Chiling Out at Chiling Waterfall

The heat, the smog, the buildings, the people, the noise! When I just gotta get out of  Kuala Lumpur, I head for my favorite place in Malaysia, Sungai Chiling Waterfall with my favorite hiking buddy, Kathleen. The easy drive up to the mountains takes about an hour and a half with gorgeous views of the rain forest and a reservoir.

Sungai Chiling Waterfall, Malaysia

Hiking to the falls takes about one hour on mostly flat ground but with enough hills, roots and rain forest trails to keep you on your toes. It is an easy and peaceful hike where you will see many varieties of carnivorous pitcher plants, wild orchids, and lots of wild life such as monkeys, colorful butterflies and tropical birds.

Wild Orchid

Carnivorous Pitcher Plan

The real adventure begins when the trail ends suddenly at the river and starts again on the other side! You must traverse the river 6 times to get to the falls. Depending on the rainfall, the river can be as high as your ankles in some places or up to your waist in other places. The adults make long chains and pass the children along. Sometimes there are ropes to hold or we grab long bamboo poles to keep upright.

Crossing in Waist Deep Water

Crossing the River~ Using Bamboo Poles

After an hour you come out of a bamboo patch to the roaring of the falls. The mist hits your face as you gaze out at the rushing water.

A glimpse of the falls and 3 monkeys!

Once you reach the falls you can swim, picnic and relax at the foot of the spectacular falls. The surrounding rainforest, river and small pools are tranquil and the silence is a soothing welcome after the bustling city.

Anni and kids enjoying the cool pool at the foot of the falls

Kathleen and I usually head up to Chiling with a large group of people and make a daylong outing. The children love this hike with the ease of walking and the adventurous river crossings.

Hiking Pals cooling off

My favorite hiking buddy and her family are leaving Malaysia this year so it won’t be the same without her when I go next year.

My favorite hiking buddies, Kathleen and Derald

Fish in the clear mountain water

Hiking to the falls along the trail

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Learning to Breathe…. Underwater

“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” James Stephens

I started to learn how to SCUBA dive as a teenager in the Middle East but it was not a happy ending. I will spare you the details of the real life horror story involving a death and a shark during our Open Water Dive test and just state that it has taken 35 years to complete that course. Three friends and I flew to the Perhentian Islands in Eastern Malaysia nestled in the South China Sea. The island is a feast for the eyes with palm fringed white coral sandy beaches and crystalline water. We would complete our open water dives while on the tropical island at Watercolours Resort and Dive Center with Sharon, our fabulous dive instructor.

View from Watercolours Dive Center in the Perhentians

On the first dive we suited up and sped in a motorboat to a small lagoon. As soon as I hit the water I began to look for sharks, but luckily there were none to be spotted. As my head went under the water and my brain began to scream, “STOP IT! Get out! You can’t breathe underwater. There could be sharks here!!  Are you insane!?!” My body started to respond to the commands with panic, but luckily I was able to prevail over my shark terror and ignore my claustrophobia so that I could begin the descent under the water.

Anni Getting Ready to Dive

Once I was under the water, my sensibility returned, my breathing steadied and the dazzling clear blue water and the world of wildlife below astounded me. After completing our skills on each dive, Sharon led us on our fun dives where we were able to see some remarkable sea life. Blue spotted rays floated by while the spikes of lionfish poked out of crevices in the coral. Tiny translucent feeder shrimp pecked at our fingers and a batfish frolicked with my yellow fins. Moray eels snapped their jaws, as hundreds of fish lazily drifted by like a rainbow.  It was a magical scene that we were able to experience four times that weekend. After passing our tests and completing our open water dives, the boat pulled up to the resort where a sign was waiting to congratulate us all on our success. It took 35 years, but I was finally able to conquer my fear of sharks. Another “Mind over Matter” accomplishment! Another bucket list item checked!

Gorgeous Perhentians! Our first dive spot.

