Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Penang and Langkawi

During my recent trip to Malaysia, I was thinking about how to go about writing this post. I wondered how I might keep the content fresh and interesting after so many travel blog posts over the last few years. I mean, seriously, unless you’re someone like Bill Bryson, it’s hard to make these little word doodles intriguing time and time again. Then I thought about something much more relevant—I am so damn lucky to have this as a challenge in my life. Honestly, this is more than just a #FirstWorldProblem; this is the thinking of an ultra-privileged individual, who’s probably been on more vacations in the last three years than 99% of the people I see on my journeys. Lucky is an understatement. Oh and another thing I’ve been ludicrously complaining about recently. This summer, I need to go to the US Embassy to get more blank pages stuck in my passport. There are only two left and I’ll need a new work visa soon. Woe is me!

Before getting into my adventures around Penang and Langkawi, let me just digress a bit more and list off all the travelling I’ve done since I came to HK in July of 2011. And I won’t include the handful of trips to Guangzhou and Macau as those cities are too close to really call “travel destinations” OR my annual Christmas trip stateside, which is the longest journey of all. I’m talking about truly new sights for these fortunate eyes.

Taipei, Taiwan, August 2011
Palawan, Philippines, January 2012
Bangkok, Thailand April 2012
Sabah, Malaysia, August 2012
Guilin, China, August 2012
Hua Hin, Thailand, February 2013
Northern Vietnam and Yunnan, China, March/April 2013
England, Ireland and Scotland, July/August 2013
Bali, Indonesia, February 2014
Northwest Malaysia, April 2014

That’s ten trips in less than three years. One of the main reasons I came to Hong Kong was to explore new territory and I’ve been able to do that with gusto. Not to mention two more trips planned before next school year. So, um, lucky stars? Thanks. Sincerely, scrawny 25-year-old from Bainbridge Island, USA.

Anyway, brief summary of the trip, Sharman and I went to two islands just off the northwestern coast of Malaysia. The first was Penang, second was Langkawi. Very different from each other, but each charming in their own way. We stayed for about three days on each island.

Without further ado, here are the (monster truck voice) TOP FIVE TOTALLY AMAAAAAAY-ZZZZZING EXPERIENCES OF THE HOLIDAY, IN HELLA CHRONOLOGICAL ORDERRRRRRRR  (wailing guitar solo)

1. The view from Kek Lok Si Temple

On our first full day in George Town, we weren’t sure what to do so we just wandered around the city, trying to follow one of my guidebook’s unclear itineraries. Once we reached this old Chinese-style mansion turned museum, which was closed, there was a taxi driver named Hardie who asked us if we’d like a tour around the area. Normally I automatically say no to strangers who ask for tourist business like this, but after talking with the good-natured Hardie a bit, and considering the fact that we’d just wandered around for ages to find a museum that was closed, we took him up on the offer. Hardie told us that Kek Lok Si was the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and once we arrived, we could see its magnitude. (Side note: one may not expect the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia to be in a small, Muslim country but that’s just another part of Malaysia’s fascinating diversity). The place wasn’t just one temple; it was a whole system of connected temples. One might say it was like an entire mountain of Buddhism, with gift shops in abundance to keep the ringgits rolling in. The highlight of our walk about the place was the tip top of the main temple, which is a unique blend of Burmese, Thai and Chinese architectural styles. From the top, we could see all of Eastern Penang, including George Town and the coast. These were probably my favorite photos from the trip, as the sky, ocean, Penang skyline and color of the smaller temples just beneath us really were breathtaking. Even more than the view from higher up Penang Hill, which felt too crowded and touristy, uncannily reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, tram and all. The convenience took away from the site’s majesty I thought. At the top of Kek Lok Si, it was only Sharman and me. Thanks for climbing up all those stairs with me, darling!

2. George Town bike ride

For our second day in George Town we booked a bike riding tour around the oldest section of the city. This area is designated as a UNESCO heritage site and it biking turned out to be an excellent way to see it all up close while moving along quick enough to see the key places. The group of eight of us rode were able to see the old Chinese family jetties, Little India, an old Hindu shrine, the temple of a Chinese secret society, the central Mosque and remnants of British colonial buildings from when the Brits used Penang as their trading port in Southeast Asia. The variety of culture and history was extraordinary and one of the reasons we came to George Town to begin with. And along with the sites, we gorged on delicious food and were led by the entertaining and knowledgeable Ken, who blared music from his bike in the front to keep us all on course. We began our ride with the international anthem, "Gangnam Style." It started out as mildly embarrassing, but eventually we came to embrace his eccentricity.

