My Couchsurfing Chiang Mai Adventures: Winging It in Thailand Pt. 2

Welcome back to part 2 of my “Solo Female Traveler Winging It in Thailand” series! This week I delve deeper into my Couchsurfing Chiang Mai experience, so you know what it’s really like to surf a couch… alone. With a guy.

Missed Part 1? Read My First 24 Hours in Chiang Mai!

my Couchsurfing Chiang Mai host

my Couchsurfing host, Julien, and me!

Couchsurfing Chiang Mai: What It’s REALLY Like

Dozens of stalls lined the university gates, just a few minutes walk from Julien’s nice apartment.

Perfect.

I jumped out of the red taxi pickup truck, greeted Julien again by his scooter, and off we went on our first foodie adventure: a.k.a. stuff my face with every Northern Thai snack I have not tried yet.

Couchsurfing in Chiang Mai snacks

delicious snacks by my Couchsurfing Chiang Mai host’s place

Those were only appetizers, though. Later that night, my Couchsurfing host and I acted like very naughty tourists by having a a full-blown “Western dinner” at The Red Tree Restaurant.

HUGE is not big enough to describe it:

Couchsurfing in Chiang Mai

each of those was ONE entrée! My biggest meal while Couchsurfing Chiang Mai for sure

But as we say in Puerto Rico:

Barriguita llena, corazón contento!

That line perfectly captured my first 24 hours Couchsurfing Chiang Mai (and beyond): filled belly, happy heart indeed.

The next DAY

My Couchsurfing hosts had to work a few hours in the morning (he plays poker for a living online. I’m not kidding), so I took advantage of this to update my Instagram account and post some photos to my LatinAbroad Facebook page as well.

Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you have to go go go all the time.

It actually ended up raining in the morning. Wet season upon us.

Conclusion: WORTH IT!

Around midday, Julien and I hit the wet pavement for a scooter ride around town:

We did a fair bit of temple hopping, with my Couchsurfing Chiang Mai host hitting some sites he had not seen himself while living there.

Temples start at 4:48 below! 😉

Then, it rained again! But it doesn’t matter, I kept having fun!

Bring it, Mother Nature.

Then I did something really, really bad. Like, I-may-go-to-Buddhist-hell bad.

Our last stop before sunset was the Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan). As its name suggests, it is a temple made out of real silver. It’s the only one in Thailand.

Shiny, unique, entrancing. Of course I wanted to step inside.

And I did.

Chiang Mai Couchsurfing, temple hopping

After snapping those selfies, one old and one young monk came up to us, almost-yelling in Thai.

I say almost yelling, because they were peaceful monks trying not to look like they were angry, even though they were clearly upset.

Their fingers started to fiercely point at a sign on the ground, which actually happened to have pretty large lettering, spelling the following:

NO WOMEN ALLOWED INSIDE

Both in Thai and English.

Whoops.

This day, however, would prove to be a little more embarrassing than that.

I managed to make myself blackout later that night. With no alcohol, whatsoever.

Now read THAT Chiang Mai photography workshop story here!

Couchsurfing in Chiang Mai, photography

I would have laughed at myself as well, ladies

Part 2 of my shenanigans winging it: Couchsurfing & Temple Desecration (!!)

My First 24 Hours in Chiang Mai: Winging It in Thailand Pt.1

I almost skipped North Thailand. Wet, cloudy, muddy days aren’t the best antidote to my fibromyalgia. “But you just have to go…” my soul strangely whispered.. A $25 flight from Bangkok, 3-hour search, and defeating $7 hostel booking later, there I was: on the airport floor, anxiously awaiting a response from a Couchsurfing host…wondering what my first 24 hours in Chiang Mai would be like…

…but it wouldn’t come, it wouldn’t come…would it? 

What now?

24 hours in Chiang Mai, jungle stupa

My first 24 hours in Chiang Mai – the Couchsurfing waiting game

Waiting on a cold airport floor wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend my first day in Chiang Mai. Defeated, I looked around–quickly perking up as I spotted a couple with a driver. With big brown Latin puppy eyes, I convinced (errm, hustled) them to let me hitch a ride for a fraction of the fare.

Less than 20 minutes later, I had made it to my hostel, convinced some travelers on motorbikes by the front to wait 5 minutes for me so I could join them, and hit the road.

Chiang Mai solo female traveler, scooters

As I swiftly changed clothes, though, I got the response I was hoping to hear 3 and a half hours earlier on that cold airport floor:

“you’re welcome to stay!”

His name was Julien and, thanks to some Spanish travelers leaving to Pai today, I could now crash at his place.

But, the motorcycle trip…

“I’ll be there tomorrow morning! Thanks!” I typed, as I struggled to hop on the high seat of the backpacker’s motorbike.

WINGIN’ IT BY SCOOTER

24 hours in Chiang Mai, Road trip

There’s nothing like riding a motorbike to the outskirts of Chiang Mai in the shoulder season. Rain was delayed this year and so, we were graced with sunny skies…until sunset.

The vibrating seat, cooling breeze, moving gray clouds, and growling motor–combined with our infantile elation–felt more intoxicating than 5 strongly-poured vodka wells during unlimited $10 happy-hour Fridays in Tampa.

We got so lost, but we did not care. Not even the surprising afternoon downpour could stop us!

After about 30 minutes riding in circles, not only did we make it, but clouds slowly dissipated.

24 hours in Chiang Mai, Lake trip

The lake was peaceful, with a couple of local kids and families chirping in the background.

Practicing my broken Egyptian Arabic with an Egyptian-American girl as Army veterans told war stories–all ecstatic to be alive, there, at that very moment, in Thailand.

