Malaysia

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.

langkawi_holiday_01

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.

langkawi_holiday_02

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.

langkawi_holiday_03

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.

langkawi_holiday_04
langkawi_holiday_23

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.

langkawi_holiday_05

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

langkawi_holiday_06

Some family is going to be very happy that day.

langkawi_holiday_07

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.

langkawi_holiday_08
langkawi_holiday_09
langkawi_holiday_10

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.

langkawi_holiday_11
langkawi_holiday_12
langkawi_holiday_13

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

langkawi_holiday_14
langkawi_holiday_15

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.

langkawi_holiday_16
langkawi_holiday_28
langkawi_holiday_17

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.

langkawi_holiday_22

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

langkawi_holiday_18
langkawi_holiday_20
langkawi_holiday_19

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.

langkawi_holiday_21

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.

langkawi_holiday_29

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

langkawi_holiday_25

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

langkawi_holiday_24

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.

langkawi_holiday_26
langkawi_holiday_27

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.

langkawi_holiday_31
langkawi_holiday_32
langkawi_holiday_33
langkawi_holiday_34
langkawi_holiday_35
langkawi_holiday_36
langkawi_holiday_37

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.

langkawi_holiday_38
langkawi_holiday_39
langkawi_holiday_40
langkawi_holiday_41

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

langkawi_holiday_42
langkawi_holiday_43

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

langkawi_holiday_30
langkawi_holiday_44
langkawi_holiday_45
langkawi_holiday_46

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......

langkawi_holiday_47

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.

langkawi_holiday_48
langkawi_holiday_49
langkawi_holiday_50
langkawi_holiday_51
langkawi_holiday_54
langkawi_holiday_52

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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_04
kulai_durian_guesthouse_04
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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_06
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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_23

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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_11
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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_13
kulai_durian_guesthouse_14
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.

kulai_durian_guesthouse_18
kulai_durian_guesthouse_19
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!"