3. Parasailing

Last time I came to Malaysia (see Sabah post linked above) I tried scuba diving for the first time. This trip, I tried parasailing for the first time. Yes, one activity took most of a day and the other lasted a few minutes, but still, the country has enabled me to be both a bird and fish and for that I’m grateful. Unlike the scuba excursion, I had no idea that I was going to go parasailing beforehand. After checking in to our Langkawi hotel, Sharman and I naturally made our way to the nearest beach, Pantai Tengah, as it was still only afternoon. Before we even arrived at the beach, we saw parachutes floating ahead of us, well above the seductive turquoise water. Once we got there, a handful of Malaysian beach boys asked us if we wanted to try. When I saw how easy it was to sign up and go, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist. After a quick swim, I returned to the posse of Malay para-hawkers (yes pun intended) and got strapped in for the flight. As I said, it was only for a few minutes, but what a feeling. Did I mention the weather was perfect, not a cloud in sight? Wish I could’ve brought my camera to capture the view of Langkawi from above, but obviously, the odds were high I would drop the camera into the ocean and I didn’t want to take that risk. When I came back to earth, I could not stop smiling. People use that as a cliché, but I mean it. My mouth was stuck. It was weird. Blissfully weird.

4. Kayak trip through the mangroves

Our second day in Langkawi, we went on a kayak tour after reading excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, possibly my favorite website, after baseballreference.com of course. After starting out at the base of the Langkawi Geopark, we got into our kayak, and started following stellar tour-guide Mandy down the Kilim River. Sharman and I shared a boat, and our group included two English couples and a family of five from France. In addition to getting quite a workout during the long kayak voyage, we saw beautiful karst formations, an otter, eagles, mudskippers, multicolored crabs and of course, mangrove trees with their complex root systems. After that, we walked through a bat cave and saw a number of different fish at the fish farm/aquarium, most notably a number of large stingrays. And by large, I mean their barbs must have been at least two feet long. They gently snuggled right up to Mandy when she stuck her hand in the water with some fishy snacks. Thankfully, no barbs were unhinged. At the end, my back was sore and my knees were a shocking shade of crimson thanks to the relentless sun, but it was well worth it.

5. Sharman's chips being stolen by a monkey

Okay, so this isn't exactly a highlight in the usual sense, but it was memorable and I wanted to recount it here. On our last full day, we went on an island hopping speedboat trip around Langkawi. It was cheap and therefore all the stops, though beautiful, were filled with tourists on similar trips with similar companies. There wasn't much to do other than walking around and swimming. Towards the end, we got to sit out on the beach of a little island called (something). After a brief swim, Sharman and I came back to our stuff and out of nowhere, this macaque appears and decides to open up Sharman's bag, where he discovers her small bag of chips. He got there a second before I did, and I saw the culprit snacking, I felt a mix of amusement, confusion and awe, with more than a bit of fear as well. I may have grown up in a rural area, but that doesn't make me particularly comfortable being within spitting distance of a wild, mangy mammal. I grabbed the rest of our stuff away but let him have the chips, and watched the monkey nonchalantly chow down. He then finished the chips, tossed the bag (a thief AND a litterbug) and made his way down the beach. Moments later, he started rummaging through a bag just inches away from a sunbathing bald western man, who realized a few seconds later and snatched his bag back just in time. That monkey was ruthless!


Thanks for reading this outrageously long post. Here are some photos from the holiday.




Penang from Kek Lok Si
Thirsty after that spicy soup!
I think it was dead, but didn't touch it to find out
Much better than the Bruce Lee statue in HK
George Town sunset
Clock Tower, from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee
Turns out the USA isn't the only place that uses an eagle as its symbol
Pantai Tengah
Not me, but someone parasailing around the same area I did. It's an umbrella, it's a plane, it's Super Tourist!

Mangrove forest, basically kayaking through mud at this point
Eagle feeding
Rogue monkey

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Forward

I've been writing an essay for my university class all afternoon and here I am, taking a "break" by writing here. Strange, I know, but I didn't want to end my streak of posting here at least once a month since I started this blog nearly three years ago.

Anyway, I'm here to write about my optimism for the upcoming season. Baseball season you ask? Well, yeah, but I meant, like, spring. Rebirth, Easter, etc.

First off, I'll be traveling twice over the next three months. Once to Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia in late-April and then just a week later, down to Bangkok with some coworker friends for a bachelor party, or as my British friends call it, a stag do. One trip to a country under heavy scrutiny because of a mysterious airplane disappearance, the other trip potentially involving outrageous drunken behavior. Don't worry though, I will do my best to stay safe! Hard to believe this will mark my EIGTH trip to Southeast Asia in two and a half years' time. What can I say? I came to Hong Kong to travel and I've done just that. 

