Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Capture the Colour

Katie Not In Prague, my fellow American-expat-in-Malaysia blogger, nominated me to join her in Travel Supermarket's Capture the Colour contest. Just like my college applications, I'm squeezing in just under the deadline. They're looking for photos that capture the following 5 colors — blue, green, yellow, white and red.

Wouldn't you love to take your kids to Walt Disney World for Christmas? Well, it's mighty expensive, so we arrived the afternoon of New Year's Day when rates go waaaaaay down. All the holiday lights and decorations were still up, so I think we didn't miss out on much. Oh wait, we did miss out on the huge crowds that had been there a week earlier.

Dazzling holiday lights on Cinderella's Castle reflected in the moat — Orlando, Florida 2008

The upside to the economic downturn of 2009 is that hubby was forced to use up almost of all of the vacation he'd been rolling over year after year. My parents came to watch the kids, and hubby and I escaped to Puerto Rico. As we were hiking through El Yunque National Rainforest, I couldn't believe how lush the greenery was. Little did I know that two years later, I'd be living on the other side of the world on another jungle-covered island. One tip that I figured out in Puerto Rico and use in Malaysia is that Raincoat + Tropical Climate = Perspiration can't Evaporate.

High up in El Yunque National Rainforest looking past the coast to the sea — Puerto Rico, 2009

Our first trip that didn't focus on visiting relatives took us to British Columbia, Canada and the state of Washington. While I was initially apprehensive about taking three young kids hiking in Olympic National Park, it turned out great. I found a site that reviewed the handicap accessibility of various trails in the park and figured that a stroller could go wherever a wheelchair could. While the kids finished up their dinner at Kalaloch Lodge, I ducked outside to take photos of the glorious sunset. I love how the sun's egg yolk yellow glow refuses to let go and is reflected in the water.

Bidding adieu to the sun at Kalaloch Lodge — Oympic National Park, Washington, 2007

Two hours west of El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico, you'll find Rio Camuy Caves, the largest cave system in the Western Hemisphere. We were there at the same time as a troop of Puerto Rican Cub Scouts. It turns out scouts in Puerto Rico are just as rambunctious as the ones in Texas. We donned hardhats and took the trolley down to the trail into the caves. At the end of the tour, the sun hit the entrance to Clara Cave just right, causing brilliant white light to stream into the darkness.

Out of the darkness and into the light — Rio Camuy Caves, Puerto Rico 2009

Red is a prevalent color in Chinese culture and symbolizes good fortune. At Penang's Goddess of Mercy temple, devotees come to seek her blessings and pray for good luck and prosperity. But they don't come empty handed. They stop by the little kiosks outside the temple to purchase offerings for the goddess. The air around the temple is heavy with the fragrence of the smoldering, pillar-like dragon joss sticks. Smaller red incense sticks are used, too.

Offerings for sale outside the Goddess of Mercy Temple — Penang, 2012

I hope you enjoyed these. My color-blind son gives them two giant thumbs up (unless thumbs up is considered offensive in your culture.) Flipping through all my photos has been a great walk down memory lane. If I had access to the pre-digital-era prints sitting in my Texas home, I'm sure the search for the perfect photo to represent each color would have taken much longer. Since it's the last day of the contest, I'll refrain from nominating anyone new.

Which color category is your favorite?

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Night Falls on Penang Island
U.S. National Park Week: Part 1

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check it out for more travel inspiration.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Kids Top Picks for Indoor Fun in Penang

Penang has more than its fair share of beaches, jungle walks and parks. But sometimes, I just want to do something indoors with the kids. They need a place to burn off some youthful energy while I can rest my weary, middle-aged bones without worrying that they'll run off into the wilderness. The air-conditioning is a bonus, too. Here are a few of my kids' favorite spots.

Adventure Zone
When we visited our home in Texas, people would invariably ask the kids what is their favorite thing about Penang. The younger two always declared, "Adventure Zone!" It's part of the Golden Sands Resort in Batu Feringgi but open to the public and a very popular place.

