Monday, December 30, 2013

Selamat Tahun Baru

Wishing you a Selamat Tahun Baru! Happy New Year to those of you who don't speak Malay. The last year has been incredible and amazing as my family has explored the world and become more accustomed to life in Penang, Malaysia. Here's to more adventures in 2014!

Time marches on
(Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Selamat Hari Natal!

That means "Merry Christmas" in Malay. We're in Houston right now surrounded by family, exactly like what the kids wished for (and didn't get) last year. Wishing you joy and happiness, too!

Ornaments - Malaysian kite, monkey, and the PETRONAS Towers

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Looking for Mary at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

When I walked into Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral last June, it felt a bit like coming home. I had spent the previous year visiting Shinto temples in Japan, Buddhist temples in Thailand and both Hindu temples and Muslim mosques in Malaysia. Whereas all these places were interesting, the amount I know about these various religions would fill one short paragraph at the most. I always felt on the verge of greatly offending someone by ignorantly doing the wrong thing.

Notre Dame Cathedral's South Façade as seen from across the Seine River.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a church for the Catholic religion that's been with me since birth. Finally, I was visiting a place where I knew the rituals like the back of my hand and the stories depicted on the walls and windows without having to refer to a guide book. Okay... small confession... I did have to look at the guide book a little because the imagery is sometimes unclear, but the stories were familiar to me after a lifetime of religious education classes and Sunday mass.

Notre Dame means "Our Lady." Specifically, it refers to Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. During this time of year leading up to Christmas, I often think of Mary. What must it have been like to travel so far from home while hugely pregnant? What did she think of winging it with accommodations once they got to Bethlehem? Did she look at Joseph and ask, "Seriously? A manger? That's all you could get us?" Or was she patient, kind, and compliant? Perhaps she was thinking, "At this point, I don't care! I am about to pop." At least she and Joseph did not have that whole "what to name the baby" quandary since the Angel Gabriel specifically told her, "You are to give him the name Jesus."

Notre Dame is huge with so much to take in and see. Let's focus on just one theme. This post is in honor of Mary as I show you some of the many ways she is depicted throughout the cathedral. If you like, listen to this recording of "Hail Mary" sung by the Notre Dame choir as you read on.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

128 Hours 55 Minutes of Air Travel in One Year

This has been a banner year for travel for my family. I've often said that living the expat life has prompted us to travel, and my oh my, we really embraced that notion these last 12 months. We literally traveled around the world heading westward until we returned to our starting point in Penang. On another trip, the kids made their first hop back and forth across the Equator.

Would Icarus be jealous?

Here are some statistics for our family's air travel for one year.
  • 128 hours and 55 minutes in the air, not including layovers
  • 31 flights
  • 20 airports
  • 12 airlines; hence, abysmal accrual of frequent flier miles at any one airline
  • 7 countries
  • 5 flights longer than 10 hours
  • 4 continents
  • For hubby, add on an additional 32 hours 10 minutes spread over 6 flights for business travel.

We did all this without the kids missing any school for travel.

Wow. If you had predicted this three years ago, I would have laughed in your face. Earlier this week, I was chatting with a nomadic family about their flight from England to Rio de Janeiro. When they said it took 14 hours, I actually said, "14 hours? That's not bad." My brain now thinks that 14 hours is no big deal.

Back in Penang, I'd spend my days while the kids were at school exploring the island and getting deliberately lost in George Town so that I could stumble across its many wonders. On weekends, we'd play on the beach, hike through the jungle, or camp out on Penang Hill. There are many perks to living in a tourist hotzone.

So, where did we go on all those airplane flights?

Enjoy the hikes around Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the early morning on hot, January days.


We kicked off the year in Australia. We strolled along Bondi Beach on New Year's Day and watched from afar as the water was cleared after a shark sighting. A glow-in-the-dark puppet show entertained the kids at the Sydney Opera House. We snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef and wilted in the 114°F (46°C) heat at Ayers Rock. Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia proved to be a great place to relax and unwind after our hectic itinerary.

Despite how incredible this trip was, my children really missed being with their grandparents and cousins at Christmas. This has been mentioned repeatedly throughout the year during honest, heartfelt moments.


Kuala Lumpur

It wasn't always overseas travel that called to us. We took a roadtrip to Kuala Lumpur one long weekend. After learning my lesson from a previous trip when we couldn't get into the Petrosains Discovery Centre due to crowds, I reserved tickets a few weeks in advance to make sure we'd gain admission this time to the very hands-on science museum. We enjoyed our hotel room with a view of the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and a kid-free outing at the Sky Bar. Kidzania was the highlight of the trip for my younger kids because they loved playing pretend and trying the various jobs from DJ to chocolatier. We stocked up on plenty of American processed foods at Ampang Grocers and made sure to visit La Mexicana, a truly authentic Mexican restaurant.