Sharon, Angie, Ann and Alexis

Sharon, Angie, Ann and Alexis

It wasn’t until later that day, while snorkeling, that I finally spied a shark. The meter long black-tip reef shark glided in front of me, camouflaged with the white sandy bottom. To my surprise and delight the shark instilled wonder instead of alarm in me. Instead of turning and swimming away in fright, I grabbed my friend by the arm and swam as fast as I could after it, trying to get a better look. He was breathtaking, free and peaceful. Conquering my fear was as magnificent as he was! Anticipation of disappearing below the surface sits in the back of my mind as I return to mundane everyday life. I have spent a lifetime in appreciation and awe of the beach and ocean, but it has been heightened to an elevated level of understanding now that I can breathe under water!

Anni Looking Fearless

Have you overcome a fear?

Third Culture Kid~ Where Are You From?

When I was younger, there was a four-word phrase that sent panic to my mind… “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” Hmmmmmm… How to answer that loaded question? Most people can answer with a one-word response. My response is a paragraph:

Well, I am an American of European descent. I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, but I moved to San Francisco, California. I was raised in Massachusetts as a young child. I moved to Kuwait and then Bahrain with a short stint in Atlanta, Georgia that I would like to forget! I graduated from an international school in Bahrain. My legal address was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but I never really lived there. I went to university in Pennsylvania, but I left after two and a half years. I became a flight attendant where I was “based” in London, but I resided in Bahrain. Then I settled in Ocean City, New Jersey. (This was all before I was 25 years old) I got married and then raised my young children in Ocean City, New Jersey. When my children were 8 and 9 years old we moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where I have been for 8 years. We return each summer to the USA and go to PA, NJ, and NY. Our legal address is now NJ, but we no longer own property in NJ. My family and my husband’s family are mostly living in that tri-state area. Hmmmmmm… You guess!?! Where am I from?

Now the questions begin to fly… Am I crazy? Do I have attachment issues? Am I an orphan? Do I exaggerate? Was I a military brat? Am I in the military?NO! I was a Third Culture Kid (TCK) who moved for my father’s work and now for my work. According to American sociologist David C. Pollock, “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

TCKs usually answer the “Where are you from?” question with vagueness like, “Home is where the heart is.”  or “Everywhere, but nowhere.” Many of us cannot easily answer the question. I am living abroad again in Malaysia and for the first time in a long time, I feel truly HOME even though I am not Malaysian. For us Third Culture Kids and adults, “home” is not a place. It is a concept. Home to me is where I feel understood, accepted and comfortable with my life choices. Now that I am an adult and I can appreciate all the advantages of being a TCK, the question does not frighten me any more. I embrace it and look forward to hearing other traveler’s answers.

Are you a TCK? How do you answer the question, Where are you from?

My TCK World Map:

These are the flags of the countries that have influenced who I am.

Expat Child Abducted in Kuala Lumpur

At 7:40 Friday morning, 27 April, Nayati Shamelin Moodliar was abducted a short distance from the Mont’Kiara International School. His whereabouts are still unknown. He has dark brown eyes and hair. He is about 1.5m tall and weighs 45kg. He was wearing a white polo T-shirt with the school’s emblem and dark green shorts. He is 12 years old. Please, if you have seen this child please call the Malyasian Police at 999, or the school at 0320938604. Please share.

Words cannot convey how my community is feeling tonight and I cannot even begin to imagine what the family is going through. One of our students from our school has been abducted from our neighborhood and our world has been shattered. It has been almost 48 hours since the kidnapping and there is not any word yet. The expat community and the local community are coming together to post fliers and flood the social media networks. Please re-post and spread the word. Keep hope for the safe return of Nayati Moodliar to his family. We are holding Nayati and his family in our hearts until he comes home safe. In whatever fashion you choose, and from whatever religious tradition you come, please keep Nayati and his family in your thoughts and prayers.

Break-Bone Fever? The Dreaded Dengue!

The peace of the gorgeous tropical day has been shattered. Sitting quietly by the pool, I suddenly feel the presence of a predator. I try to nonchalantly peer into the bushes to see what is making my hair stand on end. There he is, in his gray-striped pants, but he is unaware that he has been exposed. I shudder as he inches closer to me holding his weapon out in front of him as he looks for the best place to strike. It is now or never; kill or be killed. He doesn’t sense my awareness as he boldly makes his move. I am quicker! I am ready! I swiftly make my blow and blood splatters across my arm! His body lays crushed on the pool deck as I lie back down to try and enjoy my reading again. Another mosquito bites the dust! Since that fateful day in September, I am now always aware of the dreaded Dengue carrying mosquitoes.

