Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Family Trip Tips: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia with Kids

Ta Prohm
The kids explore Ta Prohm - The Tomb Raider temple

Siem Reap, Cambodia is #9 on TripAdvisor's 2014 Travelers' Choice Destinations in the World. Planning our trip was easy since so many expat families in Penang visit there that I could pick up a ton of suggestions while hanging out at the school playground. Knowing that many friends had successful family trips to Angkor Wat and surrounding attractions appeased any worries I had about taking the kids to such an exotic location in a developing country. In case if you don't have a cadre of travelers to Cambodia available to you, here are their ideas.

Visiting Temples

Exploring the ruins of religious temples are the main draw for visiting Siem Reap. My teen recommends you take your kids to Angkor Wat first while they are still excited about visiting temples. (Learn from my mistake. We visited Angkor Wat last, and my son says he was bored by that point of seeing another temple even though it was supposed to be the best one. In his words, "Mom took us to see an impressive, large, ancient, temple ruin filled with exquisite stone carvings... and then, she took us to see five more.")

Siem Reap, temple ruins, Cambodia
Despite finally arriving at Angkor Wat, all my girl's attention is on a clam shell she found.

Beng Mealea is my kids' favorite temple to explore by far. It got rave reviews from other families, too. This temple has a real Indiana Jones feel to it because it has not been restored. Parts of the temple are still standing but are interspersed with piles of fallen stone blocks, and a web of tree roots are intertwined throughout the structure. The best part is climbing all over it. We ducked through the maze of corridors, scrambled over the heaps of blocks and swung from tree branches. It was like a giant, ancient playground. If you have little ones in your group that are not agile or you are carrying a baby, wooden walkways also go throughout the complex for an easier route. Located 90 minutes outside of Siem Reap, I highly recommend hiring an air-conditioned car ($US70/day for a van) for this excursion.

Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia, temple ruins
Swinging on tree roots in a collapsed corridor.
Beng Mealea felt like a 900-year old playground to my kids.

Other popular ruins to explore with kids are the South Gate of Angkor Thom (the one with the statues), Bayon Temple (the one with the serene faces), Baphuon (the world's largest jigsaw puzzle), Ta Prohm (the one from Tomb Raider) and Banteay Srei (the one with the best carvings).

Other tips for visiting temples:
  • Heat and humidity killed off a lot of youthful enthusiasm. Get an early start, wear hats, keep everyone hydrated, and drape a wet, wrung-out scarf or bandanna around the neck to stay cool. (If we had made a home movie, it would be called Angkor Temples and the Search for Shade.)
  • The temples are not stroller-friendly, so don't bother bringing one. If you leave yours in the tuk-tuk, make sure you get back into the same tuk-tuk.
  • If you accidentally lose your stroller by getting in the wrong tuk-tuk, ask your hotel to direct you to one of the 2 stores in Siem Reap that sells them.
  • One option for families with young children is to only visit a few temples with everyone. Then, parents take turns spending a few hours at the hotel with the children napping or swimming while the other goes out to touring.
  • Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, and Ta Prohm are 10-15 minutes from Siem Reap's city centre, and are ideal for the parent-swap plan above. They are easily reached on a tuk-tuk, although we hired a car (US$50/day for a van) because we love air-conditioning and the chilled water they kept for us. 
  • Children under 12 years old do not pay admission. Bring a copy of your child's passport if you think their age will be questioned. At a few temples, we had to show my tall, 11-year-old son's passport since he did not have a paid ticket. 
  • Access to the top level of Angkor Wat is only permitted for people with paid tickets. Children under 12 years old may not go up. Once your place in line reaches the bottom of the stairs, it only takes 15 minutes. Leave your kids with your hired guide if you feel comfortable or take turns with the other parent.
  • Banteay Srei is about 40 minutes from Siem Reap and costs US$60/day for a van. The Landmine Museum and Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre are along the way.
  • Wear mosquito spray to avoid getting dengue or malaria (not a big enough risk to take meds).
  • In case if you are worried about land mines, thousands of visitors have gone through the popular complexes, so it is not a problem.
Siem Reap, temple ruins, Cambodia

The Villages on Stilts above Tonle Sap Lake

Visit Tonle Sap lake on a VIP tour with Hidden CambodiaAccording to my friend, "This freshwater marvel expands and contracts annually based on the seasons; during wet season, water levels rise to within a meter of the house floors but recede greatly during dry season. Our tour guide led us to his own village of Kampong Khleang (even pointing out the house he grew up in and bringing gifts to his mother) and led us on a boat ride down the canal leading to the lake. Along the way, we saw many local fishermen, stopped to witness the fish smoking process, and had lunch in a stilted house. We were also blessed to visit a local school and hand out supplies, though we weren't prepared for the number of children there were. We donated water filters (purchased from the tour company) to some very poor families."