Water for Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Easter found us in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We played in waterfalls, visited the Long Neck people and other tribes, strolled through temples, squeezed into tuktuks, and did a little drifter kart racing and paint ball target practice, too. As a family, we took a Thai cooking class where my boys surprised me with their culinary skill. For me, the highlight of the trip was a day spent at Elephant Nature Park where I got to feed elephants and bathe them in the river.

Jumping for joy at the Eiffel Tower.


Paris was an eagerly anticipated trip. We were headed to Texas for the summer school holiday but took a week-long stopover in the City of Light. Everyone seemed to be brimming with suggestions about where to go. We went deep underground to see decorative skeletons in Les Catacombes and climbed high above the city at both the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The kids gave a thumbs up to the classics at the Louvre and a thumbs down to modern art at the Pompidou. My son still exclaims, "Some pictures were nothing but white paint on a canvas!" One gustatory delight after another crossed our lips from macarons to baguettes smeared with Brie to McDonald's on the Champ Élysées. Versailles dazzled us and gave us a taste of idealized country life at The Queen's Hamlet. A day spent at Parc de la Villette allowed the kids to just run free and have fun. Best of all, we completed our goal of visiting a Disney park at each of its worldwide locations when we added Disneyland Paris to the list that already had Florida, California, Hong Kong, and Tokyo on it.

My daughter has been dreaming about her first visit to the American Girl Doll Store and Café.


Fathers' Day was busy for us. We had breakfast in Paris and a late lunch in Houston, Texas with both my dad and father-in-law before making the 3 hour drive to our home in Austin. The kids absolutely loved being in the Lone Star State, seeing their friends, and celebrating the Fourth of July with their cousins. We tried some new adventures like indoor skydiving as well as old favorites like visiting the Kemah Boardwalk and multiple museums in Waco, Austin, and Houston. My oldest boy spent a week at Boy Scout Camp in the Lost Pines along Lake Bastrop and talked to his friends about middle school in Texas compared to where we are now. He came away concluding that Texas kids have more social pressure.

Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay


Cheap airfare and a long weekend lured us away to Singapore just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Our kids asked to go to the Science Centre where we met up with some Texas friends, and we also explored Gardens by the Bay for the first time. The new S.E.A. Aquarium awed us with the Guinness Book of World Record Largest Aquarium Tank. Dining on Chili Crab at Jumbo Seafood and Tex-Mex food at Café Iguana have become a Singapore trip tradition.

The Great Wall stretches as far as the eye can see.


China is in the same time zone as Malaysia, so we had no issues with jet lag. In a departure from our usual method of independent travel, we hired a private tour company. It was wonderful to be freed from worrying about logistics so that I could just enjoy myself. The Forbidden City was large and imposing while the Great Wall turned out to be great fun since we took a cable car up and a toboggan down. Seeing all the Terracotta Warriors standing at attention at the massive archeological dig site was impressive.

Woman with Tibetan Prayer Wheel at the Yak Butter market stall in Lhasa.


Tibet was a last minute addition to our China trip and highly recommended by a friend with kids. I flew in over the Himalayas with vague notions of Shangri-La and Dalai Lama quotes floating through my brain, and I exited with a richer understanding of life there. The conflict between Chinese rule and a longing for a free Tibet was an undercurrent that ran throughout our travels. Tibetans clearly still cherish the current Dalai Lama who has been living in exile in India since 1959. Hubby and I took turns visiting palaces, temples and monasteries while the other parent cared for the kids who had been rendered lethargic by altitude sickness.

New Zealand The United States (again)

Hubby and I had long planned on heading to New Zealand for the Christmas break, but the kids had other ideas. They have never really forgiven us for keeping them away from Texas family and traditions last year. I'd try to tempt them with visions of glowworm caves and glacier hikes, and they would counter with "Grandma, Grandpa, Lolo and Lola." So one day, I just looked at hubby and said, "New Zealand will always be there. Let's give the kids what they want."

In a few days, we'll head off on the last part of our 128 hours 55 minutes of flight time in one year travel binge. On Christmas Day, we'll be seated around the table at hubby's aunt's house surrounded by both of our families. Both hubby's and my parents get along fabulously and celebrate this day together so we don't have to choose.