Dengue Fever is a viral disease, spread by the Aedes mosquito, which infects 50-100 million people and kills about 25,000 yearly. It is a virus similar to Yellow Fever and West Nile Virus and has symptoms like Malaria. The mosquitoes which carry Dengue are active in the daytime and can be identified by their ugly little gray stripes which I can now spot from miles away! Symptoms include high fever, flu-like symptoms, vomiting, severe joint and muscle pain, and a ruthless headache between the eyes. It is a tropical illness that is more prevalent in cities where mosquitoes can breed in stagnant water.

As soon as we moved to Malaysia we heard the horror stories of Dengue Fever. Most people described it as a fever and illness so intense that your bones feel like they are on fire and are cracking into pieces. That description was enough to strike terror in my family, but apparently not enough to take full precautions. After avoiding the mosquito carrying virus for seven years, one bite was all it took.

I awoke one Friday morning in early September to go for my morning swim before school. I felt a splitting headache coming on so I took two Motrin and headed for the door. As I put on my flip flops I realized this was not an ordinary headache so I slipped back into bed after popping two Tylenol for good measure. Although I had a relentless headache and felt terrible, I made it through work by taking a ridiculous amount of pain medicine throughout the day. At 3:00 as the bell rang, I achingly plodded home and crawled into my bed as my head felt ready to be cracked apart and the mere act of opening my eyes was painful. By 6:00, I could barely lift my head or move and my clothes and sheets were soaked in gross yellow sweat. I had a 104 °F fever and my joints hurt so badly that the shaking from the fever sent excruciating pain shooting through my body. I knew I had the dreaded Dengue Fever.

The doctors confirmed my fears on Saturday morning with a blood test and suggested that I get admitted to the hospital right away. I was feeling a bit smug, thinking I could beat this, so I opted for my comfy bed, bad sit-coms, and People magazines. On Sunday and Monday I felt a lot better if you can call flulike symptoms “feeling better.” I went to my local doctor each day to have my blood drawn and to check my platelet count. The doctors were concerned because my platelet count was rapidly dropping and I was having a hard time staying hydrated despite drinking tons of water constantly. I knew the stories had been exaggerated, this wasn’t so bad….HA!  Nobody told me about the “honeymoon phase!”

When I awoke on Tuesday, I was convinced that I was going to die. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough energy to actually die and I could barely move. After the doctor insisted, my husband took me to the hospital where I proceeded to collapse in the waiting room. I got two bags of IV fluids in the ER since I was severely dehydrated, delirious and fainting. The pain in my head, joints, muscles, and bones was unbearable. The ER doctor admitted me to the hospital and I was hooked up to an IV bag for six days.

During this time I would be faked into believing that I was getting better only to have the fever and pain return again and again like that bad top-ten song on the radio. Finally I broke out in a rash that lasted for weeks and needed to be scratched to the point of bleeding. To top off all of the torture, a pleasant smiling nurse would prance in and jab a needle into my arm to draw blood for the platelet count three times a day. Every day it dropped a little bit more. Luckily I was too ill to care! I slept my way through the week with painkillers, sleeping pills and an IV bag as my constant companions. Finally the doctor released me on Sunday since my platelet count was stable, but I was still sick in bed for a few more days and the rash was worse than ever!

For weeks I realized why it is called break bone fever! My joints and muscles continued to hurt at the slightest effort and were swollen like they had been during my pregnancies. Eventually I felt better, the joint pain subsided and the rash finally faded. However all these months later there is one long lasting effect; I am seized with panic when I see a gray stripped mosquito flying around me. I am frantically swatting one right now as I sit at the pool writing this. Insect repellent and insect killer are never far from my reach. My family looks at me like I have three heads as I chase down a single mosquito like it is a murderer in a bad horror flick! Better to be safe than sorry. One bite is all it takes!

