Kyoto – temples, kimono rentals and mystic Gion district

Did you ever see the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a geisha”? Or have you ever been fascinated about the ancient traditions of a country that is so different to ours? If you want to experience the mixture between tradition and modern life, I will give you a little insight into a city shrouded in mysticism – Kyoto.

For much of its history Kyoto has been the capital of Japan. Many people connect Kyoto with the Gion district, known mostly for the secret geisha culture. It’s sited east of the kamogawa river and is characteristic for its traditional, plain wooden buildings. Almost impossible to get to meet a geisha, many tourists walk around this district to catch a glimpse at these white-faced and kimono-clad women, who look like perfect porcelain dolls. Against some western beliefs geishas are not nor have they ever been prostitutes. They are entertainers, who during the evening play traditional japanese instruments like the shamisen, perform the complex tea ceremony with all its strict rules, dance and sing and they play little games with the guests to keep them from being bored. It is a bit sad to see that when the clock hits 6 pm, tourists flood the Gion district to spot some geishas and force their cameras in the poor womens faces. So please, please, if you are interested in the culture and seeing a real geisha, please don’t stand in their way and keep proper distance. Mostly they are on their way to work and don’t want to be bothered… keep in mind they are not animals in a zoo!

Fushimi Inari-taisha

This shinto shrine is the head of kami inari, which is the godess of fertility, rice and foxes and famous for the red-orange torii-gates, that are lined up all the way to the top of the hill. The torii are donations from families to either wish for something or to thank kami inari for making a wish come true. The trail up the mountain is 4 kilometres, takes about two hours and is really worth it. To take some good photos go there early in the morning or do the hike all the way up, because the higher you go the less crowded it’s going to be. I was amazed to see the huge amount of people walking around dressed up in kimonos and wearing traditional wooden flip flops (or geta), that I find really uncomfortable. They’ve earned my deepest respect, because I know how hard it is to walk around in a tight kimono (though the ones from the kimono rentals aren’t “real”, however its still uncomfortable) with these shoes. Kimono rentals are everywhere. Sometimes two to three different shops in one building.

Yasaka Shrine

To end the beautiful day, we went to the Yasaka shrine, also known as Gion shrine, between Gion and Higashiyama district. The shrine is located behind a sweet park-like path, has a main hall and in the middle of the court is a dance stage with hundreds of lanterns around looking even more beautiful in the evening when they’re being lit. I decided to pray in front of the main hall. For those who aren’t familiar with praying at a shrine, I’ll give you a little instruction (that’s how I’ve been tought to do it): There’s always a torii gate marking the entrance to a shinto shrine. Before walking through it you stop and bow. While through make sure you stick to the pillars and do not walk in the center. This rule also applies when walking up the sando (the path to the shrine), because the center is reserved for the gods. In order to pray at the shrine you must be clean. To cleanse yourself, there are vessels called temizuya with wooden ladles on them. You take one into your right hand, fill it with water, clean your left hand, switch the ladle to your left hand to clean the right hand, then back to the right, fill water into the ladle again, put the water into your left hand and cleanse your mouth with it (don’t have to drink it!). When you’re done, you clean the ladle by letting the remaining water run down the handle. To pray in front of the shrine I’ve learned to donate money first, then you ring the big bell that is hanging from the ceil, you bow deep twice, then clap your hands two times with your palms meeting and your right hand being a little lower than the left (you ring the bell and clap attract the spirits attention), you then pray, bow deep again and that’s it. After praying you can pull a fortune or write a wish on a wooden block and hang it in specific areas. Surrounding the shrine there is a beautiful big garden with wonderful ponds and old stone bridges passing over them. It was very peaceful given the fact, it’s neither Sakura nor autumn and tourism right now is very low.

dance stage
main hall of Yasaka

After visiting Yasaka I walked around the Gion district to see the traditional wooden houses and little shops with handcrafted ceramics, tea and snacks. Most of the teahouses are very private and have a sign saying “only for club members” on the front door. It is very hard to get access to a teahouse, mostly you have to get invited by a member, which will introduce you. Still then, most club members wouldn’t bring their friends, because it takes family generations to set foot into these societies. To me, it was very fascinating to see this district, even though from outside most of the tea houses and restaurants seemed to be shut due to its privacy.

Day 2: shrines, shrines and food…

The second day of Kyoto started with Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion), a beautiful zen temple with a big, wonderfully arranged japanese garden. It is also a perfect location to start walking the famous philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi), a picturesque path with cherry trees next to a little canal, that led me to Reikanji Temple, where many years ago members of the imperial family have lived.

Ginkaku-ji
Ginkaku-ji

Ending the philosopher’s path, you will walk straight towards Eikan-do or also known as Zenrin-ji temple complex. It’s very famous for its autumn colors with the illuminations in the evening. Though it was very cold to walk around without shoes and february being a very blossomless time of the year, it was very calm and gave me lots of time to walk around and see everything properly. This made sightseeing so much easier and more enjoyable.

After Eikan-do I took the bus to Kiyomizu-dera, the pure water temple. It was founded in the wooden hills East of Kyoto and is best known for its huge wooden stage, that was built without usage of nails. Behind it stands Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love. In front of this shrine are two big stones placed at a distance of around 18 meters. If you find you way from one stone to the other with closed eyes and no help from others it will bring you luck in finding your true love. If somebody helps and guides you towards the other stone it means that you’ll need an intermediary to find the love of your life. Well I’ve been in Kyoto with my brother and it’s needless to say that as a good big brother he didn’t tell me that he could’ve helped me and so I ended up failing, which led to my brother mocking me during my whole Japan visit, saying that my love life will forever be ruined. But thankfully I pulled so many good fortune notes in other shrines that I think it will reverse its curse, so I’m good! But hey, thanks for the help, Bro! Unfortunately the wooden stage, known for its wonderful view was under renovation, it looked horrible! But I get that they have to renovate things from time to time and again, February is very low in tourism. Still I had a blast and took some nice pictures of it.

