Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Best of 2012: Highlights from the Year

It's the end of the year! Where did the time go? If you celebrate Christmas, I hope that you had a most excellent day. Santa was kind to us this year. He even brought the kids some items that are hard to find around Penang like a huge, LEGO Ninjago dragon set. The Malaysian restaurant practice of not bringing a customer the bill until they ask for it tripped me up. We had an yummy Christmas brunch at the E&O hotel... and then absentmindedly left without paying. Oops! No worries, they had my phone number from my reservation and tracked me down. Not wanting to be on the Naughty list next year, I drove back and paid them.

As a year-end wrap up, I thought I'd do a Best of 2012. Looking back, it's hard to imagine that I've done so much in one year. Add in all the normal, everyday stuff like overseeing homework, going to my boy's baseball games, and volunteering with the school PTO, and I feel like I've been very busy.

Don't get between Hot Mama and her child at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.
Best Animal Encounter
Visiting the semi-wild orangutans at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Borneo was like stepping into a National Geographic show. The big alpha-male, Ritchie, was intimidating while the protective Hot Mama and her young child was fun to watch. There were no barriers between us, and we humans had to make sure we stayed out of the orangutans' way.
Runner Up:Wildlife river cruise in Borneo where we saw Irrawaddy river dolphins and proboscis monkeys.

Best Natural Wonder
Japan's Mount Fuji deserves to be famous. Its beautiful, symmetrical cone rises up from the surrounding plains, towering over everything nearby. From down at the base, I watched snow blowing off the top and couldn't imagine that people actually climb up to the summit.
Runner Up: Hakone National Park is near Mount Fuji and rounded out the day's visit.

Captivating Mount Fuji

Best Water Adventure
Our day snorkeling at Thailand's Racha Yai island, near Phuket, suited everybody in the family, even my little, beginning swimmer. Crystal clear, blue waters and a boat crew that looked after all our needs almost made me forget how horribly nauseous I got on the ride to and from the island. That's right. I was seasick, and it's so good that it's still getting a Best of 2012 award. Plus, hubby got to play superhero by rescuing two young women from the surf.
Runner Up: White water rafting near Ipoh, Malaysia

Snorkeling in Thailand

Best Use of Gold
I must commend whoever came up with the idea of covering the top two levels of Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto with gold leaf. I'm pretty sure that my Homeowner's Association in my Austin neighborhood would never approve such a design for my house. And now that I think about it, hubby wouldn't approve either.
Runner Up: My wedding ring which is 20 years old and, hence, ineligible for this year's award

Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto shimmers in the sun.

Best Use of Steel
What are you going to do with 1800 tons of steel? Sure, some people may choose to erect a tower, but how about turning it into an Observation Wheel (like a Ferris wheel on steroids)? At 165 meters, the Singapore Flyer is the tallest one in the world. We took a 30-minute "round trip" on it last October.
Runner Up: Coming in a very close 2nd place is the Tokyo Tower which is the tallest, self-supporting steel structure in the world.

The Singapore Flyer - 1800 tons of steel, 165m tall

Tokyo Tower - 4000 tons of steel, 333m tall

Best Theme Park
We're an experienced Disney park family, but Tokyo DisneySea still managed to impress. Most of the rides are unique to this location, but you can still do favorites like The Tower of Terror (with a different storyline, no less). 
Runner Up: LEGOland Malaysia

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island at Tokyo DisneySea

That's not a shirt. Those are small urns
hooked directly into his skin.
Best Festival
One of the must-see festivals in Penang is Thaipussum, but it's not for the squeamish. Hindu devotees honor Lord Murugan by carrying different physical burdens called kavadis to offer up as penance, thanksgiving or in supplication. As the procession makes its way through town, people smash coconuts to cleanse the path. Some people balance urns of milk on their heads while others carry tall altars decorated with peacock feathers. The most difficult burden is a multitude of body piercings with urns hanging off the body from hooks and spears threaded through the cheeks and tongue. All I could think was "Ouch!"
Runner Up: Loy Krathong

Foot pounding at Pangkor Laut Spa Village

Best Spa
Pangkor Laut, a private island in Malaysia, doesn't just hold the title of Best Spa for 2012, it's hands down the absolute, best spa I've been to in my entire life. Their Bath House Ritual brings in practices from all over Asia and sets a relaxed mood before your actual treatment begins.
Runner Up: The time I stuck my feet into a tank of flesh-eating fish

Best Buffet
I'll admit it. Ever since I went to my first big Vegas buffet when I was I a kid, I've always had a thing for buffets. The Mother's Day Brunch at the Shangri-la Rasa Sayang hotel in Penang wins for selection, quality and flavor. We had our choice of mock shark fin soup, fresh seafood, local delicacies, and a dessert bar with made-to-order crepes, ice cream, cakes and cotton candy. What really clinched the top spot for them was all the entertainment they provided for the kids. A clown went from table to table making balloon art, there was a crafts table for them to make Best Mom sashes, and kids could watch a movie on the porch.  Runner Up: Pangkor Laut Feast Village
Dessert station at the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Spice Market Cafe
Crepes, Cotton Candy, Cakes and a Chocolate Fountain