The high of traveling without a plan is more addictive than opium, apparently.

A video posted by Maria Alexandra (@latinabroad) on

Once back, we showered and hit the night market for dinner.

Oh man, it was everything I could want: my very first khao soi bowl. The cutest puppy I’ve ever seen. The most colorful little Thai dancer. An energizing, live drum band.

All that after the most relaxing, yet exhilarating impromptu scooter trip around Chiang Mai’s outskirts and Old City.

24 hours in Chiang Mai, night market

What a “half-day.” Too bad my new friends were leaving town after my first 24 hours in Chiang Mai..

the next morning

I met up with couchsurfer Julien to drop off my bags. He was working, but we planned foodie adventures for that evening.

Reality check: many Couchsurfing hosts work during the day, so don’t expect to be babysat around the city.

So, what did I do? Went back to the hostel I had just checked out of, hung out at the patio, and waited until I encountered some friendly travelers to strike a conversation with.

24 hours in Chiang Mai, hostel

Not even 5 minutes passed until I heard a traveler speaking Spanish. I quickly introduced myself, he said he was waiting for his friend, I asked if I could crash their day…

SURE!

After his friend came out, we crashed the pool of a nicer guesthouse because it was too damn hot.

Chiang Mai solo female traveler, pool crashing

Post-refreshing splash, I hit the road again! With them, my new friends 😀

It was another half-day of aimless wandering. We simply wanted to see what popped out around the city–and drop by what drew us in.

I even met up with the Egyptian-American girl again at Doi Suthep.

24 hours in Chiang Mai, temples

By mid-afternoon, it was time to go back to the residential district where my Couchsurfing host lived: just outside the Old City of Chiang Mai, by a crowded university…

Click HERE for Part 2 of my “Solo Female Winging It in Thailand” series 😉

Hong Kong Art Scene: A Walk Down Hollywood Road

I wanted my stopover to be different. Already familiar with China’s freedom of expression dilemma, I figured exploring the Hong Kong art scene would teach me a heck of a lot about the territory and the People’s Republic — from a very refreshing perspective.

Thus, I enlisted the help of Liuda HK to get a glimpse of the history of Chinese art and expression in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).

Below, some of my fascinating findings after a walk down Hollywood Road in Central.

contemporary Hong Kong art

Hong Kong Art Scene: A Walk Down Hollywood Road

It might have been 11 AM, but it was relatively quiet. “Its Cantonese nickname, ‘Cultural Desert,’ is quite fitting,” I thought.

Filled with tranquility, behind the walls of some of the most expensive spaces in the city, I delved into Chinese art for the first time.

Our guide, Raymond, introduced himself and the walk by explaining how the Hong Kong art scene was born.

art galleries in Hong Kong, Hollywood Road

Photo by ejorpin, Flickr

In the Beginning…

Hollywood Road might have been the second street to ever been built after the British colony was founded, but in 1987, it became the cradle of contemporary art in Hong Kong.

Fleeing the oppression of the mainland’s communist regime, Chinese art flocked to the SAR. Few artists came to sell their works or go into hiding.

Interestingly, most paintings from underground artists were brought in by Western journalists living in China in the 1980s and 1990s.

Xing Xing artists (known as The Stars Art Group) and Yuan Ming Yuan artists were some of the first to emerge and flourish here.

art in Hong Kong, Chinese criticism

Fleeing Socialist Realism

Screaming frustrations and desire for social change were clearly depicted through oils, watercolors, and canvases.

These artists who pushed away Socialist Realism–the Chinese state-sanctioned form of art–for finally revealing true freedom of expression and individualism forbidden in the mainland.

Chen Lianqing, art walk in Hong Kong

One of my favorites? Chen Lianqing. His work perfectly depicts the aforementioned plight of the Chinese people toward freedom of expression.

His paintings drew me in: they denounced not only the government, but also materialism.

The emotions portrayed were a reflection of how most people from the Sichuan Province of China are: sensitive, but very busy and naughty.

Chinese art in Hong Kong, Chen Lianqing

And, in the artist’s own words, wishing to escape some type of misery…

Intimate Emotions and Sculptures

Other works were truly surprising. Sexuality and intimacy abound– something I was not expecting from what I perceive to be an ultra-reserved culture.

What surprised me the most, though? Hong Kong art that depicted Communist China in ways that seemed to glorify it:

Chinese communist art in Hong Kong

Beyond the paintings, I found the Hong Kong art scene to be extremely rich in sculpture.

Unique, abstract emotions related to love and religion shone through.

My favorite installations were found at Park View: the only gallery we visited off Hollywood Road:

sculptures, Hong Kong art scene

That Buddha statue was created by binding intricate metal pieces.

What’s even more beautiful? Those delicate metal pieces are actually Chinese characters, all reading Buddha teachings:

Buddha art in Hong Kong

A similar art piece floated gracefully in the background:

contemporary Hong Kong sculptures

In the back, what seem to be a cross between Dali-inspired Surrealism and contemporary Impressionism hung from the walls:

Surrealism in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Street Art: Another Hidden Gem

After 2 hours, thirsty for more, we wrapped up by taking in some Hong Kong street art:

Hong Kong street art

Have you explored the Hong Kong art scene?

Many thanks to Liuda HK for the unique introduction to the Hong Kong art scene via Hollywood Road and vicinity. While this artwork was provided free of charge, I received no payment nor other compensation in exchange of positive reviews. This post is a reflection of my own feelings and conclusions after being exposed to contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong art.

