Thursday, May 30, 2013

Transportation: Thailand versus Texas

My friend who used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand told me that the city did not have regular taxis. Tuk-tuks and Songtows are the way to get around. She also warned me that our entire family could not fit into a tuk-tuk, but we foolishly ignored that sage advice.

Trying to figure out how to fit 2 more adults into this Tuk-tuk.

I love this photo of us getting into a tuk-tuk because my husband looks so big next to it. Even though a sane family might think that this tuk-tuk looks full, we just crammed ourselves into this one.

Share your Songtow ride with others. 

Songtows are bigger, but you usually share the ride with other people. It's informal, public transportation without a set price or route. When you hail one and it actually stops for you, walk up to the driver and tell him where you're headed. If it's in the vicinity of where everyone else wants to go, you can get on. If not, too bad. You'll just have to wait for another one that's going in your direction, and the only way to figure that out is to stop one and ask. The red ones service central Chiang Mai and popular spots just outside the city. Yellow songtows are for further out towns twenty to thirty kilometers away. Most importantly, always negotiate your price before boarding.

Cool breezes and car fumes flow in through the Songtow's semi-enclosed sides.

These exotic modes of transportation are so foreign to a gal from Texas. It seems that the world still thinks that everyone in Texas wears cowboy hats and drives a pickup truck or rides a horse to get around. When I saw this dude going down South Congress Avenue, a few miles from the State Capitol in Austin, I just had to take a photo. It's a far cry from a tiny tuk-tuk.

Exactly what a tourist would hope to see in Austin, Texas

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Y'all should head on over there for more travel inspiration.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market

Pennant flags, dry floors, and the pleasing wooden beams impressed me at this wet market.

"This is one fancy wet market." That was my first thought as my Chiang Mai cooking class walked through on a mission to buy ingredients for that day's dishes. It's funny because it's such a contrast to what I would have thought if I was fresh off the plane from America. That gal would have found the place exotic and rustic, not necessarily fancy.

Fresh produce laid out on leaves

The very first time I visited a wet market was about 15 years ago on my whirlwind, 4-countries-in-3-weeks tour of Southeast Asia. I remember my mom screaming aloud in surprise when someone with a very large knife brought an abrupt end to a fish's life. Now that I live in Malaysia, I hit the wet market weekly for produce that's 3 times fresher and half as cheap as the grocery store. I've always meant to take pictures of my local market, but frankly, the fluorescent lighting is awful, and I'm too busy carrying my cumbersome shopping basket.

The fish are very much alive in that large tub. Her grill is to the right. Now that's fresh!

When I was traveling in Chiang Mai, I finally had the luxury of two free hands for taking photos and a market with good, natural lighting. This one had wooden beams and supports as opposed to the industrial feel of concrete columns at my own market. As I walked around, I was impressed by how dry this wet market is. At my Malaysia market, I'm used to slogging through puddles of melted ice mixed with chicken blood and whatnot. This Thai market actually had gutters on the table edges that channeled the watery runoff down a tube, through a hole and, I assume, into some sort of holding container or floor drain.  No cacophonous coconut shredder whirred in the background. Goods were laid out neatly on charming baskets and trays. Some items were pleasingly packaged with English labels. It was like the Whole Foods of Asian wet markets.

Dried peppers, dried lemongrass and Tom Yum herbs

Snacks ready to grab and go

My husband suspects that this might be a market aimed squarely at tourists because of the lack of locals shopping there. I'm not so sure as it was late in the morning, and the local crowd may have peaked hours beforehand like it does in Malaysia. As someone who has had her own routine market trips interrupted by tour groups, I took pity on the locals since this market seemed popular with various cooking schools. Imagine being at your hometown grocery store, but you can't reach the apples because a tour group is blocking your way marveling at how picturesque the apples are.

For some reason, I laughed that Bananas in particular are labeled in English.