Best Street Food
Ok, I like all types of food from the high end to the low budget. Penang is known as a street food paradise, but this year, my heart and cravings are back in Austin, Texas. The Food Trailer Park on South Congress is one of the best places to get cheap, tasty food. The Mighty Cone Hot'n'Crunchy is a favorite of mine. A breading of sesame seeds, almonds, arbol chili flakes, sea salt, sugar and corn flakes encases your choice of chicken, avocado or shrimp. It's deep-fried, plunked in a tortilla cone and topped with mango-jalepeno slaw and ancho sauce. Nom nom!
Runner Up: Penang's Char Koay Teow

The Mighty Cone Hot'n'Crunchy Chicken in Austin, Texas

Best Source of Ice Cream Ingredients
Some foodies say that you should know where your food comes from. How about if you visit the farm where it is grown? Escaping the tropical heat of Penang, we drove up to the cooler climate of the Cameron Highlands. We picked hydroponic strawberries, bought strawberry syrup, and turned it into the yummiest strawberry ice cream I have ever made. This flavor has been hard for me to get right, so I was ecstatic with the results. Too bad I forgot to write down what I did.
Runner Up: Coconut milk freshly squeezed before my eyes at the local wet market.

Get in my belly!

Before I start making up increasingly strange categories like Best Toilet Instruction Sign, I'll stop now.

Happy New Year from Malaysian Meanders!
May it be filled with adventure and awe.
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Traveler's Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Trouble with Travel Plans

Photo by Adam Ward of The Daily Telegraph

I've dreamt about visiting Australia for as long as I can remember. In my mind, Australia is a jumble of The Wiggles, Steve Irwin, Muriel's Wedding, Kylie Minogue, The Thornbirds (both the book and the mini-series), and A Walk to the Hills of the Dreamtime. In a few weeks, that dream will become a reality. Pinch me. It can't be true. We'll be landing in Sydney on New Year's Eve and spending 15 glorious days exploring Down Under. But the weird thing is that it's been such a far-fetched idea for so long, I'm having trouble buckling down and getting nitty-gritty trip planning done. Does this happen to anyone else? I have the macro-level stuff like hotels and air travel planned, but I don't quite know how to actually accomplish my sightseeing. I'm beginning to understand why people go on packaged tours. They lure you in with the highlights and then plan everything for you.

This trip comes with strings attached. The trade-off is that we aren't flying home to Texas to visit family and friends for Christmas. It will be summer before the kids and I return there, and an entire year will have gone by since we last wrapped our arms around our loved ones in a hug. After a lifetime of living no more than a 3-hour drive apart, this is a big change. The #1 item on my teen's Christmas Wish List is "Go home to Texas for a holiday visit." That won't be happening. The Guinness Book of World Records and a trip to Burger King are the other things on his list, so 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

How much detailed planning do you do for trips?
Before we moved to Malaysia, we typically went on one big trip a year. I would spend 2-3 days planning out 1 vacation day. Now that we travel so much, a getaway every 1.5 months, I've found it harder and harder to dedicate that much time to planning. (Yes, I do realize that no one is crying a river for me and my problems.)

My old trip planning notes were something like "line up at Disneyland entrance Gate #13, arriving 45 minutes before opening." I have nothing on that level planned for Australia. I have loose outlines for each day, but that's it. At least, I have read Bill Bryson's excellent, humorous book, Down Under, and can regale my family with witty, historical trivia once we arrive.

You might even say that I used to be overly committed to my itinerary. When we went on our Boston-Maine-Acadia National Park trip, I spent days pouring over TripAdvisor and blog recommendations for food. Fast forward to the hours when we're driving from Acadia NP to Boston. I was convinced that one shack with a view of 2 lighthouses was the best place on Earth to dine on lobster rolls, and we absolutely had to stop and eat there. Did it matter that no one was hungry? No. Did it matter that it wasn't anywhere near a mealtime? No. Did it matter that we'd have to detour to get there? No. I wasn't going to let all that research go to waste and forced everyone to go. Do I even remember the name of the shack or what the roll tasted like? NO! At least I got more lighthouse photos.

Are you willing to just see where the day takes you?
For the last few trips, I've swung too far the other way. For both Borneo and Phuket, I've done the planning on the ride to the airport or after arrival, and I completely stressed out over it. A little advanced planning may have saved money and definitely would have eliminated last-minute phone tag sessions when we're pressed for time. Apparently, I do not have the backpacker mentality of just seeing where the day takes you.

