Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes was on our must-see list while in Split despite being 150 miles away. We weighed the benefits of renting a car or taking transit, but opted for a day tour with a local company. Despite the “Lakes” in the name, we found the park is mostly about waterfalls. I was glad to be able to get out and hike, and the unusually early spring and bright April day were bonuses.

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Looking down on falls between the lower lakes.

At the park entrance, we boarded a tram running through the woodlands to the Upper Lakes. The beech trees and low mountains reminded me of the eastern U.S., but it quickly became something entirely different.

The unique landscape of Plitvice Lakes is created by the relationship of water and the local geology. The phenomena centers on alkali water leeching out calcium carbonate. Anything underwater, like branches and leaves, slowly gets coated in tufa stone. Where water mixes with air, this calcification happens faster. Edges of waterfalls slowly build themselves higher – as much as half an inch a year. Even mosses clinging amid the streams are encased in travertine stone as the years pass.

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Spring leaves, the largest upper lake, waterfalls.

Water seeps down through a series of 16 lakes, trickling down dozens of cascades with each drop in height. The courses change constantly and run through undergrowth and tree roots.

The farther we walked, the prettier the scenery got. The lakes changed color depending on the sunlight and depth from gray to aquamarine to deep blue. All sorts of flowers were blooming and mosses were draped on many of the falls.

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Some more cascades and branches being slowly coated in rock.

Picturesque wooden walkways connect the lakes and cascades. Flows meander under the boards, even vanishing into the earth in spots. Though it creates new rock, the water also dissolves the limestone under our feet creating sinkholes of all sizes. The waterfalls and lakes are constantly in flux; new areas are submerged while others dry out after having been flooded for years.

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Water disappearing down a sinkhole, wooden walkways, white limestone and water.
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Lakes & trees, Water Everywhere!, a cave at the waterline.

I was surprised to discover that fish live in the lakes. They especially seem to thrive in the largest lake, Kozjak, which also has a ferry across it. The boat ride was one of the few times waterfalls were not visible, but the shoreline was bright green with new leaves and small mountains rising in the background.

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Curious fish, and a waterfall that looks a little impossible from this angle.

Our hike ended with a climb up through a water-created sinkhole. A narrow chasm at the base, it opened into a large skylight roofed with trees. It must have been a 6- or 7-story climb to the top. The remaining rock  was shaped into graceful curving structures and small caves that made it feel like we were inside the roots of a tree.

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Tufa agglomerating along the edge of a falls, trees on the shore, looking up from a sinkhole.

Our hike only totaled about three miles, but it was through a landscape unlike anything we’d experienced before. Plitvice seems like a place right out of a fairy tale. We’d gladly repeat the 14-hour day for a chance to visit again.

 

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Mafra

To cap off our time in Lisbon, we took a trip to the Mafra National Palace. This was something I was particularly looking forward to, since it was supposed to have a library that rivals any in Europe – both for the books it holds and how beautiful it is – but that’s reading a few chapters ahead.

Our journey started with a quick jaunt on the Metro out to Campo Grande. There we had time for a snack (pastries and espresso, of course) while we waited for our bus. Rather than running city routes, the Mafrense bus service reaches the further-out suburbs and uses charter buses with cushiony seats and decent wi-fi. Like the Uber drivers we had, our bus drivers were very leadfooted. Combine the speeding bus with lots of narrow and curvy roads, and Kevin and were both as close to carsickness as we’ve ever come.

But the bus dropped us off right next to the palace… which is suitably impressive. An empty courtyard out front makes sure the massive size strikes visitors. I gave up trying to get the whole of it in a single photo.

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The Mafra National Palace, the interior of the basilica’s dome, a statue in the church.

The Palace is so large that the basilica in the middle of it only takes up a small portion of the facade. The King’s and Queen’s rooms are on opposite sides and sit about 700 feet apart in separate towers on either corner. They’re far apart, is what I’m saying.

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Antler lamp from the Trophy Room, bookplate and map from old volumes.

