Flashback: Medan (Sumatra, Indonesia)

It’s eerie to consider that we were just in Sumatra mere weeks ago and just days ago, a significant 7.9 earthquake hit southwest of the island. We consider ourselves lucky to have gotten the chance to visit such an incredible place yet miss the turbulence that comes with living there.

Indonesia is a country composed of fourteen THOUSAND islands, six THOUSAND of which are inhabited; we visited ONE, Sumatra.

Map of IndonesiaOur first and last stop in Sumatra was Medan. We flew into Medan from Penang, Malaysia. We also flew out of Medan on our way back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before flying on to Sri Lanka. For a city that is typically used as a transit hub, atypically, we spent a combined four days here and discovered a few of the city’s charms. Our travels through Indonesia went something like this:

  • Penang, Malaysia flight to Medan, Indonesia
  • Medan > Bukit Lawang > Berastagi > Lake Toba/Samosir Island > Medan
  • Medan, Indonesia flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka

Medan is the fifth largest city in the country and is the largest city after Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Bekasi, all of which are on the island of Java.

Our plane trip from Penang was short and easy and we arrived in the early evening, right around sunset. We spent a significant bit of time inside the airport trying to find a SIM card, while politely avoiding large numbers of overpriced taxi touts. Once we had our SIM card purchased and installed, we were able to locate our destination on Google Maps. We’ve found this simple measure incredibly useful on more than one occasion. If a taxi driver has never heard of the particular guesthouse where we are staying, we can show him a dropped pin on a Google map. If that fails, having internet is useful to pull up our hosts’ phone number. We can then just hand the phone to the driver to discuss directions in the local language. Sounds simple enough, but with thirteen countries travelled so far, keeping track of all those tiny SIM cards and communicating our needs upon arrival in each new country is a step that takes a bit of time and some effort, but has always cut down on that slightly disorienting, slightly overwhelming feeling of being in a completely new place on this planet every few weeks.

Medan was a bit of a shock to our systems after the loveliness, charm and relatively high level of modern development of Penang. Our guesthouse was in a residential neighborhood about 45 minutes from the airport and most of that time was spent driving through dimly lit residential neighborhoods. Indonesian drivers are notoriously wild and reckless, weaving in and out of the suggested street lane markings into oncoming traffic. Somehow, though, we lucked into the slowest driver in Medan. His caution and slow speed may have caused all of the other drivers around us to look all the more insane.

There was quite a bit of homogeneity between the neighborhoods that we drove past in that they all seemed to be lively, late in the evening, full of smiling children running around, having what appeared to be a great time. There was, of course, a cacophony of motorcycle and car horns blasting away constantly for no apparent reason.

There were dozens of street vendors, most of whom were selling ayam goreng (fried chicken) and many others with independent petrol stations. It appeared that in order to be a licensed petrol dealer, one must first locate a dozen plastic, empty 1.5 liter water bottles and refill them with 1 liter of petrol. Once the bottles are placed across a small table, shelving unit, chair or any other somewhat stable surface for display, business is officially open. With every sort of gas-powered vehicle whizzing by, the stations were definitely a necessity, but there was a disorienting sense of redundant commerce; the stations were sometimes right next to each other, often across the road from each other and just here, there and everywhere. It seemed like a very popular business with low barriers to entry, low overhead, low spoilage and questionable margins.

Jette and I sat in the back seat, taking in our new environment, while Waco sat in the passenger seat, chatting with the driver in his rusty, yet useable, Bahasa. Jette and I sat very impressed; the driver was quite complimentary to Waco’s efforts, also!

The quality of housing and overall infrastructure, upon first glance, appeared devastatingly low. Knowing that Indonesia is a wealthy country with a significant level of profit from many industries, with the largest economy in Southeast Asia, I was quite shocked to observe the low level of road construction, garbage everywhere and general lack of solid infrastructure that I had assumed would be there based upon the country’s wealth. We drove for some time through quite similar neighborhoods until we arrived at our guesthouse, K77. We were greeted warmly by Lola, the wife in the husband/wife team who own and operate the guesthouse, but before we went inside, a little group of neighborhood kids came running up to us and some of the tiniest ones came running up to Jette and took her hand to their foreheads, a custom called “salim” which indicates respect in their social structure and hierarchy. As westerners, we are uncomfortable with outright hierarchical statements and physical acts that are representative of societal position, but in Indonesian society, hierarchical relationships are respected, emphasized and maintained, so we felt the need to go along with local customs.

We wrapped up our hellos and came in to see that our host had brought out a tray of juice and a delicious snack of sweet sticky rice lopis for us. They were sooooo good and our first time trying them. They were our first introduction to Indonesian sweets, but wouldn’t be our last; we were to discover that Medan is known for tasty cakes.

