What I Did on My Winter Vacation - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
What I Did on My Winter Vacation

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’re in your own little corner of paradise now.”

The words could have been straight from the “just what I’d expect him to say” files — Jeremy is a marketing manager for the resort — yet they were strangely comforting, and proved happily accurate for our family, much in need of a respite, even if brief, from the intense stress and deep sadness of my wife’s father’s death less than a week earlier.

Our trip had been planned eight months prior and was intended to end in Australia with a celebration of Bob Baillie’s 70th birthday (please do click on that link); instead it ended with his memorial service after a brief but brutal battle with merciless pancreatic cancer. But his wife, my mother-in-law, was insistent that we go on our trip as planned because Bob (whom she more frequently calls Rob) had been so enthusiastic about it for us and particularly for our children. Indeed, he had paid for much of it; Bob was always a remarkably generous person.

We had arrived at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort on the northeastern coast of Borneo after spending a couple of blurry jet-lagged days in Kuala Lumpur, the major highlight of which was taking our kids to the Sunway Lagoon, which includes the world largest waterpark ride. We were joined that day by my wife’s friend Kristina, whom she has known since second grade and who lives in KL with her husband, the headmaster (English for “principal”) at a large international school. They enjoy life in Malaysia, and not only because it’s easy to afford a maid. The major downside is that since locals drink very little alcohol, it being a plurality Muslim country with a very Muslim government, beer and wine are taxed heavily in Malaysia, making drinking an expensive proposition — something no good Aussie accepts without complaint.

At Sunway Lagoon in KL (check the giant funnel slide!)
[All pictures displayed in this article were taken and are owned by me or my wife;
none of the pictures linked to within the article were taken by us.

The trip to the resort from the airport at Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, was in its own way noteworthy — and not just because we took Malaysian Airways despite warnings from over-cautious friends and family.

Having some years ago visited the southern part of that same island (the southern 73 percent is owned by Indonesia and called Kalimantan rather than Borneo), I had subconsciously expected — and consciously hoped for — a rather primitive scene: A single airstrip with a small ramshackle terminal. Tribal villages still living in traditional ways some small distance from the airport but perhaps needing a boat to go upriver to get there. People walking down the streets with livestock — often representing most of their family’s wealth. A small number of cars and trucks rattling their way down the few existing paved roads — dodging the man with his goats.

I got something entirely different: A large and modern airport which could have been at any medium-sized American city except for the nearby islands, stunning landscaping, and the flavors at Dunkin’ Donuts which included mango custard, durian (yeech!) and chicken (with little dry bits of shredded chicken “floss” on top). Red-jacketed resort representatives cheerfully helped us, still bleary-eyed from the total of 25 hours of airplane travel (not counting layovers) we had taken in the previous few days, to a perfectly clean and pleasantly air-conditioned Toyota minivan. WiFi access in the minivan allowed me to check my email while driving in Borneo — which I did just so I could say I did. Next came the worst traffic jam I’ve been in for years; the drive to the hotel that was supposed to be about 45 minutes took nearly 2½ hours.

Chicken doughnut at Kota Kinabalu airport

KK is full of typical Asian strip malls with their crazy-quilt of stores: a vacuum store next to a fish market next to a massage parlor next to an Internet café next to a dentist’s office. But on the very next block a multi-story “hypermall” complete with Toys ‘R’ Us, Nautica, Clinique, Mont Blanc, Rolex, bumper cars, and, of course, Love Saloon. Sadly, despite my R-rated musings, it turns out to be a misspelling of “salon”; it’s a barbershop.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”96753″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”360″,”style”:”display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”480″}}]]Why aren’t these people billionaires?

And on the block after that, a ginormous billboard showing an image of a very white couple looking out over the ocean while sipping champagne on the deck of a high-end condominium the developer is hoping to make a few ringgits selling to westerners.

In other words, Kota Kinabalu was neither what I expected nor what I really wanted from the exotic locale of Borneo, which I had long associated with headhunters, orangutans, and impenetrable jungle.

I’ll come back to the subject later, but we would soon be convinced that the national sport of Malaysia is shopping — although Sepak Takraw (kick volleyball) needs to be seen to be believed.

