Category Archives: Traveling

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

Where we left off

I am declaring my blogging “maternity leave” officially over.  I’m ready to get back to it. By way of getting caught up, here’s a reasonably brief timeline of my life since the last post:

May. Micah and I finish up the traveling we had intended to do. Well, almost all of what we intended to do, anyway! We took a long weekend in Penang, which was great. It’s such a different city than KL, we were very pleasantly surprised with the contrast. We also took a day trip to Melaka. It was about an hour to an hour and a half by bus, so it was totally doable for a quick trip. I think there are always a few “I wish we had time for that” regrets when leaving any city, but I think we managed to milk everything we could out of those last trips. We ate some excellent food in both cities, hiked in an incredible national park and played with some monkeys on a beach in Penang, and learned more about Malaysia’s history and colonization in Melaka.

 

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Penang

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Melaka

End of May. Micah’s family comes to visit us in KL. We met them in Singapore and had one last adventure for the road. We loved visiting Singapore, what a contrast to KL and Malaysia even though they are so culturally similar! We brought The Family to some of the places that we had really loved in KL (Jalan Alor, Batu Caves, Merdeka Square, Petaling Street…). And we did some other new things with them (Royal Selangor Pewter Factory, Top of Petronas Towers). It was a really great way to revisit the places we loved one last time.

 

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Singapore

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KL Farewell

Beginning of June. I flew back to Texas to reestablish life in suburban Dallas before TK arrives. This was harder than I thought it might be. Thank goodness for family! My original plan was to find a house to rent starting in the beginning of July. I stayed with Micah’s cousin, the same one we lived with before leaving for KL.  She encouraged me to stay there as long as I needed to, which took a lot of pressure off. This turned out to be an even bigger blessing as, once I found a house, we couldn’t even move in until mid-July. On the other side of the family, my cousin let me borrow their car for as long as I needed to while I bought a “new” one. The plan was to get that wrapped up in the first week or two that I was back. As I shopped for cars, though, we re-prioritized our budget based on what was available and it took much longer to buy a car than I expected. It was the end of June before I ended up buying something.

All of June was taken up with house hunting, car shopping, and getting established with my doctors here. I had my first doctor’s appointment about 2 days after landing. I loved my doctor in KL, and I love my doctor here, and I wouldn’t change any of the health care decisions that we made. BUT. Prenatal care in KL was very different, and in some ways better, than prenatal care in Texas. More on this in a future post.

All of this “getting reestablished” stuff was happening while I was in my third trimester. The day I landed in Texas, I was 31 weeks and 6 days pregnant. Most people are heavily into nesting at this point. (And most commercial airlines “strongly prefer” you to finish traveling before 32 weeks!)  People kept asking me, “Are you ready for the baby? Do you have everything you need?” No! I don’t even have a place to live yet! (Well, we did, because we could have stayed with The Cousin for as long as we wanted, but you know what I mean…) Some aspects of this were really stressful, but most were not. Living in KL for 9 months really made it clear to me that a lot of what we “need” in daily life in the US are not truly needs. We had a cradle, and diapers are easy enough to come by, that’s all we truly Needed for TK’s arrival. Once we had confirmed a place to live, had utilities set up, and movers arranged, I felt much better.  The question of “need” vs NEED has become a guiding principle in our current life: Is this a Capital N Need? If not, can we do without it? It’s been a great lesson from a budget standpoint as well as a de-cluttering standpoint, even if it’s not always easy to follow.

Mid-July. Micah lands on a Sunday night. We move into our new place the next morning. We moved in two phases, and hired professional movers for both. It was the best decision we ever made. Day 1, we unloaded our storage POD. Day 2, we moved out of the storage shed. These were also the hottest days of the summer to that point. I felt a little guilty for not actually helping with lifting and carrying, but not that guilty.

We spent the next two weeks trying to get the house unpacked and organized. (Spoiler Alert: we still have two rooms that are mostly full of unopened boxes.) Micah went back to work at his new assignment within the same company. We were also officially on “any day now” alert starting about week 38 of my pregnancy.

Beginning of August. TK’s official due date! And then a week later he made his long awaited arrival. He’s healthy and perfect in every way. We couldn’t be happier.

 

 

The past 5 months have been a whirlwind of trying to figure out how to care for a baby. It still feels like we are flying by the seat of our pants and learning as we go. For two (overly-) educated people, this has been very disconcerting. We are used to being able to read and learn about something and more or less figure it out. But there is so much information about raising children, and so much of it is conflicting, it’s really overwhelming!  The dirty secret we have learned is that everyone is really flying by the seats of their pants, and we should do what works best for us. Figuring out what works for us changes weekly and sometimes daily, but we are over the moon thrilled and in love with TK.

