The Rumble And Tumble Of Family Travel, And A Bit Of Langkawi

You know school holidays are here when your Facebook feed is inundated with pictures of friends holidaying overseas. How envious I feel when I see my friends’ kids licking ice-cream in Hokkaido, strolling on cobblestone streets in Spain, journeying in the wilderness of Scandinavia, feeding emus in Australia or basking in sunny California.

Such is the danger of social media that men as old as me might fall into its trap of envy and start to keep up with the Joneses. I count myself lucky not to play this game because financial circumstances dictate that I do not have the means to take my family on long holidays to Europe or the Americas. 

Even though I have to be careful with money, that does not mean my family should be denied a fun and relaxing holiday. From excursions within Singapore, staycations or regional trips, we just have to be wiser and work within our budget.

Our family travel was restricted to just Melbourne, and that was a work trip which my wife and daughter tagged along on. It was fun for the parents because it was some sort of getaway to a temperate country and provided an excuse for us to wrap our then-6-month-old in thick and cute warm clothing. However, we soon realised that we could have attained the same level of happiness anywhere, as long as the family is intact and together.

We resumed our travels more extensively after the second child was born. When I said "extensively", I meant we travelled more frequently but always focused on Southeast Asia.

We went to Kota Kinabalu to savour the seafood and cool, fresh air. In Kuching, we shared river taxis with locals and rode speedboats to a national park to see wild proboscis monkeys and free-roaming bearded pigs. Punctuating the two Borneo adventures was a winter trekking trip in Sapa, where I nearly slipped and rolled down a steep mountain with our then-two-year-old boy on my back.

Undeterred, we continued to challenge the mountains by peering into the crater of Mount Bromo, soaking in sulphuric volcanic mud in Bandung, and trekking through the jungle in Bukit Lawang to meet semi-wild orangutans.

We also witnessed the splendour of Angkor Wat and the ingenuity of the Cu Chi tunnels dug by the Vietnamese soldiers. We bathed elephants in Kanchanaburi and marvelled at large sunflower fields in Khao Yai.

The furthest my family has been to is Hong Kong and Taiwan; the former for her Disneyland theme park and the latter for her less visited eastern coast, which I laud as a poor man's Hokkaido in summer (in a complimentary way).

Then there were the many short road trips to my birth country, Malaysia. Beside the perennial favourites Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, we had boarded the train to Temerloh in Pahang, sampled good food and slow life in Ipoh and Taiping. As I am typing this, my daughter is in a hammock reading a book while my son is playing with sand, on a small island off Pulau Langkawi.

It sounds like a lot of overseas trips, but they were all done on a shoe-string budget. Fun can come in different forms, and at different budgets. It can also happen anywhere. To a child, fun goes beyond ranking based on the amount of money spent.

I see it as my personal mission to make sure my kids are not pampered with luxuries. The “hardship” holidays have trained them to make do with basic amenities, and there were a few times they even had to placate their rather “traumatised” mother. They have learned to enjoy itinerary-free holidays and we can dump them anywhere and they can entertain themselves. 

They have learned to enjoy the simple pleasures – blowing gigantic bubbles at a playground next to Taiping Lake; playing table tennis with cousins at a cottage in Malang; soaking in icy rivers in the Sumatran jungle.

If parents have to constantly plan "exciting" activities to do with their children, then the holidays might be saddled with so much stress and expectations that any popping of balloons may result in major disappointments. 

I have no doubt as they grow older, they will be asking for more exotic locations. Lately, the elder one has indicated her preference for somewhere with snow. My reply to her? “Your father only got to see snow for the first time when he was 20. You have nine more years to go.” By delaying her gratification, I think the kids can be kept hungry and motivated. My job as a father is not to satisfy all their wishes. My job is to train them such that they are better equipped to make their own dreams come true after they grow up. 

Today, my kids naturally cannot remember every single trip. In fact, they can only remember the darnest details; they still laugh at the mention of my being dragged away from the shore by strong currents on a Phuket beach. I do not want to sound like sour grapes by stating that it may be a waste of money to go on big-ticket trips with young kids because they may not remember much. But I have to stress that everyone can do whatever makes them happy.

Studies have shown that we are happier when we go for shorter but more frequent holidays, as compared to one or two major ones. Personally, I can attest to this because as a child, I always looked forward to our yearly drive to Desaru and the waterfalls. Even though they were not particularly spectacular, the experience was pleasant and stuck with me.

I will not have any property worthy to bequeath my children, but I hope I can leave behind some heartwarming childhood memories for them. They need not cost a lot. In fact, they will be priceless.

*The above article first appeared on the Goguru website, in a bi-weekly "Dad Talk" column.

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Our latest adventure took us to Pulau Dayang Bunting, a smaller island off Pulau Langkawi. I read about a rustic, back-to-basics but appealing homestay called Langkawi Barkat Chalets on this island. It is far away from the tourist thoroughfare of Langkawi, and yet retains the "kampung" charms a tropical island has to offer.

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A first hint of a non-touristy trip: we were to board a ferry used by locals at a pier that is a kilometre away from the main ferry terminal. Accompanying us is a spanking new refrigerator meant to be delivered to one of the hundreds of households on the islands Pulau Danang Bunting and its smaller and connected neighbour Pulau Tuba.

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The ferry service was not very frequent. Together with the other island residents who were going home after work, we waited for close to one hour before it finally arrived.

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The islands are almost completely populated by Malay-Muslims, except for one Scottish who built the largest kampung house on Pulau Tuba after he fell in love with the place.

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There were altogether three stops. The journey that took about 25 mins cost us 5 ringgit each.

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Some family is going to be very happy that day.

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Upon arriving at the airport to taking the taxi to the pier and then boarding this ferry, we were inevitably forced to slow our own Singapore island-city pace to match that of the kampung-island rhythm.

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The host, Shades, a genuine and hospitable man, came to the pier to fetch us in his trusty Proton missing a rear windscreen and door handles. Transportation on the islands is mainly scooters, bicycles, or a handful of cars.