We've offered our kids the world, and what they want most is home.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, and "Share Your Best" on Two Kids and a Map and Mommy Travels. Please check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

McDonald's and Cyborgs on the Champs Élysées

Did you know that the opening round of the classic sci-fi Man versus Machine battle scenario has already occurred in the real world? And that it happened at, of all places, the McDonald's on Paris's famed Avenue des Champs Élysées? Call it "Terminator 5: I'll be Back... and I Want Fries with That."

Let me start at the beginning.

When my family was in Paris last summer, we did the quintessential tourist experience of taking a stroll along what's been called "one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world." After being accustomed to dodging cars and having to walk single file along Penang's narrow streets, it was a joy to safely saunter 5-people-across down the wide sidewalks lining the boulevard.

Our first photo stop was the Arc de Triomphe. After having climbed the tower at Notre Dame that morning and taking the stairs up the Eiffel Tower the previous day, we had absolutely zero interest in attacking the 284 steps to the top of the Arc.

Paris, Champ Elysees, Arc de Triomphe
Yes, I am standing smack dab in the middle of the Champs Élysées taking a photo.

We also headed over to Ladurée, the luxe bakery where the now trendy macaron was first invented back in 1930. As it was getting late in the day, the line was not too bad. I hear that it sometimes stretches out the door and on to the sidewalk.

Laduree, Paris, Champs Elysees, macaron, bakery

Laduree, macarons, Paris, Champ Elysees, bakery
Ladurée's Macarons: Feather light meringue shells with a smooth and rich buttercream filling

We had a chance to squeeze in a little window shopping for automobiles, too.

concept car, Renault, Paris, Champ Elysees
Concept car at Renault
In the future, rear row passengers do not get seat backs.

All that walking around and staring at macarons makes a family hungry. Where to eat? Perhaps down a side street at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée for haute couture dining starting at US$108 for an entree? With the youngsters? I don't think so. We wanted some cheap eats on the Champs Élysées. Since the kids had been good about seeing all the bucket list sights on Mom and Dad's list, we thought we'd go somewhere that they'd enjoy. As long as it had a pastry case, I was sure I'd be satisfied, too.

Vanilla-rum cakelets covered with a delicious caramelized crust for US$1.40 each
Choice of tartlets: Lemon or Milk chocolate and hazelnuts for US$3.50 each

Oh yeah, this place would suit us just fine. What's this classy cafe called? Here's a picture to help you find it... you know, in case if you don't understand French.

The Golden Ivory Arches

If you want to be like the French, call it "McDo." (If you want to be like the Australians, call it "Macca's.") When we walked up to it and asked the kids if they wanted to eat here, they were practically jumping with joy. We'd been feeding them Steak au Poivre and Croque Monsieurs all week, poor them. With all our international travels, they always like to find a little gastronomical refuge at a McDonald's. Hubby liked that the entire dinner bill came out to US$46 for the five of us, even after I included an order for six more macarons.

Menu board at McDo.

Do some people watching along the Champs Élysées from the 2nd floor of McDo.

One of our favorite aspects of the restaurant experience was the Easy Order computer stations. Located just in front of the counters, they were a welcome respite from our sometimes unsuccessful attempts to order food in French. (We didn't realize that the mystery French word of a brasserie's veal dish translated into "kidneys" until after the dish was set down on the table.) After swiping a credit card, we used the touch screen menu to place our order in English. My teen who always belatedly realizes he doesn't know how to indicate "no cheese" in foreign languages was glad to see that he could customize his Big Mac. Not wanting to be left out of making extra selections, my younger son customized his drink as "Without Ice." Other visitors were intrigued enough by the computers that total strangers were taking photos of our screens. A receipt with an order number printed out, and all we needed to do was wait for our number to be called at the Pick Up counter.

The Easy Order computers lived up to their name.

How was the food? I'm going to have to give it a thumbs up. It wasn't the best food I had in Paris of course, but it's coming out on top for the family's worldwide McDonald's survey. The kids got their usual chicken nuggets and burgers, but hubby and I ordered the exclusively French items. My Salade Poulet Moutarde (Salad with Chicken and Mustard Sauce) was composed of fresh greens, crispy chicken, croutons, diced tomatoes, and fried onions topped with a creamy mustard vinaigrette. I thought that the slivers of tasty beets added a pleasant dimension to the meal and were something unlikely to be found in a mass market salad in America. Overall, it's one of the best fast food salads I've had anywhere. However, this judgement may be clouded by my unsatisfied, constant craving for convenient salad in Penang. Hubby munched on a Casse Croute Poulet Curry (Chicken Curry Sandwich). Breaded chicken, potato cakes, lettuce and curry sauce were layered inside a baguette.