A little Australian travel inspiration

Do you schedule in down time?
I am trying to schedule in relaxing, down time in our 15-day trip. When we were in Japan for a week last spring, the kids kept saying they wanted to hang out at the hotel. It was a regular, business hotel, not some spectacular, kid-friendly hotel like those at Disney. I think that what they were actually trying to tell me is that all the sightseeing was wearing them down. I kept thinking, "This is probably the only 3 days I'll ever visit Tokyo (or Sydney). I am NOT spending it at the hotel." So, I'm trying very hard not to make the days too jam packed, but there's an inner battle with my urge to see Everything.

How do you juggle different travel personalities?
I no longer have babies and toddlers who are happy enough to simply be with mom and dad. I now have a group with a variety of personalities that I'm trying to accommodate. One person's dream day may be hiking and dining on familiar foods. Another person prefers dawdling in a museum and trying out new cuisines. So, I'm trying to plan a mix of activities, knowing full well that some of us won't be thrilled with the itinerary on any given day.

My problem is that I'm a people pleaser. I want everyone to be 100% satisfied with the plan instead of having to find tricks and tips to make it endurable. Just like I wish my kids loved green beans instead of eating them solely because "You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit." (Although, hubby recently excused my son from eating green beans when he bit off a small piece and found a caterpillar.)

I'm letting the kids help with the planning which should help. My 9-year-old boy has requested the Sydney Opera House with the caveat that we should not attend any actual operas.

Does your family split up on vacation?
Sometimes, the solution is for us not to do everything as one big family. At Disney parks, we have the roller coaster, high thrill seeking group, and the sedate, kiddie ride group. Hubby was great about letting me go off alone on my ultimate spa experience in Pangkor Laut. He kept the kids when I did the caravan safari at San Diego's Wild Animal Park years ago since they were too young to participate. I am more hard pressed to think of times I've returned the favor.

The big question on this trip is whether to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks at the Sydney Harbour. Well, it's only a question for me because no one else wants to go. We'll be landing at 8 p.m. after 12 hours of travel from Malaysia, and dragging the kids out into a crush of humanity for an event that starts at midnight has been deemed "overly ambitious" by hubby. Methinks this is code for "you're crazy." And whenever he says that to me, I just retort, "Well, you married me. Now, who's the crazy one?" Perhaps this will be another time when we diverge for the night. Or maybe I'll watch it on TV while the the others snooze next to me.

So, tell me. What's your trip planning style? I really want to know.

Enough procrastinating. I'm off to figure out if I have a suitcase big enough to hold a didgeridoo.

I readily admit that I did not take the gorgeous photo at the top. Go to Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox for lovely pictures taken by the actual bloggers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Interview in Expat Arrivals

The good folks over at Expat Arrivals are featuring an interview with me on their Malaysia page. It covers information that you may be interested in if you are considering or planning to move to this country. What do I enjoy? What are the negatives? How is health care and public transportation? What are the work culture and school environment like?

Expat Arrivals offers Destination Guides for numerous countries all over the world plus general information such as how to plan for moving abroad and financial or insurance issues you may face. There's also a forum where you can connect with other expats in your new country.

I invite you to read my interview and see what else Expat Arrivals has to offer you.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanging out at the Hard Rock Hotel Penang

One of the popular places on the island for hanging out and having fun is the Hard Rock Hotel Penang along Batu Ferringhi beach. Take a dip in the pool, order yummy food and drinks, and meet up with friends, whether by accident or design. With easy beach access, both a Kids and Teen Club, and The Rock Spa, how can you go wrong? Many families who live here buy the annual Stage Pass so that they can enjoy the resort without having to book a hotel room.

Cool off in the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel Penang

Splashing Around
This pool is BIG, but its sinuous, free-form style keeps it feeling relaxed and not too overwhelming. Some parts are the perfect depth for adults while the shallow, children's area has a sandy bottom for squishing between your toes. Bring along buckets and shovels for playing in the sand lying along the edges, too. Guests in the Lagoon Rooms have individual, poolside decks right outside the door. If you need a drink but don't want to climb out, just swim up to the bar. For those of you who don't want to get wet, belly up to the Sand Bar on dry land for your drink order.

There's lots of other watery fun to be had. Kids (and some adults) are eager to slip down the two water slides. Take turns blasting each other on the cushioned sprayground. Sometimes, a volleyball game in the wading area keeps the older kids entertained. And at least once a day, employees lead a little poolside dance party. Since this is the Hard Rock, you can be sure that good music is always blasting from the speakers.

The pool isn't just for swimming. It's for spraying, dancing, bumping and splashing.

Foam Party
The Hard Rock Hotel Foam Party takes place the first Saturday of every month, plus other special occasions like the White Foamy Christmas Eve Party. It's kids only for the first couple hours, and then it's the adults' turn to party in foam until late at night. (Note that parents are not allowed to accompany their kids into the foam.) This event is open to the public, not just hotel guests and Stage Pass members.

