Feb
20

Accommodation Woes on Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta.  The name evokes images of crystal clear beaches, laid back beach lounging, and a family friendly atmosphere.  Yes, Koh Lanta is all that and more.  I must say I am really digging this island.

At the North you have Saladen Town.  It is a small place hyped up on tourism.  There are the obligatory tourist markets, the colourful local markets, plenty of restaurants, and some half decent street food.  It is a fun place to come to get your dose of busy.  Our favourite part of Saladan has been the many restaurants built out over the ocean on stilts.  Upon a recommendation of a friend, of a friend, of a friend we have been frequenting Baifern Noodle Shop.  All kinds of yummy going on over there.

Baifern Restaurant, just down from the pier.  Seek it out and eat there!

Baifern Restaurant, just down from the pier. Seek it out and eat there!

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Looking for fish while we wait for our lunch.

Looking for fish while we wait for our lunch.

Dining with a view.

Dining with a view.

We have also enjoyed frequenting the local market in the evenings which has this crazy Thai carnival going on right now.  It is small, cheap, and a bit dirty but for 30 baht the kids get to bounce for 15 minutes on this bouncy castle.  They come off dripping in sweat and asking to go again.

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Koh Lanta is long and skinny and the West coast is dotted with beaches.  Ahhhh….beaches.  It has been fun exploring the different pieces of paradise.  The kids have been creating architectural wonders in the sand, exploring the sea life at low tide, and snorkelling at high tide.  The beach life is pretty sweet.

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At the other side of Lanta you have Old Town.  A quaint fishing village with century old shop houses, most of which are now filled with tourist paraphernalia.  It is a nice place to take a stroll if you can handle the heat!

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We have been exploring the island with our friends on rented motorbikes. The island is mostly flat and the only real road hazards are the pot holes.  It is a good place to ride, although I do feel that I need to add that we have seen plenty of travellers covered in bandages from motorbike explorations gone wrong.

That us us on the left and our friends on the right. Rockin it four to a bike.

That us us on the left and our friends on the right. Rockin it four to a bike.

And now the accommodation…it sucks.  Ok, Ok, let me preface this by saying that we like to travel by the seat of our pants.  I don’t like pre booking for more than a night or two because I don’t like to commit.  What if we like a place and want to stay longer?  What if we hate a place and want to get out of dodge?  So it is that we find ourselves here in PEAK season.  Not high season, peak season.  The majority of the island is solidly booked up until the end of February.  We have been here almost a week and have spent countless hours on the internet and pounding the pavement to find good accommodation.

All the rooms on the island are overpriced.  We have not found anything with more than one bed for less than 1200 baht and those places are not at all nice.  The first few nights we were in an overpriced agoda room, then we moved on to an overpriced room we found ourselves and took out of desperation, and now, finally, we are in a nice place but are still WAY over budget.

Not only are the rooms overpriced but the people running them are unfriendly.  Are they so jaded from the tourist industry?  Almost everywhere we enquire we get the attitude of ‘I don’t care if you stay because there will be someone else here five minutes after you.”  And while this is probably true it would be nice to get a smile.  At our second hotel the staff was so terrible and uncaring it was our biggest motivation to leave.  Seriously, I would feel a lot better about paying double the price if the staff would at least thank us when they took our money!

So it is that we love Koh Lanta but will probably leave sooner than we would like to.  Serves us right for traveling in peak season.

 

Feb
17

Goodbyes

The best thing we could have done for ourselves and our traveling friends was to split the costs of renting a home on Phuket. It was so good for all of us to slow down our travels and take a breather.  Our days were filled with both relaxing and exploring (and also a very stressful time which I will write about at a later date).  We self catered for most of our meals and instead of being a chore, cooking was a beautiful communal effort amongst the adults with a little help from the kids.  We lounged poolside, the kids played to their hearts content, and each day we chose a different beach to explore.

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Out of all the things I was looking forward to on our trip, traveling with our friends from back home topped out the list.  I pictured amazing explorations, sharing our knowledge of Thailand, discovering great places,  and connecting with our friends on a deeper level than we could ever expect in our lives back at home.  I was not disappointed.