French McDo's Big Mac, Chicken Salad with Mustard Sauce, Curry Chicken Sandwich and Happy Meal

What about the Cyborg attack?  The cyborg came out on the losing end. I'm glad that the McDo's employees didn't mind me taking all these photographs. Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor, was not quite as lucky. He also decided to take his kids to the Champs Élysées McDo back in July 2012. What sets Steve apart from the average person is that he has EyeTap Glasses, a wearable computer, surgically attached to his skull. It's kind of like if he had Google Glasses but couldn't take them off without special tools, so he has to wear them 24/7. Some people have classified him as a cyborg  part man, part machine. Apparently, the McDo employees had a BIG problem with being photographed and video recorded by his device. Despite a doctor's note and documentation stating that he could not remove the glasses, they tried to rip it off his head and literally tossed him out on the street. The incident has been called "the world's first cybernetic hate crime."

Who knew so much excitement has happened on the Champ Élysées?

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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An American Thanksgiving in Penang

This is our third year celebrating Thanksgiving in Malaysia. It has been a crazy, unpredictable week where I discovered I have so much to be thankful for. (For instance, I am thankful that my middle school language arts teacher isn't grading this and marking off for ending the previous sentence with a preposition.)

A week ago, I was trying to figure out what to do since we weren't planning on traveling anywhere for the school holiday or invited over to anyone's house for a communal feast. I contemplated cooking everything myself, but the prospect of literally sweating in the kitchen for days for a meal that would be over in less than an hour didn't appeal to me. I thought about heading to the American Thanksgiving Buffet at the G Hotel, but I knew that I'd see other friends there and wish that we were all sitting at one huge, huge table. Eight days before Thanksgiving, I figured out something.

I am thankful that I realized that Thanksgiving for me is not about the food; it's about the people.

The more that I thought about it, the problem with the above scenarios is that my meal would not be shared with a large circle of people. The traditional Thanksgiving foods would be there, but the sense of community would not.

I am thankful that when I texted my husband that I had invited 100 people over for dinner, he merely replied with "Not feasible" as opposed to "You are out of your mind you crazy woman!!"

I reserved the party room in our condo complex because I may be a little crazy, but I'm not so crazy as to invite that many people over to my apartment. A couple other friends offered to help me to host the shindig for which I am very grateful. After a leisurely coffee morning, we had our guest list.

I am thankful that it turns out that there were only 65 people on the final guest list.

I sent out an Evite to everyone and set up a potluck sign up.

I am thankful that six days before Thanksgiving, I got the last two turkeys at the market since they weren't expecting another shipment until Thanksgiving day.

I panicked a bit at first because the man said there weren't any turkeys at all. After some conversation, he mentioned he had turkey breasts, and I immediately claimed them for myself. They were frozen ones from Australia. When I opened up the packaging, I was surprised to discover that the turkey breast was actually the back 75% of the turkey, complete with miniscule-for-a-turkey, chicken-sized legs and thighs. All that was missing were the wings and the front part of the bird.

I worried that we wouldn't have enough turkey for everyone and mentioned it to hubby.

"I think people will be disappointed," he replied.

That's when I realized that for others, Thanksgiving may indeed be all about the food. Perhaps I had lured someone away from the delectable hotel buffet for a dinner that might end up being mostly chicken satay.

Peppermint Patty stared in amazed disappointment. "What kind of Thanksgiving is this?!" she asked. "Don't you know anything about cooking a real Thanksgiving dinner, Chuck? Where's the turkey? Where are the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. What blockhead made all this?"

I am thankful that my friends found other turkeys.

With the fowl situation sorted out, it seemed that everything would be smooth sailing until the day of the party when I would inevitably freak out about playing hostess.

I was wrong.

Early Tuesday, in the middle of the night, my teen woke up with excruciating stomach pain.

I am thankful that my hubby is strong enough to lift my boy down the stairs and into the car. I am thankful he took him to the hospital and stayed the night with him.

My original plan for Tuesday was to go grocery shopping and start baking and prepping for the big feast on Thursday. Instead, I spent the entire day at the hospital with my son. When it became clear that the problem was something minor, thank God, my mind strayed towards thoughts of the two turkey chilling in the freezer instead of thawing out and brining as I had intended.

