Capturing our love for art, adventure and learning
Part 4: Mama's challenge
One wrong decision and it could be painful psoriasis, eczema flair ups, debilitating headaches, loose stools, smelly farts, poor gut health, increased irritability, allergic rash and even anaphylaxis. The reality is, it isn't easy feeding a family when ALL of us have food related allergies. We suffer from gluten/wheat intolerance, lactose intolerance, oat allergy, shellfish allergy and onion allergy. It’s crazy!
Being the main person in charge of everyone’s daily meals, my biggest concern for this month-long road trip was the accessibility of food that was safe for us. Having your own kitchen in your home base can be difficult enough. Travelling makes food preparation even more challenging. Don't get me wrong, we LOVE travelling. We long for life on the road where we are free. We accept that without the lows/challenges, there isn't the highs and triumphs!
Understanding the challenge and preparing for it
The fact is, Asian countries are far behind in legislating compulsory allergy warnings and labelling on all restaurant menus. There is also little awareness of the seriousness of food allergies. Supply of gluten-free products are scarce and expensive. A regular loaf of bread can cost just $2.50 but an equivalent loaf of gluten free bread can cost between 400% to 500% more.
I made the decision to cook at least one meal a day so as to not overwhelm our systems and end up sick. My 1st hack was to bring 2 bottles of Zyrtec-R allergy solution and a half-used bottle of Lee Kum Kee Gluten-free Soya Sauce. Asian cooks can't live without soya sauce but do you know it contains GLUTEN?
Second hack is to deliberately make stops at major supermarkets before checking into our accommodations to stock up on wheat free/gluten free snacks just in case we were not able to find any suitable snacks in the smaller shops (especially when up in the highlands). We found these at really good prices at Jaya Grocer in JB and Cold Storage in KL. They also carried a good selection of GF Barilla Pasta, Bob’s Red Mill products and other GF premixes for cakes and pancakes. Pre-marinated frozen meat varieties we bought were very useful for our meals too!
Breakfast so far has been easy to sort out - eggs or corn/rice cereals with fresh milk from the supermarkets for the kids and a big batch of mochi brownies I had baked the day before our trip (lasted about a week). Vincent and I are not big on breakfast, but coffee is an absolute must. It doesn’t help that we are such picky drinkers that we had to lug along our smaller Nespresso machine and all our favourite capsules. No lactose-free milk in the places we shopped at, so it’s long blacks or americanos or BOH tea everyday for me
Lunches and Dinners
On days that we don’t eat out, our meals mostly consist of rice/hash, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, tofu, pork and fish. I must say that the best meals were made from the fresh veggies we bought at the Cameron Highlands Pasar Malam. A bunch of completely unassuming vegetables and fruits for all of Rm10. (So fresh that we even found a tiny earthworm at the bottom of the bag the next morning in the fridge!) You can read about our awesome time and see the mind-blowing views here.
Vincent and Matthias are now willing eaters of cucumbers and brinjals because these were so crunchy and tasty! And OH! The strawberries! It’s not exactly peak strawberry season now so the prices were slightly different at 1+1 box for Rm15 OR 2+1 for Rm25 (depending on stalls) but it didn’t really matter to us because every single strawberry in the giant box was a deep ripe red with no bruises whatsoever, complete with bright green sepals and they smelled AMAZING. We only bought a single box (Rm10) because we didn’t want any to go to waste in the event we failed to finish consuming them. I remember telling Vincent earlier today that I’d totally be making strawberry bakes and frosting all the time if we lived here because 1. price, 2. the consistency of colour and taste of every strawberry.
Fresh produce aside, I had other things to adapt to, like cooking in someone else’s kitchen. Up to this point, we’d lived in 3 Airbnb apartments.
The JB apartment that we started our trip with is not worth talking about. It looked the best and most promising prior to arrival, but the kitchen was absolutely unusable and grotesque. Let me just simply put it as the house had a mould problem. We left after a single night.