At this point, 5 months in, I’m finally able to carve out a little bit of time for my own stuff. One thing that I have really missed is having a creative outlet. I really like writing and blogging, so I’m trying to cultivate that habit as best I can. I have a few more posts in my head that are relevant to this site, and then we will see what happens. I’m debating the merits of starting a new blog and just keeping this one as a travelogue type thing- we do intend to travel again at some point in the future! I think my future posts will be loosely related to “Things I Think About”…some parenting, some current events, some education. If you have thoughts/ideas/preferences about keeping posts on this site vs. starting a new one, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Coming soon, in no particular order, and likely updating on Tuesday evening (Dallas suburb time, which is Central Time Zone in US, or GMT -06:00):

Wedding in KL

Grocery store culture shock, backwards

Pre-natal care in KL vs US

Travel like the Tex-Pats

Recently, I was scrolling through my social media posts from our first month in KL to revisit the things we felt were worth “writing home” about at the time. It was a nice reminder of how far we have come, in terms of cultural adjustments and what no longer seems strange anymore. (Of course I grocery shop in the mall! … OK, that one is still a little odd.) In response to one of my sarcastic comments about some first time achievement, a friend said, “You should write travel guides!” I replied, “They would be sarcastic and full of semi-helpful information.” Now that we are coming to the end of our expat year and we have more experience with international travel, I thought I would write about what we have learned. I’ve tried my best to tone down my sarcasm, so here is my semi-helpful travel guide: How to Travel like the Tex-Pats.

Disclaimer 1: We’ve done all of our traveling childless, so far. I reserve the right to update this guide once we start traveling with The Kid.

Disclaimer 2: This style of travel works for us, obviously, but we’re not saying that it’s the only way to travel or that it will work for everyone. If you follow my advice to the letter and hate your trip, you’ve been warned.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

The first thing you should do when you are thinking about traveling to a new place is get a travel book and make a plan. If you’ve read this blog before, you might know that we are faithful followers of Lonely Planet.  This really suits our style of living and traveling. So browse your library or bookstore and figure out which series works for you. Lonely Planet has a lot of walking, a lot of self-guided stuff, and a lot of tips for you to maximize your local experience. If you are a “stay at a 5 star resort and be pampered” type of traveler, this series will not be for you.

Sidebar: I’ve shifted to mostly reading books on my Kindle, mainly for convenience. But I would never get an e-version of a travel guide. You’ll want to highlight it, fold the pages, maybe tear out a map, put in some sticky tabs, write some notes about things you wanted to do… Definitely go hard copy for travel guides.

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Now that you are armed with your trusty travel guide, you can start to make your plan. What do you want to do while you’re there? And how long will you stay? The answers to Question 1 are likely dictated by the answers to Question 2. And that’s fine. Both are important questions to answer, no matter which order you tackle them. We’ve gone in both directions. Most recently, I wanted to go to Melaka. I read the section in the book on Melaka and decided there was probably about a day’s worth of stuff we would like. So we’re taking a day trip. In this case, the decision on how long to stay was made by the amount of activities available. However when we went to Penang, we went for a holiday weekend and the decision on how long to stay was made based on amount of time off Micah had from work, without using vacation days. Then the decisions on what to do were made around our flight schedule.

While you are making your plan, stay flexible. You might read about something that sounds really fun in the book, and then you get there and decide that there are other things you’d rather do instead. In Sydney, we thought we wanted to see the Aquarium and the Sydney Eye. Once we got there, we realized we were really enjoying the various hikes and outdoorsy things we did and would rather spend more time doing that. Decide what parts of your itinerary are negotiable and what parts are not. (Seeing the Opera House in Sydney, not negotiable!)

Related to the idea of flexibility is to utilize the local sources. Your hotel probably has great suggestions for things to do and places to eat. In Thailand, we only had a very vague idea of what we wanted to do. We knew there were lots of options available to us, and thought we’d see what the hotel recommended as far as what company to book a boat tour with, etc. As it turns out, arriving in Thailand with very little plan was great because the suggestions from the hotel were wonderful. If we had decided all of our activities in advance, we would have missed out on some great stuff. So finding out what is worth doing from a local perspective will give you a much different picture of where you are than if you stick to the big, touristy stuff. We also had some really excellent food in Thailand based on the front desk guy’s recommendation. Smaller, local restaurants are often much better and cheaper than the big popular ones.

Choose your own seafood!

Choose your own seafood!

