As I start planning for a return trip to Malaysia in June, I got to thinking about the mountain of pictures and stories I need to share about the last few months of travel. I think I fell in love with Malaysia in the Cameron Highlands.
March 1, Day 22: After a mishap with missing my bus to the Cameron Highlands, speeding in a taxi across town to catch up with the bus, and then a three hour nauseating ride through the lovely mountains of Malaysia, I arrived to the fresh air and green rolling hills of Tanah Rata. I had been messaging a couchsurfer to meet up for dinner, and Jubayed kindly showed me his restaurant. Jubayed is a friendly guy from Bangladesh living in Tanah Rata with dreams of opening up his own restaurant in Banglash some day. After a beer, we planned for the next day to motorbike around the area.
March 2, Day 23: After hitchhiking from my Airbnb in Brinchang back into Tanah Rata, I met up with Jubayed and jumped on the back of his motorbike. And we were off to our first destination of Robinson Falls. Look at how excited we were!
On our hike there we abruptly turned a corner and interrupted a orang asli (indigenous man) showering in the forest. We hiked ahead quickly to this amazing view:
And this cool photo meant for a postcard:
After the falls we motorbiked to the Bharat tea plantation and admired the views over a cup of fresh tea.
Jubayed suggested we hike around the plantation. We got adventurous and climbed up the muddy steep sides of the green hills to the top – what a view!
A few minutes after this picture was snapped I slipped on the climb down and embraced the muddy butt the rest of the day.
Tea leaves for miles.
After tea and lunch, we ventured on to a temple atop a mountain.
And a flower farm!
Then some dinner at a local spot Jubayed suggested. Maggi goreng hits the spot.
What a great day with a great guide! Thank you Jubayed for the wonderful company.
March 3, Day 24: Another day, another tea plantation to explore. I joined in a jeep tour to BOH plantation and got another eyeful of rolling green hills.
After the tea plantation we rode up to the Mossy Forest. It’s as ominous and beautiful as the name suggests. Once you enter the forest, you’re surrounded by mist and everything is covered in moss.
Then on to the butterfly farm, which was pretty underwhelming.
I spent the rest of the day searching for a sewing kit, sewing my ripped pants, and planning my next few days. I was chatting with another couchsurfer, Matt, about meeting up in the Highlands, and he told me about a surf in Kampung Raja, about 20 minutes away, that he was at and was loving. Although I felt like I had seen all there was to see in the Highlands, I decided one more night wouldn’t hurt.
March 4, Day 25: I got up early and hoped the Saturday traffic out of Brinchang would yield someone willing to pick up a lone hitchhiker (note: there are no buses or taxis in Brinchang. I promise you ma, this is the only way to get around!). Only a few minutes of standing around at the side of the road landed me in the backseat with this incredibly sweet 6 year old and her elementary school parents. I learned how to count to 10 in Malay from her, and was kindly dropped off at the Westwood Highlands hostel in Kampung Raja.
Little did I know I was about to have the BEST TRAVEL DAY OF MY LIFE!
Okay, that’s a pretty big statement, but it was a wild day. As soon as I walked into the hostel, Matt was there to meet me and introduce me to three Lithuanian friends traveling together. Lina, Tadas, and Martynas were only a few days into their grand adventure in Asia, much like Matt and I. The five of us set off to explore the area, knowing we would probably have to split up in order to hitchhike. I mean, who can really pick up 5 adults at once?
SO MANY. That’s who. Our first hitch came in the form of a pick-up truck and a bunch of curious new friends.
Our next hitch to the tea plantation was a miracle of sorts – out of nowhere, a swarm of motorbikes started passing by. Lina and I jokingly asked for a ride, and then suddenly all 5 of us were catching rides with a group of bikers from Malacca.
So many selfies. Everyone was excited.
They were literally posing us in photos. After too many charades of ‘here, put on my helmet and get on my motorbike and we’ll take pictures of you’, Lina and I decided it was getting about time to leave our biker gang friends.