Double Drop Slide with ball pit and Demon Drop Slide

The centerpiece of this play area is the drop slides. Seriously, I've never seen anything like this in the United States. There's a trio of wavy racing slides and one double-drop slide that ends in a ball pit. But the scariest one of them all is the Demon Drop Slide. It's 24-feet tall and extremely steep. In fact, I couldn't bear to push my child off at the top. It just went against my maternal instincts to shove my kid into an abyss. Luckily, there's always an attendant at the top who is more than happy to help out the youngsters. Adventure Zone also has a 2-story playscape plus a separate area for toddlers and a play kitchen.

Upstairs, kids can play the Nintendo Wii (RM15 for 30 minutes), foosball or the few arcade games. For an extra charge, try out the Segway Course just outside. As for me, I really like that they have a cafe with drinks (Coffee!!), snacks and ice cream.

Racing Slides

Admission is for 2 hours of play, and kids are required to wear socks and long-sleeve shirts. My son loves this place so much, he had his birthday party here.

Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
RM20 on weekdays
RM30 on weekends and public holidays
Reduced rates for resort guests
Adventure Zone sometimes runs a promotion letting the 4th child in free with 3 paid admissions.

Cartoon World on Level 5 of Gurney Paragon Mall and is ideal for young kids ages 3 to 6 years old. It's filled with mini-amusement park type rides (RM5 each) like a carousel and arcade games (RM2 per play) where children can earn tickets to go towards prizes. There is also a small playscape area that is RM5. My friend recently hosted her daughter's 6th Birthday party here, and a fabulous time was had by all.

Cartoon World at Gurney Paragon Mall.

When you arrive, you get a card and put money on it. The charge is dependent on how many kids you're bringing in. That money then goes towards the activities inside Cartoon World.

Mega Kiddie World - Queensbay Mall & Gurney Plaza
The top floor of Queensbay Mall and Gurney Plaza, Level 4 have quite a collection of amusements for the youth of Penang. My daughter always begs to go to Mega Kiddie World. I think there's another location at Sunway Carnival Mall in Butterworth, too. This multi-story playscape easily entertains kids from ages 3 to 7 years. My only gripes are that the waiting area for parents has a paltry 3 small benches, and they charge adults if they want to accompany their young child inside. Admission is for a full day of play with wristband. Bring socks.

RM12 on Monday-Thursday
RM15 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
RM18 on public holidays and school holidays
RM3 for adults accompanying children into playscape

Mega Kiddie World in Queensbay Mall (Gurney Plaza location is smaller.)

Urban Playground
Located on the 2nd floor of Penang Times Square, Urban Playground keeps the kids entertained and active with inflatable bounce houses, slides, and ball pits.

Inflatable slides
(Photo courtesy of Urban Playground)

A glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course  has 18 holes for the kids to try out their putting skills. They'll probably need a jillion strokes to get the ball in the hole, but who cares if they're having fun.

Glow-in-the-Dark Miniature Golf (Photo courtesy of Urban Playground)

KidLand Edutainment Center
One of the newest additions to Penang is Kidland in Prangin Mall. Activity centers such as Hospital, Police, Fire Department, Music Studio, Cooking, and Science Laboratory allow children to try their hand at a variety of careers. Staff members guide kids through each activity to ensure maximum fun and learning. My 8-year-old spent 7 hours here and still did not want to leave. There's a multi-story playscape and a cafe, too. Parents of older children are permitted to drop them off. Prices are RM30-45 depending on the day. See my full writeup at Learning by Playing in Penang at Kidland.

Jump Street Trampoline Park
Leap around on wall-to-wall trampolines, see how many rounds you can last in the dodgeball arena, jump into the foam pit, and whack your buddy on the Battle Beam. Jump Street Penang is the perfect place for both kids and adults to burn some energy. Special area for the little kids so they don't get trampled by the big ones, too. Cafe on site. Atrium level of D'Piazza Mall, Bayan Baru.