We took our bags upstairs, got cleaned up and stepped out to search for a quite bite of dinner. The street in front of K77 is quite narrow, with most of the street-facing buildings being either one or two stories. Going out on foot brought us a lot of attention. We spent a few minutes sharing smiles, then walked along to find some dinner.


Local business? homework spot? motorcycle parking spaces? all of the above?


Dinner spot!

We walked the wild streets of Medan for a bit, dodging traffic with every step across broken concrete rubble bits as we tried to find a place to sit and have a meal. While we explored, we ran into a young Chinese man who was also staying at K77 and we ventured around for a bit together. After an intense, life-risking street crossing, where we all ran across and teetered on a crumbling median, cars and motor scooters zig-zagging and whizzing by without slowing down, we saw a small restaurant that looked reasonably busy (always a good sign) and clean (another positive trait). We ordered with the help of Waco’s rusty Bahasa language skills and ended up having a delicious dinner. Pretty much everyone in the restaurant stared at us throughout our entire meal; we had so many pairs of eyes on us, we could only laugh. After having been in Penang, home to thousands of expats, we had gotten used to feeling like we were just one of many, and not too special. Indonesia was going to be different, very different. Our first hours here were shaping up to frame our entire visit to the country; Sumatran tourism has slowed to a trickle and people were intrigued by us. Some were so excited to meet us, they made us feel like celebrities, asking for our photos.


This fruit vendor was a college student helping at her family’s fruit stand


Here she is with mom, who asked for photos

The next morning, we set out in vain to find a laundry facility that could clean our growing bag of unwearable clothes in time for our departure the following day. We walked and explored, assuming that we would find a place easily, as we had in so many other cities and countries before. After walking in vain for nearly an hour, with extremely vague directions and “help” from some locals, we finally found a dry-cleaner. The clerk started to count our items and came to a pair of undies, at which point she put everything back into our bag and stated simply, “Oh, sorry, cannot”. We stood a bit dumbfounded, “Pardon”? She was quite apologetic, but their facility had a policy against cleaning undergarments. Well, there are three of us and half our laundry is underwear!

Tired, hot, and sweaty, we decided we’d spent enough time and energy on our laundry task of the day and proceeded onwards, by tuk-tuk, to some of Medan’s more interesting sights. We went straight to Tip-Top Cafe, a colonial-era relic of a restaurant that’s been around since 1934. The signage, covered patio and menu were a throwback to another time, which is always fun, but there was also an awkwardness to the experience. There were too many suited servers for the number of customers the cafe was serving. We ordered a few items and thought our meals were fine, but the formality of the service felt quite forced in a city like Medan. Tip-Top is a place where locals of questionable honor and shady expats come to rub elbows and “do business”, and spend more rupiah for one meal than the servers likely received for their week’s wages. We finished quickly and moved along.


Amazing for this spot to have survived since 1934


Jette relaxing at Tip Top


The nasi goreng (fried rice) at Tip Top


A pretty tasty little fried potato cake

We ventured across the street, to the Tjong A Fie mansion after lunch. The historically significant Chinese, feng shui, turn-of-the-century mansion, turned out to be incredibly similar to the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion in Penang, that we had just seen days before. The buildings almost appeared to have used the exact same blueprints! Our excellent guide through the home revealed that the Indonesian was a nephew of the Malaysian magnate, which was fascinating and might explain the similarity of the two properties. The Indonesian tour allowed for more exploration within the property, which was really fun and sated our curiosity to see rooms that had been deemed “private” at the Blue Mansion in Penang.


The entrance to the mansion is quite unassuming


Greeted with a subtle garden just inside the gate


Original furnishings


A grand space!


The detail on these ceilings was incredible


Slightly crumbling, but so detailed


This one was outside under the porch


The interior spaces are completely open to the exterior


Second level walkway between bedrooms


This is a turn-of-the-century carved stone soybean mill for making tofu


Ground floor garden space


Jette’s hand was eaten by this foo dog as we left

After the mansion, we walked to a cafe and had some cold drinks. Refreshed, we stood to leave and were immediately approached by a group of school kids. They had a class assignment and Waco agreed to be their subject.


Being interviewed and filmed


This young man had a list of questions about our visit to his city 

It was a fun moment in our day and we were happy we didn’t brush them off. There were quite a few individuals and groups who asked for money as we walked around and we (wrongly) assumed the kids might be an organized group collecting funds. We wonder where their video will be played?!?

We finished the interview and continued our walk, observing some crumbling buildings that must have had a former life filled with glamour.


Someone bring me a power-washer!


