Tag Archives: Street Food

Chiang Mai, Oh My We Ate a Lot

We are not experts on pregnant women, but the Chiang Mai night markets struck us as a place a woman with child might enjoy hanging out. You can eat for two (or three, if we’re being honest here) from the incredible array of delicious street foods, get a foot massage for less than $5 an hour, and eat lots more delicious street food during your massage (and then maybe eat again after). At least, that’s how we enjoyed spending time in Chiang Mai. Though a doctor might advise drinking fewer Singha’s when preggers, and perhaps less street food sushi.

We really enjoyed Chiang Mai. The natural scenery was a bit less impressive than we expected, but it is a most chill place to hang out for a few days. Chiang Mai offers the convenience and comfort of a real city.  There are movie theaters, international cuisine, shopping malls, bagels (!) and good WiFi.  But it doesn’t feel like a real city. The locals are friendly and nobody seems to be in a rush.  The crowd is young and international, the weather is good (at least this time of year) and it is easy to understand why so many expats now call Chiang Mai home.

We were excited to find a place with some not-terribly-sketchy sushi, and so our first night in town we tuk-tuked over to Tsunami Sushi. It was great, and reasonably priced, but when I found out later we could eat street sushi for literally 15-30 cents a piece, I maybe would have skipped it. (I don’t know if the irrational excitement I experience at being able to order a meal for $1 is as widespread as it is satisfying, but I do know that obtaining a $1 meal of sushi is the most rewarding.) Anyway, it was fun, and put us near Chiang Mai University at graduation time, so we bopped about the bars in that area with the young and newly free (or were they newly shackled?). This area (particularly Nimmanhaemin Road) is packed with coffee shops, spas, and bars, including one stop that is essentially a liquor store (Kamrai, on the west side of the street) with little tables outside, set up so that you can go in and buy a couple of beers and sit drinking them on the street. It was here that we discovered Banana Bread Beer and Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale (can you say delicious?).

We also made what was probably the best value purchase of our lives here: jackets for $1.50 a piece! We didn’t realize how cold it would get in the evenings, and as we shivered our way down the street we both did a double take at the sight of a row of jackets with a price tag of 50 Baht! Check out how sweet these are.

We may or may not have gotten into an argument over which one of ours actually was cool. They would have been worth it for the tuk-tuk ride home alone, and we wound up wearing them every night in Chiang Mai, though given our limited luggage we opted to leave them behind after those five days.

By the way, they’ve got real tricked out tuk-tuks here, which feel more like low-riders with reclining seats. We half expected them to start bouncing and blaring a little Warren G when we drove.

One of Chiang Mai’s highlights is its array of street markets.  The most famous are probably the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets and the nightly, um, night market.  There is also the Warorot Market, likely others we don’t know, and countless little agglomerations of food carts scattered throughout the area.

And the variety and amount of cheap street food on offer in this city is impressive. But maybe not quite as impressive as the amount of it we were able to consume. Let’s give you the breakdown, shall we? Because it’s so remarkable, nay, monumental even that it’s hard to believe it happened. (I promise, we worked out after this.)

Saturday Walking Street: Pork on a stick (10B), roast pork on rice (30B, fantastic), pad thai (40B), thai pancakes (25B insanely delicious), freshly fried quail eggs (7 for 20B). We had some kanom krok (coconut custard cups, 10B) on the walk there to wake our bellies.  The Walking Street has tons of food (beyond what we ate here, there are endless options for grass jelly, dumplings, sausages, shumai, ice cream, cupcakes and more), art, and souvenirs etc, including these awesome little hand-held sewing machines that look like staplers.

There is also a very substantial collection of food stalls just outside the Saturday Walking Street market by the south gate of the Old City wall. While dining at one of these, Alan tried to purchase beers at 7-11 but was denied due to pre-election regulations.  This happened a couple times during our stay, but was easily thwarted by patronizing smaller, local establishments that despite their lack of billions in revenue were sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the situation: we would not be voting and so it didn’t really matter how much beer we drank.