Video Game Arcades
I've seen these at quite a few malls around town. Not surprisingly, they are loud and filled with tweens and teens. I didn't see many games suitable for young children.
  • Mega Leisure World in Queensbay Mall, just around the corner from Mega Kiddie World
  • Gurney Plaza on the 7th floor past the movie cinema
  • Tesco Shopping Center in Tanjung Bungah, 2nd floor

Movie Theatres
It's air-conditioned, and I don't have referee the kids for a blessed 1.5 hours. What's not to like? Who cares if the plot makes no sense and the jokes are only so-so? Kids' movies at Gurney Plaza sometimes sell out a couple hours before the start time on weekends, so I highly recommend purchasing your tickets online ahead of time or hit the box office early. Snacks and drinks are so cheap here compared to America — US$3.30 for 2 regular drinks plus a regular popcorn!

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Milking a Coconut and Making Ice Cream

Years before I ever suspected we were going to one day become expatriates ourselves, I devoured David Lebovitz's book, The Sweet Life in Paris, about his adventures as a well-known American pastry chef moving to a city renowned for its food scene. Afterwards, I came away thinking that a) living abroad might be fun; and b) I am too gauche to live in Paris. I still bop around Lebovitz's food blog, so I can continue daydreaming about food and European expat life. One day, I stumbled upon a Quick Coconut Ice Cream recipe that had "make this" written all over it.

When I move back to America, I think one thing I'll miss is fresh coconut milk. It really lends such a fabulous flavor to curries (I recommend Thai Choice Yellow Curry Paste) and, as I discovered, ice cream. Many wet markets here make coconut milk fresh every day, and a ¼ cup costs about US$0.30. The 4-person stand pictured below does very brisk business.

Step 1:
Cut coconuts in half with big, scary knife.


Step 2:
Hold coconut half against rotating grinder wheel to take off outer brown husk.

Step 3:
Throw coconut into top of machine where it goes through the shredder and drops into a big tub.

Step 4:
Gather shredded coconut into a muslin cloth or cheesecloth and bring it over to the press.

Man gathers shredded coconut in muslin cloth

Step 5:
The press squeezes down on the bag, and the coconut milk drips out into a bucket.

Step 6:
Transfer the coconut milk from the bucket to a pitcher for easy dispensing into plastic bags tied closed with a rubber band.

Fresh coconut milk

When I move back to Austin (hometown of Whole Foods Market), I suppose I'll have to just get used to buying this instead.

Not-as-fresh Coconut Milk

While I was at the wet market, I also stopped by the baking stall to pick up a package of Gula Melaka (Palm Sugar made from boiled down palm tree sap) to act as the sweetener. Before making the ice cream, I had to chop the disk into fine chunks just to speed up the process of dissolving it in the hot coconut milk.

Gula Melaka (Palm Sugar)

Palm Sugar is a a little hard to find in America, but I did see it on the shelves of the International Foods aisle at Whole Foods. A Indian or Asian market may be another source.

This Palm Sugar is much more expensive than buying it from the wet market in Malaysia.

The ice cream I made was fantastic. (The recipe is at the bottom of this post.) The tropical flavor of the coconut and the deep richness of the palm sugar had me practically licking the custard before it was cool enough not to burn my tongue. Waiting for it to chill and throw in the ice cream maker was torture. It's vegan, too, if you care about that sort of thing. I would show you a picture, but I ate it all before I could whip out my camera.

I realize that not everyone has the time to source exotic ingredients or the equipment to churn their own ice cream. Luckily, I found a place in Austin, Texas where you can get your fix. Lick Ice Cream on South Lamar makes small batch, organic ice cream using local ingredients (except for the coconut, I assume). There were three vegan coconut flavors on the menu the day we visited. For their Fresh Mint and Chocolate Chunk ice cream, I swear that they must steep fresh mint leaves in hot cream to capture that incredibly bright flavor. No peppermint extract here. A word of warning though — while my palate was delighted with the artisanal flavors, my kids were less enthralled. I think they were wishing for candy crush-ins.

