We’re frequently quizzed regarding the pros and cons of our Maggiolina Airtop roof tent. Not having any other experience with other styles of roof tent, other than camping with fellow overlanders, it’s hard to comment.
Our tent was our most extravagant purchase, but also our best. Essentially it has paid for itself many times over: It offers a little luxury which means we hardly ever stay in hotels. On an extended trip like ours that luxury and convenience is paramount.
We’ve camped in locations with views that far surpass any 5 star hotel. This really can be a room with a view (or several)... 3 of the sides have doors which roll up completely and the front end has a semi-circular window. For those hot, tropical nights, each opening has a mosquito netting flap which can be zipped up to fend off blood-sucking invertebrates and is perfect for wildlife watching.
It is surprisingly easy to set up; two clips at the front and one at the back and it ascends into position on hydraulic arms. Inside it is surprisingly Tardis-like; we can sit fully upright and have around the same space as a double bed. The tent comes complete with a comfortable mattress and pillows and is roomy enough when closed to store a duvet and sleeping bags.
It is one of the most convenient rooftop tents on the market and this is blatantly apparent when we camp with other overlanders who use canvas ‘fold over’ style tents.
Our tent takes about 20 seconds to “pop” and set-up and about one minute 30 seconds to pack away. To demonstrate this we’ve made a little video of us packing up in Kyrgyzstan (complete with obligatory high-5).
It’s difficult to believe that we have been back in the UK for two and a half years. The irony is that time moves faster when you are not moving. When we are travelling, time slows beautifully.
Why did we stop?
We simply ran out of adventure funds.
When did we decide that we wanted to get back on the road?
The exact same day we left it.
The bonuses of blighty (that's England for our international followers)
Family. A new baby niece has been one of the highlights of our rooted respite, sharing in parenting has been overwhelmingly cherished and an exciting, precious new experience for us both. Spending time with our close family including our 4 nieces has been wonderful.
Friends. Catching up with mates has been brilliant; birthdays, holidays, festivals, parties. We met some pretty special new friends too who have kept us sane in working towards our adventure goals.
Familiarity. After so much uncertainty and unpredictability on the road it was a relief and comfort to be in a country where we were accustomed to the people, food, language, culture and environment. Life in the UK where everything is recognisable and relatively straightforward is a welcome respite from the instability and irregularity of overlanding and gave us both chance to ‘re-charge’ our adventure batteries (and funds!).
Focus. Time ‘off the road’ instead of ‘off-road’ has allowed us to reflect on our travels and given us the opportunity to share our stories through presentations and talks. We have been privileged to impart our knowledge and travel tales to photography clubs, women’s groups, hiking clubs and at overland shows. Andy established ‘The Overlanding Podcast’, the first audio programme of its kind, as well as developing our website as both a documentation of our trip but also a resource for other adventurers. We have been able to spend time sorting our photographs and film footage ready for editing. Bee-bee has been well rested but we have a relaxed timeframe in which to get her adventure-ready. We have had the luxury of time to research our next route and plan without pressure.
The most difficult adjustments we had to make to a stationary existence?
Initial dependence. We journeyed until our last Malaysian Ringgit coin so gratefully and fortunately relied on my parents to house us while we initially got back on our feet, starting again from nothing; selling, working, earning and saving.
Employment. Working outside of our chosen careers and being confined within archaic structures of organisational incompetence was testing. Why are so many people in positions of authority such dicks? We are both far too free and feral after years on the road to integrate fully back into ‘jobsworth’ society. Fortunately we worked day to day with some incredible clients who gave us a whole new inspiring insight into life. Retiring again after 2 years of working for the ‘man’ has been euphoric.
Urban dwelling. The concrete, the grey, the lack of wildlife, the same kitchen sink window view. We both developed an extreme obsession with houseplants to the point our flat resembled a jungle obscuring most windows. Andy built a 2m high bed so we still had to comfortingly climb up into our ‘roof bed’ at night. New friends and wildlife volunteering gave me purpose and strength to keep a balance between a dishearteningly destructive world and my environmental values.
Depression. The demons returned armed with weapons of environmental anxiety, lost control, financial stress, and dark winter melancholy. Many people think we are crazy for what we do when we overland but static existence creates its own personal insanity for us.