Just a group of backpackers giddy about tea plantations!
Off to the mossy forest, again. Still so cool from 6,666 ft above.
It’s not about the destination, but the journey. This day had me smiling for many weeks. This is the world’s best hitchhiking crew right here, the DREAM TEAM.
For some reason the motorbike group had us making this sign? Glad we got this captured in a picture.
A quick little hike through the mossy forest after eating roti on the side of the road.
Oh Tadas, how did you not get muddy at all?!
Matt found a smelly pitcher plant with a snack inside.
After the forest we started our hike down, sad to be without any free rides in the back of trucks. But then we saw this little guy.
DREAM TEAM DREAM TEAM DREAM TEAM!
And finally we got another hitch! All the way to a place with a plate of this. Delicious, although the name escapes me.
We got back to the flower farm/hostel by sundown, and guess who I found? TONI! Toni and I had met a few nights before in Penang at a couchsurfing meetup. To see him again was one of the warmest feelings. After a day of hiking around, drinking a few beers (okay maybe 7) and trading stories was the best end to the day.
March 5, Day 26: Sadly, Lina, Tadas, and Martynas left for Penang and the Westwood Highland group got a little smaller. I spent the day doing some data viz work and enjoyed dinner with the remaining crew.
March 6, Day 27: My last day in the Cameron Highlands was a slow morning of flower packing with all of the other couchsurfers and work-aways.
Eli and Jonas had been with Westwood Highlands working for a few days.
Again, another wild travel story to come about the sweet gal pictured here! Hannah showed up on my first night at the hostel and we parted ways with no knowledge of the other’s travel plans… little did we know we would run into each other again soon 🙂
I said goodbye to the flower farm and started by journey to the supposedly charming town of Ipoh (more on that later and how Lonely Planet lies). The brother of the owner of Westwood Highlands dropped me at the side of the road and reassured me I would have no problem finding a ride. An hour later, Limam from Mauritania picked me up and provided me with the funniest, most interesting ride to Ipoh, in trade for my company and travel stories. I hope we meet again.
Next up, Ipoh!
Sometimes it takes a lot of coffee and thinking and sketching to figure out the best way to visualize data. Yesterday on my bus ride between Phnom Penh and Sihanouk, Cambodia, I was struck with the opposite problem: I can think up many, many ways to express my country-bouncing over the last three months. This is the fun part with data viz. I have the data points, I have the idea of what I want to tell you about, now I just need to figure out how displaying the data in slightly different ways can tell a completely different story. Let’s start with the boring, texty description of what I want to visualize, and I’ll walk through each of the ways (Options 1-4) I can visualize it for different effects.
OPTION 1: WRITING IT OUT
When asked where I’ve been in the past 3 months (my colleague recently emailed, “where in the world is Steph these days?!”), I have a slightly complicated answer of the countries and the odd order I chose to travel. I spent a week in NYC with my friend and then started in Thailand for 12 nights, traveled to Singapore for 2 nights, Malaysia for 20 nights, back to Thailand for 7 nights, Vietnam for 30 nights, and then to Cambodia for 12 nights (technically not yet 12 days, since I’m publishing this on the 27th of April, but I know I’ll at least be in Cambodia until mid May).
Okay, that’s the meat of the data points. Boring? Yes. I hate reading anything that could be easier to understand in a visual format. You get the facts, and this is the short answer I give people who ask (probably as part of the top 10 questions we all start with).
OPTION 2: CALENDAR VIEW
This is my favorite way to visualize data that has to do with dates. It’s also the best visual I’ll share that adds the interpretation needed to understand why my travel is less straight-forward than just country-to-country. In the calendar, you can see where I doubled back into Thailand. You also get a better sense of where I spent most of my time (Vietnam so far). In Option 1, mentioning Singapore takes up so much more text space than the little blip on the calendar the time there is allotted. I’m also quite partial to anyhting that looks like a Google Calendar, because if you know me well you know my life is run on Google Calendar.
