Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't Anger the Orangutans

When we visited Borneo, seeing semi-wild orangutans at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was at the top of my list. My kids and hubby found this mighty peculiar since I have developed a love/hate relationship with the marauding monkeys at our local park in Penang. Imagine squirrels at any American park. Now, imagine that they have opposable thumbs and a yearning to steal your stuff. "So, you want to pay to see monkeys?" my kids asked. "Because, you know, you can see them for FREE at home." True, but these orangutans are definitely in a different league. For the record, they're also not monkeys since they don't have tails.

The Centre is a halfway house for orangutans. After a hard life of partying with humans or injuring themselves living it up in the jungle, the rescued apes end up in rehab at the Sarawak Forestry Corporation. After they've been nursed back to health and taught to fend for themselves, they're released into the surrounding rainforest preserve.  Twice a day, wardens leave out heaps of fruit on platforms to supplement whatever nourishment the orangutan have been able to forage for themselves in the jungle. As they become more self-sufficient, their visits to the Wildlife Centre start decreasing.

This guy stuffed the entire bunch of bananas in his mouth at one time.

When we arrived for feeding time, the staff told us a little bit about their rehabilitation program and orangutans in general. But much of their talk focused on warning us to keep our distance, a minimum of 6 yards, from the orangutans. This isn't one of those up-close interaction, hug and hold, petting zoo type of places. They are firmly committed to making these animals fully independent. Humans are the "intruders" in the jungle, and it's up to the humans to keep out of the way of the orangutans freely wandering around the centre.  Not destroying their habitat would also be a step in the right direction.

The sign with prohibited items gave some clues to how previous human interaction had gone. No tripods are allowed because the orangutans may mistake them for blowguns. Bringing food and drinks is prohibited so that the orangutans won't be tempted to come and grab them from you, whether you invite it or not. I know how I feel when a little macaque monkey comes after my snack, and I certainly didn't want to bait an ape that outweighed me. The lack of primate toilet training is the reason why you don't want to stand underneath a tree with an orangutan. Luckily, we escaped being used as target practice.

As the crowd stood around listening to the wardens, the outlying trees began to shake. You could hear the rustling in the branches get louder and louder as the orangutan approached the feeding platforms. Suddenly, there they were swinging through the trees. From high up in the canopy, they gradually made their way down to the bounteous feast. The orangutans delved into the fruit laid out on the platform. I think that my kids may have been a little jealous that the apes could stuff huge amounts of food into their mouths and use their hands without being reprimanded by the Table Manners Squad (a.k.a. Mom). Some of them just sat on the platform to eat while others took their food up into the trees. That's when the biggest orangutan of them all appeared, and the others cleared out so he could have the platform to himself.

Ritchie the Alpha Male

Ritchie is clearly the Alpha Male in this group. Weighing close to 300 pounds with large cheek pads, he easily smashed coconuts against the tree trunk to get at the meat. The wardens warned us the he may look slow but could easily reach us in two leaps. So don't anger him! Don't make sudden movements or talk too loudly.

Hot Mama and her little one

Also watch out for Hot Mama. Her much deserved nickname comes from her quick temper. Apparently, she has no qualms about defending her kids from humans or other orangutans. Come to think of it, I totally get where she's coming from. I think I might be this way, too. No one messes with my kids.  At one point, she started walking along the path straight towards me. One part of me wanted to get a really great closeup shot of Hot Mama, but the other part of me had scenes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes running through my mind. Did I want my last picture to be of a great big orangutan mouth opening wide to chomp on me? No, so I backed away.

The crowds keep their distance from Hot Mama while she gives a piggy back ride.

In reality, it was all a very calm experience. People murmured to each other as the orangutans made their way around in the trees. If they were down on the ground, we made sure to give them plenty of clearance. Some of the orangutans ambled along the trail to the next feeding station while the others took to the trees to get there. The wardens made sure that everyone kept a safe distance away.

After about an hour, it was time for us to leave. We stopped at the small gift shop and snack bar to make a donation to the Wildlife Centre and buy a few drinks. Seeing animals held captive in a zoo is one thing. Seeing them in their natural habitat and being reminded that we humans are both the outsiders and the ones who can either practice conservation or selfishness was something else.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? and part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tips for Surviving 20 Hours on a Plane: Up in the Air

As you can imagine, 20 hours is a an incredibly long time to spend in the air. I've been getting better at these long haul trips. My first time flying from America to Asia, I thought I was going to go nuts from claustrophobia and discomfort. I had reached my limit, looked down at my watch, and realized that I was only 8 hours into the trip. Ouch. I've come up with a few tricks to make the flight more comfortable, although I'm nowhere close to Vogue editor Anna Wintour's level. If you missed Part 1 of this series, it covers Tips to do Before You Go.

