Category Archives: Malaysia

Kaveman Kayan

When Ava was an infant, Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block was our lifesaver. His simple methods ensured that we had a calm, smiling, rested baby. So when she turned three and started throwing tantrums, Sandeep and I bought The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD. Dr. Karp’s advice is to see toddlers as cave(wo)men and deal with them accordingly.

As is generally the case, we didn’t find the sequel that good. Ava just didn’t strike us as cave-like.

Kayan, but contrast, is a cave person at heart. If Dr. Karp comes out with another addition of Happiest Toddler, we shall definitely send Kayan to the casting call. We’ve been studying his behavior closely during our trip. Weeks of constant togetherness have given us plenty of material confirming that his toddler-hood offers insight to our origins.

When faced with sand, gravel, dirt, pebbles – anything the earth has dusted off – Kayan’s innate reaction is to cool off in it. I have heard that cavemen may have used mud as natural sunscreens. This picture was taken on a Goa beach and, yes, it was a sunny day.

When faced with a choice of utensils, Kayan prefers his hands. That goes for Chinese soup, Thai noodles or cereal dipped in egg yolk in Malaysia.

Even when ice cream comes neatly packed around a stick, Kayan would rather use his hands as a scoop.

A brand new puzzle set to Kayan turns into a primitive digging tool. That too, in a flower bed.

Perhaps Kayan has caught on to the fact that norms differ among countries. He may as well resort to the common place we all came from before we had to worry about social graces. I also know that we, as parents, are contributing to the behavior. We have generally taken a more laid back approach to parenting. We’ve noticed in Asia that kids are less restricted than in the U.S. and parents don’t obsess over every spilled drink or dirty hand. Kids run around, some messier and more rambunctious than others, and people don’t see them as an annoyance. It’s been convenient for us to adopt a similar mentality, and certainly advantageous for Kayan to hone his connection to our ancestors.


Filed under India, Malaysia, Thailand, Travel With Kids

Our Very Own Tea Party Movement

We don’t carry around much stuff, which means very few toys. On rainy days like yesterday, the kids get creative in our apartment.

Kayan, Ava and Taniya enjoyed quality conversation about airplane buckles.


Filed under Malaysia, Travel With Kids

Leaving Kuala Lumpur

After five days in Kuala Lumpur, we’re heading to India tomorrow. We chose to break our journey between our South East Asia travels and India in a big city. Kuala Lumpur certainly provided that, with its mega highways, super clean transit system, world class health care and malls malls malls. I admit that I was somewhat dissappointed not to see more history here. Then again, if we had done our homework, we would have known the city was only founded in the mid 1800s, making it a newcomer by Asian standards.

We figured as long as we were in a modern city, we would check out the new wave of health care tourism in Asia. Foreigners travel here for lower cost health care and higher quality service. We’re all in good shape, so decided that the easiest way to get a taste for the health care situation was to send the kids for a check-up. I’ve admitted before to exploiting our children for travel education, and this is an instance where we did just that. In our defense, the kids love doctor’s visits and would have been upset if one of us went instead of them.

Gleneagles Hospital is like a country club. Porches, Mercedes, and BMWs roll into the entrance to be passed on to the valet. At the base of the building is a French bistro. We went to the pediatric wing, where we were taken in immediately for a consultation. I filled out forms while Sandeep tried to stop the kids from toppling over the tropical fish tank.

I got a kick out of the forms – just one sheet of paper  – as opposed to the 6+ we need to fill out back home – and a race choice of Chinese, Indian, or Malay. It’s the first time I have been able to select a race other than ‘Other’.

The doctor spent half an hour with us, taking her time to ask the kids questions. Kayan bounced off her walls and smacked down her toys. Ava sang ABC at the top of her lungs. At the end of the visit she politely claimed “These kids are healthy. I can tell by how interactive they are.” That pronouncement cost $40 per child.

While we’ve had our fill of big city and are ready to lay low again, we will miss Malaysia’s amazing diversity of culture and food. Here is our dinner bill from tonight. We had freshly squeezed and blended juices, Indian naans and rotis, Malay chicken and European ais krim all for $14.


See you in India!


Filed under Health, Malaysia

Running the 12K in Kuala Lumpur

I failed at my attempt to have Sandeep guest write today’s post about running the Malakoff 12K Kuala Lumpur. Instead, we agreed on an interview. It worked out pretty well – I practiced my interview skills, Sandeep half dozed off  and the kids busied themselves with his race medal.

