Thursday, January 31, 2013

Klong Jark Bay: Our little paradise

On our first motorbike outing on Koh Lanta, we explored the southern tip if the island, stopping at Klong Jark Bay for lunch and swimming. It was a beautiful, small beach with only 3 resorts. Very laid back. After 4 nights on Klong Khong beach, which was rocky when the tide went out and jam-packed with bungalows, we decided to head south again. This was more our style.

It quickly became our home. The bungalow was not terribly nice, but we were right on the beach with AC and hot water. The little bay became my morning lap pool, the perfect way to start the day! There was nothing to do but swim, eat, and relax.

View from our bungalow.
Our bungalow in the background.
Unfortunately after 2 days we noticed that Simon's right ear had become quite red, so we rented a motorbike and headed into town to see the doctor. Simon indeed had swimmers ear, an outer ear infection, and was instructed to stay out of the water for 5-7 days! On a beach vacation that felt like a death sentence. The bonus was that there was a French bakery across the street and we promised Simon a chocolate croissant for being so good at the doctor's office. We ended up with huge delicious cinnamon buns instead. This place was a treat!!

At typical Swede on Koh Lanta.
If you are trying to recall the last time you saw cinnamon buns at a French bakery, I don't blame you. These cinnamon buns were typically Swedish, some of the best I've ever had. Which would seem odd until you realize that Koh Lanta, especially the northern part, is a mini Swedish colony. So much so that even the French bakery caters to them.

It's almost scary the number of Swedes on the island. Restaurants advertise Swedish waffles, there's even a godis at one of the local dive shops. We also kept seeing signs for a Swedish school, which we decided to check out. We thought maybe it was daycare for Swedish families since there seemed to be so many of them. But as we walked through the grounds of this Swedish school, I realized it as something more than daycare as there were children of all ages. Given that it wasn't a holiday and Swedish children are not allowed to miss school, I knew this was something special.

We talked to one of the teachers and discovered that it's a bonafide Swedish school, with Swedish teachers and approved by the Swedish government. This means that you can go on holiday here without taking your kids out of school. You have to enroll them for a minimum of 5 weeks, and you are living in Thailand. Quite brilliant, I must say.

Anyways, we rented a motorbike the next day as well to keep Simon out of the water. We checked out the Old Town on the other side of the island. Then we had to give in and g back to the beach, but we had to explain they he couldn't put his head under. With his water wing contraption in place, this actually worked out fairly well and we were all reasonably happy. (I missed playing in the water with my boy!)

We managed to keep Simon's ear out of the water for the next few days and still enjoy the beach. We built sand castles, hung out with an Italian family, played volleyball, and ate good food. This was paradise. It was hard to imagine going anywhere else. We even watched one of the local boys shimmy up one of the coconut trees and knock down all the coconuts! Fresh coconut for everyone!

I even went diving for the first time in 8 years! I took a refresher course and enjoyed two beautiful dives at Koh Haa (with mostly Swedes).

We (I) had initially thought that we would hop around a bit during our 2 weeks on the beach, but the prospect of leaving our little slice of paradise was daunting. Would anywhere be as nice? Could anywhere be as nice? We had some Dutch friends on the nearby island of Koh Mook and were entertaining the idea of heading their way for a few days.

We went back to the doctor for one final check of the ears and a few more cinnamon buns. We finally made the big decision to head out to Koh Mook and reunite with our friends that we had just met the week before on Koh Lanta. We climbed aboard our long tail boat (mostly Swedes!), headed for the unknown and hoping for more paradise.

Bye, bye!
Simon did not love the bumpy ride.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Lesson on Small Bus Etiquette

We recently learned that we had not properly educated our son on small bus etiquette. We had, in fact, failed miserably.

We were 9 hours into our hellish 13 hour trip from Penang to Koh Lanta, Thailand, having woken up at 4:30am to hit the road. Simon had taken 2 short naps, but was otherwise mostly entertained by games on his iPod, just playing quietly. We spent about 20 minutes playing with one of his sticker books as well. I will admit, I said things out loud like, "That's a shark" or "That's a manta ray" in response to Simon's questions. Then I gave him back the iPod and he turned on an Elmo video. Then, this is where our parenting clearly failed, he counted to four along with Elmo out loud.

Let me set the scene a little. We were in a cramped minivan, and we we had our own row. Most other passengers were plugged into their various devices and there was minimal conversation during our ride.

But then Simon went ahead and counted for four out loud. A lovely asshole Australian passenger turned around sharply and said venomously, "How about teaching the kid a little small bus etiquette?" (Picture scruffy, dirty old overly-tanned man with a wife beater.)

I was stunned and had to ask him to repeat himself. Was he really implying that he had a problem with my son's behavior, which consisted of counting to 4 out loud? I explained that he was 2 and that he was being very quiet and patient on this long bus ride. Somehow this ended up with him calling Martin and I "ignorant pigs." I turned away and Martin was incredulous and I told him not to bother, just stop talking to this idiot.

I was now fuming in my seat. How rude! Simon had done nothing wrong, and had in fact been behaving very well. He hadn't cried or screamed or started singing "Twinkle, twinkle" on repeat as he some times likes to do (very loudly, I might add). He counted to 4.