Along the Walking Street we got half hour upper-body massages for 80B. Not the best massage I’ve ever had, but probably the cheapest. Did I say that exact same phrase when blogging about massages in Varanasi, India? Well this one was worse, and cheaper. But it’s really fun because you sit in your chair and people watch as market-goers pass by. Definitely not a zen environment as massages go, but a fun and unique one.

I tried to convince Alan to eat some fried crickets or worms. Do you see the size of this thing? His downfall was too many questions. How do you eat it? You eat the whole thing? What is it fried in? How long ago were these cooked? You know you’ve over-thought it by now, and it just ain’t happening.

Sunday Walking Street: Our mango sticky rice consumption had been gravely deficient so first thing we did upon entering the market zone was eat this dessert.  And then, bam, more street sushi!  Followed by half hour foot massages for 70B.  We ambled on to a wat’s courtyard loaded with food vendors where Alan had some grilled spicy sausage that was phenomenal and Jenni ordered lemon iced tea that turned out to be Thai iced tea, which may be more calorie-laden but is sweet and delicious.

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There are a lot of musicians (many disabled) that sit or stand in the middle of the walking street and play or sing.  We passed some girls playing Hava Nagila on the violin, but it was too crowded to fire up the circle.  After this we spent a while near the lively east gate at a courtyard bar cum ice cream shop with a talented singer playing acoustic guitar and covering popular Western songs.  I can’t figure out the name of this place, but maybe it is part of Turtle home made ice cream or next to it. Jenni got an early birthday present necklace on the street…for 200B.  Birthday presents are so much cheaper in Thailand than Brentwood!

Tempted by the 24-hour BK, instead we patronized another Turkish joint that is part of Zoe at the reggae/bar area.  Gotta show love for the peoples.  The doner kebab was so-so.

Monday night Alan ate some mystery pork or chicken on a skewer on the walk to Warorot Market followed by the night market.  Don’t worry, we’ll talk about something other than food and markets…just not yet.  We’re not sure if we exactly found Warorot Market or just the streets nearby, but here we had one of our favorite meals: spicy cold noodles with chicken.  These were outstanding, and the vendor was a young lady so on point.  Alan gets excited at jobs done right.  And while he was drinking a large Singha as we shared the noodles, this drunk older Thai lady kept trying to steal his beer.

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Do you know what’s best to wash down some spicy noodles and beer?  Fried chicken!  With all due respect to my southern relatives, this might have been the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  Then Alan ate a Peter Luger size piece of grilled bacon (maybe even bigger), Jenni ate a donut, Alan ate a peanut caramel cake, and we both had these items that looked like tacos with sour cream but were really mini crepes with a fluff-like filling.  And then another kebab sandwich, where we concluded that Thais excel at most food but not Middle Eastern.

All that said, let’s talk a little about food.  Street food spots pop up everywhere. We stayed near a school and on weekdays there were side-by-side chicken skewer (10B each, get it covered in chili powder if you can stand the heat) and iced tea stands where students ordered from inside the fence and commoners lined up on the street. Solid. So for a person like Alan, whose biggest fear in life is probably where and when he might be able to get food next, Chiang Mai is a very safe bet.

There is also a big assemblage of food stalls outside the north gate where Alan tried some pork from the lady wearing a cowboy hat. She has managed her brand well and built a following, but there is definitely better pork elsewhere. It is less clear, however, if there is better dessert elsewhere than the fried dough bites dipped in green custard made with condensed milk and green something or other. Just watching the cook lay out and cut up strips and then his maybe eight-year-old assistant fry them up in a big wok, turning them with chopsticks, was entertaining.

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Next to the markets, the wats (temples) are probably Chiang Mai’s other biggest tourist draw. And wat a collection of wats they have! (See wat I did there?). Just wander around the city a bit and you’ll happen upon a number of them, each impressive in its own right. It is pretty neat to be bar- or food-hopping and stroll past centuries-old temples. We checked out Wat Chedi Luang with its gorgeous high ceilings and abundance of gold Buddhas. We also enjoyed the broken English signs which seem intended to warn tourists of the non-sanctioned guides who want to pickpocket you?