 

The royal family did not actually spend that much time at the Palace. The building was drafty and mostly used for hunting parties, and they eventually had the more tropical option of vacationing in Brazil and later got deposed. There are no rooms of royal treasure or golden crowns. Still, there are the usual assortment of giant rooms for impressing important guests, multiple music rooms, a game room full of antlers and hunting trophies and a different kind of game room with billiard tables and some sort of prehistoric pachinko machine.

The palace even held a monastery – we toured the large kitchens and infirmary, as well as the interior cloister.

And then there is the grand finale, the library.

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The library.

It is absolutely gorgeous; the best library I’ve ever seen in person.

The library was designed to be the most important part of the convent and palace; it is even larger than the basilica. There are hundreds of feet of ornate shelving and arched windows to let in light. Miles of books were bound in leather by local craftsmen, so they all look and feel like they belong to the same collection. Some were set out in display cases, showing off printing dates from the 1500 and 1600s and the ornate book plates and fold-out maps that were sent inside the front covers.

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Books!

In total, there are almost 40,000 volumes comprising one of the great collections of old and rare books in Europe. In the 1700s, when such edicts were necessary, the Catholic Church provided the library with a dispensation that allowed books explicitly banned by the Church to be kept within its walls. Oddly, it is cared for in part by bats: the easiest way to keep the collection clear of insects is to let several hundred bats in at night to have a snack.

 

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More photos of the library, just because; one of the statues outside the basilica.

The interior of the basilica, as gorgeous as it is, pales in comparison (in my mind at least) to the library. It is unique in that it has 6 organs; the library contains musical scores written for the church that can be played no where else in the world. It was our last stop before chowing down on some more pastries and grabbing the bus back to Lisbon

It was windy, wavey-feeling ride back to the Metro, and an uphill walk from the Metro to our apartment. Of course, we stopped for one more meal, an order of duck-sausage-asparagus rice with a side of crab-and-egg guacamole, at the Mercado.

We got up very early a couple of days later to catch our flight to Barcelona, where I am writing this. Barcelona is much larger than Lisbon, both in population and sheer scale of the city. Fortunately, we picked a decently-located apartment within walking distance of many sights (though most walks will be longer, and we might have to use transit a bit more). We’ve already noticed that they are more choices for supermarkets than where we were in Lisbon, though pastry shops are fewer and farther between…

Sintra

Somehow I never heard of Sintra until I began researching the region around Lisbon. Unlike Neuschwanstein in Germany, the castles and palaces at Sintra do not have the instant recognition and Disney associations, but they are just as breathtaking. I think I have new favorite castles.

From Lisbon, it was a 45 minute train ride to the end of the line at Sintra. Just around the corner from the station was a city bus that is purposely routed on a loop to stop at the main tourist sights. One of the main attractions about the area for the palace-builders was the forested hills; the road up is steep and windy enough that the bus had to back up to turn corners and had rear view mirrors that were more of a suggestion than functional (presumably because getting torn off on trees and other vehicles is a way of life).

Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, which looks out over the surrounding hills and plains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Looking down to the National Palace of Sintra and the Atlantic beyond, very castley towers, moss-covered crenellations, Pena Palace on the next hill.

The Moorish Castle is a set of ruins that has roots at least as far back as the 1000s, and was added to and expanded by successive generations. Much of what is now standing was reconstructed in the 18oos by King Ferdinand II, who loved the idea of romantic palaces and ruins. It acted as a sort of fairytale escape with gardens and trees planted among the rocks and outer walls.

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A real, live, and slightly angry black swan; in the Moorish Castle cistern; example of how rocks were broken – holes were drilled and wooden planks placed in them, then the wood was soaked with water and the expansion split the rock.

Set on a high hill and looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, February was not the best time to visit, but there were fewer leaves on the trees to obstruct views and fewer people. The ocean felt much closer at the Castle than in Lisbon, and the sea breeze was a constant during our visit. The trees with wind-honed branches reminded us of similar looking ones near the Washington coast. Of course, even with the chill part 1 of lunch was a chocolate Cornetto, though this was mostly because I wanted to see the ice cream vending machine in action.

The same bus took us uphill to the neighboring Pena Palace where part 2 of lunch was a lemon pastry. Most of this palace is more recent than the Moorish Castle, and it was actually used for a few years as a royal retreat in the mid-1800s.

