Friday, September 24, 2010


September is the major holiday season for Malaysia with Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Merdeka, and Malaysia Day all occurring within a few weeks of each other. So, we took advantage of some long weekends to take a trip to Redang Island, which is off the East coast of Malaysia.

I thought I would provide a quick overview of our route. We live on Penang Island, which is located off the West coast of Malaysia. We woke up at 4:30 AM and were on the road by 5:00 AM. First, we crossed the longest bridge in Southeast Asia, the Penang Bridge, which connects Penang Island with the rest of Malaysia. We then drove along the Northern highway until we came to the mountains, where we dodged the elephants (actually we just saw elephant crossing signs), nearly crossed into Thailand (not really, but we could have), and finally turned a bit south along the South China Sea until we got to the Merang Jetty (which luckily Jennifer found for us). We parked our car, then got on a boat that took us to Laguna Redang, the resort we stayed at. We left the dock at about 12 noon and arrived about an hour later. Click here if you want to see a map.

The first thing I have to say about Redang is that it is absolutely GORGEOUS! The water is a wonderful crystal blue, the beach is covered in silky white sand, and green trees and tropical flowers grow everywhere. And then there's the fish and the coral reefs! I'll get to all of it, but first, our accomodations.

We stayed at the Laguna Redang Island Resort. It's located right on the beach on the eastern side of the island. It was really beautiful with all the white paint and dark wood accents. We were able to get all of our snorkel gear, boat rides to and from snorkeling areas, and food in one place. And yes, Boo, the food was good, and there was lots of it. Craig's favorites were the pancakes with maple syrup and the "squid balls". Squid balls are deep fried somethings that I assume are made from bits of squid mixed into a paste with flour that you could eat with your fingers and tasted good with a generous amount of ketchup. In other words, the perfect kid food.

Craig really liked the hotel room - especially the balcony overlooking the beach. We faced East, so the sun would rise over the water and then set behind the hills. The moon was almost full while we were there, and we could see lots of stars at night. We also enjoyed watching a thunderstorm pass over the island from our waterfront view.

Craig loved the pool, which had a water slide for kids. He liked the slide one day, but not the next. His favorite thing was the poolside bar that served scoops of ice cream to good little boys who tried snorkeling, promised good behavior, or just said nice things about Mummy (who is a sucker for compliments from Craig).

Jennifer, of course, was right at home on the luxurious sandy beach. The sand felt like cool bits of cotton that molded comfortably to every step. Here is a shot of Hollywood Jennifer soaking up the sun and looking quite at home on a lounge chair underneath a thatch-roofed cabana.

While the accomodations were comfortable and pleasant, the real attraction was the snorkeling! We went snorkeling at three different places: the nearby national park, a small nearby cove, and right outside our own front door. This is Jennifer and Craig feeding the fish in the national park. You can't even see all of the swarms of fish from this picture, there were just too many. The water was cystal clear, warm, and teeming with life!

Craig had a blast snorkeling too. He tried putting his mask underwater a few times. In general, he would be fine until his mask leaked or he got a taste of salt water. Even if he wasn't snorkeling, he was still having a ball just bobbing along on the top of the beautiful, briny sea.

The fish were definitely accustomed to humans, and didn't hesitate to swim in for a close up shot. The variety of species, colors, and numbers of fish was astounding. We saw sea slugs, black tipped reef sharks, angel fish, butterfly fish, and all sorts of other fish that I can't name. It was so colorful and absolutely breathtaking to be there.

At night we would enjoy the happenings on the beach, which included launching giant Chinese lanterns that floated high in the sky like hot air balloons, and of course more ice cream (okay, so maybe Dad is a sucker, too).

Overall we had such a wonderful, relaxing time. After four days and three nights of snorkeling and fun in the sun, we took the boat ride back to the jetty. Craig didn't want to leave, and neither did Jennifer or I. While we've got a list of other places to visit, we wouldn't mind another trip to Redang next Spring if we get an extra weekend.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hungry Ghost Festival

One Wednesday a few weeks ago I walked out of a restaurant at night and saw two nicely dressed Chinese people tossing bits of paper into a huge pile on the street. You can imagine my surprise when they poured lighter fluid on the paper, then lit it on fire. Then, glancing around, I saw several such bonfires smoldering on the road in front of various buildings. Well, I found out later that this was the first day of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Month. The papers that were being burned actually represented things like money, iPods, passports, and other things that one's ancestors might find useful in the afterlife. This tradition is repeated every year during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the gates of hell open up and the spirits all of our dead ancestors are allowed to roam free to partake of earthly life once again. Some like to visit family, but others simply like to be entertained. So, in order to increase their good fortune, the local Chinese will provide food, operas, and dances for the spirits who take a vacation from their other-worldly dwelling.
To help guide the spirits to the places of entertainment, the Chinese place triangle-shaped flags, like the one pictured above, near tents or stands where shrines are set up during Ghost Month. More flags denote you are getting closer to the actual location of the festival.

Jennifer's trainer, who is of Chinese descent, excitedly exclaimed "Jennifer, you'll be so excited! Hell has opened up!", and then warned us not to venture outside while Ghosts are roaming the world. We were so curious, that Jennifer, Craig and I attended the Penang State Hungry Ghost Festival at a local park a few minutes from our house anyway, just to experience the excitement.

The temporary shrine pictured above was set up specifically for the Hungry Ghost Festival. It is actually a representation of hell, and once you enter in, you are in hell. Jennifer, Craig and I all went in. Don't worry, we didn't stay there. The large figure against the back wall is a representation of Ti Kuan, the deity who is ruler of hell, or more accurately, the spirit world. In the Hungry Ghost tradition, all the departed go to hell. While Ti Kuan's demeanor may look frightening, he's actually merciful, which is why he allows the deceased souls to re-enter the realm of the living once a year. Located in front on the tables are offerings of fruit, drinks, incense, and other representations of earthly goods that departed souls may not be able to get in the spirit realm.

One of the traditional forms of entertainment is opera, pictured above. It is very different from Western style operas, with high vibratos, Chinese string instruments, gongs, and so forth. The costumes were extremely well done, and the performers were very good. We didn't catch the plot because it was sung in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but from what we could tell the man dressed in black had kidnapped the true heir to the queen's throne in an attempt to claim the monarchy for himself. It was really interesting, albeit loud.

Following the opera, we saw a traditional Chinese Lion dance. The orange and white lions pranced around to the beat of a large Chinese drum. Craig really liked it.

After the Lions had provided their entertainment, the dragon came out. The dragon chased all of the spirits back into the spirit realm, at which point it was closed up for the night. It was really awesome to see the 50 foot dragon being carried about. The movements were so well choreographed that it appeared to move as a natural animal, not a cloth and stick representation held aloft by dancers.

Providing for the Hungry Ghosts is not just an act done in large state sponsored festivals. The picture above is a small offering made outside the front door of an apartment in Georgetown. You can see the burnt remnants of offerings (paper representations of physical goods that dead people might need) as well as bits of food and incense. On certain nights during Ghost Month, entire streets will be littered with burning incense and spent ashes from offerings made to one's ancestors.

Shrines can also pop up at seemingly random places. One shrine was set up at Jennifer's favorite street market, with the representation of hell being somewhat close to the fish mongers. It's all in an effort to honor one's ancestors and hopefully bring luck and fortune to the living.