Singapore Food Guide: 10 Must-try Dishes + Where to Eat Them

The Singapore food scene is a spicy reflection of its multicultural heritage. Very much like Malaysia, the island nation has been a world-renowned trade hub for centuries. By the 400s A.D., Arabs, Chinese, Indian, Javanese, and also Malay merchants heavily trafficked its Straits.

Eleven centuries later, the arrival of colonial powers such as Portugal and Great Britain brought with it another wave of migrant workers–adding even more ingredients to the melting pot.

buffet, Singapore food guide

Singapore food buffet by Jezy, Flickr

Given its history, I couldn’t wait to take a bite out of Singapore during one of my short stopovers this past summer. And so I enlisted the help of James from Culture Bites to introduce me not only to the most traditional dishes, but also its thriving contemporary foodie scene.

Below, my favorite foodie finds in the city!

Singapore Food Guide: Top Traditional Dishes and Spots

Katong Laksa, Singapore Cuisine

Singapore Laksa by Jpatokal, wiki Commons

Katong Laksa

Janggut Laksa: #01-64, Roxy Square, 50 East Coast Road

This Chinese-Malay concoction is the quintessential Singaporean dish–and one of many delicious curry variations in Asia.

Fish cakes, eggs, shrimp, and chicken are boiled with rice noodles in a spicy coconut milk base.

What makes Singaporean Katong laksa truly stand out, however, are its cut-up noodles (usually considered bad luck by the Chinese!) and addition of tofu puffs and cockles.

popiah, food in Singapore

Singaporean Popiah by ProjectManhattan, wiki Commons

Popiah

Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee: 95 Joo Chiat Road

The Hokkien diaspora has spread the consumption of these thin, crêpe-like spring rolls all over Southeast Asia.

Particularly, popiah in Singapore and Malaysia is made by rubbing the batter onto a hot plate until thin. Then, it is stuffed.

Common ingredients include been sprouts, shredded omelette, peanuts, fried tofu, carrots–which are mixed with either soy sauce, shrimp paste, and/or spicy chili sauce.

chili crab, Singapore seafood

chili crab photo by Chris Chen, Flickr

Chilli Crab

Jumbo Seafood: 20 Upper Circular Road #B1-48, Riverwalk, Clarke Quay

Partly-opened crab, steamed, then stir-fried in a thick tomato chili gravy. What’s not to like?!

While somewhat intimidating to tourists with low heat tolerance like myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that chilli crab is deliciously palatable. Must be the sweet ketchup, beautifully balancing the fiery chilies.

sambal stingray, unique Singapore food

sambal stingray plate by singaporelocalfavourites .com

Sambal Stingray

BBq Seafood: #03-178, Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre

Barbecue or sambal stingray is one of the most unique foods in Singapore. It is typically wrapped in a banana leaf, grilled until lightly charred.

More recently though, establishments have started to cook the rays on a hot plate until its shrimp-based chili spread (known as sambal belachan) is sizzling.

Don’t be put off by this traditional Singaporean street food: the stingray’s texture might remind you of lobster, lacking a ‘fishy’ aftertaste and no fine bones.

If your taste buds can handle the heat, try it!

Singapore Hokkien Mee

Singaporean Hokkien Mee by Nicholas Chia, Flickr

Hokkien Prawn Mee

Come Daily Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee: #02-27, Blk 127 Toa Payoh Lor 1

You might recognize this name from my Malaysia foodie guide, but they are in fact two totally distinct dishes!

Unlike the soupy Penang Hokkien prawn mee, the Singaporean version refers to yellow noodles stirfried with soy sauce, garlic, prawns, squid, eggs, bean sprouts, and angel hair rice noodles. Sambal and lime are traditional tangy toppings as well.

Char kway teow, Singapore-Chinese noodles

Photo by Ben Lee, Flickr

Char Kway Teow

Hill Street Fried Kway Teow: #01-187, Blk 16, Bedok South Road

Char kway teow is another national dish shared by both Singapore and Malaysia.

The fatty dish consists of flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, prawns, Chinese sausage, fish cakes, and sometimes crispy pork lard. A salty helping of dark soy sauce and chilies bring all the ingredients together.

Another version of the dish is also popular in Indonesia, where it’s made sweeter, spicier, and without pork–an accommodation to its Muslim majority.

Singapore Food Guide: Contemporary Samplings and Hip Spots

contemporary Singapore food scene

Keong Saik Road and its vicinity have a dodgy background. In recent years, however, the area morphed into a shining star of Singapore’s contemporary foodie scene.

Posh restaurants, bars, and even boutique hotels now sprinkle the area.

As I scoured the streets with James, a few spots with imaginative cocktails and bites caught my attention.

I’ll gladly share the short list with you, but remember: menus change often!

unique Singapore cocktails, The Library

Grand Theft Nacho Cocktail

The Library: 47 Keong Saik Road, Chinatown

Behind a password-protected liquor store door is a romantic, dim-lit speakeasy bursting with young, talented mixologists.

The Library offers a beautifully-crafted cocktail list, with one of the favorites being a Doritos-infused tequila cocktail.

The Mexican agave base is expertly mixed with spiced cherry tomato shrub, minty amaro Strega, dry sherry–garnished with Creole bitters, lime, and a side of nachos.

Singapore's best restaurants, burnt ends

Pulled Pork Brioche Burger

Burnt Ends: 20 Teck Lim Road

Dave Pynt directs the daily roasting, smoking, grilling, and baking of meats in dreamy ways at Burnt Ends.

Their specialty? PORK. Particularly, their crunchy suckling pig and pulled pork brioche burger alone are worth the trip.

best food in Singapore, Neon Pigeon

Smoked Pork Buns

Neon Pigeon: 1 Keong Saik Road, Chinatown

The name may not say much, but these smoked pork buns, topped with pickled daikon and ginger, are a memorable Asian fusion creation.