Torii of Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera park

In the afternoon I went to see the Heian shrine, built for the city’s 1100th anniversary 1895 honoring the spirits of the first and the last emperor who reigned the city, Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. Heian is also one of the former names of Kyoto. Due to the variety of cherry trees, plants and lots of ponds the garden behind the shrine is one of the best spots in Kyoto for the Sakura, the cherry blossom.

Torii of Heian shrine

Although it was raining a lot as you can see from the Heian photo, I decided to go to the imperial palace and walked around the huge park surrounding it. Unfortunately the palace was closed, so I went to the Toji Buddhist temple instead. Toji temple literally means “East temple” and was one of the capital’s guardian towers. It has two halls, Kondo Hall and Kodo Hall. Kondo, the main of both halls, was reconstructed after a big fire in 1486. It’s main object of worship is a large wooden Yakushi Buddha and his two attendants Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas. Standing right next to it, Kodo Hall was built as lecture hall and inside you’ll find 19 statues from China. On the other side of the temple court you’ll find the tallest wooden pagoda in japan, housing a little Buddha. It’s 57m tall and has five stories.

Toji

Of course exploring Kyoto in two days is an impossible mission, but unfortunately I was in a little hurry and couldn’t spend more days there. I will however come back very soon, maybe during a more vivid and colorful time of the year.

More on my Japan trip on my next blog post. For now, stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good, god is good.

Yours truly,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Hanoi – motorbikes, coffee and phở gà

Hanoi, capital of and with a population of around 7.8 Mio. people the second largest city in Vietnam. To be honest it was either continuing in Cambodia with a huge bus ride, flying to the Philippines with islands being shut down due to corona panic (no, not the beer) and 3 flights until arriving at my destination or going to Northern Vietnam (2h flight and no stress plus the country where it would be easier to get to my next destination). So, guess what I’ve decided to do… easiest option, here I come!!

Flying to other countries right now is a bit of a pain in the you-know-what… airport security staff is carefully watching out for signs of corona (nope, still not talking about beer) virus and let me assure you it’s not helpful when you’re right in the middle of getting a tonsillitis with a bad cough involved. Thankfully no fever but I had to try not to cough while immigration, which was unbelievably hard. I even tried to suppress it during the flight but telling by the disturbed and worried looks I got from other passengers I think it didn’t work out too well. But staying positive, I managed to get through immigration without any problems (still don’t know how, though). Also, I think that I am somehow meant to run into the weirdest of all grab drivers. A while ago I’ve had a car ride to the KL airport with a female driver who started to give me a private concert with the very best of the Backstreet Boys (the classics, not the new shit) and Mariah Carey (I clapped and cheered to make it less awkward for her. Although, giving it a thought right now I have to admit that me playing along might made it become exactly that). At Hanoi Airport I happened to run into the next grab driver with a special love for music. He had a huge screen placed on the dashboard showing me the very best ballads of a Vietnamese singer (always accompanied by women looking dramatically towards the horizon while shedding a tear or two). After half an hour of live performances in an empty disco room singing different songs that in all honesty sounded like the same song being played over and over again, I finally got dropped off in front of my hotel. And yes, this time I picked a hotel, because all of the hostels were either fully booked or didn’t have single Rooms. With my tonsillitis and cough I didn’t want to be around people and risking them to get sick, too (you’re welcome).

On the first day of my Hanoi experience I got introduced to phở gà, a traditional breakfast chicken noodle soup (you can also have it with Beef in it), mainly served with fresh limes that you can add for a more sour taste. It became my favorite dish in Vietnam. Another thing they are good at is coffee. I mean Hanoi is not Seattle (or everywhere in Italy) but their coffee is by far the best I’ve tasted in South East Asia. For example they serve Cà phê trứng aka. egg coffee (I know, I know it sounds awful! I was sceptical at first, too) which is a coffee made with condensed milk, sugar and egg yolk. It tastes like tiramisú, a big reason why I fell in love with it. Coconut iced coffee aka. Cà Phê Cốt Dừa is the other delicousness I’ve had the chance to try. It’s coffee with sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, coconut pulp and ice cubes. I don’t have to tell you that my caffeine level went through the roof. Totally worth it…

phở gà
Cà phê trứng
Cà Phê Cốt Dừa

Traffic in Hanoi is crazy! If you ever want to have worse near death experiences than in Bali and be exposed to terrible exhaust fumes… here’s the place to knock yourself out! The best choice of transportation is a motorbike/scooter and they basically drive on both sides of the roads. If you ever have time, sit in a café and observe the streets. You’d be surprised what they are able to stack on a small scooter. Families of 5 plus 2 dogs, 3m long wooden slats or a complete fruit market for example. Fascinating when you consider that I can’t even get my few belongings into my backpack without having a fight with the zipper for several minutes. On the other hand there is something really calming about observing the traffic, a symbiosis of chaos and harmony. And while I’m talking about the vivid streets I have to tell you about how stores work. There are specific streets for any purpose. For example there’s a single street only for pots, pans and kitchen utensils or one street for party decorations. It’s hilarious and yet so useful, if you’re looking for something specific to buy or an easy way to get beers or coffee… there’s always one specific street for it.