The good news: While the city itself was uninteresting, Rasa Ria ended up being the best overall resort experience my family has ever enjoyed. Imagine a beach more than a mile long with beautiful sand, 80-degree water with waves just right for kids to swim and boogie board, and almost no people interrupting the view. The resort is surrounded (except for the beachfront) by tropical jungle and 64 acres of land containing the region’s only orangutan rehabilitation center, making a near-perfect setting.

Our room overlooked a pool, palm trees, sand, and then the South China Sea, and at night, probably 50 miles away, you could see a glowing orange light, like a fallen sun, of gas flaring from an offshore oil rig. The food was great — especially the buffet breakfast, at which you could get everything from Malaysian curries to waffles to pain au chocolate to the most delicious green guava juice. The Indian food at their Naan restaurant was some of the best we’ve had — and my wife and I have each been to India three times.

View from our room at Rasa Ria Resort

The kids and I took an interesting excursion: a boat ride up a local river seeing traditional fishing villages — crudely built houses built on stilts over the water. The children in those families, I learned, don’t attend school. Their parents just teach them the traditional ways of fishing, not least so that the parents — who never earn enough to save for their old age and have probably never set foot in a bank — will have someone to take care of them in their latter years. It’s a tough cycle to break, but eventually it will have to be broken.

Drinking from coconuts in a fishing village

 What particularly stood out for us, though, was the people at Rasa Ria. Every staff member we met — and we met many — was smiling, helpful, friendly, and made you feel like a truly welcome guest. I asked one woman, Elizabeth, who had helped put aloe on my 6-year old son’s back after I, in a feat of terrible parenting, allowed him to get sunburned on our first day there, whether her name and similarly western names of many of her colleagues were their real names or whether they had chosen monikers that would be easy for tourists to pronounce. Her response: “You’ll see a lot of names like mine; we’re Christians.”

Elizabeth explained that Sabah is a model for cultural and religious harmony, with Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists all living near each other in villages and getting along well. (Nobody I met had ever even heard of a Jew.) It was just before Christmas and she said that her Muslim neighbors gladly came to her place for a Christmas party. So I wasn’t surprised to read a newspaper article quoting a high-ranking political official saying that the rest of the country should look to Sabah as a model for getting along.

Perhaps Sabah should export some Muslims to Afghanistan and Syria and Paris to teach their co-religionists how not to behave like barbarians. (One of the best articles I’ve seen castigating “moderate” Muslims for their silence in the face of evil was written by a Malaysian woman.) Instead, Sabah’s politicians worry that the increasingly shrill Islamic tone from parts of the Malaysian peninsula may infiltrate their mostly harmonious society.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an orangutan up close, particularly in the wild, but they are truly amazing creatures and genetically among the closest animals to humans with about 97 percent of DNA in common (less than the commonality with a chimpanzee, but orangutans seem much more human to me). It’s no wonder that the word orangutan means “man of the jungle.” Their current range outside of captivity is limited to Sumatra and Borneo so it is in those places that poachers capture orangutans, whether adult or juvenile, to be pets for people with more money than sense. Accidents happen as well, so varying events can leave a young orangutan without a parent to teach it to survive in the wild.

That’s where orangutan rehabilitation centers come into play: they, working with governments, nurse injured animals to health and work toward being able to re-release orphaned orangutans back into the wild. What makes the Rasa Ria resort unique is that it includes its own orangutan sanctuary as part of a nature reserve that also aims to boost populations of orangs and other local animals like the barking deer. To be able to walk from one’s hotel room into a jungle to see orangutans eat and climb and play was, especially for our kids, magical.

My kids at orangutan preserve at Rasa Ria


Orangutan at Rasa Ria

My daughter in the Rasa Ria nature reserve

After six much-needed days of relative calm, given the emotional intensity of the situation, about a dozen the Rasa Ria staff sent us off with a Christmas-themed farewell song that added to our disappointment at leaving our own little corner of paradise, and we headed back to Kota Kinabalu airport, returning for just one day — Christmas Eve — to Kuala Lumpur, a bustling city of about 1.6 million people (larger than all but four American cities).

We spent part of the afternoon braving our way through the insane KL Pavilion shopping mall — nearly 1.4 million square feet with over 500 stores and restaurants.