We also made the journey up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is a stunning temple set atop a hill a ways outside of the city. It’s a very windy road, so expect to get carsick. You get up there via a songthaew, which is a cross between a tuk-tuk, a pick-up truck and a bus. On a good day you supposedly get great views of Chiang Mai proper, but we were greeted with hazy skies. Alan also checked out Wat Pra Singh (20B) one day when Jenni was battling her stomach, which was battling the Chiang Mai street food (all I want for my birthday is to not get sick from food in Asia one more time. Pretty pretty please.). The main building was nice but he was more smitten with the rear annexes containing gorgeous murals and woodwork.

Our efforts to find the lady-boy cabaret at the night market were nearly thwarted when we were pointed in completely different directions by no fewer than ten people. We finally found it, luckily catching the last couple songs and getting a good feel for the Thai tranny scene (I don’t quite understand what it is about Thailand and trannies/cross-dressers, but there sure are a lot) and Alan was kissed by one very gregarious waiter/waitress who obliged a photo with Jenni in exchange for a photo and a kiss to Alan.

Our last night in town we opted for a slightly classier scene, and enjoyed a bit of live jazz at North Gate Jazz Co-op’s weekly Tuesday jam session. Jenni turned 28 at this pleasant spot with spirited musicians, and tourists, locals and ex-pats spilling out of the diminutive space over the sidewalk and into the streets, drinking cocktails and enjoying the tunes.

We were in Chiang Mai right before the elections that were causing some pretty serious protest-related violence down in Bangkok (part of the reason we skipped Bangkok, as you’ll remember reading in our Railay post). There were some smaller protests taking place in Chiang Mai, including one instance before we arrived where a Molotov cocktail was thrown, but the protests we passed by were so small you might not even notice them. And it definitely did not feel unsafe. It is alarming what is happening in Bangkok, though, and our thoughts are with the Thai people hoping that they can find a peaceful resolution.

Practical Info

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northwest Thailand and a popular base for hill tribe trekking and further exploration of the area.  Most tourist attractions are concentrated in and around the square Old City.

Transportation: Chiang Mai international airport is only a few kilometers southwest of the old city.  A pre-paid taxi from the airport into town costs 120B, and our hotel charged 150B from town to the airport.  Some recommend the day train from Bangkok as a good way to see more of the country.  Overland travel to/from Laos is possible.  We considered going from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by heading north, crossing to Huay Xai and then taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong.  Some say it is a great journey, others that you might look back fondly but likely won’t enjoy the experience.  I saw a place that seemed to be advertising 1900B for this journey, though it wasn’t clear to me what that included and I doubt it includes your night of accommodation in Pak Beng.

It is easy enough to walk around the Old City.  To visit the markets, depending on your exact location and affinity for hoofing it, you might want to hire a tuk-tuk.  As a couple examples for local transport, a tuk-tuk from our hotel by north gate to Tsunami Sushi cost 120B, and from Nimmanhaemin Road back to our hotel cost 100B.

Our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep involved a songthaew from near north gate to the zoo for 30B/each, followed by a shared songthaew up the hill for 40B/each.  On the return one shared songthaew took us from the temple back to north gate for 60B/each.

Accommodation: There are tons of options here.  We stayed at Sawasdee Chiang Mai House in the northeast part of the Old City.  Jenni was a little less enthusiastic, but I could recommend this place.  For ~$40/night, we had a huge room with a pretty comfy bed and a bathroom with a shower curtain!  Maybe it wasn’t the cleanest, but some division of shower and other space in a bathroom is now a cause for celebration.  The included breakfast was decent and filling and WiFi worked well.

Location-wise, I might rather stay a little closer to the Old City’s east gate where there is more action, but our spot was very convenient.  There are some high-end properties at varied distances outside the Old City that I’ve heard are wonderful, including the Four Seasons (not to be confused with the Four Seasons Golden Triangle) and Anantara.

Food and Drink: For sure our favorite part of Chiang Mai, in case you couldn’t tell.  Street food is everywhere.  The Saturday and Sunday walking streets are loaded, as is Warorot Market and the daily night market.  Plus there are small to large collections of stalls at several places throughout the city.  Street food averages 10-40B per meal.