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The warmest reception we got was actually dished out by these three resident dogs.

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My choice of this chalet was motivated by a desire to make my son happy. He is the chill-type who likes free play and knows how to entertain himself. I know he likes fishing (even though he has only tried it once), sand, cycling and doing nothing. Barkat Chalets is perfect for him.

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Recently, Shades rescued an injured bird from the sea. It has the beak of a sea gull and odour of a penguin (according to Shades, for I have no idea how a penguin really smells like). Apparently it cannot fly at this moment, and they planned to nurse it back to health and see what happens.

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Shades is seen here catching live prawns to be used as bait for our fishing trip.

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We went fishing on two consecutive days (because we only caught two fish on the first day). On the first day, Shades took us southeast, where the channel meanders out to meet the Straits of Malacca. On the second day, we stayed closer to home and tried our luck at a few of Shades' favourite spots, which were near the mangrove forest.

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True enough, we had better luck and the catch was not bad for about three hours of work. I was very distraught after the first day because Shades actually hooked a 2-kg threadfin (It looked terribly like one). He excitedly asked me to use the net to scoop the fish. With trembling and tragically inexperienced hands, I failed to net the fellow, which allowed it the split second to snag the line and escaped.

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Our homestay package included all three meals. Dinner was always the most sumptuous with different types of seafood fighting for our attention.

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Accommodation was basic and in line with the theme of the holiday.  Fortunately we came well prepared with insect spray and repellant.

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If at night we tried to repel some creatures, then early in the morning, we welcomed others. These buffaloes would bask in the muddy beach just in front of the chalet every morning.

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After spending three nights at the chalet, we opted for a change on our last night by checking into Temple Tree Resort in Langkawi island. The various accommodation options were built in the style of traditional kampung houses, colonial bungalows or Chinese houses. They are not luxurious, but full of character and charm. It is actually owned by the Bon Ton group, which has a namesake resort just next to Temple Tree. Their main objective is actually to run an animal shelter (cats and dogs)----to rescue, rehabilitate, and re-house them. Profits from the the resort business are actually ploughed back into funding the programme.

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The cats that roam freely around the estate are the oldest residents on site. They are tame and very used to the place, hence they are given the freedom and space.

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The shelter is staffed by volunteers, both local and foreign. Here, one of them is walking the dogs.

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So, finally, it's time for the touristy stuff!

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This cable car ride made the Sentosa cable car ride feel like a stroll in the park. The steep climb and its height can seriously cause panic attacks in passengers, as seen here......

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I thought it would be a novel experience to sit in a glass-bottom capsule. Unfortunately, my wife's eyes remained shut throughout the ride. We reverted to a normal capsule on the return trip. What did we get for braving the ride?

Quite spectacular views all round.

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Kulai--An Under-appreciated Gem At Our Doorstep

I must confess. Legally, I have been a Johorean for 30 years (I switched nationality after my elder child was born) but the name "Kulai" has nothing but a by-word for a checkpoint en route northwards on the highway: "Oh, you continue to drive for about 50km after Kulai", or "It's quite near Kulai" are phrases often heard when we were driving towards more famous and seemingly more fun destinations. But to put things in perspective, Kulai has undergone much transformation over the years, and with an increasingly more savvy local population injecting new ideas into the aging town, her appeal has only just started revealing herself recently.

Kulai is picturesque with Gunung Pulai (popular with Singaporeans and locals alike) as her backdrop----a sight familiar with drivers using the north-south highway. It was this route which took my family and two friends with their families to Kulai over the Labour Day long weekend. Ironically, we decided on this place by the process of "elimination".

We wanted a rural and back-to-basics experience for the kids. We knew the highway would be congested with Singapore as well as local holiday-makers, so we did not want to waste time traveling too far north. Our first choice was actually the goat farm in Hulu Langat, Selangor, which I have visited before, but unfortunately it was not available on the dates we wanted.

My friends requested for somewhere with good food too. I recalled Kulai has some authentic and affordable food. After some online research, I found Durian Guesthouse exuding a rustic charm. It was located in one of the Chinese-only "New Villages", which dotted all over Malaysia. Its size and number of rooms also just about fit our bill.   We could have the whole guesthouse to ourselves. I was looking forward to a relaxing, no-itinerary type of holiday.

As if by fate, the owner, Thai Soon, turns out to be a business acquaintance of my wife. After graduating from a Singapore university, he started working in Singapore for many years. Later, he got married, and went about pursuing a dream that he and his wife had, and still have. Hence the birth of their first baby----Durian Guesthouse

Thai Soon, the owner who's in his 30s, runs the place with his wife. He almost single-handedly took care of all the remodeling and carpentry work at this refurbished old "new village" house.

Thai Soon, the owner who's in his 30s, runs the place with his wife. He almost single-handedly took care of all the remodeling and carpentry work at this refurbished old "new village" house.

Thai Soon aims to build the place into a sustainable farm while his wife creates interesting handicrafts and trinkets for sale.

Thai Soon aims to build the place into a sustainable farm while his wife creates interesting handicrafts and trinkets for sale.

Thai Soon shares his insights on gardening and farming with my wife.

Thai Soon shares his insights on gardening and farming with my wife.

He also gave us a quick lowdown of the history of "Chinese New Villages" (华人新村), which were built during the turbulent times when communism was a formidable force in Southeast Asia. The majority of communists and their sympathisers were allegedly Chinese. In order to contain them, the government built this villages to house the Chinese. At the same time, the Malays lived around the fringes of these villages, thus providing eyes and ears for the government of any potential shenanigans.

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The land, part of the property, that sits outside the guest house, is as big as four basketball courts.

The land, part of the property, that sits outside the guest house, is as big as four basketball courts.

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Outside, you can smell the herbs; inside, you can enjoy the library and board games provided by the guest house.

Outside, you can smell the herbs; inside, you can enjoy the library and board games provided by the guest house.

