Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cameron Highlands

Last weekend, Eric and I traveled 4 hours down the coast and inland to the very touristy and cool (weather wise) Cameron Highlands.  For those of you who may be wondering, we did not visit the Cameroon Highlands which are in Africa.  Eric and the rest of the country had Friday off for Malaysia Day, meaning we had a long weekend! This was our first Malaysian "Road Trip" where we truly experienced the mainland. First, I need to say that I grew up driving on 696 in Metro Detroit and hot damn, the North/South Highway is the closest rival I've seen to my hometown autobon.  I'll just say that the speed limit was around 110 km/hr and I was being passed at 130 km/hr!  It was nuts!  Then Eric took over behind the wheel for the twisty mountain road that lead us 2,000 m in the the Highlands.

As we drove, the temperatures gradually fell from 31 degrees C to a comfortable 18C in about thirty minutes.  Just think Fall Malaysia style. Like most other tourists, we traded in our shorts and t-shirts for pants, socks and jackets. This was a welcome respite from our daily tropical heat and humidity.

We stayed at an historic school transformed to a hotel, Bala's Chalet.  It was charming but smelled like a musty basement and served overpriced afternoon tea and scones.  Meh.

The "thing" to do in the highlands is to visit Tea plantations, eat strawberries, hike, drink tea and visit the farms where most of the produce is grown.  We weren't really interested in seeing how hydroponic strawberries are grown or buying strawberry paraphernalia but we did buy some "homemade" strawberry jam.  Other highlights of our trip to the CH include a visit to the BOH tea plantation, butterfly farm, a quick trek in the mossy forest, beautiful mountainous views and lots of traffic!

Since traffic was so bad in the highlands, we decided to hit the road early and drive back to Penang.  On the way we stopped at the Perak Tong temple in Ipoh.  Perak Tong is a Buddhist temple that is built inside of a large cave.  There were several different Buddhas and the cavern was painted with murals.  This was a great find and very impressive!

We arrived back in Penang early Sunday afternoon and we were welcomed by a beautiful rainbow!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Morning Football

Being 12 or 13 hours ahead of game time makes it challenging for us to watch Michigan games live.  We also can't stream the games very well due to internet bottlenecks.  As die hard fans, we missed the first game because we couldn't find it on the internet, so we woke up at 3am to catch play by plays via text and mobile updates. Thankfully, it was an easy win for Michigan versus Western Michigan. 

Week 2 of the football season happened to be against Notre Dame and there was no way we were going to miss this historic match up!  We needed access to a SlingBox so we could record it through a US TV, download it to our computer and watch it on our TV.  Luckily Scott, Eric's VP, let us use his SlingBox so we could get our football fix and we could be a part of Michigan Football history - the first night game ever in the Big House.  An 8 PM Eastern kick off met a Sunday Morning 8 AM Penang kick off. 

Here are a few shots from our new football Sunday morning tradition.  We replaced our traditional beer and wings with coffee and eggs. 


We were so glad to be a part of this historic and epic win!  So proud to be Michigan Wolverines!

We are working on a more permanent solution going forward to catch the games and all our favorite shows but we haven't quite figured out the details yet. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten Wonderful Days in Phuket, Thailand

As I've said before, travel is one of our biggest priorities during our time here.  The accessibility and our vicinity in SE Asia makes adventures feasible and affordable.  For our first trip, we traded our busy island for another large busy island across the boarder in Thailand.  Phuket is a quick and direct 1 hour and 15 minute flight from Penang.  Phuket is a large island off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea.  It is a very popular tourist destination with a wide range of activities, accommodations, restaurants, night life and nature.  Phuket is probably most known for it's beautiful beaches and the limestone "islands" that randomly pop up in the Phang Nga Bay.  On this trip, I planned a good mix of outings that would let us experience the tourist attractions as well as the "off the beaten path" activities. The trip was broken up into 3 stages giving us the opportunity to stay in 3 different hotels and locations on the island.

