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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Some family is going to be very happy that day.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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......


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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".


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.


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.


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.

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.


They Love SG

The similarity between these three families(not along racial lines) is that they all fell in love with this tropical island we call home. Before departing Singapore and heading back to their respective original homes, they have requested me to capture an important slice of their life in Singapore.

In my profession, I have to use my eyes, visualization and imagination all the time. Instead of looking at balance sheets, stock market indices, inside patients' mouths or chests,  or mountains of documents, I have to look at the light, observe the surroundings, how the two interplay and walk a lot to discover new spots for photography. Inadvertently, the opportunity to get to see Singapore much more often than people who work indoors and at their desks led me to appreciate our country's beauty and nuances. Because I am a family photographer, I would tend to focus more on the beautiful and positive side of things, which in itself is not a bad thing, if not unbalanced. I'll leave the unbiased documentary of Singapore life to the real photojournalists. :)


Hope To See You Again

From the firstborn, to the second pregnancy, and now the second-born, it feels like I am shooting an adapted version of the movie Boyhood.

It is heartwarming to witness the growing up and the little milestones of the Kuek family. Hope I'll have many more opportunities to document more milestones, and possibly even number 3 and 4!


A Walk In The Park

There are parents who insist their children are prim and proper in front of the camera, and there are parents who adopt a more laissez faire attitude when it comes to "posing". Vivienne and Albert are the latter who basically let their kids express themselves freely. The family photographer has to work around the antics of the kids and try to anticipate their every move. This is what outdoor family photoshoot should be, in my opinion. We want to document the precious moments when the kids act themselves, and not doing things for the pleasure of others, even their parents.


Bailey's British Dream

We have come a long way. From when I shot their wedding (a beautiful day at Suburbia), to making pictures of their first born Bailey when she was just days old, to the cheeky little monkey she has now become, Jason and Tessalin have always been two of my most supportive and nicest clients. Now that the whole family is based in London, I doubt I can see them anytime soon. Luckily for Facebook, I can still keep track of Bailey's many adventures in London. 


Third Time Lucky

This is the third time I made pictures of Wendy and KS' (second picture from top) families. A few years ago, it was just them plus their daughter Ezane. Last year it was Wendy's big family who came visiting from Malaysia and the shoot took place at Botanical Gardens. This year, KS roped in his side of the family and finally, the picture is complete.


A New Season

Tomorrow marks the start of the new 2016/2017 English Premiere League football season. Many clubs have spent eye-popping amount of money on new players-----most notably the two Manchester clubs. In the case of the red half of Manchester, they have just bought the French midfield dynamo Paul Pogba. However, another player that is under the radar and less high-profile is Schuyler, seen here with his parents. He hopes to eventually make it into the first team but before that, he has to cut down his cuteness level because there is no room for soft and cute-looking boys on the pitches of the EPL stadiums.


No Fake Library Backdrop

My friend Yu Hsin from Tinydot Photography was the wedding photographer for Adriel and Priscilla Kuek (blue jacket and black dress respectively). I had the privilege to make some family portraits for them when Gideon (the boy) turned one. I was so glad when Adriel called me up to say that this time his whole family wanted to be involved, in conjunction with his younger brother's graduation from university. I rarely do graduation photos, because majority of the customers are still looking for fake library backdrops. No one will see you seriously as a graduate if you have not taken a photo next to the photo of collection of Brittanica Encyclopedia.

If I shoot graduation photo, then I will shoot it like a family photo session, on location. You see, I charge by the hour, not by number of people. Therefore I was able to make separate portraits for individuals as well as various groups of members within the family. We get to kill many birds with one stone at an affordable hourly rate after averaging out. I also enjoy shooting large groups because of the dynamics and energy, despite the odd moments when kids behave like old people or old folks throwing tantrums like kids.