The interior of the house is nothing spectacular, but it reminds me of my grandparents' house. Everything is warm and cozy, well-kept and clean.

The interior of the house is nothing spectacular, but it reminds me of my grandparents' house. Everything is warm and cozy, well-kept and clean.

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Thai Soon is very proud of his town. He enthusiastically shared with us the various places of interest that we could visit, and the many places for good food. From our conversations, we were introduced to a world that I had never noticed. There is a strong and closely-knitted community in Kulai that espouses the simple life, sustainable and organic lifestyle and healthy living. They would meet up with one another often at roadshows, trade fairs, weekend bazaars etc. On our first day, his friend, a young lady who manages a spa at the Kulai Rainforest Treehouse, happened to be there to chat with us too. It was an initiation to their world and their dream for the town.

Being thankful for the yummy breakfast; this is in an even smaller town called Kelapa Sawit, less than 20km away from Kulai. I believe golfers who frequent the nearby golf course would be familiar with the delicious food here.

Being thankful for the yummy breakfast; this is in an even smaller town called Kelapa Sawit, less than 20km away from Kulai. I believe golfers who frequent the nearby golf course would be familiar with the delicious food here.

Thai Soon became our impromptu tourist visitor liaison. He gave us a list of restaurants and food stalls, and recommended some places, one of which was the Star Fish Leisure Farm. It was a freshwater fish farm located in the middle of an oil palm plantation. According to Thai Soon, the boss wanted to expand and diversify the business into tourism and hospitality-related business. There is a myriad of facilities and activities available at the farm for the whole family. From chalets built on stilts and over the ponds, water obstacle courses, steamboat restaurant to offering boating, fishing, cycling and ATV-riding, the kids were immediately hooked.

The staff at the fish farm showing us their bee hive and colony of bees.

The staff at the fish farm showing us their bee hive and colony of bees.

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Wandering around fish ponds and chasing after geese. Monitor lizards and migratory birds are common sights.

Wandering around fish ponds and chasing after geese. Monitor lizards and migratory birds are common sights.

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At one of the chalets.

At one of the chalets.

The kids' favourite: a swing suspended over water.

The kids' favourite: a swing suspended over water.

The water obstacle course, which guarantees everyone a good splash in the water. Not for squirmish parents who are sticklers for perfect cleanliness.

The water obstacle course, which guarantees everyone a good splash in the water. Not for squirmish parents who are sticklers for perfect cleanliness.

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Water battle.

Water battle.

The fish and leisure farm is open to visitors on half-day or full-day passes. The entrance fee is very reasonable. Apparently it is very popular for student and corporate groups. Thank goodness on the day of our visit, there was no crowd and we were the only happy people there.

At the beginning, I thought spending 3 days and 2 nights in Kulai was a bit of overkill. "Will we have enough things to fill our time and keep the kids entertained?" In the end, it turned out we only seriously had enough time for one keynote point of interest----the fish and leisure farm, on top of the leisurely time we spent poking around and catching up at the guest house. And lastly, I must mention the food. Almost every meal was on point. I am not so much a food blogger, so I never have the habit of taking food pictures. My first instinct was to take a bite.

Although we did not spend the night there, I can so imagine the quiet stillness at night, punctuated by some weird insect calls or animal sounds.

Although we did not spend the night there, I can so imagine the quiet stillness at night, punctuated by some weird insect calls or animal sounds.

My friend's daughter, 9, probably paid the best compliment on this little road trip by suggesting "next time, we must come for one week. Three days is not enough!"

My Taiping Road Trip 2

We booked our hostel for 3 nights. Apparently not many people do that because when the hostel owner, Ken, asked me if I have relatives in Taiping and I gave a negative reply,  he sort of gave me an incredulous look and a weird smile, at the same time repeating what I just said: "Three nights?"

Only my wife knew and accepted my travel style: always take it slow and easy, based on a loose or imaginary itinerary. Most people come here on a day trip, notably for the food or a short tour of the lake. For me, I was never going to rush through my acquaintance of Taiping or Perak after driving over six hours from the south. To be honest, I was rather ambitious when drawing up the itinerary for this trip, but after the first day and realising my family moves to a slower beat, I had to whittle down the list. In the end, it was just two side trips. Forget about Royal Belum National Park, or try the handmade fishballs of Lenggong, or take the kids to the Lost World of Tambun.

I wanted to explore places of interest that mostly only locals go to. There is always this unique and special charm to a local attraction----it could be the quirks and the chinks, the imperfections or the infectious desire to please but just falling short of meeting the standard, or a surprising element that cannot be found at home. We settled for Trong Duck Farm and Kuala Sepetang.

The man-made lake on which we paddled our four-seated boats.

The man-made lake on which we paddled our four-seated boats.

To enter the interior of the farm, we sat in a custom-built carriage pulled by a tractor.

To enter the interior of the farm, we sat in a custom-built carriage pulled by a tractor.

There are tens of thousands of ducks in total at the farm. Only part of it is open to visitors.

There are tens of thousands of ducks in total at the farm. Only part of it is open to visitors.

I have seen how a chicken farm, goat farm, ostrich farm, durian farm, crocodile farm etc look like, but I have never been to a duck farm in all my 40 odd years. If you are like me, then it is a worthy eye-opener, for your children if not for yourself. :) Trong Duck Farm is about 20km southwest of Taiping, accessible via 2-lane paved road.

One ticket allows each person to paddle boats, feed the ducks and tour the farm. We paddled boats in a man-made lake, upon the behest of the kids, and went around picking up real duck eggs in the bushes. We trudged on duck shit, fed the ducks, chased the ducks, and stopped short of eating them (even though the last is an option as there is a restaurant in the farm).

You can choose to be dainty, or go all out dirty, depending on your level of tolerance. Surprisingly, my daughter fared better than my son, who basically just stood rooted to one spot, afraid of stepping on the droppings (which is everywhere).

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With a population this big, there is bound to see a dead duck or two.