As I remembered that C., an american friend I’ve been in the same hostel in Siem Reap with, was currently in Hanoi, too, I gave him a shoutout and we’ve met up for some Bánh mì (a sort of Baguette Sandwich), walked around the streets of Hanoi and ended up in train street, one of the most picturesque places here. It’s a very narrow street with train tracks, where several times a day a Train used to pass through. There’s a special trick involved to get on that street because, since it’s not allowed to walk on train tracks, it’s being controlled by police officers. However, on the other end of the street, there are some people behind a barrier telling you it’s prohibited to get on the tracks. At first, it made no sense at all and we kept wondering how tourists still managed to walk around there. Here’s how it works: if you want to walk on train street and take photos, you’d have to go with one of the café owners (the ones who stand behind the barrier and tell you not to pass), order a drink and after that you can do whatever you please, as long as you watch out for the police officer.

After a fine afternoon, I went back to my place, where I was really hoping for a good nap. You might know, that things happen to me and here’s a Story for you… I was falling asleep when I heard a loud siren. I opened the door to the hallway and noticed that it was coming from the hotel, it was the fire alarm. Well, still too young to burn to death, I went downstairs and closed my door. Apparently, I didn’t have my key with me. Downstairs I was told, that it was a false alarm, just a moron Smoking on the hallway. Well, as it turns out, I’m a moron,too. Confessing that I forgot the key while storming out I was hoping for them to give me the spare key. The friendly lady assured me that they would send me someone to open the door with the key for me. About 10 minutes later a janitor walks in with around 200 keys on a keychain. So far looking very promissing – spoiler alert: No, it wasn’t! He looked at my door, looked at all the keychain with billions of keys (slightly exaggerating here) and mumbled something in vietnamese, before leaving me in front of my still closed door for some minutes. He then came back with a thin metal bar and no keys and started smashing it into my door. Basically he broke into my room like a criminal and completely fucked up my door. Lovely! Between the loud hammering my brain tried to figure out how the hell they did their housekeeping, if they couldn’t find at least one spare key. But hey, how dare I ask myself these stupid questions… Door finally open again, I got in and noticed that now I was inside but couldn’t lock the door anymore. However it worked in the evening when I decided to meet C. again at his hostel… Just gave the door a very enthusiastic pull that shook throughout the whole hotel and voilà (By the way story didn’t end there. The following day I reported that due to this incident my door got destroyed by the janitor and that it would be impossible to lock it without risking further damage. Of course the nice lady would tell me that they’d fix it. They did, door still looked like it’s been part of a crime Scene, though. In the end they even thanked me for reporting that the door miraculously lost the ability to be locked. It was hilarious)!

Without a nap and all stressed out about what they did to my door and how I was going to explain this at the check-out, I got to C.’s hostel, where I met two of his dorm mates. Of course also there I first had to excuse myself for my innocent non-corona cough. Not sure what to do, we’ve decided to join the pub crawl. Funny, weird and disturbing Things happened that night. A whole group of about 20-30 people in Banana pants, Banana hats and Banana shirts, a guy dancing in his hoodie (with what felt like 40°C on the dancefloor) while having the biggest and also creepiest smile on his face, a pole that invited people to do stuff I don’t even want to put into words (men as well as women), singing until we had no voice and endless dancing (+ C.’s fist waving dance move, we should name it!). God, how I’ve missed to move myself to no matter what kind of music with my eyes closed and every cell of my body responding to the melodies surrounding me, being present in the very moment with all my senses. Life is so good, I mean, I’m in fucking Vietnam, I’m doing what I’ve always felt I needed to do and it gives me so much energy and positivity.

Next day’s heading is best entitled as “the sore throat hell”. American C. took a bus to leave Hanoi some hours after the Pub crawl, so I was left with British C., who turned out to be my personal care giver, as I was getting sicker and sicker (wasn’t very clever to dance and sing all night long with swollen tonsils). Basically the remaining days I gave my body some rest to heal and get better but still managed to do some sightseeing.

Halong Bay

After hearing that some Islands were shut down for foreigners, we were very happy to hear, that it was possible to book a 1-day-cruise around Halong Bay. With my cold finally getting better (thanks to my dear friend C.!! I am still not over the fact you even talked to me considering how terrible I must have looked, not to mention my terrible cough) it was the perfect excursion to escape the loud and air polluted city and set foot into nature. I’ve missed the sea, one of my sources of energy and narrator of all the good stories. Basically every cruise they offer you has the same structure. They pick you up at the hotel/hostel, drive you to the Harbour to get on the boat. You’ll be then served a seafood lunch and then you visit a cave, hike or go swimming and then you go back. To be honest I did not care about the lunch nor the cave. However sitting on the upper deck of the boat, let me tell you, seeing all these little islands, the water, a mixture of different shades of green and blue… it is magical! We’ve been told the best time to visit Halong Bay is September when it’s sunny. Who cares, it was pretty cloudy and windy and I didn’t mind it. You have to take things as they come.

Getting a cold and tonsillitis wasn’t what I was aiming for during the trip, but that’s life, it had a purpose. My body maybe wanted to tell me to slow down and focus on myself, now that my trip was coming to an end (it’s actually just a break due to corona panic everywhere and some things I have to take care of). Focusing on what I’ve learned and what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen and experienced and what shaped me and my way of thinking, reacting to and interacting with other souls.

Vietnam, thank you for kind and constantly smiling souls, beautiful memories, new friendships and for your immense hospitality. Also for being the first country during my south east asia journey that had strong coffee that I didn’t have to get from a western overpriced coffee place. Oh and for chicken noodle soup!!

