Category Archives: Travel

Penang, Malaysia: Monkey Beach

I knew next to nothing about Penang, Malaysia before Jake and I were told by EFL (the language school that handles our visa and work permit, and the same school where we took our TEFL course) that we would go there to get our Thai visa.

We found out that our paperwork was ready just 3 days before our visa expired, so we very quickly planned a trip to leave Thailand 2 days later.  The last minute planning and surprise destination resulted in a great mini-vacation, and we ended up really enjoying our time in Penang.

penang map
Penang is a state on the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia

Other bloggers have covered travel, accommodation, and things to do in Penang pretty extensively, but the next few posts are some long overdue highlights from our 3 day visit over Thanksgiving 2015.

Motorbike ride along the coast and Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach is a small beach in Penang National Park in the North-West corner of Penang Island.

We took a very scenic 30 minute motorbike ride from our hotel the Kimberley House, along the coast, to the entrance to Penang National Park.

From the entrance you can either do an hour and a half long hike, or take a boat to get to Monkey Beach.  If we had had more time and worn better footwear,  we would have wanted to explore more of the National Park; but we arrived in the mid-afternoon wearing sandals, so we decided to take a boat over to the beach.  There are a number of small stands at the entrance offering tours and boat rides.  I can’t remember how much we paid, but I believe the boat ride to Monkey Beach is usually about 50RM (~$11USD).

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walking out to the boat
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Boat ride to Monkey Beach: enjoying the ocean for the first time since moving to SE Asia 3 months before

The beach itself is small and relaxing with very clear, beautiful water.   Since Malaysia is a majority Muslim country (61% of the population in Malaysia overall, and 45% of the population in Penang are Muslim), we felt a little uncomfortable spending too much time in our bathing suits.  From what I’ve read, if you go to a hotel pool or touristy beach where there are lots of foreigners, bikinis are the norm.  In general, bikinis and bathing suits are fine at the beaches in Penang, but when we visited Monkey Beach the only other visitors were Malay who swam fully covered from head to toe.

I did wear my bathing suit to go swimming and the water was very warm and surprisingly easy to float in.  However, I spent the majority of my time on the beach, in a t-shirt and long shorts, and felt completely comfortable.

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Monkey Beach is named for the crab-eating macaque that live there.  Within a few minutes of our arrival the macaque emerged from the trees to roam the sand and try to eat our food.  

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Despite their name, the macaque do not eat crabs and instead eat mostly fruits, seeds, and a variety of plants and animals.  They are amazing to see up close, but after some time spent monkey-viewing I felt like I couldn’t relax on the beach too much, or else the macaque would steal our stuff!  

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Many macaque, especially those that live in places like Monkey Beach, are not afraid of humans at all. They steal food both from garbage cans and directly from people.  One study found that 14% of the macaque’s diet came from food provided by humans.  I was a little afraid of some of them, and did surrender Jake’s backpack to a sneaky macaque at one point, but Jake had no problem getting it back.

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My favorite was the infant macaque latched onto his mother’s stomach.

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At low tide the beach was covered in sand dollars and some of the fastest moving snails I’ve ever seen.

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Jake learned that sand dollars are a thing for the very first time (how has he never heard of a sand dollar?!).

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Monkey Beach is a great place to relax and read a book in a hammock or on one of the lounge chairs (find a spot away from the monkeys!), see some macaque up close, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

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Have you visited Monkey Beach in Penang? Would you like to?
More about Penang coming soon!

Christmas in NY, New Years in Bangkok

With my re-entry permit freshly stamped in my passport, I flew to New York on 12/23 in order to spend Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family, and Christmas day with my dad’s side, just like I have in years past.  It was wonderful to see my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends after being out of the country for the last 4 months.

Lunch with my mom and sister
The Santomauro’s on Christmas Day!

After a relaxing 6 days in New York, I flew to Bangkok where I met Jake for New Years Eve.

New York to Shanghai, 7 hour layover, then Shanghai to Bangkok for a 27 hour trip. Better than the 3 flights and 36 hours it took me to get from Chiang Mai to New Jersey on the way there!

We spent the night at the Grand Swiss Hotel in Sukhumvit, a popular Bangkok district known for shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.  The guesthouses we usually stay in in Thailand have all been very cute, clean, and have everything we could need; but the Grand Swiss is pretty luxurious by comparison which was really nice for New Years Eve.