You can also visit Tonle Sap lake on your own or with a private guide for a few hours paired with a visit to Beng Melea or Banteay Srei. Doing it this way got mixed reviews from my friends as there seems to be "right" and "wrong" villages to visit based on how crowded they were with tourists. One friend enjoyed the boat traffic jam because villagers liked her cute kids and let them take shortcuts through their homes. Another friend with a baby and young child cut their boat excursion short as the kids lost interest quickly, didn't want to sit down in the boat, and were overwhelmed by the loud motor and smell of gasoline.

Other Activities

Quad Adventure Cambodia lets you explore the countryside on quad bikes. My friends enjoyed seeing villages, rice paddies, and water buffaloes while following their guide for a couple hours. Kids ride on the back of a parent or instructor's bike. 

Do volunteer work and experience the hardships of local life through a "Day in the Life" tour with Beyond Unique Escapes in partnership with Husk Cambodia. Y.O.L.O.! Mom on the Go... assisted a family in weaving together bamboo and palm leaves to patch their leaking roof after riding there in an ox-cart. Afterwards, they cooked lunch with another family, walked through the village, and helped out with a community sewing project of handicrafts that would later be sold. The family from Four Over the Edge assisted a woman in harvesting her rice by hand, and it gave them an incredible appreciation of how difficult it is to toil in the fields.

Watch artisans practice their craft at Artisans d'Angkor. This organization promotes the revival of the traditional handicrafts that the Khmer Rouge tried to eliminate in their effort to stamp out Cambodian culture. They train people from rural villages in various traditional Khmer arts like silkscreening, painting, metalwork, and carving wood and stone. These artisans then return to their villages to teach others how to produce handicrafts that can be sold. Walk through each room to observe them working and then purchase souvenirs from the gift shop. The gift shop is of limited interest to children other than food and a very small selection of wooden puzzles.

Cambodian handicraft
Artisans d'Angkor

Discover how silk is made at the Angkor Silk Farm, located 20 minutes from Siem Reap. Learn about the process from cultivating mulberry bushes that feed the silkworms to cocoon unwinding, thread preparation, and silk weaving.

Swim in the hotel pool. This was a favorite way for multiple families to cool off and have a bit of relaxation during their vacation.


Siem Reap has a booming tourism industry and has family-friendly hotels across all price points from luxury resorts to budget hostels. If you're worried about accommodations being too rustic, have no fear. Each of the hotels below were personally recommended to me by multiple families.

Sokha Angkor was one of those fantastic, "I can only afford this luxury because I'm in Cambodia" type of resorts. We booked 2 adjoining rooms for our family and required an extra bed for the 3rd kid. The salt-water pool cooled us off in the afternoons, and the cheap foot massages in the lobby were a great way to recover after hours climbing around ruins. Full-service spa is also on-site. A huge breakfast buffet with made-to-order egg and noodle stations is included in your stay.
Ranked 4.5 stars on Expedia; US$98 per room for early June 2014

Siem Reap, Cambodia, hotel
Salt water pool at the Sokha Angkor Resort

Chateau d'Angkor La Residence has large 2-bedroom suites with a seating area that was perfect for large families. The washing machine and kitchen were convenient ammenities, and the children enjoyed the pool. Includes breakfast.
Ranked 3.5 stars on Expedia; $93 for a 2-bedroom suite in early June 2014

Tanei Guesthouse is a budget-friendly option with a good location recommended by round-the-world traveling friends. The Family Room sleeps 4 people, and children under 12 years old stay free with existing bedding. Extra beds are US$5 nightly. Includes breakfast and hotel transfers. A pool and bicycles are available.
Ranked 2 stars on Agoda; US$46-54 per night for Family room 

Where to Eat

Are you worried about what your kids will eat in Siem Reap? Most restaurants had something for everyone by offering both dishes familiar to Western kids as well as traditional Cambodian dishes (similar to Thai food but not as spicy). Make sure you try Amok, a delicious coconut curry with fish chunks. Stay hydrated with bottled water or fresh coconut juice, although sodas (you cannot escape from the reach of Coca-Cola) and Angkor Beer are other choices.

Jungle Junction is one of the most family-friendly restaurants I have been to in the world. We ate there with a few other families, and the combined total of 8 kids entertained themselves leaving the adults to visit in peace over a loooong dinner. When was the last time that happened to you at a restaurant? The trampoline, outdoor playscape, inflatable bounce house, indoor playscape with slides and ball pit, billiard table, and movie/karaoke room kept the kids occupied for hours. The food was fine and included Western dishes like burgers, salads, and ribs as well as Asian and Khmer cuisine. They also serve liquor. Your kids may ask to go there every day.
Open 8AM-11PM; Located on Makara Street/High School Road, 300 meters past University of Southeast Asia/Mekong University and Angkor High School.