I am thankful for friends I can call to help out with my other kids while I'm tending to the one who really needs his mommy right at that moment.

One of my worries about moving overseas was losing the support of my parents and in-laws in caring for my children. My friends here have not only become the people that I share Thanksgiving with in lieu of family, they are the ones who don't mind being part of the village it takes to raise a child.

I considered the possibility that we'd still be in the hospital by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. The doctors here are more likely to keep patients hospitalized than in America. With multiple hostesses, the celebration could easily carry on in our absence.

I am thankful for friends who will pitch in with party planning.

He was eventually discharged from the hospital late Wednesday afternoon, 38 hours after he first checked in.

I am thankful that my darling boy is okay after all and that the hospital stay costs all of US$800 before filing for insurance.

It was exactly 26 hours until the Thanksgiving celebration was slated to start. I sent the kids up in the elevator to our home, and immediately jumped back in the minivan to hit the grocery store. I spent the rest of Wednesday night and all day Thursday cooking.

In the end, everything turned out fine. Some people had to cancel due to illnesses or visitors who wanted more exotic cuisine  than a traditional American Thanksgiving. There were 45 people who actually turned out. The food was bountiful and delicious. Surprisingly, we were able to have all the traditional foods including cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Peppermint Patty would have been satisfied.  The chips and salsa, and the guacamole and hummus were rather awesome, too.

All the kids at the feast were thankful for these. treats my friend made.  They gobbled them up.

The unofficial theme for the night was Abundance.

I am thankful that as I tucked my teen into his own bed in his own bedroom tonight, he looked at me and said, "It was a really good Thanksgiving."

Happy Thanksgiving from Your Friend in Malaysia!

And last but not least, I am thankful there is no Black Friday craziness here as I have to hit the mall on Friday to take the kids clothes shopping.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Terracotta Warriors and Tandem Bikes: 24 Hours in Xi'an

The Terracotta Warriors were uncovered in Xi'an, China

Imagine being a farmer just outside of Xi'an, the former capital of ancient China and starting point of the legendary Silk Road. It's 1974, and frankly, all that you are looking for is a new source of water during this time of drought. You start digging a well in the same earth where generations before you have plowed and buried their dead. You uncover bits of a clay figure. Odd shards of pottery have been dug up around here for centuries. Unlike others, you don't dismiss it as insignificant. You've just discovered one of the greatest archeological finds in the world a life-size army of terracotta warriors and horses.

The Terracotta Warriors are one of the top tourists draws in China. Note that it is nowhere near Beijing, the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. Most Westerners hop on a plane to get here. The clay army is what draws most tourists to Xi'an, but other historical sites exist in this 3,100-year-old city, too. It turned out to be a place my whole family, both kids and adults, enjoyed even though we had just 24 hours to get out and explore.

The centuries-old wall encircling old Xi'an is the largest in the world.

Cycling on the City Wall

After our delayed flight finally arrived in mid-afternoon, our first stop in Xi'an was the City Wall which happens to be the largest one in the world. It measures 12 meters (36 feet) tall, 18 meters (54 feet) at the bottom, and 15 meters (45 feet) across at the top. The rectangular city wall wraps itself around the old city, covering 13.7 km (8.5 miles) and is interrupted by gates on each side which were closed each night when it still provided fortification for China's former capitol.

When the kids saw the bicycle rental shop on top of the wall, they immediately decided that it was a much better option than walking. At US$6.60 per 100 minutes for a single bicycle and double that for a twin, we adults didn't argue with them. Hubby and I both got tandem bikes to share with the younger kids while my teen took off on his own. This was indeed a very popular way for tourists to get around, so I was quite glad that the wall was so wide on top. Rental shops are by each gate, and customers can return their bikes at any of them. As we rode around, we peeked out through the battlements and kept smelling the inescapable aroma of stir-fried food. After an hour, we were ready to head off to the next stop.

Taking a break from biking at one of the corner towers on the Xi'an City Wall.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower

Both hubby and I weren't expecting much from our Bell Tower visit, thinking that it was just a way to fill time before heading to the hotel. It turned out to be more interesting than we thought. Standing at the geographical center of old Xi'an, it's surrounded by a giant roundabout connected to the North, South, East, and West Streets which extend outwards towards the City Wall gates. The juxtaposition between the tower built in 1384 and the luxe shopping malls with Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs on the outer side of the roundabout sums up Xi'an perfectly. It's a mix of old and new.

The massive 5-ton bell that tourists are NOT allowed to ring much to my kids dismay.