With a population this big, there is bound to see a dead duck or two.

You can see on the top right corner a silhouette of the boy checking the sole of his slippers.

You can see on the top right corner a silhouette of the boy checking the sole of his slippers.

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Real duck eggs. I have always loved the duck egg char kway teow available in northern parts of Malaysia.

Real duck eggs. I have always loved the duck egg char kway teow available in northern parts of Malaysia.

Another place worth visiting is Kuala Sepetang, formerly known as Port Weld, famous for its charcoal production, super fresh and cheap seafood, eagle feeding and fireflies gazing. It was also my first time visiting a charcoal-production facility. I think one can call and sign up for a factory tour, but we went there past 5pm on our own. There was no guide around, but we were allowed to roam freely and watch. There was also some newspaper articles on the wall that explain the history and the process.

These boats would transport the logged mangrove trees from the forest to the dock for unloading.

These boats would transport the logged mangrove trees from the forest to the dock for unloading.

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Kuala Sepetang also boasts one of Malaysia's biggest mangrove forests, in which live a myriad of animals. It is a fishing village that is slowly reinventing itself as a ecotourism destination. There are boats that take tourists out to "feed" the eagles, or more accurately, kites that have become semi-wild. The guide confessed that it was not really the correct thing to do, but when villagers who are fighting a hollowing-out of the primary industry and trying their best to "stay afloat" , it is hard for animal conservationists to remain on the moral high horse.

Basically, the boatmen would signal the kites with loud beeps, and proceed to toss chicken fat/skin to the sea for the kites to feed on.

The firefly light show was also magical. They looked like Christmas trees draped in fairy lights, except that they were more intense than the ones we witnessed before in Sabah and Kota Tinggi. I had no pictures for that because it was too dark. 

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The bridge that links houses on opposite banks of the river.

The bridge that links houses on opposite banks of the river.

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Semi-wild kites hovering above, waiting for food.

Semi-wild kites hovering above, waiting for food.

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Kites in action.

Kites in action.

Lastly, the seafood dinner. Words are unnecessary.

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My Road Trip to Taiping (Part 1)

Taiping----a town that is purportedly living in its former glory----captivates me in a magnetic way like how one falls in love at first sight at the other half. I have heard about it since young, amongst whispers and hearsay. The first time the name really caught my attention was from the mouth of my wedding clients. Bride is from Indonesia and groom from Taiping. They were contemplating having their prewedding photos captured in the groom's hometown, and more out of disbelief than curiosity, I asked what the draw was. Like a new convert, the bride sang praises about its natural beauty, the lake and the food.

Over the years since then, I have been doing some reading up on Taiping now and then. It is rarely on the radar of Singaporeans, who are more fixated on Penang or Ipoh (Taiping is somewhere between them). I love the former two cities as well, but true to my hermit self, they have grown slightly unlikeable because of their traffic problems. Ipoh is fast becoming a hipster town overrun by weekend day-trippers (mostly from Kuala Lumpur) and Singaporeans who are appreciating the more frequent direct air links. Thankfully, Taiping still retains her sleepy-town reputation and provincial charm.

The driving journey from Singapore, if allowed for just one rest stop, could have taken just 6 easy hours. The town itself is easy to navigate, with historical shophouses, museums, monuments and the lake gardens located on one side of the old town and the newer suburbs, spanking railway station and the more modern malls like Aeon and Tesco located on the northern side. To me, the major draw is undoubtedly the Taiping Lake Gardens. I needed to see for myself its rumoured beauty. And I was not disappointed. I only wished I could visit the lake earlier in the morning, if not for the three lazy pigs in my family who struggled to get out of bed.

There were already many visitors at the lake by 8am. Conscientious joggers----alone or in groups----thronged the paths around the lake shared with walkers and wandering children. In the open grass fields, zumba dancers from all races jiggled to the beat of loud music, while Chinese martial arts practitioners waved their swords and fists more quietly in the leafy enclaves. The carnival-like atmosphere was made more appealing because it was surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains.

My kids are relatively hardy travellers. Since as young as 4 years old, they have been to Sa Pa (Vietnam), Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City, Sungei Lembing and Cameron Highlands (Pahang, Malaysia), Mount Bromo (East Java) and Bukit Lawang (Sumatra). At the same time, they are also very "sua gu" (not very savvy) travellers (due to parents' making). Because we rarely go on luxury trips, they are very appreciative of every traveling opportunities. We always start from the lowest denominator, so that it is easy to manage their expectations. Call me stingy, mean, whatever you want, we have had as much family fun in Southeast Asia as we could possibly have further from home. Maybe making snow angels rank very high on their list, but my thinking is this: their father's first contact with snow was at a ripe old age of 19 and he was not worse for wear. If they see snow before turning 10, won't it be more and more difficult to outdo the previous trip? So why not we explore our nearest neighbours (which can be exotic if you know where to look) first, and as they grow older we can venture further for a taste of vastly different culture and geography.  I tend to look at our family trips from a long term perspective. 

Moreover, I really like Malaysia. There is always a hint of homecoming, coziness, and familiarity with the people, the sound, smell and tastes. There are still so many places there that remain to be explored.

More stories to share on this Taiping trip in the next article.

Sunrise viewed from the window of our hostel. This hostel is run by a British and is conveniently located in the heart of old town. It is called Sojourn Bed and Breakfast and certainly lives up to its excellent review on tripadvisor. Prior to the trip, my children kept asking me which hotel we are staying in and how many stars is the hotel. I jokingly replied that it is a "hotel with an ass"----a hostel! Haha.

Sunrise viewed from the window of our hostel. This hostel is run by a British and is conveniently located in the heart of old town. It is called Sojourn Bed and Breakfast and certainly lives up to its excellent review on tripadvisor. Prior to the trip, my children kept asking me which hotel we are staying in and how many stars is the hotel. I jokingly replied that it is a "hotel with an ass"----a hostel! Haha.

Strange sight outside our hostel.