Blue Pumpkin is a delightful little patisserie and cafe. The kids had sandwiches and pasta. I dined on Grilled Eggplant with Minced Pork while sipping Mexican Coffee. The Amok Ravioli sounded like an intriguing East-meets-West fusion dish. Save room for dessert and ice cream! We enjoyed the lounge-like Cool Room (air-conditioned) upstairs and the free Wi-Fi at the Hospital Street location. Comfy daybeds lined one side of the room, and I'm sure that we would have never awoken my teen if we had snagged a table next to them. In addition to their full cafes in central Siem Reap, they also have outlets at Artisans d'Angkor, at the Angkor Cafe opposite the west entrance of Angkor Wat, and the airport.
Open for breakfast until late at night. Hours vary by location.

Rumduol Angkor across from the northern side of Srah Srang (Srang Reservoir) near Ta Prohm served up excellent Khmer and Western food. You can sit on the covered deck overlooking Srah Srang or in the air-conditioned VIP room. Go amok (coconut curry fish stew) when you order. It's really tasty here.

Cambodia, food, coconut curry fish stew
Amok - One of Cambodia's famous dishes

Independent Travel

Most of my friends book their own flights into Siem Reap and their own hotel rooms. Hiring a guide (US$25-35 per day) was easy by setting it up via email prior to arrival. Those with a professional license or certificate from the Tourism Ministry have been trained in providing you with an abundance of information in your native language. I found hiring a guide to be a good way of injecting money into this impoverished nation as well as allowing me to keep one eye on the kids and one eye on the ruins instead of trying to read about it from a book. Plus, they know good vantage points for photography. Ours met us at the airport and provided translation throughout our visit.
We hired Lach Baley (lachbaley2011 at gmail.com) who speaks both English and Spanish. 
Other recommended guides are Thy Khieu (thyangkor at yahoo.com) and Ing (chandarkh at yahoo.com)

Guides can also arrange a driver with air-conditioned car (US$50-70 per day depending on distance) to take you around touring. Numerous cheap tuk-tuks are available for transportation at hotels, tourist areas, restaurants, and the airport. Tuk-tuks can comfortably seat 4 people, but you can squeeze in more if your kids don't attempt to push out a sibling. Conventional taxis are not available.

Please be sure to tip your guide and driver as they do not keep 100% of the money earned.

Cambodia, Siem Reap, transportation
Tuk-tuk taxi - The cheap way to travel


I give thumbs up to the toilets in Siem Reap, probably because I stayed firmly in the tourist zone. Clean, Western-style toilets were available at the temples and restaurants. The floors were dry (unlike Malaysia), and toilet paper was available in the stall (once again, unlike Malaysia).

How Long to Visit

Most people stay in Siem Reap for at least 3-4 days. A visit to Cambodia is often paired with a trip to Hanoi and Hoi An, Vietnam in order to round out a week. Hopping over to Bangkok is another option.

Arrival and Departure

The Siem Reap Airport is conveniently located only 15 minutes from the city center. You need at least 6 months validity on your passport. Bring along US$20 and a passport photo to get a Tourist Visa on Arrival, although citizens from many ASEAN countries are exempt. Save time but spend an extra $5 by doing it online at the Kingdom of Cambodia's E-visa website. Processing time is 3 days. Departure tax from the airport is US$25 for international flights and US$6 for flights to Phomh Penh.

Air Asia is the fastest and cheapest flight from Malaysia to Siem Reap. The 2-hour flight leaves from Kuala Lumpur's LCCT at 6:50AM, so you may need to travel to KL the previous night. I recommend Tune Hotel or Concorde Inn by the KL airport for your overnight stay.


Although the Cambodian Riel is the official currency, the American dollar is what's primarily used. It was so strange seeing prices marked in US$ throughout our trip. Change less than US$1 is typically given in Riel notes. Numerous ATMs are available and dispense American money. Try to bring small bills up to $20 if possible as larger notes may be difficult for them to break.  

Taking the kids to Angkor Wat and Siem Reap is an excellent and easy family adventure. Are you dreaming of going?

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chiang Mai's Golden Temple on the Hill

Wat Phra That is the crown jewel of Chiang Mai's temples. Perched high above the city on the summit of Doi Suthep mountain, most tourists refer to is as "Wat Doi Suthep." Its signature golden spire and filigree umbrellas glitter in the sunlight, and the surrounding temple complex is filled with gorgeous, intricate Lanna art and architecture.

Chiang Mai, Golden temple

How it all began

Legend has it that in 1383 a monk from Sukothai instructed Lanna King Keu Naone to take a piece of Buddha's shoulder bone and establish a temple. What's the best way to choose the location? Mount the relic to the top of a sacred white elephant and let it pick the place. (I should try this method the next time my kids argue about where to have dinner.) The elephant crashed around the jungle, climbed up Doi Suthep, and trumpeted three times before falling down dead at the top of mountain. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep stands upon that very spot today.

Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, white elephant, temple, Chiang Mai
Mural in the museum depicting the story of how Wat Phra That Doi Suthep began

Keeping the Kids Happy

Since we were visiting in April, the hottest time of the year, I was determined to kick off our visit with the kids on a good note. We paid to take the tram up to the temple, thereby skipping the climb up 306 steps. If you take the Naga Serpent Staircase, be sure to stop plenty of times to "meditate" (a.k.a. catch your breath). As this was our second stop of the day, I bribed cooled down the kids with ice cream bars from the snack store at the top (just past the white elephant statue). Once we were rested and fed, off we went to explore the complex.

Strolling around the Lower Level

We walked clockwise around the lower level of the temple, marveling at the Lanna architecture with its gilded ornamentation. So much beauty surrounded us that buildings I would normally consider magnificent did not attract the crowd's attention at all.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Everyone seemed to be ignoring this Bhote where ordination services and prayers take place.
Too much other stuff to see?

Rows of bells lined the walls of the lower level. Some were big, and some were tiny. Buddhists believe that good luck will come to the those who strike these bells. However, there were "Do Not Hit Bells" signs all over the place. No good luck for those who follow rules written in English, perhaps? Let me tell you, there's nothing like showing kids a hundred bells and them telling them not to touch them. Not being driven away by a cacophony of reverberating bells, I was able to visually enjoy the exquisite details on these instruments.

Chiang Mai, temple
So many bells, so little sound

An expansive view looking down at Chiang Mai in the valley below greets you at the back of the lower level. At least, that's what I'm told. I couldn't see anything through the haze of the dry, burn season. Ugh.

My kids were especially amused by the signs for the monsters guarding a wooden Wiharn that housed a large Buddha statue. These fierce guardian statues are the mythical Lanna garden beasts called "Dtuwamaum" or "Mom" for short.

Chiang Mai, Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep, temple
Don't make me go all "Mom" on you!

Living quarters and a school for monks are located in the buildings behind the Wiharn guarded by Mom.

Coming around full circle, we found ourselves at the small staircase leading up to the main level. You can tell that you have reached it by the huge collection of shoes on the ground. Yes, you must take off your shoes before going up.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Cultural performance by the stairs leading up to the main level.

The Main Level is the place to be

While the crowd on the lower level was relatively sparse, the main level is where most of the action is. Devotees and tourists were everywhere. When I saw ALL THAT GOLD, I understood why so many people put it on the "Must See" list for Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Standing Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, and gold everywhere you looked.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most sacred sites as well as the home for the International Buddhist Centre. Monks and lay people made a circuit around the main level, praying as they stopped at key points along the way. The tourists were clearly identifiable by either being the ones snapping photos or awkwardly attempting to imitate the actions of the devout.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A monk blocks out distractions to offer a prayer

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A man pours water over the chedi as a way to symbolize cleansing the spirit.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Pausing the monk chat to take a phone call

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
An copy of the Emerald buddha located in Bangkok adds to the splendor. 

The covered terrace around the main level has 47 wall paintings depicting the lives of Buddha as well as his past lives before attaining Nirvana. My kids liked this area the best as it was shaded and the tile here did not burn their bare feet.

The big, golden chedi in the middle is bell-shaped which is unique to Lanna style. Tall, gilded filigree umbrellas stand at each corner, and devotees walk around the chedi in prayer. This is the most important part of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep because it contains the Holy Relic of Buddha.

The  main chedi contains the Holy Relic.
It is topped by a 5-tier umbrella in honor of Chiang Mai's independence from Burma and union with Thailand. 

I paused to take in one final look at this temple that began with an elephant who went for a walk over 600 years ago. Then, we turned, quietly walked down the stairs and began to search for our shoes.


  • Allot about 1 hour to explore the wat.
  • Located 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Chiang Mai up a twisty road, my family appreciated hiring an air-conditioned van from the hotel for the 30-minute drive each way. Cheaper options are tuk-tuks and songtows. Every driver should know the way.
  • The tram from the parking lot to the temple complex costs 30 baht one-way and 50 baht round-trip for foreigners. 
  • Dress appropriately. No tank tops or short hemlines, please. Sarongs and scarves are available to rent outside the main temple complex.
  • Bring socks. You must remove your shoes to enter the main temple, and the tiles get HOT in the mid-day sun.
  • If traveling with kids, pair this with a visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo on the way back to the city centre.
  • I recommend skipping the Hill Tribe village on Doi Suthep. It was primarily market stalls with the same souvenir products available at the Chiang Mai Night Market and a few villagers dressed in traditional clothing for photo opportunities. Baan Tong Luang north of Chiang Mai is a much better option for experiencing hill tribe culture.
  • Drinks and snacks are available both down by the parking lot and within the temple complex.
  • An ATM is located by the tram ticket office.
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Who's the Fairest of them All?