After getting ready for our night out in the city, we started off at 180° Lounge on the top floor of our hotel.  The 180° Lounge has a little roof-top bar where we sat overlooking the city.

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180° views of Bangkok

After enjoying the view and our buy one-get one 50% off cocktails, we decided to hit the streets of Bangkok.

Bangkok had a number of things going on for New Years Eve.  We decided to avoid the crowds at CentralWorld (similar to Times Square in New York City where there were thousands of people, live bands and DJs, a beer garden, fireworks, etc.) and instead go to one of the many rooftop bars Bangkok is known for.

We wandered the streets for a bit and quickly found the countdown party at Aloft Bangkok‘s Splash pool bar.  For a set price of 899 baht ($25) we get entrance to a rooftop pool party with unlimited food and drinks until 1am.  This is extremely cheap by US standards (especially for all you can eat and drink on New Years Eve!), but pretty pricey for our typical budget here in Thailand.  We normally spend about $1-2 per meal or drink, maybe $7 per day at most if we eat western food.  However, we decided it was worth it and bought two tickets.

A “pool party” was a bit of an overstatement.  There was a pool, but no one was in it.  This party had much more of a chill, lounge atmosphere with bean bag chairs scattered all over the roof.   We arrived about 30 minutes after the party had started so all of the prime bean bag real estate was already claimed, but this actually worked out better for us as it kept us moving around and mingling after each trip to the barbeque or the bar.

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DJ Zaar about to start the party

The best part of the party was the excellent people watching.  The relaxed atmosphere, mixed with an all you can eat and drink rooftop bar, drew a very interesting crowd.  We witnessed groups of Thai 20-somethings, very drunk foreigners, families complete with pre-school aged children (including a little girl in a princess costume who I think had more fun twirling around the roof than anyone else at the party), bored foreigners falling asleep in the beanbag chairs, and 60+ year old couples, all at the same party.

Jake and I had a great time commentating on the crowd, eating an endless supply of kebabs from the barbecue, and drinking bottomless  cocktails, wine, and champagne by the pool.
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Our one-night stay in Bangkok was a nice way to end a year where we moved across the world, and started entirely new careers.  I am definitely looking forward to seeing what this next year in Thailand has to offer.  We have lots of exciting plans underway,so follow my blog to get all of the updates :-).

Happy New Year!

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Thai Culture and Etiquette 101

Thai culture is extremely interesting.  I am by no means an expert (I’m an American, and I’ve been living here for all of three months), but most of what follows is not only based on my experience living and working here, but was also taught to us on Thai cultural day during our TEFL course.

Temple etiquette

Thailand is 95%  Buddhist and there are over 300 Buddhist temples, or wats, in Chiang Mai alone.  When visiting a Buddhist temple you should be sure to cover your thighs, chest, and shoulders–men wear long pants; and women wear pants, skirts, or shorts that go below the knees.  Everyone should wear shirts or blouses with sleeves so that the shoulders and chest are covered.  In some wats, visitors wear all white or a white top with black pants or long skirt, although in my experience this is rare.

Take off your shoes before entering the temple.  You will see shoes lined up outside of the temple, so just follow the lead of everyone around you and leave your shoes outside.

When entering the temple you should step over the door threshold, rather than on it.

In a Buddhist temple, women kneel  with the tops of their feet flat on the ground and sit on their heels.  Men kneel  with just the  balls of their feet on the ground and the soles of their feet facing straight behind them, and sit on their heels.

Monks are highly respected in Buddhism and Thai culture.  Women should never touch a monk.

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The head and feet

In Thailand, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body.  Therefore you should never touch another person’s head (there are obvious exceptions for hairdressers, doctors, masseuses, etc. as well as some exceptions for children).

You also should never point your feet at anyone, as the feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.  Accidentally pointing your feet at someone mostly occurs  when westerners cross their legs while sitting, or while sitting in a chair with their legs outstretched.

Similarly, this is why you take your shoes off before entering some houses or buildings in Thailand, and always at a temple.  You also should never raise shoes to unnecessary heights, or have shoes hanging loosely tied to a piece of luggage.

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The Wai

The wai (pronounced ‘why’) is both a greeting, and a sign of respect.