The cucumber goma-salar, smothered with peanuts, is another honorable mention at this hip Japanese-inspired F&B concept.

Singapore food, Hibiscus ice cream

Hibiscus and Smoked Ice Cream

Burnt Ends: 20 Teck Lim Road

I could have never pictured smoking my ice cream and topping it with an aromatic flower, but Burnt Ends threw it out of the park again!

This delicate dessert was the perfect ending of my unique foodie walk in Singapore.

What’s your favorite food in Singapore? Share with me below!

Want to eat it all? Contact Culture Bites Singapore to book a food walk or a completely customized experience, like mine! Many thanks to James for the fabulous complimentary introduction to Singaporean cuisine, btw 😀

Crazy Bangkok Sights + Quirky Experiences: My Top Moments

As you know, there were many things on my to-do list as a first-time visitor to Thailand. After spending a chill 18 days in Koh Tao, however, I found myself drawn to more unique Bangkok sights.

While the following list may not seem extraordinary, these are some of the top moments that made my trip to the Thai kingdom unforgettable. Indeed, it is usually what you don’t plan for that makes you smile until your face hurts.

Unique Bangkok Sights: My Top Moments

egg-wrapped pat thai, unique Bangkok sights

Joining a cultural tuk tuk caravan crawl

My first tuk tuk ride was hilarious thanks to Bangkok Food Tours. I joined their midnight by tuk tuk foodie crawl, which involved a tuk tuk caravan prancing through town, stopping for local treats, hidden viewpoints, and deserted temples near their closing time.

I don’t know what I enjoyed the most: the shenanigans of fellow tourists and local drivers as we zigzagged the city… Or the unique egg-wrapped Pat Thai… Or the serene atmosphere of one of the most popular Bangkok attractions outside peak times.

I ended up with achy cheeks and a different perspective of this chaotic city.

Vintage van converted into a sports bar

Khao San Road didn’t impress me much, with its pricey bucket cocktails and low-end clothing. What really made my time there were the vintage Volkswagen vans some imaginative entrepreneurs have converted into bars!

I found the little gem on the video above tucked away on a street adjacent to Khao San. Thanks to Hero, son of the owner of Khaosan River Inn Hostel, for the ride there!

best pat thai in Bangkok

Having the best Pat Thai of my life at a riverside alley

That unassuming Pat Thai was, hands-down, the best I ever had in my life. Its spices and flavor profile even beat Pad Thai Thip Samai‘s, which I tried on my tuk tuk tour!

Juicy, perfectly-balanced peanuty sweetness, cilantro freshness, and slight tartness.

Better yet? It was double the typical size and made out of a local homemaker’s kitchen.

The joint is located on a dark riverside alley by the hostel I stayed at. Another Bangkok hidden gem uncovered by Khaosan River Inn’s gracious host!

Golden Mount, popular Bangkok attractions

360° bird’s eye view of Bangkok’s traditional and contemporary skyline

Want to take in some truly unique Bangkok sights? Climb The Golden Mount.

I couldn’t truly appreciate Bangkok’s diverse architecture and history until I had a 360° bird’s eye view of it.

Glistening skyscrapers, surrounded by golden stupas and terra-cotta-colored clay tiles. So expansive, so diverse. So beautiful!

Bonus? The viewpoint has several Wi-Fi hotspots, so it was a great place to get inspired and write about my trip (and instantly Snapchat it to y’all 😉 ).

Indian food in Bangkok

Deep-fried Indian curry sandwich with cheese by Chinatown

Trying to find Chinatown and Little India on my own, I ended up in a curious cross street.

Little India is something I couldn’t quite find in Bangkok, minus a couple of Indian clothing stores, snack shops, and a restaurant or two.

BUT! Not all was lost when I spotted this quirky sandwich. The bread had been breaded (ha) and deep-fried. It was stuffed with potato Indian curry and veggies. And a thick slice of…Swiss cheese? Gouda cheese?!

It was so spicy I couldn’t tell amid tears. But wow: what odd, delicious Bangkok sights!

UMA Residence, Bangkok hotel

Crashing into a luxury hotel’s pool

There are perks to mingling with the locals, as you know from my Couchsurfing stories. The idea to crash the UMA Residence’s pool came from my hostel’s host, though!

Hero is friends with the hotel staff, so he takes willing guests to the luxurious pool area.

Man, that hostel stay paid for itself 😀 (UMA was very nice and relaxing, by the way. I certainly recommend the property to discerning travelers).

unique things to do in Bangkok, free meditation retreat

Being persuaded into a free 4-day meditation retreat

One of the top Bangkok sights is Wat Arun. Unfortunately for me, the complex was under extensive renovation during my visit this summer, so I decided to skip the pricey entrance and wander the (free) surrounding grounds instead.

What I stumbled upon was wisdom that would change my life forever.

A “free meditation class” poster caught my attention. I walked into the building and, one hour later, I was seating with an Indonesian man who had been living in Thailand for decades after spending two years on a solitary retreat in the jungle.

Whoa.

On my first session, I learned about the two different types of meditation and was briefly introduced to Buddhism. I was so intrigued, the teacher invited me to come back in two days, if my schedule allowed.

I ended up spending four days exploring all types of meditation, learning from him, and seeing the beautiful work he has done for hundreds of children who have been victims of human trafficking.