Look at this incredible bamboo scaffolding


Great modernist facade with many years of “patina”

We took in more sights around the city, eventually finding our way to its famous baking district. Medan is known for many cakes, and anyone living there or passing through is obligated by friends and family to bring them a favorite cake. We saw people buying up to a dozen cake boxes at a time, and throughout our travels in Indonesia, we would notice other travellers with Medan cake bakery boxes that they were bringing back for themselves or to share. We tried Ratna Bakery and were delighted with their scrumptious Lapis Legit and Bika Ambon.


Bika ambon


Lapis legit


This slice didn’t last long

The cakes were not too sweet, had beautiful construction, and unique flavors and aromas of pandanas leaf, cardamom and other unidentifiable ones. We all enjoyed the texture of the bika ambon, which some people call “honeycomb”.

Earthquake & Tsunami

We’re currently in Galle, a city on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Last night I got an email from our friend Anita in Dallas. She’s an educator and a science nerd of the highest caliber.

Here’s what she said, “7.9 earthquake Sumatra. I think you are a fair distance but keep watch for tsunami if you are near coast.”

I immediately went to Google News and searched for “earthquake sumatra”.

earthquake news

Yikes! Of course Anita was right, and her warning was timed with the earliest of news stories about the quake. It sure is nice to have and early warning network of smart friends. Thanks Anita. This is the kind of email that could have potentially saved our lives.

As you may know, in 2004 there was a similar but larger earthquake in the same area off the coast of Sumatra. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The shock had a moment magnitude of 9.1–9.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent). The undersea megathrust earthquake was caused when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres (100 ft) high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

It is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes.[8] It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches)[9] and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.[10] Its epicentre was between Simeulue and mainland Indonesia.

We’re staying a family-run guesthouse in one of the highest areas of Galle, away from the sea, so I think we would be safe from all but the very largest tsunamis. In the 2004 tsunami, the water did not reach this area, and in fact in the lower area of the fort, the walls of the Galle Fort protected it from the waves. Nonetheless, I found our host and told her about the earthquake and suggested that she call and alert any family or friends that lived on the water or in areas that might be at risk. We were on high alert.

This earthquake really hit home for us as we have spent the past month or so in Sumatra and Sri Lanka, in areas that were massively affected by the 2004 tsunami. Just day-before-yesterday we were at the Tsunami Photo Museum in the beach town of Hikkaduwa/Telwatta. It is a small museum put together by one of the survivors. It sits across the road from the ocean, in the location where her home used to be, before the tsunami washed it away.

Tsunami Photo Musuem

Tsunami Photo Musuem

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

She told us harrowing tales of how the day unfolded. She said that there was no warning and that most people had no idea what was happening. There was quite suddenly a large wave that hit the town, washing over the beach and well onto land in many areas. It was a big wave, but not too devastating.

First wave

First wave

The first wave

The first wave

After the wave hit, the waters retreated to well beyond the normal shore line, exposing ground that was normally underwater. What used to be water was now land and the sea was calm in the distance. People had never seen such a thing, and many came down to the water to look, to check the damage, and to assist others. Some people fled inland, looking for higher ground. There was a train stopped on the tracks and many villagers sought refuge on the train, or put their children on the train, thinking it to be a safe place.

For the next 20 or 30 minutes, the waters of the sea were eerily calm in the distance, and then suddenly, a giant, much larger wave came roaring in. This brought massive devastation and death. More than 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Thousands are still “missing.”

The second wave hits

The second wave hits people who had walked out to to the beach to investigate


The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 2,000 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.

The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 1,500 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.


Here are more photos of the museum:


This is what the owners home looked like after the second wave. Everything was destroyed. The museum was built on the site where the home used to be.


This is the tent the owner lived in for 6 months after the tsunami.

DSCF0550 (1)












Thankfully, the earthquake last night did not result in a tsunami, but it was still a powerful experience for us and a reminder as to how quickly life can change. In our recent travels, we’ve climbed a volcano where we smelled the sulfurous steam, seen hot lava flows, and felt the burning heat of the active Earth. We visited villages that sit at the base of volcanoes and that one day, will likely be destroyed in an eruption. We’ve seen first hand the devastating power of earthquakes and tsunamis. We’ve seen tragic human impact and loss as well as human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

Have fun, but be careful out there.

POP QUIZ: How do scientists measure the strength of earthquakes?

Seismologists use equipment called seismographs to measure movements in the earth. These movements or forces are expressed in numbers using the Moment of Magnitude Scale. In the past they used the Richter Scale. For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moment_magnitude_scale

Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

We continue with a bit of internet luck, so another update! Today, we’re at Danau Toba (Lake Toba), a peaceful and absolutely beautiful natural lake surrounding a volcanic island, here in Sumatra. This post is about our trip to Taman Negara, Malaysia some weeks ago. Taman Negara National Park is one of the oldest rainforest ecosystems on earth. It is older than the Amazon.

