Don’t Miss: Coconuts

26 Aug


That tree on the Penang flag?  It’s actually a betelnut pinang,  but it seems to be the only thing on this island not associated with coconuts.  I’ve learned to make coconut a part of my life here, and am much happier for it.

First of all, the coconut palms that sway near the sea, line Hollywood (er, Codrington) Avenue and shade our garden make for a perfect tropical backdrop.  They are gorgeous, and not too dangerous with regular care of a gardener and his tree climbing skills.  My kids love to play with the little ones that fall down, and we’ve sprouted and planted some out on Gurney drive.  Escape even has a coconut tree climbing contest.  The prize?  A fresh coconut.

Is there anything more refreshing than ice cold fresh young coconut in a shell?  It’s my favorite hawker beverage to order, is 100% natural and helps replace all those electrolytes you sweated out walking over to the hawker.  If you like having your own at home, invest in a 20RM parang from the hardware shop, and get “shaved” pandan coconuts from the drive-thru vendor on Abu Siti (you’ll know him by the bandana) and store in the fridge up to 2 weeks.  A personal favorite is the ice-blended coconut from the Tropical Fruit Farm juice bar along Waterfall Rd toward the Botanical Garden. Mmmm…

The old coconuts have a place too.  Each morning at the market, the flesh is ground and squeezed to extract the coconut milk, or santan, that make the curry, nasi lemak and siam laksa world go round.  This milk so so fresh and delicious, be sure to use it that day.  It doesn’t keep long.  If you can’t make a trip for the fresh stuff, every grocery store has a huge selection of boxed and powdered milk to use at your leisure at home.  The fresh dessicated coconut from the same market stall can be stored in the freezer for your baking needs.

What else coconut?  Desserts of course!  A key discovery on my first trip to Penang was the local kaya, coconut custard jam sold wherever bread is (personal favorite is the homemade kaya from Continental Bakery on Nagore St).  Kaya also fills pao and is served alongside nyonya blue rice kueh.  Many kueh use coconut with glutinous rice to make their sweet treats, and black rice soup with salted coconut milk is to die for!  I’ve also been impressed with the coconut-milk ice cream alternatives.  The stand that used to be in the basement of Gurney has an outlet on Armenian St, selling ice blocks and gelatos for all dairy sensitive or vegan tastes.

I’ve converted a good portion of my cooking to stable and delicious coconut oil, available in all the organic shops and sections of grocery stores.  Bonus: liquid at room temp in tropical weather!  It’s also amazing as a beauty product (removes even waterproof makeup in a flash), and hair treatment.  My husband swears its antibiotic, and takes it by the Tablespoon as a tonic when he feels something coming on.

AH, the blessed coconut.  I will miss thee.

Don’t Miss: Being Penang Momma

20 Aug

One amazing thing about the Penang community is your ability to be entrepreneurial.  The barrier to entry toward nearly any idea you have is only as high as you let it be.  I’ve had friends here start bootcamps, reign over a booming events empire, open cafes, create training facilities, and run orientations and tours.  Those are the big scale ones.  I’ve also known and appreciated folks to create book groups, play groups and initiate informal running trainings.  Anything you want, need or have an idea for can be done, and it seems so much easier to do it here in Penang.  Maybe it’s the island mentality.

As for me, I started this blog and the discussion board Penang Mommas almost as soon as I arrived on the island.  Searching around online for resources prior to my move, I found it lacking and wanted to do something to fill in that hole.  My endeavor was quite minimal risk, I got a few new acquaintances to agree to their emails going on a distribution list, signed up for a free blog host, and the rest is history.  I’ve elected not to monetize this blog for a few reasons.  I wanted every post and recommendation to be entirely personal and pure.  And I knew this day was coming; the day when I would sign off.

I knew exactly what I wanted Penang Momma to offer you, the readers: a bit of insight into life here with kids, a few jumping off points when you try to piece together a life in a new land, a few tips of things I’ve enjoyed and thought you might too.  And a connection to even just one person on the island going through vaguely the same process as you.  I hope it’s been that for you.