Investigate the in-flight entertainment
Check Seat Guru to find out what amenities are available on board. Some flights show a movie, usually one that is not kid appropriate, to the entire economy class on video monitors located over the aisles. You will probably want to bring along lots for your child to do during the flight to keep their eyes diverted from the screen. Other airlines' economy class offer personal entertainment systems for each seat with on-demand movies and plenty of kid-friendly choices. In this situation, my kids barely use what's in their backpacks.

Order a special meal
I always order the Child Meal for my younger two children. On this last journey, I had the Hindu Meal. It was one of the best in-flight meals I've ever had! The special meals are typically delivered first. Airlines require you to order these meals 24-48 hours in advance, so don't wait until you are on board to request one.

Hindu Meal on Cathay Pacific: Crisp, tender veggies, flavorful rice and meat stew, yogurt, a roll, and fresh fruit. 

Don't toss your bottle
Some airports screen your carry-on bags again at the gate. I've gone through the initial security check with body scanners and X-rays, then bought a bottle of water, walked all of 200 yards to my gate, and been informed that I could not bring the unopened water on board. Instead of throwing away the entire bottle like most people do, just pour out the liquid. Show the screener your EMPTY bottle, and carry it through. In Singapore, there was a water fountain on the other side where I could refill my bottle immediately before boarding. On other flights, decant water from the beverage cart cup into the bottle or sweet talk a flight attendant into filling it up for you. Hydration is key to reducing jet lag, so it's better to have a filled bottle on hand than to buzz the attendant every time you're thirsty.

Bring a seat cushion
I cannot change how much leg room I have in economy. (Serenity now!) However, I can provide my tushie with a little cushy. Along with my U-shaped neck pillow and faux pashmina shawl, my other favorite comfort travel accessory for international flights is a seat cushion with a tail bone cut-out that I bought from the Wal-Mart Auto Department. Alternatively, I can put it behind me for lumbar support. Yes, it does take up a lot of space in my carry-on luggage, but it's so totally worth it.

An extra seat cushion keeps the flight from being a pain in the rear.

Wear noise canceling headphones
At about US$300, these babies aren't cheap. But if you travel a lot, you may decide that spending the money is better than losing your sanity to the tense, tired, crazy feeling you get from hearing the engines drone on and on. When my hubby first bought these, I was rather doubtful of their effectiveness. But when I tried them on, they really made a huge difference. It didn't just muffle the sound. It actually subtracted it from the sound environment. A few airlines loan these headphones as an in-flight perk to their first class and business class customers. If you don't want to cough up the big bucks, there are always foam earplugs.

This post is part of Travel Tips Tuesday on Suitcases and Sippycups.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tips for Surviving 20 Hours on a Plane: Before You Go

The kids and I have arrived safely in Austin for our home visit. We spent 20 hours in the air split over 3 flights and 6 hours waiting in airports. We survived with with very little psychological scarring to either ourselves or to the other passengers on the plane. Phew! So, what did I learn from my long haul flight?

Make sure you have enough time to clear customs
On a loooong travel day, missing a connecting flight is extra miserable. When you book your flights, remember that you will have to clear customs when you return to the States at the first U.S. airport you land in. Even though our destination was Texas, we went through customs in Los Angeles. Leave enough time between flights for customs plus possibly switching terminals and going through security again. Before you return, check what items are prohibited (meats, fruit, plants, etc.) and don't attempt to bring them in. Let's just say that my souvenir pork jerky put us in the "Please Open Your Luggage for Special Attention" line that was much, much slower than the regular line.

Double check your seat requests a few days before departure
We do not always get the seats that are listed on our initial booking confirmation. Last time, we didn't figure this out until after the boarding passes were printed. The agent obligingly reissued passes with new seat assignments grouping us together.

This trip, I double checked a few days before our departure. Whereas our confirmation had us all sitting together, Cathay Pacific bumped 2 of us to other rows on some flights. I did some rearranging online and skipped being surprised at check-in. I still did not manage to get everyone together, but at least no one was sitting by him/herself. The upside to not sitting next to all your kids is that some stranger gets to monitor their sibling arguments. Hah! I could hear it from 2 rows away, but since the Fasten Seat Belt light was on, I couldn't intervene.

Too big for a stroller but small enough for a luggage cart
(Do you like my green duct tape stripes?
I can always find my luggage in a crowd.)