Sunny beaches and tropical breezes. That's Penang for you. For most Westerners, one of the best souvenirs of a stay on the island is a bronze glow, a golden tan, and the potential for skin cancer. Not so for the locals. In Malaysia, as well as much of Asia, being fair and white is the preferred complexion.

It's as if a culture's beauty standards purposely mess with people's minds by idealizing the hardest attribute to attain. Most Malays and Indians have medium to dark skin. Beauty ads here tempt them to make it fairer. Most white people are...well... white. The beauty ideal for them in the West is tan.

I first noticed the difference in standards when I went to Tesco to buy lotion.

Healthy White with Triple Lightening!

The majority of the lotions available in Malaysia have skin lightening chemicals in them. This Vaseline brand even offers triple lightening... whatever that means.

Compare this to the USA where celebrities like the entire cast of Dancing with the Stars gets a strangely orange spray tan to mimic the sun's effect on the skin. Regular folks in search of a golden bronze use artificial tanning lotions instead. The only place where I've ever seen some available in Penang is at Sephora. There is definitely not very much demand here.

In the USA, artificial tanner is the way to get Sun-kissed Radiance without increasing your skin cancer odds.

Personally, I'm happy with my skin color just the way it is. I've never been one to go for bronzer in the USA, and I didn't want to start using lighteners in Asia. My Chinese grandmother, on the other hand, wished that I was fairer and had plans to fatten me up, thereby stretching out my skin to lighten it up.

I'm sure that the Malaysians that see this poster at the pharmacy realize that the model is naturally white.
Her fair complexion has nothing to do with Whitegen.

Of course, the face is the first thing that people notice, so that is where you really need to concentrate on "fixing" your color.

In the USA, you don't want to be sickly pale. You want a "healthy glow."

In Malaysia, this product doesn't only make you fair, it makes you pinkish fair.
Keep in mind that most people here have a yellowish undertone to their skin.

It's been hard for me to find inexpensive moisturizers at the pharmacy that don't claim to have a lightening agent in it. I recently bought a product for my extremely pale hubby that came with a bonus whitening face scrub. He was wondering how much whiter he could actually get.

Asia or the USA? I bet you can guess where these are sold.

People can even whiten their underarms.

Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Who's the fairest of them all.

The Evil Queen in Snow White should have just skipped the poison apple plan and headed to a Malaysian pharmacy for lotion instead.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Chiang Mai Sunday Market

Another Spring Break is upon me, and I have yet to finish telling you about last year's Spring Break in Chiang Mai, Thailand... or even Spring Break from 2 years ago in Japan. I'm wondering where next year's Spring Break will find me.

The very first thing we did in Chiang Mai was the Sunday Market to get a feel for the town. We hopped in a songtow and took a ride to the Old City which is surrounded by a fortified wall.  Granted, the busy Starbucks where the driver dropped us off didn't really scream "exotic Southeast Asia," but once we crossed Tha Phae Gate, the feeling of I-could-be-anywhere dropped away, and the ambiance of Chiang Mai wrapped itself around us.

Chiang Mai Old City
Looking out at the New City through Tha Phae Gate

As the name implies the Sunday Market occurs on Sunday. The stalls stretch down Ratchadamnoen Street which is closed to vehicular traffic, making it a great place for me to browse without worrying that my kids would stray in front of a car or scooter. I was tempted to start snapping up souvenir handicrafts but made myself walk all the way down to see all my choices before I pulled out my wallet. 

Chiang Mai, Old City
Handicrafts at the Sunday Market

Haggling is expected at the Sunday Market, as is the case with most places in Thailand. I am a horrible haggler. Hubby says I remind him of Monty Python's Life of Brian. My friends tell me that your first offer should be 60% off the asking price, and then you should finally end up at about 30% off after negotiations. I usually believe the seller's story that his dear wife worked her fingers off embroidering the lovely purse I'm holding in my hand and pay the full amount. 

The Sunday Market is also a great place to find cheap eats, although to be honest, all of Chiang Mai seems to be overflowing with good and inexpensive meals. You can buy something to nosh on from a stall or duck into one of the brick-and-mortar restaurants lining the street.

Chiang Mai, Sunday Market, Old City
Pick out what you want, and she'll grill it right up for you.

Chiang Mai, Sunday Market, Old City
Care for some snacks? 

Performers add more liveliness to the market. There's everything from the traditional...

Chiang Mai, Sunday Market, Old City
Traditional Music at the Sunday Market

to the more modern performances which I'm going to have to admit drew a much larger crowd.

Chiang Mai, Sunday Market, Old City
At least 100 people were watching this lady on stage

Do you like to visit markets to get a feel for a city?

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Rat the Size of a Toddler and other Australian Animal Lessons

I had really meant to bring the kids to a zoo much earlier in our visit to Australia. As it was, we never got around to it until our very last full day when we found ourselves with some time to spare before our flight-that-wasn't-to-beKangaroo Island Wildlife Park (called the Parndana Wildlife Park at the time of our visit in January 2013) seemed like the perfect place to check off one final item on our Australian Wish List.