Strange sight outside our hostel.

Kids who are not blessed with much: they rarely have the chance to drink ice-cold dessert or shakes (too much sugar) and they would seize the chance with four hands on family trips. It was also here where I spotted a hornbill flying past us, outside the window.

Kids who are not blessed with much: they rarely have the chance to drink ice-cold dessert or shakes (too much sugar) and they would seize the chance with four hands on family trips. It was also here where I spotted a hornbill flying past us, outside the window.

Their first time in an indoor ferris wheel. It cost about RM3.

Their first time in an indoor ferris wheel. It cost about RM3.

Nice scenery at the lake gardens.

Nice scenery at the lake gardens.

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Park visitors dancing to a common beat.

Park visitors dancing to a common beat.

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Peaceful, serene and beautiful.

Peaceful, serene and beautiful.

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There are vendors who allow you to make huge bubbles with their special bubble concoction and apparatus. Only RM4 for a basin of bubble solution which provided fun for more than 30 mins.

There are vendors who allow you to make huge bubbles with their special bubble concoction and apparatus. Only RM4 for a basin of bubble solution which provided fun for more than 30 mins.

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Taiping is the wettest town in Peninsula Malaysia, often receiving 50% more rain on average. Indeed, it rained almost every day we were there, but all of it was short-lived and not too dampening.

Taiping is the wettest town in Peninsula Malaysia, often receiving 50% more rain on average. Indeed, it rained almost every day we were there, but all of it was short-lived and not too dampening.

A visit to a local coffee-roasting company.

A visit to a local coffee-roasting company.

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At the Taiping Zoo. It is not on the same scale as Mandai Zoo but it is equally leafy. Maybe the shelters of some animals can be improved on, but for RM8 a person, it certainly is value for money.

At the Taiping Zoo. It is not on the same scale as Mandai Zoo but it is equally leafy. Maybe the shelters of some animals can be improved on, but for RM8 a person, it certainly is value for money.

At the entrance of the hostel.

At the entrance of the hostel.

The one single reason why I chose this hostel is the option of having 4 bunk beds in a single private room.  knew my kids would fall for such novelty. Another reason is my experience gleamed from holidaying in Malaysia: it's a far more pleasant experience to stay in a charming, well-run no-star accommodation than a 4 or 5-star hotel that is poorly managed.

The one single reason why I chose this hostel is the option of having 4 bunk beds in a single private room.  knew my kids would fall for such novelty. Another reason is my experience gleamed from holidaying in Malaysia: it's a far more pleasant experience to stay in a charming, well-run no-star accommodation than a 4 or 5-star hotel that is poorly managed.

Sunset over Maxwell Hill (if I get my bearings right).

Sunset over Maxwell Hill (if I get my bearings right).

How To Plan An Overseas Trip For The Whole Extended Family

The short answer to this is I plan it first for myself, then I add little bits and pieces of itinerary to cater to the diverse interest groups.

There are, however, some pre-conditions that need to be met:

1. Stick to a budget that everyone (I am) is comfortable with. That means most of our trips will be centred on Southeast Asia (which I personally like), with short-haul flights (yes!).

2. The holidays are for the kids. There is a common understanding within the family that when the kids enjoy, the adults will too, and we can trust ourselves to entertain ourselves.

3. The trips are more about spending quality time together, and about character-building. We try to cut out the frills and luxuries (we allow ourselves to cheat a little once in a while). In my opinion, what better way to achieve that than to rough it out in the jungles or mountains.

Actually, I added number 3 myself. However, since I have always been the organiser, I think I have every right to pursue my own agenda. The reason why I have been the organiser had its roots in me being a former Malaysian citizen. Our first overseas trip was a road trip to the organic rice farm in Kahang, Johor. Since I was born in JB, the responsibility of putting together this trip just fell on my shoulders. I think the successful reception of the maiden trip bolstered the family members' confidence in me. And hence the birth of the Wong's Travel Agency.

Pony-riding on Mount Bromo: one of the most unforgettable experiences for the kids. It was not riding around circles, but through undulating terrain and sometimes doing steep climbs.

Pony-riding on Mount Bromo: one of the most unforgettable experiences for the kids. It was not riding around circles, but through undulating terrain and sometimes doing steep climbs.

After adhering to the three pre-conditions, I would consider the specific needs of the various groups of people.....which basically, are the mothers. There is a common understanding within the fathers/brothers-in-law that when the wives enjoy, we will too, and we can entertain ourselves.

My wife has five elder sisters and a sister-in-law who is a regular on the tour circuit. They grew up in kampungs and anywhere or any activities that can bring back fond memories of those days will win them over. To sell them a suspiciously "hardship trip", all I needed to do was to include some appealing key phrases like : fruit farm, vegetables and fruit market, shopping for produce etc.

By adopting this strategy, we managed to experience the majestic beauty of Mount Bromo, the cool air of Batu and the unbeatable fun at Batu Secret Zoo; visited more volcanoes and hot springs and tea plantation in Bandung; took one of the last few KTM train journeys to a town in Pahang and spent Christmas morning munching away in a market in Temerloh; and observe semi-wild orang-utans up close in Leuser National park, and river-tubing in Bukit Lawang; and of course the most recent trip to Khao Yai in Thailand.

All these sound fun, but not many people know that it is actually a very stressful and thankless job to be responsible for the well-being and happiness of a "village". It was a first time for me too to all those places, and God knows if reality tallied with the research done online and in books. I had to live and die by the decisions and choices I made.

For example, the bungalows I booked for Bukit Lawang trip received very good reviews. I did not pay much attention to the few comments by travelers on the steep climb up the hill to reach them. How bad can it be, I thought. Boy was it bad for the aunties when they wanted to give up and change bungalows half way up the hill. A ten-km trek through Khao Yai National Park to spot wildlife? We had to call our drivers to help pick us up at the halfway mark.