Second of all, my university work is finally winding down for the year. I passed my student teaching practice last week and now, I only have one major project left, due in early May. It's been an up and down term, but I definitely have a better knowledge of teaching than I did seven months ago. That's the main objective, so I guess despite all the moaning and groaning, I'm on track to get what I signed up for. Almost halfway done!

Lastly, and most significantly, these will be my last three months working at my current school. I've been offered a job at another primary school as a co-teacher, and though nothing's official yet, I expect to sign the contract shortly. I think the hardest part will be saying goodbye to the kids, as well as the staff and the life I've gotten used to while working there. Of course, there are other reasons that make me more excited about leaving, but overall, it's not a good or bad thing. It's a change and changes are necessary.

And with a change of jobs comes a change of apartments. After two and half years, I'll be saying goodbye to The Lion's Den at the end of June. Not sure exactly where I'll move to yet, but the new school is a bit far from Tai Wai, so I'm looking to find something closer to the campus. Again, a big change of scenery and hopefully one with new opportunities and discoveries. 

So, the big changes I expected in 2014 are approaching. Thus far, the two jobs I've worked in Hong Kong have driven me crazy at times but overall, were fantastic decisions. Both for the people I met and the experience I gained. I sincerely hope this will be the same way. 

Lastly, go go Mariners!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bali

Before going to Bali, I heard lots of conflicting things from friends who had been there. Some said it was a kind of tropical paradise, the jewel of Indonesia. Others said it was a tourist trap, filled with party beaches and scammers. Well, during our five days there, Sharman and I felt it was closer to the former. I wanted to stay much longer and could’ve easily filled a few weeks with different explorations. Alas, we tried to make the most of our short five days there. This was, at almost 25 years old, my first time in the southern hemisphere. I can’t wait to return! But to where? Australia? New Zealand? Hmmm...

Our hotel was in Ubud, towards the center of the island. We stayed there, as it seemed to be an interesting, artsy place, and not filled with drunk beach bums. About five hours after we arrived, I went out to a sports bar called the Melting Pot, about a 15-minute taxi ride away from the hotel. The reason I went was (drumroll please) to watch Super Bowl XLXIII between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. As this was a major priority, I’d contacted the owner a week before to make sure that I could watch the game there at 7:30 am.

The Seahawks won; it was glorious. I even met a few Seahawks fans in the place, though I spent most of the time sitting on my own, eating pancakes, shaking my head in wonder at the lopsided victory.

video

Due to lack of sleep and Seahawks euphoria, I was fairly dazed on the first day, though Sharman and I did get to go to a Fire Dance performance. The performance consisted of 100 men chanting and singing, while elaborately costumed actors performed/danced a famous Balinese legend around a spire of fire. Then at the end, another performer danced on hot ash, kicking the embers about while riding a straw horse. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, or probably ever will see.

Ubud jungle houses
Temple in Ubud
Fire Dance
The next day, we went out and around Bali with Nyoman, a taxi driver/tour guide who I’d met after the Super Bowl. He seemed to share my desire to avoid throngs of tourists so we asked him to take us to some places he recommended. After driving through some magnificent rice fields, we stopped at Tulamen, where I was able to go scuba diving through an old shipwreck. I hadn’t originally planned on diving on this trip, but then again, I hadn’t realized that there was a shipwreck I could explore. Though I had a bit of issues with the goggles leaking while underwater, it was quite cool to see. After that, we stopped by the staggeringly beautiful Water Palace. We ended that day at a beach called White Sand Beach, where we had dinner and a swim. Or should I say, I had a swim while Sharman got a massage. And best of all, we just about had the entire beach to ourselves.

Scuba time
Dragonfly, stay!
Water Palace
White Sand Beach
We enjoyed that day so much that we asked Nyoman to take us out again the next day. After stopping by another interesting Hindu lakeside temple called Ulun Danu, we headed to a nearby waterfall called Munduk. Though I didn’t expect much, this was a major highlight for me. Very seldom have I so strongly felt the power of nature as I did here, with literally tons of water splashing down just a couple yards from me.  

After that we ate lunch with a glorious view of Mount Watukaru and the Jatiluwih rice terraces. Walking through the green rice fields reminded me a lot of my trip to Yuanyang, China ten months ago, just with more English speakers around. Last we headed out to Uluwatu to see the cliffside temple. Unfortunately, though we were there for the sunset, it was too foggy to really see much. Oh well—can’t always get it perfect.