Lick Honest Ice Cream — Creamy goodness in every bite

Artisanal flavors

adapted from David Lebovitz (who adapted it from Delicious Days by Nicole Stich)
⅔ cup (160 ml) heavy cream
1 cup (250 ml) coconut milk
2 ounces (60 g) palm sugar, or ¼ cup white or unrefined cane sugar ("normal" granulated sugar)

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring all the ingredients to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, and chill the mixture thoroughly. Once chilled, freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. Makes about 1 pint.

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This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? and Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Snorkeling at Thailand's Racha Yai Island

Snorkeling off of Thailand's Racha Yai Island

My original Phuket dream boat trip was to Phi Phi Islands (pronounced "Pee Pee") which is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous. However, it seems that monsoon season is not the best time to go, especially if you are prone to seasickness. The speedboat ride takes much longer, and the seas are rougher. Considering that I was getting motion sick reading the snorkeling company's emails during the car ride to the airport, bumpy boat didn't seem the way to go. Instead, we opted for Racha Yai island where the snorkeling is reputedly better than at Phi Phi anyways. Racha Yai is still relatively undiscovered and pristine, too.

Getting ready to climb aboard the speedboat in Phuket

The day started with Aloha Ocean Adventures picking us up from the hotel and driving us to the southern tip of Phuket. From there, we boarded the speedboat for the 40-minute, 14-mile (22 km) trip south to Racha Yai. Even though I took a motion sickness pill before we boarded the boat and kept my eyes focused firmly on the horizon, I still got queasy. Perhaps it was the 10-foot swells that obscured the horizon in the distance. Thankfully, the waters quieted once we reached Racha Yai. Our guide was great explaining how to use the snorkeling gear and making sure everything was adjusted right. Figuring that being in the water was better than getting sick on the gently rocking boat, I was eager to jump into the secluded bay.

The guide gave my oldest boy bananas to feed the fish. Hubby opted to just wiggle his fingers in front of his face to attract them. Since we had the boat to ourselves, my family was able to set the pace. After about 45 minutes, other boats started showing up, and my stomach was still roiling. So, we all climbed back on board and headed to a beach on the eastern side of the island. The crew had prepared a platter of tasty tropical fruits, but alas, my queasiness and my family's pickiness kept us from eating any of it. However, the kids dug right into the cooler of drinks and the basket of chips and cookies.

We got off the boat onto a pier. It was just a bunch of hollow, plastic rectangles lashed together and floating on the water's surface. Walking on it felt like one of the challenges from Wipe Out, and I was glad my daughter still had on her life jacket. Moving quickly was the key.

Building a sand castle pile

We had a lot of fun playing in the sand and just wading into the calm waters. For a while, we watched a little hermit crab make his way across the beach. My girl had to use the bathroom, but there wasn't one nearby. After years of telling her not to pee in the pool, I told her it was totally okay to do it in the ocean. She questioned the propriety of this suggestion.

Everybody's got a water buffalo, Yours is fast but mine is slow.

Then, it was off to lunch. Racha Yai is still undeveloped and without any paved roads. So, we jumped on the back of a covered wagon pulled by a tractor and made our way uphill to the Ban Raya Hotel. The view was delightful, and the food was delicious. We had the option of playing in the pool or hitting another beach. We picked the beach.

Beautiful view towards the west from the Ban Raya Hotel
Look at how blue that water is!

Racha Yai island is quite small, and we could have easily made our way around on foot. But the tractor wagon was waiting for us again to take us to Siam Beach on the island's northern side. It's supposed to be an isolated, powdery, white sand beach. But when we got there, it was high tide, and the little strip of available sand was packed with the handful of people on the island. There also seemed to be more huge chunks of coral on the ground and under water that you had to watch out for.  The most memorable part of our time here was my hubby's Baywatch moment when he carried two women back to shore.

Siam Beach on Racha Yai

The tide is high, but I'm holding on...

