Archives for December 2010

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Adventures in Food – Malaysia

My third day in Malaysia and I am still coming to terms with the culture shock when I am informed that lunch tomorrow is at a local restaurant. Cool, I love curry and now I get to taste the local culinary delights. Actually, I was not quite ready for Malaysian dining.

Dragon Temple Lane, not it’s real name but one given by local expat community, is a pulsating mecca for street food in Butterworth. The satay guy grills spicy chicken and beef strips on his home-made hibachi, while his wife delivers the orders to diners in nearby restaurants. Another seller pours his fresh squeezed juices into plastic bags, tying them shut around the straw to create a small juice carry-bag. But this is my first time here, and we are headed to Maju.

Maju is run by a Malaysian Air Force SNCO and his family, and his wife welcomes us in as old and valued customers (my friends come here often). The building has more in common with a stable than any Australian restaurant, the blue paint peeling off the rough wooden walls and the vinyl floor covering creaks and groans as our party overloads the flimsy floor boards. We gather at a long rustic, dilapidated really, and seat our selves on the long benches. Our host is in the corner washing banana leaves in the grubby sink before placing one in front of each of us.

I select a mutton curry, only latter did my friends point out that Malaysia has no sheep and that mutton is goat there, from the menu and my friends added a bewildering array of accompaniments to my order. Currying potatoes and beans appeared on my banana leaf along with cucumber salad, rice and frightening looking fried fish, cooked whole blackened by the spices and I’m informed eaten whole, head and all. I don’t think so, I will eat the rest then claim to be full–I’m sure no one will object.

Despite my misgivings about the cleanliness and food choices at Maju, I tucked into the curry. Our Malaysian colleagues deftly handled their food with practised finesse, creating a small ball of food in their fingers from the assembled choices. A few expats tried to emulate their dexterous eating style, food slipping from their hands to their clothes, imitating the eating style of small children. I stuck with a fork and spoon to shovel in the food.

After three servings–the fried fish still sitting forlornly on my leaf–my clothes started to tighten on my expanding middle and called a cease to my gorging. We headed back to work, and I quietly hoped that my first Malaysian meal did not result in my first food poisoning.

I survived and quickly attained status as a valued regular at Maju, eating there almost every week until tragedy closed its doors. I say tragedy because that is how we felt but the proprietors had to move to Kuala Lumpur for the husband’s continuing air force career. We headed down for one last meal, thanking out hosts and friends for their wonderful food. We had lost our place, we ate elsewhere in Dragon Temple Lane but Maju was special, and as we hugged them goodbye I had to fight back a tear.

Oh, and that fried fish – never did eat one.

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Friday Travel Photograph – Houses of Parliament, London

Every Friday we select a photograph from our archives, this week we travel to London:
Houses of Parliament, London

Houses of Parliament, London

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Improve your Travel Experience with a Personal Guide

Florentine Artisan

Florentine Artisan at work

Independent travellers create their own itinerary, choosing where to go and what to see with the freedom to make changes if something unexpected occurs or the weather is bad. This also means that we use guide books or recorded walking tours to provide most of the back story for everywhere we go across the earth travelscape. This often means we get a superficial experience, we know it was beautiful but not why they built it, what happened to them or how it relates to our modern world.

How can we enrich our travels?

Use a personal guide.

By choosing independent travel, we forsake the ever present tour group guide but that does not mean we never want or need a guide while we travel. For our adventures I am the guide, assembling the information that will inform most of our journey but I need help, and one effective way is to hire a personal guide. In Venice we learned that as the nouveau-riche started to build their grand houses, the established aristocracy felt they had to outstrip their splendour. These, and other grand gestures and excesses, led them to impoverishment and in many cases the families no longer exist. They bred themselves out of existence. It is an insight that I would not have found in the general history themes that I studied for our trip.

A personal guide is also a local who can give you insights or advice that get lead you to other experiences. We had two great meals in Venice at restaurants recommended by our local guide, and bought a beautiful etching whilst on a guided artisan workshop tour in Florence.

How to pick a guide.

