang to a couple Girls Generation songs!!

5:00 am Time to go! We said our goodbyes, took a taxi back, and then I headed out by 6:00 am. Took a taxi to Lotte Hotel, where I bought a ticket for the bus limousine. By 6:15 am, I was on the bus.

Sat - Feb 4

Bye Korea!!! I'll be back soon enough.... and in the meantime, I'm gonna tell the world how awesome you are!!!!!!!