Taman Negara Map

Before sunrise, we boarded a minivan in Kuala Lumpur with a small group of other travellers and drove a few hours to Kuala Tembeling jetty on the Sungai Pahang River. Kuala Tembeling was the transfer point where we all had to fill out paperwork for rainforest permits and board the longboat for a two and a half hour ride down the river to the park. The scene below is quite representative typical lack of order we have come to enjoy.


Queue? What queue?


We were sent across the street to a strangely empty building to pay for our park permits

There was a cafe a few feet from the ticketing area, ready to monopolize on all passing through the area. Jette enjoyed some of their noodle soup.


Tasty, but we think there was too much MSG in the food here.


Loooooong noodles


Local cats getting Jette’s attention


Waiting area


Welcome to the jungle

After some lunch, we walked another short distance down to the river to board our boat.


Boarding the boat


Away we go…


Blue skies & muddy waters


It was relaxing to be on a boat in these calm, if polluted, waters


The vegetation and puffy clouds were so nice


Muddy waters


Most travellers were couples; since we are 3, we were a bit squished in our seats


Our co-passengers were kind enough to get this shot of us on the boat

The area was quite peaceful and a welcome break away from the craziness and traffic in Kuala Lumpur.


Chocolate water

The ride was quite lovely and peaceful, but really cramped and we were all happy to “disembark” into this little floating restaurant cum information station.


So happy to be off the boat


This was poor Jette trying to catch some “zzz’s” on the boat just before we landed

Our guesthouse was a little out-of-the-way place called Park Lodge, run by a former park ranger with a vast knowledge of the population of rhinoceros. He and his brother were running a fledgling little place, while care-taking for their elderly mother.


Entry to Park Lodge

Our host gave us a warm welcome and walked us through his property, showing us an amazing variety of plants and trees that his mother had planted decades earlier.


Our host cutting open a cacao pod that had dropped


Excited to see the inside of a cacao pod for the first time


The source of all things chocolate


A pretty lemongrass plant


Mmmmmm, lemongrass…


Picking a kaffir lime leaf


Coconut palms everywhere


Another lovely little flowering plant


Partially constructed building being overtaken by the jungle on site


Our little cabin was through the left side door


Abandoned steps at Park Lodge

The beautiful environment next to the river involved a sweaty hike of a few kilometers into and back out of town up and down some pretty steep hills.


Walking into town


You’d get fit walking this every day


Most people had cars or scooters; we had our feet


A view of the countryside along our walk to town


Downhill from here


The road to town with a frozen treat to cool off


Hot sun, lush plants and lots and lots of trash


Getting lost in a little village


Walking down to dinner


Puffy clouds


This is a view from Taman Negara looking towards town


Floating restaurants on the river with Taman Negara about a minute boat ride just across the river


Another view from town down to the river


The floating restaurant dining choices were simple


Really simple


Walking home after dinner catching this sunset was great


Sun setting as we walked back to Park Lodge

The day we decided to explore Taman Negara started off great. We crossed the river and found the walkway in, crossing massive jungle vines along our way. The entrance to the Taman Negara national park is through a resort hotel called Mutiara.


Entry to the Mutiara resort property


More of the Mutiara property


Mutiara resort, simple, yet the most developed spot in town


Look at the scale of this vine!


Nice walkway path into the jungle


Always looking up


An oldie and a goodie


Such plant variety








We love these old roots

As we continued to walk and walk, we were having a great, carefree time (foreshadowing).


So much energy

It was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid. We were sweaty within minutes, but the rainforest was so green, so lush and so beautiful. We continued on, admiring our green environment as we walked and walked and walked.


Notice anything besides the massive bamboo stand? Red faces and sweaty people.


Another bamboo stand that dwarfs mere humans


The path felt longer and longer


I offered to carry Waco’s heavy, heavy bag for a bit so he could stretch


Is there really a forest canopy walk somewhere around here?


Wait up, guys!


Oldest rainforest in the world


Intense sunlight filtering through




Jette taking the lead




The walkway system was extensive

Finally, finally, finally, we made it to the beginning of the forest canopy walkway. We had no idea that it would take us so long to get there. It was one of those instances where we had underestimated the power of the heat and humidity; the few kilometers to the walkway nearly depleted our energy. We were ecstatic to see the walkway.


We are delirious (and possibly have heat exhaustion)


So high up there


Woo hoo!


Worth the hike to get here


Construction details


Way way up


Hello up there


Skinny suspended path in the treetops


Please be careful!!!