Stage 1: Relax
We spent the first few days relaxing at our amazing hotel, Sawasdee Village and exploring Kata.  Sawasdee was probably the nicest and most serene hotel we have ever stayed at.  We had a cute bungalo style garden room with our own koi pond and outdoor seating area.  Walking into the hotel, you could feel the stress of the last few months just melt away and the peaceful surroundings flow in.  It was nice!  Lucky for us, it happened to be rainy season in Phuket, and it rained on and off for our entire stay at Sawasdee.  We spent alot of time enjoying our resort.

We did manage to spend some time away from our hotel.  Thailand is known for cheap Thai Massage and we happened to be staying on a street where massage parlors were about every 5 feet.  The place next to our hotel gave Thai Massages for 200baht per hour or $7 US!!  Yes, you read that right, $7 for an hour massage.  Now, let me tell you, that a Thai massage is not your traditional oily rub down. No oil is used and you keep your clothes on. These massages are more like a full body work out, where you are stretched into positions you didn't know you could be put in by small Thai women who walk down your back and use their fists, elbows, knees and forearms to work out the kinks. They are AWESOME and leave you feeling like a noodle.  We had at least one massage a day and we found out the small shops give better massages than the fancy and way more expensive hotel spas.  I'm not sure I can ever go back to a regular massage, this was pure bliss!

Because of the rain, we weren't able to spend an entire day at the beach, but we were lucky enough to spend a few hours a day there and catch the sunset at Kata Beach. 

We also fell for the most touristy thing to do on the island.  We went to see Fantasea.  A Thai version of Cirque du Soleil, mixed with culture and theme park. We were picked up from our hotel in a hot pink minivan with a large elephant wrapper on it.  Upon arrival, it became clear to me that Eric had never been to Disney Land.  He had a look on his face that was more like, what the hell is this.  Clearly he had never been to a "theme park".  Lucky for us, the skies opened up again and it started to rain.  We quickly relocated to the nearest bar and bought overpriced, but good, drinks and listened to the cheesy Thai cover band.  When in Rome, do like the Romans... Despite the cheese of the theme park, the show was very well done. The history of Thai culture was complete with acrobats, fireworks, dancing, flying, singing and elephants.  Very well done and worth the money. 

Stage 2: Dive
After 3 nights in Kata, we moved up one beach to Karon, a nosier and busier beach than Kata.   We traded in our jungle in the city retreat for ultra modern concrete walls at the Bamboo House.  Not as plush or comfortable as our previous accommodation, but it got the job done.    We stayed at the Bamboo House because we booked our PADI advanced open water diving course with them.  We traded in comfort for convenience and learned our lesson.  Upon arrival, we were shuttled to Marina Divers to buy our course books and "get fitted" for our gear.  The lady at the dive shop determined that I needed a XL BCD and XL Wetsuit and Eric needed an XL BCD and XXL Wetsuit.   We tried to plead our case that those would be too big and she assured us that "In 17 years, she has never gotten the sizes wrong." Ok, first time diving in Asia, maybe the BCDs and wetsuits are made for Asians.  We spent the night prepping for our first day of diving in the ocean. Lots of nervous excitement.

Let's just say that our diving experience in Phuket was bad but we did achieve our Advanced Open Water certification, which means we can dive pretty much any where we want.  Our equipment was too big the first day and we both ended up borrowing BCDs and wetsuits from the boat.  It turns out the I actually wear a medium wetsuit and BCD, I guess I was the first one she has ever gotten wrong...Eric had a faulty regulator on day 2 and drank some ocean water instead of breathing air.  He ended up on his emergency regulator.  On our second dive, our dive master and I lost Eric.  He didn't descend fast enough and we got taken in the current.  I'll save you the details but I freaked out, swore at our instructor, we found Eric at the surface, went back down on our dive, and I almost ran out of air.  By our third dive on day 1 I was about ready to kill our instructor who was more interested in taking pictures and trying to sell them to us, than teaching us, going over our dive plan or listening to our needs.  Lucky for us, another dive master picked up on our frustration and talked us through the rest of our dives, answered our questions and did a good job of selling his company.  If we dive again in Phuket, it will only be with Kiwi Divers. 

At the end of two long days of diving, we learned a lot.  We learned what to look for in a dive company and a dive master.  We learned the importance of diving with a reputable company and that saving a few dollars is not worth the stress of having bad gear and an instructor that doesn't listen.  We will also be buying our own regulators when we return to Austin.  All in all, we achieved what we set out to do and now I can start planning diving trips!