What have we learnt from our time ‘home’?
Time with loved ones is precious, don’t take it for granted and make an effort to spend quality time with the people you love. The old cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is not only true of people; we miss our homes and families when we’re away exploring but we also miss our wandering lifestyle when we stop. Time spent doing both allows you to fully appreciate what you have and not take anything for granted.
So a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has housed, fed, ‘watered’, encouraged, supported and helped us during both our travels and the interim period’s in-between. You are the people who truly keep our world turning.
We will be keeping our travel name ‘Around the World in 800 Days’, less so for camp-counting and more to emphasis our unhurried expedition style. The adventure continues.
Normal? No. Nomadic? Yes.
Our eyes are now fixed on the horizon in a westerly direction and we’re counting down the days…
As we start to plan the next phase of our adventure and sort through some unseen footage from our travels to date we’ve had plenty of time for reflection. Here are 3 of our favourite countries to overland in.
Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel. In 2012 when we visited it was impossible to drive across the country from border to border on anything that resembled a “normal” road. It is big and empty and so driving here can be very remote.
The beauty of Mongolia lies in the steppe. Hospitality is a keystone of the nomadic lifestyle, and if you travel in Mongolia, it won’t be long before you’re invited into a Ger (refusing would be unthinkably rude) to be offered steaming yak’s milk, goat’s cheese biscuits, marmot Boodog, salty tea and ‘Airag’ – fermented mare’s milk, which at 5% proof wasn’t quite strong enough to stop us thinking a little too much about how exactly you milk a horse.
The driving can be challenging, we encountered some real challenges in the Khan Khentii Protected Area in the north of the country. Trudging about in the pouring rain trying to find a route through a forested quagmire was about as much fun as it sounds. With 21 river crossings under our belt by the time we left Mongolia, we wouldn’t have been without Bee-bee’s snorkel, suspension lift and four-wheel drive.
Despite incidents like this, or perhaps because of them, we would argue that Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel.
The main reason Tajikistan is on this list is down to the infamous Pamir Highway. The M41 is the world’s second highest international highway. I’m using the term ‘highway’ loosely as the surface, when it exists, is mostly unpaved. The ‘road’ in its entirety traverses the Pamir Mountains and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres. The area is notorious for landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and frequent political unrest. Part of the highway requires a special permit as it passes through the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. All these factors rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list; for us, it was the Holy Grail of overlanding and sounded like a fun adventure!
With most great overland destinations come challenges and the Pamir Highway is no exception. Diesel is scarce, we had to carry an extra 80-litres due to the lack of availability en-route. The altitude and lack of oxygen can also be demanding on both you and your vehicle. We suffered from some pretty atrocious headaches and dizziness, luckily this passed fairly quickly as we acclimatised to the height. The lack of oxygen also affected our vehicle, as we climbed our diesel engine began to kick out an increasingly large amount of black smoke and at times lacked power.
Stunning switchbacks, lunar landscapes, high altitude lakes and challenging driving are one reason to visit this part of Central Asia. What really sets the Pamir’s apart from other popular overland destinations is the stark reality of how powerful nature can be and our relative insignificance in the larger scheme.
We went looking for an unforgettable adventure and we found it - AK-47 gun-toting friendly young soldiers, mudslides, earthquakes, flooding, barrier free gravel roads that cling to cliff edges, gravity defying overhangs, collapsed bridges, impassable rivers, rock falls and then there’s the notorious ‘Tunnel of Death’.
Morocco is the closest country to Europe that offers the biggest contrast in culture and geography. We visited Morocco in 2013 and were limited by a closed border to Algeria in the east and an increasingly dangerous border to Mauritania in the south we would be land-locked by civil unrest and political restrictions. However, with around 280,000 miles² we had plenty to explore with the Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains and wild Atlantic coastline.
The transition from the familiarity of Europe to the unfamiliar of Africa is only a 90-minute sail across the Straits of Gibraltar. As with the arrival to any foreign country for the first time, there is always slight trepidation of the unknown.
The driving can be as challenging as you make it, you can head to the High Atlas Mountains for challenging, scarcely driven routes, complete with hair-raising cliff drops and rock crawling or you can head out into the desert for some fun dune driving. We even encountered a few river crossings.
