The state of Penang may just be 5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur by bus but the difference in how I felt roaming the streets of these two were worlds apart.


Here's a little history: Penang served as a trading port between the East and the West during the British Era. With the presence of the British culture, combined with Chinese, Indian, and Islamic elements, Penang has developed a distinct character evident in the city's architecture and culture. Compared with the modern, Times-Square-ish vibe of Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur, Penang is laidback and feels like a haven for the arts.

George Town at dawn

We say that real beautiful women look their finest when they wake up in the morning sans the make up, au naturel. Penang therefore is a lovely lady aging gracefully.  At 4AM, while the world is yet to be disturbed in its sleep, George Town, the heart of this state, held us in its quiet beauty. 

Restoran Tho Yuen serves good dimsum, plus they open early too!
Starting at 4AM had its perks but by 5AM, we were all hungry. We found ourselves looking for some good food at an odd hour and luckily we spotted a Chinese restaurant along Campbell Street opening it doors. The place, with its tiled walls and floor, reminded me of Chinese eateries in the movies.

There was no itinerary for the day except that we go roaming in the streets because the inner city of George Town is best explored on foot.

Walking has a lot of perks. Aside from the calories burned, walking around George Town gave us the chance to read artsy street descriptions. Each street had a significant role in history. For example, Love Lane street was the sailors go-to place for brothels in the 19th century. It is also believed that the rich Chinese men from Muntri Street kept their mistresses on this street. Our hostel, Old Penang Guesthouse, is a refurbished heritage house located at this street. Who knows, it might have been more than a sleeping place that time. Love Lane now is a street where most hostels are found.

Walking is a treat!

Another good thing about walking is that you'll never know what you will end up seeing. We traversed a few blocks north of the hostel and we ended up facing the waters.

The view along Gurney Drive
Then we stumbled into a street of restored commercial buildings that looked like they were plucked straight from a Hollywood studio. Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai) is the high-end district of Georgetown where upscale restaurants and shops are located. This time I could not stop gushing about how much I already love Penang. I have repeatedly said that I am a sucker for all things quaint, and Penang has hit all spots - quaint, artsy, relaxed.

I would never forget the street arts that subtly pop out of nowhere. It made me wish we had the same pleasant surprise in the streets of Manila. Several museums can also be found in the Inner City ranging from a state museum to places for hobbyist, like the camera and chocolate museums.

I like how the Inner City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been restored in a way that the area is intact, functional, and informative without making us feel like we stepped into a huge tourist trap at the same time.

At the end of the day, we were tired and hungry from all the walking.This is not a problem in Penang since this state is the food capital of Malaysia (and that's according to my taste buds!). Everyone deserves a good feast after a whole-day workout. Penang food deserves another lengthy post.

Share your Penang experiences too!

** The map below is useful when coming up with your own Penang Walking Tour.

Map from http://www.pulaupinang.com/2011/03/penang-georgetown-world-heritage-city-cultural-city-map/
Braving reef breaks, riding waves, watching beautiful sunsets, all-night partying, staring at the beauty around you (AKA people-surfing), communing with nature, immersing in culture and arts, lounging by the beach, gorging in mouthwatering food, zipping through the streets in a motorcycle.. anything and everything that floats your boat, name it! Bali has all this in store for all kinds of people looking for their own brand of fun.
I stayed in the island in September 2013 and though I had doubts regarding the length of our stay (7 days felt too long), my thoughts on the plane going home was "When can I go back?"
I now understand why people who come over for a couple of days end up staying for months.

Let's start with the first thing that comes to mind... Eat.Pray.Love. by Elizabeth Gilbert. Don't come to Bali looking for your own Javier Bardem. If you don't get out of Kuta, all you will ever find are drunk good-looking people perfect for flings. If you're lucky you might find people who are genuine and inspiring like the group of locals we met at Kuta Beach.

Now that you have thrown out your cheesy (or sleazy!) purpose, look around and experience Bali.

What to See.Hear.Explore. in Bali 

At the top of the list is visiting the temples and seeing for yourself samples of world-renowned Balinese architecture. Although the contemporary Balinese style is seen anywhere in the island, spending a couple of days to explore the houses and temples outside of Kuta is a must.

It will be impossible to visit each one as there are thousands (and you can get temple-sick too), so here's a short list of temples worth seeing.

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Tourists flock to Ulun Danu Bratan for the cool climate (think Baguio) and the striking location of the temple. The complex is located by the Lake Bratan, surrounded by the mountains of Bedugul. A pagoda sits on a small island, separated from the rest of the complex. Boats on the other side of the temple are available for rent for those who want to sail.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan


Pura Taman Ayun is a picturesque complex with rows of pagodas separated from the temple gardens by a moat and a concrete wall.