It is the happiest palace I’ve ever seen. Sections of the building are painted in bright yellow, pale blue, and rust red, and others are covered in ornate tiles. There are towers, turrets, long entry tunnels, arches, and porches. Like Neuschwanstein, some of the features are a little faked – close up it looks akin a theme-park castle rather than a building to be taken seriously. But still, if central heating, a dishwasher, and wi-fi could be put in, I’d probably try to move in tomorrow. There were great views all around, and porches to take advantage of the sun at all times of day.

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Pena Palace, statuary and tiles above some of the gates.
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Closer to one of the towers, spikes on a decorative turret, from a view in the gardens.

Of course, the inside is just as ostentatious as the outside. The palace was built around the ruins of a monastery; an interior cloister was preserved and rooms added around it. While some of the more important rooms have mosaic or tile ceilings, many other are simply painted to give the impression of carved stone.

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The interior cloister, and bright decoration in some of the castle’s rooms.

Not all the furniture is original, but all of it is museum-worthy. The old wardrobes and desks represent the best craftsmanship of the time and I would love to own any of them. However, seating has gotten decidedly more comfortable in the last two hundred years; stiff-backed leather chairs and couches with oak arms would not be good for relaxing.

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Leather chair, the small dining room, and the chapel altar.

There are acres of gardens below the Palace, and we spent part of the afternoon walking the trails, happy to do something that resembled woodland hiking. There were a few small structures that served as picnic areas and viewpoints, as well as an active farm with horses and goats. A row of duck ponds filled a valley, and one of them had a pair of black swans feeding in it. Honestly, I didn’t think black swans were real until I saw these.

There are several other castles in the area, including some we could see, but I can only take so much royalness in one day. We will have to see the rest on another trip, and maybe in summer when hiking and biking in the area is less subject to cold wind.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Lisbon region has at least a dozen castles and palaces, an embarrassment of riches compared to the lack of such structures in the US, but not surprising for a capital city that was the seat of a monarchy for centuries. So far, though, it has been a rainy week and we’ve only made it to the Castelo de Sao Jorge and walked by the Belem National Palace, which is now the residence of the President of the Republic.

The Castelo overlooks Lisbon from one of the seven central hills and the upper ramparts have great views of the Tagus River and red-tiled roofs. Church domes and spires stand out over their surroundings and are useful points of navigation among the shorter buildings on narrow, winding streets.

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Looking northeast from the Castle walls, the Church of Sao Vicente of Fora, the ramparts.

Though much of the castle has been reconstructed during the last century, there are plenty walls that have been left half-repaired to fuel the imagination. And, of course, the castle accoutrements of a moat, drawbridge, murder holes, slit windows for shooting arrows, and crenellations evoke storybook medieval sieges and armored knights.

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View to the southwest toward the river and the ruined Carmo Monastery, steps down to a watchtower, crumbled walls.

A small museum contains items found during archeological digs inside the walls like glass wear, jars, and plates. Some are dated to the destruction of Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake and bear blackened edges – traces of the fires that engulfed the city. Good to know that we left the earthquake dangers in the Pacific Northwest for a city that is just as prone to sudden destruction…

 

Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si

Renovations work on the Penang Hill funicular was finally complete and the weather was super nice, so we managed (after only three weeks here!) to make it to one of the main tourist attractions on the Island. Hiking up was an option, but 90 degrees is not ideal outdoor exertion weather, and the tram has tempting a/c. After a steep and slightly bouncy ride to the top, the cable car dumped us right at the viewing deck. A jutting platform gives near 180 degree views of the east side of Penang Island – all the way from the airport to the mainland north of Georgetown. Views are breathtaking – Georgetown below, blue ocean, and mainland stretching to distant hills as the view fades. Highrises nestle right up to jungle-covered hills and then the forest takes over without visible interruption.

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The view toward the bridges and our suburb of Gelugor, a watchful monkey, looking toward the coastal plains on the mainland.