Sushi is widely available.  Our meal at Tsunami with plenty of food, sake and beer cost 820B.

Chiang Mai has quite a coffee shop culture (I enjoyed my iced mocha at Akha Ama), and a nice cup of java was a welcome change from many places we’ve been on this leg.

One night we had a carafe of white wine at Brasserie near east gate.  It cost 390B and the space is nice, with live music later at night.

Nimmanhaemin Road is close to Chiang Mai University and has many boutiques, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Kamrai Shop is a liquor store where you can drink your purchase at tables out front. There are also several spots along the Ping River, a handful of blocks east of the Old City.

The little backpacker / reggae bar complex is described as follows in http://www.1stopchiangmai.com: “Chiang Mai’s very own backpacker-cum-little Jamaica is a cluster of bars around a car park just off Ratvithi, down from the Irish Pub. Here you’ll find a lively collection of shacks or open air bars with several live bands, cheap beer and food. It’s downmarket but has character and is popular with beatnik locals and backpackers alike. Best bars include Zoe in Yellow (popular), Babylon Café (Irie), Roots, Rock, Reggae (live music) and Heaven’s Beach (pool tables).”

Activities: There are temples all over the Old City.  Cover your knees and shoulders to visit.  The weekend walking streets and night and other markets are entertaining and loaded with good food.  Cooking classes are popular.  Trekking (single and multi-day), elephant rides, climbing, rafting and more are offered by countless tour operators.  A couple hour visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (30B) is worthwhile.  I believe there is a touristy hill tribe village further up the road. I have heard that Huay Tung Thao Lake can be fun, especially on a hot day.  And how about hour-long massages for $5-10!

January 24-29, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)

Penang

What do you get when you mix trendy bars sporting mid-century modern furnishings with the unrivaled affable nature of Southeast Asians, some of the best and most unusual street foods in the world, and a veritable melee of cultures? The impossibly cool city of Penang. We adore Penang! Street art galore, funky coffee shops and bars to get all hipster in to your heart’s delight. It’s like what Portland, Oregon is trying to be, but cooler. It’s not so much hipster-ism as it is awesome-people-ism, because the pretentious element is completely missing, replaced instead by an enriching openness and sense of engagement. You like yourself more in Penang, because everyone is so nice and friendly and happy that you want to be nice and friendly and happy, too.

It’s a place where you can meander down Love Lane and pop into an art gallery where a small band coos over acoustic guitar, and then wander over to an open-air bar for cheap beers while you mingle with tourists and the nicest locals. You can stroll around stopping occasionally to admire the street art and tiled sidewalks abutting a great mix of Western and Asian architecture.

And to top it off, you can order drinks with ice, eat street food without a dose of Pepto-Bismol, and go home and brush your teeth with tap water! Can I get a “HELL YEAH” for (moderately) clean water?!

A highlight (for Jenni at least) might be the coolest new trend of 2014: a tea shop where you come in, drink tea, and – get this – play with cats! Cats, books, life is good. Funny enough, we read an article a day later pronouncing this is an up-and-coming trend in various Asian countries. I’m considering bringing a puppy and tea shop to America. New career? I think so. Purrfect Cat Café (yes that’s their name) hadn’t opened their doors to the public yet, but kindly invited us in to play with the main attractions. I was delighted to be photographed as their first kitten-petting guest.

Perhaps what Penang is best known for is its food. Penang is a foodies haven, particularly the cheap and delicious street eats on offer. And we tried our fair share of what we could squeeze in our bellies over the course of a day and a half. Below is a breakdown of some of the spots and (sometimes strange!) delicacies we enjoyed.

Tek Sen: we went here for dinner our first night. Highlights:

  • The homemade barley and lime drink – tastes kind of like Quaker Oh’s cereal (my absolute favorite cereal in the world, how is it not more popular?)
  • Double roast pork with chili padi – one of their signature items. Delicious. Sweet and fatty.
  • Less impressive were the braised duck with dried oyster and the stir fried bitter gourd with salted duck egg, minced pork and minced prawn. Though I think I may just not be a fan of bitter gourd. Note to self, avoid items with bitter in the name.