House #2 in Bentong, Genting Highlands surprised us with clean surfaces, sheets and upholstery. It actually smelled clean. The kitchen was equipped with an electrolux oven (which we didn’t use). It came with mugs, plates (no bowls), the usual cutlery (but no teaspoons! We drank coffee with tablespoons haha), a small non-stick frypan (but no spatula) and a medium sized pot. My biggest pet peeve is disgusting dish sponges and while the sponge in this house didn’t come with food residue like the previous house, it had a strange odour to it. Thankfully we managed to solve it with soap and boiling water and basically revived it’s freshness. Grabfood/Foodpanda options here were extremely limited. I think at one point I remember seeing only a single restaurant on it despite having many local zhichar restaurants within a 10min walking radius. We had many simple but satisfying home-cooked meals here which the kids found comfort in. The Electrolux induction cooktop here was an absolute breeze to use. I honestly enjoyed cooking in this place until the day we ran out of pasta/noodles on the last night and I had to cook rice. First ever attempt at cooking rice in a simple pot turned out surprisingly decent (credits to YouTube of course).
House #3 in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands which had a large and new Panasonic rice cooker! You can imagine how excited I was. Rice cookers are essential items in a (mostly GF) Asian home. (We spotted 2 other families carrying their rice cookers into their cars as they checked out from their apartments too!) The kitchen here was half the size of the previous one BUT it came with bowls and teaspoons and a microwave oven! The single ceramic cooktop here was not as great as the induction top, because temperature control was relatively inefficient. Add to that, a stone wokpan that wasn’t nonstick in the middle and we got quite a bit of charred bits on our dishes this time around. We also had to get our own spatula and dish sponges in the end because theirs was mouldy. We aren’t big on diy steamboat meals, or steaming dishes but this kitchen was well-equipped with steamers and steamboat pots. Apparently people in Cameron love a good steamboat meal which explains why you can find restaurants offering them at almost every corner! FoodPanda/Grabfood app offerings are pretty decent here. You’ve got the usual Starbucks, CoffeeBean, Maccas, Marybrown, Dominoes, PizzaHut and some other local restaurants. Delivery fees and food prices are reasonable too. We haven’t had the need to use any food delivery service since the start of the trip but I thought I’d check and have backup plans for meals.
Some advice for anyone booking entire apartments on vacation with intent to cook meals:
Mummy needs a holiday too right? Some days we just decide to take small risks and eat out. Some particular cuisines are safer. E.g. Eating Sushis, rice bowls and Korean dishes is relatively safe because they are mainly rice based. But I still had a spell of bad headache from this meal because the soup had onions in them. Sometimes we just indulge and pay the price later on. It's a holiday and we all just want to enjoy really tasty food! Bak kut teh and Hor fun turned out alright with no immediate reactions.
We take risks and try to mitigate them. E.g. Chocolate ice cream doesn't hurt the kids but the gluten from the cone does. So we let them lick/eat the ice cream and not give them the cone. The kids ENJOYED their fish and chips and then had eczema flair ups and became really irritable. Some risks however we don't take. Vincent stays far far away from shellfish because his allergy can kill him.
I’m really looking forward to the next leg of our trip. We are done chasing mountains and we really miss the awesome views, fresh air and cool temperature. Back to the city, we’ll probably be eating out more, especially with greater availability of allergy-friendly and familiar food establishments!
PART 3: Chasing Mountains
We've been chasing the cool weather and mountain top experience for the past 2 weeks on this road trip. Rolling for more than 800km and finding ourselves above the clouds at more than 5000ft, we find solace in the quiet and beauty of our surroundings. If you missed out on the start of our journey, read it HERE!
After an exciting time in Genting in Part 2 of our journey, we drove on towards Cameron not knowing what to expect. I remember taking the arduous journey to Cameron Highlands as a child with my parents in a 40 seater coach on the hundreds of bends. I remember that it was a beautiful place but after more than 2 decades, it has become fuzzy. Debra and the kids have never been to this part of West Malaysia.
We descended Genting and took the highway up towards Brinchang via Tapah. We were a little flustered on the way down because Gwyneth was car sick and vomited on herself. We were stuck behind a VERY SLOW driver who constantly used his brakes haphazardly. My anxious mind went into overdrive worrying about how both the kids are going to cope with the hundreds of bends up towards Brinchang in Cameron Highlands. Debra calmed me down and we took a break at a nearby supermarket carpark. We cleaned up the mess and changed her into new clothes before stocking on some groceries. The bottle of Lysol (hospital grade disinfectant spray) came in handy.
My fears and anxiety was unfounded because all my passengers are champions! We conquered the bends up towards Brinchang over tarmac that has been patched so many times it is almost like the moon's surface. The Malaysian truck drivers we met on the way were nothing less than legends. They drove MASSIVE trucks round tiny bends and were so thoughtful towards those stuck behind them. They looked out for traffic on the opposite side and gave us the right indicator light as a signal to safely overtake.
