Meeting the Pandas of Sichuan China

It is hard to believe we have already been back in Massachusetts for three weeks today.  Since my return, I am constantly asked what is my favorite destination?  One special place I find myself commenting on most often is the Sichuan province in China.  Ironically, I have not written about this trip due to the quick passage of time and inconvenient Chinese government blockade of  social media.   We have some great photos of special experiences, so as they say there is no better time than the present…

The Sichuan area of China is most famous for its celebrity residents the giant pandas.   

The number of wild pandas is dreadfully low at about 1500.  Pandas are very solitary creatures who do not mate often and have very vulnerable young.  Fortunately they can now be bred in captivity.  Worldwide there are under 300 in zoos and 106 are in a center located a short distance outside of Sichuan’s capital city of Chungdu .

We signed up for a zookeeper experience tour which allowed us to help care of the animals. We were given some “authentic” panda keeper outfits.

First we helped to feed the animals. They love bamboo of course…

and apparently apples as well.

The less glamourous part of being a zookeeper is cleaning the animal cage.    Sydney was very excited about scooping “panda poop” but she was too young to enter.  Aidan had no desire and Andy claimed photo duty.  Guess who was the official scooper!!   Yes we paid extra for this experience 🙂

One truly special panda experience is available at the center for another donation/fee – holding a panda.  Poor Aidan was sick the day we visited so he chose not to wait in line, but Sydney was very excited.   She put on her best panda gear for the occasion.

Then went with daddy to touch a real live panda.

These picture is priceless.  They look like old friends.

We considered helping this guy escape but the bars were too tough.

I guess we will have to be satisfied with only photos and memories of these special creatures of China.

Orchard Parksuites: Our Home in Singapore


This is the answer Sydney gives when people ask her where she is from and the response perplexed me.  I found it surprising she remembered her home in the United States.  However, one day when we were driving back from a trip,  she saw our apartment building and she screamed out “Massachusetts!  Aidan would say he lived in Massachusetts and in two-year-old Sydney’s world this was where she slept – an apartment complex in the middle of a skyscraper filled Asian island nation.

Orchard Parksuites is the building in the foreground with a green roof.

To the rest of us our home is known as Orchard Parksuites.  It is a service apartment which means it is part apartment/part hotel.   We have a kitchen with maid service 6 days a week!  Not a bad life, huh?   Our maid is Yuan Yuan.  She also would moonlight as a babysitter for the children many Saturday nights.  The kids were very excited on the nights she would come.

The apartment also served breakfast weekday mornings.   Here is where food is served buffet style.  Tater tots and chicken nuggets are the kinds favorites.

The nationalities of the people who stay at Orchard Parksuites is amazing diverse.  We have become friends with families from New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Australia.  Many families stay for a short time as they settle into more permanent homes in Singapore.  A few like us are here for several months just long enough to see many come and go.

One family that we have gotten particularly close comes from Manhattan.  They arrived two weeks after us and will leave in about 6 weeks.  The two girls Elle (age 4) and Seraphina (age 9 months) have become good friends with Aidan and Sydney.  Elle is prone to car sickness in taxis.  Here is a photo of Aidan trying to distract her from her nausea.

Sydney my perpetual mother hen loves to feed her family and at breakfast she loves to help care for baby Seraphina.

In addition to the Western residents there are also many Middle Eastern families.  Our relocation expert explained devout Muslims prefer to stay in service apartments to prepare their own food so they do not eat pork or other taboo items.  The first week after we arrived two women in burqas with only their eyes barely showing got into an elevator with the children and me.  Aidan looked them over and asked “What is up with those people?” Now he sees women in such dress and doesn’t even notice.  I still must admit I still find the mix of cultures impressive.  Recently I noticed a Buddhist monk eating breakfast in his orange robe sitting at a table next to a Middle Eastern family where the women were in burqas.  Talk about melting pots!

My favorite feature of Orchard Parksuites is the pool.  Most afternoons we will go down and see which kids are around.  It is a great way for the kids to get off some extra energy after a hot day in Singapore.

The most intimidating and fear inducing aspect of Orchard Parksuites is the ‘death drop’ open plan.  Right outside our door the floor drops 22 stories to a shallow fountain.  There is a railing but it still makes me nervous every time the kids approach the edge.

We have really enjoyed our stay here at Orchard Parksuites.  Aidan today mentioned he feels sad that when we got home we would not have the nice view.  I told him we have nice things to see at home, but secretly I agree it is different.  Check this out…there is a lot we will miss.