The walkway is 45 meters high above the 130 million year old rainforest, and constructed quite simply. It’s actually several long sections of walkways that wind this way and that, under the jungle canopy for 510 meters. We took photos on several sections of the walkway while it swung and swayed. After we finished walking across, we decided that it would be fun to continue our hike up to the highest part of the rainforest, where we were told there was a nice viewing area. We were already hot, tired and thirsty, so what could possibly go wrong? 

On we journeyed, making a few friends along the way.


Mr. Snake


He/she was relaxing on a stair railing


Mr./Mrs. Spider

We also found mass groups of ants that we could hear as they crunched and worked.


We walked and walked seeing some signs here and there to help us navigate a bit. The quality of way-finding signage varies greatly from country to country and place to place. Let’s just say that we have a bit of constructive criticism for Taman Negara in this regard.


Leaving the shade for intense sun


Admiring huge vines


Impressive old trees


Yes, there were signs


We were happiest to see this one back to “town” just 600 meters


Note the handwritten distance


Hmmm, 1km or are there some missing zeros?


If the trail is missing, does it count in the km hiked?


This one isn’t completely obscured by foliage


Watch out for missing handrails!


Fallen tree? Just chainsaw a hunk out of it and move along


We had to sit down several times on our hike up to the viewing area


More stairs

But, after several hours and bucketfuls of sweat (and one poor tired girl on the verge of tears), we made it.




Can we please get some water now?


Fluffy clouds and green mountains


Another vista

We were all so happy to have made it. We were all also dehydrated and tired and hot and oh, so sweaty. Have I mentioned we were sweaty? The only thing we could think of was water. Precious water. We had run out of water hours into our foray and desperately needed more. We got downhill as fast as we could with the little energy we had left. We made a beeline for the Mutiara Hotel Restaurant that was conveniently located adjacent to the National Park.

We had been to the restaurant on another occasion and others in town. They all seemed to share one characteristic, sloth-like service. We decided that slow service was just something to chalk up to cultural differences and had accrued patience points for dealing with it. But today was different. Today, we needed water and we needed it now.

We must have looked pretty rough when we made our way into the poshest place around for miles. Rather than the usual calm, collected game of waiting for someone to bring us menus, we sat down and immediately gave hand gestures and motions to the group of disinterested waiters and busboys standing around chatting. We need water (pouring water hand signs), water please (drinking out of a pretend glass), water (more gestures). To our surprise, we received action!

Oh, you precious glass of ice, cold life-giving water. We love you so so much.


This young lady is a tough sweetie!


Jette enjoyed a “fancy” re-energyzing salmon lunch after hydrating


We love the round banana leaf plating aesthetic at Mutiara’s restaurant


Mutiara resort restaurant

The jungle is not to be underestimated; it will zap every ounce of energy and moisture from your body. We all recovered just fine, and walked back to our little cabin for a restful sleep that night.

Jette was wanting more though, so on our last day, we walked a different direction, to a calm, little swimming spot.


Willing to hike again if it means swimming, too!






Getting toes nibbled by fish




Pure nature (and some litter of course)

This was such a picturesque spot and we’re really glad we made the effort to see it. We arrived in the late afternoon, enjoyed dusk here and then a very dark, early evening walk back through the jungle, just coming to life with nocturnal sounds and sights. A beautiful bat made his way across our path; he was illuminated by our phone light as he flew in and out of a hollowed log. We stood still in the darkness for a while to observe and reflect how very far and away from home we were.

Our final treat of the evening came in the form of a tapir that wandered up to the Mutiara Resort’s restaurant, where we had decided to have dinner again. When the restaurant manager saw the tapir, he brought out watermelon rinds and other fruit peelings for him. The vegetarian tapir was happy and so were all of the restaurant guests who came out with their cameras and snapped away as the tapir feasted. We were thrilled to be able to see the beautiful animal, but of course, saddened simultaneously. The fact that this tapir was dependent upon the food provided by the restaurant could only mean he does not have enough food in the remaining bit of his natural jungle, or that he has lost the ability to forage for his own sustenance. It possibly means some combination of both; either way, it is disheartening, indeed.


This dinner was happily interrupted by a tapir


This curry was really good, but checking out a giant tapir was better


Well, hello there


I think I’ll wander a bit


Jette thought the tapir was “adorable”

The next morning, we were back on the road, passing through Kuala Tembeling and its MSG-packed cafe.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hi again! We’re still in Berastagi, Indonesia. We decided to stay in this little town for two extra days to utilize our hosts’ WiFi for photo uploads. The process has taken many, many, many hours and has been interrupted repeatedly with power outages (typical in Indonesia, so we were told). But, we’re happy to finally be able to share a bit from our time in Kuala Lumpur.