Enjoy some of the bendy dizzy parts where the roads were still smooth enough to get a video recorded....
Our first reward midway through was this waterfall. Everyone's spirits were lifted by the majestic sight. At this point we had no idea what awaited us at our final destination. This was going to be our 3rd AirBnb apartment since we started the trip. The first one in Johor was dusty, mouldy and nothing like the pictures. The apartment in Genting was clean, spacious but was plagued with loud vehicles racing up the hill on the weekend.
The apartment up in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands exceeded our expectations!
This was the view that greeted us...
We took the rest of the day off after the eventful journey! I'm so extra thankful that the two little ones quickly adjust to new environments and new beds. They haven't shown signs of difficulty adjusting to being 5250ft above sea level nor complained about the weather being 16-20 celsius. In fact, we've all been restful and happy in this climate. In fact, the climate is the reason why we've been chasing mountains.
The only thing struggling with it is our little hatchback on inclines because air is thinner at altitude. This affects the fuel-air mix and reduces performance of the engine. Grateful for the little electric motor helping us scoot along when the engine struggles.
We woke up to smells of espresso in the apartment because we packed our machine and capsules in the boot. Debra and I are unapologetically addicted to our coffee. Haha! Road school continued and Matthias had Tamil lessons, tackled models for problem sums and read the BFG. Gwyneth perfected her upper and lower case letters, practiced reading aloud and basic Tamil vocabulary.
We visited the local markets/Golden Hill night market and got REALLY fresh and tasty groceries! Debra cooked tasty home cooked meals for us! All of us have got gluten/wheat intolerance and it really isn't that easy to get gluten free meals in this part of the world. Even in the major cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, we struggle to find affordable gluten free options. Debra will be adding her touch to our blog on a post about FOOD this week! (Food makes her smile wider than her husband can LOL!)
We chose not to pluck our own strawberries because it costs 4x more to get the same amount of strawberries. We bought them at the market instead. Just look at how red they are!
One thing we always do on our trips is to intentionally choose to travel slowly. We can pack our itinerary and return needing another holiday but we choose to weave our lives in with our journeys and take it slow. It allows us to take it in fully and really make lasting memories of it.
"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
You cannot visit Cameron Highlands and not visit the tea plantations. This place is just steeped in history and....TEA.
Fun fact: A DRINK was a driving force behind colonialism.
Tea was a powerful driving force that drove British colonialism in India and beyond. It brought great wealth to the empire because the British/Europeans were CRAZY about tea. To think that one would travel halfway around the world to ensure supply of a drink is unthinkable. In 1929, a British entrepreneur surveyed Cameron Highlands and started tea growing and processing. He changed the landscape of this amazing place forever. 93 years later, his company Boh Tea still thrives here. In more recent history, Communist terrorists once hid among the vegetation during the Malayan Emergency.
We spent a morning each at Cameron Valley Plantation and Boh Tea Plantation. The views just blew our minds. It reminded us that West Malaysia is beyond the glitzy cities and exciting resorts. For those of you who are old enough to remember, the rolling hills/clouds reminded us of the Windows 97 wall paper....haha! But honestly, it is way better. It is comparable with the rolling hills in New Zealand.
I thought I should warn city drivers who are less aware of the "wilder" roads here. As with many roads in the Cameron Highlands, it can be dangerous to drive in wet weather because of reduced visibility, slippery roads and possible landslides. Landslides are a natural occurrence anywhere with cliffs, mountains and valleys but it is made worse by deforestation/human developments. We do see the authorities are making great efforts to mitigate these landslides through reinforcing cliffs with rocks, concrete or plants. I hope people will continue to make efforts to sustainably develop the Cameron Highlands because it will be such a pity to lose this precious gem in peninsula Malaysia.
Cameron Valley Plantation (Teahouse 3)
We visited all the plantations in the morning (9/10am) to avoid crowds and traffic. If you are able, come on weekdays that aren't school or public holidays. The roads in Cameron Highlands are mainly one lane for each direction so it can get quite congested. We temporarily ignored our gluten/wheat intolerance and indulged in scones with cream and jam. Of course our guts weren't very happy after that but we all had BIG smiles!
We decided not to pay RM3 each to walk through the plantation and opted for the 4X4 tour through the plantation in classic Land Rovers. Adults pay RM18 each and kids below 110cm pay RM12 each. Oh the landies just brought back memories bouncing behind an SAF Land Rover in my Army days. The quintessential diesel fumes + smell of burning oil will be something of the past as we all start to drive hybrid and electric cars. The kids were absolutely THRILLED bouncing behind the landie. The driver was one with his machine and could probably drive through the plantation blind and FAST. The food and experience here was better than the Boh Plantation.