OPTION 3: GRAPH
This option is okay, but it only answers the questions of “what countries have you been to?” and “how long were you there for?” You don’t get the extra information about the pattern of where I went and in what order, which feels important to me. I think my opinions of places have changed as I have more experience in Asia; I can’t imagine having Vietnam as my first taste in Asia and staying for as long as I did. Seeing this graph doesn’t show the countries I visited before Vietnam and how maybe you could conclude that I started traveling more slowly since it was deeper into my travels and I was tired of moving around so quickly. Either way, this graph is the same data as the text in Option 1.
OPTION 4: MAP
I’m not a big fan of maps, other than to give an idea to those not familiar with geography of how far I’ve actually traveled in the last three months. I’ll be the first to admit I was not knowledgeable in the slightest about Asia’s geography before I started planning to come out here. I couldn’t point out Malaysia on the map and I had no concept of distance between places. Maybe this map will help fill in the visual with spatial information in addition to the other options above, however I think the interpreation of this is pretty much garbage other than to help process where on a map I was. I would even argue the nights spent in each country doesn’t really belong on this map and it just jumbles up the interpretation.
For those with good US geography skills, some context to the distances: From South to North (Singapore to Hanoi), I’ve traveled about the length of Miami, Florida to Lansing, Michigan. From West to East (Ko Phi Phi to Nha Trang), I’ve traveled about the length of Chicago, Illinois to New York City.
That’s just the simple stuff so far, thinking about adding context to the data visualizations (like why in the world did I go back to Thailand), or adding extra data points (cities in each country, average cost of a day in each country) makes the data visualization more complex. I’m worked up and dreaming up of the next few things to create and share, more to come.
Interested to hear what you think! Does one type of data viz connect with you more than others? Curious how I made these? Want to hire me to create something for you? All of these questions can be answered if you send me an email.
Penang: a place where amazing street food, historical sites, friendly people, and incredible beaches blend together into this giant island of surprising scenery and days that go by way too fast. Pete and I arrived late at night from KL on the 22nd. From our 14th floor Airbnb apartment, the city looked incredible.
February 23, Day 17: Our first day exploring Georgetown took us to Khoo Kongsi by way of Uber with an adorable elderly Chinese woman. She offered us creme puffs and told us about the many cities in the US she loved visiting. This set the tone for an amazing day!
So much history. It was rad.
Georgetown is known for a collection of cool street art. Pretty much every side alley has a pleasant surprise art piece. This one was particularly adorable.
As we walked to the Chew Clan Jetty, the rain started to pick up and we experienced the first of many Malaysian rain storms that would come and go on our time on the island. Good thing Ubers cost $0.50-$1!
That evening we tried out some street food hawker stalls on Chulia street. Juice in bags, $1 for flavorful dishes with Malay, Indian, and Chinese influence, and endless options!
February 24, Day 18: The next day we got up early to take advantage of the no rain forecast and get in a long hike through the Penang National Park. Following the muddy, mossy trail from the park entrance, we set out to find Monkey Beach.
Some of the trail was a little questionable but we pressed on.
And we made it! Clear water, white sand, hardly anyone around.
Pete was a good sport about being my personal photographer. He patiently waited for me to swim out to this big ol rock.
This was sadly the only monkey we saw on Monkey Beach. He was the pet of the boat owner and enjoying an afternoon swim.
After a long day in the sun, relaxing on our balcony to this view was pretty amazing.
February 25, Day 19: I think the next day we did some cultural sightseeing. A Burmese temple, a giant reclining Buddha… it all starts to blend together.
Little gold stickers everywhere!
Later that night we got a little fancy with a dinner at a 360 degree revolving restaurant, maybe unofficially being the first time a reservation was made under “Dr. Kvam”. Cheers to this guy finishing his PhD! The perfectly timed fireworks show was definitely for you.