Want a few tips?
  • Keep your mouth closed because the foam tastes vile.
  • Have a drink ready in case if you forget to keep your mouth closed.
  • Don't dive or belly flop onto the foam. (This mistake only seems to happen after a few too many trips to the bar.)
  • RM20 for kids and RM30 for adults; includes use of pool
Foam Fight!

Kids Club and Teen Club
If your kids start getting bored of hanging out by the pool (such a difficult life they lead), you can send them to the Kids Club or Teen Club at no extra charge. Some moms even put their children in the Club while getting their hair done at the on-site salon. (Ask for the Billy Ray Cyrus cut and watch the magic happen.)

This Kids Club makes me think of Arkansas.

The Lil' Rock Kids Club is for ages 4 to 12 years old, but to be honest, the club seemed best suited for kids under 7 years old. A toddler playscape and a TV showing movies are the main entertainment. Older kids may be interested in organized activities like the daily cooking class.

The Teen Club is for ages 12-18 years and is located at the front of the building, facing the parking lot. A pool table (small charge for playing), foosball table, Wii and computer games are the big draw. My 9-year-old desperately wishes he was a teen.

Hip and trendy Teen Club

Best Pizza in Penang
If you start getting a little hungry, you can order from the Pizzeria and dine at the restaurant or have it delivered to you poolside. Waiters will deliver drinks from the Sand Bar, too. Watching them make the wood oven pizzas is quite fun. I, along with many of my friends, have deemed it the best pizza on the island.

Top: Pepperoni pizza in the making; Bottom: Yummy satay

Hard Rock Cafe
The Cafe is usually the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the Hard Rock to anyone around the world. For at least a decade, my parents brought me back Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts from wherever they traveled. With a menu of American cuisine like burgers, ribs, and salads along with Malay favorites, you'll be sure to find something you like. There's an extensive drinks menu, too. A live band performs every night, although this family hasn't ever been there late enough to experience it.

The Hard Rock Cafe is a very cool place to celebrate turning 13-years-old.

The Rock Spa
Is all that relaxing by the pool and eating wearing you out? Time to try The Rock Spa. A couple years ago, Harper's Bazaar named it one of the Top 30 Spas in Malaysia for "Relaxing Ritual." I went in for a back massage as my back-to-school treat in August. As I lay on the table in the private spa villa set away from the hustle and bustle of the pool area, I could hear the waves washing ashore during the massage. Such a relaxing sound! After your treatment, sit by the pool sipping a cup of herbal tea while you unwind a little more.

Private spa villa with room enough for a couples massage.

The funny thing is that at the end, I heard the receptionist tell me, "Have a rotten day."

"Excuse me?" I said incredulously. (Had my tip really been that bad?)

She replied, speaking slowly and ennunciating every word, "Have a ROCKIN' day."

Oh, that makes much more sense.

Hit the Beach
If all this isn't enough to keep you entertained, you can always go off property and hit Batu Ferringhi beach on the other side of the hedges. Friends have done everything from riding jetskis to parasailing to riding horses.

Batu Ferringhi Beach next to the Hard Rock Hotel Penang

And as you head out to the beach, you'll pass one of my favorite signs on the island.

Parasailing horses are hazardous indeed.

Stage Pass Membership
In some ways, having a Stage Pass Membership has made my life difficult. Do boring errands or hang out at the Hard Rock? Decisions, decisions. It also seems to have raised the bar for what hubby expects on vacation. When we went to a Thailand beach resort, I claimed that we could just relax by the hotel pool and have drinks. "Isn't that what you did on Wednesday at the Hard Rock?" he asked. Ummm... yeah. So what if the line between vacation and real life is beginning to blur?

The Stage Pass Membership is RM750 per year and is available to Malaysian residents and expatriates. Included in the membership are:

  • Complimentary pool entry for 2 adults and 2 children below 12 years old.
  • Pool entry of RM30 for additional guests including children
  • Complimentary use of the Lil' Rock Kids Club and Teen Club
  • Complimentary 1 night stay in a Hillview Deluxe Room with buffet breakfast for 2 adults and 2 children below 12 years old which can be upgraded to a Seaview Deluxe room with balcony if you stay between Sundays till Thursdays.
  • Complimentary 30-minute back massage for 1 person
  • RM50 dining voucher for Starz Diner or Pizzeria
  • 10% off total Food and Beverage bill at the Hard Rock Cafe (with exceptions)
  • 20% discount on food at hotel food outlets other than the Cafe (with exceptions)
  • 10% discount on beverages at hotel food and beverage outlets other than the Cafe (with exceptions)
  • 10% off selected Hard Rock Hotel and Cafe merchandise
  • 25% off a la carte Rock Spa Treatments and poolside cabana rentals
  • Jump the "Q" privileges at the Hard Rock Cafe for member and 3 guests
  • 10% off best promotional room rates at the Hard Rock Hotels in Penang, Bali and Pattaya
For more information, see the Hard Rock Hotel Penang website.