Morocco is the perfect destination for ‘Newbie’ overlanders, but be warned off-road driving in the Western Sahara should be avoided due to the area being heavily land-mined. A fact that became glaringly obvious when a local Saharawi took me for a disheartening 1-mile walk into the desert to a site where the previous year a Landrover was annihilated killing the driver.
After spending 3 months in Morocco it was obvious why we met so many other overlanders. Morocco is essentially an off-road playground for Europeans and it is often used as a testing ground before embarking on longer trips. It offers all kinds of challenging terrain for every kind of overlander from Motorcyclists to the largest of off-road trucks. The people are friendly, the visa is easy and the fuel is cheap; it is essentially overland heaven, especially if you can speak French.
It’s difficult to believe that we have been back in the UK for two and a half years. The irony is that time moves faster when you are not moving.
After selling, working, earning and saving we've decided to turn our world upside down again. We have resigned from our jobs, packed up our flat into a storage unit and made that liberating switch from ‘normal’ to ‘nomadic’.
As I write this Bee-bee is in the trusted hands of our good mechanic friends with a list of jobs as long (but hopefully not as challenging) as the Trans-Siberian highway. Andy will do the rest of the tweaks, repairs and modifications later in the summer.
We have based ourselves in Cyprus for a short time to focus on planning the next phase of our adventures which will see us head West to The Americas. The plan is very loose at the moment; ship to South America, then to Central America and the US, north into Canada and Alaska.
Andy is industriously dusting off all our un-viewed film footage from the latter part of our trip and will be editing, podcasting and familiarising himself with recent technologies, trips and car stuff. I have a lot to read and learn… and I can’t wait to release my inner map-geek which has been stifled for the last couple of years.
We will enjoy the summer in the UK with friends, family and festivals with a view to departing towards the end of the year. We are updating the website and firing up the blogging machine from now on to document all our preparations and plans. We’re looking forward to linking up with new adventurers on the road, visiting overland friends and allowing static adventurer-followers to join us on the next stage of our journey.
When we originally left the UK in 2012 we had an old Nokia phone; absolutely nothing ‘smart’ about it… Unless you consider the fact we could use it to open beer bottles! To navigate we used a combination of paper maps and an old handheld Garmin 60cs.
In 2013 we inherited an old iPhone and delved head first into the world of apps! Since then we’ve also purchased a really basic Samsung smart phone. As a result our whole overlanding experience has improved greatly. Here are a few of the apps we use on a daily basis.
Galileo is a map resource (similar to Google maps), the beauty of it is that it works off-line using pre-downloaded vector based maps. With one click you can download an entire country, using the language you want. Because the maps are vector based they are generally small in size which means they are fast and responsive. You can record your trips and monitor your real-time speed, distance and time travelled, as well as altitude. Like most map apps you can track your trips, share your tracks with friends via Mail, Facebook and Twitter or export them in the most common formats: KML & GPX. Galileo has essentially taken over the role of our old Garmin hand-held GPS, which is good as it was stolen in Iran. Galileo is now also available for Android as well as iOS.
Maps.Me or Maps With Me, as it is official known is essentially the same deal as Galileo. There was a time when Galileo was only available for iPhone users and Maps.Me was only available for Android users. Now both are available for all platforms so take your pick. We prefer the Galileo interface and how it operates, but Maps.Me is pretty much the same deal. We use both as Emma has Galileo on her old iPhone and I use Maps.Me on our Samsung phone. Both have great search facilities if you are looking for garages, banks or restaurants.
There are stacks of MPG apps available, we’ve been using the same one since we got our first ‘Smart Phone’ and are more than happy with it. Road Trip is the fastest and easiest way to keep track of your car’s fuel economy, maintenance schedule and expenses. At a glance, Road Trip gives you all vital statistics on a single page: Minimum, maximum, and average fuel price per gallon/litre, Minimum, maximum, and average fuel economy (MPG, L/100km, etc.), Average cost per day, Average cost per mile or kilometre, Average distance per day, Total fuel cost, Total gallons or liters of fuel and Total distance travelled. Unfortunately it is only available for iOS (iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone).