I made the mistake of not looking both ways for monkeys and, while admiring the view, one came up on the railing and made a convincing show of batting my face out of the way. The first I knew of it was its paw coming at me. I jumped back, as did the girl next to me, screaming in fright. I mean, they are small and fuzzy and cute, but they also tear apart metal pop cans with a single paw and then stick their faces right past the jagged metal edges to lap up the remaining residue. Clearly the monkeys have cushy lives – they have no problem flipping open trash cans for leftovers and harassing passers-by for a snack.

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Long-tailed macaque snacking, the steep ascent, enjoying the view, the funicular tram car.

Penang Hill was built as a Hill Station where Georgetown elite escaped the worst of the heat – some individuals are lucky enough to still live there. Since it was a neighborhood, places of worship were built at the top. A Buddhist temple and mosque stand right next to each other; nearby is the more recent tourist-trap addition of an Owl Museum and food court with a fence full of love locks atop it. This tribute to affection might hold up better than the famous one in Paris – the locking loop is metal, but the pink hearts are lightweight plastic. We sprung for fried rice and laksa but no lock.

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Decorations on the Hindu temple, the mosque, and a fence full of love locks all on Penang Hill.

The Friday afternoon curse of the unavailable Uber struck right as we got back to the base of the hill and were trying to get to the Kek Lok Si temple. It was only a couple kilometers away, so we braved the heat and walked. Thankfully juice and water are sold in stands around the temple, and the neighborhood below it has the usual assortment of small convenience stores and drink stalls. In some areas Penang has great sidewalks, in others, like the way to the temple, we dodge moving traffic while weaving around cars parked along the edge of the road. Fortunately Chiang Mai taught us well.

The temple is not just a single building, but a sprawling complex that takes over a large portion of the hillside. Supposed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, it is still being added to. Temple buildings form something of a maze, and I could have wandered around for hours. While we are going to miss Chinese New Year – it is February 8th and we fly out the 2nd – the temple was already heavily decorated with lanterns.

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The sprawling temple complex.

The first temple’s interior walls were covered floor to ceiling with thousands Buddha statuettes, and the frescoed ceiling showed a pantheon of deities. A wishing tree near the back was heavy with colored ribbons; we added one of our own. Just outside the main doors, dozens of candles and incense sticks were lit and more were for sale.

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A small portion of the Buddha-covered wall in the first temple, candle offerings, and lots of paper lanterns for New Year celebrations.

Wandering around the buildings, we saw smaller side temples containing offerings of incense,flowers, fruit, and even fish to be freed in the temple’s ponds – we hope. Monks chanted afternoon prayers. We took the second funicular of the day – a new record! –  to the statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy. The 99-foot tall statue and her pagoda tower over the rest of the site. We were there just as everything was closing for the day, so the crowds had already dispersed and it was very peaceful.

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Kuan Yin, bags of teeny fish, one of many altars.

As I post this, we only have about two days left on the ground in Malaysia. I’ll be sad to be leaving the vibrant culture and delectable food, not to mention the cheap cost of living, but it will be exciting to move on to our third stop. Even with more than three weeks under our belts here, Penang continues to tempt us with new things!

Trip Prep

Warning: Lots of words, no pictures…

We’ve been asked quite a bit about the steps we took before we left the States for a year of travel; this post covers the large items from our checklist. We spread out tasks as much as we could and managed to cover a lot of ground in the few months before starting our trip.

The most difficult part was the decision to move away from the comfortable, (relatively) predictable life we led in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is a great place to be in all seasons, and there was lots of good food, hiking less than an hour away, an ocean, local wine, and lots of career opportunities for both of us. Traveling the world for a year meant giving that up in exchange for the unknown, both on the road and upon our return. We both love to travel, and every trip always felt as though it ended too soon and should have been the start of something grander.

The catalyst ended up being notice that my own job was gong to come to and end as the company I worked for downsized. It didn’t hurt that the lease on our apartment was gong to be up at about the same time, and Kevin’s desire to work for himself meant we could live anywhere with reliable internet.

We were never big spenders, and we worked to pay off our student loan debt as quickly as possible. Saving was also constantly on our mind as we had been building a reserve to provide Kevin freedom to go indie (the cost of living is so high in Seattle that even with me working full time, we would still need to dip into savings each month). The money we had saved to that end would go further abroad.