Pura Taman Ayun 

Do not miss the chance to watch the sunset at Pura Luhur Uluwatu. The temple is situated on a cliff side with a pagoda looking over the sea. A Kecak Fire Dance performance (a must-watch!) is held every night in time for sunset. Remember to take care of your belongings while going around the temple since monkeys are common in this area. They might surprise you on the way.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

My personal favorite is Pura Gunung Kawi. After a 15-min trek through rice paddies and streams, a huge stone cliff with larger-than-life carvings await. Since the site is located in the midst of rice fields, you can hear the birds calling, the sound of the river flowing, and the sound of wind chimes in chorus.

Pura Gunung Kawi

Other temples that you can visit are: Goa Gajah which features a gaping mouth as a cave entrance and Tirta Empul where the Balinese bathe in the sacred spring with intentions for good health and fortune.

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The best way to visit the temples is to hire a taxi. The rates are usually from 400-450K rupiahs for 10 hours (haggling included). Note that the trip would usually go beyond 10 hours (the sites are 1-2 hours away from Kuta) so do make it a point to tip the driver generously. Our driver also divided the temples into 2 areas so we spent 2 whole afternoons for the visits.

Most temples also have entrance fees (usual rate at 30K IDR). Ladies on their period are not allowed to enter the temples as this goes against religious beliefs. Sarongs are also provided at the temple entrances and part of the fun is choosing a colorful cover-up.

After a tiring day of visiting temples, it is mandatory to get a bottle of Bintang while you sit back and wiggle your tired feet on the sand!

Coming up next on See.Hear.Explore. Bali: Life on the Beach!

I remember writing in 2012 that I welcome 2013 with anticipation for all the things that it might bring.
And it did bring things in little waves.
For one, I seem to have abandoned this space, with posts less than half the number of entries last year. I could blame it on writer's block, but the truth is, I simply did not find the time to spew something out.

I spent the first 3 months of 2013 holed up in Brunei, and though it did me good for my personal goals, it did not motivate me to write as much as I thought it would. I did spend a weekend away with friends in Singapore and wandered solo in Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia for CNY. But even with those, I only managed to come up with one for each.
Clockwise from top left: Brunei's Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque; Singapore's Henderson Waves Bridge; Chinese Temple preps in Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia; CNY celebrations

By summertime, I was busy reconnecting with friends back home. When you have been away for a few months, would you rather capture the time when you meet your friends and folks again or would you just want to stay in the moment? See. I thought so too. There goes Baguio, Samar, Batangas, Tagaytay, and Cebu.
Clockwise from top left: with my family in Sky Ranch, Tagaytay; a deserted beach near my Lolo's place in Daanbantayan, Cebu; brocolli-picking with friends in Baguio; La Luz in Laiya, Batangas; Baguio roadtrip; Liliputan Rock Beach in Eastern Samar
Towards the end of the year, Bali seemed to pull me out of the writing rut I was in, but with only one post after spending a week in The Island of A Thousand Gods, who was I kidding? The only thing that moved me to write was the moment of bliss by the beach. From September until December, I made 3 trips to Malaysia and as of posting time, I still have nothing to publish about Penang and Malacca. Never mind that Penang has been in my To-Go List for a couple of years now.
Clockwise from top left: Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia; by the river in Malacca, Malaysia; the lovely buildings in Penang, Malaysia; Uluwatu Temple in Bali; Christ Church in Malacca
I might sound bitter in 2013 when it comes to writing but that Bali post proved one thing: I now find it harder to write about subjects that really does not interest me or things that I find disenchanting. This space has turned from being helpful and informative to a deeply personal, almost reflective, travel blog. I even wrote a piece about homesickness and another one about surviving out there. At that time, I probably thought I was an expert.
Another thing is that my personal life has traversed a different road too. This year I have started cooking and I am on my way to eating healthy. Exercise has finally found its way back into my life through muay thai (which I love BTW). Priorities have changed and clarity seems within grasp.
2013 is the year when storytelling took a backseat, but looking back, it is possible that creativity just took on a new route. 2013 mellowed me out and tamed my ways a little but I am not complaining. In order to progress, one must evolve.  The new year can only mean new possibilities and the thought of the unknown excites me. 
I am ready, as always.
Wishing everyone a happy and sparkling new year filled with love and travels!
You should come to Brunei.
It won't be your usual busy place, but you should come because it's different. Brunei forces you to be calm and relaxed, and it even forces you to change your life.
I'm kidding of course. No place can change you without your permission.

If you ever find yourself in this little Borneo country, head on over to the Brunei River and schedule an afternoon tour, preferably just before sunset.