February 26, Day 20: Having so many days in Penang meant we got to take our time exploring and doing pretty much every touristy thing you can list. Although we picked a cloudy day to visit Penang Hill, it was still so beautiful up in those clouds.
You can almost see the water line, almost. Our apartment is one of those tall buildings!
Obligatory contemplative artsy photos.
After our descent from Penang Hill, we got smacked with another downpour of rain but eventually made it to Kek Lok Si Temple.
February 27, Day 21: Another day, another delicious round of eggs benedict. I shamelessly could eat eggs benedict for every breakfast.
Today was deemed beach day.
Only an hour in the Malaysian sun with no sunscreen was a bad choice. But, look at these views!
We paid a visit one day to the Peranakan Mansion and toured the incredible rooms. Wealthy Chinese in the 1800s lived it up.
Please order me a pair of these.
There’s quite a few famous street art installations around the Peranakan Mansion. Pete and I were on a mission to hunt down a few well-known ones, like “Boy on a Bike”.
This one was an adorable little hidden gem.
“The Cat and Bruce Lee” reminded me of a high school physics teacher with a dislike for cats. I can imagine this mural as a sadistic story problem involving solving for the velocity of the cat being kicked.
Later that evening was another hawker stall dinner.
February 28, Day 22: Our last morning together started with some cute cups of coffee and some last glimpses of street art.
Sadly, Pete had to return back to Australia and I was on my own again. I checked out the evening’s meetup for Couchsurfing and stopped by for some beers with a collection of interesting characters. The location itself was a story I tell over and over again in my travels. This ‘bar’, Antaragansa Enterprise, is really a liquor store with little plastic tables and chairs set up outside. Anytime you want another drink, simply walk in and pick out your can of choice, hand over a few ringgit to the shirtless Chinese man smoking a cigarette, and find a group of travelers and locals to drink with on the streets. Need to use the toilet? Easy. Just walk in the store, hop over the bucket of turtles, shimmy across the broken rusty washing machine, hop over the case of beer, and there’s your glamorous squatty potty tucked in the back room.
Sadly, this is the only photo I have from that night. However, it’s a special coincidence because of the guy pictured here. I’ll get to that story soon! You never know when it’s the last time you’ll see someone or if they’ll pop up again 🙂
March 1, Day 22: I left Penang in the morning on a bus bound for the Cameron Highlands. Next chapter: tea plantations, mossy forests, and perfecting the art of hitchhiking with a crazy group of Lithuanians.
I’m a bit behind in photo-sharing. Some where between Kuala Lumpur and my current location of Ninh Binh, Viet Nam, I’ve lost track of time and days and everything is going in fast-forward. It feels like so long ago since Pete and I landed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for our quick luxury stop over. We caught an early flight to KL (don’t waste time saying Kuala Lumpur, no one does) from Singapore and got through customs.
Bucket list item for Pete: Luxury hotel in downtown KL with an infinity pool. Surprise free fruit tray delivery? We’ll take it.
Our afternoon was spent walking around KLCC Park and sweating profusely. At one point we just sat on a bench, watched kids playing in a wading pool for some time, soaked up the lovely Malaysian afternoon sun, and heard the call-to-prayer over the loud speakers for the first time.
A chill night out in KL led to an early morning planning to fit in anything else we could before our afternoon flight to Penang. We decided the Batu Caves sounded charming. Monkeys! Yes! Let’s go!
See those steps behind us? 272 of those led to the top of the cave, with a large temple inside. The ascent was steep and vicious, fearless monkeys circled around in search for food as we made the climb. This was the day I decided monkeys are disgusting, mean trash creatures.
Don’t even look at them the wrong way. They will come after you.
The view from inside was pretty awesome!
We made it back to downtown and said goodbye to our quick big city stopover. I could see myself exploring KL for longer, but I enjoyed our short stay and was most excited to get to Penang.