And what a visit it was! It was highly educational. Here are some of my favorite photos.

Lesson 1: Is that a rat the size of a toddler?

Kangaroo Island, Australia
What a gigantic white rat! Or is it?

This is my favorite photo from the park. It looks like a gigantic white rat and brings to mind The Princess Bride's ROUSs (Rodents of Unusual Size). No photo trickery is involved. Seriously. Lab experiment gone awry? Actually, it's an albino Eastern Grey Kangaroo.

Lesson 2: How to identify a Cassowary

When we were in Queensland, we came across a sign warning us about what to do should we encounter a cassowary.

Sounds like a fierce creature, doesn't it? We luckily never came across one in the wild, but saw one at this park, safely ensconced on the other side of a fence. I don't think there's any way to mistake its distinctive head coloring. Can you tell how big it is? I'd say its beak is right about jugular height on me.

Kangaroo Island, Australia
A highly dangerous cassowary

Lesson 3: Don't mess with kangaroos.

My boy was getting a bit chilled. Being the practical, wilderness-savvy mom that I am, I suggested he warm his hands on the kangaroo. Use what's around you, right?

A warm kangaroo to cozy up with

It turns out that the kangaroo wasn't too keen on this idea. My son crouched down behind the kangaroo with his hands on its back. Next thing we knew, the kangaroo whipped around and punched him in the face. It wasn't a TKO, but we definitely won't be messing with any kangaroos in the future. 

Lesson 4: Real life versions of a game character look nothing like the animated one.

My boys like the Sonic the Hedgehog game which has Knuckles the Echidna as one of the characters.

Knuckles the Echidna

Kangaroo Island, Australia
An actual echidna

They are as different at night and day. No spiky white gloves. No multi-colored shoes with weird LEGO blocks on top. Different. 

Lesson 5: Kangaroos do not have 3 legs.

Kangaroo Island, Australia, joey, pouch
Count the legs, 1-2-3

This kangaroo definitely made us pause for a closer look. Um, how many legs does it have? 1-2-3? Three??!! After a moment, I realized it was a baby joey that dove into its mama's pouch head first leaving one lone leg sticking out.


  • There are are plenty of other animals at the park -- kookaburras, koalas, pythons, crocodiles, emus, etc. Most of them are less freaky than the ones pictured above. 
  • Plan on 1 hour to mosey around and feed the animals. 
  • Tip: Do not use the kangaroos as hand warmers... or try to climb into their pouch.
  • Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park is located on the Playford Highway between Parndana and Stokes Road
  • Open daily 9AM-5PM; 10AM-3PM on Christmas Day
  • Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for concession, and $8 for children
  • Family admission (2 adults and up to 3 children) is $45
  • Coffee and light refreshments available in the gift shop but a small cafe is in the works
  • Website: www.kiwildlifepark.com 

Related Kangaroo Island Posts:

Kangaroo Island's Koala Walk
It's the Great Penguin, Charlie Brown
Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Prayers of Hope for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Normally, I post some fantastic travel story on Thursdays, or I show you a little more about Malaysia where I now live. Many people in the USA where I am from are unfamiliar with Malaysia, and it's been a bit of a mission for me to educate the world about what Malaysia is like. Now, Malaysia is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and I can't bring myself to write a jolly post for the week.

As I'm sure you know, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on Saturday night during a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Five days later, no trace of the plane has been found. My last few travel posts have been about my own family's trip from Malaysia to Beijing last October, albeit on a different airline. I can't help identifying with the passengers on that plane. I'm sure that the same question has crossed other travelers minds. What if I had been on that flight?

Beijing, China
Memories of our own trip from Malaysia to Beijing

I remember when my parents were visiting Europe and scheduled to fly home on September 12, 2001. I got the days mixed up and thought that they were flying home on September 11. When the attacks on the World Trade Center began, I vividly remember calling their phone in Texas and leaving a frantic message on the answering machine. "Are you home? Did you get home? Do not get on a plane!" They probably couldn't understand me; I was so hysterical. What if my family or friends were on a missing flight?

Wednesday night's update in a string of sometimes confusing and contradicting reports indicate that an unidentified blip was caught on military radar 200 km northwest of Penang at roughly the time that MH 370 disappeared. Could it be the missing aircraft? Did it turn back towards Kuala Lumpur? The search area has expanded from the east coast of Malaysia over the the west coast and the Andaman Sea that surrounds Penang. No, I have not seen any search planes or boats. Penang is in a heavy shipping lane and populated enough that someone would have noticed if the plane went down within sight of the island, so the rescuers are focusing on the vast expanse of water instead. Still, I cannot help looking out my windows to the Straits of Malacca spread out before me in hopes of spotting something   a life raft, fragments, or, God willing, the whole entire plane floating by.

