Not perfect…

To quote a fellow blogger:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a weekend jaunt in Singapore, must be in want of a luxury hotel stay. Yet in a world of Instagram, self-titled reviewers and instantaneous gratification, our expectations have been upgraded.” Claire Matheson, Food and Travel Blogger (and mother of two cute kids I met at a pool party in KL the other day!)

I am a bit of a dreamer, and an idealist, when it comes to holidays, I often have the perfect trip planned out in my head. Sources such as people’s travel blogs, personal stories and websites like Trip Advisor can be a help or a hindrance when it comes to managing these expectations.

I love Claire Matheson’s quote above as she suggests that since everything is Instagramable AND, only the highlight reel makes it to our accounts, then we only ever see the good, great and astounding parts to the tourist attraction. Sometimes this works in our favour: someone took an average photo but you have an above average experience or impression of a place. The top three places I’ve visited in my life (that I can think of right now) that exceeded my expectations were: most recently, Kuangsi Waterfall in Laos (it was crystal clear blue like the photos on the website and the ones I took! Unlike our previous visit in the wet season), The Great Wall of China (it was truly great in size and expanse) and King’s Canyon in Australia (the lesser known rocky outcrop a few hours drive from Uluru).

More often than not, especially for us idealists, the flashy photos work against us. Case in point: last weekend in Penang when we booked a cheaper Guesthouse stay in George Town for our last night because we’d splurged on a family resort in Batu Ferrenghi by the beach for the first few nights.

The guest house had a shower – it was just outside in a courtyard and, even worse, the toilet was through a dodgily locked old wooden door that led to a downstairs wet room that had those lovely antique Chinese green metal grills once used to let in the air on those hot Penang days but now, seem like a one-way ticket to Vermin Sentral (this isn’t a typo, central is spelt with an “s” in Malaysia).

Now that I think about it, the images didn’t show an image of the toilet, nor the shower. That should have been a head’s up to lower my expectation but I was a little rushed in my booking and was nursing a sick kid with a virus – which brings me to my next point.

When we traveled to Singapore for New Year’s in December last year, we were excited about our first overseas holiday on our working holiday. The day before we flew out, our then five year old had a fever which only got worse over the weekend and led to an 8pm New Year’s Eve bed time, zero fireworks and two exhausted parents attempting to eat Chilli Crab (with plastic cutlery!) on the floor of our hotel room whilst our daughter slept off her virus.

Similarly, on the morning of our flight to Penang last week, my daughter complained of feeling hot and sick. I’d already had a reality (or false expectation check when I’d booked the flight on the wrong day and we were looking at about twenty-four hours in Penang without my husband). My daughter, when she realised how ill she was, issued the lament, “Why do I always get sick on holidays?!”

With a sick but enthusiastically adventurous kid in tow, we attempted to make the most of Penang (which is a much bigger place than I had expected, even though I’d read it was the second biggest city in Malaysia). There’s the thing called expectation again! Dosed up on paracetamol, we braved the Tropical Spice Garden and it was gorgeous – well worth the effort. We then headed back to Batu Ferrenghi where our adventures were somewhat limited, however, as a lot of Penang’s goodness happens after dark, especially  the beach side of the island. Night markets don’t open until well after 6pm and, as most people admit, your main purpose is Penang is to eat your way through the place.

So, what do you do when your holiday plans are slightly curbed? You accept the fact that you won’t be able to do all the things you’d planned. You throw some money at it and eat in at the hotel’s overpriced restaurant because your daughter is too sick to face the sights, sounds & smells of a night market with raging temps. You loiter by the pool (that’s no where near as good as the images when you booked) and neglect a lot of sights you could have seen to ensure your daughter gets rest and recovers. You eat where is most convenient, possibly not where you’d mapped out your culinary journey. You pay a good whack of money to get into touristy sites only to be there for a few hours because you don’t want to exhaust the sick kid. You skip the Pulau Tikus Morning Markets that the foodie grandparents recommended, knowing the kids would really like the pancakes there because an early morning wake up is exactly what your daughter doesn’t need and sleep-ins only occur when she’s really sick. And, you make a conscious choice not to complain about the things you didn’t see (see last week’s blog) nor the places you rushed by and you choose to remember what a wonderful culmination of time spent together – perfect conditions or not – this holiday represents.

The title of the blog was inspired by a “Connect 4” or “Line-up 4” game we played together in China House in Penang’s George Town. The goal of the game clicked with the six year old kid but the four year old kid just wanted to make patterns with the round tokens so all competitiveness was called off and creativity and cooperation were called upon to make the “perfect” pattern. There was only one problem: the game had been used and abused and the token count was uneven. One of my children (we call him “Rain Man”) was deeply disturbed by being one green counter short and it was then that I used the line, “Just because it’s not perfect and didn’t come together as you expected, doesn’t mean it can’t be nice.” Somehow, right there, in that quaint café, art gallery, bar, cum gift shop that is China House, I realised that I needed to heed to my own words and just embrace the moments that we could experience in Penang. It wasn’t the perfect trip but it certainly was nice – in so many ways.

I feel like the final leg of our “working holiday” fairly well sums up our time here in Malaysia: it was not what we expected but exactly what we, as a family, needed.

Things to do in Penang (that we can recommend):

  • George Town Street Art (no instructions needed: wander around long enough and you’ll find it!)
  • The Chinese Clan Jetties of Penang (we visited the Chew Family Jetty)
  • Penang Hill (the trip up the hill in the Funicular Train is not as fun as the trip down). Maybe consider catching a Grab or bus up the hill as you spend a lot of time waiting in line and it costs a lot for a 5 minute ride – make sure you grab seats/stand up at the front of the train! The day we were there, the visibility from the top of the hill was very poor. I imagine, this all depends entirely on cloud cover and the weather
  • Red Garden Hawker Centre was recommended to us for some good local food but we didn’t make it with the sick kid. That said, anything we ate on the street was wonderful
  • The BEST Char Keuy Teow that I’ve found in Malaysia thus far (I have 11 days left in my quest) cost 5RM and I bought it from the Long Beach Hawker Centre in Batu Ferringhi. It was AMAZING!
  • Bora Bora Bistro: Cheap, beachfront sunset drinks and OK food for snacks or kids’ dinner (don’t bother eating here if you can wait ‘till the night markets open in Batu Ferringhi)

On that note, I’d like to pay homage to another fellow Aussie blogger whose travel advice with kids has been my go-to.

Here’s the link to: Where’s Sharon? And, thank you Sharon ; )

If you REALLY want to splurge on beachside accomodation (with kids):

Stay at one of the Shangri-La Resorts in Batu Ferrenghi. We stayed at the Holiday Inn in the Ferrenghi Tower (you have to cross the road BUT you get an ocean view balcony). Buffet Breakfast was good and rooms were a little outdated but lovely. The service was AMAZING but the pool, now that I think about the photo I saw on the website, was below par. It’s desperately in need of a make-over!

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