Visit Kampung Ayer, the world's largest water village

Kampung Ayer as seen from the Royal Wharf

From across the river, one might think that this is a slum area, much like what we see here in our country. But upon a closer look, you'll find a gasoline station, several mosques, and schools, all in stilts. Oh also, you'll find the houses with air-con and cable satellite dish installed.

One of the Kampung Ayer schools
Police Station
Cruising through the Brunei River
Oh and did I mention there's a government housing too?

Kampong Ayer is accessible via water taxis, found along the Royal Wharf in Bandar. You can hire a boat to tour around the village and to go deep into the mangroves to see the proboscis monkeys. If you have ample time, you can ask the boatman to wait for you as you explore Kampong Ayer on foot. Haggle with the boatman as they tend to have a high asking price. Mine asked for 50BND but I haggled for a couple of minutes before we finally agreed at 30BND. I heard some people were able to bring their fare down to 15BND though.


Historical Sites


The boatman will take you upstream and deeper into the mangrove. On the way you will pass by historical sites such as this one. The photo below is of the old Royal Cemetery, where generations of the Royal Family used to be buried.

On the river banks you will also see the Royal Family's jetty port as well as the dome of the Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan of Brunei and is recognized as the largest residential palace in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. Interestingly, the palace was designed by Leandro Locsin, a Filipino architect. Too bad it is not open to the public and we can only see the dome.

Now, compare that speck of dome with the photo below.

That used to be the official residence of the Sultan, before oil was discovered in Brunei. See what riches oil can bring to a country?


Spot the Proboscis monkeys

AKA the long-nosed monkeys. Note that this specie is endemic to Borneo. You can find them half an hour away from Kampong Ayer. The area will grow quieter and you will be enveloped in an endless sight of mangroves.

The boatman will then try to spot where the proboscis monkeys are. They live in groups and are usually easy to spot. When you hear leaves thrashing and honking sounds, you will most likely find them there.

Monkey mob!
The Godfather

I felt funny after seeing a proboscis monkey. The resemblance of this specie to how some of us humans look like is amusing and eerie at the same time. Long nose and big belly, I'm pretty sure that would remind you of someone you know. Kidding!

The truth is, I'm quite scared of dark, murky fresh waters. I can't help but picture crocodiles and snakes lurking nearby. However, seeing the proboscis monkeys in their habitat from a few feet way entertained me more than I thought it would. Plus the novelty of seeing people luxuriously living in the water piqued my interest. And just so you know, most people who live in Kampong Ayer have their cars parked across the river. How cool is that?

I keep telling people that I enjoyed my stay in Bali and I keep getting questions in return. Why? What's in Bali? If there's one reason why you should visit Bali, the answer is in that photo. 
We could always argue that we have a better sunset by the beach in Boracay, with the finest, white sand, but Bali makes up for it with its endearing, laid back and never-pretentious vibe. 

No permanent structure can be found on the wide stretch of sand, but vendors are allowed to pitch umbrellas, bring plastic chairs, and sell ice-cold Bintang from their ice boxes. The beach is separated from the streets and the restaurants by a tall, white wall, effectively isolating the beach from the rest of the traffic. 
One of the entrances leading to the beach, built in Balinese-architecture style
Most restaurants have roofdecks facing the beach for people who want to see the sunset but do not want to get sand on their feet. Who does that anyway? The best place to catch the sunset is by the beach, sitting on the sand, with a Bintang in hand.
On the first afternoon that we spent on Kuta Beach, we luckily found a bunch of spirited Indonesians. The owner, together with his crew, lives in a hostel just like everyone else you meet on the road.  The guy is from Jakarta but he moved recently to Bali after realizing that all life is not about money and possessions. He made the move after it dawned on him that he feels most at peace in Bali. My heart was glad when I heard him say that. This type of people, I call them the enlightened ones, never fail to awe me. Few people have realized this, and even fewer have done something about it. So we bought a couple of beers, waited for the sunset, and sat there until it was late. The night ended with candles and guitars and singing. My heart was soaring with unexplained calm and contentment.
The next day, we went back to the same spot on the beach and found a huge gathering of people seated in a circle, taking turns in singing. They organized a cocktail afternoon, where everyone chips in cash and someone runs to get drinks from the grocery store. Add a little bit of mixing here and there and then there's cocktails for every one! So from 7 people the previous night, the group ballooned to almost 30 people of different ages and races, sitting on the beach with candles on the sand, singing whatever song that comes to mind. 
I could go on forever about about my sunset experience in Bali, but my point here is that there are pockets of time when you feel sudden, arresting happiness and one of mine happened in Bali, by the beach, while watching the sunset and while singing random songs with people I barely know. I'm not saying that it will be the same experience for every one, nor am I saying that it won't. For some reason, the universe conspired, all became clear, and it happened to me. Bali has made me happier in a personal, beyond words kind of way. 
Because of that, I shall find my way back.