In any given social situation, the Phu Noi (little person) wais the Phu Yai (big person) first.  This is usually based on age and status, but a number of different factors can come into play.  I always wai first my employers, the director at a school I am visiting, or someone who is clearly older than me where we do not know each other’s status or position.  When in doubt, it’s probably better to wai first.  You do not need to wai someone you are paying for a service such as waiters or taxi drivers.

If someone wais you and you do not return the wai, it is considered very rude–similar to if someone goes to give you a handshake in the west and you leave them hanging.  Obviously Thais are understanding of foreigners and that you may not understand their culture and traditions, so it’s unlikely you really will offend someone by not returning a wai as a visitor, but it’s much more respectful to understand how to wai appropriately.

There are three stages of the wai:

  1. A first stage wai is for someone of equal status to you, or when acknowledging and returning a wai from someone of lower status.  To first stage wai you place your plams together and equally lower your head while raising your hands until your index fingers touch the tip of your nose.
  2. second stage wai is for waiing someone of higher status.  This includes elders, teachers, parents, or your boss. To second stage wai you place your palms together and  lower your head while raising your hands until your thumb touches the tip of your nose and your index fingers touch the center of your forehead between your eyebrows.  In a second stage wai you bow your head slightly more than you would in a first stage wai.
  3. third stage wai is for the King, the Buddha, or monks.  You third stage wai while kneeing (as described above).  To third stage wai you start with a second stage wai (thumbs to nose and index fingers to forehead) and then follow that by bringing your hands to the ground in front of you and bringing your forehead to touch your fingers on the ground.  

In a temple you third stage wai the Buddha three times–once to the Buddha, once to the Buddha’s teachings, and once to the monks.

Thai Temperament

Thais value “jai yen” or a “cool heart”.  In general, Thais are very laid back and you will hear “mai pen rai” very often.  “Mai pen rai” can not be directly translated to English, but it is often interpreted to mean “never mind”, “it’s ok”, or “no worries”.  To relax and go with the flow is a very positive attribute in Thailand.

Thais are said to openly avoid confrontation (for anyone who knows me well, this is obviously something I kind of love).  However it also means that if a Thai has a problem with you, you probably won’t know it.  This goes back to an important concept of ‘losing face’.   It is very important in Thai culture not to ‘lose face’ so Thais would rather avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation (or person they don’t like) than to have any form of confrontation or disagreement.

It is also considered a major faux pas to outwardly express extreme negative emotions, so expressing anger or loosing your temper in public is frowned upon and causes you to “lose face”.

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Pretty easy to have jai yen here


Thais do love to have fun (“sanuk”) and therefore all activities should have an element of fun–including work and school.  This is a very important cultural point for teachers.  On our very first day of school, Jake and I were asked by our supervisor if we could “make activities for learning”.  We need to include creative ways to keep the kids having fun and engaged in order to ‘trick’ them into learning.  Traditional teaching methods of lectures and worksheets and sitting at their desks for the entire 50 minute period just doesn’t fly here.

Similarly, it is not uncommon to see Thais at work, in a variety of work settings, laughing and joking and having a wonderful time.

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Having fun during afternoon STEM activities!

Other random cultural points

Appearance is very important.  Sometimes how you look and dress will mean more than other qualifications to show signs of status, or even to get a job.  It is important to be well dressed and clean.

First day of school
Dressed to impress on the first day of school

Thais use their first names rather than last names.   Teachers are called “Teacher” or “Kru” (which means ‘teacher’ in Thai)  followed by their first name.  For example, I am “Teacher Nicole” at school, not “Mrs. Geller” as I would be in the west.  Outside of the classroom this still applies, and people are usually introduced with the title “Khun” followed by their first name; rather than Mr. or Miss/Mrs./Ms. last name as you would be introduced in the west.

Beckoning a songthaew, taxi, tuk tuk, or another person is done with the hand down.  To a westerner the symbol almost looks like you are shooing someone away–but in Thailand this is how you call someone over.  As a westerner it can be a little confusing the first time you see it.

In Thailand, you eat with a spoon and fork.  You hold the spoon in your dominant hand, and use the fork to push food onto the spoon, and then bring the spoon to your mouth.  The exception is when eating noodles or certain other dishes, which you eat with chopsticks.

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Hope this helps!  As always, contact me with any questions.  I’d love to hear about any upcoming trips to Thailand!