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.