Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Disneyland Hong Kong-style

Does Sleeping Beauty get jet lagged flying from her Hong Kong Castle to the California one?

Have I mentioned that we are a Disney theme park-loving family? Until I was 4 years old, I lived 20 minutes away from Disneyland in California, and every single house guest naturally wanted to go to the legendary park. There's a cute picture of my mom and me in front of the iconic Mickey Mouse flower berm with her wearing an early 70's miniskirt while I'm bundled up like an Eskimo. Hubby and I honeymooned at Walt Disney World in Florida. I've nursed my babies on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride which is just long enough to get in a feeding and dark enough to be discreet. (But hold on tight during the dip.) My little girl already has five Disney park visits under her belt.

So when we began to plan our Hong Kong trip, Disneyland was an obvious choice. Yes, I did  try to convince the kids that we should try out the homegrown Hong Kong Ocean Park. Pandas! Dolphins! Cable Cars! Rides! Roller Coasters! But let's just say that the word on the playground is that Disneyland is the place to go.

I forewarned them that Disneyland Hong Kong was much smaller than the other parks. "Space Mountain is the only roller coaster," I told them. They didn't care.  Since the park does have their current favorite ride, Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, a.k.a. AstroBlasters, they figured that everything else would work itself out.

So that's how we found ourselves there the Sunday before Christmas. Any Disney park in the U.S.A. would be packed solid with lengthy, 90-minute lines for a 3-minute ride during Winter Break, but the Hong Kong version was practically empty in comparison. In fact, the Single Rider line at Space Mountain had a mere 5-minute wait time throughout the day. Fantasyland was practically deserted. All you could hear was crickets — Jiminy Cricket.

One hour after park opening, we were the ONLY people on the It's a Small World ride. No one else was in line in front of us. We were the only people on the boat, and no one was waiting when we disembarked.  I almost felt like we had won some special contest in which we had Disneyland all to ourselves. Or perhaps we were in one of those crazy Scooby-Doo haunted parks where a masked goblin would soon chase us through the rides?

It's a Small Abandoned World

It turns out that the big crowd was at Toy Story Land which had opened the month before. Since the U.S. parks don't have this section, we were eager to explore. You get the feeling that you're a small toy wandering through Andy's backyard. Gigantic Tinkertoys reached for the sky around us. Woody loomed large at one entrance while Rex welcomed us at the other one. The rides themselves were typical carnival rides which had been given the Disney treatment.

Other parts of the Disney experience were just what we expected. Naturally, there were Princesses, all played by Caucasians. Oddly, Mulan the Chinese Warrior Princess was nowhere in sight. Little girls in Hong Kong dress up to visit the park, just as they do in the U.S.A. How come grown ups never dress up? If my hubby showed up as Mary Poppins' chimney sweep friend, Bert, would he get preferential treatment?  How many Meet-and-Greets could he get away with before being kicked out?

We found Asian touches throughout the park. Japanese Sushi and Chinese cuisine were offered at the for-the-big-crowds restaurants while hamburgers and hot dogs were relegated to the smaller Western themed restaurant. The Frozen Yogurt stand had Asian toppings in addition to the sprinkles and crumbled Oreos.

Shows and rides were in a variety of languages. On the Jungle River Cruise, we had our choice of three different lines depending on if we wanted a boat ride featuring Cantonese, Mandarin or English. Although to be honest, with the number of under-our-breath comments we were making, it didn't really matter what language the guide was speaking. The Lion King show, similar to the one at Florida's Animal Kingdom, was in English but had two monkey sidekicks who provided Chinese translations without breaking the flow of the story. A musical revue called the Golden Mickeys was completely in Cantonese, other than the songs, but had English "subtitles" on a screen next to the stage. The hilarious Stitch Encounter, similar to Turtle Talk with Crush at both EPCOT and California Adventure, advertised the times and language of each show.