Kuala Lumpur is nearly half Muslim and another 35 percent Buddhist. Only about six percent of the population is Christian. But you’ve never seen a more enthusiastic Christmas celebration than at the Pavilion. Tall Christmas trees (plastic, of course; this is Asia.), motorized snowmen and Santas, young people dressed as elves and fairies and Sesame Street characters dancing to Christmas songs. A small (maybe 15-20 feet tall) Ferris wheel with five cabins that an adult could just squeeze into with a child. Three dollars, five slow-moving minutes, one happy kid.

It seemed like the entire population of KL was in the mall — and all enjoying the spirit of the day. Sikh men in turbans, Muslim women in headscarves, European and American ex-pats, all were enthralled by the hugeness of the spectacle, all were smiling while watching children reveling in wonderment.

KL Pavilion on Christmas Eve

Malaysia isn’t a rich country. Average salaries are around a third of the compensation for similar jobs in America, Europe, or Australia. Yet, in the rest of the mall, literally thousands of people were shopping at fancy, expensive stores including European brands such as Chopard, Gucci, Bulgari, Prada, Armani Jeans, Jurlique, and many more. Tom Lehrer would admire the sheer consumerism of Malaysians and their unexpected Christmas spirit.

While my wife took my daughter looking for shoes (without success since our kids are not clad in Gucci), I took my son to kill some time (the fate of all men who accompany females to malls; might as well teach my son these basics early in life). My son was hungry, so I took him to his first “sushi train.” Few better restaurant experiences for kids than picking their own small plates of food off a moving conveyor belt.

In many overseas travels, the only English language television available is the BBC or CNN International, and we had been watching a little bit of news during the trip which resulted in our talking to the children — very briefly and superficially — about Islamic radicals. Malaysia being largely Muslim, there are women in burkas walking around (as well as girls in full-body swimming clothing — Islamic swimwear — at the waterpark).

Our kids had first seen such attire a couple of years earlier when we briefly visited Abu Dhabi and Kuwait (not the most exciting places, though some Kuwaitis were very kind to us as Americans). Back then when we asked, “What do you think of the women who are completely covered in black?” the answer we got was, “You mean the ninjas?” This time, my daughter asked with at least slight trepidation, “Are they part of ISIS?” We explained otherwise but were reminded how a little knowledge can be dangerous.

On the other hand, we were reminded that people can be dangerous, too, when someone interviewed on local television news responded to devastating floods in Malaysia by saying that they were Allah’s punishment for the people not adhering strictly enough to sharia law.

There’s nothing like trying to take in as much of a city as possible in less than 24 hours to make you hit the highlights, but we didn’t have the chance to get to the famed Petronas Towers or the KL Tower. I didn’t really mind. I’ve seen a lot of tall buildings, though Malaysia’s own “Twin Towers” were for six years the tallest buildings in the world (now surpassed by several others, including a behemoth of a building in Dubai).

Kuala Lumpur selfie with KL Tower and Petronas Towers

In KL, we stayed in a small hotel a block off Jalan Alor, the single greatest street for food that I’ve ever been to and an incredible spectacle at dinner time with rushing waiters and waitresses serving throngs of hungry people over about two blocks of mostly outdoor seating.

As a belated birthday present for my daughter, we ate at Restoran Dragon View, where I had a great and very spicy hot and sour soup along with frog with dried chilies. (Tastes much like chicken but smaller pieces with plenty of small bones.) My daughter had butter crab, and I’ve never seen her dig into a meal with as much enthusiasm — not even chocolate cake. If it sounds like Malaysia is a great place for food, there’s good reason.

Happy kid eating butter crab in KL

My son likes it spicy!

There are a lot of massage shops in the neighborhood and an hour-long massage can be had for about $20 (65 ringgit). I’m not really into massages but my kids loved their “fish massage,” putting their feet into a tank holding a couple hundred small nearly-white catfish that aggressively nibble dead skin cells off the feet and calves. It’s not for the ticklish but somehow, with a lot of giggling and splashing, my kids got through it.

Malaysian Fish Massage

On Christmas Day, we flew to Singapore on Air Asia. (Just a couple of days later, another Air Asia flight to Singapore, though originating in Indonesia, crashed into the Java Sea.)