Related Posts:
Swim Parties at the ParkRoyal Resort
ESCAPE: Penang's New Eco-Adventure Park
Kids Top Picks for Indoor Fun in Penang

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Traveler's Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Blending in with the Locals

If you haven't noticed already, I can pass as a local Malaysian. Penang is a little more than 40% Chinese, some of whom have been here for 7+ generations. As for myself, my grandparents were born in China, my parents were born in the Philippines, and I was born in the USA. When strangers meet me, they assume that I'm Malaysian... until I start talking and my accent gives me away. At that point, people ask if I'm from Hong Kong or Korea. I get the occasional, "Are you Japanese?" Only two people have guessed American or Canadian. In other words, I blend in really well, and no one assumes that I'm a Westerner at heart.

Asian minority in America
Growing up in the Houston, Texas, I was always in the minority. I think I made up one elementary school "tell us about your heritage" presentation because no one was there who knew about Filipino-Chinese traditions. There are a few incidences from my childhood when I was teased for being Asian. I suppose bullies pick on people for whatever reason -- too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too Asian...  I remember being so thrilled as a young teenager that there was an Asian girl one time in Seventeen magazine. Wait a minute? You can be Asian and still be pretty?  By the time I reached high school, the Asian community in my area had grown, along with other ethnic groups. Roll call for my Chemistry II class sounded like the United Nations directory.

Thankfully, my kids did not have had the same Outsider experience when we were still living in Texas. Our neighborhood school there is diverse with 38% Asians, 11% Hispanics, and -- woo hoo! -- 6% mixed race students.

Blending into the crowd in Malaysia
Then, I moved here and was suddenly surrounded by people who look like me. We were at a restaurant in Penang when I pointed out to my husband that he was the only white person in the room. (Excluding my three half-white kids. If you count them, I guess there were 2.5 white people.) "This must be what it's like for you in America," he stated. Yup.

Looks Chinese, Doesn't speak Chinese
People assume that I can understand Hokkien, the dialect spoken in Penang by the ethnic Chinese. The vendors at the wet market and fruit stall finally recognize me and know not to quote the price to me in Chinese. I've been complimented that I speak English really well. It's the only language I know fluently, so I suppose it's good I've mastered it. Right? One day, I was pushing my shopping cart along the aisles of Tesco when a frazzled, Australian man loudly said to me, "Dooooo yoooouuuuu speeeeeaaaaaak Engliiiiishhhh?" He was absolutely relieved when he realized I could communicate with him and point him towards the rice.

Getting local prices
Tourists and expats are often quoted higher prices for goods and services than what locals are charged. It's nicknamed "The Skin Tax." Sometimes, this is unofficial. The owner of the little boat for hire to Monkey Beach sees that someone is a Westerner, and names a high price. Other times, two price sets are officially displayed on a sign. To take the funicular up Penang Hill, it's RM30 for adults -- unless you are Malaysian, in which case it's only RM8. If I'm the one to buy the family's tickets, I can usually get the local price. My white husband, on the other hand, was charged three times more for bananas at our usual fruit stand than what I typically pay. Since this amounted to all of US$3, he didn't really mind. (Perhaps thus supporting the idea that Westerners can afford to pay extra.)

I've noticed that when I'm at festivals with my husband and American friends, they get much more attention than I do. People push flyers and advertisements into their hands more frequently than into mine. Shopkeepers try a little harder to get them into their stores. It's as if they have a sign hanging around their neck reading, "I'm a tourist and have lots of money to spend." Not so much for me. I just fly by under the radar.

No paparazzi
The biggest perk to blending in with the locals is that we aren't stalked by "the paparazzi." If you are a Westerner living or visiting Asia, you may be surprised by the number of locals who want a picture of you. The number of cameras trained at you increases the younger you are and the blonder you are. So, if you have an adorable, little, blonde child with light-colored eyes, people will probably want a picture.

"The paparazzi" all over Asia. My father-in-law tells a story about  bringing my husband to Japan when he was a youngster. They were visiting the same circuit of tourist spots as a girls school trip. At each stop, more and more girls gathered the courage to take their picture with my guy (admittedly quite adorable at that age, so who can really blame them). Another family told me of being in rural China and having a hard time running errands with their four blonde kids because they were stopped so often. A friend in Shanghai has a beautiful daughter who could pass for Taylor Swift. She dyed her blonde hair brunette just so she wouldn't attract so much unwanted attention.

My kids have only had their picture taken once that I know of. They just don't look exotic enough. This is a relief to me. Most of my friends that this happens to get used to it after a while, and it doesn't seem to bug them.

