Monday 30 January 2012

Feasts, Family Reunions and Fireworks - CNY Penang

We travelled with my parents on a double decker bus from Kuala Lumpur to the island of Penang, the turtle-shaped 'Pearl of the Orient', my mother's home town. It is connected to the Malaysian Peninsula by one immensely long bridge. The new giant condominiums and the partially completed second bridge visible to the south showed that Penang was undergoing some population growth. No longer the peaceful little island my mum and her siblings grew up on.
But Penang still has truckloads of charm for us. We stayed mostly with family as this was the primary reason for visiting Penang, including staying at my Poh Poh's (grandma) house, which was an experience in itself for my other half. Ben has been converted to what he terms 'the bucket bath' - dunking a small bucket into a large urn of fresh cold water and simply dousing yourself repeatedly. Obviously has its limitations (no hot water and water restrictions need not apply) but sooo nice in the tropics; bathing becomes addictive. Penang also fulfilled our final Malaysian food pilgrimages to the best Char Kway Teow, the best Hokkien Hae Mee, the best Assam Laksa, and the best Teochew Cendol we could find.
This was the first time we experienced Penang during Chinese New Year, and wow - it sure was fun! In the lead up to Chinese New Year, everyone is under intense preparation mode. Houses are scrubbed clean and decorated with all good things red, crate-loads of mandarins are given and received, home cooks bake, fry or steam dozens of delicious treats for the upcoming visits and anticipated visitors, and last minute shopping is completed knowing that most shops will shut for up to a week.
But in multicultural Malaysia, the Malay restaurants are still open on new year's eve, and so for the last night of the Year of the Rabbit, the family chows down sumptuous bowls of Mee Udang with some of the biggest prawns I've seen.
An election or something was coming up, so what better way to pump up the festive feelings of your majority ethnic Chinese voters than to fill the Colonial District with plenty of colourful lights, lively music, dragon dancing, stunning lion acrobatics, and of course the obligatory countdown at midnight to a dazzling display of pyrotechnics.
But the government's efforts to bring in the new Year of the Dragon were only the start. Here all the children and young at heart light their own sequence of "Pop Pops", "Happy Booms" and whatever special delights that could be coaxed out from the fireworks vendor's hidden (most likely illicit) supply.
Kids and Fireworks - Penang
With the authorities relaxed at this time of year, all manner of whizzy bangs were seen and heard unceasingly until dawn, and would continue intermittently throughout the two weeks of Chinese New Year. And so of course we joined in the fray.
The boxes of tricks we collated from various stalls were a colourful bunch of surprises, reducing all of us to crazy wide-eyed giggling kiddies, squealing as the mini-explosives go "Boom!" bigger than expected. It certainly is a challenge to capture on a camera a fireworks display that you are lighting yourself!
Ben lighting a Wizz Bang - CNY Penang
The next week was filled with visiting relatives (most of whom seem to have converged on Penang Island) and eating an unbelievable amount of amazing food. Ben and I had to carry around a sizeable stack of Ang Pao (little red packets for good luck with some money inside) as, since we were married, it was our turn to give to those who were younger than us, and I have many younger cousins. We celebrated my Poh Poh's birthday, attended a wedding celebration, several family reunion and farewell banquets, including indulging in several tasty helpings of my Aunty Mei Ling's seafood steamboat.
By the time we left Penang, it was obvious my circumference had gained some length. Not the hottest way to start island hopping, but it was nice to spend time with family before continuing our long journey.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Penang National Park

Today we gently nudged our fitness levels. Unfortunately, we both failed miserably. Eating non-stop for six weeks, with breaks only to sleep, bathe, talk a bit and drive to the next eating destination results in not much time to exercise. This equates to being unfit which, laced with laziness, makes a four hour return jungle trek to a lighthouse on the top of a hill annoyingly difficult.

Ok, in hindsight it was actually an interesting walk along the beaches and coastal forest path of Penang National Park to the admittedly handsome Muka Head Lighthouse with panoramic views of the island. It was a good way to spend time with my uncle and cousin brothers, and we found a new appreciation for Maggi noodles, cooked Malaysian style. But we're definitely going to need to do a lot more than this before we even think about tackling Nepal.