I understand that some people are not thrilled to find themselves on a bus or train or whatever with a family with toddlers. But we all have to get where we're going, so it's bound to happen. Parents work hard to make sure their kids behave on these journeys, because it stresses us out when our kids are bothering everyone and misbehaving. This guy was plain unreasonable.

As we arrived in Krabi and was I was starting to simmer down a bit from our earlier confrontation, our new Aussie friend turned around said something to the effect of, "See? I told you he could do it. I haven't heard a peep from him the last 2 hours. You tell me 'oh he's only 2' but he's not as stupid as you think he is. You should give him some credit."

Me give Simon some credit? Me? And stupid? You could not find another being on this earth that thinks Simon is as brilliant as I do.

I of course did not waste any words on this ridiculous comment. We obviously didn't see eye to eye and no words were going to change that. But I do wish for him, many future bus rides and long flights seated next to lots of toddlers who are loud and rowdy. I also hope that his mouth is covered with duct tape as I wouldn't want other parents have to listen to him blither on with his inane comments.

There will always be people out there like our Aussie minibus companion, but they are the minority. There are many more out there that are kind-hearted and empathetic. When we next review small bus etiquette with Simon, I will tell him that it's not worth arguing with people who are rude and ignorant. Be the bigger person, and walk away. Or, in a small bus, simply yawn and walk away. That's what you have to remember, and that is what I learned in my lesson on small bus etiquette.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Eat. Swim. Eat. Sleep. Swim. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

It's quite possible that my blog posts will now slow considerably. What is there to tell you? The title says it all. We have entered the final phase of our big trip, what Martin has been looking forward to these last few months; the beach. And we still have a month left, exactly. Should be a pretty good month.

Like Mama, like son. Two fish in the water.
We are on Koh Lanta, an island in southern Thailand just south of Krabi. The sun is shining, the water's warm and our evening sun ensures a spectacular sunset each and every night. It's quite nice to do so little for a while. We barbecued fresh seafood with some Dutch and German families that we met. We rented a motorbike for a few days and checked out various beaches, but mostly we are laying low. We are meeting friends in Krabi on February 3 for a week, but until then we have no plans.

Budget accommodations means we put Simon to work.
Fresh squid!
Our current home.
Watching the sunset.
Family photo!
Sunset with outline of Koh Phi Phi.
The only disappointment so far has been the food. Most people are here for the beach, so the food is quite inferior to food we had in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Most menus seem to have as much western food as Thai food. It's Thai food, so it's still good, but it's not great. But we have some time to keep exploring and find those hidden gems.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Penang: ATMs gone wrong, our personal tour guide, and more good food!

It is quite fitting that when I opened this page to publish it, it had magically disappeared. (Magically=2 year old). I had used some of our 15 hour journey from Penang to Koh Lanta to chronicle the ups and downs of our few days in Penang, Malaysia. Mouthwatering details of our culinary adventures; tales of how we met a kind local citizen who spent 2 days showing us around not just Georgetown, but the entire island of Penang; and just our general mood that simply was the emotional roller coaster of Penang wiped away with a few unfortunate taps of an innocent toddler.

Now I have neither the time or energy to go back into such details. I will, however, share the following photos and maybe even write down a tip or two about our great street food finds.

Outstanding samosas in Little India. I went back for mor and more and more...
A stunning rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle.
Mike, our tour guide!
Ice cream on a hot day.
Ice cream on a hot day.
Just ask the locals what they're eating.
Street food vendors on KG Malabar.
Purchased some local art.
Breakfast with Mike. It was so good I couldn't quite catch it on camera.
Nutmeg juice! It tasted a lot like....nutmeg.
Street food notes:

  • Delicious samosas: corner of Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Pasar. Until about 6pm
  • Chinese breakfast market: across from Chowrasta market on Lebuh Chowrasta, in an empty lot. Try the kuih kat, trust me.
  • Night street vendors: KG Malabar. Noodles, porridge, satay. Lots of local Penang eats enjoyed with the locals.
  • Delicious local vendor restaurant: Corner of Jalan Sri Bahari and Jalan Penang. Mike took us for breakfast one morning and the fried noodles were amazing, along with a dish of deep fried yams, pork, prawns, and tofu with sweet and spicy dipping sauces.
Sorry. That's all I got. Mourning the loss of my previous prose....


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Singapore: More than food

There is more to do in Singapore than just gorge on yummy food at hawker markets, and we did do a few of those things too. We checked out the new botanical gardens, somehow snagging free tickets from some random guy who just offered them to us.

The cloud forest.
We also checked out the brand new Aquarium on Sentosa Island. Correction. We actually went to two aquariums on Sentosa Island after some massive confusion and total frustration. One is old and crappy, but does have the redeeming quality of a seal and dolphin show (which Simon loved). In the end Simon and I did make it to the brand new one, which boasts the world's largest aquarium with the largest viewing glass. It was beautiful and Simon loved running from window to window to check out the fish. He was also very helpful in pointing out fish to all other visitors, in case they somehow couldn't spot any of the thousands of fish swimming about. (Sentosa Island, by the way, is a resort island that is kind of like my hell on earth, but popular with families that are more fun than Martin and I.)