What I found most interesting about this park was the nametags. In the U.S.A, the nametags list the cast member's name and home town. I guess it's so you can strike up a conversation with "Gertrude - Eureka Springs, Arkansas" and tell her that your elementary school friend honeymooned there, for instance. The Hong Kong nametags did not have hometowns, and many of the cast members had Western names. In and of itself, that's not too strange since many young Chinese professionals have Western names for when they have to deal with non-Chinese folks.  In high school, my friend, Yi-Fen, was picking out a name for her U.S. Citizenship papers. I lobbied hard for "Jade" which is what happens when you ask a 15-year-old for name suggestions. She ultimately went with "Jasmine." (Hi Jasmine!!)

While waiting in line for the raft ride to Tarzan's Treehouse, I noticed that we were being helped by Jim, Jessie, and Jill. What was strange was that Jill was a man. I began to suspect that perhaps Disney kept a pile of  nametags in the dressing room, and the employees just grabbed one on their way to the rides. At Tomorrowland, my son pointed out that a man named "Saturn" was in charge of loading AstroBlasters. Porsche was the lady who helped us at Autopia. Coincidence? I think not.

The park may be small, but we spent the entire day there and were booted out 30 minutes after closing. For the kids, a small park and small crowd meant riding their favorite rides multiple times with little waiting. Just for kicks, we decided to take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) home. Unlike U.S. Disney monorails, this train actually links with the citywide public rail and subway system.

The trains on the Disneyland Resort line have been customized with Mickey Mouse shaped windows and handholds plus bronze figurines that decorate the rail cars. By the way, the Hong Kong MTR subway system is incredibly busy on a Sunday night. I don't even want to try it during rush hour. Two transfers, ten stops, and 40 minutes later, we were finally back at our hotel.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Very Asian Christmas

I'm back in Texas for a visit home right now, and boy, does it feel good. I've traded shorts and tees for pants and jackets. I found it a little difficult to get into the holiday spirit in Penang where, located so near to the equator, the daylight hours are still long, and the weather is hot. We drove around my childhood Houston neighborhood today looking at Christmas lights, something that we didn't really see in Penang. Strings of lights are sold there, but they're put up to celebrate Hari Raya (End of Ramadan) and Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights).

Christmas is a public holiday in Malaysia, but it ranks far below Chinese New Year and all the Muslim and Indian holidays. It's actually been kind of nice to not have the commercial aspects of Christmas in my face all the time, allowing me to dial back the craziness. No TV shows or magazines enticed me to dazzle everyone with cooking feasts or transform my home into a Winter Wonderland.  Normally, I spend at least 2 days decorating the house, but in Penang, it took me all of an hour to set up the small tree and put out the few Christmas items we shipped over.

My kids were at somewhat of a loss when trying to figure out what to put on their lists for Santa since we've had zero toy catalogs in the mail or commercials on TV.  (Don't worry. They dug deep and were able to come up with items for their wish list.) LEGOs cost more than double what they do in the USA, by the way. Not surprisingly, American Girl dolls are completely absent.

The Christmas spirit isn't totally lacking in Penang. At the expat grocery store, there were a few displays of Christmas decor and foods. It actually reminded me of World Market in America with their selection of German stollens, Italian panettones, and British mince pies. The malls do deck the halls, but Santa doesn't hang out there waiting to greet children dressed in their holiday finery.

Kuala Lumpur's Suria Mall

An American friend hosted an ornament-making afternoon for the young'uns followed by a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. I managed to put together a cookie decorating party. What I could typically accomplish with one trip to Michael's took me an entire school day of driving to nine stores looking for sprinkles plus pipe cleaners, stick-on googly eyes and red crystals or pompoms to make Rudolf the Reindeer candy canes. Imagine pantomiming "googly eyes" to a saleslady who isn't fluent in English. She shook her head and sent me away, probably thinking that I was crazy.

Hubby's company had a potluck and gift exchange, complete with caroling. My son's middle school teacher even hosted a field trip to her house so the kids could decorate cupcakes and share gifts in a homey environment. My daughter's class made ornaments encouraging everyone to "Remember the reason for the season." So true!