My younger son was still hoping to get in a little more snorkeling, so we made our way back to the floating pier and onto the boat. After it pulled away from shore a little more, we all jumped into the water. Before I had all my gear on, I could already hear my boys and their dad yelling about a blue starfish they saw. I think I enjoyed this time more. My stomach had finally settled down, thank goodness. My daughter was more comfortable in the water, too. Floating above the coral and watching the fish and eels swim by was spectacular. Totally worth all the seasickness!

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Night Falls on Penang Island

There are 1,001 things I should be doing. It's the first week of school, and getting everyone back into the swing of things takes some effort. I should be telling the kids to take a shower. I should be washing dishes. I should be working on that PTO Volunteer Opportunities sheet that I suggested our school create. So many things!

Instead, I'm out on my bedroom balcony enjoying the sunset. Stop and smell the roses. Right?

A haze has hovered over the island for most of the summer. Indonesia is using fire to clear land, and the ash floats over to Penang. For days, the whiteness blocked out the sun, and I haven't been able to see more than partway across the straits. I couldn't even go outside last weekend without my eyes burning.

But today, the haze has lifted. And the sunset was spectacular.

Night falls on Penang Island

I took this photo with the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX10V that hubby gave me for my birthday last month. It's a point-and-shoot, and I'm loving it.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque

Malaysia is primarily a Muslim country. We are at the end of Ramadan, the month-long observation of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Many Ramadan buffets are popping up around town, even along the side of the road, for Muslims to eat at after the sun goes down. On the radio, I just heard the DJ revel in Malaysia's multi-racial society and remind non-Muslims to be polite and not flaunt their delicious lunches in front of those who are fasting.

This Sunday is Hari Raya Aidilfitri  when the fasting period comes to an end. It's pretty much the biggest holiday in Malaysia. Most people get Monday and Tuesday off. Many Muslims head to their hometown or go on vacation to spend it with their families. My kids have school on those days, so it's going to be two Date Days, as opposed to Date Nights, for hubby and I. Strings of lights (what we would refer to as "Christmas lights" in America) decorate streets, and crescent moons with stars hang everywhere. Last year, I remember seeing crowds of people decked out in their finest traditional Malay clothing making their way to area mosques for communal prayer.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

The most historic mosque in George Town, Penang is Masjid Kapitan Keling which was built in 1800 for the South Indian Muslim community. "Masjid" means mosque. "Kapitan Keling" refers to Caudeer Mohoodeen, the head of the Indian Muslims at the time of construction.  "Kapitan" is the Malay version of the English word, "Captain." Back then, the Indians were referred to as "Keling" because most of them were convict laborers, and their chains would make a cling-cling noise as they worked. Understandably, modern day Indians in Penang oppose this term and are lobbying to eliminate it from use. However, it's still in the name of this mosque and the street named after it. This street is also called "The Street of Harmony" because, in addition to the mosque, it has a Hindu temple, Chinese temple and Anglican church along it.

Long prayer rugs line the empty prayer hall.

Although we didn't enter the prayer hall, a Muslim guide took us around everywhere else and was open to answering our many questions. Our group had so many! Why are multiple wives permitted? So that every woman can have a protector even if the man:woman ratio isn't equal. Why are women separated from men when praying in mosques? Because a man cannot concentrate on Allah if a women is praying right in front of him, prostrate on her knees with her forehead down on the ground. How many times do Muslims face Mecca and pray every day? Five times - before dawn, around lunch time, afternoon, sunset and nighttime. The exact times are dependent on your city, and yes, there's an app for that. How long do prayers last (because five times a day seems like a lot to us non-Muslims)? Some are as short as five minutes. What exactly does Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, involve? Umm... I didn't take notes, and you can Google it just as easily as I can.

The five prayer times for the day are displayed on the bottom row from right to left.
The box in the upper right shows the current date and time.