Stage 3: Culture
One of the best ways to understand another culture is to learn about and eat the food, visit important religious sites and to see how the people actually live outside of the touristy areas and we did just that! Taxis are pretty expensive in Phuket, so we rented a driver for the day.  This allowed us to go all over the island!

Eric and I attended Pat's Cooking Class, where we learned how to cook a few tradition Thai dishes - spring rolls, green curry chicken, tom yum soup, papaya salad and banana in coconut mild for desert. YUM! We had a great time and were very surprised how easy and fast these dishes are to cook!

After we ate our lesson, we headed up to the national park to see a few waterfalls and pay a visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center.  This was a great way to see the local rainforest and meet an NGO that is doing great conservation work in Thailand.  Twenty years ago, Gibbons were poached to extinction in Phuket.  It is now illegal to take Gibbon's out of the wild or have them as pets.  The Gibbon Rehab project is trying to repopulate the area and cares for Gibbons that were previously kept as pets.

We also paid a visit to Wat Chalong and the Big Buddha.  The Big Buddha sits atop the hill and overlooks the entire island.  It is still under construction but worth a visit.  Absolutely stunning! 

 Our last hotel, was a cute and quiet bungalow in a small Thai village in the non-touristy part of the island.  This was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the city.  Our hosts, Bobbi Jo and Stephen were a friendly British couple who made us feel at home and served up some strong drinks in their little bar!  We were a bit isolated but, the hotel shuttled us around to the beach or to a nice restaurant.

We also went on a sea kayaking sunset trip into Phag Nga Bay.  After our diving tour experience, the expectations for this trip were pretty low; however, we had the complete opposite experience on this trip.  The tour was fantastic! The staff were Eco-friendly and knowledgeable and the food was awesome!  We went kayaking in the limestone structures  that pop up out of the ocean.  Entrance into the caves is dependent on the ocean's tides so we had to time our paddles appropriately.  We had the head trip guide JJ in our boat and we were always the first ones into the sea caves and the last ones out.  We saw lots of wildlife and were well taken care of.  I am considering a live abroad paddle trip where we could go down the coast for a few days in our kayaks! 

Our last day was spent relaxing and recovering from a late night of partying.  Let's just say that my first and only experience with Jager did not go well.  It's poison, and I was warned.  The last beach of this trip was the best one by far.  Quiet, isolated and great for swimming! A great way to wrap up our trip!

Overall this was a great trip!  Our first trip together, just the two of  us, in over 3 years.  We were ready to return to Penang, our home.  Honestly, after this trip, Penang does feel like home.  Walking into our condo after being gone felt great!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Market Days

We are back from a restful and fun 10 day trip to Phuket, Thailand. I will write a post about all we did and share some pictures soon!

This morning after Eric went to work my sole task was heading to the market to buy some fresh food. I love that we are a 5 minute walk to a great fresh market that has almost everything that my heart desires. This morning I stocked up on pineapple, mangos, limes, apples, lettuce, basil, tomatoes, eggs, shrimp, garlic, beets, shallots and onions. I also splurged on fresh orchids. I scored all of this beautiful food for less than $14.

While we were in Thailand I learned a new technique for cutting pineapple that I was eager to try. I  will just say it didn't go so well and about a million ants ran out of the delicious fruit when I cut in to it. Back to the market for round two and another pineapple, this time I bought one already cut.  I also stopped by a few organic shops and scored Organic tahini, wheat flour, pastry flour, brown sugar and cranberries.

Of course after my second run to the market I was hungry and not in the mood to cook anything.  I stopped for Malaysia's version of fast food, a hawker stand selling Char Kay Teow, take away style-- fried noodles with shrimp and other deliciousness.  I stood on the street and watched my food cook in a large and steaming hot wok.  In less than 2 minutes, my dish was complete and warped in a banana leafed - newspapered, to-go container, complete with chop sticks.

A short walk back home and my 3.5RM ($1.17) lunch was on the plate and in my mouth!  Living here has it benefits.