These are part and parcel of adventure travel, even though they did not really sign up for an adventure package. However, these were also the stories that kept being repeated at dinner tables, (painful) memories that reminded the aunties about our mortality, even though I have received strict directives on what NOT to do on our next trip.

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We enjoyed the chalet-type of atmosphere at the cottage in Batu, Indonesia.

We enjoyed the chalet-type of atmosphere at the cottage in Batu, Indonesia.

Visiting the volcano and having mud baths near Bandung.

Visiting the volcano and having mud baths near Bandung.

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Enduring the tough road conditions from Medan to Bukit Lawang. The van we were in was not of the highest specs, with weak air-conditioning and thinly-cushioned seats. The driver was friendly though.

Enduring the tough road conditions from Medan to Bukit Lawang. The van we were in was not of the highest specs, with weak air-conditioning and thinly-cushioned seats. The driver was friendly though.

Crossing the unexpectedly long suspension bridge over a river in Bukit Wayang....I mean Lawang.

Crossing the unexpectedly long suspension bridge over a river in Bukit Wayang....I mean Lawang.

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Next time I will spare a thought for senior citizens when planning the trips. This was the climb up a steep hill to our lovely bungalows in Bukit Lawang.

Next time I will spare a thought for senior citizens when planning the trips. This was the climb up a steep hill to our lovely bungalows in Bukit Lawang.

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Some of the most enjoyable times for the kids are times when they have free play.

Some of the most enjoyable times for the kids are times when they have free play.

Or soaking in cold jungle rivers.

Or soaking in cold jungle rivers.

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The guides prepared nasi and fruit picnic on the trek.

The guides prepared nasi and fruit picnic on the trek.

Tubing down the river after the trek. 

Tubing down the river after the trek. 

Curry puff hairstyle vs candy floss hairstyle.

Curry puff hairstyle vs candy floss hairstyle.

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Eating fresh durians inside the durian plantation.

Eating fresh durians inside the durian plantation.

We are off to pick some durians!

We are off to pick some durians!

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I am glad my children are blessed with a lovely extended family, and having the chance to grow up with so many cousins. Until the day the family decided to swap agency, I will continue to plan these trips, regardless if they make a profit or not, so that I can continue to gift them such memories. 

Family Holiday In Khao Yai, Thailand

Someone somewhere must have been aggressively marketing Khao Yai (about 2.5 hours' drive from Bangkok) outside of Thailand because for the past few months, I have been seeing pictures and read stories about Khao Yai and its numerous sometimes-kitschy, sometimes-fascinating points of interests: from the replicas of an Italian piazza, a Santorini windmill to the Hobbit House, and the more commercialised Jim Thompson farm, Chok Chai farm and the sunflower farm.

To me, the highlight of the trip has always been Khao Yai National Park because of my romantic and voyeuristic fascination for wildlife-watching at its natural habitat. It was not difficult selling this destination to the other family members the moment they saw those online travel articles and upon realising Khao Yai offers highland cool weather in December. There were also countless number of cool accommodation choices, but I eventually settled on Raintree Residences. The price per night relative to the calming hilly scenery it offers really made it a no-brainer. It is located in a secluded part of Khao Yai, which in this case is an attraction on its own. The layout is also spread over a sprawling ground and the the five rooms we were assigned were clustered under one roof in a separate wing, which the whole 21 of us had all to ourselves! The big and small kids were so excited that they gathered enough courage to explore the place even in the dark.

Our relatively early bedtime was accompanied by a symphony of weird bird/amphibian/insect calls, much to my delight.

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The early morning chill nudged us along the gentle slope uphill, towards a lookout point just a few hundred metres away from the hotel.

The early morning chill nudged us along the gentle slope uphill, towards a lookout point just a few hundred metres away from the hotel.

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Like all our past family trips, the itinerary is never packed. We like a more leisurely pace. We intend to enjoy those few attractions we decide on and not think about the others we do not. On the first day, there were only Hobbit House and Jim Thompson Farm on the list. Actually I have already warned the others on visiting Hobbit House. I knew beforehand it was just a nondescript resort in the middle of nowhere and all it had going for it were the replicas of Hobbit houses, and some other whitewashed structures similar to those found on Santorini. To put it bluntly, it was just a photo opp in front of some "styled backdrops", symptomatic of the times we are living in right now. Nothing else matters, as long as the pictures look good on Instagram.

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However, I must admit that even though there was nothing to shout about the whole experience in the Hobbit House resort, the way the structures were built and styled was very commendable. That we did not have to pay any entrance fees helped it score some points.

After another 90 minutes' drive, we finally arrived at Jim Thompson Farm. I was a bit shocked to see bus-loads of local students and local tourists jamming the car park and the ticket counters. It was just not my idea of a farm. Inside, I saw glimpses of Tomita Farm in Hokkaido. If you like the sight of vast flower fields set against rolling hills, then you will go on a selfie/wefie rampage.  Unfortunately, our experience was marred by the surprisingly scorching heat on the day of our visit.

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After spending most of the day under the hot sun, the kids were dying to take a dip in the hotel pool, even though the thermometre reading was in the high tens. I was impressed they could stay in the icy water for more than 30 minutes.

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Day 2 saw us visiting the Primo Piazza en route to the national park. Besides the realistic-looking Italian piazza, there were merino sheeps and alpacas to entertain visitors. It was our first encounter with an alpaca!

Again, it's just a photo-stop and again, the owners paid attention to details and Primo Piazza is a photogenic venue albeit a little small.

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My sister-in-law (in orange) shouting for my wife (on the phone) to help carry her food while she is having her picture taken, to the oblivion of the latter. Love comical moments like this.

My sister-in-law (in orange) shouting for my wife (on the phone) to help carry her food while she is having her picture taken, to the oblivion of the latter. Love comical moments like this.

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Next came the destination I have been longing for: Khao Yai National Park. Not every one shared my enthusiasm for jungle trekking to hopefully spot some wild elephants or gibbons. In fact, most of them probably were groaning inside their hearts when they heard the trek would take 10 km in total (this was the second rainforest trek in two years done by the family).