Stay safe wherever you are, you are always loved and never alone. Keep smiling, because life is beyond good, even if you might not feel it right now. God is good.

Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Kampong Phluk – the floating village that did not float

Apparently I had to go through a scam at least one time during my trip and fate chose a huge lake and no chance to escape to be the best situation for it to finally happen… and with this being said: welcome to the floating village Kampong Phluk at Lake Tonlé Sap, Cambodia!! A village built on stilts, in which the residents depend on fishing during wet season from May until October and farming during dry season due to receding water from November until April. Spoiler alert: we (Canadian hostel pal and I) didn’t read about it before going so we didn’t know there was a dry season.

A bus picked us up at 2 pm near the hostel to drive us to the village. The one-hour-ride was spectacular. Who would’ve thought that it is possible that when driving over a pothole on full speed all passengers on the bus (including the driver) could hover simultaneously in the air for several seconds… fascinating how physical forces work! Miraculously we arrived there without any further damages (except for the vehicle which hit the ground very hard several times thanks to potholes). Getting off our flying vehicle we realized that there was no water but red-brownish dry mud-streets. The houses are built on very high stilts. During dry season they use the stilts to create little floors where they put their boots on, give their kids more space to play and sometimes they would also sleep there in hammocks.

Walking down the big street there is a little classroom under a house between the stilts where they teach English classes that are financed by donations in order to give the little ones a brighter perspective in future life. With tourists passing by it’s also an opportunity for them to practice. While talking to the teacher and some students I noticed a little girl sitting on a step leading up to a house. She waved and smiled at me and we made funny faces at each other. She was so adorable!

Later we got back on the bus that took us to a lakeside. They only told us that we would do a little boat tour, which sounded nice. So, we got on the boat, sat on its roof and off we went to discover lake Tonlé Sap. The engine of the boat was super loud and the water splashed towards our backs, but we didn’t care – it was so much fun. The landscape was wonderful; wild and seemingly untouched by humans. Some warm breezes stroked our cheeks and the sun sparkled on the surface of the water, on which small fishing boats gently floated.

Unfortunately our heavenly boat experience ended pretty quickly when the boat stopped at a “floating restaurant” where we were kept hostage for over two hours to then watch the sunset. Of course it was a trap, because it was way too early to see it and there was nothing to do, except for buying incredibly overpriced snacks and drinks. We would’ve enjoyed to spend more time in the village instead of being at the floating restaurant waiting… On top of that they had snakes and crocs in small cages for touristic purposes. We got on the roof and talked about life, traveling and what we miss about home. The two hours passed in no time, I even have to admit that the sunset was prettier than the one I saw the day before at Angkor.

After sunset we went back to the bus to get to the hostel. While driving back we shared S.’s earphones to listen to some good Canadian folk. By the way on the drive back the driver was extra careful so it was a calm ride.

Liked the village and the lake, didn’t like the part being stuck on a floating restaurant… if I ever come back, I will try to get there during wet season! That’s it for today. By the way I’m so sorry that I’m far behind with my posts but I’m trying my best to write as often as I can while exploring South East Asia.

As I am so far behind with writing my blog posts, today I sat on a park bench in cold Nara (yes, I’m currently in Japan), when the sun came out. While I closed my eyes facing the sun it suddenly hit me how lucky and blessed I am to see all these wonderful countries and meet all these beautiful souls. Always be grateful for what you experience and learn every day, because it will shape you and stay with you forever. Just wanted to leave this thought here…

For now stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good – god is good.

Yours truly,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Siem Reap – dust, tuktuk and Angkor what?!

Angkor – home of Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction Angkor Wat. It was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, which ruled the region during at the time and contains hundreds of temples. A national pride to the people who are still struggling with the traumatic past. The most famous temple of the complex is Angkor Wat (Angkor what?!). Encompassing an area of around 200 hectares and originally a Hindu temple that was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments worldwide and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

With only 3.5h of sleep and meeting at 4:30 outside of the hostel – oh and without any coffee!!!! – some people from the hostel and me drove to Angkor by tuktuk. I didn’t expect it to be this cold, after walking around KL at 5am and for it to still be around 30°C. Spoiler alert: my cold came back accompanied by tonsillitis – Yay!

After buying the ticket (1 day for 37 USD, 3 days for 62) the driver took us to a place right in front of Angkor Wat temple to watch the sunrise. It was very crowded due to one of the two ponds being closed at the moment. Shortly after arriving and finding a good spot the sky started changing. Different shades of violet and pink suddenly turned the black sky into a colorful scenery. Unfortunately lots and lots of cameras and phones were blocking the view as they were all trying to get that perfect shot.

As I’d purchased the one day pass I tried to see as many temples as possible. It might have been the lack of sleep but I have trouble to remember them all by name. The ones I do remember 100% were: Bayon and Baphuon, Preah Khan, Prasat Neak Pean, Ta Phrom, Neak Poan, Ta Som, Banteay Srei and Pre Rup for sunset.

Bayon Temple

Though the sun was tirelessly shining on us and we walked around all day I must admit that at the end of the day I was exhausted but more than content to have been able to see this mystical historic beauty. I definitely recommend Angkor to everyone who’s planning on going to Cambodia! You won’t regret it.

Whenever you make your way to the temple you will always walk across a little market or food stand or people will try and sell you postcards and magnets. Unfortunately you’ll see a lot of small children, too. I know it’s what the parents do to get more money from tourists out of pity. But isn’t it a grotesque to walk around with your big cameras and the newest phones while you try to shake off barefoot 3- to 5-year-olds who want to sell you 10 postcards for 1$?! I knew these things would be presented to me and I know that it’s something you should ignore as a tourist in order to not encourage the children’s parents with their behavior but they are kids!! It’s tragic and the poverty shook me to the mark.