Literally Lost in Haute Couture

Our apartment in Singapore lies just off of Orchard Road which a major hub of entertainment and shopping.  Before we arrived, Andy described the street as being similar to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue with not one, but twenty Water Tower Place Malls.

View of Ngee Ann City and Paragon malls from my bedroom

While that somewhat gave me an image of what to expect, I was not ready for how over the top the opulence is here.  If you walk a 100 yards between Ion and Ngee Ann City, two malls which lie directly across the street from me as I write,  you will pass two Louis Vuitton stores. If that is not enough a third lies around the corner.  Amazingly, the malls are packed and people have bags. In fact, they have lots of them.  If there is a recession somewhere, someone forgot to tell Singapore.


Several of the malls connect underground with tunnels lined with dozens of stores.  There are enormous food courts called hawker centers in the lower or uppermost levels of the malls.   Initially it all is overwhelming and blends into a fluorescent haze of store displays, “Sale” signs and food smells.

Inside Ion – This is on my way to the Grocery Store.

Our first week Andy told me meet him after work in front of L’Occitaine, a French store that sells very expensive soaps and toiletries.  We had past it a day earlier, how hard could it be to find again?   I found a L’Occitaine store across the street.  It looked like the wrong one.  I asked the sales woman if there was another store nearby she said there were three more!  After dragging the children and stroller to the next place only to find he was not there.  We gave up and came back home.  Ugh!!!

Wheelock Place

Orchard Road, like the rest of Singapore, is full of surprises and contrasts.  Across the street from the Forum,  generally children’s stores and education centers like Aidan’s Lego school, lies Orchard Towers.  This mall has many clubs and bars, but is most notorious for a brothel the locals have dubbed ‘Four Floors of Whores’.  So much for the country’s  squeaky clean image.

Orchard Towers

Orchard does seem the most lively at night.  I am still trying to overcome the shock of seeing so many children out past ten.  I love this photo Andy took of row after row of taxis perfectly lined up near Orchard Road on a Saturday night around midnight.  Red on the roof means the taxi is occupied.

The second day after we arrived, I smelled the distinctive and pleasing aroma of buttery caramel corn.  Many visitors to Chicago are familiar with Garrett’s where the lines to get the popcorn treats are always long and the smells inviting.  I looked up and sure enough there was the sign.  Perhaps Singapore’s “Miracle Mile” is an apt description after all – just like Michigan Avenue only on whooping doses of steroids!

Five Nights in Bangkok

Bangkok, Oriental Setting…

We spent five nights in this fascinating city in April.  Our travel plans have moved so fast and furious that I have not yet posted any photos from the Thai capital.  This was a business destination for Andy but we still managed to see a few highlights as a family.

A View of the Grand Palace

I was last in Bangkok fourteen years ago. The city had been my first Asian destination.  I remember the streets being so crowded with cars, tuk tuks and even an occasional elephant.  Now the city has more public transportation, a flashy monorail zooms overhead Louis Vuitton stores.  The traffic is still thick but there as fewer tuk tuks, and no elephants were seen.

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are a highlight of any trip to Bangkok.  They were beautiful in 1998 but appeared more stunning this recent trip.  Certainly as Thailand has gained wealth, some of the money has gone towards restoring the beautiful landmarks, paintings and mosaics.  It is also likely the scorching 104 degree day with fantastically blue sky helped add a glisten to everything.

The Emerald Buddha  in Wat Phra Kaew is the most revered Buddha in Thailand.  Despite its name it is actually made of a form of jade.  It was under scaffolding during my last visit, so I was happy to see it beautifully displayed now.

There are many wonderful details around the complex.

We had a fantastic guide hired at the entrance of the palace grounds.  He would tell the children facts they appreciated about the structures.  Did you know this is a good demon?  You can tell because he is wearing a ring.

Sydney loved the paintings and the story of the Ramakian.  What 2-year-old is not moved by epics involving princess and monkey gods?

Here our guide instructs us how to sprinkle water on our heads with a lotus flower before entering the Wat.

Bangkok is famous for it debauchery and nightlife but I find the people overall very devout.  Many boys spend time as Buddhist monks.  The saffron robes are beautiful and easily visible throughout the city.  

The women are known for their beauty and it is not lost on Aidan.  The dreamy look in his eyes is priceless.  I night be tempted to blame it on mild dehydration from the insanely hot day but I know my son better… I am in serious trouble when he is a teenager.