Diya: Why did you want to run this race and wake us all up at the crack of dawn?

Sandeep: I want to do what I would do if I lived in the places we’re visiting. Running is what I do in New York, so I want to see how locals do it around the world. I think they do early morning races to avoid heart burn. After eating spicy Asian food for a month, I’m getting heart burn for the first time in my life.

Diya: I think we’re just getting old. How did you find out about this race?

Sandeep: I seached for runs in Malaysia and this came up. I missed the Penang Half Marathon, which would have been great.

Diya: What were your impressions when you got to the starting line? The kids and I were watching the horses. You probably had other things in your mind.

Sandeep: Since I wasn’t local, I got there an hour early to get my race pack, but everyone else was already stretching. I thought that was odd considering the run itself was only about an hour.  This is totally stereotyping, but the Asian competitive spirit was clear at the onset. One announcer acted like a club DJ trying to ra-ra the participants. All the while another motherly type announcer was saying things like “If you’re not feeling well, don’t compete. Rest and you’ll have another try.”

Diya: As long as we are stereotyping, do you think the competitive spirit is why Asia is getting ahead?

Sandeep: People seemed extremely disciplined and very goal oriented. Definitely more intense than a New York 12K would be.

Diya: How was the run?

Sandeep: It was humid, but the run itself was excellent. It was by an upscale neighborhood (Bangsar) at the Bukit Kiara Equestrian & Country Resort, which is probably an indication that running itself is an upmarket sport in Kuala Lumpur. It was perfectly organized by Pacesetters. Signage was easy, there were no glitches.

Diya: Was it worth the registration hassle? You had to wire money from Penang and then hunt for a fax machine to send a confirmation receipt.

Sandeep: Absolutely. My quick dry t-shirt alone was worth the 65 Ringgit registration fee (about $22). On top of that there were all kinds of food at the end – noodles, ais kacang, cereal for the kids, and of course Gatorade. Way better than a dry bagel and bananas.

Diya: Sorry for not embracing you at the finish. Your shirt was pretty soaked. What kind of shape do you think you were in for this run?

Sandeep: Didn’t you say you sweat more when it’s humid? I’m in terrible shape. I hadn’t run in five weeks and then spent the last week in Penang trying to train on hills. But the fun of running here with the Petronas Towers in the background was exhilarating enough that I maintained my pace.  Watching the runners was cool. They were of all different ages and races. I’ve never run with women in burkas, and a lot of them beat me.

Diya: Should we plan on 5 AM wake ups everywhere we go?

Sandeep: Yup, if I can work it out. But I’ve been finding it difficult to find organized runs in a lot of the areas we are going to. I did find an ultra marathon in Durban, South Africa. But it’s 100K and reserved for elite runners, so I won’t be participating. The 2011 December “mini marathon” organized in Kerala (India) has been postponed to December 2012 due to “technical issues” so I won’t be holding my breath for runs in India. Anyway, the last time I ran there I got chased by village dogs. I’m also looking into cycling events. I found Tour de India. The website has a countdown clock to the second, but doesn’t mention the actual date.

For the record, I did hug Sandeep once he took a shower. Ava was less discerning.


Filed under Health, Malaysia

Dodging Traffic and Motorcycle Thieves in Kuala Lumpur

Yes, I know we are a big city family, but after six weeks of laid back Chiang Mai and and Penang, big city Kuala Lumpur has been an overload for our senses. We chose to stay in Ampang Park, supposedly the quieter embassy area and a 10 minute walk to KLCC – Kuala Lumpur City Center. However, the process of getting anywhere, including to the nearest convenience store or restaurant, involves crossing the intersection of Jalan Ampang and Jalan Tun Razak. The latter is part of a set of roads that encircle the city and carries heavy traffic off the highway. We counted a total of 56 lanes at this intersection alone, plus or minus 8 lanes, depending on the whims of the drivers.

Every time we cross this intersection we feel like a family of Pac Men. There are walk signs, but they don’t apply to all turning traffic. With our family, this is made all the more challenging by who’s holding who’s hand, or carrying who, or pushing the stroller versus holding the umbrella (it rains every afternoon here).

We’ve also been scared into being ultra-vigilant about our belongings. The first word of caution locals give us is to watch out for motorcycle bag snatchers, who grab slung bags off pedestrians regardless what harm it may cause.