Saturday 21 January 2012

A Close Shave - Penang

I have been trying to work out how I am going to shave while we travel. Keeping a beard neatly trimmed is not something I’m good at even when I have the right equipment on hand, so when travelling light … well you get the picture. I was toying with the idea of going clean for several weeks, so when your grandmother-in-law (Poh Poh) asks you to shave for Chinese New Year, you have to, right? I announced to everyone that I was going for a haircut, and off I went. It was a small shop on the side of a highway run by an old indian barber (who used to cut Tia’s grandfather’s hair) and his apprentice. I asked for a haircut and a shave. The haircut went to plan and then the big moment arrived … off with the beard!

Before - The Shave
It started off with some oil, and then some shaving cream, and then some more shaving cream (I was a little bushy), and then the razor came out – the standard issue cutthroat.

Shaving CreamNot turning back now...
I swallowed deeply and waited. I was surprised at how quick and easy it was; if I had used a Mach 5, or what ever they are up to now, it would not have been this easy. Well, he made it look easy anyway. Before I could say dragonfruit I was clean. Except one small area, I waited for him to remove it, and even asked to have it removed, but he wouldn’t, saying I would look like a girl, so I now have a dirty mo. Despite this, the barber was terrific and it was a relaxing experience considering he was using a cutthroat.

The Mo
Everyone was a little surprised at my new look when I returned. I got a good laugh from Poh Poh, but I think one of Tia’s younger cousins Marianne summed it up well when, upon opening the door she gasped, “I like the Ben with the beard better” and then, with the most horrified look on her face, ran away screaming. So it was decided I would grow it back and keep it trimmed. It is not overly expensive to go to a barber in Penang; it cost ten ringgit (about three Aussie dollars) for both the haircut and shave.

The finished product

Friday 20 January 2012

To Kuala Lumpur via Melaka

From Johor Bahru we took a bus north to Kuala Lumpur, via Melaka. Melaka is a photogenic town with delicious food (which is perfect for us) and it is great for an overnighter if you don’t have much time. If you stay in the old heritage listed part of town, everything you need within an easy walking distance – head up the river to see some interesting wall murals (a new street art addition), eat some Poh Piah (fresh spring rolls with handmade wrapping skins) and get stuck into some Nonya Laksa.
Melaka walkway Arches.
Pidgins in Melaka
Mural art along the River - Melaka
Popiah - Melaka
Laksa - Melaka
Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and it’s just like any other big city, except the food is better, and the jams (of the traffic variety) are worse. Here we caught up with family over many meals, feasts, and banquets.
Chinese restaurants, in the lead up and during Chinese New Year, have a dish called Yee Sang, or Lo Hei depending on what dialect you speak. It starts off as separate ingredients on a plate placed in the centre of the table. The waiter adds some sauces and spices and at some restaurants they recite a poem as they add each ingredient. Then the people around the table attack the salad with their chopsticks, calling out “Lo Hei!” as the salad gets vigorously tossed on the plate. I have to say its most efficient way to mix something I have come across, even if it is a bit messy. Just check out the photos.
First Pickup ...

Second Pickup ...


Tuesday 17 January 2012

Smelly Feet...

I have a problem. It seems to have started in the tropics. My problem is my feet. They smell bad, they really stink in a what-on-earth-died kinda way, sort of like when you come across a Rafflesia Arnoldii flower in the jungle.

This makes things difficult as it is custom here to remove your shoes before you enter someone’s house. I truly believe it would be better for everyone if I just left them on. I now have to wash my shoes out every couple of days to remove the rotting flesh that sticks to the anatomic sole of my sandals and apply foot antiperspirant everyday. Not cool.

Monday 16 January 2012

A Quick Bite or Two - Johor Bahru

We crossed the Johor - Singapore Causeway on a bus, along with probably 60,000 other vehicles that day. We thought briefly about walking across it, but the $2 air-conditioned bus ride and the heat of the day convinced us otherwise.

Across the border the feasting continued. Despite being hot and sweaty, we were introduced to a warm bowl of Sup Tulang, an intense slow-cooked, soupy, curry-spiced lamb shank stew (or more likely a kid shank), garnished deliciously with fried shallots, coriander, and a handy little straw for sucking every last bit of gooey marrow from the bone. My young cousin Brian showed us how it is done (get right into it with your hands), and we settled back in our seats relaxed and satisfied.

Sup Tulang - Johor Bahru
We stay for the weekend at my mother's cousin's house, where her kakak (maid) remembered us from a previous visit and our love for her curry puffs, and we had Bak Kut Teh for breakfast (herbal pork broth cooked over charcoal served with rice and a selection of pork "spare parts").