What I did not anticipate is what hosting this site would bring to me.  Not a week goes by when I don’t get “hey, are you Penang Momma?” from a new face in town.  It’s allowed me to be the first contact for a lot of people, through emails, comments and posts, and that has brought me some amazing friendships.  It’s provided a creative outlet in a time of my life which required so much of just keeping things running in the house.  And so for that I say, THANK YOU.

Now for the big question: What is going to happen to Penang Momma?  Technical answer: All content will remain online.  I am letting the domain go ( but you will still be able to find all posts at  Content will continue to age, as I will be not on the ground to update anything, so things will become irrelevant.  Eventually, it will be obsolete.

So… Maybe I need you to help me answer the rest.  Are YOU interested in continuing this journey?  Do you have the overwhelming urge (or even a slight inkling) to share your experiences to benefit others?  Are you interested in becoming a very minor public figure on this tiny island?  Or do you have ideas to take it further…franchise it, or get other writers involved?  Get ahold of me if you feel this way, I’ll be happy to help you get started on the journey, and hook you up with the domain as well.

Best of luck to all you ideas-people out there.  Take a tiny step, you may reap more than you sow…

Don’t Miss: Working Out & Warrior Bootcamp

14 Aug


This post is part 1 of my Leaving Penang Series.  Stay tuned for more of my “Don’t Miss”/”I’ll Miss” posts before we get on a plane in just 5 weeks!

One of the things I’m going to miss most about Penang is exercising here.  Sure, it’s 30 degrees and 100% humidity most of the time, the sun is enough to melt you to a puddle, and within the first 5 steps of a run my body starts to glisten on every available surface (who knew there were sweat glands on one’s eyelids?).  Still, it’s one of my favorite things.  Favorite not necessarily because of the weather, but because of the community that comes along with it.

There is just something about working out with other people.  If they are not your friends now, suffer through three rounds of 10 burpees together and you’re joined for life (or will at least have something to talk about the next day).  If you are a new expat and a bit hesitant about putting yourself out there, meeting up with strangers for an activity that puts everyone in a breathless state will ease the lack-of-conversation awkwardness that accompanies these early get togethers.  And the great news is that Penang has something available for every level and time schedule.

Early days in Penang, I was traveling constantly with my sidekick, a 6-month-old baby boy, and met so many good people through the weekly Botanical Garden Walks.  As my life evolved, I moved more to solo running or meeting up with a few friends, then running groups formed.  There was yoga (and kids yoga!), hiking, hill walking (Mondays, Thursdays), aquarobics, and time at the gym (mine closed, but check out Orient).  These days, I get my kicks, steps and squats in with a few dozen friends during Warrior Bootcamp sessions.

I love the high quality, fun factor of Warrior Bootcamp.  Every workout is different, and the group is fluid, with some folks dropping in and the regulars making it to every session.  I’ve made some great friends and contacts through bootcamp, there is always someone to catch up with or a new face to meet.  I mostly attend to the morning group, full of other expat moms and dads who just dropped kids at school and are celebrating freedom with sprints and pushups.  Occasionally, I check in on some evening and early morning sessions which are populated by another group, mainly working locals, who offer a whole different insight into life in Penang  After participating as a member for about a year, I certified as a personal trainer and became a coach for this amazing group. Seeing its operation and getting to know the founders and other Warrior coaches only heightened my appreciation for what they offer.

I urge you, get outside and enjoy moving.  If it’s not bootcamp, look for something that works for you, or start it yourself!  I’m amazed at the options here, they seem far more numerous than when I arrived.  Check out classes offered at Quayside (BodyfitBatu is women-specific!), join a cycling, duathlon or triathlon group, one of the walking groups, or post up on the discussion board to form another group and find friends to do something else.  I met one of my very dear friends this way, and it’s made every blog post worth it!