Laos for the New Year

Our family arrived in Vientiane, Laos anticipating a quiet laid back city in South East Asia. Well we got the SE Asia part correct. Vientiane is a vibrant dusty city with lots of traffic. It is an easy city to navigate and explore on foot or in open-air tuk-tuks. There are plenty of fabulous Buddhist temples to explore in the old city. Our favorite was the Wat Si Saket, which houses over 6,400 Buddha statues. We puttered around the city with a helpful tuk-tuk driver who refused to pull over when we got a flat tire until the rubber came completely off the rim. He had to flag down another driver and take his spare tire. We finally reached the temple at Pha That and it left me speechless. The blinding gold stupa stretched up to the heavens in the crystal blue sky.

The next day we left the capital and flew up to Luang Prabang. Our initial vision of Laos unfolded before us as we entered the “city” along the meandering Mekong River. In our travels we have previously crossed the mighty Mekong in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but here in Luang Prabang it appeared especially magical. The charming old town is built right up to the banks with cafés overhanging the slopes. The pace was effortlessly slow and easygoing. The only transportation needed was a bicycle and your feet.

The temples are too numerous to count and the amount of saffron clad monks is staggering. We awoke pre-dawn to watch the procession of monks receiving alms from the people in the town.  The mist rose over the road and hills as barefoot monks padded in lines with outstretched baskets to accept their daily offering of sticky rice. The market place slowly came to life with coffee brewed by the cup and the smell of fresh croissants filling the misty morning. Locals quietly move about their business among the tourists snapping photos and resting in cafés drinking cheap local beer and eating sandwiches on fresh baguettes.

While sitting in a quiet café on the edge of the market, Brian and I watched the local and touristy scene. A blind man was lead by a woman and we watched in amazement as some of the tourist deliberately crossed away from him. The man approached the food stalls along the side of the road and without ever asking, each vendor offered him small change or food. He would respond with a beautiful wai and back away. The generous attitude and genuine smiles made this town my new favorite place in SE Asia.

 

On New Year’s Eve there were not any boisterous fireworks to ring in 2012. However thousands of candle lit lanterns floated peacefully into the night sky creating a magical tone to match the Laotian style. Local families roasted whole pigs and danced in the streets to celebrate the New Year. Luang Prabang will be etched in my memory for a long time.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

“Hey, we are going to climb Mount Kinabalu!  Wanna come?” 

“Sure, why not!”

Little did I know this would change my attitude and my life!  My athletic marathon-running buddy invited me to come along with 4 other friends of varying degrees of fitness to climb the tallest mountain in South East Asia. I was 60 pounds overweight and extremely unfit. When I voiced second thoughts everyone stated, “You can do it! You have a year to get in shape!”

The climbers in our group were inexperienced, but it was my physical condition that worried me. I began to train and change my attitude. Self doubt and terror often plagued me for a year. I told myself over and over that I could actually do this climb and determination began to develop! Working with a personal trainer three days a week and walking or hiking many weekends got me into shape. My work place had a “Biggest Loser” contest and I came in fourth place by losing almost 30 pounds.

Mount Kinabalu is on the island of Borneo in Eastern Malaysia. It is 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) tall. It is a “technically” easy climb because special climbing equipment or gear is not needed. However that does not mean it is an easy climb because of the severe change in altitude at the summit. There are unsteady rocky trails, naked granite rock surfaces, shoddy ropes to climb up and drastic weather conditions at times.

Mount Kinabalu Shrouded in Mist

We hired a reputable guide, Marius, who planned our three days at the mountain. We flew to Kota Kinabalu with a group of six positive excited people determined to reach the peak and have fun.

Day One-  Friday

A small tour bus picked up our climbing group and we sped past local villages, water buffalo and outdoor markets while we talked excitedly about our upcoming challenge. The mountain, shrouded in clouds, loomed in front of us as reality set in. The weather was atrocious with torrential tropical rain that had been coming down for ten days. We ate dinner at a small cafe and tried to keep warm in the damp misty night air. Our bodies began to adjust to the higher altitude. We got into our bunks at the small hostel with anticipation of the climb early the next morning. The sleep was restless since the sounds of the rain forest and the teeming rain penetrated the thin walls mixing with our excitement and expectation.