Red Bean Ice at the hawker stands near the corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Chulia: Despite Kenny regaling us with a story of how he ate so much of it one night that he literally made himself sick, we found this one a little unexciting. Not bad, but I definitely would never eat enough to make myself sick.

Kafe Mews: we tried the guava mojitos, good but quite sweet. Jenni was tempted to order scones with cream, but abstained, saving her calories for more unique Malay treats to come.

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Aik Hoe Dim Sum: we went here for breakfast. White coffee is superb, like a hot frappuccino. The dim sum is primarily self serve, you just go and pick up little plates of whatever calls your name from those steaming baskets of goodness. The water chestnut and prawn dumplings were DIVINE. I could have eaten seventeen of them. We tried a few others whose contents were a mystery, though a gingery dumpling was quite good as well. We ordered pork buns after seeing them on someone else’s table. They didn’t quite rival the BBQ pork buns we had in Hong Kong, but they were good nonetheless. We also ordered the fried noodles on our waitress’ suggestion, which were good, but arrived after we’d stuffed our faces with so many other items we could barely make a dent.

Food stalls outside Fort Cornwallis: Hainan chicken rice, meh. Mee goreng from Mee Sotonic. Real spicy, kind of like pad thai. The lime is key. Sadly, the coconut shake place was out of cendol so instead we tried ice kacang.  In addition to something you might hear on Hot 97 FM, ice kacang is a scrumptious and unusual conglomeration of flavors and textures.  Rather than spelling out each dish we will assume Google has that covered, but just as an example here’s a paraphrasing of how ice kacang is described in this foodie map we found: fill a bowl with finely shaved ice topped with sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, attap chee (palm fruit), strips of dried nutmeg as well as colorful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup, sarsi and rose syrup.  For a finishing touch, drizzle liberal amounts of rich evaporated milk.  And add a generous scoop of ice cream.

The tea truck (Otea2u) outside Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was awesome. Impressively detailed list of teas with various add-ons like tapioca pearls, grass jelly, coconut jelly, etc. Alan tried the peach green tea with coconut jelly and Jenni the strawberry pearl milk tea, both are recommended.

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At a warehouse-like store selling bulk candies, dried goods, jellies etc, we sampled some superb oat chocolates. The blue potato chocolates fell short.

China House is a funky, cool, mixed space with galleries, food and beverage.  There is live music at Canteen Bar on weekend nights. Vine & Single is a cozy bar that serves cocktails but specializes in wine and single malt whiskey.  Beach Street Bakery is best known for tiramisu but our coconut milk chocolate cake did not disappoint.  Not even a little. There is a tapas menu and also a courtyard where one can dine.

Hawker stands by Carnarvon (again):

  • Wan tan mee was Jenni’s favorite dish in Penang: ramen noodle with sliced pork, dumplings, bok choy, chili.
  • Lorbak: pork wrapped in red bean and deep fired. The accompanying sauce was phenomenal.
  • Alan ordered char kway teow and loved it.

Special thanks to Robyn Eckhardt, a prominent food writer, who was unavailable to give us a tour but provided great suggestions in a personal email.

For the non-foodies, Penang still has plenty on offer, perhaps most notable is the abounding and impressive street art. We went on a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a number of these bad boys. And more and more keep popping up. We even spotted one guy in the midst of painting a new one.

The art doesn’t stop at the streets; there are charming shops full of hand-made crafts and stunning photographs and paintings. The galleries on Armenian Street were particularly lovely. We hope one day to return to Studio Howard when we have a home to decorate, and our fingers will be crossed that the sweet grandmother who chatted us up will still be there.

There are a number of intricate and eccentric temples and clan houses dotting this city.  Penang has a rich history as a trading post and has attracted large communities of Indians, Chinese, ethnic Malays and Europeans.  Some of these settlers built small compounds or villages specific to their own clan.  Khoo Kongsi is perhaps the most famous clan house. We enjoyed lingering around this one, and the attached museum below, admiring the intricate stone carvings and delicate details painted inside.