The views weren't the best but even the carparks are picturesque. You can build Gardens By the Bay 10 times larger and more impressive but nothing beats the raw beauty of nature.
Boh Tea Centre
The plantation is situated deep away from the main road. A bumpy small single lane road leads to the plantation. You have to be vigilant and slow down at bends because many sections of the road are only passable by one vehicle at a time. When in doubt, just give way and let others pass. You go over the edge, it is a long way to tumble down. After about 10 minutes down this mountain road, you'll see a huge carpark where you'll definitely spend time taking many photographs like we did!
To get to the Tea Centre, one will have to climb 100+ steps up the side of a hill before you'll be rewarded with incredible views and tasty food.
We didn't manage to have a factory tour because of maintenance works. Another reason to come back again! We did however get amazing shots of the place. As an avid photographer, i still feel that the best photographs cannot substitute seeing it with your own eyes. The fresh cool air, warm sun rays on your skin and just feeling really small in the wondrous vastness of the landscape. Simply priceless.
We have one last leg of this amazing grand tour. Having chased the mountains, we are all kind of hungry. So that's your clue! Caught a really sweet moment between these two. They are such darlings when they aren't bickering!
If you have young children with allergies or are planning a June holiday road trip, we'll be sharing more about cooking on a holiday and our favourite food places in the next two instalments!
We are happy to connect and share in detail about our trip if you have questions! Click on the red chat button and we are happy to chat!
Road Schooling and Theme Parks
WHY ARE YOUR KIDS NOT IN SCHOOL AND AT A THEME PARK IN APRIL?!
Because we are SPECIAL! 😂
Almost 8 years ago when Matt was born, we were MOE school teachers. We've seen so much of what school is for the vast majority of children in Singapore and decided it wasn't for our kids. So yes, we have gone through the difficult process of getting officially exempted from school and approved for homeschooling. (We are happy to connect with anyone who is considering homeschooling and share how we navigated the entire process! Just click on the chat button!)
Homeschooling, Road Schooling and Unschooling is exactly what are doing with our kids turning 8 and 5 this year. Let's define this for those who aren't familiar with it:
Homeschooling: Children are schooled at home, usually by a parent or parents at home.
Unschooling: Instead of following a rigid traditional syllabus full time, learning is self-directed by their interests. Although we try to do this as often as we can, we are still bound by the fact that our children will have to take their PSLE exams later on. So we do engage in curriculum-driven learning to ensure they will be ready for the statutory requirements.
Road Schooling: Yes it means what it means! We've packed up our lives and are working out a life of schooling on the road as we travel, work and learn!
THIS SOUNDS IMPOSSIBLE!
Learning can be done ANYTIME and ANYWHERE. Many of us have been made to think that learning only happens when a student is seated quietly in his chair behind a desk while a teacher talks on. The fact is, very little meaningful learning is really happening. The BILLION dollar tuition industry in Singapore is the greatest single piece of evidence that proves this.
IT HAS BEEN A GREAT WEEK OF LEARNING!
We've based ourselves in an apartment for the past week in Genting Highlands. We've driven the winding roads and marvelled at the beauty of the rain forest and cool weather! We learnt about altitude and how Bukit Timah Hill is 164m and the Genting resorts were 1645m above sea level. When we walked among the clouds and feel that sense of wonder, we learnt that clouds are AEROSOLS - a suspension of air and liquid droplets! We enjoyed the sounds of the forest and researched on a variety of flora and fauna including ORANGE MOSS! (We've only seen the green ones!)
I've learnt as an adult that what we do to nature profoundly affects the future custodians of Earth - our children. Gwyn was visibly upset when she saw the construction team across our apartment cutting down the trees and preparing the ground for construction. She kept saying "they are ruining MY forest! MY forest!".
WE CAN LEARN WHEN WE ARE HAVING FUN AT THEME PARKS TOO!
The children have learnt a great deal in the few days we've visited the arcade and theme park! We've learnt to plan our time, budget and route around the place. We've learnt to be resilient when our feet are hurting having walked more than 10 thousand steps in an afternoon. We've learnt to be patient and gracious when papa led us the wrong way and we have to walk back up the steep hill. We've learnt to maximise fun with the limited tokens we have in the arcade card. We've learnt that it is okay for children to be afraid of loud noises and wearing the ear muffs help them cope + protect their ears from excessive noise.