We arrived Kuala Lumpur (KL) in early January, withdrew some Malaysian ringgit (aka plastic money) and jumped into a taxi directly to our hotel.

Malaysian Ringgit is made of plastic. Note the clear windows at the top of the bills.

Malaysian Ringgit is made of plastic. Note the clear windows at the top of the bills.

The drive into town was eye-opening. Really, the shock started in the air, as we descended low enough to see what appeared like the entire country covered in palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see. From the property boundary of the airport, all the way to the beginning of commercially booming KL, it was the same fields of green oil palms as far as we could see. On the one hand, it was lovely to see the lush vegetation, but we know the deeper story about palm oil. Without getting too political or preachy, our family has chosen to avoid packaged products whose ingredients include palm oil and it’s not easy. Nearly 60% of packaged crackers, cookies, cereals, etc. contain palm oil, sometimes misleadingly and innocently labelled “vegetable oil”. Palm oil plantations are responsible for a very long list of global issues. Not only is palm oil not a healthy oil, but the manner in which the plantations soils have to be prepared is criminal. We’ve all heard about the haze in Southeast Asia and the draining/burning of centuries old rainforest peat soils is the culprit. The smoke from burning rainforest lands has affected us personally while we were in Singapore. Our week in Singapore included daily headaches, fits of coughing and the necessity of face masks to block some of the smoke. I got a bit sick and that was during just one week of exposure. The people who have no choice but to live where fires burn for months on end suffer a plethora of medical conditions as a result. Further, hundreds, maybe thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants have become (or will soon be) threatened due to the damage to the ecosystems from palm oil plantations. The tree canopy and fertile, rich soil that provided habitats and food have disappeared. Palm oil plantations provide sustenance for a teeny tiny percentage of all original rainforest life. Ok, so, please get informed & avoid palm oil, if possible. We’re certainly not perfect global citizens, but this is one issue we experienced ourselves and wanted to share. Getting off my soapbox now.


We chose a large-ish hotel in KL with a swimming pool so that Jette could have a fun place to cool off since the climate is so hot and sticky. We checked into a large room whereupon Jette decided she finally had enough space to do some gymnastics.


Gorgeous backlit onyx concierge area at our hotel

IMG_20160105_105344blurry gymnastics

The view out of our room’s window was quite telling. You could see almost step-by-step how the city was being transformed. Blocks of small independently owned properties were being slowly demolished to make way for large hotels and office buildings. There was a construction project adjacent to our hotel and we could watch the laborers each day. We remarked that large buildings still used very basic labor. That is not always the case, but we did observe concrete being poured by the bucketful on several different properties.


New building being erected as seen from our hotel room


Another view from our room. Notice how the “airy courtyards” of the buildings in the middle of the photo have been filled in!

Once we were settled, we took a stroll in the neighborhood to check things out. We ended up having a pretty decent lunch at a pretty nice sidewalk cafe and explored, yes, another mall. This one left us unimpressed.


First meal in Malaysia did not disappoint



The next evening, we had dinner at Wong Ah Wah in KL’s Chinatown, known for their chicken wings. Jette ordered a lime juice which is usually fresh lime, water, a bit of sugar and ice. This time, it was quite different. This restaurant added salt and a pickled plum. Holy wow. This was a VERY strong taste! We all dutifully sampled it, but cannot say it went further than that.


Ready for dinner at Wong Ah Wah


“Famous” chicken wings


Ready for dinner


Salted pickled plum lime juice


Reaction to sampling the lime juice and passing the plum


Not my favorite


Jette had a similar reaction


And there goes the plum


Waco and Jette as we make our way home from KL’s Chinatown

One day, it poured buckets of rain on us while we were out and about. We took shelter in a covered walkway bridge for a while.


Waiting for the rain to end

We did have a great time at the 20+ acre, free flight Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. There were some fabulous exotic birds and we caught a show with some trained birds.


Strolling in the Bird Park


A pretty bridge with flamingos


A bit of rain provided this pretty, misty view for us


Love this guy’s face


Having fun


Organized group


Birds, everywhere!


Chickens, too


Feeding ducks after the bird show


This one was quite spectacular


Duck feeding chaos


Funny face


Can’t ignore this Muslim mode of dress in the extreme KL heat and humidity


This guy was entertaining


Gazing at all the fishies


Where’s Waldo?

The Bird Park had a lovely restaurant in a gorgeous setting, so we had lunch there after our walk.


A beautiful hornbill landed right next to us


Amazing hornbill


Posed? No, this just “happened”

We saw these signs everywhere throughout KL. Apparently, purse-swipe crime is a big enough issue to warrant these types of warnings. Even though we did not have any issues, downtown KL is not a place I would feel comfortable walking around by myself late at night.