He demonstrated the ablutions every Muslim must make before entering the mosque to pray. Let me tell you — It's certainly more involved than dipping your fingers in Holy Water and making the Sign of the Cross as I'm accustomed to doing in Catholic churches. Standing next to something that looks much like a large wading pool, he rolled up his sleeves and pants. Then, he scooped water up with a small, ladle-like bucket and proceeded to wash up. Hands and wrists got attention first . He rinsed out his mouth, rubbed his teeth and blew water out his nostrils.  He cleansed his face and ran his fingers through his beard and hair. The feet were last. I think what really struck me while I observed this is that various religions use water to symbolically purify followers. We're different, but we're the same, too.

Inside the mosque looking out towards the street. According to custom, no pictures decorate the walls.
Instead, a motif of Arabic writing  or a pattern of eight-pointed stars provides adornment.

Our guide is also a muezzin, a person at the mosque who recites the azan, the call to prayer. In olden days, the muezzin would climb to the top of a minaret and sing out the azan so believers could hear the announcement. Now, he stays at the bottom with a microphone and broadcasts from a loudspeaker at the top. This is a chant that emanates throughout the city five times a day. It's become part of the soundtrack of my life in Penang. The guide graciously recited the azan for us and translated every line into English as he went.

Minaret as seen from inside the mosque
And yes, I got teased for thinking the call to prayer was just a recording.

I had been wanting to visit a mosque but was nervous that I'd unintentionally do something highly offensive. I went as part of Spiral Synergy's tour of The Street of Harmony. The mosque also offers free guided tours starting at the base of the minaret. If you would like to understand more about the intersection of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, I recommend reading The Faith Club.

Visiting hours : 1-5 p.m. Saturday to Thursday; 3-5 p.m. Friday
Admission: Free. Guided Tours run by the Islamic Propagation Society International are available at the Islamic Information Centre located at the ground floor of the minaret.

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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Caught in the Act! My Husband and Girls in Bikinis

Thailand has a naughty side. To borrow the famous Las Vegas phrase, "What happens in Thailand stays in Thailand." (Unless your wife decides to post it on her blog.) So, should I have been surprised by what greeted my eyes when I looked up from my beach chair? There was my husband of 20 years in the surf with two bikini-clad, lithsome lasses pressed up against him. What's worse is that he wasn't exactly fighting them off. And our tween boy was standing right next to him! There's only one acceptable explanation for this kind of behavior. Lucky for him, it's exactly the reason he offered up when he finally made his way back to dry land.

Hubby and my son were enjoying the waves off Racha Yai island which is a 40-minute speedboat ride from Phuket. Suddenly, hubby heard one of the Japanese ladies next to him call out, "Help! Help!" His guess is that they didn't know how to swim. They had waded into the water and were taken by surprise when one of the bigger waves lifted them up so their feet no longer touched the bottom. The other lady didn't speak English and was completely freaked out.

My hubby is a tall guy. He towers over me by more than a foot. I remember being in Galveston, Texas and treading water while he just stood with his head and shoulders above the water. He's great to have around when it gets a little deep.

His inner Baywatch hero kicked in, and he grabbed one gal in each arm before walking back to shallow water. Later on, we decided he should have handed one off to our son so he could get a Boy Scout Heroism Award.

Even when they were in water only 3 feet deep, the ladies were still clinging tightly to him. He kept saying, "Stand. Stand." But I guess their English vocabulary didn't extend that far. They finally realized they could touch the bottom and made their way back to their beach chairs.

I had to take a picture for either a) incriminating evidence; or b) big newspaper write up.

Our snorkeling guide told us this happens quite often. People who have no experience with the ocean wade out and are taken completely by surprise.

For the rest of the day, I kept calling hubby, "David Hasselhoff."

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

5 Unexpected Pleasures of Going Home

Triple Berry Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

This summer, the kids and I headed back to Texas for six weeks while hubby stayed behind in Malaysia, diligently doing the work that instigated our overseas move. I looked forward to the typical things — reuniting with friends and family, eating Tex-Mex and BBQ, shopping at Target and well-stocked grocery stores... You know what I mean. It's the stuff that everyone misses when they are away from home for months on end. I couldn't wait to get my hands on some fresh, summer berries to make a yummy pie. However, there are things I missed without realizing it. They took me by surprise.