Bak Kut Teh Soup - Johor Bahru

Bak Kut Teh - Johor Bahru
Spare Parts - Kueh Teow
For a day trip, we accompanied my uncle and aunt to Tanjung Piai, the southernmost point of mainland Asia. A variety of wildlife hang out at the small mangrove national park, and we played park-brochure-tug-of-war with a long-tailed macaque, spotted some spotty mudskippers, and spied a flock of pheasant-like birds wandering through the coastal mud and trees.

Mangroves at the Southern most tip of Asia - Tangung Piai

Down South
On the way back to Johor Bahru we stopped at Kukup for lunch, famous in Malaysia for its seafood, especially its Singapore Chilli Crab. I don't want to fuel the rivalry here, but I have to say it was unbeatably fantastic eating this delicious fresh tasting crab dish on a boat jetty over the water with the sea breeze coming in, complemented by an amazing array of mantis prawns, fish, clams and vegetables, and I just can't see a Singaporean city restaurant being able to compete.

Chilli Crab - Kukup
Needless to say we were stuffed to the gills, however we discovered our dessert stomachs for some bowls of dragon fruit and mango ice kachang and various flavoured crystal jelly.

Dragon fruit ice kechang (mango in the background)
We enjoyed a stroll around the old and new stilt houses of Kukup village after our indulgences before heading back, thinking that we probably won't eat that much in one sitting again.

Old Kukup House

Saturday 14 January 2012

Singapore Swing

Singapore would have to be one of the easiest cites to navigate. I'm here, and I want to go there. So I get on this train. Done. But it is more than that, the trains tell you exactly where you are, how many stops to your destination, even what side of the carriage the next station platform will be on. The stations are straightforward, no searching for platform numbers, there are no express trains, so you will not get on a train that will go past where you want to go. All so simple, and extremely efficient.

So we easily found our way from the airport to meet up with Tia's Aunty Mei Chan at Tiong Bahru. Aunty Mei lead us to the local street vendor where we had a hearty serving of rice porridge with an assortment of home-style cooked dishes - chicken curry, garlic snake beens, tofu with minced pork, lightly cooked crunchy bean sprouts, … all exceptional meals, and a great way to start. Then we settled in with a nice cold shower and some much needed sleep at about midnight.

Our first meal in Asia.

My eyes open, its still dark (well I think it is), not to sure where I am, oh yeah, Singapore. What time is it? Grab the phone, 4am. Bugger, body must still be on Australian time. Quick trip to relieve myself and its back to bed, but I struggle to get back to sleep. Up again, 6am, no chance of getting back to sleep now. Damn body clock. Well, better grab my book. I might try the to see if I can get on the net.

Tia wakes up and its time to get moving. Like everywhere, the day starts with breakfast. But breakie in Singapore is not the usual Wheat Bix (Chris, my old housemate, wouldn't be happy). We walk to the nearby market eatery and lets see, poached chicken and roast chicken with ginger and chilli, accompanied by stir-fried vegetables and fried tofu topped with finely sliced shallots and sweet chilli sauce, rice noodles in a thick black sauce, and a juice of fresh sugar cane with lemon and ice. What a start to the day.

Breakfast, Asian Style

Aunty Mei heads to work and we decide to stroll around the Marina Bay precinct. Its an impressive area with many new buildings shaped like giant sails (The Sail @ Marina Bay), a giant flower (Art Science Museum), a giant ship beached on top of three towers (SkyPark of Marina Bay Sands), a pair of domes that look like two giant fly's eyes (Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay), and a fantastic footbridge shaped like giant DNA (The Helix Bridge). But what impressed me the most was this crazy pipe sculpture. I would love to try to model it in the 3D modelling package that I use (PDMS) and try to ISO it. Apparently it is called "A Stroll in the Mist", but the mist didn't seem to be working when we were there.

A piping designer on Acid...

We skipped lunch, and headed to the suburb of Serangoon to meet Tia's Uncle Justin and family. We found the place with ease. I'm still amazed with how simple and efficient the transport system is. Afternoon tea was kueh (local sweets), and teh o kosong peng (iced tea, no milk, no sugar). At my request, dinner was at Serangoon Gardens, for their famous tender smooth chicken rice. A great night catching up with cousins. Then it was a quick train ride to a good nights sleep.

Still waking up early, but its a nice time to be awake. Today we need to pack up as that afternoon we are heading to Johor Bahru. But first, breakfast, well today its Chinatown, roast duck rice, pohpiah, and a fresh apple and celery juice. A couple of chicken & pork buns for the road. Yum. We had some time to kill before leaving Singapore, and we were both tired so we decided to relax at Singapore Botanical Gardens. We didn't get far within the gate before the shade of a tree was too inviting and pretty soon the packs were off, with Tia was napping on the cool grass.