Of course traveling as a large group is not always easy.  It was hard to do too much in a day, hard to make decisions, and hard for the kids to get down time.  As a group we witnessed each others struggles, sometimes with spouses and most of the times with children.  We REALLY saw how we parented as opposed to when we would meet up back at home and be at our parenting best (you know what I mean right?).  We discussed our struggles with our children, our worries, our fears, and were able to sometimes give suggestions but most of the time just commiserate in our shared struggles as parents.

It was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to the B family, the first of us to leave for the winter weather back home.  We drove our rental van (aka Big Bumpy Bus) on the B’s last day from Phuket to Krabi town where they boarded a plane for Bangkok.  We returned the van and we and the W family continued on our adventure down to Koh Lanta.

Goodbyes are never easy and I would be lying if I said I did not shed a tear on our farewell.  We have had one heck of an epic adventure.  While we and the W family are still carrying on with our travels for another month I am still saddened that this part at least is now over.

Feb
07

I Could Get Used To This!!!!

We have been traveling with two other families in Thailand for close to three weeks now.  Our first weeks were jam-packed!  We explored Bangkok, toured the sights in Chiang Mai, rented a van for an epic road trip down the length of Thailand, rode bikes around the ruins in Sukothai, hung out in Prachuap Khiri Khan, and then headed farther south to the beach.

When we were in Prachuap we were unsure of our next destination. We had a few different beach spots in mind but were finding it really hard to find accommodation that would fit all three families as it is high season here.  So what we did instead was do an internet search on accommodation and decided that the accommodation would dictate where we would go, not the destination.  So it was that we found the most beautiful villa for our families on the island of Phuket!

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Our villa has three large bedrooms each with a king sized bed.  Two bedrooms are on either side of the living space and the third is in its own self contained structure.  This has given each family its own private oasis where we can retreat to when we need some alone time.  The living space is pretty huge with a large couch that fits all the kiddos for movie nights.  The kitchen is large enough for all the adults to help contribute to meal time.  There is a great outdoor eating area too, although we have not used it much as the ants tend to take over!  The pool is lovely and refreshing.  Yes, this is about the most luxurious place I have ever lived in.

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We would never have been able to afford staying here on our own as the price tag rounds out to $150 per night.  When split between three families though, the price becomes affordable.

I must say it has been pretty darn sweet living in this beautiful villa with our friends.  Our kids are oh so happy, as are the adults. Having a space for the adults to gather to talk and play games once the kids have gone to bed has made our time here seem like an endless party.  I am also thoroughly enjoying having a kitchen again, as I have really felt the need to have a break from eating all our meals in restaurants.

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The greatest part for me has been the feeling of living in community.  We have created something really special with our friends.  We have settled into a rhythm where we all contribute to the running of the house and the taking care of the children.  Living together has brought us closer as friends and has made us more like extended family.  We are building community and it is awesome.

Yes. I could get used to this.

Feb
02

Angkor Wat Has Ruined Us

I suppose it is a casualty of travel.  When you travel you get to see amazing things. Things that some people only dream of. Things that make you drop your bottom jaw. Things that are considered the best in the world.  Angkor Wat was one of those things for us. We saw a world famous UNESCO heritage site that is definitely in the top 10 of the world.

So it was, that when we found ourselves touring the ruins of Sukothai, our reaction to the ruins was rather….meh.  Yes, we are spoiled travellers.  My oldest son even said, “This is boring.”  Yikes!  Have we ruined our children’s appreciation of anything less than magnificent?

On the brighter side we LOVED LOVED LOVED riding our rented bikes around the Sukothai Historical Park.  Thirty Baht (a little more than a dollar) gets you a bike for the entire day.  And they had kid’s bikes!!!!!  We haven’t rode bikes since the summer so we were pretty stoked to get on some and cruise around the flat grounds while we checked out the ancient temple ruins.

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Jan
28

Wow, That’s A Lot Of Kids!

As you may have read in my previous post, we are now traveling with some very good friends of ours from back home.  Actually this past week we have been with FOUR families.  We have all been exploring Chiang Mai together and let me tell you, we are quite the crowd.  Can you imagine a group of eight adults and nine children exploring a city together?  Everyone seems to stop and have a double take when our troupe arrives.  Waiters rush to put together tables for us at restaurants, people stop on the street and stare, and we even have people take our photographs all over the city!  One of the families has since moved on to other travels and we are now back to traveling as three families including us.  Even though our group is now smaller we still feel a bit like movie stars as people are so often asking (or not asking) to take pictures of our gaggle of children!