Same feeling occurred when seeing mine victims with amputated legs or arms crawling around the dirty streets to get some money or even when they were playing traditional music at the entrances of some of the temples. Knowing someone in the family with an amputation and working in the medical field it left me speechless how many people were affected by the war and how they still can’t afford any help or prosthetics. I guess these are the sides of a country that aren’t shiny and glorious but need to be mentioned as well as the beautiful picturesque ones.

Stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good – god is good!

Yours always,

Elina Aria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Malaysia – thank you for 2 wonderful weeks

As I am a little behind, I’d like to squeeze in my last Malaysia post. Coming here with no expectations at all, Malaysia has surprised me being colorful and very welcoming. After Bali it has been very hard for me to change from this chilled and spiritual island with a wonderful energy to a Kuala Lumpur, that presented itself as a crowded, multicultural and bright city. But spending time with my dear friend and getting to know wonderful souls in KL and Penang has made my stay in Malaysia a full success and I am happy, that I got the chance to see this country.

With the corona virus becoming more and more present everywhere in Asia, I can say, that Malaysia took it pretty cool and didn’t overreact as I would hear from friends at home. They must be far more concerned than me or anyone else I’ve met here. But it has effected the celebrations for Chinese New Year and the amount of people wearing face masks increased rapidly. Oh and while I’m talking about that, I will put some pictures here from my very first CNY – the year of the rat!

Thean Hou Temple KL
Acrobatic traditional lion dance in front of Pavilion KL

Thanks to everyone involved for making my stay in Malaysia a wonderful experience! But that’s not the end of my journey yet!!! As I have arrived at Siem Reap, Cambodia today, I am very happy and excited for new adventures to come. So stay tuned!

For now as always, stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling! Life is good – god is good! I feel so blessed everyday!

Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

George Town/Penang – Street Art, love lane and crazy bus rides

I didn’t have much of a clue what to do in Malaysia before going, although I’ve bought a pretty looking lonely planet for exactly this reason… planning a proper trip! Penang however has been one of the reasons to visit Malaysia. Starting from KL, I took a bus, that would take me there in 5 hours. Being in Malaysia, I was once again reminded of how mediterranean this country is. 10.30 am means no one moves until at least 11.15! Also, the bus you’ve booked is not necessarily the one taking you there. So there I sat in front of a platform 12 sign, while the stifling malay heat was beaming on me, wondering why the previous bus (which turned out to be mine) didn’t take off. My mistake, sorry! Finally I bothered to ask somebody, who pointed at what seemed to be the previous bus, and I got inside. Of course the preordered seat was nonexistent, but hey, I’m in Malaysia and as an Italian I should be used to these things.

After 6h, completely frozen from the air conditioning, time indefinable and unreasonable breaks (in which I didn’t want to go out and to the restroom because I was afraid that the driver would take off without me, because there was no time definition for the break) and mysterious distributions of passengers sitting in my bus to other busses (they bought tickets for the same destination as me and seemed equally confused as the driver, who “coordinated” the chaos), we finally arrived at the destination Penang… or well, me and the 3 other passengers out of 20, that were allowed to stay.

At the bus station, with my bladder about to explode, I’ve had my first encounter with traditional old restrooms in Malaysia. I won’t go into details, but for all the women reading this: just imagine when you have a huge backpack on your shoulders and a camera kit around your neck and you’ve been sitting for 6 hours straight, the humidity is over 80% and now you have to stand there and…Well women will understand the struggle! After checking into my hostel in George Town, I walked around for a while, before heading into “Love Lane”. No, it’s not what you might think. Love Lane is a street, that seems pretty calm during the day, but it gets very vivid at night with bars, restaurants and live music. After having mexican dinner, I ran into three solo travelers who were looking for scooter rentals. We went for a drink (apparently there’s always Happy Hour, no matter what time it is), played some uno and called it a night.

The next day I decided to stay on my own for the most part of the day. After a great breakfast at the Mugshot Café (serving a bright selection of Bagels, smoothies, pastries and veeeery good coffee) I went to see the Wat Chaiyamangkalaram Temple, a very shiny golden Thai Buddhist Temple, with a 33m long reclining Buddha inside the main building. Behind the statue you can find smaller Buddha statues that correspond to the chinese zodiac signs. Right across the street is Dhammikarama Temple, a Burmese Buddhist Temple built in 1803 that has a very nice garden with many statues and mythical creatures.

Kek Lok Si Temple

If you’re planning on going to Penang, make sure to visit Kek Lok Si Temple! I was lucky to experience its beauty twice, once at daytime and then again at night, when it’s unfortunately closed but wonderfully lit (this is how I’d imagined Santa’s home as a kid). The chinese Buddhist temple is the biggest in Malaysia and located on Air Itam. There’s so much to discover, several shrines, buildings, a fountain and an amazing view over the city. When you arrive you can either choose climbing the stairs or taking a lift for about 3RM per ride. I’d say the temperature and weather will tell you what to choose 😉 Passing the beautiful garden, the fountain that looks like a lotus holding a pagoda and the amazing view over the city, you’ll find another lift which takes you up to the Kuan Yin statue, the goddess of mercy. While the surrounding is still under construction, the statue itself is enormous and leaves you speechless. Since it was close to CNY, they would light the whole temple starting at 7.30pm. Driving up the hill with a little scooter while passing under hundreds of red chinese lanterns accompanied by the scent of freshly cooked food from the market filling the air was simply magical and so “asian”…

Malay people will tell you that Penang has one of the most delicious and rich variety of streetfood in Malaysia and they were right. Although, if you’re not much of an adventurer it’s safe to ask locals first where to get the best food, in order to avoid unfortunate choices.