Duck Rice, China town.

And that was our Singapore Swing. An impressive transport system, an easy city to explore with plenty to temp the senses. Still much to see, but all in all a worthwhile stop. I would like to thank Aunty Mei Chan for her time, knowledge of the city and letting us stay at her place, it was all very easy with her help.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Launching Pad

Etihad Flight EY473 Brisbane to Singapore. For some reason that still eludes us, we were convinced that this flight was scheduled for an 8am takeoff. So we had arranged for our good friends the Flints to drop us off at the airport at a rather fresh time of 5:30am, said our goodbyes, rocked up to the check-in with the confidence of two people who reckoned they were pretty good at this plane travel thing, having sooo done this before.

The flight was actually scheduled for 12.20pm, just like our itinerary said, which we had failed to consult in detail. The board wasn't even showing our flight check-in opening time yet, which was probably fair enough since we were 6 hours early. Humble pie and coffee for breakfast.

The first mistake, and we are still in Australia...
No matter, I have a new Macbook Air that needs setup, parents that are happy to chat over Skype, and GST to reclaim. Check-in finally opens. Kathy, our lovely check-in assistant, takes one look at our one-way ticket to Singapore and says no, we need a ticket out of Singapore too. We are astounded for a second, and then remember this is the little rule that we had been advised about that we thought we'd get away with not heeding. Humble pie and a chupa-chup for lunch.

Luckily Air Asia was giving away $0 tickets plus fees. So we bought a flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur that we will never fly to pay our way through the departure gate, and the rest of the flight to Singapore was event free. Not the smoothest start to our long journey, but that'll do.

Trying to sleep on the plane to Singapore

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Leaving Home

The typical image people have when they hear of a farewell is a mass of people at the airport waving goodbye, lots of hugs and tears.

For us, it all started a month ago, saying goodbye to our storage and our friends at Inverloch and Orange. The next stop was only 2 hours away, Melbourne, where we had the first of our stomach stretching exercises. A massive Italian feast with Tia’s work colleagues, followed by drinks and dinner with friends at our favourite Melbourne tapas bar, Bar Lourinha. Another 2 hours in the car took us to Bendigo to see my grandmother, June, Aunt Esma, my uncle and my cousins. We had a nice little break, a pre-Christmas special roast plus trimmings stomach stretcher, and some teary farewells.

Inverloch Beach Sunset

We now needed to drive to Sydney. Instead of the usual Hume highway jaunt, we took the longer inland route over 2 days. North to Hay, slip streaming behind dozens of road trains through some of the flattest country we have seen so far in Australia, then over the Blue Mountains to Sydney. It was a fun drive, making us wonder if we should have travelled Australia first instead of going overseas, but there is always time for Australia later (I wonder how many times that has been said). It really is a flat country …

Australia really is a flat country. Taken on the road to Hay from Deniliquin.

Power stretches a long way. Taken on the road to Hay from Deniliquin.

Wheat Fields

We arrived at Sydney and it didn’t take long to resume our stomach exercises. We had a 60th birthday party, Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas lunch, post Christmas dinners, afternoon teas, breakfasts … I could go on, but you get the picture. It was odd, I actually craved to be hungry. Some more teary farewells, but we had the promise of seeing some of Tia’s family for the upcoming Chinese New Year in Malaysia. We also finalised our Canadian visa application and packing, which had been plaguing our sleep for awhile now.

Christmas Eve Dinner, Sydney

A new year, the start of our trip.

From Sydney it was a quick flight and 2 hour drive to Hogarth. The pace dropped here as the bush absorbed our stress. Christina learnt how to ride a Honda XR100 motorbike without falling off (much); I learnt how to anodize aluminum, and then how to dispose of the chemicals without contaminating our dam water supply (I hope). We ate some more good food, but it was a very relaxing, peaceful trip. Mum was not too happy to see us leave, but that’s to be expected.

Lets Roll... Christina on her bike at Hogarth Range.

We caught a bus to Brisbane for our last night in Australia and are staying with our family friends, the Flints. It had been 3 years since we last visited their house and to say it had been renovated would be an understatement. It was an odd sense of de ja vue, we knew we had been there before, but struggled to recognize it – a project worth its own blog. A great catch up with the family over a feast of roast lamb.

Tomorrow morning we are off to the airport.

The last Supper - Our final dinner in Australia