Day Two-  Saturday

Rolling out of bed early, we tried not to let the morning weather dampen our spirits. I had pictured a hot humid climb through the gorgeous rain forest, but the hammering downpour had not let up over night. We donned our rain ponchos and strapped on our gear after a hearty breakfast and then checked in at the trail head. The adventure had begun at 1800 meters (5905 ft). Hiking through the rain on muddy steep steps quickly took a toll on our feet. We would have to climb eight kilometers up to Laban Rata at 3273 meters (10,738) this morning.

After the first kilometer, I took off the poncho and trudged on in just shorts and a t-shirt. I was soaked from sweating under the plastic poncho and the shower on my skin and clothes was a relief! We soon began to see hikers coming down off of the mountain. Many of them were disappointed because they had not reached the peak. The rainfall had made the trails too dangerous to climb and their guides had not allowed them to climb any further than Laban Rata. This was a huge shock because I had not anticipated the weather stopping us.

As the terrain changed from dense rain forest to sparser trees, so did our group. Four of our group members had gained a significant lead and my climbing buddy, Judy, and I were quite a ways behind. This was not a surprise and Marius stayed with the two of us as the others went ahead at their speedy pace. Our mantra became “Slow And Steady!” (SAS) Judy and I dubbed each other the “SASSY Girls” for our slow and steady pace! We met numerous groups of climbers and had fun chatting and joking along the way whenever we merged on the trail or at the rest huts along the way.

We continued to talk to everyone we met, laugh and have a good time for the six hours we scaled the mountain that day despite the difficult terrain, exhaustion and weather. There were many groups that came up the trails past us or hurried down the paths with wishes of good luck. Some of the guides would look at Judy and I, shake their heads and rapidly gesture to Marius. He told us that the other guides did not believe that we would ever make it up to the summit!  Marius told the other guides that “His Girls” would make it because they had great attitudes and determination!

The Sassy Girls went at a steady pace and enjoyed the flora and fauna we discovered on the mountain; pitcher plants, civet cats, enormous centipedes and huge Borneo Blue Worms. The last kilometer and a half was especially steep with rough, uneven steps and slippery wet rocks. Our path had become more of a stream bed than a hiking trail. The exhausted SASSY girls reached Laban Rata in about 6 hours and when our muddy soaked bodies passed through the door of the guest house, our group as well as many of the other climbers and guides cheered for us. We collapsed with a hot mug of tea and an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment! Many other climbing parties came in hours later after dark and we realized that we had made the trek in a reasonable amount of time.

"Waterfalls" where paths should be!

Looking out the window caused immense heartache and severe disappointment. Waterfalls were splashing rapidly down the sheer cliffs past the guest house. These waterfalls were actually the trails we were meant to climb at 2:00 am. The view was extremely limited due to the tropical downpour which refused to end. Only 70 percent of the climbers had made the summit that morning and our chances were not looking any better for our ascent the next morning. In our hostel room for the six of us, bedtime came early to the sounds of pitter-patter on the roof and the creaking sounds of anxious people in old metal bunks!

Day Three-  Sunday

A quick night of freaking out, dozing, freezing and self-psyching up passed all too fast as the noise of climbers waking had me on alert. At around 1:00 a.m., I crept down the stairs to hear news of the weather and the fate of our summit ascent. Early risers were having breakfast and buzzing with the miraculous news that the rain had stopped an hour before and we would be able to finish our climb! We dressed in our cold weather gear, strapped on head lamps and waited to be called to begin the most difficult and longest part of the climb in the pitch dark.

Marius had Judy and I begin before the others in our group with the goal of making the summit by sunrise. Climbers must brave steep uneven steps formed from tree roots, uneven rickety ladders and trails surrounded by shrubs. I could not see two feet in front of my face so I was thrilled when the ground seemed to open up. This illusion soon gave way to sheer, slippery, wet, steep naked granite rock. After about two hours we reached the last check point of Sayat-Sayat at 3810 meters (12,500 feet).

Ann and Judy~ SO CLOSE! Almost there!