Photo credit: backwoods mama.com

Photo credit: backwoodsmama.com

I have found that I have needed to adjust my expectations for our time together with our friends.  It has been hard, logistically speaking, to do very much with such a big group of people.  Even just getting everyone up and out in the morning can be a task in itself and everything takes longer when you are doing things with so many people.  Add  that to the fact that some of the children are still quite young and need a lot of down time and the older children are more than happy to just hang out and play lego together, it has meant that we have not been able to do or see as much as I expected.

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Our time in Chiang Mai has flown by and is almost at a close.  We have taken our friends to our favourite dining spots, explored the amazing sticky waterfalls at Buatong, visited the 3D art museum, the bug museum, introduced the grown ups to Thai massage, got our feet ticked at a fish spa, explored numerous markets, had a day with elephants, and we even caught a movie at the theatre.  Still I feel like we have only brushed the surface of Chiang Mai with our friends.

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It has been SO good for all of us in my family to be surrounded by our friends.  My boys have had constant companions to play with and they rush out of bed every morning eager to start their day of play.  They have been acting as tour guides to our troupe and have been sharing their knowledge of Thailand.  We have had lovely nights of grown-up conversations with our dear friends while our kids entertain themselves. We have even been able to share the child care duty so that some adults could run errands, go get a massage, go out shopping at a night market, or go hang out and play pool.

We will be starting a very big adventures soon.  We have decided to rent a van and drive from Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand to the beaches in the South.  THAILAND ROAD TRIP!!!!  The cost to rent the van ended up being slightly cheaper than getting flights so we have decided to take Thailand at our leisure and drive ourselves to where we want to go.  This way we will get to see more of Thailand, explore some more sights, and always have our own wheels to get us around instead of relying on public transport for our very large group.

Wish us safe and smooth travels!

Jan
27

Learning About Elephants

Visiting the Elephant Nature Park has been on my list of things to do for quite some time.  We had yet to do it as the cost was prohibitive for us at over $80 per adult and $40 per child.  With a generous Christmas present of cash from Grandma we were able to swing it this time and lucky for us our friends that are traveling with us were keen on treating themselves to this experience as well.

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I was unaware of the seemingly rampant mistreatment of the Asian Elephants before visiting the Elephant Nature Park.  From what we learned today the elephant trainers need to “break the elephant spirit” in order to domesticate them to work in tourist camps providing elephant rides and entertainment. This breaking begins when an elephant is four years old and involves putting them in a small box or cage, tying them so they can’t move and then poking them and prodding them harshly for up to a week until the elephant submits.

Many of the elephants at the park have been rescued from abusive handlers.  We saw many elephants who were blind and were told stories of how one was blinded by its mahout using a sling shot to get the elephant to bend to his will, another by being in the circus and having decades of flash photography ruin her eye site.  We  met an elephant who had a broken hip from being hit by a truck, another with a mangled foot from stepping on a land mine, and one with a broken leg from being overworked.  It was a sobering experience for us all.

At the Elephant Nature Park there is no show. There is no riding of elephants.  In fact I felt that the interaction with the elephants to be somewhat lacking.  But after learning more about the situation of elephants I feel this is not a bad thing. The elephants are not chained and are free to roam the grounds.  They come when they know there is food to eat and at such times we were able to feed them and touch their bristly bodies.  They allowed absolutely no touching of the two baby elephants (except from their mahouts) and at one time we even had to run from a baby elephant who was being “naughty” when he kept coming up to our group to play.  Apparently this is a dangerous thing because the babies are not separated from their moms as they would be in a traditional camp and, as we all know, mamas can be fierce in protecting their young!

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We were able to observe the elephant herds from a safe distance throughout our day and we even got to give an old lady elephant a bath in the river.  We used buckets to splash the grandma elephant until she was clean and then of course, once the elephant decided she had had enough, our children gave each other a cool down in an all out water fight!

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DSCN2819Visiting the Elephant Nature Park was a day of education for us. We learned about the bad side of the elephant tourist industry and were able to observe free roaming elephants who are cared for and loved.  Although it was an expensive day for us I feel very good that our money went to support such an amazing not-for-profit organization.  Of course the best part of the day was that our children walked away from our day with a once in a life time experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.

