Monday, December 30, 2013

A week on Langkawi - With Kids

 A holiday to a tropical island is an opportunity to live a dream. My tropical idyll has white sandy beaches, sun and blue sky, a local guy with dreadlocks strumming guitar playing Bob Marley classics and happy hour cocktails on the sand. I want pad thai noodles, tofu green curry and spicy chai in a palm-frond hut all for rock bottom prices!

Yes! This is the life!

I think these components come from memories of lazy beach days in Goa, Koh Phangan and Sumatra in my early days of travel (nearly 20 years ago!) and the world has moved on since then, so its a little harder to find.

At first glance, Langkawi, and the big fancy resort I booked us in to, didn't feel quite right. But after a few days I'm finding my touchstones - the reggae music, and the soft sand on Pentai Cenang beach is calm and relaxing. Let's hope that for our last couple of days the hazy skies clear and we see some blue sky.

Something special about catching a ferry to the island...

You can take the boy out of the moutains, but you can't take the mountains out of the boy!
The absolute crowning glory of the ASEANIA Resort and the reason I splashed out and booked us into a flashier place than we'd normally stay is the most awesome outdoor pool area for the kids (and us) to enjoy! We've got waterslides, a wave pool and a lazy river as well as numerous large pools all joined together - we swim from one to the next and luxuriate in the joy of swimming, being warm and having fun in the sun.


On Sunday we decided to get out and about and visited a couple of the famous tourist sites of the island. Our main aim was to go on the Panorama Langkawi Cable Car up to the highest point of the island. Surprisingly, it reminded me a lot of the day we went to Taktsang in Bhutan. Just like Tiger's Nest, our destination was high on a sheer rock face. Our entry tickets even had the logo: 'Welcome to Happiness' - sounds a lot like Bhutan's tourism logo 'Happiness is a place'. The comparisons probably come to an end there, and I think Bhutan has got it all right: no loud music, no hordes of tourists, no tacky souvenir shops, no huge man-made cable car towers marring the pristine nature. I pray no one ever comes up with the 'great idea' to build a cable car up to Taktsang!

View from the top as you drop steeply down!


The Cable Car departs from within the Oriental Village outdoor shopping centre. It's a pleasant place to spend some time, and the kids enjoyed feeding rabbits and fish and playing on the play equipment throughout the site. Our ticket included entry for a 6D movie and Xavier and Bob really enjoyed the short show -  Remy on the other hand was so scared - the rollercoaster ride seemed real to him - and as we were crashing into things and passing through pools of hot lava it was terrifying! Poor thing, but afterwards he kept saying he wants to do it again when he is a big boy of five like Xavier!

Kids were really excited to see this playground!
Feed the rabbits for RM1 (30c)
Feed the fish for RM1

A little bit of public art: colourful lamp shades hanging from the trees!
We spent HOURS waiting in three different queues before we could board the Cable Car.  I couldn't believe the experience would really be worth waiting so long! I'm happy to say though that all those hours of waiting dissolved in a flash as soon as we boarded the car and saw where we were going! So high and such a steep trajectory of the cable - it was a really exhilarating ride. We moved swiftly and smoothly up higher and higher over the tropical rainforest below to the first of two viewing platforms - and kept on going to the top.

It was so windy at the top and the sky was a little hazy today, but still we were rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of the entire Langkawi island and beyond. A sign at the top told us we were now at 700m above sea-level - which was a little astounding for us to realise that for most of this year we lived 2100m higher than this high point!

A simple cafe at the top serves food and drinks and we had lunch which allowed us a bit more time to enjoy being at the top. No temples here, no prayer flags, in fact Xavier asked 'Do Muslims have prayer wheels and prayer flags?' - he is aware we are in a very different place and culture.

Viewing platform.
Nearly being blown away up the top!

Before we left Oriental Village we stopped for coffee at the Bolaven Cafe and Tiger! Tiger! Gallery and Exhibit. What an amazing little place - inside you sit by a large glass window which looks into an enclosure which houses a real Malaysian tiger! So unexpected! I love tigers and feel sad to see them in captivity, but apparently Zanah was born in captivity to a mother who had been rescued. The cafe aims to raise money and awareness for the remainder of the endangered tiger population in Malaysia and around the world. I learned that the Malaysian tiger was only recognised in 2005 as its own sub-species, unique from tigers in other parts of Asia. While we drank our tea and coffee Zanah woke and stretched and rolled around, but didn't come close to where we were watching - apparently she is most active after 5pm (and when all the onlookers leave). For tiger lovers, a coffee here is a must!