We were climbing in complete darkness and I was grateful for the headlamp as both hands had to hold onto ropes to pull ourselves up and steady our bodies. The trail was treacherous and as steep as 75 degree angles. I was grateful that I could not see down at this point. The last kilometer to the summit was the hardest challenge to face. The lack of oxygen due to the altitude was taking its toll on my exhausted body. One step – one breath was repeated with pure determination. We watched the sun rise over Donkey Ear Peak and finally made a rendezvous with our climbing party!

Ann, Jay, Judy, Kathleen, Jim and Lori at the summit peak of Mount Kinabalu!!!

Judy and I had made the summit to join our four other friends!  Hugs and congratulations flew over the mountain top as we realized the achievement we had made! We posed for photos and savored the accomplishment. The sense of pride was overwhelming and tears flowed freely down my face. I was overcome with emotion when I realized what I had done! This elation was short lived as Marius reminded us that now we had to get off the mountain and soon. The weather was turning again.

With a few glances over my shoulder, I began the descent back into the mist. Shock and fear took over as we reached the edges of the rock faces we had climbed up in the utter darkness. The blackness hid the shoddy ropes, unsound ladders, sheer drop offs and the unimaginable height of the mighty mountain. Judy and I slowly and steadily made our way back to the rest house at Laban Rata at the same time as the returning tropical rains. Our friends were already there and after a short rest, we began the treacherous descent.

The descent! How did we get OVER that ridge in the dark?

The rains were so heavy at times that we could barely see in front of us. The trails were not visible through the two feet of water rushing over them and into our ankle high boots. We were climbing down a vertical river! We met climbers coming up the mountain and maintained an amazing attitude despite our exhaustion and discomfort. Only once did we fall into despair and question how we would make it down, but the Sassy Girls quickly rallied. We met others along the climb down who were not as fortunate as us to have made it up to the peak so our triumph kept us moving. We met our friends at the foot of the mountain in the same café we began three nights before. Cheers, tears and a sense of elation greeted us as we were finally able to say, “WE DID IT!”

It has been a year since I left the mountain and the sense of pride has not passed yet. Whenever I am feeling a bit down or unsure, I transport myself back to Mount Kinabalu and remember how I had persevered ~ slow and steady. I conquered the mountain and the weather, but more importantly, I conquered my own self doubt!

How I still feel... "I am on top of the world!"

What can you do today that you didn’t know you were capable of doing last year?

Flesh-Eating Fish!?!

Hundreds of tiny fish rushed at my feet and legs, hungrily eating the flesh as I tried to suppress the screams! Piranhas? Horror flick? No, the latest craze in spa treatments, Fish Therapy!

 

I love a good day at the spa with a massage, manicure, pedicure and facial as much as anyone.  There is a new spa in town that everyone is talking about.  Friends raved about it, my students giggled and could not stop talking about it and my student’s parents invited me to join them at the spa. However, fish eating the dead skin off my feet and legs was just too weird for me to try. Garra Rufa fish (aka: doctor fish, nibble fish, Chinchin or kangal fish) are stocked in a large tank and you stick your legs inside the water and let the fish eat off the dead skin.  Seriously, how gross is that?

 

My family and I were just too curious and decided to try it.  We walked into the spa and it was a gorgeous peaceful atmosphere. Quiet music played in the background, candles were lit, beautiful water fountains flowed and lovely art hung on the walls. We paid RM 38.00 (US $12.00) for a thirty minute session. We washed our legs and sat on the plush cushions beside the wooden pools lined with lilies and candles.  I plunged my feet in the water and had to refrain from squealing as hundreds of fish rushed at my legs and toes! It was the strangest sensation, but quite pleasant. It felt just like leaving your legs in front of Jacuzzi jets. We were able to relax after a few minutes and at the end of the thirty minutes my legs felt soft and rejuvenated! I can feel the line where my legs were not submerged in the water!

 

Garra rufa fish originate in the river basins of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.  The practice, called Ichthyotherapy, was discovered a century ago to treat skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It is becoming a new trend in spas which are popping up all around Asia and Europe. My husband, my son and I all loved it, but my daughter took her feet out within ten minutes.  She could not tolerate the tickly feeling.  I have gone back again and enjoyed it as much as the first time. I highly recommend it. This is one spa treatment you will never forget!