Looking out from Penang towards the mainland
Looking out at the Straits of Malacca, waiting and searching

There has been an outpouring of support from the people of Malaysia. Radio stations broadcast people's phoned-in messages of hope for the missing plane between songs. A local mall is holding a paper crane origami event on Thursday and Friday. They aim to offer up 5000 cranes, 5000 wishes, and 5000 prayers for the 239 passengers and crew members. University students stood near the flight path of planes taking off from Penang International Airport holding up signs that proclaimed, "Pray for MH370."

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, pilot of the missing flight, attended Penang Free School. Over a thousand teachers and students there gathered to pray. The Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs went off to separate areas in the school to supplicate their respective god(s) for the plane's safe return.

As is typical in this day and age, people expect total transparency and updates on the search and rescue efforts. News updates are given over the local radio every 30 minutes. The New Straits Times website adds multiple new articles an hour with all the latest information. Sometimes it's about area fishermen pledging to do everything they can to help with the search and rescue mission. A group found a badly damaged life raft floating 10 nautical miles from Port Dickson on the west coast of Malaysia on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it sank while being transferred on board the boat operated by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Other times, it's about family members of the missing losing control of their emotions and giving in to grief and despair.

The locals I know are upset about how the government seems to be bungling the search and rescue operation. They had hoped that this emergency would give Malaysia a chance to shine and demonstrate its capabilities in the world. Instead, they've come up with nothing. The Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's House of Representatives) has gone from observing a moment of silence in honor of the missing flight to members of the opposition party accusing officials of mishandling the incident and calling for the Prime Minister and Acting Transport Minister to present themselves to the next day's session to provide an explanation.

In the end, what everyone wants to find out is where is the plane. We hope that somehow the passengers and crew are safe. That six days out, this story will have a happy ending. That's what I'm praying for.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Great Wall of China Toboggan Ride

Whenever my kids go to one of those upscale ice cream shoppes, their eyes grow wide, and they start asking for everything. What starts out as a simple outing to get a scoop of ice cream turns into a Bambi-eyes request for the ice cream and the mix-in and some hot fudge sauce on top.

On the Great Wall

That's kind of what our visit to the Great Wall of China turned out like. For many folks, visiting the Great Wall is a bucket list travel aspiration. Just getting to the Great Wall is enough. But thanks to my kids' circle of well-traveled classmates, they knew that the Great Wall had more to offer. There was no need for me to go online to figure out ways to make the excursion exciting for children. Asking around on the playground was enough. One activity kept coming up over and over again.

Slide down from the top of the wall on the toboggan run. 

Mutianyu, slide system, luge
Oh yeah, a visit to a Wonder of the World and a toboggan ride

What's up next? Water slides down the Pyramids of Giza?

How about getting up to the top? In all my Great Wall daydreams, I am already standing on the wall. I never considered how I would actually arrive there. Should we walk up? Goodness sakes, no way! 

Ride up on the cable car or chair lift.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu, gondola
Enclosed Cable Cars from the parking lot to the top 

So, this little bucket list item turned out to be visit the Great Wall and go up on a chair lift and ride a toboggan down. Can you see why the kids were excited? It's as if we went into that ice cream shoppe and said triple scoops, mix-ins, fudge sauce, and chocolate-dipped waffle cones for everyone.

Visiting the Mutianyu Section

We drive about 1.5 hours from Beijing to reach the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This 2.3 km stretch is the longest restored section of the wall, and everything I read indicates that it's less crowded than the other sections closer to Beijing that are open to tourists. A tamped earth wall was built here in the sixth century, but it was upgraded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) to a granite fortification with 22 watch towers spread out approximately every 100 meters.

As we pull into the car park, I gaze upwards at the wall snaking its way across the mountain pass about 100 meters above us. To get to the ticket office, we walk through souvenir stalls selling all sorts of Chinese memorabilia including the "I climbed the Great Wall of China" T-shirt that I buy my daughter at the end of our visit. (A week later, I regret not washing this black shirt separately from the rest of the laundry as I pull out a load of now-grey clothes from my washing machine.) 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Souvenir stalls

At the bottom, we have three choices for getting up to the wall.
  • Walk up the footpath with 4000+ steps for 30-40 minutes
  • Ride the enclosed cable car up to Tower 14 with option for return ticket down
  • Ride the chair lift up to Tower 6 which includes toboggan ride down
Tip: The cable car and the chair lift are operated by different companies. If you plan on going up on one and returning to the bottom on another, buy both tickets before heading up to the wall.

Going to the Top

We decide on the chair lift and hop on. During the 10 minute ride upwards, I look around taking in the view. The surrounding mountains cloaked with autumn colors on this late-October afternoon are a sight to behold. After the bustling crowds of congested Beijing, Mutianyu is relaxing and literally a breath of fresh air.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Riding on the Chair Lift

Finally, we are on top of the wall. Jump for joy! This Great Wall moment is one of the reasons why I desperately wanted to visit China and was willing to go through all the hassle of applying for a visa... and getting rejected, reapplying, and paying the ridiculous rush fee despite having turned in the paperwork weeks beforehand.