Leaving Penang

9 Aug

Today marks my 5-year Penang-iversary.  I can still clearly remember that evening ride to our serviced apartment from the airport (through rush hour factory trafffic!), my husband and I and our 6-month old son watching the scenery roll by as the oppressive mugginess set in. Fond memories.  Now, I am planning the reverse journey.  In six weeks time, our family, my son now a nearly 6-year old, plus our (best-Malaysian-souvenir-ever) 3-yr old daughter will be repatriating to the U.S.

Every expat does this.  Comes and goes.  Don’t I know it!  Each June and December, there’s a myriad of goodbyes to be said and tears to be shed, and viola! a friend to visit in another destination. (A friend once described these friendships as an “investment in retirement” – I love this idea!  The reality of it is a bit harder to swallow.) The farewell impact is lessened slightly by the knowledge that come August and January, a new influx of expats arrives.  Expat friendships bond quickly, there’s an eager openness to this community I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

And this is probably what I will miss most about Penang.  Our fabulous, diverse, welcoming community.  I’ve forged some great friendships here, connected with so many people through this blog and discussion board, learned from experts and specialists from all over the world who come to call Penang, even for a very short time, home.  At times it feels like a small town, you’d better build an extra 5 minutes into your trip to Gurney as you’re bound to run into someone.  I recognize friends driving past by their license plates, and if I get a car honk while I’m running down the road my instinct is to wave (not return a rude gesture as I may in a big city at home).  It’s friendly, it’s cozy, Penang’s been an amazing home

Through a series of posts in these final weeks, I’d like to take the opportunity to let you all know what I will miss most about this little island, a list of don’t-miss for all of you.  So, stay tuned…  For now, I need to get back to packing up my sea shipment!

Linens & Things

17 Jan


A question came through the discussion board the other day – do I need to bring linens from my home country or can I buy decent ones there?  Great question, and one that I believe the answer has shifted on my last 5 years here.  In short, it depends.  Read on.

There are perfectly good bath towels available in Penang.  My favorites come from the Akemi line, although Parkson has a wide selection of other brands as well.  If you love a huge, body length, plush bath towel, bring them from home.  If you like a decent towel and aren’t too picky, you’ll love the ones here. Look for discounts, as they can be pricier than what you can pick up at Kohls in the US.

As for dish towels, there is not a massive selection of cute prints and quirky colors.  If fashion is your game, bring those along.  If you want utility, the primary colored checked towels that can be had at any grocery store are perfect.  I think I own 30.  I picked up a stack of the local “Good Morning” white towels at a linen sale outside Giant one morning, and they are a great souvenir.

Bring your beach towels from home. Period.  Unless you are fine bringing a bath towel to the beach.

Bed Sheets
I have bought all my bed sheets from the various labels at Akemi.  The cotton sheets are available in solid colors in a range of thread counts.  They have worn beautifully, and best thing is you buy one sheet at a time (fitted, flat – both widely available) and pillow cases all separately so you can buy just what you need.

I have also purchased some cotton linen sheets for my kids there (at great prices on sale!), and found the selection and quality to be great.  If your child wants character sheets, those may be worth bringing along.

Bed size may be an issue depending on where you are coming from.  Check out the standard Malaysian sizes:
Single: 191x91cm
Super Single: 191 x 107cm,
Queen: 191 x 152cm
King: 191 x 183cm

Taller than 6’3″?  You may prefer a California King size, in which case you’ll have to ship the whole deal from home – mattress, frame (although you could have one custom made), sheet, etc.

Pillows & Mattress Covers
I’ve been on the perfect pillow hunt here and came out the other side with (more products from) Akemi pillows.  We love the bamboo foam and the plush feather pillows.  They also have a cotton filled naturals line that I picked up for the kids.  Bolster body pillows are standard for beds here and widely available.  If you have another size pillow you prefer, there is a shop in little India that makes custom cushions, also available with natural filling.

The standard pillow cases here are great, with a little pocket that folds over the end of your pillow to keep it inside.  If you have a pillow you really care about, I recommend getting a pillow protector (available at Akemi and other pillow shops) as one tends to be a bit sweatier while sleeping in a tropical climate.