The wooden, 3-story tower sits atop a tall brick base. Centuries ago, the bell was rung at dawn to signify that it was time to open the four city gates. At nightfall, the giant drums of the Drum Tower a block away were played to indicate it was time for the gates to close. I imagine that in the 14th century, it must have loomed over the town. Both the outside and the inside are covered with intricate paintings. You can climb the stairs inside and go out to the surrounding balconies for a good city view.

The Drum Tower at night as seen from the Bell Tower

By now, it was time to head to our hotel for dinner and a restful night's sleep.  The next day would bring the highlight of our time in Xi'an, a visit to the Terracotta Army.

An Army Frozen in Time

The Terracotta Army stands ready in Pit 1.
See the tourists standing behind the railing against the side walls?

Qin Shi Huangdi, the "First Emperor," unified China in 221 B.C. and died in 210 B.C. He is best known in the modern world as the man who required an entire terracotta army to protect him in his afterlife. In the almost 40 years since the first pieces were discovered, archeologists have located 600 underground vaults within a 22-square-mile area. Only three vaults (pits) have been thoroughly excavated so far. This small sample of Qin Shi Huangdi's necropolis contains an estimated 7,500 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.

When you walk into Pit 1, the army is amassed and standing at attention as if ready to head off to war. The sheer size of the dig invokes awe. That's something that cannot be transported to the touring exhibits in museums around the world.

Imagine what the other 597 pits must contain. Test digs have revealed bronze waterfowl as well as clay officials, musicians and acrobats. I guess he needed counsel, protection, and entertainment after death. A forested berm has been identified as the Emperor's actual tomb, but it has so far been left undisturbed until archeologists are certain they have adequate techniques to protect what they find there.

Amazing attention to detail, even down to the tread on a soldier's shoes.

The warriors were crafted with mix-and-match molds, allowing each one to look a little different from the next. They were mass produced and painted before being carted down into the underground vaults. Earthen walls between the army columns supported wooden beams that held up reed mats, waterproofing clay layers, and the soil used to bury the terracotta soldiers. As time marched on, the beams collapsed, crushing the warriors beneath them. By the time the 20th century rolled around, archeologists were left with a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of attempting to reconstruct each man. As the paint was exposed to air, it quickly disintegrated. This is why the scientists have been proceeding with caution, nervous at uncovering other materials that they currently cannot preserve. As each soldier or horse is completed, it is moved back to its original position.

Some paint remains on these Warriors.

Each warrior is tagged and his location noted as they are unearthed in Pit 1.

The "hospital" in Pit 1 where archeologists reassemble warriors.

Restored warriors at the front with the fragments in the back.

Four soldiers are displayed so that you can get an up close look at them.

After three hours visiting the Terracotta Warriors, we headed for the airport in hopes of finding a late lunch there before we departed. It was just under 24 hours since we had first set foot in Xi'an.

What happened to the farmer who was looking for water but discovered an army? He now sits behind a desk at the gift shop, signing autographs and posing for photos for those willing to pay him. It's nice work if you can get it.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and "Sunday Traveler" on Ice Cream and Permafrost. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seeking The Statue of Liberty in Paris

Everyone knows that when you head to New York City, the Statue of Liberty is high on the list of popular sights to see. How about when you head to Paris? That's what we did when visiting the  Île-de-France last June.

A little background history

France has been wrapped up in the United States of America's history since the USA took its first baby steps to becoming a free nation. In an effort to stick it to the British, the King of France helped to fund the American Revolutionary War and sent his soldiers over to fight under George Washington. The United States won their freedom, and France was left with a debt that's the equivalent of 13 billion U.S. dollars in today's money.  The French citizens were deeply displeased with spending money on a foreign war while their own people went hungry. It was a major cause of their own push to end sovereign rule, otherwise known as the French Revolution. Isn't it ironic (a la Alanis Morissette)?

Fast forward to America's 100th birthday when France proposed a gift as a symbol of the friendship between the two nations. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was tasked with designing the privately funded sculpture that was to be in the classical tradition of the Colossus of Rhodes. It's official name is Liberty Enlightening the World. Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame designed the inner metal skeleton that supports the outer copper plates. For a few weeks in 1884, the 46-meter-high statue towered over Paris as the workmen did the final assembly. It was taken apart, shipped overseas, and finally inaugurated at the entrance of New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. On its pedestal, it reaches 93 meters up into the sky. Over the years, the statue morphed from being a tribute to America's independence and France's friendship to a powerful symbol of emigrants' hope for a better life in the New World.