As anyone who lives in Seattle – or who wants to live there but has had to settle for suburbs – knows, it is a pricy city, especially where housing is concerned. Even a brief look at our budget and some comparisons for cities around the world proved to us that it would be cheaper to live elsewhere, even while moving each month. Of course, we had to rule out some big destinations like London, Paris, New Zealand, and Australia, where prices vastly outpaced our budget, but aside from a few exceptions, the decision to live abroad would give us a longer runway while allowing Kevin to work and both of us to experience new cultures and places on a frequent basis.

My job wound down, and we began taking steps toward the possibility of living abroad long-term. Everything we did and the amount of money we spent was relatively small until about a 6 weeks before we left; if something drastically changed we could have called the entire trip off and only been out a few hundred dollars. But then we bought airfare and booked apartments, gave final notice on our lease, and started telling family and friends – we were committed to at least a couple months of travel.

When we saw our potential plans included places where tropical diseases were a concern, we set up appointments at a travel clinic to decide which precautionary vaccinations we would need. We didn’t know which countries we would be visiting, so we played it safe and asked for almost everything that was available. That meant boosters for tetanus, polio, and Hepatitis A & B. It also meant prophylactic shots for Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever, and rabies as well as the oral typhoid vaccine. The cost of all the injections was more than $2,000 per person; thankfully our insurance covered all of those as preventative care! We were also given prescriptions for a high-powered antibiotic cream and antibiotics to use in case of wildly upset stomachs. Since the rabies shots have already come in handy for me, I’m going to applaud my own decision to get better at dealing with needles. I also got my vision checked and a new prescription ordered.

As you might guess, the internet is a sea of inspiration (some good, some awfully outdated), and stacks of travel books from the library didn’t hurt our state of mind either. While it is fun to pretend we were going to go everywhere, the world is too big and our budget too small for that. We settled for finding places we would want to call home a month at a time; cities that provided easy means of transit, good food, cultural variety, and were still relatively cheap. Since we book a few months out, this process will be ongoing.

We set up a mail forwarding service and began changing the addresses on our accounts with plenty of time to spare. We now have the option to have our mail stored until our return, scanned to us, or shredded (even 7,900 miles away, sending junk mail to its doom gives me a sensation of glee).

In our previous travels, we noticed foreign transaction and ATM fees can really add up, so with that in mind we opened two new accounts. The first was a credit card with no foreign transaction fees and which had points we could use toward later travel expenses. The second was a new bank account with a debit card that could be used worldwide with no ATM fees. It was important to us that our travel bank account be completely separate from our savings account so that, if our travel card becomes compromised, our savings are secure. Now that we are on the road, we find an ATM upon arrival so that all of our day-to-day purchases are made with local currency and our cards are used rarely and at locations that are as secure as possible.

Though we didn’t own an entire home’s worth of physical stuff, our apartment was still pretty full. We hadn’t moved in about four years, so items gathered in corners unnoticed. I couldn’t bear to part with my books, so we already knew that a storage unit would be necessary. (Kevin put up with me storing almost all of them, and doing the physical labor of moving a small library – I have a perfect husband.)

About two months before we left, we started seriously going through our material possessions to decide what was worth saving, what could be sold, what should be donated, and what could be recycled or left for free on the sidewalk. All told, about four large carloads went to local Goodwills – outdated fashions, unneeded cooking supplies, some small furniture. We drove many carloads over to a 10X5′ storage area, and with about three weeks left before vacating our apartment, we rented a Uhaul and moved the furniture (bookshelves mostly, but also a desk, dresser, and a few other bulky items). Large, unkeepable items were sold online. We spent the last days before our trip in an eerily empty house.

The most unexpectedly emotional part of the downsize for Kevin was selling Eva, our beloved car. I’m not convinced she ever liked me since she often threw a fit if I planned a trip; it didn’t matter if we were going to Mount Rainier or Montana… she found a way to complicate an oddly large portion of the getaways I planned. I think her jealousy of me stemmed from the fact that Kevin bought her on Valentine’s. We did find her a good home, but being without a car was an odd feeling, especially with so many last-minute errands. Even though we were used to walking most of the places we needed to be on a daily basis, a car is one of those things society expects you to have. By getting rid of Eva, it felt a little like going backward. Then we reminded ourselves that where we lived… and where we were going… we didn’t need a car. (We would still probably need roads… roads come in handy.)