Ulun Danu
Waterfall plus scrawny boy
Jatiluwhih
Uluwatu
The fourth day, we slept in a bit and spent the day entirely in Ubud. As Ubud is the art capital of the island, we went to the main art museum there, which was outstanding. Not just because of the collection, but because of the lush, jungle setting. After a delicious Mexican lunch (sorry I’m so predictable) and a massage, we headed to another evening show, this time a dance involving a number of mythical creatures and elaborate costumes. The reason I booked tickets, however, was because of the gamelan troupe accompanying it all. What a mysterious, interesting instrument.

ARMA museum
Ancient Muppet
For the final day, we took part in a Balinese cooking course. Much like our similar course in Thailand, this was a fun way to learn about the culture, while meeting friendly fellow tourists and enjoying delicious food. Before leaving, I purchased one souvenir, a painting of some fields near the volcano Mount Agung. I’m not really an art collector but I couldn’t pass up this chance, particularly as the shopkeeper was so friendly and came from a family of artists. This painting was apparently painted by the shopkeeper's uncle.
Cooking course
Painting of Mount Agung

I’ve now been to Southeast Asia six times and Bali may possibly be my favorite place there yet. The culture, the natural beauty, the atmosphere, it all just added up to a good vibe. Now, I need to buckle down and survive the next nine weeks of student teaching, exams, projects, planning and more until I head down to Malaysia in April.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

This post has little to do with Chinese New Year but as today is the day, ‘Kung Hei Fat Choi’ (the Cantonese holiday greeting, roughly meaning 'I wish you good fortune') seemed like an appropriate title.

I’ve written at least one blog post every month since I moved here in July 2011 and I ALMOST blew it this month. Thankfully, today, the 31st, is a public holiday and I have some free time to churn out post number 58.

So let’s see, when I last wrote in here around Christmas, I had just arrived home on Bainbridge Island after traversing the Pacific for the third straight December. I had a relaxing two weeks there and was quite upset when I arrived back in Hong Kong. I think it was a combination of loneliness (about 20 hours of travelling alone just after New Years), missing my friends and family, sleep deprivation and knowing that I shortly would return to work. However, it didn’t take long until I settled back into things and overall, it's been a solid January.

-First off, for various reasons, I’ve enjoyed my job a lot more this month than before the holidays. I think a lot of it has to do with gearing up for my student teaching next month. My coworkers David and Katie have given me a great deal of help and advice and I feel that I’m developing skills that I haven’t been able to develop previously as a teaching assistant. For example, I’ve spent lots of time lesson planning, carefully studying a piece of children’s literature, improving my time management, thinking creatively about the lesson material etc.

-January has also seen me dive back into Cantonese with a vengeance. I’ve learned two new words a day for the past three weeks. And that’s after several months without hardly studying it at all. Tonight, I’ll be going to Chinese New Year family gathering at Sharman’s aunt’s house and will have plenty of chances to make a fool of myself by trying new words.

 -I played two musical gigs this month. One was an open mic performance that I was quite pleased with, another as a restaurant entertainer along with my English friend Chris. We played Beatles, Bob Marley and other old classics for the patrons of a recently opened Western-style restaurant here in my neighborhood of Tai Wai. It was lots of fun to play with Chris and hopefully the first of many shows there. I don’t think I’ve played a show of just covers since high school. And the icing on the cake? We got paid.

-The Seahawks have had a splendid month of January and I’ve been basking in that glory all the way through. Second chance at a Super Bowl title this weekend!

-In my fleeting moments of spare time, I’ve been reading an excellent biography of Jim Henson aptly titled Jim Henson: The Biography. It’s been fascinating and eye opening to me, as someone so interested in creativity, education, humor and art.

-Sharman and I are getting quite excited for our upcoming trips to Bali, Indonesia (February) and Penang, Malaysia (April). We hadn’t gone on a trip together since England/Scotland/Ireland six months ago. For us, the constant travelers, that’s kind of a long time.

-This isn’t exactly a highlight of the month but I’ve decided almost for certain that I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of June. After two years, it’s time for a change of scenery at a new primary school in HK. Of course, I’m not thrilled about all the job application work ahead, but it’s part of being a professional I suppose.


Here are a few photos from the last month or so. From the USA and a trip to Vancouver at the end of December to a couple nice hikes in HK over the past few weekends.












Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Highlights of 2013


Well, the year is nearly over. I’ve mentioned most all of these things on the blog at some point in the year, but here they are again, summed up in a top ten list. It’d be silly to rank them, so I’ve just listed them out in no particular order.