Grilled satay and other meats

I could gauge how well I've transitioned into Southeast Asian expat life by how many of the exotic fruits and vegetables I could identify at a glance. Hairy rambutan didn't stump me. I couldn't resist the memory of the taste of sweet, juicy mangosteens that burst into my mind as soon as I saw them on the tray, and I ended up buying a few for a snack. As our cooking school tour guide quizzed the group by holding up palm sugar, turmeric, galangal and torch ginger, I had to keep my mouth shut lest I spoil the fun by sounding like the class know-it-all. However, I did come away learning that the mystery veggie in my previous night's curry dish was a golf ball sized, baby eggplant. Raw meat sitting out unrefrigerated no longer grosses me out, but flies crawling all over the meat still does.

Remember my previous post about my dislike of organ meat?
Guess my thoughts on raw organ meat with flies.

Prepared foods

Now that I'm back to my regular routine of shopping at my local wet market, I find myself longing for the fancy one in Chiang Mai.

Various curry powders sold in bulk

Related Posts:
Dirty, Hungry Elephants
Chiang Mai Sunday Market
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple
Visiting the Long Neck Tribe
Getting Lay's in Thailand

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

Monday, May 20, 2013

Penang's Vanishing Heritage Trades

Penang's UNESCO World Heritage Site in George Town is not simply the colonial era structures that make up the area. It is also the confluence of people that go about daily life in this town. Tucked in among the crowds are aging tradesmen practicing their craft just as it's been done for generations -- heritage trades to go with this heritage site. Making joss sticks, songkoks, chops, baskets and signboards the traditional way is a vanishing art. In a the next decade or two, will these still be practiced in the real world or will they be relegated to mere demonstrations in a cultural village set up for tourists?

Last month, my friend and I joined Spiral Synergy's Trishaw Trades Trail for a tour of Penang's endangered trades. Both of us squeezed into one trishaw (a bicycle-powered, three-wheeled rickshaws) and followed the caravan throughout George Town.

Riding trishaws through (top) Little India,
 (bottom) past Chinese temples and in front of shophouses.

The Joss Stick Maker
Joss sticks, also called incense, are an important part of Chinese culture

Joss sticks (incense) burning with their aromatic smoke rising up to the sky are a ubiquitous part of Penang's Chinese culture. These smoke signals convey people's wishes for Good Luck, Prosperity, Fortune and other longings to the gods above. You see them in front of temples but also at the small shrines found everywhere throughout the city in homes, at the back of a shop or restaurant, next to buildings, or even in parking lots.  I imagine that the market for joss sticks must be huge. However, they're now mostly imported from China where they're mass produced and made of inferior materials.

One man, Lee Beng Chuan, who is well into his 80s still makes joss sticks the traditional way as he's been doing for decades since he left school after World War II. Back then, he taught himself this trade by observing workers in Penang's joss stick factories. Using a paste of fragrant Australian sandalwood and sticky terja tree powder from Kuantan, he molds each one by hand around a bright stick then leaves them out to dry in the sun for two days. The work is slow and doesn't pay much. No one is in line to take his place, so when Mr. Lee is done, that will be the end of making joss sticks by hand in historic George Town.

Penang's last Traditional Joss Stick Maker

Watch this video for a look at the making of one of Mr. Lee's last big creations, a 12-foot-tall, magenta Dragon Joss Stick pillar crafted for a Chinese New Year celebration.

Chop Me
You'll often hear Malays use the word "chop" to mean "stamp." So when someone holds out a receipt and asks you to "Chop me" what he really wants is your official stamp or seal. Don't pull out an axe for goodness sakes! For the Chinese, a chop is an official personal seal that stands in place of a signature.

Custom made chops or stamps and a tin of cinnabar ink paste

Penang's chop maker imports his decorative stone chops from China. Pick one out and flip through his display book to pick out what character style you would like for him to carve on to the bottom. Don't have a Chinese name? He can help you figure out one that sounds like your Western one. This is laborious, precision work requiring a magnifying glass and small tools. Nowadays, most people seem to instead opt for easy rubber stamps from an office supply company.