Cam Scanner turns your mobile phone into a scanner and is a great resource for digitising paperwork and documents whilst on the road; especially handy during the shipping process, borders and applying for visas. Just take a photo and create PDF documents from it. Using a stack of settings you can produce multi-page documents, crop and customize. Incredibly convenient.
XE Currency Convertor
Again, there are hundreds of currency convertors available. We chose XE Currency Convertor as it had the best reviews. You can access live exchange rates, view historical charts, and calculate prices off line. It is available for all devices and with over a kabillion downloads worldwide, you know it’s going to be good. It’s also FREE.
World Map is a simple overview map of the world. No frills. Useful for planning and explaining to new found friends where you’ve been. The paid version has political maps and time zones.
Been is a fun little app that keeps track of the number of countries you’ve visited. Incredibly inspiring when you’re feeling a little low and incredibly annoying to your friends when you’re feeling smug. Available for iOS and Android.
iOverlander is more than just an app, you can also access it online on your laptop or desktop. Originally a mapping project started by overlanders it has grown into a useful resource. You can find campsites, garages, restaurants, watering holes and much, much more all entered by fellow overlanders. You can also add to the many overlanders who have dedicated their time, ideas and most importantly their GPS coordinates. Log campsites and share your secrets.
Commander Compass is an extremely well thought out car and walk GPS compass app for iOS (Apple devices). Crafted to military spec, it is designed to be used where traditional GPS apps fail — off the road. It features a milspec compass, gyrocompass, maps, GPS tracker, speedometer, gyro horizon and inclinometer. Tag, share, find and track your position, multiple locations and bearings, all in real time. It has way too many features to list here, but is worth checking out.
Most adventurous overlanders are typically drawn to the lesser-travelled, edgy countries. Travelling by 4x4 allows you to access some of the most beautiful, remote and sometimes inhospitable areas that most tourists generally don’t get to see.
Travelling in a self-reliant way in a 4x4 does however mean you cannot travel light; typically your vehicle is your home and this includes carrying everything from tools and laptops to the kitchen sink.
In most foreign countries a big muddy 4x4 with strange number plates, fully loaded with every conceivable extra is going to draw quite a bit of attention. As a result you, your vehicle and its contents can become a desirable target for criminals.
After we’d purchased Bee-bee in 2010, one astute bicycle traveller sensibly told me “the less you take with you the less you have to lose”.
These wise words are more pertinent having fallen victim to one of overlandings worst nightmares… robbery!
Robbed In Tehran
Way back in 2015, we were robbed whilst in Iran. The thieves smashed the drivers side window and indiscriminately took 6 storage boxes containing clothing, car parts, tools, medical kit, camping equipment and personal items. Sadly, this included the box that contained Emma’s travel diaries, all our used maps and books plus every sentimental little souvenir and gift we’d acquired en-route.
The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic.
What We Did Right
Thankfully cameras, laptops, phones, hard drives, credit cards, money and passports were all with us in the apartment where we were sleeping.
Both Emma and I carry a micro SD card on us at all times in a hidden pocket in our ‘Adventure belts’, this memory card contains digital copies of all our important documents including the vehicle registration, passports, carnet, visas, medical records and prescription details. We have also emailed ourselves and a reliable family member a copy of this digital folder that can then be viewed using any device connected to the internet. Had we lost the entire car we would have still had access to our vital documents, this would have certainly sped things up at the police station and embassy.
Photos are simply irreplaceable; the basic rule to follow here is - don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. We always make sure we have multiple copies of all laptop content, including photographs of diary pages (fortunately). One copy is hidden deep inside the car and certainly isn’t locatable in a ten minute break-in. This solution is still not great if someone takes the entire vehicle. To resolve this potential problem we also back up our files and photographs frequently to the ‘Cloud’, this is painfully slow in most countries due to internet speeds and is not really appropriate for larger files like film footage. Backing up to SD or Micro SD cards and posting home is also a fairly secure alternative, if somewhat costly, the drawbacks with this are that many postal systems are fairly unreliable in other parts of the world.
Being married to a compulsive list maker has its benefits; Emma had made a full inventory of every item in the car and in which box it was placed, neatly organised into a deftly formatted spread-sheet stored on our micro SD cards. This simple procedure made identifying what had been taken a fairly quick process. This list was then swiftly given to the police. In hindsight it would have been beneficial to have a photograph of every item we carry as the police requested information regarding some of the more unusual or easily recognisable items that were taken.