Peace and Quiet
When I wake up in the morning in my suburban Austin home, I hear birds chirping. Penang, on the other hand, is a cacophony of noises. I live on a main thoroughfare, and the roar of traffic is constant. Construction on a couple of high rise condos going up next door continues six days a week, sometimes until late at night. At least the explosions have stopped. Someone is renovating a condo twelve floors above me, and it's amazing how the jackhammer sounds carry down through the building. Austin was a sanctuary of peace and quiet. Well, until my kids started arguing with each other.

Wide, Open Spaces
Penang is an island with a few big hills in the middle. Almost all the people live crowded along the edge of the island from the northwestern tip down around clockwise to the southern side. Residential towers reach up for sky everywhere like exclamation points littering the city. As I drove around near my Austin home, I couldn't help but notice how the brilliant, blue sky wrapped around me without interruption. Even though the idea of living in a dense, urban community like Penang really appeals to me, I couldn't help but love how open the suburbs feel.

A science demo that the whole elementary school in Austin turned out for. You can't pull this off in Penang.

I Feel the Need... The Need for Speed
Driving around Penang is city driving. Lots of stopping and going while the speedometer never goes much above 60 kph (37 mph). Cars constantly cut in front of me, and I can't begin to explain how crazy the numerous motorscooters are. I hadn't driven at highway speeds for months. Heading up the freeway ramp, I felt a little apprehensive — kind of like when I was a teen behind the wheel for the first time. But the stream of cars just carried me along. It felt wonderful and free to be sailing down the road. Although, I did notice that the Malaysian maneuvers I've picked up don't work so well at fast speeds. When I drove the 200+ miles from Austin to my in-laws' house, I even became reacquainted with my old friend, Cruise Control.

Great Music on the Radio
Every good drive requires good music on the radio. In Malaysia, I always listen to Top 40 music, probably because that's what most of the English-language stations play. One station broadcasts the Ryan Seacrest show every weekday afternoon. I can't seem to find a classical station anywhere on the dial, although there seems to be one Malaysian station we've nicknamed "Obscure Songs from the 70s." But Austin, self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World", has such a wonderful selection of music on the radio. I was hopping all over the place. ZZ Top, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," classic rock, alternative, NPR, concertos, dance.... I kept telling my kids, "Listen up! This is a really good song." My ears were in heaven.

When hubby was growing up, he had a water fountain in his house. Seriously.

Drinking Water
Free water is hard to find in Malaysia. At most restaurants, you have to order bottled water. One Italian restaurant really rankles my husband because all they have is fancy, imported water that costs more than twice as much as the sodas. When we go on outings, the family usually brings along drinking water. Do Americans sufficiently appreciate how easily they can get potable water? All the museums, shopping malls, grocery stores, and entertainment venues in Texas we went to had water fountains. No need to lug around bottles for 3 kids and an adult! At the restaurants of course, the waiters just set it on the table free and without asking. It's such a mundane thing, but I've missed it.

Visiting Texas was wonderful. It was just what we needed. (Missing hubby/daddy was the one downside.) Looking at our hometown through the lens of living in SE Asia certainly brought about a new perspective. But returning to Penang was good, too. Both places feel like home.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check it out for more travel inspiration.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

R&R in Phuket, Thailand

Hanging out in the treetops looking over Phuket and Luang Pu Supa Temple

We just returned from a 4-day weekend in Phuket. (It's pronounced "poo-KET" in case if you're wondering.) I've decided that Phuket is like the Cancun of Asia. If you are so inclined, you can just spend your time kicking back on the beach and at the hotel. Of all the places I've been to in Asia, it also has the most white people — mostly vacationers from Australia or New Zealand judging by the accents. As far as I could tell, we were the only Americans around. Although, people never assume that I'm American, so who am I to make assumptions?

I'm normally rather Type A when planning a vacation. Phuket was different. Perhaps it's because we've been doing so much traveling that dedicating tons of time to prepping each trip is no longer feasible. This is the most unstructured we've ever been.