The Chop Maker and his densely cluttered shop

Looking for a Sign
Like the rest of the world, Penang is going modern with printed signs or even high-tech, flashing LED ones. Hand-carved signboards, a tradition brought over from China, are slowly becoming part of the past. Most are painted with gold characters on a typically black but occasionally red or green background.

Signboard Shop

Spiral Synergy is holding a signboard carving  class on June 18, 2013 if you want to try your hand at this age old craft.

One signboard in the works

Weaving Baskets
Seang Hin Leong is a living part of Penang's UNESCO World Heritage and has a big banner from the city honoring the patriarch heading this shop to prove it.

Taking a mid-morning break from the work of weaving baskets

Wandering through the shophouse packed with goods, I am reminded of Cost Plus World Market or Pier 1 in the USA. The difference is that these pieces are made by hand by the very people staffing the store.  There's everything from giant baskets big enough to hold bushels of durian on the back of a motorbike to decorative boxes perfect for dressing up a box of facial tissue. Spiral Synergy also organizes basket weaving classes here sometimes.

The Songkok Maker
Songkoks are a type of Islamic male headwear similar to a pillbox-style hat or a squat fez minus the tassel. Sadly, the songkok maker, Haja Mohidin, was not at his shop when our group of trishaws pulled up. However, his neighbor who has a key was kind enough to open this store tucked into the side of the Nagore Shrine.

A songkok sits next to a manual sewing machine.

The retro sewing machine is what caught my eye immediately. I couldn't believe that this is what he uses to make about five songkoks by hand each day. Haja Mohidin first learned the skill from his father, a Mamak or Muslim Tamil, when he was only 12 years old and has been doing it for almost 50 years. The hats we saw were velvety on the outside with a colorful satin lining the inside. Newspaper or cardboard provide the internal structure to stiffen the sides of the hat. Malay men can buy ready-made songkoks from many stores now, but those who want a custom fit go to Mr. Mohidin. They sell for 10 to 30 ringgits (US$3.30 to US$10) each.

His uncle used to own another songkok making store next door but has since closed. He is now training his son-in-law to take over, so this trade will perhaps continue in Penang for at least another generation.

Going Back
I thoroughly enjoyed this tour of the living heritage of George Town. It also included a visit to Penang's Warehouse Row which I covered in a previous post. My only regret is that I did not have enough room in the trishaw for large purchases. So, I'll be heading back to some of these places when I have more time to browse at my leisure and also a car to carry everything home in.

Related Posts:
Glimpsing the Past along Penang's Warehouse Row
Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque
The Street of Religious Harmony

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Picky Eating in Japan

"I don't want to eat it" are words a parent dislikes hearing at the dinner table. Taking your child who is a picky eater to a foreign country with unfamiliar cuisine is probably one of the concerns for traveling parents. But this isn't one of those blog posts packed with tips for eating globally with your kids. What if your meal suddenly causes you to reevaluate how you view your own self?

"I don't want to eat it." That's all I could think as I gazed down at my plate.

It was my own fault I was in this situation. After a long day of sightseeing in Tokyo, I dragged my family of picky eaters to a yakitori restaurant. Yakitori is grilled, skewered chicken. What could possibly go wrong with that? I hungrily waited for them to bring out our food and watched them set down the platter in the middle of the table.

Almost everything on this yakitori plate looks yummy.

Neat skewers circled the plate. Succulent thigh meat, tasty white meat, chicken wings, and — wait a minute... what's that — chicken innards. Lying innocuously among the morsels that would probably suit my family just fine without complaint was a single skewer with a chicken heart, liver and gizzard. In general, I like a wide variety of foods and consider myself an adventurous eater. But I find offal just awful. (Sorry, couldn't help myself with that pun.) I can take my chicken liver in pâté form, and I've been known to enjoy a deep fried gizzard, but this slender spear didn't look at all appetizing to me. I knew that if anyone else got it, that'd be the end of the meal for them. So, like any good mama taking a bullet for the kids, I grabbed it.