Speaking of utilizing your local sources: Go local as much as possible. What kind of experience are you only going to get in that place? What kind of food should you try? What museums or other activities will help you learn about where you are? In our non-expat lives, we make a lot of decisions based on the Go Local mentality. We would much rather support a small business than a chain in most cases. When you buy local, eat local, stay local, your tourism dollars might have a better impact on the local economy. (I’m not an economics scholar, so I don’t know the specifics. But it makes intuitive sense to me!) Not only that, but having a unique experience that is specific to where ever you are is very rewarding and makes great vacation memories. Lonely Planet also believes in this philosophy, which is one reason we like the books so much.

Figure out public transportation options. Many places have tourist passes, some kind of unlimited pass that you can buy. This might be really worth it! It’s definitely good to have some idea of what bus options and subway options you have. My original sarcastic comment that spurred the idea for a travel guide was, “All public transportation is basically the same. You will need a ticket, and you will need to know what stop to get off at. Acquire a map and figure out how to get a ticket and you will be unstoppable!” I intended it to be snarky at the time, but it’s true at its heart. Familiarize yourself with the map and figure out how to get a ticket. Now you can go anywhere!

One thing we don’t use Lonely Planet for is hotel recommendations. I’m sure their recommendations are great. But the hospitality business changes more rapidly than they publish new editions. There are always new hotels and changes at old hotels. Trip Advisor is a much better current source for hotels. You can search by price range, area where you want to stay, rating, or a combination of all of them plus more. You can read customer reviews and decide which “3 star” things you are willing to put up with and which ones you are not. We like to look for smaller, boutique-type hotels. I think the service is a little more personal and they often have a good network of local businesses to recommend. Plus, our theory of life is to support a small business over a chain.

This might sound silly, but in choosing a hotel, consider your location. Even if you think you’ll only be at your hotel to shower and sleep, this is very important. You can usually save some money by staying outside of the city center or town, but then you might spend that on cab fare or waste a lot of time getting to where you want to go. To me, it’s worth it to leave my hotel in the morning and be walking distance to the things I want to do. This is especially true when you are somewhere for a long weekend. If you only have 2 days to see the sights, you don’t want to spend an hour or more getting to them! Your criteria probably will change depending on where you are. In Cambodia, we stayed in the middle of nowhere for a cheaper price rather than in the heart of downtown Siem Reap. But we knew they had free transportation to town and also would arrange our tours with no booking fee. As it turns out, the hotel in Cambodia was our favorite place we’ve stayed.

Most of all, be flexible. (If you are a careful reader, you might notice that this is the second time I’ve said this. That’s not an accident. It’s that important.) There will be things that go wrong, things you don’t get to do, or other potential disappointments. Don’t stress over them and certainly don’t dwell on them! Enjoy the trip you are having, rather than spend time upset about the trip you didn’t have. For example, in Penang we were really enjoying the national park and spending time on the beach. We stayed longer than we had planned and didn’t end up having time for several other activities we wanted to do. We decided staying on the beach was worth skipping some things and if we could only do one more thing in Penang, it was going to be to find a hawker center. We would really regret not having some amazing street food, but we wouldn’t miss seeing some of the other sights. Dinner at the hawker center more than lived up to our expectations. And we were in the right place at the right time to see a Wesak Day parade after dinner, too! Dwelling on the things we didn’t get to do had the potential to ruin the rest of the trip, but it just wasn’t worth it. The trip to Penang was really fun. In the end, that’s what we will remember and look back on, not the stuff we didn’t do.

So, let’s recap. How to Travel Like a Tex Pat in 4 Easy Steps (patent pending): Be prepared. Do local things. Be flexible. Enjoy your trip!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

Arriving in Cambodia

The second post in a brief series about our amazing Cambodia trip.  Post 1, Sunrise at Angkor Wat, fits chronologically at the end of this post.

The flight from KL to Siem Reap is about 2 hours, with a 1-hour time difference. It was a really easy trip and with flexible dates you can find good deals on air travel. We spent a 4-day weekend, but could have easily spent a week.  Angkor Wat was Micah’s choice of a “must do” trip and it didn’t disappoint! I think it’s a place we will go back to at some point.  We did pack in a lot, but there was also a lot that we didn’t get to do.  For example, we “only” did the main temples, there are several others in outlying areas that are historically older, but due to time and distance we didn’t make it.  Another thing we would have liked to have done in Cambodia is visit Phnom Penh; we both felt guilty about going to Cambodia to see the temples without acknowledging the country’s more recent and troubled history.