I was SO EXCITED to get to Singapore. I hadn’t done much research on the country, but I knew my dear friend Pete would be joining me as soon as his flight from Australia landed. I walked around a bit after I arrived in the afternoon to see some temples around where our hostel was at in Little India.
Pete made it safe and we made a tentative plan for the next day. Monday morning we took off by foot to check out Little India and Kampong Glam.
And a cat cafe! Pete made friends with Mario the munchkin, king of the cafe.
The floppiest Scottish Fold!
We did some accidental urban exploring on a walk across the bridge.
Some time to cool off in the Cloud Forest was very welcome.
The Gardens by the Bay was my favorite place in Singapore. Magnificent super trees, a mix of man-made and mossy plants.
The super trees were absolutely stunning at night.
And that was our quick stop in Singapore! An early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur was next on the agenda.
From plane, to bus, to boat, I landed at Railay Beach exhausted and very sick. “What happened to your eye?” I was asked for days as my eye slowly went from red and itchy to swollen and completely shut. After a night in a woodsy hut hostel surrounded by limestone cliffs and inaccessible to any roads, I decided to finally seek out proper medical attention for my swollen, infected eye. It was embarrassing and not how I planned to spend my first few weeks in Thailand, but knowing how to deal with things not going as planned is a skill I needed some practice in and I thankfully accepted the help of the hostel owner as he helped me find a good clinic.
A good round of antibiotics helped clear it up a bit by the next day as I decided to relocate back to the mainland to see Ao Nang Beach.
I did some price comparisons and found the tour companies to Ko Phi Phi were cheaper out of Ao Nang, so I planned for three nights there and some time for day trips to the surrounding islands. Walking around Ao Nang Beach and sampling some street food during the day led to an early night of resting in the hotel (free stay using credit card points). Sometime in the evening, I started feeling really nauseous, then the food poisoning hit full force. I camped out in the bathroom until the following morning with an unfamiliar sickness I’ve never experienced before. Things started to pass by the following evening, with the help of some anti-nausea medicine I had in my first aid kit and drinking plenty of water.
I took a risk and booked a tour for the next day of Maya Beach, snorkeling in some dive spots, and Bamboo Island, in hopes that I would feel less sick. I woke up still really nauseous, but I pushed through and had an amazing time taking in the beauty of the Thai islands.
Maya Beach: The spot made famous by Leo DiCaprio in the movie The Beach. Travel pictures can be a bit deceiving, I’ve learned; I wanted so badly to stand in this exact spot and take in the beauty of such clear waters, longtail boats floating peacefully in the marina, and white sandy beaches… not pictured here are the hundreds of other people yearning for the same thing. It was chaos, and it was one of the few photos I managed to take and crop to exclude all other people.
I’m still in awe at the water. This is real life!
I feel sad about missing out on the islands and being stuck in my room for most of my time in such a beautiful place. However, health is so very important while traveling and I’m happy to have my health and a healthy eyeball once again. I can always circle back around if I’m feeling drawn back there.
I left Krabi for set plans to meet up with a friend flying from Australia. Next stop: Singapore!
Eleven years ago, I made friends with the Thai exchange student in my high school. When you part ways with someone so far away, the typical ‘see you again‘ farewell seems to have the underlying ‘maybe, someday, but it’s a far off dream‘. If you told me then as I said goodbye to Nath that in 2017 I’d be starting 5 months in Asia staying with his kind and incredible family in Bangkok, I wouldn’t believe it! But here I am, reconnecting with an old friend from my formative years.
February 7, Day 1: After arriving in Bangkok, I tried to sleep off the jet lag a bit. Nath took me to his bar in the evening for dinner and drinks with some of his friends. These hilarious guys had all sorts of questions I was happy to answer about the US, and they taught me a few helpful Thai phrases (if not slightly offensive).
February 8, Day 2: Nath taught me the BKS and MRT public transportation systems as we ventured to Chinatown for dinner.
February 9, Day 3: My first experience at a Buddhist temple.