Perhaps it's because of my kids' overwhelmingly negative attitude towards this trip. After spending 6 weeks of intense fun in Texas, they just wanted to stay home in Penang. At random moments, they would come up to me and remark, "I don't want to go to Thailand."

Perhaps it was because of my hectic schedule. In the week leading up to our trip, I attended a baby shower, became better acquainted with a new expat family, hung out poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel, and hit Ladies Night at a nearby bar. Hmmm, as I reread this list, I realize that I'm probably not getting many sympathy votes.

So, the extent of my trip planning involved asking a friend to email me her notes from their Phuket visit. The day before, I asked my oldest kid to look at a few of the excursions online. On the way to the airport, I started emailing a snorkeling company to set up something for the next day. This is sooooo last minute for me.

When we got to the airport, the kids were a little surprised at how small the plane was. We sat right in front of the propellers, and talking produced that same strange, vibrating sound effect as when you speak into a fan. It was a quick, 75-minute flight with apple pie as one of the offered snacks.

Wait a minute! You want us to get on that?

Looking out the window somewhere over the Andaman Sea

Our hotel, the Katathani Phuket Beach Resort on Kata Noi beach, turned out to be just what we needed. For our last few trips, the kids have been begging to have more down time at hotels. With numerous pools, beach access, and a Kids Club, this definitely fit their requirements. They even had a chance to check out a DVD from the front desk to watch in their room. Judging by the number of toddlers and babies running around, this was a very kid-friendly resort.

Coconut Concoction

I left swimming with the kids to hubby while I relaxed with a good book and a huge fruity cocktail. I had them all to myself for 6 weeks. He can take a few hours in the pool.

Petanque is part of Thailand's French influence.

We had time for a game of outdoor chess and tried Petanque for the first time.

The beach had fine sand and huge waves. We were there during low season when monsoons really kick up the surf and ocean swimming is discouraged. In the high season extending from November to April, the water is supposedly quite still and clear.

Kata Noi beach during Monsoon Season (May to October)

Food at the hotel was quite good. My kids always adore a good breakfast buffet, especially if bacon is offered.

International breakfast of Bretzel (pretzel roll), Eggs Benedict, bacon, French toast, and Pad Thai

An attentive waiter at the Seafood and BBQ dinner buffet noticed that my son had put raw rock lobster on his plate, whisked it away, and showed him where to find the grilled lobster. This is the second place we've been to that displays uncooked seafood on the buffet. (I'm not referring to sushi.) That practice mystifies me.

The poolside Fisherman's Wharf restaurant had a Pirates Night, but the theme only extended to two Captain Jack Sparrow-type cutouts at the entrance and the loose, red velvet vests the waitresses wore. Perhaps it was too much to expect that they would talk like a pirate all night? At least the food was delicious which is what really matters.

What happens when you pair tableside flambe with high winds?

We didn't spend all our time at the hotel, though. One day was spent snorkeling and another morning was spent at an aerial ropes course. At one point, the vehicle traffic back to the resort was blocked by downed power lines. As we went around it on foot, I took my kids hands and warned them not to touch the wires lying on the ground. Visiting scenic Phi Phi island is one of the most highly recommended activities near Phuket, but the high seas and my tendency towards seasickness nixed that plan for us. This gives me an excuse to return when the seas are calmer.

On our ride back to the airport, hubby and I commented that we didn't really do anything stereotypically Thai on the trip. But the kids actually had fun, despite their low expectations, and we got to spend time relaxing together as a family. Hubby turned to the kids and told them, "Everyone should visit Bangkok at least once. It has great temples and ruins. I've already done it twice — once when I was your age and once with your mom. You kids will have to wait until you're grownups to do it because we're not taking you." How's that for encouraging a lifetime of travel?

Related Posts
Snorkeling at Thailand's Racha Yai Island
Caught in the Act! My Husband and Girls in Bikinis
Flying through the Trees at Phuket Tree Adventure

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

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