Birthday Wishlist

Little boy's birthday is coming, so he made a wishlist and pinned it on the fridge for the parents to see. I told him I'm in a generous mood. "Seeing that you are quite a good boy, I'm granting you not one, but two wishes this year."


Eyes lit up, he excitedly asked which two?
"Numbers 3 and 5." 

Gentle Souls

When two gentle souls get together, they create little gentle souls of their mould. Victor and Theng Theng are yet another wedding clients of mine. The most vivid thing I remember about their wedding (eons ago) was the fact that Theng Theng's family is in Johore Bahru, where my parents were living then too. In order to steal the extra hour of sleep, I entered JB the night before and spent the night at my parents'. The other thing I remember is Theng Theng's wam family, which surrounded her with lots of love. 

I am really happy to see them again, this time with their two kids, Xenia and Isaac, in tow. Unlike the stereotypical warring siblings, these two love each other and really take after their parents. Even though the younger one can be a little boisterous and cheeky, the sister would be patient enough to accommodate, and when necessary, discipline him like how an elder sister would. And the boy would accept his place without much fuss. Any parents who would like to get in touch with them to consult them on parenting, feel free to email me. :)


Pretty Little Things

Ever since the camera was invented, we have used it to preserve images of our families. From wet plates to present-day digital images, we have come to expect family photos to look like this:

Or this:


One reason is because wet plates, larger format negatives are expensive to develop. The minimum we expect in a family photo is to see everyone's faces and eyes on the camera. Even today, the pricing models adopted by most family photography studios is one that emphasizes the sale of prints or individual digital image. If I am going to pay more for additional images/prints, it makes sense for me to choose those that look like the above.

Unfortunately by doing so, many other fun, crazy and candid images often do not get to see the light of day. Kids are not genetically programmed to sit still and look at the camera. They are free spirits housed in a growing shell of a body, and to jump and laugh and sulk and cry are what make them so special and different from adults. The real gem of a family photo is not to make them look and behave like adults, but to portray them as who they are. Then, adults are free to join them but in a juvenile form.

Rather than printing one large "prim and proper" family portrait to be hung on the wall, try printing several smaller ones of the less formal types. They will not only brighten up the walls, but give them life as well.


Indoor, Outdoor, Natural Light Photography

For an one-hour photography session, clients can have the best of both worlds by combining the comfort of indoor photography with a bit of outdoor greenery when they visit The Family Man studio. Be it indoor or outdoor, Alexis is allowed free rein to push her favourite wagon around. Our emphasis is always on capturing real and candid moments when kids express themselves in their typical childlike way.


Friend For Life, Foe Once Every Week

Tuck Weng is a friend since our secondary school days. Our classrooms were next to each other, so we saw each other almost every day. Ever friendly, warm and easygoing, he can immediately put you at ease. After we started working, we often gathered with other friends to play football at our alma mater on weekends. Unfortunately, family and work commitments made those weekly joints more and more difficult, plus the influx of new players was getting younger, fitter and stronger, which made oldies like us look bad in a big field.

 I am happy to see he has a very lovely family. The two boys were cheeky, lively and full of laughs at the studio. One hour just whizzed past in an instant. The only downside is his allegiance to English club Tottenham Hotspurs. I know he was mightily disappointed that his beloved club faltered last season. Selfishly, I hope the unlucky streak continues.......sorry Tuck Weng!


A Bundle Of Joy

Bingkun and Chee Wei are my friends from the eighties and nineties respectively. He and I were in the same secondary school, and she and I were in the same class in junior college. After some twists and turns, the two of them fell in love in London and I had the honour to shoot half of their wedding (because I wasn't available on the other half). I also shot their first family portrait with their firstborn Chloe. As happened to most families, the second-born was skipped (haha) but they got together in front of my camera again when no.3 Bundle the whippet joined the family.


See how happy and beautiful the three girls are in the above image....but when the daddy joined in, something changed. Just joking. Bingkun is a caring and doting dad and all the girls love him to bits.