February 10, Day 4: My first day on my own and recovered fully from jet lag. I took a break from the city with a walk around Lumpini Park before my fancy lunch at Nahm. It’s been on my bucket list to dine at a Michelin star rated restaurant, so I paid the price to try out one of Bangkok’s best dining experiences. Overall, it was great food, but it inflated the cost of my entire time in the city. That meal alone was nearly 20% of my weekly spending!
After lunch I got my first Thai massage at Perception Blind Massage. Really neat business with employment opportunities for those with visual impairments. It was conveniently right down the road from a Unicorn Cafe.
Then I spent some time with the Golden Buddha at Wat Trimitr and practiced my haggling skills with motorbike taxis and tuktuk drivers.
February 11, Day 5: Nath’s parents took me to Pattaya City to visit the floating market and see their resort. I got to sample so many new things – mango and sticky rice, octopus on a stick, some sort of pork blood soup… really fantastic flavors. I tried a fish pedicure. As I squirmed and giggled, Nath’s dad sat stoically next to me, never flinching. I’m not quite sure how anyone gets used to the little nibbles of toothless carp, eating away at your dead feet skin.
February 12, Day 6: Another day to see the historic sites of Bangkok. As I was boarding the Skytrain on my way to the Grand Palace, I met two friendly Debs from Canada looking to get to the same area. We traveled together and I changed up my plans to join them at the National Museum. Maybe you’re reading this, Deb and Deb! Hi! Lovely meeting you!
After the museum I took a motorbike taxi to Wat Pho, Reclining Buddha. Check out the little tiny people for a size scale.
February 13, Day 7: My plans to finally see the Grand Palace were again changed around because of the closing of the Palace for a special ceremony appointing a new Supreme Patriarch monk. Instead, I made it to the Golden Mount and climbed to the top for a smoggy view of the city in the morning. It was the least crowded of all the temples, and quite peaceful.
I tried to catch a boat downriver and ended up on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River by accident. I didn’t feel like seeing Wat Arun (I’ve read it’s best viewed from the river anyways), and wandered to Prayurawongsawas Waraviharn Temple instead. I immediately felt intrusive as I walked in on a mourning ceremony for the late King. Nothing seemed open and I almost gave up and left the grounds, then a friendly monk noticed my confusion and came over to tell me I could climb the steps to the top of the temple. It was one of my favorite experiences in Bangkok.
I found a charming spot for dinner, Cabbages & Condoms, decorated with condom art! Part of the restaurant profits go to supporting family planning services in Thailand and promoting a better understanding and acceptance of family planning.
February 14, Day 8: No photos, but I successfully navigated a foreign post office and sent back gifts and a bunch a stuff I didn’t need (hopefully it makes it back to the US in 1-2 months). I’ll link later to a post I write about all the things I brought along and have already shed from my pack because they take up too much space and I just don’t have a use for them.
February 15, Day 9: Bye, Bangkok! On to Krabi!
One of my few basic handy Thai phrases I learned helped save my taste buds from being scorched off most meals. ‘Mai ped!’, or ‘not spicy!’, is crucial for those like me not used to the heat in cooking Thais seem to be immune to. I felt like I had a pretty high heat tolerance, oh how I was wrong!
Despite the intense spice level at times, I had some incredible meals in Bangkok and Pattaya City with Nath and his parents. I think I was most surprised to learn how much of Thai cuisine is seafood-focused, and that my favorite dish of tofu peanut curry is not really Thai (or available anywhere) at all!
Unfortunately, I don’t have any delicious southern Thai cuisine photos from my time in the southern islands because I didn’t consume much food – 2 days of food poisoning helped my budget recover but put a halt to my adventures in eating. I’m not sure what exactly caused the GI distress, but I’ve heard it’s basically a rite of passage into extended travels in SE Asia to experience some sort of food poisoning. Here’s hoping it’s the last time I have to experience it.
I labeled as many photos as I could with Location (Restaurant name): Food Item. If you know the names of the dishes, help me out and comment below!