Between the intersection and the warnings, we’ve really had to work up a desire to go anywhere. This afternoon, we decided on a walk to KLCC Suria to pick up some power bars for a 12K that Sandeep is running tomorrow.

The combination of working our way through the intersection and walking with the kids made what should have been a ten minute walk thirty. When we finally arrived, mall information told us to head to Stadium, a sporting store carrying all the major brands. We jostled our way to the fourth floor, through focused holiday shoppers and dazed tourists. When we asked for power bars, a store attendant said “we only carry sporting goods.” Ok… We fought our way down a floor to Nike. All Nike had was stuff Nike makes. We persevered to Adidas. Same thing. By this time, it had been early 2 hours since we left our apartment and the kids were getting cranky. Kayan had seen a lollipop we refused to buy and was loudly protesting to anyone within ear shot.

We turned around and made the eventful trip back home, through what was 15 lanes of traffic at the time of our crossing. Defeated and exhausted, everyone crawled into bed for naps.

Tomorrow at 7 AM we’re off to cheer Sandeep. Luckily it’s far and early enough that we’re using it as an excuse to take a taxi.


Filed under Malaysia

Christmas and a Muslim Sermon in Kuala Lumpur

Whatever Christmas extravaganza we missed in Chiang Mai has been more than made up for in 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur. We were advised that life in Kuala Lumpur centers around the city’s many malls. These megaplexes, designed to provide shelter from the unrelenting heat and humidity, offer stacked floors of stores, eating establishments and entertainment spots. They’ve clearly jumped on the holiday consumer bandwagon, with mall each competing for customers through holiday decorations and sales.

The holiday spirit engulfed us as we entered KLCC Suria Mall, at the feet of the famous Petronas Towers. Carols were blaring throughout, christmas decorations filled each window and the air conditioning was turned to a temperature akin to New York City in December.

The mall was stuffed with shoppers. Fendi, Jimmy Choo and Tiffany purchases paraded themselves through the packed walkways. If the world economy is hurting, there’s a fat segment of Malaysia that’s doing just fine.

After roaming the mall, the kids were itching for a playground and my friend Jess of with2kidsintow suggested we visit the one behind KLCC. Jess, her husband and their two pre-school kids are also traveling around the world, but are way more adventurous than us. They just finished three months backpacking in India – even we don’t have the courage to do that. Her directions were to walk behing KLCC to the left of the water body, but stay off the grass unless we want to get in trouble with the whistle police. We followed instructions and came to a large wading pool and playground multiple times bigger than any park in New York City.

While Christmas was in full swing within the mall, outside we found ourselves in the middle of another religious experience. The muslim call to prayer was finishing as the kids started playing in the park with the Towers as their backdrop.

After the call to prayer, the preacher began delivering the Friday sermon. Anyone who has visited an Islamic nation knows that a mosque’s loudspeaker works. So we had no choice but to tune in.

“You are encouraged to come to the mosque early before Friday prayers. Take a front seat and read the Koran or meditate.”

“Indeed the attitude of paying attention when the preacher is giving a sermon is very bad. Grab the opportunity for Friday prayer by being silent. It is very rude when the people eat, drink and consume in shopping malls around the mosque while the sermon is given.”

At this point I was getting nervous. Should I take the kids off the swing? Lay low till the preacher finishes? I looked around and realized I had no reason to worry. The playground was full of kids, who belonged to Muslim headscarf-donning mothers that were chatting to each other.

“The Friday prayer is a weekly reminder that needs to be paid attention to. It is very rude to be in a hurry to leave after the sermon.”

Despite the preacher’s heartfelt efforts and very efficient loudspeaker, it seemed as though most of Kuala Lumpur was still at KLCC mall going about their eating, drinking and shopping consumption. A few minutes after his concluding remarks about making sure to come back next Friday, what appeared to be the remainder of the city pour out of the mosque halls into the pathway out of the park. At least someone was paying attention.


Filed under Malaysia, Religion

Taking Our Pause in Penang

Despite being a bustling place, Penang still retained the laid back island feel that caused us to slow down more than we did in Hong Kong and even Chiang Mai. We didn’t feel the need to see or do a lot. Fortunately, our apartment rental was gorgeous and self sufficient with a beach, pool, tennis courts and a large playground.  So, aside from a few excursions into George Town, we just hung out around the apartment and ate in the neighborhood.

Our very short to-do list in Penang gave us a lot of time to spend together as a family.

We took time to lounge.

We took time to talk.