Unlike affordable Kuala Lumpur — and despite having somewhat similar demographics and being only an hour away by airplane — Singapore is not cheap. When I say “not cheap,” I mean that in 2014 it was rated as the most expensive city in the world to live in. Taxis are a good deal. And “hawker markets,” much like on the food streets in KL, are inexpensive and awesome. And hotels aren’t too bad. But that’s about it for prices that don’t make you grimace, in part because Singapore, much like Hong Kong, has no natural resources (other than its very resourceful people) and must import roughly 100% of things you want to buy.

Yummy food at Seah Im Food Center, Singapore

Overall, Singapore is clean and well-disciplined due to its disciplinarian government — you remember the American teenager caned 20 years ago for vandalism and their disapproval of chewing gum (including a ban on importing gum, though not a ban on chewing it.)

I’m surprised that Barack Obama has been to Singapore even once given his inability to stop chewing gum even when doing so is utterly inappropriate. It’s embarrassing to have a president who acts on the world’s biggest stages like a cow chewing its cud.

Overall, Singapore seems pleasant and safe if somewhat sterile — a description that neglects the fact that it has a dynamic economy fueled by something much closer to capitalism than we have in 21st century America.

Though Singapore is less free than in Hong Kong, its per-capita GDP is about US$55,000 per person, by far the highest in Asia (excluding Macau, the world’s largest gambling destination, whose population is only one-eighth that of Singapore’s) and as compared to $53,000 in the USA, $45,000 in Germany, $38,000 in Hong Kong, and only $10,500 in Malaysia (obviously much of the country outside of KL is quite poor).

A taxi driver told us that several decades ago Led Zeppelin was prohibited from playing a concert in Singapore because the band members’ hair was too long; they told Robert Plant and Jimmy Page that they could visit if they cut their locks; you can imagine how that went over. Apparently the ban on long hair ended about 20 years ago, but the cab driver does not forgive or forget.

The Orchard Road shopping district would have a similar description to the shops at the KL Pavilion except that it is blocks and blocks long along a wide beautiful avenue. It’s also less crowded, as rich expats — Singapore is home to many western investment banks and their rich traders and their bored housewives — shop at their leisure. Like KL, it’s amazing to see on Christmas.

One of the great treasures of Singapore is its zoo. (You’ll notice a distinct animal-enjoying theme on this trip, probably typical for people traveling with two children between the ages of 5 and 10.) While not huge by international standards, it’s beautifully laid out with animals roaming in enclosures that mimic their natural (or at least enjoyable) habitat and almost no cages (except for birds.) My wife got to see her favorite animal, somewhat ironic since they’re native to Borneo but hard to find in the wild these days.

You could spend half a day watching the Singapore zoo’s Hamadryas baboons, but the truly great experience is breakfast with the orangutans. Yes, back to the orangs. While the buffet food is ordinary and the scene somewhat hectic, to be able to get within a couple of feet of a family of orangutans, get your picture with them, and watch them while you eat (and somehow hope they’re also watching you) is literally awesome.

At the Hamadryas babboon exhibit, Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo breakfast with the orangutans

Orangs at Singapore Zoo breakfast

As in every culture, you run across some amusing things while traveling. One such moment was at a big mall in the Harbourside neighborhood where I noticed a “Baby Spa” shop (there are seven locations in Singapore, and you too can get a franchise!): Infants are put into a glorified hot tub in round inflatable floats and introduced to swimming while parents hover as if they’re watching something between Michael Phelps winning the gold and Jesus walking on water — and taking more pictures than either of their mothers would have. And of course no trip to the pool would be complete without a baby massage.  I kid you not.

Ad in front of Singapore Baby Spa

Finding Singapore’s Michael Phelps at the Baby Spa

Cultural differences and amusements aside, Singapore feels like the Land of Opportunity, like a place for an entrepreneur to go in the 21st century while the United States is still trying to decide whether to extract itself from sinking ever deeper into the tar pit of Progressivism, over-regulation, and the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama and while sclerotic Europe follows its all-but inevitable slide into multicultural redistributionist impotence.

My wife and I were feeling a little punch-drunk (though we were in fact entirely sober) while waiting for our plane leaving Singapore. It being the 21st century, we sat with our backs to each other in the gate waiting area, sending WhatsApp messages with our cell phones over Changi Airport’s WiFi rather than actually talking. Our heads were approximately two feet apart.