The grand palace was a stunningly wonderful introduction to Bangkok.  Another time I will share what we did on the other days…

Nikoi Island: Paradise So Close That Feels So Far Away

We have travelled often during our time in Asia and it is difficult for me to choose a favorite destination.  One place that was fantastically beautiful and relaxing lies just 53 miles southeast of Singapore- Nikoi Island, Indonesia.

The island is small only 42-acres in total or in “Nikoi-time”, a 15 minute walk for side-to-side.  It is privately owned and there are only 15 “rooms” – all open-air bungalows.  It is reached by a boat from Bintan Island, Indonesia, which is easy to get to from Singapore by a ferry service.

The resort is an eco-lodge with bungalows that are constructed with driftwood and there is no air-conditioning.  It is also very quiet.  When we arrived, I asked for a key to the room and the staff told me keys are not needed on Nikoi. Wow! Here are some photos of our place which was Bungalow #15.

The resort was very “kid-friendly”.  Many fellow travelers had children.  There were two dining areas one for those with families and one for couples only.  I loved not having to worry about my kids’ antics ruining someone’s romantic night out.  Every night dining featured one set menu of whatever was fresh and local.  

Beautiful Pink Dragon Fruit

One lunch the preschool crowd tumbled around the tables.  Sydney was the ringleader and ended up covered with sand after her adventures.

The pool area had a friendly staff that always provided bananas.  Sydney amused everyone by the amount she could polish off herself. I guess acting like a monkey inspires a similar appetite.

The bar nightly screened a movie for the children while the parents relaxed.  The kids loved Alvin and the Chipmunks and Andy and I liked the quiet time.

Aidan “Jams” with the Bar Band

The island teems with natural beauty and wildlife.

The water was so clear and snorkeling was easy right off the beach.  Aidan was a thrill to watch snorkeling for the first time.  We saw many fish, coral and even a small jellyfish.

We heard a group of Americans rented the entire island the week before we arrived.  How amazing would this place be for a group of friends and family to spend time together!  Hmmm… I do have a big birthday coming up this fall  (hint Andy).  Alas, come next week I will be so far away from this little paradise.   A woman can dream though, can’t she?

Hanging With the Natives on Bali

One day we hired a guide to show us some interesting highlights of central Bali. The first stop was the Taro Elephant Safari Park. This was a hit with the kids, especially Sydney, who has wanted to ride an elephant for months.

We were able to get up close and personal with the pachyderms.

The kids loved to feed this guy. However, he was quite picky and would refuse all but the freshest pieces of bamboo.

Of course the highlight was actually riding on an elephant. Sydney and I sat high atop “Boris.” Andy and Aidan rode the spunkier “Ramona” who stopped a few times for greenery along the trail.

After our safari it was time to see some temples. We stopped at a small lovely place near Taro.

Religion permeates every aspect of Bali life. Offerings are given frequently and everywhere I found myself taking care everywhere not to accidentaly step on them.

Sarongs are worn to honor the religion even by foreigners. Sydney looks very peaceful at this moment in hers.

Aidan who as a child technically did not have to wear the clothing kept asking Andy why he was wearing a “skirt.” We reminded him it was a “sarong,” but I am not sure he appreciated the difference.

Aidan was hungry and short of patience for temple sights so we headed to our next stop the famous suckling pig restaurant of Ubud.

Pigs have been roasting daily here for years. You must get there early or the best cracklin’ is gone.

The food is delivered in a traditional way.

A short walk down the streets of Ubud led us to the aptly named Monkey Forest.

The monkeys were rascally and would steal objects so you had to hold tight to your belongings.

Visitors were not to feed the monkey unless directed by the staff. We were given some bread and taught the proper technique – hold your hand with bread above your head with a startled child by your side.

We enjoyed our outing so much. Unfortunately, we were so relaxed in Bali it has been hard to break our lazy habits. Poor Andy who works the hardest is still trying to get this monkey off his back :).

Balinese Cooking School

One of the greatest pleasures of a trip to Bali is enjoying the local cuisine. We took advantage of a cooking class offered by our resort to learn a bit more about the wonderful flavors we were sampling.

We started the day in a market. Here Aidan barters a price for some chilies.

He must not have been too tough of a negotiator because he made friends easily with the sellers.

We were given a list of ingredients to put in a basket.

I was glad these rice paddy eels were not among the requisite purchases.

After the market, we headed to a village house that has been in the same Balinese family for four generations. Our ingredients were beautifully displayed and we set off preparing our lunch.

The oven was a traditional wood stove. Coconuts were smoked under rice to add flavor. The oven temperature was controlled by our instructor’s breath.

The kids enjoyed helping; here they clean the rice.