"Eat it," I told myself.

Suddenly, it was as if every single argument my kids had ever given me over food came flooding back to me. All the points I've ever countered with came back, too. My psyche split in half and began a heated debate with each other.

"But I don't like it."

"How do you know you won't like it?

"Because I didn't like it the last time I tried it."

"Well, try it again. It's been a while. You might like it now."

"No, I really don't want to eat it. "

"Sometimes, it takes trying something 20 times before you start to like it."

"No way am I trying this offal stuff 20 times!"


Traveling in a foreign country brings out a childlike sense of wonder in me as I gaze at unfamiliar surroundings. Not knowing the language, I'm reminded of my early days before I learned to read. I gain a better appreciation of the huge knowledge leaps we constantly ask of our young kids. Apparently, international travel also brings out the rebellious child in me, too.

After moving to Malaysia, we encountered tons of unfamiliar meals when dining out. As the foodie risk taker in the family, I was charged with the task of tasting dishes, identifying what was in it, and then predicting whether it fell within my family's preferences.

My husband once summed up the differences in our reactions to strange culinary offerings. I'm afraid that if I don't try it, I'll miss out on something good. His assumption, on the other hand, is that it's probably something bad, and it's better to be safe than sorry.

Sometimes, my willingness to try new foods gets me into trouble. I vividly remember my first taste of sushi. It was a California Roll, a rather safe initiation into the world of sushi eating. I took a few bites before the food allergies kicked in. My throat began to close up, and my ear canals itched like crazy. I had to stop eating. My reaction didn't reach the level of requiring an EpiPen, but it's always in the back of my mind when we eat at Japanese restaurants.

Perhaps I'm a pickier eater than I thought and just didn't know it. As the Queen of the Household, I'm the one who sets the menu at home, does the grocery shopping and cooks the meals. When I flip through recipes, I bypass the ones that don't interest me and pull out the ones that seem tasty. Basically, I'm never in the situation that I constantly put my kids in. You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit.

My sense of self was beginning to break apart. Am I really who I think I am? Is this the heart-thumping dread my kids feel each time I glibly tell them, "Don't be so picky"?

What if I'm not as adventurous palate-wise as I consider myself to be? How else can I explain why I've always declined my dad's offer of balut, a Filipino delicacy of partially developed duck embryo boiled in the shell, cracked open and swallowed whole. There's something about the tiny beak, semi-formed eyes and miniature, claw feet pressing up against the yolk sack that really turns me off.

Do you push your food boundaries when you travel abroad? Would you fancy a glass of horse milk the next time you're in Paris? Could you match Andrew Zimmerman with his "beating frog heart moments" on Bizarre Foods?


It was time for me to take my own motherly advice. Time to stop throwing my silent, mental tantrum.

I slowly took a bite of the heart. Chewy. Gross. Disgusting. Can't spit it out, certainly not in front of the kids. Swallowing it, I pulled my best Meryl Streep, smiled at the kids, and remarked, "Delicious!"

Related Posts:
Japanese Vending Machines
A Lost Tooth, Black Eggs and Japan's Hakone National Park
Epic Day at Tokyo Disney

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hawaii is Dangerous

Hawaii is dangerous. DANGEROUS, I tell you! Yet, people flock there like moths to the flame. What in the world am I talking about? Cautionary signs dot the island. For every breathtaking view or mind-blowing experience, you have to pass by warnings of doom and gloom. But we persevered and pushed forward, keeping a clear head and common sense as we made our way around.

Yes, I do imagine that a coconut falling on your noggin could cause quite a headache. And yet...

Sure honey, go ahead and play right under that coconut tree.
Mokuola (Coconut Island), Hilo, The Big Island


If you are scared away by all this...

Curse you Inadequate Footwear!

you'll never have a chance to see...

Lava flowing down a volcano as night begins to fall
End of Highway 130 in Puna, The Big Island


In Volcanoes National Park, Sulphur Banks is quite a sight. Staying on the trail is easy since it's a wooden boardwalk with railings. You'd have to be a fool to climb through it and take off into the smoldering, yellow- and rust-stained landscape.

If you're good on the trail, you'll be rewarded by the contrast of beautiful flowers against a stinky, hellish backdrop. If you don't obey the signs, you'll fall through a crack in the earth's crust never to be seen again.

See the steam rising up from the rocks behind the ohia flowers? How do they survive in all that malodorous gas?
Sulphur Banks, Volcanoes National Park, The Big Island 


At some places, one sign wasn't enough. Tons of danger abounded everywhere. A few miles north of Hilo, we journeyed through the lush Pepe'ekeo Scenic Drive. At Onomea Bay, we parked our car by these.

What a view! It almost makes you want to do the 20-minute hike to the water's edge, dodge falling rocks, jump in the current, and brave a flash flood. Actually, this was a long driving day, so we just hopped right back in the car after taking a picture. No, we are not cowards — merely in a hurry.

That detached rock was part of a sea arch until it collapsed in a 1956 earthquake.
Onomea Bay on the east side of The Big Island


Akaka Falls State Park is a great place to stop... IF YOU DARE.

Keeping back is actually good advice since it's a loooooooong way straight down. When taking that picture, be sure not to step too close to the edge.

442 feet down to the bottom of Akaka Falls


I wonder how many fools have visited The Seven Sacred Pools (a.k.a. Oheo Gulch) on the east side of Maui, south of Hana. Perhaps one crazy person too many prompted officials to post this sign.

Oheo Gulch is such an invigorating place all by itself. How about just climbing on rocks and swimming under the falls instead of leaping from bridges and cliffs?
How could someone think jumping from that bridge is a good idea?
Oheo Gulch, Maui
Sometimes, the danger that you need to fear is human. (Just think of Bambi's poor mom.)
Apparently, it's a non-stop, hunters paradise here.

Have we stumbled into a Hunger Games arena? When we were here, it was 8 years past the posted End date, so we stayed on the trail and continued onward. We were rewarded by climbing the non-native, towering trees of a failed attempt to establish a timber industry on Maui. The trail loops through this alien forest and emerges into native shrubland.

Alien trees at Hosmer Grove, Haleakala National Park, Maui
Other times, the danger came from the fierce creatures that surround Hawaii. No, not sharks.
I don't understand why this requires 2 different signs.
We couldn't resist the black stone beach of Wai'anapanapa State Park. No one else seemed to be getting stung, so we blissfully splashed in the water without fear. At the end of our visit, we even saw some locals doing net fishing.
Wai'anapanapa State Park's beaches are covered with black pebbles, not fine white sand.
No stingers here! 
My favorite sign was the one that reminded us to reflect on the moment and immerse ourselves in the peacefulness of nature.
Along the Waikamoi Nature Trail, The Road to Hana

Take time to smell the roses (hibiscus in Hawaii?) and examine the tree bark.

The perfectly named Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree

Are the people of Hawaii being overly cautious popping up these warning signs everywhere? I don't know. There's something about island life that makes your worries and your common sense drift away. They need to bring you back to reality every now and then.

For instance, we were eating lunch outside in Maui at high noon when I noticed a perfectly circular rainbow around the overhead sun. "Look at the sun!" I exclaimed. This was quickly followed by "No! No! Do NOT look at the sun! Never look directly at the sun!" My family thought I was bonkers to say the least. So, I took this photo instead and let them enjoy it on the camera screen.

The rainbow colors were a lot more distinct in real life, but you would have burned your retinas while staring  at it.
Consider yourself warned.

Related Post:
U.S. National Park Week: Part 2

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mother's Day Brunch at the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang, Penang

Beautiful cakes at the Shangri-la Rasa Sayang's Mother's Day Brunch Buffet

As the mama of the family, most of the household responsibilities fall on my shoulders. That's how I ended up being in charge of booking my own Mother's Day Brunch last year. In my opinion, I deserve the very best. Right? So, I reserved us a table at the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang's Spice Market Cafe which turned out to be fantastic. It is by far the best buffet I've had in Penang, even beating out Christmas Day brunch at the E&O Hotel. I'd even say it's one of the best buffets I've had in the world because of the abundant, high quality food, the service, and the extra child-friendly touches that kept my kids from asking when were we going to leave. The effort they put into keeping the kids entertained was truly a bonus on Mom's special day. The boxed takeaway cake decorated with "Happy Mother's Day" that greeted me at the table was also a nice touch. Why mess with success? We'll be dining there again next week for Mother's Day 2013.

One of the things I really like about the Shangri-La chain is their commitment to the environment. They've decided to eliminate Shark Fin Soup, a Chinese delicacy, even though many of their guests demand it. Instead, they offer Mock Shark Fin Soup. While I'll tell you outright that it doesn't come close to duplicating the cartilagenous crunch of real shark fin, no sharks had their fins cut off, leaving them to sink to the bottom of the ocean to die. That's a win in my book.

Mock Shark Fin Soup with Crabmeat

The rest of the buffet covered the varied cuisines of Penang — Malay, Chinese, and Indian — plus Western food and freshly made Japanese sushi. The selection was huge. Luckily, the buffet lasts 3 hours, so you can cover a lot if you pace yourself and don't care about calories.

Dagin Temasik, Itik Kerisik, and Deep Fried Prawn with Ginger Chili

With so much food on the tables, I tried to prioritize and pick out what was truly special at this buffet. That's why I skipped over the roti which I have every week and made a beeline for the chilled seafood station.

Yabbies, or Crawfish as we Americans call them

Slipper Lobster

If you are thirsty, the buffet includes free-flow house wine, beers and soda. They also offer a variety of fresh juices to refresh your palate. I always like mixing them up in my glass into new flavor combos.

Juice Bar

If you know anything about me, you realize that desserts are my downfall. I am a sucker for a good dessert bar, and the Rasa Sayang did not fail me.

So much chocolate, so little time
Skewered marshmallow twists and dried apricots for dipping

Made-to-order Crepes with berries, apples and peaches as filling options

Cotton Candy or Candy Floss, depending on who you ask

This one lady was making all the crepes and cotton candy while also scooping ice cream for the sundae bar. I'm hoping they hire her a little help this year.

As I mentioned, the child-friendly touches are what really made this place stand out. They brought in Birthday Castle Entertainment to handle everything. (If you need someone to plan your kid's party, these are the people to ask.) A happy clown went from table to table creating balloon sculptures. A small area outside had a kids' movie showing on TV for when the children were finished eating but their mamas still wanted to linger (remember the free flow wine and the chocolate fountain). They even had table where children could create a "World's Best Mum" sash to adorn their dear mother.

What balloon creation would your child request?

An adult supervised the kids watching the telly.

My boy is grinning devilishly because the sash has an anagram that reads "World's Bum Stem."

I've already booked us a table for May 12, 2013. Perhaps I will see you there. Bonus: The family is so stuffed from brunch that mama can skip cooking dinner, too.

Mother's Day Brunch at the Spice Market Cafe, Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort
Batu Feringgi, Penang
Noon to 3 p.m.
RM120++ adults
RM60++ children
Includes free-flow house wine, beer and sodas and bracelet making for the kids.
Call 04-888-8788 to make reservations (essential)

Regular Sunday Brunch if you can't make it Mother's Day
RM98++ adults
RM48++ children
This does not include free flow drinks.
A clown entertains the kids every Sunday.
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