One of the most frustrating aspects of our preparation was finding and applying for health insurance. Though healthcare in many parts of the world is cheaper in price and the outcomes on par with the US, going without insurance was not an option. We researched multiple plans with widely varying prices and coverage caveats. We finally settled on one with coverage in just about any country we could legally visit, emergency medical evacuation should there be a worst-case scenario, and a moderate price tag. Since international health insurance plans do not fall under the aegis of the Affordable Care Act there were loops to jump through and paperwork to produce. After producing the most mundane medical records going back years, we had to answer still more questions, and we received notice of our coverage only about a week before leaving. (It was an unhappy reminder of how miserable shopping for health insurance was before the ACA.) We would have started that process earlier if we had known it would take more than a month.

What might have seemed like dragging our heels to settle down became an advantage. With no debt, no house (too pricey in Seattle), no kids (not ready yet), even no pets, we had no strings strong enough to prevent us from leaving. Since we already lived on the other side of the country from our families, the other side of the world didn’t seem so far. And since we live in the future, keeping in touch and staying connected from anywhere isn’t the struggle it used to be.

We’ve already come more than 10,000 miles from O’Hare and every day has been worth the stress of upending our lives as we knew them.

 

Ferries and Georgetown, Part II

We took another trip into Georgetown to take the funicular up Penang Hill for a good view of the island. But upon arrival, we discovered it was closed for maintenance… good thing we are staying for a few more weeks! As a consolation prize we headed toward the waterfront and the Chinese Clan Jetties. Chinese families with fishing livelihoods set up the jetties generations ago, and many homes are still occupied. The wooden boardwalks and cobbled-together appearance give the piers a rustic vibe, contrasting the shops selling trinkets and snacks (ice cream) to tourists.

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Chew Clan Jetty

Just up the street is the Georgetown ferry dock. We took a 15 minute trip across the Selatan Strait to Butterworth to get a view of the cities from the water and spend time in the breeze. The ferries are smaller than those in Seattle but still carry cars and are more brightly colored. A cluster of passenger benches takes up the center of the upper deck, between two lanes of vehicles. Though two bridges connect the island to the mainland, the ferry can save time coming from Georgetown, especially in heavy traffic. The ferry ride ends at a bus and rail terminal, and there isn’t anything interesting in walking distance (yet… there were several construction projects underway), so we just paid the return fare and enjoyed the ride back and a view of a massive sea eagle skimming the water.

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Happily painted ferries, Georgetown from the water, small boats near the port.

Back in the afternoon heat of Georgetown, we stepped into the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple because it had shade. It turned out to be my favorite temple in Georgetown so far – recently restored, it was full of incredible artwork (tile floors, small statues along the roof, intricate corner beams, painted doors). Though it is still in use, there was almost no one inside and we were able to enjoy a break from the noisy traffic and spend time admiring the skill that went into creating the complex.

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3D Murals at the entrance, name plates of deceased ancestors, the front altar, ornate dragon at the corner of a ceiling beam.
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Offerings at the temple, dragons along the roofline, doors to the interior courtyard.

Around the rest of the city we discovered more street art, and that preparations for Chinese New Year, coming up on February 8, are in full swing. Lots of stores have displays for the Year of the Monkey, gift baskets, red and gold decorations, and red clothing (red being a lucky color). It is just like the excitement building up to Christmas in the US – everyone will visit family to begin the new year and celebrate with cleaning, gift-giving, and lots of food.

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Adorable mini-mural, a monkey set up in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New year, my favorite shop name, and Georgetown buildings in need of repair.

Speaking of meals, we can check a couple more local foods off our list: Penang Hokkien Mee (prawn-stock soup with egg noodles, rice noodles, prawns, pork, and a hard-boiled egg), and stingray (lots of bones). As usual, both were tasty choices.