Flying to Texas, we stopped in Hong Kong and Los Angeles where we witnessed some airport merriment. Hong Kong had a giant Christmas tree plus a Gingerbread man to greet you. At LAX, we saw Santa Claus walking through the terminal followed by the Grinch disguised as Santa.

Two hottie helpers at the Hong Kong airport

Anyways, I got my wish — to be home for Christmas.

Merry Christmas Y'all!

Selamat Hari Krismas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kuala Lumpur: Temples and Caves

Batu Caves is the type of experience that captures why I like to travel. It offered me a window into a world so different than my everyday life, and it ramped up my urge to explore other cultures.  Back in the 1800s, an Indian trader came across these limestone caves. Thinking that the entrance resembled a vel, the divine spear of the god Lord Murugan, he built a temple to this deity inside the cave. A few centuries later, the complex has grown and become one of the primary Hindu sites in Malaysia. Next month, over a million people are expected to attend the temple's Thaipusam festival which will apparently feature much mortification of the flesh.

The caves are a mere 8 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, and it makes for a quick 2-3 hour excursion, including the drive there and back. As we headed up the highway, something gold and glittering caught my eye in the distance.  Lo and behold, it marked our destination.

World's largest Murugan statue

This 140-foot-tall statue of Lord Murugan, a popular deity with Tamil Hindus, marks the beginning of the 272 stairs leading up to the Temple Cave.

Statues atop the entrance gate

We started ascending the steep staircase, grateful for the broad landings so we could stop and take in the views. We even had a little entertainment off to the side.

Bananas, chips, peanuts — pretty much anything would suffice

The first large cave had numerous Hindu shrines inside. It also had a couple chickens. Well, chickens and monkeys. Make that chickens, monkeys and pigeons. And people — I must not forget the people.

From the Temple Cave, you can take even more steps.

We decided to head up one more level and found that the next cave opened up to the sky. Monkeys scaled the almost vertical walls, using nothing more than thin vines to pull themselves upwards.

Inside the shrines, Hindu men and women were lined up for some reason. Perhaps a blessing of some sort? The man on the right was preparing leaves inside a bowl. Periodically, the man in the center of the picture would emerge from the room with another bowl and put a dab of its contents — ash, maybe? — on the worshippers foreheads. The solemn ritual brought to mind the same devoutness and prescribed motions of a Catholic mass. The people waiting in line reminded me of Catholics heading to the altar for communion.

Afterwards, we headed back down the stairs, skipping the Dark Cave tour and the museum-like Cave Villa. Following the crowd, I couldn't help stopping to snap a picture of the 50-foot Hanuman statue that stood over the entrance of Ramayana Cave.

Noble monkey

It was a fascinating experience that revealed to me how little I know about Hinduism and made me want to learn more. And all those stairs burned calories, too!  Something for the mind and something for the body. It's a win-win situation.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Kuala Lumpur: Hit and Miss

We had a long holiday weekend at the end of November. The kids had Friday off for American Thanksgiving but not Thursday. Hubby had Monday off for Islamic New Year which was actually on Sunday. Got all of that straight? Notice that the off days don't actually line up.

Anyways... we decided that this would be a good time to explore Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Because it's a 4 hour drive from Penang, and the airfare was so cheap – US$60 per person roundtrip – I decided that flying was the way to go. The day before we left, I realized that the airport is actually one hour outside of town. Then, our one hour flight was delayed by almost two hours. It ended up taking us 6.5 hours from the time we left home to our arrival at the hotel. Next time, I think we'll drive. The up side is that we can honestly say our return trip involved a buggy (think stretch golf cart), a taxi, a train, a bus, a plane, and a car.

The other big mistake was trying to visit the Petrosains Discovery Centre on a public holiday. I do believe we're on an unofficial mission to visit every interactive Science Museum in the world. Penang has zero kiddie, hands-on museums, so we were really looking forward to this. I mean really, REALLY, looking forward to it. We were met with a massive throng of uniformed school children on a field trip. Add in all the other tourists who were also there for the long weekend. The museum dude looked at me like I was crazy for not making a reservation. He told us we could have tickets to enter in a couple hours, but that would have left us about 45 minutes to explore before leaving for the airport.