Walking on the Wall

While the restored Mutianyu section of the Great Wall has a mostly smooth walking surface, there are still stair steps as it follows the ridgeline up and down. Lots and lots of steps. Merely getting from Tower 19 to Tower 20 involves 450 steps. In other words, don't bother bringing a stroller for your little one. 

The Great Wall stretches far into the distance

Here, the Great Wall stands 7-8 meters tall and is 4-5 meters wide. This width supposedly enabled a large number of troops and messengers to pass through the route, but I'm thinking that the steps and the narrow doorways of the towers probably served as bottlenecks. This section is unusual in that it has crenelations on both the inner and outer walls, allowing soldiers to fire on the enemy who were approaching as well as those who had breached the wall.

The end of October turns out to be a beautiful time of year to visit. The crowds from Golden Week earlier in the month are gone, and the trees are changing colors. Perhaps being a soldier stationed on the wall was not so bad if you got to stare at this all day.

The view looking north east from the wall

The summertime is reputedly hot and more crowded with foreign tourist. My son's friend walked the wall one winter and declared it "the coldest he's ever been." One of my mama friends visited in late March and was surprised to encounter snow. While her older kids enjoyed the sight of their first snowfall (and the younger one cried about freezing toes), they were disappointed to discover that the toboggan run closes when it's snowing, raining, or for other bad weather conditions. 

Great Wall of China
Mountains start to fade away

I rein in my teen boy while we are up there. Faced with all this expansive scenery and the top of the Great Wall stretching out before him, all he wants to do is run. He longs to go up and down steps from tower to tower as fast as he can. Instead, he has to make do with going no more than one tower ahead and waiting while the rest of us caught up. Poor guy, because this mama is quite slow, stopping to take photos every few steps.

Exploring Watch Towers

Tower 5 of the Mutianyu section has a covered 2nd story

Most of the watchtowers are a single story with stairs leading up to the open rooftop. Tower 5 is unusual in that the 2nd floor is also covered. Back when the Great Wall was still in use as a defense system, lookout guards were stationed on the towers. If they spotted attackers approaching, they lit a signal fire on the roof to warn the surrounding towers. Since the towers were built on hilltops, it was easy to see the smoke during the day or firelight at night. Any guard who saw a signal fire built his own fire in order to pass along the message to alert the troops to ready for battle. Lanterns on poles and flags were other ways to communicate between towers. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Looking out from a watch tower

The average Chinese man is shorter than his Western counterpart. Plus, people who lived four centuries ago when the towers were built were shorter than modern folk. Put these two together, and you get granite doorways that were much too low for hubby to walk through upright. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Watch your Head! 

Tower 1 has not been restored, and its derelict state shows how much work has gone into improving the wall for today's tourists. Visitors are not permitted on the section eastward from Tower 2 to Tower 1, but some explorers and photographers ignore this as the wall's rustic ruins makes for wonderful photo ops. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Visitors climbing on top of the ruins of a watch tower

The Graffiti Problem

Unfortunately, many people decide to commemorate their time at the Great Wall by scribbling or carving their name into the granite bricks. Have a little respect, folks.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Almost every brick on this watch tower had graffiti. Most of it is not Chinese.

In order to help protect the wall, Chinese authorities announced this week that they have set aside specific areas near Tower 14 where graffiti is permitted. This move will hopefully limit the area of damage. A proposed plan also involves touch-screen electronic graffiti walls for tourists to go crazy leaving their mark where it can presumably then be erased with the touch of a button.

Finally, the Toboggan Ride Down

The end of our walk culminates with the much anticipated 1580 meter (almost 1 mile) toboggan ride down. The carts accommodate both single or double riders, and my girl decides to ride with her dad. Pushing the lever between your knees forward releases the brake to let the toboggan start sliding down the track, and pulling it towards you makes it stop. Adjust your speed by how far you push it. Before we arrived, I pictured Olympic luge-worthy downhill speeds. Following my girl, it turned out to be a rather slow-paced ride since it took a bit of strength to push the lever forward enough to go fast. Luckily, her oldest brother was ahead of her and could shoot downhill as fast as he liked.  Overall, it's a safe ride for kids, although two L.A. Lakers managed to injure themselves in separate accidents while visiting a few weeks before us.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Getting ready to ride the toboggan down

The Great Wall of China did not disappoint. In fact, it turned out to be much more exciting than what I would have expected when it went on the bucket list decades ago. If you're looking to check the Great Wall off your own list, I highly recommend doing it at Mutianyu. The only thing that could have made it better would be a deluxe ice cream parlor at the bottom.

Related Posts:

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, and Friday Postcards on Walking On Travels. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

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