Whether you want a general overview tour or to explore a specific aspect of your destination, these guidelines will help you select the right guide for you:

  • Establish how much to spend on guides in your travel budget.
  • Find a well-established individual guide or company. How long have they been in business, and what qualifications and affiliations do have in your destination.
  • Pick a guide who has specialist knowledge in your area of interest. Many academics act as guides to supplement their income but a passionate amateur historian or a local artist may also be the answer to your need.
  • Read and understand their payment and refund policies, and decide whether to book ahead or wait until you get to the destination.
  • Look for recommendations and positive reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and in your guide book. Check travel forums and friends for recommendations but always cross check in different sources.

How much will a guide cost?

We took several personal guided tours in Italy, costing as little as US$70 each (2-3 hours) to several hundred dollars for an extensive day tour in Venice. Each guide took us deeper into Italian culture and history than our previous visits. For $70+ each, we took part in small group (no more than six people) tours with docents (academics) from Context Travel. In Venice, we engaged Venicescapes to take us deep into the decadence of Venice’s decline and open doors to rarely seen spaces and little understood history. This cost over US$400 for two people, and proved intellectually challenging but we now see Venice as more than a beautiful photo opportunity. (Watch for my Venicescapes review in the future.)

Depending on the length of your stay, one or two tours is usually enough for any one city especially if you are seeking out intellectually challenging guides. Knowledge is great but it is a vacation, and sometimes you just want a coffee while you watch the daily interplay of people.

Final thoughts

There are numerous options to get a general feel for your latest destination; walking tours, hop-on hop-off buses and your guide book will provide the basics so spend your money to go beyond the usual. Millions of people visit Venice but very few have seen inside an 18th century Venetian casino where the wealthy entertained small select groups. It is a memory I will cherish and a part of Venetian history that is alive in my mind rather than a dreary fact in a book.

A guide will take you places you never new existed, give you new insights and for that they are worth considering for your next adventure.

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Create a Luxury Amenity Kit for your Flight

Homemade Luxury Amenity Kit

Home made Luxury Amenity Kit

Most travellers will only ever look with a tinge of envy into the Business or First Class areas of their flight before trudging to their cramped space in Economy but there is no reason you cannot have a little luxury in the back of the aircraft. One of the perks for flying in First or Business Class is the luxury amenity kit, filled with expensive perfume, aromatherapy products, an eye mask and pyjamas to make the trip more pleasant.

Well, why should the well-to-do or business traveller have all the luxury; you can create your own luxury amenity kit and pamper yourself without the expense of First-Class airfares.

What to put into your Luxury Amenity Kit

  • Moisturiser Aircraft air-conditioning creates a very dry atmosphere, so it is important to keep your skin hydrated and a good quality moisturiser will help keep your glow even after the most gruelling flight.
  • Lip balm Your lips will also suffer in the dry air, keep them moist with a good lip balm.
  • Perfume or After-shave Your favourite cologne or perfume will give you that just out of the shower feel until you reach the hotel.
  • Deodorant A little deodorant will make the close quarters of economy-class just that little bit more bearable for everyone.
  • Razor Your choice, personally I use travel as an excuse to grow a beard but you
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste Make your dentist and travel partner happy, and maintain your oral hygiene.
  • A comfy shirt You looked great boarding the aircraft but that outfit will look pretty shabby after 15 hours in your airline seat. Bring a light-weight shirt, perhaps silk for that added touch of luxury, to slip into after take-off. It will absorb the abuse of the flight, preserving your day-wear for your arrival.
  • Ear plugs Aircraft are noisy, not deafening but the constant hum of engines, air-conditioning and passenger noise will wear you down and conspire to prevent your sleep. Good quality ear plugs will shut out the noise and let you get the rest you need to tackle your first day in a foreign land.
  • Eye mask An eye mask will block out the ambient light and distractions of passenger and crew movement. Ensure yours is a comfortable fit.
  • Socks A pair of socks will keep your feet warm. To help prevent, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), get a pair of compression socks.

You can add or subtract items to suit your needs, for example a small pill box will keep your medicinal needs for the flight close at hand, and gather it into your personal toiletry bag (preferably a hanging bag with a built-in hook).

The luxury continues after the flight

Stepping off the aircraft refreshed, and feeling good will kick start your vacation, and mark you as a seasoned traveller. Look at that list again, everything has a useful life long after you flight arrives, add some basic make-up (for the ladies and Goth devotees) and it’s your toiletry kit. Thin walls, street noise and long days sightseeing make an eye mask and ear plugs wonderful tools to assist your sleep, and who doesn’t want a comfy shirt to slip into after the day is done.

What other items would you put in your luxury amenity kit?