So, we instead ended up in a nice, nearby bookstore, Kinokuniya. It was the best bookstore I've visited in Malaysia, but it's no science museum. Air Asia limits carry-on luggage to one piece each weighing no more than 14 pounds (crazy, right?), so I had to figure out what alchemy was needed to magically make all our new purchases much lighter.

Luckily, the good outweighed the bad on the trip. For starters, we had an awesomely amazing room at the Traders Hotel. Check out the night time view.

At 1482 feet, the Petronas Towers are the 3rd tallest buildings in the world.

A ginormous (who invented that word) park spread out before us. It had dream jogging paths, multiple playgrounds, a huge wading pool, and a Water Symphony Lake with programmed fountains. The Aquarium was right next door, and a magnificent mall, Suria KLCC, connected to the complex.

The room itself was nice and big, and the kids were in the connecting room. The rooftop pool had both a hot tub and warm tub nestled in a lily pond and surrounded by the ultra-swanky Sky Bar. The hotel also had one of the best breakfast buffets I've seen. A visitor could really get a taste of Malaysia here since all the major cuisines were represented with Indian roti canai, Nyonya cakes, Chinese dim sum, and Malaysian curries. Of course, they offered western dishes like a lovely cheese plate, frittatas, croissants, fruit and yogurt.  The fresh squeezed juice stand had about 8 different pitchers of juices – apple, pineapple, kiwi, orange, starfruit, etc. – you could mix together as you wished. There was even a Gluten-free corner.

Customized Noodle Soup station

We noticed a few burka-clad women in line, but we didn't see them in the dining room. How exactly does a gal in a burka eat if she can't take it off in public?

The younger kiddos and I had fun exploring the Aquarium next door. It was small but very well done. Maria liked sticking her head in the bubble that popped up in the middle of the otter habitat. Brad lingered on the travelator that tunneled through the large tank surrounded by sharks, stingrays, and other aquatic life.

On our only full day in Kuala Lumpur, we hit Batu Caves which is so wondrous it gets its own post and the National Museum which covers Malaysia's history from prehistoric times, through European colonization, up to its independence.

Gilded throne – Doesn't it look comfy?

Upin and Ipin is a popular kids TV show in Malaysia.

We wrapped up the day at Ben's, a tasty East-meets-West fusion restaurant that channels the vibe of a Manhattan townhouse. (Not that I've ever been in a Manhattan townhouse.) The kids were able to order "normal" food like Spaghetti Bolognese whereas I opted for the Asian-style Duck Confit Salad with pomelo, cucumber, lychee and pineapple ensconced in an endive resting on a banana leaf and garnished with peanuts.

Interesting and good

I was so stuffed I didn't have room to try out what looked like a killer bakery case. As a nice touch, each table had a box of conversation cards to help tech savvy diners separate from their phones and have a face-to-face dialogue.

"Give your fingers a rest. Stop texting and tell me your deepest secrets."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mystery Fruit #1: Ciku

In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a mystery fruit. I'm always telling my kids they need to try new foods, so I'm holding myself to that as well.

At first glance, I thought this was a potato. That's kind of weird to find in a fruit stand. But since Malaysians consider kernel corn to be a topping for both ice cream and waffles, who knows into what category a potato falls? Then, I picked it up and realized it was a fruit. Somewhat soft with a slightly furry skin, it reminded me a lot of a kiwi.

Then, I cut it open.

Nope, not a kiwi. With reddish-orange flesh and a few shiny, black, almond-shaped seeds, this probably isn't even closely related to a kiwi. I grabbed a spoon and scooped out a sample (just like a kiwi). It was good! Sweet and soft, it reminded me of a ripe pear.

