How to do Laundry on the Road

Where there are backpackers, there are laundry services. Across Southeast Asia, these are inexpensive- usually 50 cents to one dollar per kilogram- and quick, promising your clean, folded clothing back in your grubby hands within a day. Bob and I have used these services only once since we’ve been traveling. Although they’re convenient, a dollar a kilo adds up quickly (and it’s more expensive in other parts of the world, especially in industrialized countries.) For the same price, we can go down to just about any convenience store and buy a package of laundry powder, which can wash about 25 loads of clothes. For example: we bought a bag of laundry powder the day after we arrived in Indonesia- that’d be January 14th- and I just used the last of it today. The small savings are the ones that really count. Plus- and I know I am in the minority here- I like washing my clothes by hand. I can make sure the really dirty spots get clean, and the clothes don’t wear out as quickly.

On average, we do laundry every two to three days; that’s mostly because I’m carrying only three pairs of underwear. However, I try not to do laundry the night before leaving a city (the clothes may not have time to dry) so it varies. There’s another complication: nowadays, quite a few hostels and guesthouses forbid guests to do laundry in the sink. I understand where they’re coming from- hanging wet clothes in your room doesn’t look nice, doesn’t smell nice, and makes the room damp. And it means you’re not using their overpriced laundry service! However, if you wash your clothes properly, these problems can be avoided. They don’t forbid you from hanging towels, do they? A few extra items won’t make a difference.

Gather your supplies: a universal sink stopper, a drying line, washing powder, a towel, really strong forearms, and if you wish, inflatable hangers. Those things are really nifty- they help your clothes dry more quickly by allowing air to circulate and I’ve even heard of people using them as backrests on the airplane. If you’re brave enough, you could also use latex balloons, popping them afterward.

Sidenote: I accidentally left our sink stopper at the house of my friend Dave’s brother, so when I took these photos, we were without one. Luckily, in Indonesia and Malaysia, buckets are commonly found in bathrooms, filled with water for… wiping and flushing. They’re also perfect for a load of clothes. Don’t worry, I washed this one out before using.




1.  Fill the sink/bucket with water and add the washing powder. Don’t use too much; extra detergent doesn’t actually make your clothes cleaner.




2.  Add the clothes. I sort of pretend to be a washing machine and agitate the clothes in the water. I just make sure that all of them are soaking wet and then I squeeze them a lot. Then I leave them to soak for awhile, usually 15-20 minutes.





3.  Now that they’re done soaking it’s much easier to scrub the dirt off. I concentrate on the problem areas, especially the collars and underarms of shirts, and scrub by rubbing the fabric against itself. After scrubbing all of them, I rinse them in clean water, making sure all of the soap is out. If there’s still some soap left on the clothes, it will feel a little slippery.






4. Next step is wringing. This should be fairly self-explanatory. Bonus if you have a helper with extra-strong forearms.




5.  Take the wrung-out clothes and one by one, roll them up in a dry towel like a burrito. Then stomp on them. This gets some more moisture out (by transferring it to the towel. Hopefully you have a good place to hang this.) Finally, hang them to dry. Towel racks work, outdoor drying lines work, but most budget hotels and guesthouses don’t have those. So we carry our own drying line along with a carabiner, and exercise our creativity by finding a place to rig it up. Door frames, handles, bedposts, random nails sticking out of walls… they all work. Our line is braided,  so to hang the clothes, all we have to do is wedge a bit of fabric between the braids. DON’T get the kind with dinky little suction cups at the ends… do you think that’ll really stay up?

The kind with loops is much better.

Hopefully this takes a bit of the mystery out of our travel lifestyle. Go forth and do your own laundry!


Welcome to the Jungle

Malaysia was a repeat country for both of us. We’ve both visited Kuala Lumpur and Melaka before, so this time around we wanted to see something different. Bob chose Penang, I chose Taman Negara (literally “National Park,”) and both of us wanted to see the Perhentian Islands. The latter two are pretty touristy, but still rural.We’d seen the cities and were looking forward to seeing the Malaysian countryside.

This is the type of boat we took upriver to Taman Negara

Taman Negara is an interesting place. On one side of the Tahan river is the rainforest; on the other, a small village called Kampung Kuala Tahan (literally, Tahan River Village. Gotta love those Malaysian names.) The traditional activities in Taman Negara are hiking, camping, visiting indigenous settlements, or taking night treks to look for animals. The unfortunate part is that the rainforest is now almost completely surrounded by palm plantations, which detracts from the experience. In addition, there are now so many visitors that it’s tough to find any animals besides insects, leeches, and (on the palm plantations) house cats. It seemed to me like it was stuck at a crossroads: how to get more tourists to come but also maintain the environment that keeps tourists coming.


Rockin' in the treetops

The rainforest, when you’re in it, is still spectacular. We did the Canopy Walkway, which is basically just a rope bridge suspended 80 feet above the ground. I pretended to be a intrepid rainforest explorer, and imagined taking notes on all the wonderful new species I had discovered and would bring back to England. We saw the biggest ants I’ve ever seen, and also spotted a monitor lizard and a wild pig. On the same day, we took a night jeep tour to look for nocturnal animals. The most exciting part was that we got to ride on dirt roads on the roof of the jeep, holding on for dear life. Eventually I relaxed and enjoyed the ride, tensing up only when we went downhill. Only one person fell off the roof during the ride- and it was our guide. The only animals we saw were house cats, a pair of owls, some eyes which our guide claimed to be attached to various animals like civets or slow lorises, and a flying squirrel- which we saw “fly”- but on the whole, I didn’t think it was worth it.