We took time to get in shape.

We took time to play.

And of course, we took time to eat.

We said our goodbyes to Penang this afternoon and are now in Kuala Lumpur. The energy of the city already feels overwhelming after our island escape. We don’t yet have an agenda here, but can already feel the pull to see and do more. Despite this, I hope that we still find time to lounge, talk, stay in shape and play. Oh, and eat!


Filed under Food, Health, Malaysia, Travel With Kids

Hawkers a la mode in Penang

Apart from a couple of trips to George Town, we’ve been spending most of our time eating at local food hawkers. Hawker centers are a culinary Disney Land offering Chinese, Malay, Indian, ‘Western’ dishes, desserts, fresh juices and coffees and teas. The closest we have in New York City are street fares and Smorgasburg. New York Department of Health regulations, however, limit the breadth, and possibly creativity, of the offerings. The hawker centers in Penang are overseen by local authorities, but standards are definitely more lax than in New York. That said, even as Kayan licks tables that dozens have eaten off that night alone, no one in the Luke family has gotten sick.

I must be an annoying customer for hawkers. They have an efficient process of churning out their signature dish within the confines of a tiny space, often amidst multiple fires and boiling pots. There I am with my clunky camera, peering over the steam and barraging them with non-stop questions. “What is that ingredient?” “Can I come closer?” “Huh? What does that mean?”

Yet what I’ve found is that hawkers are excited to share their skills. Many hawkers have had their establishments passed on from prior generations, but don’t expect their more educated children to assume the trade.  They seem honored that someone is interested in how they prepare their dishes.

Hawker proliferation is so high that in addition to the established hawker fare, some more intrepid hawkers make twists on traditional dishes to lure customers. We met one such hawker last night who makes a spin of roti canai (flaky wheat bread) by wrapping it around a masala omelet.

Another hawker is taking fries to new heights, unraveling a single potato into one long spiral, served fried and sprinkled with a sour salty chilli powder.

Traditional satays are served everywhere, but heat-your-own-skewer and choose-your-own-sauce are the draw for this friendly hawker in George Town.

The closest relationship we have formed is with Tony, the dessert hawker at our local Mutiera Selera hawker court in Tanjung Bungah. Tony specializes in two Penang desserts, Ais Kacang and Cendol. Every hawker has their own versions of these desserts, but a mound of shaved ice is always the base. Ais Kacang is served with a variety of fruits, flavored jellies and syrups. Ice cream is an optional topping, although Ava considers it a must and Kayan happily agrees.

Cendol has a base of sweet red beans, Tony tops it with a palm syrup and sweetened coconut milk with green bean glass jelly noodles. Ice cream is generally not added, but Ava insists and Tony obliges.

Tony sees us coming and gets things ready. He knows I’m about to start furiously snapping pictures and the kids will be jumping up and down waiting for the ice cream scoop.

We order cendol. First step is a layer of sweetened red beans.

Tony then expertly hand grinds the ice into the bowl.

He swirls the palm syrup on top.

And ladles a scoop of the coconut milk and green jelly noodles.

At this point Ava says “Where’s the ice cream?” and Tony beautifully finishes off the dish with a scoop of vanilla. With the sweet toothless of the red beans, cool ice, firm jelly and smooth coconut milk, the ice cream is definitely superfluous. But oh so good!

A complete Cendol recipe can be found here.

Although hawkers throughout Penang have been very obliging of my curiosity, I suggest visiting hawkers away from the tourist centers of George Town and Batu Ferrangi if you want to spend time with them. Things a quieter (relatively speaking) and just one repeat trip to our local hawker center was enough to make us feel like locals. This makes the food all the more enjoyable when we finally dig in.


Filed under Food, Malaysia

Lessons From Penang

At the start of this trip our goals were to appreciate each other, our world and ourselves. Penang has provided a laboratory for appreciating our world from a cultural point of view. Our family was formed in New York, considered by many to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. We were raising the kids in New York City to expose them to this kaleidoscope.

After one week in Penang we have realized how truly interwoven a multi-cultural city can be. I’m not claiming that Penang can boast the diversity statistics of New York City, but in terms of cultural integration, my reaction is that Penang has New York City beat.