That being said, a Mattress protector (available at Akemi!) is essential too.  If the relative firmness of a Malaysian mattress is not for you, you may consider a foam topper (available from King Koil shops).

Duvets and Gorgeous Things
For the top of my bed, I like something functional but also unique and beautiful.  The best I have found are the Indian Summer blankets available from Zari Collections.  These are a triple layer of fine muslin (the middle is printed and peeks through) that machine wash into the softest blanket.  More than a sheet, but much less than a duvet, they are perfect.  The king is large enough to even go on your California.  The baby blankets make great gifts.  They also sell blankets made from old silk or cotton saris which are unique and colorful, as well as high quality applique quilts.  Best of all, their products support a local community and dying art forms.

More Indian-made quilts are to be had from Sam’s Batik on Penang Rd.  The quality is lower, but so is the price.  If you see something you like, buy it!  Stock rotates quickly.

My Favorite Sources

Parkson, Gurney Plaza, 3F New Wing

Akemi, multiple locations, I like Tanjung Tokong Tesco Complex, 1F

Sim Hup Kee (Pillow Maker), 58 Gereja, 04-2625612

Zari Collections, 012 4256 0649 (Annabel), often at Super Stylish Shopping or arrange to view in their Penang home

Sam’s Batik Warehouse, corner of Penang Rd and Chulia St, just south of Line Clear Nasi Kandar


21 Dec


If you do not yet have a “Go Green” resolution for 2015 – let this be it.  I was so excited to see this composting bay at Straits Green Park last week as I was running around with Warrior Bootcamp.  Straits Green is located between Quayside apartments and Tesco, and the compost bay is adjacent to the community garden, just past the splash pad.  These bins take your plant-based food scraps and turn them into fertilizing compost to feed garden plants which in turn we eat.  Circle of life here!


I have been looking for such an opportunity to reduce, what with all the fruit peels I have each week.  Sure beats worms in a plastic bin on the balcony.  Even if you are not prepared to contribute at this point, go down and read these informative banners on composting, and educate your family on different ways to reduce landfill waste.  Way to go Think Green Penang and the E&O!

Merry Christmas, friends!  See you in 2015!

Five Tips for Surviving Holiday Home Leave

4 Dec

snowy barn

It’s that time of year.  We all take out our cold-weather clothes, and our children’s cold-weather clothes, to either pack or lend to friends heading north.  For those hitting the road, having a matching pair of gloves or a snowsuit in size 4T is just the start of the stressful season.

Here are my top tips for surviving the holiday crush on your Christmas home trip:

  1. Limit House Hopping.  It may sound nice (and cheap!) to spread your time around with a few nights each with lots of friends and relatives, but you are sure to get travel weary very soon.  Instead, install yourself in your own private space and, if you have to switch cities, limit destinations to about 3 in a 2 week period.  Book into a small studio or multi-bedroom house through Airbnb, unpack your suitcase and relax.
  2. Stay Active. We all know exposure to sunlight is a great way to beat jetlag, and exercise reduces stress.  Soak up the cold, get out and move!  Also, when the family cabin fever sets in, announcing “I’m headed for a run” at -5*C is a surefire way to get some alone time.
  3. Control Christmas Capitalism.  No, grandma, I don’t think that toy kitchen you bought Jimmy will fit in my overhead baggage allowance.  Encourage family to stray from the typical material gifts and instead offer something that takes up a little less suitcase space.  Check out this list for 100 non-toy gifts, I love the membership ideas (Hello – Escape pass!)
  4. Host a HUGE Get-together.  Um, is this a less stress solution? YES! Instead of a dozen playdates and dinner parties that have you flitting from one side of town to the other, let the masses come to you. When you arrive, send a mass email or facebook post with a time and place for a general meet up.  We always pick a local grocery store with a cafe and kids play area, and spend a weekend afternoon catching up with lots of folks.
  5. Take Time for your own Family’s Tradition.  Grab your husband and your kids and make some memories for just you – go caroling, drive the subdivision with the best light displays with the Christmas station blasting, go to a service or even pop some popcorn on Christmas eve and snuggle with a film (may I suggest Love, Actually?).