Asian on the Outside, Western on the Inside
On the other hand, I sometimes find that whole blending into the crowd business a little strange. Is there a fellow American flashpacker at the next table proudly boasting to everyone on Facebook that she's the only foreigner in the crowd? When strangers judge this book by the cover, they are probably creating a fiction that is far removed from my real back story. On the inside, I'm just a gal who had a typical American upbringing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

ESCAPE: Penang's New Eco-Adventure Park

The kids are planning to ESCAPE again.

ESCAPE is Penang's new theme park, and I predict that it's destined to become quite popular with both tourists and locals. The first stage, AdventurePlay, opened a few weeks ago, and my kids were eager to try it out. We discovered a place where active types can get their thrills climbing around in the great outdoors. There's a ropes course, ziplining, inner tubing, leaping from towers and more. No giant costumed characters or fantasy lands here. At ESCAPE, Mother Nature takes center stage.

When you first enter the park, Monkey Business immediately beckons you to play. This ropes course has 80 challenges spread over 8 courses and three levels of difficulty. Test your agility and balance with each step. Crawl through the barrel or fly down the rope on the zip-line. I liked that all the courses started and ended on the same tower. That way, my kids could be on different courses and levels, but I could still keep track of them overhead. You clip your harness onto the safety rope at the beginning and stay on it until you're at the end. No worries about people remembering to properly switch carabiners at each station like other ropes courses we've done. Bringing gloves (or buying them at the gift shop) would have cut down on blisters forming after multiples times through the course.

Are you ready for some Monkey Business?

Have you ever wanted to release your inner Spider-Man? At Gecko Tower, race up the side of a building, using whatever footholds and handholds you can find. This isn't your typical rock climbing wall. Instead, you're grabbing on to plumbing, air-conditioning units, window grates, and wooden siding. Watch out for the boxing gloves coming out to hit you! Hubby easily trounced our eldest boy the first time up the most difficult side. But our boy had the endurance, and was able to return for more climbs long after Dad called it quits. He even had enough energy to scurry up a tree at Go Ape. An auto-belay system keeps you safe on both activities, and you have the fun of rappeling down from the top.

On Gecko's Tower, my boy had the advantage of youth and no boxing gloves hitting him.

If your thrill seeking personality still isn't satisfied, take a giant leap off Atan's Tower. Do you want to fall from 20 meters up in the air or merely 13 meters? After strapping on the harness and making the jump, there's a quick but controlled descent to the ground. You never feel like you're in a free fall or experience the snap and bounce of bungy jumping. My 7-year-old girl and teen boy gave it a try. When they were teasing their brother about not going, I said, "He seems to have inherited his mother's sense of self-preservation, unlike you two lunatics." Note that you'll have to pay an extra RM20 for this activity.

Would you jump off Atan's Leap? Would you let your kids?

Tubby Racers is another fun, family activity. Slide downhill, having faith that you won't slam into anything because you can't see the bottom from the top, and you're constantly spinning around to face backwards. There are two straight slides and a curvy one. If you want to ride together, grab the bigger inner tube. Keep in mind that you must first haul the inner tube up to the top of the hill. These are heavier than the ones at water parks. Even my very fit, personal trainer friend found that only a few times dragging both her own and her young daughter's tubes uphill was her limit. Note that children must be at least 6 years old to ride.

Who's the fastest downhill Tubby Racer (a.k.a. Summer Tubing)?

What about the younger kids?
While most of the activities are geared towards primary school-aged kids up through active adults, there are a few things to entertain the younger tots who are tagging along with the group. At ZoomBug, kids wiggle the handles of their go-kart back and forth to propel it around the race track.

It's time to ZoomBug around the track.

Don a helmet with a headlamp at Foxy Burrows and explore this cavelike tunnel. Parents aren't allowed inside, but you can keep watch on the closed circuit TV outside. My teen wanted to try both these activities but discovered that the downside to a growth spurt is that he's now too tall to do some kiddie fun.

The Tots Trail and Cubs Play make up a nice playground. It's in a shaded area and is ideal for kids ages 3 to 10 years old.

Younger kids can have fun climbing and jumping at Tots Trail and Cubs Play.

Everyone, even the grown ups, can try their hand at panning for "gold" at Discovery Dig. Although, I think my kids were expecting at least Fool's Gold (mica) and not gold painted pebbles.

Gold rush time at Discovery Dig

Group Events
I bet that this place will become popular for parties and corporate events. Two party rooms are available that hold 20-50 people. Both are air-conditioned and have a climbing wall. I also saw another party tent set up outside by the hawker center. My friend had her child's birthday party here. She gives it thumbs up for service and fun but also said it was pricey. Treetop Cabanas set away from the hustle and bustle of the park are available for day rental.

Party time

Your personal treehouse for RM150-300 per day.