When we landed in Siem Reap, we deplaned on the tarmac and had to walk to the immigration and customs building. There were some official looking people to make sure we were headed in the right direction, but otherwise we were on our own. We needed visas to enter Cambodia, and we chose to apply online and get e-visas, rather than fill out the paperwork and pay for them at the airport. It just seemed easier to have them in hand, and I think it made our processing time a little faster since we’d already been approved to enter the country. We had other customs declarations and things that we’d filled out on the plane as well. One of them went to the immigration official as we passed through but we still had the others as we collected our bags and exited customs. On the way out the door, quite literally about 20 feet away from the door to the outside, there was a box where we very officially dropped the rest of our paperwork. No one was even checking to make sure we complied. But of course we did. Goal #1 of our entire expat year: avoid causing international incidents. No point in testing the limits at this point, so close to the end.

Tuk tuk selfie!

Tuk tuk selfie!

Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up and we found him really easily and trotted off to his tuk tuk. Our first time in a tuk tuk! The Cambodian version of this form of transportation is a motorcycle with a cart in tow. The cart has a roof, but open sides, and seating for 4 adults on cushioned benches that face each other. It was reasonably comfortable, but we learned several things about being tuk tuk passengers on the quick ride back to the hotel: Wearing eye protection was crucial and it was helpful to have a bandana or something over your nose and mouth as the streets were very dusty. Micah and I also felt more comfortable if one or the other of us put an arm across the back of the bench to make a little more shoulder room, too.

It was late afternoon, and very hot. We thought the temperature would be similar to KL since the two cities aren’t that far apart geographically. But the heat in Siem Reap felt more brutal. It was the kind of heat where the particular quality of the air and the light just look hot. It even smelled hot. KL is more humid, and while the humidity here is oppressive, the moisture in the air makes the temperature feel different. Not more bearable, just different. I guess it depends what you’re used to!

Our villa

Our villa

When we arrived at the hotel, we were offered a “welcome drink” of chilled apple juice as well as cool wash cloths. After the plane and the dusty tuk tuk ride, both of these things were a nice touch. We were then shown to our room, which turned out to be a really nice, freestanding villa, and quite large! We planned out our weekend based on Lonely Planet’s typically excellent recommendations, and went to the front desk to ask about hiring a driver for the next day to do the tour we had just mapped out. Through some combination of language barrier and the fact that the hotel offered set tour packages, it turned out to be quite difficult to just a hire a driver for the day. The prices for the tour packages were very reasonable, and it was clear that it would just be easier to book their pre-packaged tours. So we booked “the small tour” for the next day and tacked on sunrise at Angkor Wat, for both of us this was $23 USD.  At a total cost of $48 USD for both of us, we booked “the grand tour” for the day after, plus sunset, and we also tacked on an extra temple in an outlying area. In retrospect we should have saved the extra temple for Monday morning when we didn’t have anything else planned. The extra temples, plus the grand tour, plus sunset made for a really long day.

Lily pad pond at the reception desk

Lily pad pond at the reception desk

With our tours booked, we went in to town and walked around a little. We walked through the night market, because walking through night markets is always good entertainment in Southeast Asia, and shopped a little bit. We knew we wanted to buy kramas, the traditional Cambodian scarf, and it looked like all of the stalls had approximately the same selection. So we picked a stall more or less at random and picked out two that we liked. We’re a little better about negotiating than we were in Thailand, but I didn’t bargain very hard for the kramas. I have a soft spot for female shop keepers, I always assume they are entrepreneurs and therefore I don’t mind paying an extra $1 or $2.  We did successfully bargain for the other souvenirs we picked up though!  (Sidebar:  Cambodia uses U.S. currency.  It was simultaneously weird and comforting to have American money in our wallets again.  Especially when the prices ran on par with Southeast Asian prices, instead of U.S. prices.)

After shopping and a little bit of people watching, it was time to call it a night. It wasn’t very late, maybe 9:30pm or so, but our driver was picking us up at 4:30 the next morning. Early to bed for us! Micah had no problem going to sleep right away, however I had one of my periodic bouts of insomnia and ended up being awake until after 1am. There was loud music playing somewhere near by, and then some dogs started the midnight edition of the twilight bark, plus being in an unfamiliar bed and room…I was just awake. One strange thing that kept me awake was how utterly and completely dark it was in the room. No ambient light at all. Normally this would be a good thing, but ambient light filters into our hotel all night in KL. There’s a gap between the curtains and the wall, so at best it’s dark grey in our room. I guess I’ve gotten used to it and had a hard time sleeping in a dark room! Another instance of “it depends what you are used to” as the ambient light used to keep me awake in KL and now apparently completely dark rooms keep me awake, too.

Next up, chronologically speaking, is Sunrise at Angkor Wat, which is already published.  Followed by Angkor Wat: The Small Tour