Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chillin' Out in Koh Phi Phi

If you've read a lot of our blog, you've probably noticed that we spend a lot of our travel time learning about new cultures and local customs. Our latest trip was an exception. Jennifer found us a beautiful beach and we stayed there, soaking up the sun and eating Thai food! It was our first trip to Thailand without seeing a single Wat! Craig was thrilled!

A few hundred miles north of Penang is Koh Phi Phi (pronounced "koe pee pee", and yes, Craig giggled every time we said it). It's part of the series of tranquil Thai islands located in the blue waters of the Andaman Sea. We flew into Phuket (pronounced "poo-ket"), then took a speedboat due east until this tiny island emerged on the horizon.

We stayed in a hut on stilts with a grass roof and modern amenities. Craig loved it! We had air conditioning, satellite TV, and a refrigerator. Craig said it was like Hagrid's hut, and gleefully exclaimed that while staying in it he should be referred to as "Rubeus Craigrid".

The island is so small that there's really no roads or cars. The locals get around by riding bikes through the jungle, but the most efficient mode of transportation is to take a longtail boat wherever you're going.

We took a longtail boat into Ton Sai Bay, where the largest "town" on the island is. It's not much of a town, really it's just a stretch of beaches with a cluster of resorts, restaurants, a mosque and some shopping. It's perfectly charming and great for a family wanting to escape!

Here is our "blue hat traveler". Isn't he cute?

Here's the un-shaven weirdo with the batik shirt. Nice hat.

While we were there we went to Mosquito Island and Bamboo Island. Both are part of a national park. Bamboo Island, pictured above, is home to a pristine beach with crystal blue waters. It was great for a swim!

The snorkeling near Koh Phi Phi was outstanding! Our long tail boat pulled up to the best places, then Jennifer and I dove in to view the world waiting for us along the corals below.

Craig wasn't too fond of getting into the water to swim with the fish, but her certainly enjoyed feeding them!

Craig would attract the fish by throwing potato chips into the ocean and then Jennifer would swim through the resulting feeding frenzy. These little striped fishes would nibble at you if you stayed still for too long.

We saw lots of colorful fish, from parrot fish to Moorish bannerfish. We also found Nemo swimming in an anemone surrounded by sea urchins.

I don't know what these fish are called, but there were tons of them! Jennifer and I had a blast swimming around the corals and watching the colorful fish!

Craig had a blast from the boat!

Koh Phi Phi was awesome! We loved remembering why we love Thailand! The food is wonderful, the people are friendly, and the beaches are incredible! I especially loved traveling with my two beach bums! What a family of adventurers!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gunung Kawi and Tirtha Empul

In April we went to Bali. This is our third trip - and yes, we still want to go back. We love Bali, and Bali loves us! I think we could live in Bali, we'd fit right in!

Jennifer and I love to visit places of worship in Southeast Asia. Here we are in Gunung Kawi with my mom and Craig. Since we had seen quite a few major sites, this time we chose to visit a few sites that are a bit older. Gunung Kawi, was built sometime in 1100 A.D. To put that in perspective, Angkor Wat in Cambodia was built around the same time.

Gunung Kawi is located at the bottom of a canyon with a river running through it and rice terraces located all around. Just the walk to the temple area was beautiful!

The temple itself was carved into the sides of the canyon walls. There are 10 of these carvings in all, each of them about 23 feet tall!

The monks who used to live near the temple also carved their living quarters into the rocks.

Here is a close up of one of the monk's rooms. Doors and windows were smaller back then to provide privacy to the inhabitants. The carpeting is made of all-natural renewable fiber, but it only comes in one color: mossy green.

On the hike out we got a little thirsty. Luckily, we found an entrepreneur along the path who graciously sold coconuts to dry-mouthed tourists who huffed and puffed their way out of the canyon.

Coconut milk, while not that sweet, is naturally full of electrolytes and is very "cooling". I enjoyed my drink of nature's Gatorade!

After the walk out of Gunung Kawi we stopped at Tirtha Empul. We visited this temple last time in Bali. On this visit, we wanted to take a dip in the natural spring waters found here.

So, we got in, sarongs and all! We stopped by each fountain and let the cold spring water soak our cares away!

We visited each of the fountains - except the two that are reserved for funerals only. The water was really clean and cold. In the heat of the day, it was really refreshing!

Afterwards, we changed and visited the rest of the temple. This is the area where the spring water comes from. If you look really closely, you can see the magical fish that inhabits the spring. He looks like a cross between a catfish and an eel. It's considered good luck to see this fish, and our tour guide has only seen it twice in his life!

Our guide, Ngurah Rai, or Rai, was excellent as always and helped us understand all of the customs associated with the Tirtha Empul temple. He and Craig are good friends!

Here we are at one of the gates leaving the temple with a carving of Barong above the doorway. Six months ago, the brick was clean and red. Things grow fast in the jungle! We had a fabulous time, and after our dip in the spring we didn't feel hot the rest of the day! Stay tuned for more posts from Bali!

Qing Ming

This year in April, the Chinese living in Malaysia celebrate Qing Ming. This is similar to Memorial Day in the United States, where families visit the graves of deceased ancestors to pay their respects.

Penang is home to several large cemetaries, including this one which is a mix of Cantonese and Teow Chew ethnic groups. Many of these graves were put here during the Japanese occupation of Penang during WWII.

The month of Qing Ming is the only time when you can visit the graves of your family. The rest of the year the cemetaries aren't kept, thus they are covered in tall grass and weeds. Just before Qing Ming, the operators of the cemetaries clear away all of the debris. Visitors are frequently seen restoring the graves, which is why Qing Ming is sometimes referred to as "grave sweeping". The man pictured above is rebuilding the mound on tip of the resting place of his ancestor.

In the United States, visitors often leave flowers or other tokens of remembrace at the graves of their ancestors. In Malaysia, the Chinese have a much more elaborate way of honoring their dead, including providing a feast and clothing! You can see a family decorating the gravesite above. The grave is covered with tiny slips of paper quoting scripture and held down with flags.

A complete meal with roasted chicken and fresh fruit is laid out for the dead to eat. The family waits for the dead ancestors to eat what they want. After about 20 minutes, the head of the family kneels in front of the feast and flips two coins. If they both show up heads or tails, then the ghosts are done eating, and the leftovers can be taken home and finished later. If one shows up heads and the other tails, then the ghosts aren't done eating, and you have to wait and flip the coins in another 20 minutes.

In addition to a nice meal, the spirits of the dead are given clothing and money to last them for one year. You may be wondering how you can give a ghost clothes and money. Well, you take paper versions of anything you want to send to hell, and you burn it. Makes perfect sense, right?

So, near Qing Ming time, stores start to carry paper versions of things that your dead ancestors might need, like iPads and other electronics. Of course, iPads are easy to use, but if your dead aunt passed away in the 1990's, she may not know how to use one!

An alternative is a nice paper BMW. You can even get one that comes with a paper driver!

Maybe your dead uncle was missing some teeth. So, buy him paper dentures, and also some paper dental hygiene products!

Once you've piled everything up next to your ancestor's grave, you light it on fire. This transports whatever gifts you want to give to the spirit world for the use of your predecessors in the next life.