The copper statue was brown when it was erected. Over thirty years, the copper oxidized and turned green. Have you ever used ketchup to clean a penny? My kids have wondered how much ketchup it would take to restore the Statue of Liberty to its original copper brown color.

Senate building at Luxembourg Garden.
(Psst... this is NOT the Statue of Liberty.)

Searching Luxembourg Gardens

On our first day in Paris, we searched Luxembourg Gardens for one of the Statue of Liberty replicas. Numerous guidebooks and blogs mentioned it, but I never bothered to find out exactly where it was. We found a bunch of other statues and stopped for a while to play with the sailboats in the pond. We walked all over the place (which is in itself quite an enjoyable way to pass the time). We asked other people if they knew where La Liberté was. Someone pointed us in the general direction of the tennis courts. We never found it. Jetlag overcame us, and we gave up.

On Île aux Cygnes by the Pont de Grenelle

Sneaking up from Behind

We finally caught sight of another Statue of Liberty replica while on the Eiffel Tower. You can see her from the back, standing 11.5 meters tall on the Île aux Cygnes next to the Pont de Grenelle. Frankly, she's kind of small when you're looking at her from that high up.

Her tablet has two dates. One is "IV JUILLET 1776" (July 4, 1776). It refers to the date America's Declaration of Independence was signed, and it is on the tablet of the New York City statue, too. The other date is "XIV JUILLET 1789" (July 14, 1789) which marks the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution.

My family later tried to get a closer look at this replica by taking the Bateaux-Mouches Seine River cruise. However, a sign on the ticket window dashed our hopes by announcing it did NOT go by the Statue of Liberty. I guess we weren't the only hopeful tourists wishing to get a better look. Oh well.

The Flame of Liberty at the Place de l'Alma

Do you have a light?

While walking from the Eiffel Tower to the boat cruise, we stumbled across the Flame of Liberty at the Place de l'Alma. It is a gold-leaf and copper, actual size replica of the torch from the New York Statue of Liberty intended as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. Dedicated in 1989, it became a makeshift memorial to Princess Diana who died in 1997 in the nearby tunnel beneath the Pont de l'Alma. When I look at the picture above, I wonder what the lady in front of the statue is thinking.

La Liberté at the Musée d'Orsay

A Work of Art

We finally found a Statue of Liberty that we could see up close at the Musée d'Orsay. She is the best know work of sculptor Bartholdi, so it's only natural to examine it in an art museum setting.

Here's the surprising thing... (which I only figured out as I was researching this post)

This is the same statue that we were looking for in Luxembourg Gardens! No wonder we never found it there. When it was standing outside in the gardens for 115 years, La Liberté was subjected to pollution, weathering, and vandalism. In an effort to preserve the statue, it was removed from Luxembourg Gardens in December 2011, restored, and introduced at the Musée d'Orsay in July 2012.

Some sources say that this 3 meter tall bronze statue was the original model for the bigger version in New York City. Other sources say it is a study done after the New York one was put in its final place. Bartholdi offered it to Paris' Luxembourg Museum, and it was displayed in the garden because the museum interior was out of room.

If you find one still standing in Luxembourg Gardens, it is newly cast from a mold made of Bartholdi's original in the Musée d'Orsay. It's a replica of a replica. Got all that?

Liberty Arcade at Disneyland Paris


Disney Imagineers always goes the extra mile in creating an authentic setting. What better way to connect Disneyland Paris to Main Street U.S.A. than an exhibition on the Statue of Liberty? The large sign evokes the excitement of the day when France's gift to the American people was inaugurated in New York Harbor.

See the sights and hear the sounds on that exciting day
Step inside the darkened alcove to experience the tableaux of the celebration. From the viewpoint of a boat in the Harbor, watch fireworks explode over the statue and hear the excited murmurings of the people around you.

It really is a Small World after all.

Our last sighting of the Statue of Liberty in Paris was on the It's a Small World ride. I've always considered it a symbol of America, but after our trip to Paris, I realized that the French embrace it as part of their country, too.

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Four Points by Sheraton Penang

The new Four Points by Sheraton Penang hotel is near my home, and I've been watching its construction over the last few months. Located in the old Tanjung Bungah Beach Hotel building, the kids and I have been fascinated to see it stripped down to a bare bones structure, including removing all the old windows, and gradually rebuilt into vibrantly colored holiday accommodations. The prominently displayed sign for "The Best Brew" intrigued one of my friends enough that she did a little research and reported that a Chief Beer Officer hand selects craft beers to serve at Four Points hotels. So, when I was invited to attend the Opening Ceremony, I jumped at the chance to get a closer look at the place.