Move back bedtimes before a late night flight
When we head back, our domestic flight leaves Texas at 8 p.m., and the international flight takes off from Los Angeles 6 hours later. A few days leading up to departure, I start letting my kids stay up later than usual. This helps them feel more awake when we ask them to carry their backpacks between airplanes during our middle-of-the-night layover.

Bring extra luggage for souvenirs
Any time you are traveling this far to get somewhere, you will probably have a few things to bring back. Every expat I know seems to return from their home visit with lots and lots of essentials. For tourists, it may be souvenirs.  I put carry-on sized luggage inside my big luggage so that I'll have a way to haul back everything I buy.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Tips for Surviving 20 Hours on a Plane: Up in the Air.

This post is part of Travel Tips Tuesday on Suitcases and Sippy Cups.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Penang Street Food: Peanut Pancakes

When I'm wandering George Town and taking in the sights, I start craving a little snack. Luckily, street side food carts are everywhere. One of my favorite treats is Peanut Pancakes or Apam Balik as it's known in Malaysia. A crisp, crepe-like pancake is folded in half around a sweet, crunchy filling of chopped roasted peanuts tossed with sugar.

There's a delightful crinkly-crunch when you bite into this treat.

The pancake man usually has a batter of flour, eggs, milk, and sugar mixed up and ready to cook. He oils each dessert plate-sized pan and spoons batter into it, spreading the mixture up the sides.

After sprinkling in the filling, he places a lid on top while it finishes cooking. When the pancake is done, he quickly runs a knife around the edges and folds it in half. Then, it's off to a rack for cooling and display or directly into your hands wrapped in paper for you to enjoy.

These pancakes come with other fillings such as sweetened corn or bananas. My least favorite is the corn because my American brain still can't understand corn as a snack. The bananas offer up a nice cool creaminess, but straight up peanut is still my top choice.

Getting in a serving of fruit with my pancake

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bitten by the Travel Bug

51 days. I added up all our vacations since last summer began, and it comes out to 51 days. 51 glorious, what-will-we-uncover, I-can't-believe-I'm-here, where-did-I-pack-that days away from home. The kids attend a school with a mostly typical schedule. We've never had them skip a day just so we could go somewhere. Hubby has a regular desk job. He doesn't telecommute or get summers off and is expected to physically show up at his workplace. So what gives? We've been bitten by the Travel Bug. 

July 2011 - Cleaning up Paradise Cove in Malibu, California

Travel has suddenly become a top priority. Before our big move overseas, we usually did a two week summer vacation somewhere fun and then visited family in Houston for the Big 3 of Holidays —Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We may or may not have taken advantage of a long weekend to drive somewhere. But now that we're in Asia for a couple of years, we're flying around like crazy trying to take in the sights. There's so much to see before our time is up! Spending a long weekend at home feels like throwing away a chance to see another piece of the world.

August 2011 - Penang, Malaysia was a former British colony.

It's not just me. My expat friends have been bitten by the Travel Bug, too. We gathered for breakfast after the kids went back to school in January and went around the table saying where we'd been during Winter Break. Melbourne and Australia's Great Ocean Road, Koh Lipe in Thailand, Hong Kong (by 3 separate families), Park City Utah, Langkawi, Bali, Western Australia, Singapore, Bangkok and Cambodia all came up. I wondered aloud, "Can you imagine what we'd be saying if we were still in Austin?" Most of us probably would have just stayed somewhere in Texas. Now, we're sprinting around the world at a breakneck speed, eager to travel as much as possible before returning back to our home in the States.

October 2011 - Relaxing in Singapore with Clarke Quay in the background

These friends provide me with inspiration and motivation. We ply each other for tips on destinations. One couple took what sounded like a magical boat trip on Vietnam's Halong Bay. I was intrigued but wrote it off as something too hard to pull off with kids. Then, another friend with two preschoolers vacationed there. She came back with everyone she left with, too! So the wheels in my mind start turning. If they can do it, maybe I can also.

November 2011 - Climbing the steps up Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Even if we don't go anywhere, we can sightsee around  Penang, the tropical island we're currently calling home. I've been here for almost a year, and there is still so much to discover. 

December 2011 - Disneyland Hong Kong
BTW, my boy on the left is imitating the spilled honey pot.

The generally cheap airfare and hotels around Southeast Asia have been helpful. Although with trips to expensive places like Singapore and Japan under our belt, I'm not sure if we're really skimping that much. As one friend put it, "Normally, we'd save up and plan for a year before going to Australia." But when the opportunity to travel to Oz from Malaysia presented itself, she jumped at it on the spur of the moment. Carpe diem! Seize the Day!

December 2011 - Children's Museum of Houston (Texas)

Will my family keep up this momentum when we return to Texas? I don't know. I was all aflutter picking a trip to do over a long weekend in May. Cambodia? The Philippines? Thailand? Langkawi? Where did I want to go? I finally settled on Borneo. When I'm back in Austin, would the five of us fly off to Denver, St. Louis, or New Orleans for a long weekend? Maybe. Would I do all three places in the span of one semester? Probably not. The urgency would be gone, and these cities are not quite as exotic as the ones currently on the radar.

April 2012 - Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto, Japan

Plus, we're in a golden stage of traveling with kids right now. They no longer need all that gear like diapers and strollers, and they can remember and be influenced by where we visit. They don't mind hanging around with us all the time. Two years from now, my oldest child will start high school. I can see our weekends being taken over with marching band and sports. The kids will start exerting their independence from us or even — gasp — get a part-time job.  They won't be able to go away with us on a quick trip quite so easily. (I am admittedly looking forward to the "traveling with adult children" stage when I expect my younger son to include me in his big plans to always fly first class and order room service.)

May 2012 - Blowpipes in Borneo

We're in sprinting mode right now. Eight more trips are in the pipeline for 2012. We may not have the endurance to keep it up long term. In the meantime, we'll keep rolling along, see where our adventures take us, and cherish every moment.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?

Monday, June 4, 2012

You are Invited to Penang, No Reservations needed

Penang doesn't seem to be very high on Americans' list of places to visit in Asia. It falls way below Japan and China, somewhere under Bangkok and Bali, but hopefully above North Korea. However, word is finally getting out about this spectacular tropical island. Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Penang episode starts airing this week. In a local interview, he describes Penang as "everything I like about gastronomy in one place." That's high praise coming from him. The much chirpier Travel Channel host, Samantha Brown, lists Street Hawkers in Penang as one of her favorite Malaysian experiences in her Asia series. A few months ago, the venerable New York Times published a travel article, "36 Hours: Penang."  Come now so that you can sagely say, "When I was there, back before it was overrun with tourists..."

According to Bourdain, "It seems that everywhere you point, there are
bright colors, characters, beautiful things." 

Discover an Asian British colony
Wander around George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a trip back in time. According to the UNESCO website, "The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed the town with a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible." Some of the shophouses have been renovated whereas others still retain a more humble appearance. Unlike Singapore which shares a similar history, George Town still has an authentic feel.

Rozana's Batik on Lebuh Acheh showcases Rozana's work as both a batik artist
and designer. In addition to creating clothing, she has earned a place in art exhibitions.

Explore the fusion of three cultures
One of the best things about Penang is that it's a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage with a little bit of British influence thrown in. Stroll down The Street of Harmony and visit the mosque, Chinese temple, Hindu temple, and Anglican church that sit along it. Shop for saris in Little India, then take a seat at Tek Sen on Carnarvon street for phenomenal Malaysian influenced Chinese food with flavors unlike any that you've had in America. (I'm Chinese American, so believe me, I've been to a lot of Chinese restaurants in America, both the kind that offer chop suey or egg foo young and the kind that's filled with other Asians.) 

Hindu woman sells floral offerings for the nearby temple.

Tempt your tastebuds
And the food! Oh my goodness, the food! The open air hawker stall centers are cheap and delicious. Assam Laksa, a spicy fish broth noodle soup flavored with sour tamarind took 7th place in CNN Go's World's 50 Most Delicious Foods. That's two spots higher than #9 Ice Cream. It outranks Ice Cream! My favorite lunch is a flat rice noodle dish with prawns, eggs, and Chinese sausage called Char Kway Teow. Penang supposedly has the best in Malaysia. You could stop by a kopitiam (coffee shop) to try a cuppa teh tarik (pulled tea) or Malaysian style coffee. If you're sightseeing and get hungry, find a street-side food cart and spend a few cents on curry puffs, peanut pancakes or samosas. You will not go hungry in Penang.

Nasi Lemak is rice steamed in coconut milk and flavored with pandan leaves.
Fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, a crispy cucumber slice, half a boiled egg and
spicy sambal chili paste are added before bundling it all up in a banana leaf. 

Escape to a jungle beach
If you want to get away from the city, take a drive around the island to Malaysia's smallest national park. Arrange for a longtail boat to meet you at Monkey Beach before setting out on a hour long trek through the rainforest. The boat driver can even prepare a beachside barbecue for you to enjoy while relaxing on the sand. Then, take in the view as you ride back across the water.

Penang is a fascinating place. You need to come and experience it for yourself. To quote Bourdain in his Travel Channel blog, "Penang is the kind of place that ruined me for an ordinary life." I wholeheartedly agree.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?
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