Enjoying the seals at Aquarium #1.
The new one!
We also learned some fascinating facts about Singapore, the island nation that boasts the highest income per capita and has virtually no crime.

  • Spitting and chewing gum are both illegal in Singapore.
  • The tax on buying a car is nearly 100% and you cannot buy a car older than 10 years.
  • You need a separate license to purchase a car. This license costs S$100,000.
  • Taxis drivers rent their cars and are responsible for any damage while driving. Therefore when it's raining, it can be very tough to find a taxi.
  • They really do use corporal punishment. Jail sentences can be doled out with a certain number of canings. However, you can only receive 5 at a time and cannot get any more for 6 months due to health risks! We behaved.
After 2 months traveling in some pretty cheap countries, we definitely felt the sticker shock of Singapore. Meals at hawker markets were reasonably priced, but somehow things added up quickly. Cab rides and entrance fees, alcohol and desserts were far above what we were used to paying. Western prices in this SEA city for sure.

The verdict? The perfect place to drop by and visit an old friend. It is so helpful to have a "local" with you to help navigate hawker centers and order the right foods. The options are overwhelming, and the possibility of going so wrong is right next to a great find. Some of the other highlights of Singapore, especially for a family, are pricy and simply not the Oppenwig style.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Angkor Wat

We had long been looking forward to the temples of Angkor Wat and we were finally there! I had been a little worried about the crazy amount of tourist that has exploded in Siem Reap in recent years as Angkor Wat has become a major international tourist destination. And if this had been my first sight I would have been worried.

Pub Street
But luckily that's just the center, which while quite devoted to tourism still has some good eats. I imagine it gets a bit rowdy later in the evenings, but by then we were snug in our beds just outside of town. Definitely a good splurge for us. With a lovely pool it offered a cool retreat in the afternoons after a long morning at the temples.

We decided to spend 3 days at the temples, and keep Angkor Wat for the end. We hired a tuk tuk for the day (best way to explore temples) and headed off.

We loved the Cambodian tuk tuks!
The temples are a collection of ruins from the dominant Khmer empire that collapsed long ago. Some have been meticulously restored, while others are overgrown with trees as the jungle tries to reclaim its land. I am always wary of having too high expectations for places like this, but it did not disappoint. We trampled around temples, impressed by ornate carvings, mass size, and deep moats. One of our highlights was playing hide and seek at Ta Prohm, the now famous temple where Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raiders.

Overall, we loved Cambodia. Of course, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh see their fair share of tourists and Cambodians have responded brilliantly. The Khmer cuisine is also very good, with amok and lok lak among our favorites . People were friendly and service was excellent. I would love to go back and explore more of the country, which is more rural and I am sure has a very different feel. But we got a very good feeling from our experience in Cambodia, despite our stroller being stolen from one of the temples! If you ever get the chance, it is well worth the effort to visit Angkor Wat. It has been one of the biggest highlights so far.

I know this post doesn't do it justice, but just enjoy the pics and trust that we had a great time. Trying to catch up before we add our 7th country to our list tomorrow!


Street Eats in Singapore

Food, food, food. You always hear people talking about the food culture in Singapore, and it does not disappoint. The best way to explore the food culture of Singapore is to visit one of the many Hawker centers scattered throughout the city, just as the locals do. Hawker centers are food courts where former street food vendors sell their enticing treats. The variety is enormous, with Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and Indian food stalls abound. Look for the long line, Singaporeans take their food very seriously, so it's your safest bet.

Hawker centers developed when the Singaporean government decided it was the best way to regulate street vendors and ensure proper hygiene. There are no longer street vendors, it all takes place at these hawker centers, where prices remain cheap and the food is safe to eat.

View from Mia's flat.
We were extremely fortunate to hosted by Mia, a Swedish friend of Martin's that he hadn't seen since high school graduation! For us weary travelers, it was such a treat to be at someone's home, especially one that came with such knowledgable and friendly tour guide. Mia and Fredrik, her boyfriend, love the Singaporean food culture and spend lots of time exploring various hawker centers and trying new food.

Satay at La Pasat.
Simon liked it too!
One highlight was the satay at Lau Pa Sat. Freshly grilled chicken, beef and prawns dipped in a spicy peanut sauce that Martin and I were slurping up at the end. We tried chicken rice, one of the most quintessential Singaporean dishes at the Maxwell Street hawker center. In Chinatown we indulged in delicious pan fried and Szechuan dumplings, and sampled other local flavors at the nearby Tiong Bahru hawker center.

Koay teow...yum!
Delicious dumplings!
The hawker centers are all well run and pretty clean, but nothing posh or fancy. But you could leave a hawker center, then walk around the corner to a chic coffee shop for coffee and dessert. Now that's my kind of night!

Simon and his new buddy, Mia.
In our four days in Singapore we stuffed ourselves silly. You could spend weeks exploring the food culture and hawker centers there, but it's definitely a great city to pass through for a few days and enjoy the good grub.