Thanks for keeping us alert, KL



Intuition plays a significant role in our daily lives, and even more so on our travels to new places. We rely on our sensibilities and if a situation, place or person doesn’t seem quite right, we “go with our gut” and usually move along. After several “sketchy” circumstances, and some odd characters, the three of us decided that the downtown KL neighborhood we were staying in was not for us. We decided to spend more time in KL, but chose to move to a different neighborhood.

We moved to an apartment in the Bangsar neighborhood. Bangsar is known as an affluent area with some diverse food options, good cafes, and a more relaxed sensibility. We found all of those descriptions to be quite true. We feasted on comfort foods, fancy lattes (as I’ve started to call them), and even did some fresh fruit and vegetable shopping at the local grocery. We stayed directly across the street from a mosque and were awoken at 5am each morning with the first call to prayer. That part wasn’t our idea of a good time, but it was certainly a common, real life experience for us in KL, the city we had come to explore.


The mosque responsible for our groggy mornings


The graffiti in Bangsar was quite artistic


One of my favorite pieces of street art

Several times, we commented that the neighborhood reminded us of Los Angeles. The scale, street parking and palm trees all contribute to the similar feel of the both. Bangsar was a comfortable and “just enough”. Just different enough, yet familiar enough for us to feel really happy being there.


Cute sidewalk cafe


The Los Angeles of Malaysia?


Check out this local girl in her new Ray Bans! L.A. or Bangsar?


Taking a stroll


I thought these woven bamboo pineapples were spectacular


Our favorite breakfast spot, Ted Boy


Jette in “comfort-food heaven”


So happy to be in air conditioning in a cafe with baked treats


A slice of Ted Boy’s cheesecake


Ted Boy was the perfect place to work on some math


Full of coffee (me) and baked treats (both of us!)

Bangsar even had a Mexican restaurant. We had dinner there one night. Jette ate a HUGE plate of cheesy nachos (and nothing else the next day).


Oh, nachos, how I love thee


Jette thought these tiny Mexican pottery pitchers were cute


Acme South restaurant was a terrific fusion restaurant


Acme South’s incredible garlic wedge fries

There were two really excellent “banana leaf” restaurants in the Bangsar area. One was Raj’s Banana Leaf and the other was Devi’s Corner. They both serve small portions of vegetables on, you guessed it, a banana leaf. They pile on some rice and there are optional meat dishes too. The idea is to eat with your right hand. It’s fun, messy and delicious!


Raj’s Banana Leaf Restaurant

Devi's Corner Restaurant

Devi’s Corner Restaurant


Jette’s fresh banana leaf just before we are served lunch

waiting for rice before digging in

Waiting for my rice before digging in


We love banana leaf restaurants!


Not sure how this looks to you, but it was SO GOOD


Waco enjoying his lunch


Almost gone…


Jette’s perfected three-finger technique

Banana leaf restaurants will continue to bring more rice and vegetables until a diner is satisfied. The way to properly indicate that you do not care for more servings is to fold your banana leaf over.


Proper etiquette

After almost a week in KL, we made arrangements to travel to Taman Negara National Park, the oldest rainforest in the world, at 130 million years.


Jette, waiting for our minivan to Teman Negara just before sunrise

Northern Bangkok

Hi everyone! We’re finally posting some photos and a bit about our last days in Bangkok, Thailand. We are currently in Berastagi, Indonesia at a small homestay. The home and our hosts are lovely, and we were surprised to find out that their WiFi was fast enough for us to load photos. Hooray!

After Grams and Grandad’s visit, and just before New Years Eve 2015/2016, we decided to try out a new area in Bangkok. We had already sampled Silom and Bobae, both bustling, busy areas, full of street life in “downtown” Bangkok, and thought it would be interesting to travel a bit further north to a non-touristy area for a few days before we left Thailand. We found a small hotel called B2 and booked a few nights.


Silly sunglass selfie in our room at B2

The neighborhood where B2 is located is quite different from places we have stayed before. It feels like an older, possibly formerly bustling neighborhood that has been altered by highway construction and “big box” development.

We could walk around a bit through neighboring streets, but it was clear that those who walked were in the minority; everyone had a car or motorbike and there were very few people out walking. We did try to get around a bit on foot, but ended up hailing a taxi midway through a walk, realizing we were a bit trapped in a vehicular maze and couldn’t get from point A to point B unless we were in a car. All of the construction related to newer highways and big retail developments had nearly completely eliminated walkable streets.