THE WORLD IS OUR CLASSROOM
We know that learning can happen when we sit down and complete our workbooks. But learning happens in more ways that we can ever imagine. On this grand tour, we learn whenever we feel the wind in our hair, the exhilarating rush on theme park/cable car rides and journeys across the world.
Learning is not the product of teaching.
A Grand Tour Part 1
6 years ago Debra and I (Founders of Hiro & Jack Co.) decided to take a grand adventure and start our very own company. At the same time we also started a family and decided to walk their learning journey with them. We grew a business, home schooled and built a family all at the same time. Quite often in the flurry of being busy, we forget that to make time for the ones that mean the most to us.
In December 2021, I (Vincent) lost my dad to a rare blood cancer. The journey from diagnosis to death was a very difficult one. It was made worse by the separation, isolation and distancing needed during the pandemic. I was privileged enough to be able to spend many days of alone time with my dad although it wasn’t at the most exciting of places; the hospital’s specialists clinics. After his death, i realised how important it was that we made memories together. As much as i’m grateful that he provided for us as we grew up with more than we can ever ask for, it was the memories of travelling together, having meals together and facing the doctors together that i cherish most. It is about making the journey together.
Debra, the kids and I are still grieving his passing. It is hard especially when the children cry and say they miss their ye ye. It still breaks our hearts that he is not here with us anymore. It is still incredibly difficult for us to juggle our grief, homeschool, work and the day to day pressures of life.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
We knew we needed a break away from the daily grind to just enjoy each other and the journey. We needed time to find ourselves, relax, reflect and reconnect with each other. We looked for destinations across the world from Svalbard to Panama and also across Europe. To be honest Malaysia isn’t our first choice because we grew up visiting Malaysia. However, the pandemic is far from over. Flight routes that usually took 12.5hrs took 22hrs with crazy detours and absurd prices. Car rentals are more expensive than actually buying a car. PCR swabbing two young kids multiple times just takes the fun out of the experience. Then in late march 2022, both Singapore and Malaysian governments announced the reopening of the land borders.
WHY WEST MALAYSIA?
Being a familiar place, it actually played to our advantage. We knew of places that we would all enjoy. If you are fully vaccinated, there is no swabbing or quarantine requirements for Singaporeans travelling to Malaysia via land border. Just make sure you get your My Sejahtera app, verify your vaccination! If you want a full step by step guide on how to navigate the procedures to smoothly enter Malaysia, please let me know in the comments!
Day 1 (Johor)
We spent our first day just across the causeway to ease the children into being away from home. They have not had conscious memory of living out of their suitcase, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed and not going home. To some this may be unremarkable but we thoroughly enjoyed watching television together, eating together and putting our work away. We gave each other full attention. It felt really nice to not be rushing for our next destination or for the next task.
Day 2 & 3 (North South Highway to Genting Highlands)
We took a 4.5hour drive from Johor before we arrived at the amazing Genting highlands! I absolutely love the all-year-round 19 degree celcius temperature. Matthias exclaimed “It’s the first time in my life i’ve seen a REAL fog”, Gwyneth marvelled and squealed “HEY! That’s from Andy’s!” as her Cbeebies programme came to life before her eyes. She saw really old and tall trees as well as HUGE ferns. Debra and I just enjoyed the thrill of the mountain road and we drove through the clouds. The view was just gorgeous. I’ve been to Genting countless times but it’s just different every single time.
I thoroughly enjoyed the liberating experience of driving the wide expanse of roads at 110km/h across hundreds of Kilometres. (Unlike some people who chose to illegally do hands-free autopilot driving and post about it LOL!). Long drives really are therapeutic and heals the soul for me. I think i no longer have the stamina to do 17 hours at one go from Singapore to Phuket though. (Read about it here! ) I tried using the adaptive cruise control but i just found the acceleration too aggressive when tackling hills. Proud to say i did all the driving MYSELF! Isn’t the view just INCREDIBLE?!
We’ll update you guys about our adventures as we go along! We will be spending close to a month in Malaysia so do stay tuned for updates!
Leaving you with this reflection: We snapped this selfie shot and didn’t realise there was a rainbow until we looked up to the sky! Sometimes we just need a new perspective to see the rainbow that was there all along. All we need to do is to look up!
Sharing our love of art, travel and learning with you.
KWANS LEARN TAMIL