 

 

Pangkor Island, Malaysia

I just got back from a much needed rest in Pangkor Island, Malaysia.  This was my sixth trip to the Pangkor Island Beach Resort and I am still in love with it!  Pangkor Island is on the west coast of Malaysia and just a three hour drive from KL.  Of course everyone says that all of the beautiful pristine beaches with the gorgeous blue water are on the east coast.  We have been to Redang and many other east coast beaches in Terengganu and Pahang, but we keep returning to Pangkor.

 

Pangkor Island was my first glimpse of a Malaysian beach.  The drive there is easy and scenic.  Travel the superhighway for half of the trip and then enter the back roads for about an hour.  Buffalo, palm trees, plantations, local villages and rice paddies are common sights on the route up to the island.  After a twenty minute ferry ride, you board a bus and are at the resort in two minutes.  As you step into the gorgeous open wooden lobby, the senses are alive with the smell of the ocean, the white sandy beaches with lazy swaying palm trees and the gentle lapping of the waves.  The rooms are bright and cheery, the staff is sooooo friendly and the food is good. 

 

 

There are two pools with a pool bar and a kiddie pool.  The pools are right on the edge of the beach.  A small strip of grass separates the pool area from the white clean 1.2 kilometer secluded beach.  I love this because I can watch one of my children in the ocean and the other child in the pool at the same time!  There is plenty of shade from the gorgeous palm and tropical trees lining the beach.  At the ends of the beach, the rain forest just falls right in to the sea.  They clean the beach all the time, but there are plenty of shells to collect daily. Hornbill birds swoop in and out of the trees all day with their eerie cry and their alien looking faces! 

 

Our day begins with a walk either through the golf course, down to the small ponds, or along the beach.  We saw a huge 1.5 meter monitor lizard on the other side of the pond and he just slid silently into the jungle when he saw us.  Another monitor walked down the beach one day.  We head into the breakfast buffet and sit out on the wooden deck overlooking the beach.  The staff knows us now and they all welcome us with a hand over their heart and they are genuinely happy to see the diners every day.  After our leisurely breakfast we head down to a shady spot on the beach and unload our books, water, and supplies for the day. 

 

Some of our afternoon activities have been kayaking, bicycling down to the local village, snorkeling (not too great) golfing, tennis, banana boat or flying fish, and strolling along the beach.  On one of our trips, we went to town to see the sights.  It is a small island and there is not a lot to see for someone who lives in Malaysia.  Some of the sights may be more interesting for tourists though.  There is a small Buddhist temple with a small replica of the Great Wall of China. The fishing village is fun to look at and there is an old Dutch Fort.

 

The evening begins with another trip to the buffet line and a relaxing meal out on the beachfront deck.  Some nights we go to the other restaurant and order from their menu which is excellent.  When we are stuffed we head back down to the beach for our night time stroll with our flashlights.  We chase the crabs into their holes and enjoy the waves gently rolling up onto the shore.  A visit to the open lounge upstairs reveals a cheesy, but fun Pilipino band.  We sit and play cards there with the kids or head over to the pool and ping pong tables before crashing exhausted into bed.

 

Pangkor Island is the perfect place to take a few days off  to relax!  You won’t find a better place with the facilities, beautiful beach and great staff for the price!  If you want to dive or snorkel then take the time to go to the east coast or Sipadan.  However if you want a tranquil holiday to unwind, then Pangkor is the quickest, most convenient, and affordable place to go. 

Thaipusam

080122084524.jpg   The large statue next to the 272 steps leading up to the Batu Caves.

Thaipusam, a Hindu festival to honor devotion to the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan, was celebrated in Malaysia on January 23 this year.  Devotees ask the deity for a favor, offer atonement or give thanks for a granted prayer.  The worshippers prepare for Thaipusam through fasting and prayer in the 40 days leading up to the festival.  On the day of the festival, devotees shave their heads and make a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves which is 15 km outside of Kuala Lumpur. The Batu Caves house a temple which is dedicated to Lord Murugan.  Devotees will climb the 272 steps to reach the temple and place their “kavadi” or burden at the feet of the deity’s statue.  