(The politically correct among you should skip this paragraph.) After hearing a couple of announcements over the PA system, we felt inspired to have a little fun at the expense of East Asian elocution. When, for example, my wife texted, “Who’s frying this prane?” I responded, “I think it’s the pirate.” Yes, it could hardly have been any more politically incorrect and we attracted a few funny looks because neither of us could stop laughing. We declined to explain our amusement to the kids who, fortunately, were busy watching an equally inappropriate horror television show on a gate-area TV. For the record, if any Asians want to make fun of how I speak (or look or walk or eat or whatever) I have no objection whatsoever.

From Singapore, we made the somber trip to Australia, where we, along with my wife’s siblings and mother and extended family and friends, attended my father-in-law’s memorial. In its own way, it was a celebration — though tears were not in short supply. Bob’s coffin with his family tartan laid on it (Bob was very proud of his Scottish heritage) rested at the front of the room while a few people offered their thoughts and memories on his passing.

Bob Baillie’s Baillie Clan tartan and sporran

My daughter cried a lot; she was very close with “Pa.” My son, slightly too young to fully understand the significance of the day, looked around the room frequently to see how other people were reacting. Nothing you can say to a child about how to behave matches the impact made on them from seeing how you and other adults actually behave. I wished I had been a fly on the wall of his mind as he processed the intensity and solemnity of the moment.

Following the ceremony, there was a reception at a nearby location where I had the chance to meet my wife’s extended Aussie family. So many wonderful, fascinating people from teenagers to folks in their 80s; even after passing, Bob Baillie made my life a little more interesting.

Unfortunately, my wife’s 101-year old grandma (her mom’s mom, not Bob’s mom) couldn’t make it, but we visited her soon after. Her hearing and vision aren’t great but her mind is sharp and there’s something special about having my kids spend time with their great-grandmother. And something special for me just to hear stories from someone who was born before World War I.

With my kids’ great-grandma, Connie Napier

One of the most remarkable things about the day of the memorial was the number of friends from Bob’s childhood days at the 150-year old Ipswich Grammar School showed up. These weren’t people who hadn’t seen him in decades and just showed up out of the blue; Bob had kept steady friendships with people he’d known for 50 or 60 years despite sometimes living far away and despite his financial success, something we’ve all seen change people’s personalities. Bob was a great man, enormously (and silently) charitable, a great father (and father-in-law), a true friend and mentor to many (including me), the best storyteller I’ve ever known and truly an inspiration, with wisdom and humor always on tap for anyone who needed either.

While in Australia and dealing with the roller-coaster of emotions and family dynamics that inevitably accompanies such an event, we did manage to have a little fun.

My kids checking out jellyfish on the beach in Australia

I took the kids to the Currumbin Animal Sanctuary (the second time they’ve been there) where you can have a picture taken with a koala, watch huge and aggressive salt-water crocodiles (one named Boss Hog) jump out of the water to grab whole (plucked) chickens.. The highlights for the kids, though, was sitting with and petting a kangaroo. I saw my favorite animal. And I loved the traditional Aboriginal dance show (including the mysterious sound of the didgeridoo) — which I participated in at the end when nobody was volunteering to join them and the leader was taunting the audience, “Are there any men here today?”

Currumbin Animal Sanctuary

We also took a great day trip with my mother-in-law to Tamborine Mountain, about an hour west of the Gold Coast, where despite the rain we enjoyed a nice hike in the cool rain forest, ate a pleasant breakfast on a street of restaurants, galleries, and quaint shops, and bought a couple of bottles of wine including a Muscat that I’m really looking forward to trying after dinner some night soon. (It was the last fortified wine made by the winery’s founder before he died, so no more of it will ever be made. Somehow rarity and knowing a personal story of the vintner make wine taste even better.)

Tamborine Mountain Rain Forest

Ice cream brings smiles even during tough times

As you can imagine, our winter vacation was a bitter-sweet experience, working through deep sadness but happy to enjoy 80 degrees and beaches instead of a Colorado winter. More importantly, we remain truly grateful for the opportunity to expose our children to different countries, foods, cultures, the diversity of the human experience, and the unmatched adventure of travel — something I’ve been addicted to since my parents instilled in me (by the time I was 9 years old) a love of all those things.

In loving memory of Robert James Maxwell Baillie

Bob Baillie proudly walks his daughter (my wife) down the aisle


My kids loved their “Pa”

Aboard the QE2

Bob loved life and lived it to the fullest

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