Sydney later rinsed the shredded coconut while Aidan helped me with the sambal paste.

Most Balinese people are Hindu and religion permeates all aspects of their lives. Families have their own shrines and offerings are placed before meals. Our hosts helped us honor the deities in a traditional style.

Lunch was served on the edge of a lovely rainforest.

The food turned out beautiful and delicious.

Black Rice Porridge

I am hoping to recreate some of the dishes at home. Now I just have to figure out where to place the wood-burning stove…

Beautiful Bali

We just returned from Bali, Indonesia!  This is our last family trip before we head back to the States in less than two weeks.  It is hard to believe our adventures are winding down.

We saw many volcanos on our flight to Bali

We decided to skip the beach and head for central Bali which is known for its rice paddies and temples.

We stayed at the Amandari Resort.  It was absolutely lovely.  Here is a view of the paddies outside our back door.

The Amandai was so peaceful.  The resort decorated villas of honeymooners with special flags and flowers.  We were surrounded by young starry-eyed lovers.  Hopefully our spirited children did not set back their family plans for too long.

Even though the hotel had a quite romantic feel, the staff was quite welcoming to the kids.  Local children daily practiced dance and preformed for the guests.  The hotel actively preserves and encourages  the local culture which is wonderful.

Here Aidan and Sydney try to get into the act.

My kids love the water.  Here are few pictures of the pool.

…and Sydney in her favorite water spot the outdoor bathtub where she can make all the bubble mess she wanted without getting into trouble.

I look forward to sharing more of this magical place.

Dining with Kids in Tokyo: Hot Griddles and Ninjas

Irasshaimasemeans welcome in Japanese and you hear it shouted as you enter almost ever restaurant.  The food is amazing and incredibly diverse.  In Tokyo we ate at some phenomenal restaurants.  Some I highlighted in other posts, but a few favorites I wanted to specifically share.

Inakaya – from the moment you walk into the restaurant it feels like you have entered a party.  Inakaya is a robatayaki type restaurant which grills very fresh and delicious seafood, meat and vegetables – all of which happen to pair beautifully with sake and beer.   Andy had gone there on a previous business trip and he thought the kids would love it.  He was right!

Aidan Very Happy With Grilled Crab Legs

When we placed an order, the wait staff and cooks smiled and shouted excited phrases at each other.  Even the drink delivery system was fun.  Here is my Sapporo!

This place was a hit with kids and adult alike.  It is the Roppongi area if you are in Tokyo be sure to check it out.

2. Ninja Alaska

Ninjas and food!  What more could you want?  As we entered staff dressed as ninjas led us into the restaurant through “training” over a draw bridge with hidden treasure.

The food was presented with “ninja magic”.  Here a tap on the lid by Aidan helps turn a small egg into a fully cooked quail.

These are not “corks” but edible potatoes.

The grapefruit spilled out smoke when the sword was removed.

Best thing of all was the ninja let the kids hold the sword.

The most magical aspect was even with the ninja theatrics the food tasted wonderful.  After a magic show we were led to a “secret exit”.  Here is a shot of the newly minted warrior family.

Japan already had the kids in love at “sushi,” and with these fun places they are now hooked for life.

Kamakura (Part II): Zen Temples, Tempura and Trolleys

Kamakura, Japan has an astounding abundance of lovely sites. We passed so many shrines that it was difficult to stop taking photos and admiring the beauty. There were certainly too many details for one blog post so here is part II…

There are five major shrines in Kamakura, Kencho-ji  was the first and grandest of the city’s zen temples.

Detail of the dragon on the temple ceiling

The beautiful gold decorations on the doors particularly fascinated me.

Meticulous landscaping contributed to the peaceful atmosphere.

Kencho-ji is home to gnarled cypress trees that arose from seeds brought from China by the founding priest 700 years ago.  It is amazing to think these trees were planted before Columbus set sail for America.

No matter how beautiful, man cannot feast his eyes on temples alone, so we found a lovely restaurant. We sat on tatami mats which the children thought was a fun treat.  Aidan loved the tempura and Sydney adored the noodles.

For dessert we tried a local Dorayaki and ice cream treat.

The kids liked the ice cream but were not so convinced that bean-jam tastes as good as chocolate sauce.

Aidan loves Japan and trains are a big part of his fascination. A ride on the trolley was one of his favorite parts of the day trip.

This thrill was only surpassed by the trolley toy we found which runs on  a puzzle track of Kamakura including the famous “Big Buddha”.  Now we have more than just memories to take away with us.  What more could you want in a single day trip?