A few days later, I found some at the Cold Storage grocery store where, like American stores, they had a big sign with the fruit's name and price. The mystery fruit is called a Ciku (pronounced "CHEEK-oo"). It's also know as a zapota, sapodilla, chico, and chicozapote. It turns out that my mom had been asking me during our Skype calls if I had tried a ciku. Now, I can say, "Yes."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dining Like a Local

Dinnertime rolled around this Sunday night, and I was beat. Tired from our weekend roadtrip, I seriously had no desire to cook. (I'm not quite sure why I was tired. While hubby was the one behind the wheel in the pouring rain, I took a nice, long nap in the passenger seat.) In Texas, I might have driven down the road for some Rudy's BBQ or maybe called in an order for pickup at Carino's. This night, I decided to dine like a local and head to a hawker center.

In Malaysia, Penang is known as a foodie heaven because of its hawker food. Cheap and quick, numerous hawker centers and street-side food carts dot the island. At the airport departure hall, the city even has a Penang Food Trail  brochure. In my early days here, I found myself referring to the brochure repeatedly to help me figure out strange menu items like Char Koew Teow, Roti Canai and Assam Laksa. I found an iPhone app, Penang Street Food, which was helpful, too.

So, I grabbed my purse, called out that I was going in search of dinner, and headed out the door. First stop was the Spicy Chicken stall. I've never had it before, but my friend's kids like it, so I hope mine will like it, too. Ayam Goreng is Malay for "Fried Chicken". The dish is so popular here, that McDonald's has it on their menu. "Is it really spicy?," I ask the man behind the counter, hoping that he speaks English. He assures me that it's not. Freshly fried with a crispy skin and steaming hot, it had just a hint of spiciness. Total cost for 5 pieces: US$5

Next up was Rudy's of Penang. Nothing like the Rudy's in Texas, this one serves up noodle dishes and seafood omelettes instead of brisket and ribs. The lady who owns this stall has been on vacation for over a month, so I'm glad to see she's back. It's my favorite hawker stall in the whole center. "We missed you," I tell her.

Decisions, decisions

Char Koew Teow is hands-down my favorite local food. Supposedly, Penang has the best Char Koew Teow in all of Asia. The way the name is spelled changes on different stalls' menu — everything from "Char Kway Teow" to "Char Gway Tiao", but if you sound it out, you'll probably recognize it. The main base is toothsome, flat rice noodles that I knew as Chow Fun back in America. She stir fries them over a hot wok together with bean sprouts, prawns, cockles, sliced fishcakes, chopped up scrambled eggs, green onions, and bits of fried pork rinds that remind me of Mexican chicarones. Soy sauce, chillis and belechan (fermented shrimp paste) season the entire dish.  I opted for the D'Special version with an over-easy egg on top. Total cost: US$2

To balance out all the fried food, I make my way to the fruit stall just outside the center. It's against the curb but essentially in the street, and I'm always afraid that some car will come up and smack me. Hey kids, mom was trying to be healthy but got run over instead!

I grab a persimmon, a perfectly ripe papaya, a mango, 4 apples, and a bunch of small bananas. Some oblong, dirt colored fruit that fits in the palm of my hand catches my eye.  I ask the man what it is and don't recognize the name. He tells me it's sweet and to slice it up. Intrigued, I get one for later. Since I was allergic to tons of fruits when I was growing up, I feel better trying new ones when I have some Benadryl close by. Total cost: US$5

My last stop is the fruit juice stall. You can find these all over Penang. Just tell the guy behind the counter what fruits and veggies you want and listen to the juicer start whirring. Today's request is apple, lime (squeezed, not muddled), and ginger. "Sikit sikit gula," I ask so he knows I want just a little bit of the sugar syrup instead of the small ladle-worth they usually put in. I want to drink it at home, so he pours the concoction into a plastic bag and loops a plastic cord around the top to keep it closed. Later on when I take a sip, I'm sure that my whole family was surprised when I yelped, "Woo wee, that has some kick!" Total cost: US$1.67

Drink your fruits and veggies

For less than US$14, I've found dinner for the night plus some fruits for the next day. Gathering up my bags, I get ready to dash back across the street to my hungry family. What do you know? Running the other way is another expat dad out to get his meal. As we stand in the center median, looking for a break in the traffic, I wish him good eats and make my way home.

Aerial view of the semi-covered hawker center

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