All the rear windows of our car are completely blacked out using thick self-adhesive black vinyl, this does two things, it keeps inquisitive eyes out and also makes the glass a little harder to smash. Most thieves are opportunistic, if items are out of sight this is a great first step to securing your vehicle.
All our external accessories like jerry-cans and the Hi-lift jack are all secured with heavy-duty cables and waterproof padlocks. Our vehicle is fitted with an immobiliser, I would also recommend installing another hidden battery isolator switch to completely kill all electrics to the vehicle- this would also be handy when working on the car.
As for personal protection, we carry very little. In the tent at night we opt for WD-40 (although it’s not mentioned as one of the 2000+ uses on it’s website), a screeching rape alarm and a fairly hefty Maglite. Being lovers not fighters, we took a few self-defence classes before we left on our trip. Some overlanders carry pepper spray, but this can be problematic crossing borders in some countries.
What We Have Learnt
There are many things you can do to protect yourself, your possessions and your vehicle. Avoiding putting yourself in a risky situation is always the first step, followed by security should you be robbed. Having simple rules, being aware of your environment and trusting your instinct hugely reduces your chances of being targeted. Prior to Iran, sticking to our self-imposed rules, we’d travelled through 45 countries without a hitch.
Simply being aware of threats in your local area is often enough to keep you safe. In Russia for example we were warned by truck drivers to be aware of scam pleas for help by distressed smartly dressed men at the side of the road. Local knowledge is extremely valuable but be aware that most people will exaggerate the dangers and untrustworthiness of people in neighbouring countries! Careful selection of wild camping spots is vital; we always make sure no one sees us leave the road and try to remain out of sight from roads and habitation.
It is important to maintain a level of security in your vehicle that does not become a hindrance on a daily basis but is secure enough to ease your mind when the vehicle is unattended. There are times when you have no choice but to be away from the vehicle and it is during these times that your security options need to be religiously enforced.
It’s nigh on impossible to make your vehicle completely burglar-proof, ultimately if someone wants to get into your car, they will. All a thief needs is time and an opportunity, the more you can do to increase the time needed to get into the vehicle the less the opportunity exists. Your vehicle should appear to be a hard target, this will deter most criminals who will look for an easier target.
Most people tend to prioritise securing items that are perceived as valuable; laptops, cameras, phones, GPS, etc. The logic here being that no one is going to want to steal used maps, personal diaries and prescription glasses. The truth of the matter is, thieves are generally indiscriminate. In our case they simply took all they could in the time they had. Storage boxes are practical but they certainly made it easy for the thieves to empty our car. In this regard maybe a fixed and lockable draw system is more secure.
In hindsight we should have treated items like diaries and prescription glasses in the same way we dealt with other ‘valuables’. If you need glasses to drive and someone takes them you have a big problem. Thankfully I always have a pair stuck to my face and keep my prescription details on my micro SD card.
There are many smaller products on the market that are useful for overlanders including Baked Bean tin safes, these can be hidden amongst your food stash and are great for hiding smaller items. Combination key safes can be bolted or welded to the underside of your car and can hold a full set of spare keys in case you manage to lose your keys.
External heavy-duty commercial van door hasps are somewhat unsightly but they are also a great security addition, especially in conjunction with a draw system that can’t be accessed whilst the doors are closed. If a thief smashes a window they won’t be able to open the doors which in turn means they can’t access the draw system. This set-up should prevent the thieves from taking anything at all.
Most car thieves are small-time opportunistic criminals but in some extreme cases your vehicle may be targeted by a more professional outfit who actually want to take the entire vehicle. The simplest way to prevent this is not to leave your vehicle in the same place for more than one day. Think carefully about promoting your overland website and blog on your vehicle. Most overlanding websites like to feature photos of the vehicle build, storage systems and the equipment carried, this information can easily be used by would-be criminals who spot your vehicle.
If you can afford it, a hidden GPS tracker on your vehicle might save you one very expensive loss. We also recommend downloading one of the many remotely operated tracking and recovery apps that are available for most smart phones and laptops.
It is important to address security issues when prepping your vehicle; window grills, secure cages, safes and locking draw systems are easily available for vehicles like Defenders but are not commonplace in the UK for Toyotas like ours. You don’t need to spend a small fortune to be protected; simply having a few simple self-imposed rules is the greatest way of keeping you and your vehicle safe. Unfortunately we broke our rules and paid the price for doing so. Thankfully the people of Iran and our friends back home proved how amazing they are and came to our rescue helping us source and replace many of the items that were taken.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit. It’s important to remember that most overlanders don’t ever fall victim to crime and the majority of people round the world are wonderfully friendly and honest.
As travellers on a very tight budget we are always looking for ways to save money and extend our time travelling on limited funds. We stumbled across the website https://www.workaway.info/ by accident whilst in France in May 2013 during the second phase of our trip. The philosophy of Workaway is described as “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings”. By joining the website community for a minimal annual fee ($38 for a couple, for a year) you have access to over 25,000 hosts in 155 countries worldwide. You can search within specific locations and narrow the kind of ‘work’ you would like to participate in through categories such as farming, gardening, eco projects, helping with tourists and art. You have your own profile with a description of your interests and skills, plus some photographs, and every host has a page where they describe what’s expected and some information and photos about themselves. The added bonus is that feedback can be left by ‘workawayers’ who stay with a host, and vice-versa about you as a volunteer, so the system is self-monitoring.
Throughout our 854 days on the road we have participated in 7 Workaway placements, all quite varied but all enjoyable experiences. In Spain Andy did some graphic design work while I helped out at a hostel, in Croatia we helped a couple realising their permaculture lifestyle dream and in Hungary demolished walls and painted hundreds of beams to restore an old mansion. In Greece we cleared land, fixed chicken fences and built a vegetable garden and in Armenia helped establish an eco-project and walking trail network. Two weeks in Montenegro was spent photographing the local beaches off-season for a hostel owner and in India we made environmental education videos and helped a local guy develop his sustainability project.
The advantage of a Workaway placement, which for us was generally from 10 days to a month, is that you get to pause in a place which after weeks and months on the road, constantly moving, is a welcome change. You get the opportunity to become part of a community rather than just passing through places and gain a real insight into what life is like for local people in the country that you are visiting. You can ask all those questions that have been mystifying you about a place to actual local people and enjoy traditional food, culture and hospitality in a welcoming home. By timing our Workaway in Mumbai with the time period we were waiting for our car shipment to arrive, we saved on accommodation and food costs for almost a month.
Through Workaway we have collected and pickled mushrooms in Croatia, wine-tasted in Hungary, milked goats in Greece and been invited to local festivals. We joined Bollywood dance classes in Mumbai, skipped with orphans at an orphanage in India and celebrated Easter at an ancient Armenian Monastery.
It is essential to be flexible with Workaway, most hosts are quite laid-back and sometimes there are issues with communication through the website- have a few back-ups… people not replying is not uncommon! Be clear about what the work arrangement is; 4-5 hours a day with 2 days off is the general rule and be happy about the accommodation offered which can range from a luxurious cabin to a patch of grass where you pitch your own tent. Generally, good communication from day one when you first contact a potential host, right the way through your placement, makes for a much more positive and happier experience for everyone.
In summary, despite not earning any money while on a Workaway, the fact that you are not spending any is equally as valuable when trying to maintain a long-term trip. In the future we plan to build our own sustainable home and have learnt many new skills through our placements which will help enormously when that time comes. We have made life-long friends with our hosts and some of our best memories of a country have come the through Workaway experiences.
Small, steaming stalls surround a central area of Formica tables and plastic chairs, quickly filling up as evening approaches with groups of friends and families. Buckets of ice with bottles of beer are ordered and brought to the tables from the drinks stalls by waitresses, then dishes are selected and paid for from your vendor of choice and your table number given. Simple, no-fuss, fast, delicious, sociable and great value… welcome to hawker food eating in Malaysia.
Hawker centres in Malaysia are essentially permanent collections of street-food stalls, normally in an open-air complex, with communal tables. A wonderful diversity of nationalities, culture and religions in Malaysia has resulted in a fusion cuisine which boasts some of the world’s best street food.
Extensive menus seem to defy the limited space and basic set-up of each makeshift food outlet, staff whirl round in a cramped space; barbequing meat, draining steaming noodles, tossing unidentified morsels in sizzling woks and stirring huge vats of bubbling soup. Bowls of raw ingredients are lined up and meticulously displayed on the stall fronts; cubed tofu, black mushrooms, sliced raw vegetables, squid rings, dumplings, prawns, shellfish, gelatinous noodles and chopped crab sticks.
Our big, empty table at the CF night food court in George Town, Penang Island, was soon filled with a laughing group of local friends, who quickly included us in their beer-top-ups as bottles of cold Tiger flowed continuously. Chatting to them, they said they came to the food court every week, preferring the laid-back atmosphere and bustle to more formal restaurants. The beers washed down plates of Char Kuey Teow; greasy, thin stir-fried noodles topped with egg, prawns, spring onions and beansprouts and wrestled with chopsticks. Three young cabaret singers belted out pop covers from a round, glittery central stage, pausing every time the electricity cut out then starting each tinny, rhythmical ballad from the start once the power surged back.
On another evening in George Town at the Red Garden night food court we tried Penang’s signature dish of Assam Laksa, a pleasantly pungent, fish-based soup with sour Tamarind and noodles, chilli, cucumber, lemongrass and prawn paste.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, we sampled Nasi Kandar, an Indian-influenced rice dish topped with different meat, seafood, vegetables, with a speciality being fish head curry. An array of oily, spectacularly spicy, chilli-infused dishes are laid out to choose from, then added to light, fragrant rice.
For breakfast, find a small space on a street bench for Roti Canai, delicious fresh, puffed flatbread served with a dish of spicy lentil Dhal and a mug of sweet, milky chai.
In the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the street of Jalan Alor heaves on both sides with bustling restaurants, stalls and pop-up eateries. Crowds of locals and tourists perch on plastic stools around pavement tables. Sticky jack fruit is sliced into finger-licking pieces, tiny stalls crammed with piles of Kuih Kosui banana-leaf wrapped sweet coconut dough parcels and no-nonsense menus of dim sum and fried fishcakes line the walkways.
From our shared table at Wong Ah Wah eatery we people-watched and picked at Batu Maung Satay, a selection of different grilled meats on thin bamboo sticks dripping with a rich, thick peanut sauce. Not just a means of satisfying your hunger, Hawker centres are an entire experience of food and friends as you rub shoulders with fellow diners and enjoy a whole menu of weird and wonderful new snacks and dishes.
The capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, George Town, is a hectic mix of distinct historic cultures, urban cool and some of the best food we’ve had during our entire trip.
The city’s history is rich; established in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town was one of the first British colonies in South-East Asia. During it’s British heyday the port town served as a trading post, with various ethnicities and religions arriving on its shores and passing through. During World War II the town was conquered by the Japanese empire, at the end of the war the Japanese surrendered and the British took control again.
It’s this diverse mix of influences, the coalescence of local, British, Chinese, Indian and Islamic elements that has shaped George Town’s large variety of eclectic architectural styles. It’s this mish-mash of Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and all manner of buildings in between that led to it being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nowadays George Town is considered a city; wandering around the narrow streets of the old town it is easy to forget that fact. ‘Little India’ and ‘China Town’ are authentic as it gets, the sights, sounds and smells of Little India transported us straight back. Like India, the British influence is apparent and the cities charm lies in its backdrop of colonial architecture. The architecture is easily on a par with the likes of Mumbai, although it lacks some of the grandeur.
Alongside the traditional architecture are stunning Art Deco buildings from the 30’s and 40’s and modernist buildings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Then comes the post-modernist architecture from the 90’s and 2000’s; these later additions add something for any architecture enthusiast and augment a surprising amount of charisma.
The city is cultured. Cool coffee shops, art galleries, public sculptures and design houses are nestled amongst the quaint streets, they’ve even got a container hotel! The cities burgeoning street art scene is also drawing a lot of attention from tourists.
Reputed as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia thanks to the ubiquitous street food, George Town is heaven for foodies - but we’ll save that for another blog.
George Town really is quite unique; it’s colourful history and compactness means you can soak up the multicultural essence of the area with ease. One of our favourite stops in South East Asia.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!