Another popular jungle activity is spending the night in it. The parks department has constructed some three-story cabins for people to stay in- the first level is open, in case of flood and probably also to prevent animals from coming in. The second floor has toilets and showers and the third has bunk beds (it was quite nice, actually.) Our cabin also had a gigantic observation window looking out over a grassy meadow. We did see *something* but we’re honestly not sure what it was. We had flashlights but they weren’t strong enough to illuminate whatever animal it was. It was definitely something with four legs, not too big but not too small – maybe a deer or some kind of cat? I maintain I saw three shapes, Bob says there was definitely one but he’s not sure about the other two. A few Canadians we’d met in the village went to another hide and had even less luck than we did. The only animals they saw were rats, in the cabin with them. Apparently some previous visitors had been setting fires underneath the cabin, in the first floor open area, which scares away any wildlife for the next few months.

So maybe the wildlife experiences in Taman Negara were a bit lacking. No tigers, Asian rhinos, elephants, or tapirs. We did end up seeing elephants though- in the middle of the night. For anyone looking for wild elephants- I do not make any promises- try taking a night bus. We were on the road between Kota Bharu and Penang when the bus driver suddenly stopped. We were going downhill so I thought something was wrong. Luckily we were seated in the front row and I leaned out into the aisle to get a better view. There were ELEPHANTS- several of them- crossing the road. The other bus passengers started to stir and whisper among themselves. The bus driver flashed his lights several times, but the elephants just brayed at him and refused to move. We waited at least ten minutes for these elephants to make their way to the other side, but eventually one small one made a break for it while the others just ambled back the way they had come. I was finally able to count- there were seven of them!

The last place I expected to see elephants

For people who enjoy trekking, Taman Negara’s great, and spending the night *in* the jungle was scary, but fantastic. Listening to the “jungle orchestra” as we fell asleep was the highlight of our night in the forest. But it’s not akin to going on safari, and we didn’t like the idea of visiting the indigenous settlement (too much like a human zoo.) And there are definitely other places in Malaysia to spot wildlife (like in the middle of the road.)


Our favorite part of Taman Negara was the nightly music sessions at Riffi Hostel. As Sharif, the owner of the hostel, explained to us, “there’s nothing to do here, so we have to make our own fun.” That they do. Every night, several of Sharif’s friends come over, guitars in hand, and invite anyone to join them on the porch for a few songs. Maybe “invite” isn’t the best word… Sharif FORCES you to sing, while his friend Imran makes foreign girls dance with him (mostly involving standing up and waving your arms in the air) and curious onlookers pause to watch. It’s great fun.

Welcome to the Hotel California...

Bob can play guitar and neither of us are embarrassed to sing and dance in public, so we were a big hit. The guys told me I was “very sporting” for agreeing to wave my arms along with Imran. I even taught him the Swim. Visitors to Taman Negara should definitely consider stopping by this place, even if you aren’t staying there. But be sure to brush up on the lyrics to “Hotel California,””Zombie,” and “Buffalo Soldier” beforehand.

Overheard in: Penang

I try not to judge other travelers. I really do. But people are just so funny sometimes. There are some people who, for whatever reason, think that being a tourist gives them carte blanche to behave however they like. This is especially a problem in Asia. I think it’s because the culture is so different from Western culture, it’s intimidating and scary and weird, so people don’t even try to abide by local rules. Just look at the number of Western women wearing low-cut tank tops, or Western guys without their shirts on. (Locals definitely don’t dress like that.) And don’t even get me started on public displays of affection. There are a lot of travelers behaving badly out there.

Another issue is the language barrier. English is the lingua franca around this region, but it’s very appreciated if you can learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. I know that it’s not very efficient to try to learn a foreign language if you’re only going to be spending a week or two in a foreign country. Even though we’re now been through Indonesian, Malaysia, and Thailand, I know only a handful of words in Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, and Thai. When good tourism infrastructure exists in a country, you can be sure you’ll also find English speakers. Speaking Thai would allow me to have more conversations with local people, and allow us to get off the beaten path, but I’ve decided instead to focus my energy on learning some Mandarin. I can’t learn every language in the world, and neither can anyone else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

That being said, I just have one plea to travelers reading this: when talking to someone whose English is not that great, speak a little more slowly, clearly, and use small words! Don’t insult their intelligence, but if you can use simpler words, DO. Also, be as specific as possible. And don’t take it for granted that locals can understand every word you say. You are not in America/ Australia/ England, you are in Asia. Finally, engage your listening skills. The local accent may be hard to understand at first, but if you try, you’ll probably be able to understand.

The following is an exchange I overheard at Khoo Kongsi (a Chinese clan house) in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia; between an older male British tourist and a security guard.

Khoo Kongsi (Khoo Clan House)

British tourist: How old is this building?

Security guard: 105 years old. It was built in 1906.

BT: Was it ever anywhere else first?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: Is it new, here?

SG: No, not new.

BT: So it was somewhere in China and then brought here? It’s older, isn’t it?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: It was somewhere else, in China, and they took it apart, and brought it here, and put it together… piece by piece… like a puzzle. They took it from China and brought it here? It looks older.

SG: No, no! It was built here, in 1906.

BT: So it’s new.

SG: (sighing) It’s new.

BT: Oh. (disappointed) I thought it was older.

The poor security guard. I think I saw her roll her eyes as the man walked away.