What makes ESCAPE an eco-park?
Obviously, all the park activities encourage folks to enjoy exercising in the great outdoors. But ESCAPE's commitment to the environment goes beyond this. They've taken steps to reduce the park's negative impact on its surroundings. I noticed that the buildings at the front had a layer of grass sod on the roofs. Why? It provides insulation so the buildings are cooler inside and reduces heat reflected off the building so that they won't become a heat island. Rain barrels collect water for re-use. Gravel paths instead of cement ones are water permeable so that rain soaks into the ground instead of merely running off. It's one of the best examples of environmentally aware development that I've seen in Malaysia.

Details and Tips:
What else do you need to know?
  • Current entry prices may be found at Everyone, ages 4 yrs and up, pays to enter, even if you plan on just watching.
  • ESCAPE is located past Batu Ferringhi in Teluk Bahang, just before the Butterfly Farm.
  • Plan on spending 2-6 hours at the park. We actually hung out there for 6.5 hours, doing activities over and over again.
  • Arrive dressed for an active day outdoors. Wear sports shoes -- no slip-ons or open-toed shoes. Tie back long hair, and secure headscarves. Leave the dangling jewelry at home. And ladies, remember that you'll be high in the air with people looking up at you, so skip the skirts and dresses. 
  • Rent shoes in the gift shop if you wore the wrong footwear. Climbing gloves are also for sale there.
  • An ESCAPE cash card available at the entrance is the only form of payment accepted inside the park. You can top it up inside the park and are refunded the unused money at the exit. 
  • ESCAPE offers both typical hawker center fare and Western food as well as ice cream, cendol and beverages. Most entrees were RM8-15. Absolutely no food or drinks are permitted to be brought into the park, not even water.
  • Lockers are RM5 per day for multiple entry.
  • You pay extra for temporary tatoos (RM5-20), face painting (RM15-30), and the dunk tank.
  • If your zipline comes to a halt midway, don't panic. Someone will come and rescue you, pulling you back to the platform.
  • A surua is located within the park near the entrance.
  • One complaint: There are no good places to take shelter during one of Penang's frequent downpours. Time for an extended toilet visit or gift shop browsing, perhaps?
For more information on ticket prices, see the ESCAPE website.

Related Posts:
Flying Through the Trees at Phuket Tree Adventure
Penang Butterfly Farm

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Traveler's Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Penang's Loy Krathong Festival plus bonus bloopers

Penang's Loy Krathong festival


Last Saturday, Penang's two Thai Buddhist temples celebrated Loy Krathong. Loy means "to float," and krathong are lotus-shaped vessels. It's traditionally held to thank the Water Goddess during the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai lunar calendar when the water level is high and the climate is cooler. Penang's celebration was a few days early to enable more people to participate. The evening began with a cultural show and praying ceremony led by monks at Wat Chaiya Mangalaram, more commonly referred to as The Reclining Buddha Temple. From there, a procession made its way to the shoreline along Gurney Drive. About a thousand devotees released candle-lit krathongs, setting them adrift and letting the vessels carry away their troubles. In so many ways, it was exactly as I had hoped -- magical, mystical and a visual delight.

Earlier in the week, I took a break from Thanksgiving Day preparations to visit the temple since finding information on-line was impossible. Many colorful krathong were already for sale. I hoped to find something traditional made out of banana leaves, but all they had were ones with styrofoam bases and synthetic petals.

Krathong for sale at the Reclining Buddha Temple

The night of the festival, I heard chanting, drumming and singing as I approached the temple. Entering through the gate, a massive crowd greeted me, lining up to follow the floats to the beach. After gathering my krathong, I fell in step with the procession, marveling at how the street I had just driven down was now completely blocked with people.

Drummers getting ready to lead the procession

Young ladies riding the float from the temple to Gurney Drive.

When we reached Gurney drive, a mere 600 meters away, everyone flowed to the one break in the wall where steps led down to the beach. Hundreds of flickering krathongs were already floating out to sea. I heard one girl cry out excitedly, "They're headed to the mainland, mommy!" We spread out along the shore, wading into the water to release our own krathongs.

On the beach, devotees brought along the unclaimed krathong from the temple. They quickly lit the candles and joss sticks before casting them into the water.

Lighting the krathong

Oh, the variety of vessels. Most of them were fairly simple like mine. But others had towering tiers like a wedding cake or LED lights running around the bottom. Others were so big that two people had to carry them. The most impressive one was a golden, elaborately carved, ancient Siamese boat with a dragon masthead. Instead of merely floating in the water, this one was loaded onto a boat and carried out to sea.

This special krathong went out via boat.

If only this is where the story ends. But it doesn't. The rest of the night seemed like the bloopers reel at the end credits of a serious movie.

Picture yourself solemnly lowering your krathong and releasing it into the water. Now imagine a wave washing it right back between your legs, overturning it and extinguishing the flames. That's what happened to me. It was happening to everybody. The more experienced folks would swish their hands in the water to get their krathong to catch an outgoing wave.