After getting stuck, we just took cabs for the short distances we needed to go. It wasn’t as interesting as walking, but we just didn’t feel the need to force a walkable city where one clearly didn’t exist anymore. I guess “progress” is the same around the world. Cars, cars and more cars.IMG_20160104_125652In this photo, we are standing on an absolutely massively scaled pedestrian bridge across a new mega-highway

We ended up spending a considerable amount of time in a nearby mall. Like back home, the mall has become the social space for many of Bangkok’s residents.

Almost every mall in Thailand has a sizeable “food court”. Food courts in Thailand are not the big name brand chain restaurants of American malls. They are essentially just a more sanitary version of a street food market. They are set up as groups of mini-restaurant operators, with each stall offering just one or two specialty dishes, prepared quite well. Thai food courts are also air-conditioned, which is sometimes an overriding factor when we consider dining options. We freely admit that, after half a year of regularly exploring new places, sometimes sweating for hours, when exhaustion and hunger are involved, we sometimes reduce dining decisions based upon whether they will provide an air-conditioned space, icy drinks and a comfortable seat. Thankfully, Thai food courts have rarely disappointed as they are inexpensive and often, surprisingly good. We were happy to find yet another good food court at this mall and enjoyed several of our last Thai meals there.


The mall where we enjoyed some air conditioning


The volume in this mall felt like 10 zillion decibels


Sometimes, a simple sandwich and a Perrier is just right


We can’t remember what made Jette react! This is one of her favorite meals, grilled salmon.


Waco, happy with his bento

Mall food courts typically have a counter like this one where you purchase a “credit card” and load it with money. You use the card on food purchases and go back to the counter to get a refund at the end of your meal for any unused credit.


This is the “food court” entry in the above mall


A food court payment card


There was a movie theatre in the mall, so Jette finally got her chance to see “Goosebumps”


Isn’t this how you wait for your movie?

There were plenty of western style restaurants and Jette even enjoyed a pancake for breakfast one morning.


One giant pancake with fresh strawberries and chocolate chips, please


The top floor of the mall even had this amazing water park!


A great way to escape the Bangkok heat and humidity


Giant pink tubes for the lazy river

Thais generally wear conservative beach clothing, sometimes swimming in T-shirts and shorts to swim in the ocean. Bikinis are generally only seen on visitors to the country, and this water park was no different. Most of the Thai women were wearing loose-fitting spandex body suits with long sleeves and full length leggings. Spandex shorts were a common sight as well. Everyone also had to wear a swim cap per the water park’s policy.


This is the face of a girl unhappy with having to wear a swim cap

We also finally get to visit a Tesco/Lotus store. We’d heard so much about these groceries, and we were really curious about them. The one we went to was inside of a modern shopping mall and it turned out to be a combination grocery store and “everything else” store. It was extremely busy and looked like a very popular destination. We shopped for a few items we needed and explored the store a bit. Prices were a bit lower than other specialty shops for some products, but grocery prices were a bit higher than at the local markets. There were many inexpensive, casual clothing options in larger sizes. It made us wonder what came first, the bigger shops or the bigger people. All in all, it felt very suburban, quite similar to going to a “SuperWalmart” in the States. Is Costco-Thailand next?


Shopping at Tesco/Lotus

One of our last nights in Thailand was New Year’s Eve. We spent the day out and about exploring. Just across a main road from our small hotel was a really nice, upscale, large hotel that appeared to cater to large groups of Chinese tourists. We decided to take a peek at their rooftop pool. We took this pretty photo from there just as the sun was setting.


Lovely view over North Bangkok and beyond


Lobby of same hotel with a spectacular crystal light fixture


View from one of our cab rides with New Years lights across a bridge

The most exciting aspect of our New Year’s Eve was, unfortunately, a fight that broke out in the room next door. It was actually quite disconcerting with a lot of screaming and shouting and it even made Jette break down in tears. We ended up reporting the incident to the hotel because we had serious concerns that someone in the adjacent room was going to get hurt. The front desk staff very casually let us know they would call to the room to ask our neighbors to be quiet. We were shocked at their lack of concern, but really couldn’t do much else. The argument did seem to break up after a while and it was quiet for the rest of the night.

Bangkok makes a very big deal of New Year’s Eve and we considered taking a taxi back into “downtown” Bangkok for fireworks, but Jette decided she would rather have a quiet cozy evening at “home” after all the excitement earlier in the evening, so that’s what we ended up doing. We did swing open a large window in our room around midnight to inhale our last bits of the city and ended up catching bits of no less than six different fireworks shows all over the city. We also popped some bubbly (well, really just fizzy mineral water, but it was refreshing!) The fireworks were impressive and just the right amount of noise and fanfare for us to bring in 2016.

The first day of 2016 was low-key. We did a bit of school work in a coffee shop.


School work time

And the next day, we caught a very early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Daddy’s girl


Mommy sleeps while Jette sneaks off with her phone