Today, Malays and Chinese make up about 40 percent each of Penang’s population. Indians comprise another 10, expatriates about 5, and other races the remainder. Not surprisingly – this is Penang, after all – how this came to be has something to do with food. Portuguese spice traders used the island as a stop over between Goa, India and the far east. The British set up the island as a free port to lure trade away from the Dutch. For a while after, Penang served as the meeting point of opium trade between India and China. Exciting things have been happening between diverse groups of people on this island for centuries, and these interactions (not the opium trading – you get hanged for that now) carry on today.

Ava and Kayan may be too young to appreciate the cultural milieu of Penang. But as they grow up, we want them to embody some of what we’ve seen on this striking island.

First, we want the kids to have an open mind and ear to the different ways people communicate. We’d love them to know at least one foreign language and wish they were able to see see and hear all the different ways that Penangites say the same thing. Between the English, Malay, Mandarin, Penang Hokkien, and Tamil, there is also Manglish (Malaysian colloquial English). Most Penangites know several words in each others’ languages. We’ve overheard several conversations where one party speaks in English while the other answers in a different language. Here are a few street signs written in a spectrum of languages spoken on the island.

The interaction of languages was the most apparent when were looking at an English menu in an Indian restaurant yet we had no idea what was on offer. Apart from a few words such as briyani and tomato, we were lost.

Second, we want the kids to realize that regardless of who people pray to, we’re all likely praying for the same things. Temples, mosques, and churches stand alongside each other throughout Penang, but no where more obviously than on the 1 km stretch of ‘harmony street‘ in George Town. Malaysia is an Islamic country, but here houses of worship representing Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism have stood side by side for over 200 years. We’ve been visiting many places of worship on our trip, and now Kayan instinctively takes off his shoes when he enters a temple. Ava, who used to blow out candle offerings, now asks to place one instead. Hopefully these are the beginnings of two people who will grow up respecting all religions, regardless of what they themselves practice.

Even though Ava and Kayan won’t remember much of Penang when they grow up, as parents we are grateful to have had this island as our muse.


Filed under Malaysia, Religion, Travel With Kids

Singing For Our Supper at Chew Clan Jetty Penang

We spent serious money in New York sending Ava and Kayan to creative classes, such as music and art. Prior to the trip, Ava was in preschool at the oldest community music school in the U.S.  We thought all of this would give her some appreciation for the arts, but she often seemed bored or distracted. Perhaps this is usual toddler behavior, but nonetheless, we were pretty surprised when an evening outing in Penang had her singing for a group of strangers and earned us some beer and treats.

In just a week, we’ve seen so many faces of Penang. From vibrant hawker markets to quiet beaches, and a patchwork of preserved monuments echoing European, Chinese, Indian and Arabian histories. It is this patchwork that earns George Town, the island’s capital, UNESCO World Heritage Site status. One such slice of history is the Chew Clan Jetty. In the mid nineteenth century, several clans from Chinese provinces established stilted houses on jetties, each of which was named after its clan. The original immigrants of the Chew Clan were from the Fujian province of China. Today, the jetty’s 75 residences still have families that are related to each other. The jetty retains much of it’s original structure, even as modern George Town grows around. This is likely why we saw a few donation boxes to raise funds to improving the foundation.

Little boats anchored along the jetty serve to shuttle goods between larger boats in the harbor.

I am very conscious of voyeuristic tourism and as we entered the jetty I felt as if we were encroching on private property. The houses are built facing each other with a planked wooden walkway no more than a couple of meters wide between.

Despite my hesitancy, every resident had a jubilant ‘Hello!’ for us. Happiness here seems to be spread all around.

Like most Penang establishments, and despite the strong Chinese heritage of the jetty, the convenience store proudly caters to call ethnic backgrounds.

A group of three elderly men drinking Tiger beer outside a house erupted in cheers of “Merry Christmas!” when they saw us. Ava was most excited about this, as she sings jingle bells all year long and finally had an audience. Ava has shed any shyness she used to have before we started this trip. So she grabbed Kayan’s hand and belted out her full rendition of jingle bells, with a loud and proud “HEY!” at the end of the chorus.

This, of course, put the three men in an even merrier state. One invited us to join for beer, while another rushed into the store across the jetty to buy the kids some treats.

While I am sure the residents of the jetty are welcoming people, the kids were the catalyst for enabling us to have a conversation and be invited into their homes.

Stepping into the jetty off the streets of George Town is like stepping even further back in history. The pace of life is quieter and slower, and guests who offer entertainment are welcome for a drink. As we left the jetty, we realized we weren’t the only ones singing for our supper in George Town that night.


Filed under Food, Malaysia