Badminton (April onwards)
I don’t think I’ve been so motivated to improve at a sport since I was in Little League playing baseball over ten years ago. Despite not being tremendously gifted athletically, I love sports and all the triumph, disappointment and fun that go with them. I think that my heart had always had a badminton racket shaped hole and now that hole has been filled.

UK/Ireland Trip (July/August)
This one’s a no brainer. Our whirlwind trip was truly special. Seeing the Beatle-shire for the first time, experiencing Scottish and Irish culture up close, London and its majesty, and of course, being able to see it all with Sharman and my parents.

My Students (all year)
I’ve been primarily working with the same children at school and for private tutoring during the entire calendar year. Because of this, I’ve gotten to know them extremely well. Seeing and interacting with these kids every day is genuinely a joy and distracts me from all the unpleasant aspects of my job.

Hua Hin, Thailand Trip (February)
It’s not every Valentine’s Day that you get to spend riding on elephants with your partner! Sharman and I had a lovely escape to the quiet beaches of Hua Hin for our Chinese New Year. 2012 CNY was the idyllic island of Palawan, Philippines and 2014 will be Bali! Seems to be a beachy theme here.

Hiking (all year)
This clearly wasn’t the first year I’d been hiking, but it was the year I discovered just how much Hong Kong’s trails have to offer. I hit the country park nearly a dozen times this year, discovering war relics, waterfalls, beaches and more.

Vietnam/Yunnan, China Trip (March/April)
I met my good friend and classmate Luke in Hanoi for an adventure that took us to some beautiful (and terrifying) places. Trekking through these strange lands was a rewarding contrast to the more comfortable Thai holiday I’d had two months before.

Visitations (all year)
I still can’t believe how often Bainbridge Islanders find me in Hong Kong. This year, I saw old classmates Evan, Henry, Cosmo, Luke, Greg, Ryan and Sean. All had ventured to the east for different reasons and I was thrilled to host them and play tour guide during their time! Also, this was my first year hosting CouchSurfers.

Seattle/Vancouver Trip (December)
For the third straight December, I’ve crossed the Pacific to be with my family and friends during the holiday season. It’s always such a great time, filled with gatherings and reunions. My old roommates and I even plan to drive up to Vancouver, BC for a weekend exploring the city, where I remarkably have never been before. 

Commencing My Postgraduate Program (August)
Though it’s still too early to say whether my primary teaching degree will be worth all the time and effort in the long run, I am happy to be back as a student again after two years removed. Also, meeting a network of teachers with varied experience around HK is incredibly valuable and good fun to boot.

Playing Open Mic Nights (June onwards)
After searching for the right sort of venues in Hong Kong for two years, I finally managed to play my songs at five different musical events, performing both solo and with friends like Erin, Andromeda and Ryan. Music is in my blood so I hope to continue building on this and play even more in the coming year. 

Of course, this year hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows every day. In 2013, I’ve felt more disillusioned about my full-time work and have been overwhelmed at times with balancing work and my university courses. In October, I learned that my cat Liddie died at age 19 back home. I was disappointed not to write any original music this year and was shocked to see my rent go up by a full $2,000 ($258 US) from January to December.

But every year is filled with highs and lows and 2013 has been no different. I’m blessed to be so healthy and have so many opportunities to explore the world with my amazing family, friends and girlfriend.  Here’s to another interesting year ahead!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Autumn in the Country

Well, not much has changed since my last post one month ago. I'm still busy with work, and still counting down the days until Christmas. But one thing did happen after my fifth trip to Cheung Chau, this time with my high school friend Sean and his girlfriend Hannah. I began to seriously think about moving to one of Hong Kong's 'Outlying Islands' sometime this summer, after my rental contract is up. You can take a boy off an island, but you can't take the island out of a boy.

For those of you who don't know, my hometown is Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride away from Seattle. It's green, quiet and relaxed and despite occasionally complaining about nothing to do as a teenager, it was a fantastic place to call home. Even now, I'm still discovering how the island shaped the kind of person I am today. Walking around Cheung Chau, I began to imagine a life in a small island house, minutes away from the beach, with no cars in sight, and relatively reasonable rent. There I'd be, playing my guitar to the rhythm of the waves. I still consider this dream fairly unrealistic, as my job hunt may land me elsewhere and who knows what kind of logistical challenges may come with a home far from any roads. Still, as John Denver sang many years ago, "Thank God I'm a country boy!"

Autumn has some of the best weather in HK and I've tried to take advantage of it. Here are a few photos from the past couple of months. From Pui O Beach, Cheung Chau, Shing Mun/Kam Shan Country Parks and Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden.