Our experiences in 2014 have been rewarding beyond our dreams. Taking the time to look back over all of our blog posts, Facebook posts, and photos has made it all seem even more unbelievable. It’s hard to believe all that we’ve done and the amazing places that we’ve visited. We are truly grateful to have spent the year exploring and learning together, living abroad, and making friends.
There was so much to cover in our year-end review, that we felt that our recollections needed to be broken up into two parts for easier reading. If you haven’t read Part 1, which covers January – June, then you can find it here. Otherwise, read on as we cover our adventures from July – December.
July – Getting Acquainted with Malaysia
We were 3 full months into our travel adventure when we arrived in George Town on Penang Island in the Northwest corner of Malaysia. Penang is famous for its role in the Spice Trade, as a cultural melting pot, and for its street art, cuisine, and its charming colonial architecture.
However, we’d chosen this destination for a more personal reason. Andrew’s paternal grandparents lived in Malaysia and Indonesia for many decades on and off. Their children, including Andrew’s father, lived with them for several of those years abroad. In fact, Andrew’s father was born in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Penang was one of the locations where they’d spent extended periods and where they returned more than once. Andrew had heard many stories about it while growing up and family meals often included chicken satay or nasi goreng. Before we left the United States, we were given the address and some photos of the house they’d lived in on Macalister Road in Penang, so one of our goals was to find the location to see if the house was still there. Unfortunately, we never were able to locate the house. We’re pretty sure it was torn down to make way for development.
Our arrival in George Town was perfectly timed to coincide with the Sketching George Town II event and the George Town Heritage Festival, both of which we really enjoyed taking part in. It was a great way to familiarize ourselves with George Town and we even made some new friends. We really enjoyed our experiences with Urban Sketchers Penang.
The first 2 weeks that we were in town, we rented a condo at Time Square, which was an easy walk to the old town area and we were able to explore the city. This was the first predominately Muslim country that we’d ever visited, so we made sure to visit the oldest mosque in George Town and attended a demonstration on Islamic Calligraphy. We also found that we particularly enjoyed the cuisine of the Straits-born Indian Muslim community, called Jawi Peranakan.
Before moving into our more permanent lodgings in George Town, we decided to spend 2 weeks in Ipoh, the capital city of the state of Perak in Malaysia and the country’s third largest city. There we explored the city’s heritage trail and a few of the area’s dramatic limestone cave temples. Beyond that we spent most of our time relaxing at the very comfortable M Boutique Hotel and eating local specialties and lots of delicious Indian food.
We returned to George Town on July 29th, and after checking into our new suite at The Spices Hotel in the core of the old town, we headed straight out to find a piece of cake to celebrate Ethan’s 9th birthday. We had to ask around a little, but several people were happy to make suggestions and point us in the right direction. Ultimately, we ended up at a little cafe on Armenian Street called the Bittersweet Cafe. Several of our friends and family also posted video snippets to our Facebook page wishing Ethan a happy birthday and that made him feel pretty special.
August – Festivals Galore
The George Town Festival 2014 ran for the entire month of August and included countless activities and events throughout the city. As a birthday gift to Ethan, we attended the Circus Circus event, which featured a performance by the Wrecking Crew Orchestra from Japan. We also attended a Cantonese opera version of the Ramayana, one of the classics of Indian literature. We can say that both performances were visually stunning and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
The month-long Hungry Ghost Festival also took place in August. This is an annual Chinese Taoist celebration when it is believed that the gates of Hell are opened and the spirits of the dead are let loose to wander among the living, a bit reminiscent of Dias de los Muertos in Mexican culture, with the exception that these Chinese ghosts may be dangerous. During the festival there are many makeshift alters erected around town, an abundance of burning incense, and various musical performances, often thunderously loud music. Many nights our windows shook until midnight. We did enjoy seeing the costumed opera singers at the local street fair, where Ethan also took a turn on the kids Segway racetrack.
We learned more about Malaysian culture and George Town history by making visits to the Penang State Museum and the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which is a beautifully restored 19th century home of an affluent Straits Chinese family that provides a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle they lived. We also visited the Batik Painting Museum of Penang and took a batik painting class at Rozana’s Batik gallery. We made ourselves some special souvenirs and gained a new appreciation for the lovely antique batiks that we’ve received from Andrew’s grandmother.
Malaysia’s equatorial climate was noticeably hotter and more humid than Thailand or Vietnam. Once or twice we made an effort to get some exercise in the park, but even when we made a very early start, we were quickly drenched in sweat. There was no thought of leaving the hotel without my sun umbrella and we were always eager to reach our destination and the air-conditioning that might await us there. However, that didn’t stop us from taking many walks to explore various neighborhoods to seek out street art and restaurants. We particularly loved walking to nearby Little India for lunch or dinner.
It was around this time that I took on some new freelance work that I really enjoyed and I spent a good chunk of time working on that. We did experience some bandwidth issues since I had to share the hotel’s wifi connection with the other hotel guests. As much as we enjoyed our time at The Spices Hotel, we decided that we might need to make a move, so that I could continue my work.
September – On the Move
On September 1st, we moved from our hotel into a huge shared condo on Macalister Road (the same road that Andrew’s grandparents had lived on when they lived in Penang). After we’d unpacked our bags, we promptly set off for a week on Langkawi Island.
We stayed at The Andaman Resort and were lucky enough to get a room with a view of Datai Bay from our balcony. In 2007, UNESCO declared Langkawi Southeast Asia’s first Geopark and it was indeed a gorgeous setting. Our location was a bit remote, but the resort offered almost everything that we needed to keep ourselves entertained. We enjoyed sea kayaking in Datai Bay, visiting a coral nursery, joining a guided rainforest walk, swimming in the Andaman Sea, and playing in the resort’s truly amazing pool.
We rented a car for the length of our visit and we really enjoyed exploring the island. It also gave us a chance to find some less expensive restaurants on the island, which saved a lot on food costs. Driving was a lot less stressful on Langkawi than on Koh Samui in Thailand, plus Malaysians drive on the right side of the road, so it was more familiar to us. One of our outings included a trip to the island’s tallest mountain where we took the world’s steepest cable car ride to a viewing platform located 1100m above sea level. The ride was a little harrowing, but exciting, and the view was spectacular.
When we arrived back in George Town, we spent a fair amount of time lounging around the condo, so that I could work and because it was so pleasant. It had floor-to-ceiling windows and several sliding glass doors that led to a wrap-around terrace with a fantastic view of Penang Hill. The terrace made a lovely setting for our morning coffee and we had a wonderful cross-breeze that made it unnecessary to use the air-conditioning most of the time. We experimented with recipes in the kitchen, but also sought out restaurants in our new neighborhood as well.
Some of our friends from Urban Sketchers Penang invited us to join their private Mid-Autumn festival celebration, more commonly referred to as the Mooncake festival or Lantern festival. The kids and adults had our own small lantern parade and ate mooncakes. Later, the adults drank wine and chatted well into the night. We felt very grateful that we had the opportunity to participate. We also met up with our sketcher friends for the Tua Pek Kong Festival, the birthday celebration of Tua Pek Kong, the God of Prosperity. Ethan invited some of his friends to meet him at KidLand, where they played for hours and tested out various careers.
We decided to head to Cambodia on September 26th, but before we did The Spices Hotel hosted the Urban Sketchers Penang group and we joined them. It was nice to see some of our friends before we left Malaysia. I chatted with one of the sketchers and he mentioned that he was planning a trip to the US and Mexico. I mentioned our travels in Mexico and recommended that he make a side-trip to Guanajuato when he was in Mexico City. Recently, he posted his travel photos from Mexico and I noticed that he did indeed visit Guanajuato and really enjoyed it.
We had a great 3 months in Malaysia, but we were also extremely excited to visit Cambodia. It was hard to believe that we were really going to visit Angkor Wat. That’s got to be near the top of just about any dedicated traveler’s wish list. Finally, the day came and we set off for Siem Reap. For some reason, we didn’t grab all of the various immigration forms when we boarded the plane, so upon arrival we needed to track down our missing forms and fill them out. The visa application form that I had downloaded and pre-filled out, was apparently out of date, so we needed to re-do that one as well. Not the most auspicious beginning, but no great tragedy.
The minute we left the airport and met our tuk-tuk driver for our trip to Les Bambous Hotel, we were in love with Cambodia. It’s hard to put our finger on exactly what we loved about Cambodia, but we were instantly smitten. The people were smiley and friendly, the landscape was lush and green, and the fact that the weather was cooler than our last 3 months in Malaysia didn’t hurt either. Here is a video of our first impressions.
We were expecting to love Angkor Wat, but to be honest, we weren’t really sure what to expect from Siem Reap. We just didn’t know much about it other than some of the stories we’d heard and those were mostly around partying on Pub Street, which didn’t really appeal to us, especially with a 9-year-old in tow. In so many ways, Cambodia surprised us. There is so much beauty and charm everywhere. The people are so gentle and welcoming. We loved our hotel and the staff. Ethan made friends with the hotel owner’s kids and we enjoyed hours playing in the pool.
It was time to visit Angkor Wat. We woke at 4:30am to meet our tuk-tuk driver. He greeted us with a smile and then we drove to the main temple in the dark. As we walked from the parking lot, over the moat, entered the gates and through a field, all we could do was follow the crowd that was nothing but a dim outline and a mass of quiet, but excited voices. We began to see outlines of the temple and searched to find a good viewing spot, but it was so crowded. While we waited, we decided to disengage from the crowd and head to the other side of the central promenade. The reflection wasn’t as good, but there were almost no crowds, so we stayed and we believe that our experience was better for that decision.
October – From Southeast Asia to Europe
After visiting Angkor Wat, we went on to explore several more temples around Siem Reap: Bayon, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Banteay Srei, and Banteay Samre. Our favorite was Banteay Srei, also known as the Lady Temple. The delicate and intricate carvings are remarkably well-preserved and it was just gorgeous, as was the drive there in the early morning.
After an inspiring 2 weeks in Cambodia, it was time for us to leave Southeast Asia and head to Europe. We found a direct flight from Bangkok to London for a good deal, so we bought it. We flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok and spent the night. It was good to be in Thailand one last time before we left the region altogether, even though it was for such a short time. It was enough time for us to visit the MBK mall to do a little shopping in preparation for the colder weather and visit the food court, which had surprisingly diverse and delicious options. The next morning we had breakfast at a food stall before heading to the airport.
Our flight was 12 hours long, but relatively painless. We arrived in London in the evening and were expecting to be received by a driver that we’d pre-arranged. He was a no-show. After walking around a bit, looking confused and disconcerted, another driver asked if we needed help. I explained the situation and that we didn’t yet have a UK SIM card for our phone, he made a call on our behalf and gave the car service representative a piece of his mind about poor service. We waited, but still our driver still didn’t show up. Our good samaritan called on our behalf once more and ultimately our driver appeared. We made it to our apartment rental around midnight.
We were only in London for 3 full days with travel days on either side, so we had a lot to pack into a short period of time. The next morning we woke early to explore London on foot as we made our way to the British Museum. We love museums and you really can’t beat London for quality and choices… plus, so many are FREE!
The next day we took the Tube to the Natural History Museum and spent most of the day there. Again, fantastic! The last day, we decided to spend the whole day on foot seeing as many sites as we could fit in. We started the day at the pub for a Full English and then set off. Along the way we visited Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, London Eye, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, and Benjamin Franklin’s home in London.
On October 15th we set off for Croatia. We flew into Zagreb and rented a car. Driving was faster and cheaper than any other transportation option plus, we also wanted to see the countryside. It took about 3 hours to drive to Rovinj on the Istrian Peninsula and the scenery along the way was stunning. Upon reaching Rovinj, we dropped our car off at the rental company and were picked up by the owner of our apartment rental. He helped us with our bags, drove us to our apartment, and made sure that we were settled in. It was a simple, but charming place with a location that simply could not be beat. The rental even came with 3 bicycles for us to use. Unfortunately, they were all adult-sized bikes, but when we asked our landlord if he could help us find a kid-sized rental bike, he offered his son’s bike for our use.
We spent many happy days bike riding along the beautiful Istrian coastline and bike trails. The weather was ideal and the landscape was magical. Croatia is about as close to paradise as we can imagine. Rovinj is a very small town, the population is just 14k, and it’s off-season in October and November, so it was pretty quiet and there wasn’t much to do, but we loved it. We just settled in and made ourselves at home where we found it easy to appreciate the little things.
We rented a car and took a road trip to Venice, Italy. It’s only a 4 hour drive from Rovinj, so how could we resist? Again, we really enjoyed the drive, which was lovely and it was surprisingly easy to pass from Croatia into Slovenia and then on into Italy. We parked at the Marco Polo airport and took a scenic ride in a water taxi to our hotel just off the Grand Canal. After checking in, we spent the afternoon and evening exploring the city on foot. We were only going to be in town for 2 half days, so we didn’t want to spend our time inside museums and galleries. We wanted to see Venice, the city. The next morning we rose early and set off on foot again. When it was time to check out, we grabbed our luggage and caught a ferry back to the airport, where we picked up our car and drove back to Rovinj. We don’t regret our decision at all. It was absolutely the best possible way that we could have spent our time in Venice.
More days were spent enjoying a simple life in Rovinj. As I had throughout our travels, I continued to freelance part-time, but there was plenty of time for bike rides and picnics overlooking the astoundingly beautiful and clear Adriatic Sea. Ever frugal, we generally cooked at home, but we made sure to enjoy a few meals out at restaurants and cafes in town. We enjoyed morning walks through the ancient winding streets, descending the limestone stairs to the Adriatic below, where the water was warm enough to dip our toes, and marveling at dramatic sunsets. On October 29th, Andrew and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. What better way to observe such a significant milestone than to be sharing an amazing adventure together. As wonderful as our history together had been, it was clear that our future together was just as full of possibility and happiness.
November – Eastern Europe is Awesome
The 1st century Roman ruins of Pula were on the agenda in early November, the most impressive of which is the exceptionally well-preserved Roman amphitheater. Ethan loved running around, exploring, climbing, and pretending to be a gladiator. The city boasts 3,000 years of history and, according to Greek Mythology in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Pula was the city where the exiles from Colchis unsuccessfully attempted to recover the fabled Golden Fleece.
We also visited the exceptionally charming city of Ljubljana (pronounced “lyoob-lya-nah”) in Slovenia. The food market was truly impressive and a fantastic surprise. The visit made us wish that we could have spent more time there and it sparked our appetite to explore more of Eastern Europe. Legend has it that Jason and the Argonauts killed a dragon on their way to find the golden fleece (in Pula, Croatia), then he later returned to found Ljubljana. The Jason connection was a complete coincidence.
We returned to Rovinj and enjoyed our last week there before renting a car and driving to Budapest, Hungary on November 14th. The 7 hour drive took us a bit longer when we were turned away from the Hungarian border for not having a booster seat for Ethan. We were able to resolve the issue surprisingly quickly, so we continued on. The journey was gorgeous, of course, and we arrived in Budapest at night and drove through the lit up town on our way to our new rental apartment.
Our apartment was small, but well-laid out and had high ceilings. We were located in District VI, near City Park and Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út). Our metro stop was at the entrance of Hero Square. It was a great area for us and we felt right at home. The plan for Budapest was pretty simple – make ourselves at home, explore the city, and enjoy. The weather in Budapest was noticeably colder than Rovinj, so we had to make a few more clothing purchases, including a coat for Andrew, thermals for me, and gloves for all of us. These proved wise purchases as they allowed us to enjoy the Christmas Markets and go ice skating.
Ethan and I took Andrew out for his birthday to a place called Ruben. We were lucky to get in without a reservation, partly because we were unfashionably early. We had deer stew in red wine with potato dumplings, goose filled giant raviolis, and 3 different desserts that we shared. It was delicious. We realized that in 2014, Andrew celebrated his birthday in Budapest, Ethan’s was in Penang, and mine was in Chiang Mai. Not bad.
Our Thanksgiving dinner was simple, but delicious and satisfying. If you are making your own meal, it can be a challenge to find traditional ingredients. Honestly, there are only 3 of us, so we didn’t need to roast a turkey and we didn’t need multiple sides or desserts. We prepared a crudité platter for an appetizer, homemade chicken noodle soup (delicious, if I don’t say so myself), fresh bread, and then had store-bought chocolate chip cookies for dessert. After dinner, we watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It was perfect.
We had another reason for celebration that month. Once again, we were lucky to have friends from Portland visit us and it made our experience in Budapest even more special. Together, we explored Castle Hill, the Labyrinth under Buda Castle, and the Christmas Markets. We shared meals, had some mulled wine, drank a few beers, and ate traditional Hungarian chimney cakes (kürtőskalács). We visited the ruin pub, Szimpla Kert, which was listed as number three on the list of great bars in the world by Lonely Planet. We had dessert at the elegant Alexandra Bookcafe (Lotz Terem) on the famous Andrassy Avenue. We rode Budapest’s Sziget Eye (like the London Eye, but smaller). We also made several attempts to speak a few words of Hungarian, but I think it is fair to say that we mostly mangled the language.
December – Holidays in Europe
The weather in Budapest was quite chilly in December, so we spent much of our time in the warmth and comfort of our cozy apartment. As odd as it sounds, once or twice we found ourselves craving a simple meal of rice, egg and chili sauce. It’s something we used to have in Thailand on occasion. Maybe we were just craving the heat of Thailand? Even with the cold, we made an effort to explore the city and take evening strolls, which is when Budapest is at its most beautiful. It was freezing, but worth it.
After visiting the Christmas Market at St. Stephen’s Basilica, we decided to try a Georgian restaurant on Andrássy Avenue that we’d spotted previously. We ordered Georgian eggplant stew, Georgian chicken stewed in tomato sauce, a cheese and egg hachapuri bread-boat, as well as beet and walnut pkhali and spinach and walnut pkhali. It was amazing. This was further evidence that we need to spend more time exploring Eastern Europe.
On December 12th, we flew to Marseille, France and then took the TGV train to Avignon, where we checked into the apartment where we were to spend both Christmas and New Years. The location was just a block or two from the main square, Place de l’Horloge, in the pedestrian area of town.
Our apartment was spacious and attractive with 2 bedrooms. This was the second time since we left Portland that Ethan had his very own bedroom, the other instance was our suite at The Spices Hotel in Penang. Most of the trip, Ethan slept on pull-out couches, which he enjoyed quite a bit, because they were all large and comfortable, plus he said it made him feel like he was “camping out”.
One of the first places we visited was the indoor food market, Les Halles, so that we could stock up on food. We bought ingredients to make a roasted ratatouille recipe and bought some fresh baked French bread. It was delicious, but we soon discovered that our refrigerator was not working, so we had no way to keep leftovers cold. More importantly, we had no way to keep Ethan’s medication cold. We contacted the apartment owners to explain the problem and they made some suggestions, which we tried to no avail. Next, they sent a technician to fix the refrigerator, but they weren’t able to do so. Ultimately, the owners had the old refrigerator taken away and replaced it with a smaller under-counter model that worked perfectly.
Now that we had a fully functioning kitchen and a refrigerator, we took full advantage of the many nearby food markets, grocery stores, bakeries, and wine shops. We cooked at home just about every day and really enjoyed it. Nothing beats France for the ubiquity of delicious bakeries, good cheap wine, and amazing cheeses.
We were also amazed at some of the deals in the grocery stores. One of our favorite snacks was to make grilled chèvre and beet sandwiches on fresh baked country bread. Yum!
Avignon was decorated for the holidays and the Christmas Markets were in full swing. We enjoyed walking through town and exploring. It was just lovely and the weather was perfect. The sky was often clear blue and the temperature was usually in the mid-50’s (Fahrenheit), although we had a cold snap between Christmas and New Years. The Christmas Markets in Avignon featured many Provençal specialties, including the famous Savon de Marseille (Marseille olive oil soap), dried lavender and sachets, olive tapenade, Provençal textiles, and santons.
One day, we rented a car and drove to the medieval fortified town of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was marvelous to walk over the drawbridge, through the Narbonne Gate with its two enormous towers on either side, and then into the fairytale-like atmosphere of the town’s cobbled lanes. Since we were visiting in December, there weren’t many crowds and it often felt like we had the historic town to ourselves, which considering that more than 3 million people visit Carcassonne annually, made it an even more special experience for us.
It’s not a very large town, so it didn’t take us more than a couple of leisurely hours to explore a maze of shop-lined lanes and courtyards. We stopped for lunch at one of the open restaurants on a quiet square. We weren’t able to enter the Counts’ château due to some type of construction work happening, and we chose not to pay to walk on the ramparts, but we were able to enter the courtyard of the château and climb certain portions of the ramparts. We were also able to enter the Saint-Nazaire Basilica, which was a quite lovely cathedral with two beautiful rose windows and stained glass windows. It was a fun experience to wander the town as we discussed the lives of the people that had lived here so many years ago. Ethan shot many imaginary arrows at imaginary marauders.
Back in Avignon, we toured the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), where the papacy was headquartered for many years in the 14th century. This is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. As we explored the various rooms of the massive 15,000 m2 palace, it was incredible to imagine what daily life must have been like there.
We loved seeing the kitchen, where a cooking fire was located in the center of the room just under the huge stone funnel-like ceiling that allowed the smoke to escape through a hole in the top. The palace also had a treasury where valuables and money (minted on-site) were kept in a stone vault in the floor. The stone window-seats let you imagine how people made the most of daylight to work and study before there were electric lights. You also couldn’t help but notice how cold it was inside. The huge open fireplaces couldn’t have made much impact unless you were standing directly in front of them. The hard stone floors and thin-soled shoes must have made for some very cold and achey bones.
No visit to Avignon is complete without a walk on the Pont d’Avignon, so on a beautifully warm and sunny day we made our visit. It was interesting to stand on the subject of the famous French song and one can’t help but sing the words that date from the 16th century when you look out over the Rhone River. Like so many times during this trip, it felt like we were making a connection to history, however small and however brief those moments might be.
On Christmas morning the weather was glorious. After opening some small gifts we went for a walk. First, we made our way to The Rue des Teinturiers, a picturesque little street lined with a canal and water wheels on one side and shops and restaurants on the other. From there, we walked along the city wall to the Pont Daladier, where we walked across to the Chemin des Berges, a lovely promenade along the Rhone River with great views of Avignon and the Pont d’Avignon. The evening we had several Skype calls with friends and family, which helped to make it feel like Christmas.
On New Years Eve, we made a nice meal and bought some desserts from a bakery. There was champagne for the adults and non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider for Ethan. We stayed up late watching TV shows on YouTube and then, just before midnight, we switched to watching videos of fireworks from Sydney, Hong Kong, and Dubai. They were all pretty impressive spectacles, but Dubai’s display was incredible. Once the clock hit midnight we went straight to bed. We’re party animals like that.
2015 – Full of Possibilities
During the next year, we have plans to visit Barcelona, Spain and then we’ll be heading to the Americas. Our first stop will be Mexico City and then we’ll be making our way to San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato where we plan to spend at least 3 months. While we are there, we hope to take a one month intensive Spanish class. After that, we aren’t sure what the future holds, but we’re excited to find out.