The Community Learning Center for Development of Humanity at Wat Arun is the nonprofit organization I found. What an incredible chance encounter. Please pay it visit and make a donation during your trip.

popular Bangkok sights, Patpong

My ping-pong show virginity taken badly

Hella funny moment now, but certainly not then! This is more of a word of advice for you and giggles for my friends…

Two travelers and I were walking down the Patpong Market in Silom district when we were approached by a very pushy old man. He sneaked “the menu” into our hands, promoting the infamous ping-pong show acts.

You know, one of the grossest, yet most intriguing of Bangkok sights.

I’m curious and always take risks for the sake of your entertainment, so I proudly haggled the price down to half the sketchy man’s initial offering and went for it.

What ensued was pretty ridic.

Bangkok attractions, ping-pong show

We entered the smallest, sketchiest “bar” I’ver seen in my life, quickly greeted by about three fully-nude “exotic dancers.” One of them was surely my grandmother’s age, but slightly wrinklier.

And theeeeeen? Skinny granny proceeded to play a small trumpet with her vajay-jay, shortly after bumming a smoke and taking a few drags with that same, errm, equipment.

Oh, it gets worse.

The noticeably-miserable waitress brought our “free round” of drinks at that very moment, demanding a tip. She was neither prompt nor nice, so I refused and told the other two travelers to do the same.

The young lady flipped me off, trotting away forcefully, cursing and yelling something in Thai to her coworkers. Then, the entire bar (as of, a handful of employees and 2 other local guests) started to throw the dirtiest looks back at us.

It didn’t quite help I insulted the biatch back, performing an equally-offensive hand gesture in return. Super Sofia Vergara style. Latin POW!

inside Bangkok ping-pong show

The guy with us must have pooped his pants from the look he had on his face.

Needless to say, he forced his girl and me out of there, drinks unfinished. Lucky for me, I got to keep my “free beer” to finish down the street, as hey, THIS IS THAILAND!

Moral of the story: no more ping-pong shows for Maria 😀

Tip: still curious about the ping-pong shows in Bangkok? Tyler found out that the appropriately-named “Super Pu$$y” offers an affordable, apparently less sketchy version of the one I experienced. Fair warning though: albeit a unique Bangkok attraction, it’ll probably be just as disturbing XD

unique Bangkok sights, converted van bar

Give me another drink, please!

Which are your top Bangkok sights, moments? Share below!

My Seaventures: Livin’ on a Rig in Borneo [Photo Essay + Video]

ocean views from dive rig in Borneo, Malaysia

Already enchanted by the Malaysian Borneo, I was swept away from Mabul Island to the quirky Seaventures Dive Rig. There, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore Sipadan and other stunning sites in the area for a second time–in the same week. I couldn’t believe it!

My biggest surprise, though? The dive rig itself became a top highlight of my entire week in Borneo. Even more so than some of the dive sites! Continue reading to find out why 😉

Seaventures, Malaysia: Livin’ on a Rig in Borneo

Imagine living on a converted oil rig: a floating platform over the ocean where 20% of the world’s coral reefs thrive.

Gasp.

The story of Seaventures is even more fascinating than that, though. For starters, the dive rig was actually built in PANAMA, Central America.

For a few tours, it was used to accommodate workers as an oil and gas rig – being towed from assignment to assignment.

sunset, Malaysian Borneo dive rig

But its career ended in 1985, when it was sent to a shipyard in Singapore – and nearly forgotten.

And theeeeeeeeen…the former Chief Minister of Sabah stumbled upon it and had the brilliant idea to converting it into a dive resort.

What he didn’t know at the time is that the structure would actually morph into one of the finest artificial reefs in the region.

Ecotourism at its finest!

Inside the Dive Rig

Borneo dive rig deck

I was converted: staying on a dive rig was even cooler than staying on an overwater bungalow.

Yes, really.

I felt as if I were aboard a cruise ship, actually — but no sea sickness. Ever.

And, contrary to initial belief, I had a greater sense of freedom and space.

inside dive rig resort, Malaysia

From such heights, I could fully appreciate how gorgeous the Malaysian Borneo is.

Everywhere I went, expansive ocean vistas followed me.

I could see villagers going about their business. Kids splashing by fishing boats, too.

I even saw turtles and shoals of fish from the freakin’ sundeck!

dive rig oceanview

Daily afternoon boat trips were offered to a village in Mabul Island. However, I loved the Seaventures Dive Rig so much I never wanted to spend every precious second on it–except when it was time to DIVE!

Diving in Sipadan ONE. More. Time

Despite an impending storm, Sipadan still shone. In fact, the stark contrast of gray clouds and bright aqua waters further deepened the island’s imprint on my heart.

Sadly, I didn’t encounter the resident barracuda vortex again….

Sipadan barracuda vortex, Borneo Malaysia

Sipadan barracuda vortex by Seaventures Dive Rig team

Visibility was negatively affected, too…

…BUT! The waters still looked pristine.

Sipadan beach, Borneo Malaysia

AND I managed to spot several sharks and other fantastic marine life.

Barrel sponge coral spawning. A turtle threesome (they were really doing it, I mean mating). Silver tip, white tip and gray reef sharks.

LOTS of them. Lots of them all!

diving in Sipadan, sea turtle

adorable sea turtle in Sipadan by Jonathan Sanchez

More Surprises in Mabul

Seeing Mabul’s tiny, camouflaged residents again was another treat.

Several cuttlefish, my favorite juvenile yellow box fish, ribbon eels, scorpion fish, pygmy seahorses, and the most gigantic crocodile fish ever!

And the star of the show: a peacock mantis shrimp being attacked by a fish.

I squealed so hard underwater, I scared both critters away. Hahaha!

Luckily, I spotted many others 😉

pygmy seahorses, Mabul island

find the pygmy seahorse! Photo by Seaventures manager Jonathan Sanchez

And some of the fattest nudibranches I’ve seen in my life:

fat nudibranch, Seaventures house reef

Seaventures House Reef

Shockingly though, the best dives during my stay at Seaventures were the ones at their very own house reef!

The artificial reefs under the rig have attracted an incredible variety of residents: from elusive red orange/blue flamboyant cuttlefish and juvenile yellow box fish to large schools of Chevron barracuda and yellowtail trevally.

yellowtail trevally shoal, Malaysian Borneo diving

And the night dives there? Unparalleled!

Massive bumphead parrot fishes, moray eels, pipefish, tiny baby octopuses. Ah!

Borneo night dive, octopus cuttlefish

crazy front view of colorful cuttlefish on a night dive by Jonathan Sanchez

But the fooooood

Oh gosh, and the food?

Spicy fish curries. Grilled lamb shanks. Deviled eggs. Sweet and sour tofu.

And a seemingly-endless supply of top-notch pastries, ice cream, and cookies.

dive rig barbecue night

Drool.

It all tastes even better during BBQ night, with a side of live music!

Why, oh why am I back to America? Take me back to Malaysia, please!

Seaventures dive rig

Dive rig resort photo by Jonathan Sanchez

Many thanks to Melinda, Jonathan, and the fantastic staff at Seaventures Dive Rig for such an unforgettable stay.

*Even though it was comped, I was not given any payment for positive reviews. This photo essay truly reflects my experience in the Malaysian Borneo.

I can’t wait to go back there and pay every single penny it’s worth!

Overwater Tiki Huts, Bizarre Creatures: My Borneo Malaysia Getaway

Borneo Malaysia sunset, Mabul

It’s not every day check-in happens inside an overwater tiki hut ‘office,’ overlooking green turquoise seas. Diving in Borneo Malaysia has been a dream of mine ever since I first heard about the region’s crown jewel, Sipadan Island.

Yet, this unexpected welcome to Sabah was more than icing on the cake: it was a firecracker that further aroused the butterflies already filling my tummy.

Post check-in, the Borneo Divers Resort staff whisked me away in a fun boat ride to what would be my home in Mabul Island for the next four days.

Malaysian Borneo resort, Borneo Divers deck

My Borneo Malaysia Getaway: Mabul, Kapalai, and Sipadan

I was so busy dreaming about Sipadan, I didn’t even realize the underwater gems that awaited at Mabul and Kapalai. A rich mix of coral, reef fish, and even macro life was like a belated birthday gift to me.

After falling in love with muck diving in Lembeh Strait, this was bound to be yet another unforgettable diving getaway.

The GOLDEN Triangle

Also known as the “Amazon of the Seas,” the Coral Triangle is home to 20% of the world’s reef species.

In other words, it is the global epicenter of marine biodiversity.

Within such triangle is a smaller one, known as The Golden Triangle. It comprises three islands: Mabul, Kapalai, and Sipadan.

Malaysian Borneo coral, Mabul Island

Borneo Divers Resort AND Mabul Island

Arrival to my resort alone was memorable enough. Huge corals outcropped the crystal clear waters, while thousands of glassfish surrounded the long jetty.

Before I splashed into the water though, I explored the grounds and captured a gorgeous sunset.

Loungers sprinkled throughout an expansive deck. Wooden bungalows with French doors and windows. Dreamy beds and hardwood floors. Towering ceilings in the dining hall.

Borneo Divers Resort pool area

It felt as if I was in Bora Bora or some other expensive resort in the South Pacific. But no: this was a moderately-priced hotel in Malaysian Borneo, amid the Coral Triangle.

Then, a night dive at Paradise 2: Borneo Diver Mabul Resort’s house reef.

Wow.

Dozens of clown fish, flounders, flathead crocodile fishes, batfish, needle fish, moray eels–you name it! All teeming thanks to a beautiful mix of natural and artificial reefs.

Mabul island sunset, Sabah, Borneo

After four days of underwater adventures, I discovered what’s so special about Mabul Island: it is full of both colorful wall dives and macro diving.

While mostly tiny creatures thrive here, you are as likely to spot both a tiny and giant cuttlefish, incredibly-huge school of yellowtail trevally, sea turtles, and a fat Pikachu nudibranch–all in the same afternoon.

Borneo diving, Mabul Island

giant cuttlefish spotted by Borneo Divers Mabul Island Resort team

Kapalai

Kapalai is not an actual island, but a sandbar where another resort on stilts sprawls graciously amid 28 dive sites.

Shallow seas surrounded by luxurious overwater bungalows: again, you’ll be questioning whether you’re somewhere in the South Pacific!

Ugly, yet fascinating critters such as blue rings octopuses, ghost pipefish, and even leaf scorpion fish inhabit here.

Spider crabs, Titan triggerfish, juvenile frogfish–even MATING Mandarin fish as well!

Kapalai diving in Borneo

SIPADAN

Then, the moment of truth: with permit secured, I was allowed to finally visit a diver’s wet dream.

SIPADAN. ISLAND.

It only took me one immersion to finally meet the legendary barracuda tornado.

A shoal of thousands of them, spiraling around me.

It is, quite likely, the most amazing thing I’ll ever see in the seas.

Borneo Sabah diving, barracuda shoal

barracuda shoal by Borneo Divers Mabul Island Resort

(except of course, a meeting with a Great White or school of whale sharks :D)

Sipadan Island took my breath away before I even went under, though. It is a virgin, protected island–caressed by the purest aqua waters.

Venture a few meters away from the dedicated surface interval hut and you will be hunted down by local authorities!

It was really, really hard not to…

Sipadan Island Beach Borneo

As a Borneo Divers Mabul Island Resort guest, though, I got to dive in Sipadan four times in one day with my permit. Squee!

So no time to get lost around the island 😉

Back to the diving: just barracudas, barracudas everywhere. Add to that dozens of turtles, several schools of white tip sharks, giant bumphead parrotfish, dog tooth tunas, and even nudibranches laying eggs!

bump head parrotfish, Sabah diving

school of bumphead parrotfish another species by Borneo Divers

While visibility wasn’t the best during my visit due to a passing storm (10-15 meters max.), Sipadan’s marine life still was what divers’ dreams are made of.

Ahh, Borneo Malaysia. Your beaches, your marine life, your food, your people. I will never forget you!

Have you been to Borneo? What was your experience like?

Terima kasih banyak to the team at Borneo Divers for such an unforgettable getaway, free of charge. I was not paid for positive reviews, however. Malaysian Borneo is as magical as these photos and video depict <3

Unique Chiang Mai Attraction: Mountain Micro Flight [VIDEO]

It looked scary as heck. Seat on a metal bullet-shaped base, what looks like a giant kite, and a couple of metal fixings. Open air, exposed to the elements. The most unique Chiang Mai attraction on my itinerary would, quite possibly, make me pee my pants.

Unique Chiang Mai Attraction: Mountain Micro Flight

The buzzing sound of the engine revs up your adrenaline to levels I’d only experienced when I went paragliding in Indonesia. You shake, you giggle, you scream. Before you can change your mind though, you’re up in the air.

The rush of emotions you go through during a micro flight is hard to describe.

You feel so light. So free. Like a bird!

No pressure compresses you. Just noisy wind, rushing over your helmet.

And such a force of euphoria that tears stream down your face effortlessly.

unique Chiang Mai attraction, micro flight

The views are gorgeous, too, obviously. Thankfully, the micro flight is long enough that you have time to pull yourself together and enjoy the scenery.

Lush mountains, flooded rice paddies, golden stupas, and even a dam and artificial lake sprinkle the the vistas.

I even got to see what seem to be a pack of white geese flying over the fields right before landing!

It was so damn beautiful.

Chiang Mai micro flight view

I had not read anything about micro flights before arriving to Chiang Mai. So, upon my exhilarating experience, I looked into it to learn a bit more about the light vehicle that made me feel like a bird for a bout of time.

What I learned is a bit crazy: ultralight aircraft has only been around since the late 1970s or early 1980s!

As “young” as this type of aircraft might be though, they are extremely sophisticated and safe.

They can actually be flown with your hands off the control bar!

Unbelievably so, the ultralight aircraft automatically corrects for small disturbances when experiencing light turbulence in pitch and, to lesser degree, in role.

Don’t worry though: local Thai pilot Prayote won’t take his hands off.

(I would have probably passed out if he did, honestly 😀)

Chiang Mai micro flight aircraft

If you’re ever in Chiang Mai Thailand, I highly recommend you book this unique experience. Naturally, it highly depends on weather, so it is best if you plan your visit outside the rainy season.

Even though I visited in July, greater chances for bright sunny days fall between November and March.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai? Have you been there?

Khob kun kha to Prayote and his team at Sky Adventure for taking my micro flight virginity in Chiang Mai free of charge! The roller coaster of emotions I just described is genuinely part of my experience, though. Nothing about this piece has been fabricated nor did I receive payment for a positive review. 

Chiang Mai Food: My Favorite Northern Thai Dishes

When most foreigners think of Thailand’s cuisine, they imagine Pat Thai and red curry. Can’t blame them: Bangkok’s region, Central Thailand, is where the seat of power–and most Thai food we see in the West–originate from. I couldn’t find Chiang Mai food in Tampa for the life of me!

This is why very few people outside of Asia are familiar with the fact that there are three other distinctive regions in the country: each with its own geography, available ingredients, and culture.

Today, I’m excited to introduce you to my favorite Northern Thai dishes, spotted while exploring Chiang Mai this summer.

Chiang Mai food guide

Chiang Mai Food: My Favorite Northern Thai Dishes

Northern Thailand incorporates Chiang Mai and the mountainous vicinity, including the jungle that borders Myanmar and Laos. Here, more plant-based, bitter ingredients dominate–including spices such as turmeric and ginger. Pork, freshwater fish, and sticky rice instead of steamed rice are also staples.

Note to vegetarians: don’t be afraid! Northern Thai dishes, rich in spices, can easily become meatless without compromising much of their taste (except for fish oil and shrimp paste).

Unlike popular belief, coconut is not as common in North Thailand. As such, most Northern Thai curries lack that thick coconut milk goodness.

Nothing to be alarmed about, though!

Soups are still a staple, along with boiled and steam ingredients. Again: all packed with flavorful herbs and spices.

Below, my favorite Northern Thai dishes where to eat them.

Chiang Mai pork, sai uah and moo tod

SAI UAH AND MOO TOD

Sai uah is a spicy pork sausage filled with lemongrass–a strong herb that you will either love or hate. In my opinion, it’s the most delicious of all Asian herbs.

Moo tod, on the other hand, are sweet, almost nutty pork pieces that are fried until really crunchy. It is too good for words.

Where to eat it: my local guide, Rain from Chiangmai Food Tours, confirms top-notch sai uah and moo tod is found at Sai Uah by Auntie Pun. They prepare fresh batches every morning, at 4 AM! Outside sign is in Thai, so save this photo to ensure you get to the right place.

Northern Thailand cuisine, khao soi

KHAO SOI

Not only can you not talk about Chiang Mai food without mentioning khao soi, but the thick curry soup happens to be my favorite Thai dish of full-time!

Interestingly, this dish contains coconut milk–a rarity in Northern Thai cuisine, as I just explained. Yet, it’s easy to understand why Chiang Mai’s most popular soup is a bit out of the norm: it’s been influenced by several cultures.

Khao soi is closest to Burmese ohn no khao swe–a coconut milk curry soup made with a mix of both fried and boiled egg noodles. Likewise, khao soi is believed to have been influenced by the Muslim Chinese, as it is typically served with either chicken or beef– not pork.

A broth packed with coriander, turmeric, ginger, shallots, chilies, curry powder, and cilantro. It’s so simple, yet so zestful!

Where to eat it: I highly recommend trying Chiang Mai’s signature dish at Khao Soi Khun, located immediately on the left of Wat Mon Tien. Rain, my local tour guide, assured me this is the best khao soi travelers can get within the Old City’s city walls–and I attest to that!

ab moo, Northern Thailand dish

AB MOO

Another Northern Thai specialty is ab moo–pork, eggs, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, coriander, turmeric, garlic, pepper, shallots, and shrimp paste mixed and then wrapped in a banana leaf. It is first grilled, then baked.

Foreigners could be put off by its pasty look, but certainly not by its enticing aroma!

Where to eat it: toward the back gate of Chiang Mai University on Suthep Road you will find not only great ab moo, but a fantastic array of cheap street eats every night! Totally worth the 10-15 minute taxi or scooter ride from the Old City.

hang lay, Chiang Mai Curry

HANG LAY CURRY

This Burmese influenced, tamarind-based curry soup has a fascinating history. Even though it is made with pork, it was still considered a holy food in neighboring Myanmar–where only monks were allowed to eat it.

Fortunately for us laymen, hang lay curry is now accessible to the masses. Its spice mix, however, was adapted in Northern Thailand. There, the recipe utilizes less oil, is thinner than green curry, contains no coconut cream, and has a peculiar taste due to its strong tamarind-shrimp paste combo as well.

May not be everyone’s favorite, but I encourage you to give it a try. You might fall in love with it like I did!

Where to eat it: nothing like sampling hang lay curry at the beautiful garden of Hinlay Curry House. Relaxing, affordable, authentic. On 8/1 Nha Wat Kate Road, Soi 1, Chiang Mai.

laab moo, Chiang Mai cuisine

LAAB MOO AND PED

Yes: yet another outstanding pork dish, mixed with an aromatic mix of herbs, including zesty shallots and kaffir lime leaves! My mouth waters remembering it and I’m not even that keen of pork (yes, really). Other ingredients include chilies, fish sauce, and cilantro.

You don’t have to try laab moo, though! Laab recipe is used with other type of meats as well, such as beef or even duck (ped).

In contrast, Isaan (Northeastern Thai) versions typically add rice for thickness as well.

Where to eat it: while many street carts in Chiang Mai can dish out decent pork laab (moo), I highly recommend the duck version at Weera Laab Ped in the Old City (33 Soi 7 Sirimankalajarn, Nimman).

Chiang Mai spicy dips, nam prik ong

NAM PRIK ONG AND NAM PRIK NUME

Tongue-burning foods might not be that common in Chiang Mai, but they still got a few! Case in point? Their most popular, unique chili dips.

Nam prik ong, a Northern Thai red chili dip that looks like Bolognese sauce, is my personal favorite. It’s made with dried chilli leaves, galangal, shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, and tomato pound into a mortar–then fried in oil along with minced pork and even more tomatoes. It’s also milder, thanks to its sweet tomato base. So flavorful though, still packing enough kick!

Nam prik nume, on the other hand, will bring you to tears–either of joy or pain. I couldn’t handle the burn, but any lover of fiery food sure will. The roasted green chilli spur dip will kick your taste buds right on the first bite, too.

Where to eat it: built over stilts in the jungle, Huan Huay Kaew Restaurant not only serves some of the best nam prik ong in town, but its architectural design will leave you thinking it is an attraction in itself. Speaking of which: it happens to be conveniently located on the road to famous Doi Suthep at 31/2 M.2. T.Suthep, Huay Kaew Rt., Chiang Mai.

longan juice, Chiang Mai sweets

LONGAN

After so much spice, you need a sweet drink to cool of those taste buds. Even though I’m quite picky about fruit juices, I love longan.

The fruit, while part of the lychee family, is delicately sweet–no tart, sour bite at all. It also happens to be an immune booster!

Logan juice is best served on the rocks after a hot, humid day exploring Chiang Mai.

Where to eat it: between Lane 8 and 9, Old City of Chiang Mai.

khanom sodsai, Chiang Mai desserts

KHANOM SODSAI

Another wonderful sweet, found virtually anywhere in Thailand, is khanom sodsai. Again we have coconut making a special appearance, even though it is absent from many traditional dishes in Chiang Mai.

In fact, khanom sodsai packs lots of it.

Coconut cream, coupled with a stuffing of shredded coconut soaked in palm sugar and rice powder–all wrapped in a banana leaf. Then, it is dipped in a sesame-sugar pixie powder. Oh joy.

Where to eat it: my favorite place in China mine not only to eat khanom sodsai, but to also have an unforgettable afternoon tea experience is the quiet library of the Makka Hotel. It’s one of the quietest, most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world.

Chiang Mai Makka Hotel

What are your favorite Northern Thai dishes? Share them below!

Many thanks to Rain and the team at Chiangmai Food Tours for an unforgettable, complimentary introduction to Northern Thai Cuisine. I was not paid for positive reviews, however. All comments and recommendations put forth on this article are my honest opinion. Moreover, historical facts and descriptions have been cross-checked.