One of the most rewarding experience of a trek is the camaraderie built when circumventing the various challenge----upslope, downhill, climb over boulders, tread over rivers, balancing on logs-----and helping one another out, egging one another on, and cracking silly jokes to keep everyone's spirits up. In the end, we didn't manage to spot any mammals bigger than a macaque. The elephants were probably shunning away from the groaning, and whining rag-tag group of trekkers from Singapore. Even the Thai rangers were smiling, albeit politely, at our ineptness. In the end, we stopped short of radioing for help; we made a call to our drivers to pick us up at the halfway point.

Needless to say, I'd be having a earful for the subsequent months for proposing the trek, and I'd be hearing lots of funny anecdotes too, when the aunties start to recall their gruesome experience.

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(Left) Calling for help? Nay....one's doing business deal, and the other probably catching Pokemon. (Right) One of the more sedentary relatives is experiencing some muscle spasms (legs keep shaking) for the second time in two years.

(Left) Calling for help? Nay....one's doing business deal, and the other probably catching Pokemon. (Right) One of the more sedentary relatives is experiencing some muscle spasms (legs keep shaking) for the second time in two years.

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The objective is to reach the observation tower that overlooks a lake and salt lick to spot wildlife.

The objective is to reach the observation tower that overlooks a lake and salt lick to spot wildlife.

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"Weird men" at the "waterfalls". Some of them were disappointed that they could not see any waterfalls at the trek, so the drivers suggested a waterfall that is free. It turned out to be a "water floor" as it looks more like a canal that channels mountain runoffs. However, the water is pretty clear. All of them except one boy is either tired or turned off, so in order not to disappoint the boy, I got into the water with him.

"Weird men" at the "waterfalls". Some of them were disappointed that they could not see any waterfalls at the trek, so the drivers suggested a waterfall that is free. It turned out to be a "water floor" as it looks more like a canal that channels mountain runoffs. However, the water is pretty clear. All of them except one boy is either tired or turned off, so in order not to disappoint the boy, I got into the water with him.

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The hotel resident dog comes and bid us adieu as we prepare to check out of the hotel.

The hotel resident dog comes and bid us adieu as we prepare to check out of the hotel.

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Our last stop before Bangkok. The sunflower field. Visually quite a sight, it makes for a good backdrop for photos.

Our last stop before Bangkok. The sunflower field. Visually quite a sight, it makes for a good backdrop for photos.

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Rounding off with two of my favourite group pictures taken on this trip.

Rounding off with two of my favourite group pictures taken on this trip.

Confession Of A Serial Killer

Some time ago, a mother emailed to inquire my photography service. I could tell she was very keen to have a family portrait made but she was hesitant and was held back by what I believed was "new mother (or parent) syndrome". I was sure I suffered from that too a decade ago: the constant anxiety a new parent feels whenever a routine is upset, something new is being explored, or when the whole family, especially the little one, is nudged out of a comfort zone.

She told me her toddler was very shy in front of strangers; she was worried their pictures would not look like the ones I displayed on my website (warm, happy, candid, natural types). She wanted to come visit my studio with her daughter to remove her inhibitions and basically to "check" if her daughter was comfortable with me. She wanted it on a weekend. Politely, I declined.

First, I don't charge a lot in this family portrait business ($250 basic fee), and I bank on a high turnover to make it work. I don't mind a short meeting during weekday office hours, but to have it on a weekend is a no-no for me because of (1) weddings and (2) my own family time. If I set a precedent, then the amount of time spent on subsequent meetings with interested parents would be overwhelming and unproductive.

Second (and arguably a more critical reason), the natural and candid moments and the happy and excited expressions I capture on kids' faces stem from the fact that they are meeting me and seeing the studio for the first time. The props, the colours, the cosiness they feel upon setting foot in there immediately set them at ease. It is with this first-time novelty that some of the more expressive pictures may be made.

Thirdly, I might not have much luck with ladies, and neither am I adept at small talk or intellectual discussion beyond the confines of club and international football, but I must confess I am slowly gaining a reputation as an aunty-killer (good with mature mothers and grandmothers) and am definitely a child-killer. Kids from the age 12 and below seem to find me disarmingly friendly, due to the fact that I am more than happy to "stoop down" to their level to communicate with them. To smell the flowers, you need to squat down after all, right? Of course, having parents who can interact well with their own kids (other than the standard 'look at uncle; look at the camera;  smile, laugh, don't move) helps tremendously in picture-making.

So back to the new mother and her child. Well, the little one smiled at me within 5 minutes of introduction and started dancing in front of the camera after 7 minutes. And dare I say it? I think I "killed the whole family" at that shoot. In the end, they ended up buying the whole batch of images.

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To The Land of Oz

Elaine Ang-Giraud has been a supportive industrial ally-turn-friend ever since I started wedding photography full time a decade ago. She can plan a mean wedding, good with handicraft and possesses a beautiful mind as evidenced by her charity work. I still remember the day when she excitedly texted me about her big move to Sydney, after her husband got posted there, this immediately following a casual chat we had on our (semi-serious) dreams of retiring in Australia/New Zealand.  Never did we expect that she was to have a head start in realising the dream. Congratulations to her! Before she left for Sydney, she wanted some pictures of her with her closely-knitted family. The location of the shoot? Chijmes, where she and her husband Mr G first met.

The Ang family, with an "ang moh" in the mix.

The Ang family, with an "ang moh" in the mix.

When two became three.

When two became three.

This pose was suggested by one of the subjects. It is not hard to guess who.

This pose was suggested by one of the subjects. It is not hard to guess who.

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Ang sisters with their kids.

Ang sisters with their kids.

Baby G aka Matthieu with his two cousins.

Baby G aka Matthieu with his two cousins.