From here we took a taxi to the night markets to find something tasty and cheap for dinner. Taking taxis here is a real pain, mainly because they are expensive (compared to other places in Asia) and don't use a meter, but just quote a high price that is 'set by the government'. Who knows?

The night markets were great! Lots of stalls selling more tourist items and clothing mainly for the domestic market: lots of head scarves and large all-covering dresses. The food was cheap and plentiful. We sampled quite a few different things - and there many vegetarian options amongst all the 'ayam' chicken stalls.

Angry Birds and Doraemon fish cakes/tofu???

Little pineapple or redbean centred pancakes - 3 for RM1
Big tubs of colourful sugary drinks caught the boys attention.
Satay chicken
  Tofu heaven!

Colourful head scarves.


Come and buy my durians!
Sweet and salty corn on the cob!
Langkawi offers superb people watching opportunitities! The diversity of visitors is fascinating. Our hotel seems to cater to a local market and people from other muslim countries, so poolside there are more burkinis than bikinis! The calls to prayer from the nearby mosque compete with children's screams as they fly down the waterslides!  
The food on offer at the breakfast buffet is a clear demonstration of just how multicultural Malaysia is: such a huge array of interesting options spanning many different cuisines - the western food seems so boring and unhealthy in comparison to the Chinese/Malaysian/Indian fare. There are a good mix of international restaurants within walking distance, but prices are comparitively high. Food stalls pop up along the road and near the beach selling noodle dishes for the tiny price of RM5 (less than $2) so there are plenty of options. Last night we found a place that sells takeaway fish and chips near the beach which made the boys happy. And cocktails for RM10: about $3.

Langkawi offers a somewhat different beach experience to Thailand, a little quieter, less hedonistic and more grown-up perhaps. It's taken a few days to get into the vibe, but from mountains to the beach, I'm there. Now back to the beach for my sunset cocktail!!!

Our hotel is getting all set up for  a jungle-themed New Years Eve celebration. It looks like it will be fun! I wish everyone a fun night tonight, and best wishes for a healthy, happy and exciting year for 2014!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas in Penang: With Kids

We enjoyed a most untraditional Christmas Day in Penang. I woke late to the stirring sounds of Christmas bells ringing at a nearby church. By 9.30am I decided to wake the boys (were these the latest sleeping children in the world?) to unwrap their presents from Santa who stretched his powers of deduction to find us here!

Gifts were small and simple this year as we're travelling with way too much luggage, but the boys impressed me with how excited they were with what they received and took the unusual day in their stride.

The 'core zone' of old Georgetown on Penang island was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 and just a short walk from where we stayed. The architecture was beautiful, dating back to when Penang was colonised by the British in 1786. Some buildings were restored to old world glory and other terrace buildings looked 'shabby chic' with weathered paint work and overgrown gardens. I loved the decorative tiled facades on homes and shop fronts with bold signs in Chinese.


Bob finds a tiger at a Chinese temple.

Lanterns at a temple

None of this holds much interest for the little travellers, but luckily Georgetown also has a modern and quirky attraction: street art.

In recent years international artists have left their mark on the landscape in the form of unique artworks, the cleverest incorporating aspects of the urban environment in the picture.
I'm not the first to blog about this: you can find lots of depictions of this art online including recent blogs of my friend Vicky who spent a few days exploring Georgetown and developing an obsession for finding and documenting the artworks.





I loved this whimsical mobile with upcycled items sparkling in the sun.

Tracking down each work of art was like a treasure hunt, and the kids enjoyed following the map to find the pictures and sculptures whose novelty and whimsy appeal to the child within us all. We stopped frequently to browse boutiques and have drinks and treats which made up for not indulging in the usual Christmas feasts.

We tried some delicious chocolate cake and a tub of custard.
We stopped for a 'White Coffee' and enjoyed a delicious sweet/savoury cake with it.

With only two nights in Penang, I'm left wishing we had more time to explore. The food was delicious, varied and cheap, the shopping good, and I highly recommend our Hotel Sentral: excellent service and very comfortable for a reasonable price.

Straight into the hawker food stalls for dinner - fried noodles with prawns and chilli.

An appetiser of deep fried tofu cubes was tasty and the boys loved their chicken drumsticks.

Penang is a destination with much appeal for families with young children and was a superb introduction to our three week holiday in Malaysia. But now, onwards to Langkawi for our long awaited island holiday!