The beaches of Penang aren’t spectacular, though, but I’ve been to Batu Ferringhi and the Monkey Beach. I do miss the beach a lot these days and I hope to find myself laying on white sand very soon and listen to the waves gently whispering their stories to me. If you’re in George Town, go out and explore the city. It has a big street art scene and it’s always a pleasure to find new drawings on the wall, which sometimes are interactive by including real objects (bicycle, swing,…). Chew Jetti was rather disappointing for me. There used to be seven jetties in George Town, each named after a chinese clan. Chew Jetty is the most touristic of them and people still live there, which is why you should be respectful while taking pictures. Basically it’s like a market and you walk through it and at the end you have a nice bay view.

Overall it has been pretty fun. I’ve met several unique people, who shared trips and evenings with me. One encounter will always be very particular to me, because I’ve met a Spanish guy one night and with him not being able to speak good English and me not speaking Spanish for years, it has been quite a funny evening. To be honest I don’t know if I even understood half of what he was telling me in Spanish (his southern accent didn’t make it easier at all :D), but the beers kept coming so of course it got easier to communicate. Thank you, alcohol 😉

Stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good – god is good.

Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Wat Chaiyamangkalaram
Street art George Town
Kek Lok Si Temple at night

Kuala Lumpur – lights, popping ears and multiculti

The contrast couldn’t be bigger. After 10 days well spent on the island Bali, I’ve arrived at the Kuala Lumpur international airport to meet one of my friends, who lives here for 2 years now and who I haven’t seen for over 4 years.

The car ride to his apartment was already a cultural shock. I am not used to seeing this amount of shiny sparkling skyscrapers. And on top of that coming from Bali, where life is totally different, less hectic (besides the crazy traffic) and with a beautiful, natural simplicity, that reflects the people living there. The car stopped in the parking area of a huge building with security guards and lots of blue ponds. One has to give some sort of identification and be announced in order to get in. I’ve been told that it’s normal to have these standards for residences in this area and you’d still pay less rent than back in Europe. Crazy!!!

The next day I tried to relax, do laundry and sort out a few things in my brain, that were left from Bali. The building was close to China Town and KLCC, which is why I walked around the area to grab some coffee and have lunch. The food variety is huge thanks to the multiculturalism. You can find everything you’d wish for. From simple to fancy, spicy to bland and from countries all over the world. The choices are endless and I am happy not to be left with rice all day everyday… hey, I’m Italian so I do need my pizza and pasta carbs 😉

In KL, as experienced in Bali, you’d find a big Latino culture, too. So for the first night out we chose to go to a salsa night at Banyan Tree with a wonderful panoramic view over KLCC and the Petronas Towers. This view… it blows your mind and you won’t get tired of it! The Petronas are so beautiful when they’re being lit at night. They are the worlds highest twin towers with around 452m, 88 floors and a skybridge connecting both towers. The bridge was actually built for security reasons, to make it possible to get to in other building in case of emergency and evacuation. Security is a big factor when looking at the architecture. The underground garages for example weren’t built into the buildings foundation and there are 16 main pillars in the underground of each building to keep them from collapsing. I could go on and on about it’s beauty… anyways where was I? Back to Banyan tree. To get to the salsa party, we took an elevator that took us up to the 58th floor in no time. And with no time I really mean within seconds. At one point, given my look, the concierge glanced at me, smiled and asked “Did your ears pop, yet, ma’am?” In this moment I’ve more than ever realized, that I’m a small town girl!

The salsa party was so much fun. Live music, tapas, margaritas, Latinos and a pool! The only thing that I’m still not getting used to is the humidity! It’s unbelievable. How do citizens live here and look super fresh all the time while I’m covered in sweat even when I’m not outside or disposed to sun?! It’s a mystery…

The following day my friend showed me around his district. We’ve had a late lunch in a huge Chinese underground food court called lot 10. Also we went to see the KL Tower, that I see every night from my window inside the apartment. Due to the approaching Chinese New Year, the year of the rat, Disney decided to put Mickey and Mini Mouse on display at the Pavilion Mall and make it a huge Disney party. I’ve never seen anything similar in my life. People gathering around the big statues and animated flowers, taking pictures in front of Disney related stuff. The malls in general keep confusing me and I get lost all the time 😀 In the evening we went to celebrate a birthday again in banyan tree, but this time on the residences side of the building. I got to talk to people from all over the world, living here and there, traveling around Asia or being in KL for work purposes. That evening I’ve experienced rain in KL for the first time. Living in Germany I always thought I knew how bad it could rain. This was next level! Usually it doesn’t rain for long, but when it does it’s accompanied by lighnings, thunders and so much rain, that you have to hide under a roof. Being on an open common floor, we practically got soaking wet.

For the after party we went to a place called Suzie Wong. A place with music and live shows (sort of cabaret, drag and more). The funny thing about that place is, that when they close at 3 am and turn on the lights, they will give you ginger flavored soup for free to hydrate. I think that’s a pretty nice gesture.

I could go on, but I will put separat blog posts about the sights I’ve been to and impressed me.

As always, stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling! Life is good – god is good.

Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Petronas Towers at night

Bali – My first stop and unexpected miracle healer

“Travel and your soul will heal”. That was my initial thought 2 weeks before starting into an adventure that I will remember forever. After a heartbreaking separation, quitting my job and moving back home, I’ve pretty much stayed in total isolation for over a month. It was time for me to step out of my self-destructive existence and move forward. But in order to achieve this mission, I needed a change of surrounding. Not that I hate being back with my parents or that I was forced to quit my job… but everything around me felt wrong and numb. I wasn’t able to feel love, happiness or any positive feeling.

I cannot tell you how I came up with Asia. After all it has never been a continent that seriously catched my attention. I did however want to visit Bali for some time now. So I bought 6 lonely planet travel guides (more or less I’ve simply hit the “add to basket” button on what sounded nice or had a nice cover on Amazon) and went from there. Within two weeks I’ve convinced my dearest cousin to join me as my plus one, buy the tickets and book the first hotel. She was free 10 days, which seemed enough for Bali.

After 16,5h of movies, indescribable food and no sleep, we’ve landed in Denpasar. We asked the hotel to pick us up, so we’ve waited for our driver Putu to arrive. Somehow as he was not coming, we started to joke around about how he must’ve been stuck in traffic or had an accident of some kind with the car. What can I say… we shouldn’t have joked about that. He sent us a video with a crashed car and the note “sorry, but there was an accident!”. An hour later and with bad feelings about our joke, we’ve arrived at Balangan Beach, a recommendation of my friend, who lived in Bali for some time. A great beach to surf, but very empty in January.

The hotel was super nice, super friendly staff and very delicious food! I’ve managed to get my very first surf lesson ever and I even stood on the board after only 3 attempts. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. My thighs, belly and arms didn’t laugh that much though…they were pretty bruised for almost a week! But where there is joy, there is always pain involved.

Because of the lack of transportation possibilities in this area we’ve decided to go to Ubud together with two Germans, who shared the taxi with us. The ride was pretty hilarious. At one point we started to sing Indonesian songs from the radio, comparing the voices of the singers with internationally known artists and laughed really hard for 2h. Thank you for the fun rides for conversations in the hotel.

Ubud was everything we’ve had hoped. Vivid streets, life threatening road crossings and always joyful people. Also infinite offerings in front of every house or shop, which made our walks more like walking though a field of mines, because you should not step on them!! Well… I did… Now I guess I’m safe to say that I’m not cursed, but I really didn’t see it coming.

The fascinating thing about Ubud was it’s love for Latin music and dance events. And they sure know how to dance salsa and bachata. The food was interesting… depending on where you go it can be either very delicious or undefinable and… not so good.

The second day in Ubud, we ordered a driver, our friend Yuri, who drove us around to get us to some important places around the area. Of course he took us to the Bali swings first. From this experience on, we referred to it as “trashata”, which can be interpreted as the trashiest shit we’ve done whilst in Bali. Also expensive as hell for what you get. But you know what’s funny? When you see the videos and photos of all these pretty women with long dresses and perfect hair, you never hear what’s really going on. That’s why you never see their faces. They scream… and as the happy Italians that we are, it was a blast for us to see the scared faces and hear them scream for their life. Afterwards Yuri drove us to the tegalalang rice terrace, where we hiked around the rice fields and took lots of photos. This was also the place where I slipped with my Birkenstocks and fell knee deep into a rice field. Covered in mud and unable to get out by myself, we both burst into laughter and it was almost impossible to wash off all the mud that covered my shoe, my pants and my leg.

The best part of our day tour was visiting Pura Tirta Empul, the temple of ritual purification in holy springs. It was fullmoon, a very important day for Balinese Hindus, so we were lucky to experience the energy and commitment surrounding the ritual, which is supposed to cleanse their souls and war off all evil by praying and then taking a bath under all 30 showers. Seeing young and old Balinese sitting in front on a huge pile of offerings, holding flower blossoms between their praying hands and becoming one with the surrounding was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in Bali. I was in awe and after taking some photographs I stopped for a moment to inhale the magic energy and tears filled my eyes. I believe that within this moment a part of my soul cleansed itself, too. A weight was lifted off of me and I was thankful. Just by putting these words here, I feel this energy again and tears come back. But that wasn’t the only magical thing that happened that day…

In the evening we met 4 Canadians. What began as an unfortunate attempt of one guy trying to hit on my cousin, ended in a night full of conversations, “awkward silence” moments, shisha, stealing Cocoa Puffs that were already set up for breakfast and infinite laughter. It’s been only a few times in my life that I’ve experienced a group of random people getting together and having a wonderful connection within a few minutes. Hard to explain, but it’s all about the vibe. When you don’t feel the need to change who you are in order to make an impression, when you can tell that person everything truthfully and the feeling is mutual.

The next day we went to the monkey forest with two of the guys. I think I don’t have to tell you how funny it was. My cousin and I agreed, that meeting them was fate as exactly what we all needed. I can only speak of myself, but I think some higher power (call it god or whatever you believe in) wanted me to meet them and have these conversations and adventures. I don’t believe in coincidences. It was too real and the connection too strong to call it luck or coincidence. Unfortunately the guys left the hotel that day to go to their Airbnb, so we said goodbye, but promised to meet again in Seminyak.

For the last days we’ve decided to spend them in Seminyak. Back to the beach for some final relaxation before flying to Kuala Lumpur and saying goodbye to my cousin. And yes we’ve even managed to both get the worst sunburns of our lives!!!! I even got to practice some Yoga on my travel yoga mat, that I squeezed into my backpack, hoping for it to get pulled out more often than it actually did. Seminyak is a wonderful place. A huge vivid beach, big enough for sun bathing, reading a book and surfing in peace and colorfully lit at night with many bars and lots of people enjoying themselves surrounded by music, laughter and occasional fireworks. We’ve even managed to meet one of our Canadian friends!