 

 

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Once pilgrims reach the site of the caves, they will show their devotion in different ways.  Many will bear a kavadi which could be a simple pot of milk carried on their heads.  The kavadis vary in size and weight.  Smaller versions consist of a small temple with a rod that is carried on the shoulders.  Many devotees pierce their tongues, cheeks or foreheads with small spears. The largest kavadis can be up to 2 meters (6 feet) high which are held on their heads and then attached to the body with 108 hooks piercing the skin!  Some devotees walk on fire, practice flagellation and pull a kavadi cart attached by hooks in his back. 

 

Needless to say this is not a festival for those with a weak stomach.  After living in Kuala Lumpur for three and a half years, I decided that it was time to go and witness this festival first hand.  My husband, children and I set off with our good friend and local guide, Lucas, and fourteen other teachers.  I was leery and expecting chaos, strange rituals, horrific masochistic feats and lots of blood. 

 

What I found was a spiritual air where families frolicked in the river, vendors sold their wares, and children shrieked with laughter. Most people were dressed in yellow sari-type robes with shaved heads.  As we walked through the grounds, barbers in tents shouted out to us to get our heads shaved, people smiled at us or giggled as we hurriedly snapped pictures so as not to offend.  However as the evening progressed, we realized that nobody was bothered by our presence or our picture snapping, they were proud of their sacrifice and burdens! 

 

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It was a happy and spiritual atmosphere as family members gathered around their loved ones to organize for the final pilgrimage up the steps in the blistering tropical heat of the evening.  Lucas led us through the crowds down to the river in the foothills of the caves where families participated in ritual bathing.  We saw men, women and children carrying milk pots and smaller kavadis toward the steps.  Then we sighted the huge kavadis and meandered down to where the devotees were getting ready.   

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The men who were readying to carry the enormous kavadis were surrounded by family and friends.  We watched with open amazement as one devotee who was shaved, bathed and in a deep trance began to don his kavadi.  Singers and drummers in colorful costumes beat their drums and belted out trance inducing songs to keep the devotee focused.  His eyes were rolled back into his head at some points but otherwise staring straight ahead with a look of total determination and love.  It was a powerful ritual to witness.  Men chanted and blew the smoke of incense into his face as the 6-foot kavadi was placed on his head.  More chanting, incense, drumming and words of encouragement were made as the 108 hooks pierced through the flesh on his chest and back.   

 

The devotee wobbled on his stool under the strain of the heavy temple, but never once did the man cry out or flinch in pain!  Not an ounce of blood was spilled as the hooks were inserted and then the spears were poked lovingly through his cheeks and tongue.  The drummers took up a more fevered beat and the man rose and began a jovial dance.  He jumped up and down as the enormous statue on his head bobbed and wavered.  The hooks strained against his body, but a look of spiritual bliss was all that was visible on his face as he communicated with his god.  He began to slowly dodge his way through the crowd toward his final destination, the statue of Lord Murugan in the caves at the top of the 272 steps!  His coaches, family members, the band and tourists followed his elated progress through the crowds to cheers of delight.   

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We observed many more men carrying elaborate and enormous kavadis.  Couples who had babies carried their beloved bundle slung in a yellow cloth hung on a pole shouldered between the blessed parents.  Young children skipped alongside their parents carrying pots of milk or honey on top of their proud shaven heads.  One man sat in an enormous chair of spiked nails and alternately slammed himself into the chair and gave blessings to other devotees as they passed him. People had fruits hanging from their flesh by hooks and others carried burning oil in clay pots!  

 

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It was an amazing night that filled me with wonder, bewilderment, awe and memories that will last a lifetime.  If you are ever in KL in January/February, this is a festival and experience not to be missed!  Thaipusam is a Tamil tradition observed mostly in Southern India, but festivals can be observed in Singapore, Malaysia and Mauritius.  Have you ever witnessed Thaipusam?  Share your experiences with me. 

 

As I sit here writing this I hear the first crackles and booms of firecrackers and the beating of drums and cymbals.  It is the first day of Chinese New Year and a neighbor is having a lion dance!  I must go now and hear the rhythmic drums of another culture beat their way into memories in my mind.  It is another exciting holiday season in Malaysia! 

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