The beach is just outside the hotel.

Location, Location, Location

One of the best attributes of the Four Points by Sheraton Penang is its location. Visitors travel to Penang for its beaches, historic area, and a little shopping. This hotel is conveniently located to all these activities.

Historic George Town is located 20 minutes in one direction, and the National Park where you can do a jungle trek to Monkey Beach is 20 minutes in the opposite direction. The big shopping malls, Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon, are less than a 10-minute drive away. Upscale Straits Quay Marina Mall and Convention Centre with its abundance of restaurants and the Penang Performing Arts Centre are merely 2 km from the hotel. TESCO and Viva Food Haven hawker center are less than a 1 km walk. Believe me. I live right by this hotel, so I know how long it takes to get places.

The beach right outside the hotel is quieter than other beaches on the island and perfect for relaxing. Four Points by Sheraton Penang is the only hotel on this little stretch. Unlike the busier Batu Ferringhi tourist area, it is not overrun with massage shacks, water sports activities, buggies, and novice horse riders. Shade trees along the hotel property line offer some sun protection for young children and others trying to avoid getting a tan. You can walk to the tiny island during low tide without even getting your feet wet.

Go for a Swim

Interestingly, many people like Penang's beaches, but they don't like to actually get in the water. Four Points by Sheraton Penang has a pool by the beach area with a separate wading area shallow enough for young children to splash and play. Lounge chairs invite you to lay back, close your eyes, and let everyday worries fade away...unless you are supervising kids. In that case, keep your eyes open.

Four Points by Sheraton Penang Pool Area

Enjoy the Air-Conditioned Comfort

When you've had enough of the sun, heat and humidity, come inside to The Best Brew. Cozy chairs let you enjoy the view and sip a beer while sitting in air-conditioned comfort. Have fun at the pool table if you start getting bored enjoying the beach life.

The Best Brew has great views of the beach.

Offerings at The Best Brew start at RM10+

Are you Hungry?

The Best Brew also offers snacks, burgers, sandwiches and other hawker delights starting at RM15+. It's open from noon until late in the night.

All-day dining at The Eatery

The hotel's other restaurant, The Eatery, offers all-day dining from a breakfast buffet starting at 6:30AM to a la carte lunches and dinners until midnight. They offer pastas, salads, burgers as well as local favourites. I recently met a group of friends having dinner with their youngsters at The Eatery. While sitting outside, they lingered over their meal and drinks while parents took turns watching the kids on the nearby beach. What a lovely way to spend the evening! When it was time to pay the bill, hubby remembered that our Starwood Preferred Guest card gave us a 20% discount.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, Four Points by Sheraton Penang had a scrumptious lunch buffet with plentiful offerings. The buffet was just for the auspicious occasion, but the deliciousness of each dish makes me think they would do well cooking for special events taking place in their ballroom and meeting rooms.

So much deliciousness to choose from

Spend the Night

After checking in at the breezy, open air lobby, you'll be handed the keys to one of 220 guestrooms and suites. All of them are newly furnished with a stylish, contemporary design. Each room has an LED flat-screen TV, free internet access, and complimentary bottled water. Free Wi-Fi is available in the public areas. Suites have a separate living area and pantry perfect for families and long-stay travelers. Book an Oceanfront room if you want to enjoy the beautiful view of the Straits of Malacca.

The Four Points by Sheraton Penang is part of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group. You can use or earn Starwood points during your stay here.

Open air lobby greets you.

Opening Ceremony Events

I've never attended the opening ceremony of a business in Penang, and it was quite a festive occasion. Everyone moved outside when loud drumming announced the start of a fabulous Dragon Dance on Stilts performance. You could hear the intake of breath from the crowd whenever the dragon made a big leap from one rod to another. This was followed by ceremonial events in the lobby and welcoming talks plus a Q&A session in the ballroom.

Dragon Dance on Stilts

Madame Elsie Chuah of Plenitude Berhad,
Charles Abbot, Regional VP - SE Asia for Starwood Hotels,
and Kurt Vieren, General Manager of Four Points Penang

Opening Remarks by Madame Elsie Chuah of Plenitude Berhad

Special Introductory Offer

Four Points by Sheraton Penang is offering a special introductory rate of RM199++ per night in a Deluxe Room for stays between now until March 31, 2014. This introductory offer includes double SPG Starpoints, 20% off food and beverages, and complimentary in-room Wi-Fi access.


Phone +60 4 371 8888

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