In addition to clan houses, the waterfront is home to six remaining clan jetties.  These mini-villages built on stilts are still home to clan members but tourists are welcome to walk around the planks.  We checked out Chew Jetty where Jenni may have uttered “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life” for the first time on this trip. She tends to be less than discerning in her use of this platitude, but these amphibious creatures were like little dragons. Dragons, I tell you. They alternate between land and water by taking out their arm/leg/fin things. They’re like tadpoles on steroids (not yet urine-tested by the MLB). Their faces puff up into giant triangles, they stick out shark-like fins when they fight (mate?) with other dragons. They have two eyes bulging out of the top of their heads that face opposite directions but touch each other.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as Le Maison Bleu for its deep indigo-colored exterior, offers daily tours. It houses a heritage bed and breakfast and one may also rent out the entire property for weddings and events. The building is lovely, but we were not so impressed by the tour. That said, our guide is bringing back the balding woman’s rat tail trend like it’s nobody’s business.  And Cheong Fatt Tze was apparently quite a guy: when he died in 1916, Dutch and British authorities ordered flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies.

For the SJP, SATC, and pure Jimmy Choo enthusiasts among us, we’re told you can go to the factory where Jimmy Choo made his first shoe at the age of 11.

Granted our standards have been somewhat lowered along the way, what with our champagne taste and backpack budget, but Chulia Heritage Hotel rocks. It’s clean, the lobby is pretty, you get FOUR pillows! And the icing on top: a blowdryer. I don’t think we’ve seen a blowdryer since we left America. Did we use it? No, but still. Downsides: rooms are not huge, a bit loud, and I guess if you’ve spent a significant amount of time in psychiatric wards the all-white design scheme might cause flashbacks. Also, a rather large cockroach did make an appearance in Alan’s shoe as we were headed out the door, so, there’s that.

Practical Info 

Penang is a state and actually covers some mainland territory in addition to the more famous island portion.  The island itself has some nice hills and supposedly good beaches on the north and west, though we limited ourselves to historic George Town, the main city on the northeast corner.

Transportation: We took a ferry from Langkawi, which cost $39 for two and took a bit over three hours.  Upon arrival at Kuah Jetty in Langkawi you can pay a small fee (10-20 MYR depending on bag size) to check your luggage, which is a good idea.  This ride was inside a proper boat and infinitely smoother than the ride from Koh Lipe to Langkawi.  They were even showing Dark Knight Rises on the TV screens, albeit without sound.

There is an international airport here, and I believe ferries from Malacca in addition to Langkawi.  There is a very long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

While sightseeing we walked everywhere.  If you wanted to visit the beaches (or stay at the beach and visit George Town), you would need to take a car or motorbike.

A taxi from our hotel in George Town to the airport at 6 am took 20 minutes and cost MYR 60.  The front desk said it usually takes 30-40 minutes and costs MYR 40.

The airport at Penang is quite nice, but at least Air Asia’s terminal in Kuala Lumpur (where we stopped en route to Chiang Mai) was much grimier.  Three hours free WiFi is available at each airport.

Accommodation: We stayed at Chulia Heritage Hotel in George Town’s UNESCO heritage district.  It was cheap and nice for the price at $40/night.  Options are abundant.  Other names we came across for George Town include the classic Eastern & Oriental, the heritage B&B at the restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and Muntri Mews.  There are several beach resorts in other parts of the island.

Food: We covered this pretty well above.  After all, it is arguably the main attraction. Various food tours are available, and that would probably be a good idea. Prices were not dirt cheap, but far cheaper than in most developed countries.  I think our meal at Tek Sen cost less than $20, including a Guiness foreign extra stout.  Breakfast at Aik Hoe was ~$7.  Most food stall meals cost $1-1.50.

Activities: Eating.  Beaches on other parts of the island.  Visiting Fort Cornwallis, temples, Khoo Kongsi (admission is 10 MYR each), the clan jetties, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansions (the tour costs 12 MYR each), etc.  There is also a funicular to the top of Penang Hill which probably affords nice views on a clear day.  Alan’s mom’s friend recommended going to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and asking for Joanne who gives city tours.

January 22-24, 2014 (Wednesday-Friday)