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Pretty Aunty Betty Turns Healthy Seventy

The daughters planned a surprise party for their mother, Betty, to celebrate her 70th birthday. Friends, family members and restaurant staff were in cahoots and kept the birthday girl in the dark. Not sure if she had suspected something all along, or the occasion overwhelmed her, she seemed taken aback at first. After a while, as her friends each took turns to congratulate her, she warmed up immediately and became visibly happier and talkative as the evening progressed. I was privileged to be part of this joyous celebration, as the family was super nice to the photographer and I wish Aunty Betty good health and happiness!

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We Need To Talk About Mabel

There are curious friends and clients who asked me how I managed to make my subjects, both old and young, to laugh so heartily at the camera at a photo-shoot. I have not thought about it because I did not set out to become a family photographer, but it came as a natural progression after having shot weddings for more than 10 years and seeing my wedding clients bring up their own kids.

After some thought, I believe it is all in the mind. As long as the photographer has a love of a subject and the love for the subjects, my camera disappears in the eyes of the children. What they are looking at is another child having fun, albeit an oversized one. Just like a young romanticized upstart who has beautiful notion of what romantic love and weddings should look like in pictures, old birds and parents like me learn how to tolerate the noise and mess created by kids and subsequently appreciate their innocence in front of the camera.

I talk to them, cajole them, "scare" them, joke with them, do silly things together with them, make a fool of myself in front of them.....all the while snapping their reactions and transformations before this stranger they meet for the first time. There are no secret recipes or formulae. It is a state of mind. It takes one to know another. KC is like a child. Be like KC.

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Mabel was very suspicious of me when we first met on a warm Saturday morning. She eyed me from top to bottom, trying to suss out what this fat uncle is up to.

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She, being an obedient girl, still managed to give me a patronising smile on the behest of her parents. You can tell the smile was very fake.

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To break the ice, I would indulge the kids (with parents' blessings) in whatever they feel like doing. In this case, Mabel has this penchant for tasting the leaves of plants. It could be an extension of her masak-masak kitchen play at home, or a strong sense of curiosity. I asked her if she liked the taste, and at the same time shared with her the fact that some plants might be poisonous. At an instant, I "earned" her respect because I was so "knowledgeable".

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Mabel's parents are very good with their kids. I can tell they have a really good rapport with the kids (you can be surprised some parents do not really how to interact and play with their own kids). That helped in making Mabel more relaxed.

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By letting her tease me in a game of "now you see it, now you don't", Mabel had totally forgotten this was a photo shoot. To her, it was another fun time, with an additional playmate.

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Mission accomplished. I hope she had as good memories as I had of this fun-filled outdoor photo session. Never do I need to instruct her "to smile" for the camera. Keeping it real, all the way.

It's Your Presence, Not Presents

I am no qualified child psychologist or counselor. Nonetheless, I think children are easily contented and have very simple wishes. All they want is their parents' undivided attention and quality time. Remember you claimed that your kids enjoyed the skiing trip so much during your last holiday? That was because you were there, with them. I am pretty sure they would love the beach holiday, the farmstay, or fishing trip too as long as the parents are with them. Now just repeat the "holidays" on a daily basis and smaller scale: cycling weekend, hiking in the neighbourhood park, playing badminton, a kickabout, lego-building at home etc. Research shows that people are generally happier when they can enjoy their favourite (small) things regularly rather than planning and going on a big trip once in a while.

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Poolside Party

Flying fox, unicorn and fruity floats, canoe-paddling, karaoke singing laser-tag, night movie, and even kueh tutu, this party for a 10-year-old checks all the boxes imaginable. I'd better not let my 10-year-old daughter read this. I can only shoot it, not pay for it!

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Fatherhood #1

A while ago, in conjunction with Father's Day, I had a special promotion package that caters to fathers. In our Asian society, fathers are traditionally the breadwinners and due to work, they do not spend enough time with their children. I just wanted to create an occasion for fathers and child(ren) to spend some quality time together for this photo shoot. I must say I enjoyed it very much myself.

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The Big Hatter

Young, successive and productive: that's pretty much what came across my mind when I got to know Yinglan for his family shoot. A man who wears many hats (venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital, writer and businessman), his impressive CV makes for long reading, but what impresses me most is his dedication to his family. He might be a jetsetter, has all the right connections in the high places, and a speaker on the global stage, but that day, at a neighbourhood park in Ang Mo Kio, he's just a loving a husband and a doting father.

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The Goh Family

This is really one of the rare opportunities when everyone is in Singapore and spending some time together as a family because Evelyn and Jochen live in Australia. I am extremely glad we had this family portrait session, not only because of its preciousness, but also because it served as a sequel to their wedding which seemed to happen only not too long ago.

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Mothers' Club

Three mothers, and three babies, and three best friends. It is such a joy to make such meaningful family portraits for these three families, whose "matriarchs" are growing and maturing and enjoying life together. I think they are so fortunate to continue to have one another on the long journey of motherhood. Happy Friday!

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Just Clicks And Frames

After a few clicks and frames, I feel like I know this family already.

That's the beauty of classic and minimalistic black and white family pictures. There are no buntings, props, designer wear or accessories to distract viewers from observing what that matters. We are forced, instead, to confront the realities of marriage, ageing and parenthood by looking at the creased lines on the parents' faces, by interpreting the visual cues the husband and wife give each other, and of course by appreciating childhood innocence and joy on the young one's countenance. We can know something about their personalities and chemistry, and all thanks to a few clicks and frames.

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Three's A Merry Crowd

I know Daryl since the age of 17, and Wee Nee when we were residents at Temasek Hall. In fact, we were all residents there except that I did not know Daryl was pursuing more than just a degree back then. I had the fortune to shoot their wedding, their family photos when number 3 was still inside mummy's tummy, and then this latest one when all the three monkeys are well capable of flashing their cheeky smiles at me. Having three kids seems like a good idea, barring the incessant noise and shrieks, because parents are guaranteed constant entertainment and they actually make a nett positive contribution to Singapore's population. I would always ask myself if I would relish having a third child. I guess it would have been fun, but it is something I will never get to find out.

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