As I am about to end this post there is only a few little things I have to get off my chest…

Bali, you have been wonderful to me! When I arrived I wasn’t the person who I knew my whole life. I was crushed, negative and without any perspective. You have welcomed me with open arms and gave me all the things I needed to set a foot into the right direction. I am thankful for all the places you’ve taken me, for showing me the culture and religion, the warmth of every Balinese person I’ve met and most of all I am thankful for guiding me towards new friends, good conversations and unforgettable memories. You gave me the strength to start reflecting on my past, me as a living being and who I am destined to be. I am thankful for having had the chance to experience this trip with my cousin and I am 100% positive that it made our bond even stronger. I have embraced every experience and sign and I will never forget nor lower the value of this trip.

Til then, stay safe wherever you are, embrace the little things that come to you, life is good. God is good.

Yours always and truly,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

In addition to the post I’ve decided to put a little playlist here with songs that I’ve listened to during these days.

  • SOHN – Rennen
  • Other lives – For 12
  • Warpaint – Billie Holiday
  • Son Lux – Resurrection
  • Four Tet – Two Thousand and Seventeen
  • Fink – Looking too closely
  • Billie Eilish – everything I wanted
  • POLIÇA – Amongster
  • Soko – we might be dead by tomorrow
Pura Tirta Empul

White blank page – The one in the café where it all started

It’s always hard to write the first phrase… you sit in front of the screen and stare at the white blank page. The cursor impatiently flashing as if to say “just write anything…?!”. While waiting for some good phrase to pop up in their brain, people would often get distracted by the noises in the surrounding. Maybe the sound of a car passing by the street so fast, that you’d automatically ask yourself how much it passed the speed limit. Or the sound of the coffee machine at the café where you’re sitting in when it’s frothing milk for the cappuccino that you’ve ordered. People talking can be distracting, even worse when you hear them chew really loud and you would want to tell them to stop so you can finally focus, but you then decide to let go… the list is endless. Back to the blank page and my cursor still flashing. Flashing “at” me alarmingly loud!

Why do we even care about a good start? A book isn’t good just because of the first phrase, sometimes not even the first five chapters are worth reading. It’s about what happens along the way. To start something, whatever it is, is good. Means you take action to begin something new, whether it’s a small thing or a big. It can give you the power of deciding where you want your next step in your life to be set. You can lead things to a certain direction. And I guess that is what I’m trying here. Blabbing about my life, my thoughts and my experiences as I walk around the planet trying to find myself… or get my life back on a path, where I’d like to see me happier and positive.

My conclusion to the blank page? It’s not that scary if you think about it! It gives you all the choices in the world and you have it in your hand to be the one to type in the first letters. Metaphorically speaking… not that you’re sitting somewhere like me, drinking cappuccino in Malaysia and staring at a screen… Life often hands us these moments that seem like blank pages. They scare us, because in most of these times something valuable has been taken away from us, lost, broken or gone by itself. In order to start fresh, things have to vanish at some point. And unfortunately not only the bad stuff will disappear. It’s mostly the things we thought were good, valuable and positive for us that hurt the most when we get to that point, where we hit a brick wall.

After several obstacles on my bumpy path I mostly managed to stay on it, although I’ve felt that something was either wrong with the path or with me as a person walking on it. But people do like for things to stay the way they are. It’s easier, comfortable and you can simply push aside all the reflections considering your life and your soul. I guess in the end this construct of bad choices and me not dealing with the many warning signs led to this massive crash into an imaginary brick wall. Though the crash felt very real…

So what now? To be honest with you… I have no idea. I take life one step at a time right now and it’s healing. It gives me the break I needed, it gives me the power of starting something new. And I know that many people don’t understand that not knowing what’s going to happen can actually do good. Nowadays we are programmed to have a certain 5-, 10- or 50-year plan, not caring that even a day – well even a tiny moment – could change the whole outlook of that stupid plan. As I’ve met many people in these few days traveling, I’ve heard it all: “Wait… so you’re all alone?!”, “Oh you quit your job? Isn’t that a high risk?”, “But what is your plan for when you get back?”, “No ticket back home? Are you crazy?!”, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”,… Fuck that! It’s not that any of them knew exactly what was going to happen to them. We want things to go certain ways but it’s never in our power completely. We end up where we are supposed to be. I’ve learned that lesson now and it lifts off the heavy weight on my shoulders, that I’ve had for several years now. The feeling of not fitting in, being weird just because I didn’t have it all set for my future… all the answers.

Blank is good. Patience is good. Life is good. Sometimes you just have to adjust the way you look at things. Give it another perspective or angle. I don’t consider myself spiritual or as part of some religion by the book. But somehow I know that I am a believer… and yes for those of you reading this, who have been in Ubud with me: I know what popped in your mind when you’ve read “I’m a believer”. A believer of something that has to do with destiny and faith. That there are no such things as coincidences. Everything is supposed to go the way it is going in order for you to become who you are. But that’s a bigger topic and I will someday in the future write about it, when I get a clearer look on it.

For now thanks for hanging in there to get to the end and not giving up along the way! 😉 I don’t know if I made myself clear or if you share my opinions. But hey, there you go… my first blog post is done. Now I should pay my bill, cause the waiters gave me some pretty annoyed glances, and head out. Living life outside the www. you know…

‘Til then,

stay safe wherever you are and remember, life is good. Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking 🙂

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