Some of the vessels just looped around towards the storm drain pipes right next to the beach. If releasing the krathong is supposed to cast away your sins and bad fortune, what does it mean if it refuses to leave?


The krathong that escaped picturesquely floated out towards the shipping lane before being swept back towards the island, carried by the currents or perhaps the wake of the passing cruise boat. I could see their flickering lights congregating about a kilometer down the shore.

The big, gorgeous krathong that I recently admired ended up bursting into flames shortly after it was released. It was quite a pyrotechnic float.

Before and After

As the crowds began to disperse, one family with an array of krathong arrived and strolled to the water. The photographers gathered around them, wading into the straits to get a good shot. The family was very cooperative, following the instructions of one particularly demanding man. At first they posed, standing with the krathongs held so the candles' glow lit up their faces. Then they were asked to gradually lower them almost into the water. Now freeze! As they stood there half crouched...snap, snap, snap... photographers took a few pictures. Now stand up a little more. Now back down again. They finally released their krathong only to have them immediately washed back into their hands. The photographers seized on this as another chance to take a series of more posed photos. I turned away before they were done. They were good sports about it all.

Posing for the Loy Krathong paparazzi

By that time, my pants were soaked from the waves, and my sports sandals refused to let go of the gravelly sand rubbing up against my feet. It was time to go. I wonder if my krathong escaped being pulled back to shore. Perhaps it will wash up in Singapore where they will find my name on the krathong and fine me for littering.

Related Post:
Thai and Myannar New Years Water Festival

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Vote for me at the Expats Blog Awards

UPDATE: Thank you so much to everyone who voted. Malaysian Meanders took Honourable Mention at the Expats Blog Awards 2012. If you live in Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur, you should take some time to read The Yum List which took 1st place. It covers the best places to eat, drink, stay and spa. It only includes spots that are worth the visit because time is too precious to waste on average food and experiences.

I am both surprised and honored to find out that someone nominated me for an Expats Blog Award. At first, I thought that I'd easily win the Malaysia category since I was the only blog listed. I thought it was a slam dunk. However, they seem to have found a few other blogs in the last few weeks. I no longer stand alone.

If you enjoy my blog and have found it helpful, please vote for me. The judging is largely based on public opinion, so every nice review or comment helps. Just click through below.

Fill in your info and comments in the form
If you are one of the strangers that I've met at Starbucks during your exploratory visit to answer your questions about moving to Penang, please vote for me. Same goes for those whose messages I've answered on Facebook.
Most of all, thank you so much for reading my blog and helping me with my mission to share what a wonderful, exciting place Penang is for an expat to live or a world traveler to explore.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

One Thousand Gifts

Last year, my older son's teacher assigned each student to come up with a list of One Thousand Gifts. No, not a Christmas wish list. Inspired by the book by Ann Voskamp, the teacher asked for a list of one thousand things to be grateful for. One thousand! I can easily rattle off 30 items I'm thankful for, one item for each day in November. With a tiny bit more work, I can probably crank the list up to 100. But 1000 is a lot. To come up with 1000, you have to dig really deep. It took the entire school year to compile.

My son started off easy, listing "All fifty states" as one line item (#64) followed by each state named individually in alphabetical order. But eventually, he uncovered a depth of gratitude that I didn't know existed inside him. It was like a tween's journal but with absolutely no angst, just sunshine and happiness. This lesson entered his life at a good time. Like many coming of age stories, my boy was beginning to leave that childlike sense of wonder behind him and become aware of the realities of the world. Seeking 1000 gifts focused his gaze on the realities that are good and beautiful instead of the ones that make you lose faith. So with his permission, here are a few of those gifts, mostly travel related.

10. A sunset with an array of colors

Watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean at Kalaloch Lodge in Olympic National Park, Washington.
For all you Twilight fans, this is in Forks.

293. My brother who is a serious Pokemon fan

Making brother's dreams come true with a visit to Tokyo's Pokemon Center.

374. The countless hours of free time on an intercontinental flight.

So much in-flight entertainment, so little time on the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.

434. Having random thoughts of Maine when eating lobster.

The view from Thurston's Lobster Pound in Bernard, Maine where lobster boats unload traps right at the restaurant.

472. Hearing the drums banging at the dragon dance celebration

500. 500 -- exactly half of 1000 gifts -- halfway before your goal's end to make you say, "Wow, it was hard, but I managed and thought of 1000 thankful gifts."

714. Monkeys that crawl all around Malaysia and want to steal your food

Training baby monkeys on the fine art of stealing food at the Penang Botanical Garden

849. Pike's Peak where "America the Beautiful" was written

They only allowed us 40 minutes at the summit before heading back down to avert altitude sickness.

858. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, full of hardened magma and glowing volcanoes

Devastation Trail had tiny bits of solidified lava known as Pele's hair and Pele's tears

1000. The one thousandth gift is completed. Flipping back in the book will remind me of all the fun I had in sixth grade.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

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