And for those of you enjoying this holiday season in Penang near the pool with a fresh coconut, you already know my super top tip for a fabulous Christmas!

Penang by Bus

27 Nov


Once labeled unreliable, confusing, and maybe impossible, getting around Penang by bus has improved significantly in recent months.  With this month’s launch of some shiny double deckers, the streets are flaunting the new mobility of Penangites.  Here are a few things to check out when planning your journey around the Island.

Rapid Penang Mobile App – Complete with Route Info, time tables and most importantly current location of all the RP buses en route, you can easily plan your trip from your phone.

Penang Hop On Hop Off –  These shiny buses operate on an hourly schedule and offer two loops, City and Beach.  MyHoHo tickets are available for 24 or 48 hours and will soon be available for advance purchase online.  Sounds perfect for your visitors, I’m planning a school holidays field trip atop one of these for my kids!

Pulau Tikus Loop Service – I’m from the loop and I’m proud!  This service is operated by Gurney Plaza and Paragon Malls and runs a circuit around the Pulau Tikus area to help relieve congestion.  It runs at 15-20 min intervals from 8am-11pm. Pick up a map at the info counter at Gurney Paragon.

Photo Credit:

Mangrove Planting

15 Nov



A few months ago, we joined my husband’s work colleagues in Sungai Acheh restoring the Mangrove forest.  A hundred folks gathered early morning at low tide, donned waterproof boots and gloves, then headed out to a roped off area that had been cleared of brush.  There were some taller scrub trees, but no mangroves.  We were soon hard at work removing the mangrove saplings from their pots, placing them into the holes and stomping the wet mud over the top.  An hour later, we had put all 500 trees into the ground and pitched in picking up the litter that rolls in each day with the tide.

On the walk back to the hose off area, we detoured on the elevated walkways and visited the previous plantings, most sponsored by other high tech companies and governments.  It was amazing to see the growth on those little dress just 1-2 years after planting!

Mangrove planting is a great opportunity to give back to the environment of Malaysia.

Psych via Skype

6 Nov


There is no doubt the stress of life abroad and changes associated with making the transition can be taxing on our mental health.  I was recently contacted by the folks over at the Truman Group (that’s their founder up there) who offer a truly unique and niche service – specifically for expats.  Here’s the information they shared with me.

The Truman Group  provides western expats access to quality mental health care. My co-founder, Sean Truman, grew up an expat in Nairobi, and eventually moved back to the US, where he started a psychotherapy practice. He came to realize there was a gap in english-speaking care for people who live outside their home countries. About 4 years ago we began this practice to solve the problem of finding quality psychological care regardless of where you are living. It’s been four years now and we have treated patients living everywhere from major cities to rural areas: multinational execs, NGO workers, diplomats, international school teachers, trailing spouses, adolescent youth. Patients often tell us they would have gone without care if they had not found out about our services.

We seek out who we consider to be among the top psychotherapists in the US (all our practitioners are US-based, trained and licensed). Everyone in our group has either a PhD in clinical psychology or decades of clinical experience or has lived overseas themselves. Many satisfy all three conditions. Our final, and perhaps most important criterion, is whether we ourselves would send our own friends and family to see them. Once a therapist is in our group, we link them with our patients via Skype. We treat everything from anxiety and depression to substance abuse, relationship issues, grief and loss, and dealing with the challenge of living in areas torn by strife.

I feel so strongly about what we do. A recent example is a woman who contacted us from Saudi Arabia. She just had a baby die in childbirth and she literally had no family or friends there to support her. She felt alone in a very different culture and we were able to help her through a very tough time. We have many similar examples and hope to help people in your community as well.

Susan Bernstein
+1 612-276-2240


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