 

Jan
19

The Ultimate Homeschooling Field Trip

It all started over a lovely dinner with friends before our family left home for Asia.  Sitting around the dinner table, sipping wine and drinking beer, we started to discuss the possibility of having the two families we were dining with come to travel with us in Asia.  That seed of an idea sprouted and the two other families solidified their plans, talked to bosses and partners, figured out the time off work and funding, and bought tickets to Bangkok!

The B family (who has their own blog, BackwoodsMama) will be with us for one month.  The W. family will be with us for two months.  So for the rest of our time in Asia we will be in good company!

We welcomed our very good friends to Thailand yesterday.  Mike met them in the wee hours of the morning at the airport and arranged two taxis to get to the hotel we had booked for them.  With no early check in available the 13 of us huddled up in our one hotel room giving hugs, and discussing the journey.  Mike and I had groceries on the ready and we had a self catered breakfast.  We had an easy first day with a bit of exploring and shopping and our friends had a very early bed time as they are recovering from their jet lag.

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We are all homeschooling families who have a very strong relationship with each other.  My hope for this trip is that we will inevitably be drawn closer together as friends.  Our children will learn together, learn from each other, and experience a journey together that will be truly amazing.  In our first month we plan to show our friends “our city” Chiang Mai and then head to the beach for a few weeks.  In our second month with the W. family the tentative plan is to explore Vietnam together.

Six adults and seven kids.  The Ultimate Homeschooling Field Trip.

Jan
18

Our Kid Friendly Siem Reap Top Picks

Everyone goes to Siem Reap to see the majestic Angkor Wat, but there is so much more to do there if you have the time.  We spent 13 days in Siem Reap and only three of those days were dedicated to the temples.

So what else is there?  Here are our top picks for Siem Reap with Kids:

The War Museum

The War Museum was actually a highlight for our family.  The actual museum part of it was just OK, although the kids really loved seeing all the war machines and guns (me, not so much).  The memorable part of The War Museum was meeting Mr. Soon, one of the free tour guides.  Mr. Soon took us through some of the exhibits while he told us his life story.  Mr. Soon was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. His family fled in fear and were caught by the army. His father was killed. His mother and sister were taken and he never saw them again.   He was taken to an army training camp and was trained to be a soldier.  He fought for the Khmer Rouge in the Killing fields and later in the war against Vietnam.  He lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine during the war with Vietnam. His story was so incredibly sad and moving.  Visiting The War Museum gave our children a glimpse into the atrocity of war from a first hand account. When they touched the guns they understood that those guns actually killed real people. When they saw the land mines on display they understood that those are the same mines that took Mr. Soon’s leg.  This museum gave them a deeper understanding to a difficult subject.

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Phare Circus

The name of circus is misleading here. Yes there are acrobatics in the performance but that is the only similarity.  Instead of a true circus I would describe it as performing arts.  The performance that we saw portrayed a powerful story about a young woman who lives through the war.  It was beautifully enacted and I admit I shed a few tears on more than one occasion.  This is definitely worth the money to see ($56US for our family of four), as the profits go to help this NGO put at risk youth through school.


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The Land Mine Museum

When we visited there were no guides on duty which was a shame after our learning experience at The War Museum.  We took the self guided tour which meant walking around reading the signs on display.  There were some personal, touching stories from land mine victims and this gave us a glimpse into the lives of the many amputees that we saw in our time in Cambodia.  The money from the admission ($5 per adult) goes to help fund the dismantling of land mines in Cambodia as well as an orphanage for young land mine victims.

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Walking Pub Street

Three million tourists a year come to visit Angkor Wat and at some point in their trip most of them will end up on Pub Street.  Restaurant after restaurant line the streets and alleys in the centre of Siem Reap and it is an attraction in itself.  Whether you are looking for a place to eat, a place to drink, or a place to watch all the people, this is the place to come.  It is also, by the way, the place to come if you are looking for fried tarantulas, snakes on a stick, or deep fried crickets.

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Eating For A Cause

There are many NGO’s working in Cambodia helping to relieve the poverty of this country.  We saw so many beggars on the streets.  We also learned that the women we saw with young babes asking for help to buy formula were actually a part of a scam. The women have deals with the stores and would return the formula to the store and receive 50% of the money.  We all want to help when we see people in such dire circumstance but giving money to beggars only perpetuates the problem.  One of the ways we found to help was to frequent restaurants that were a part of NGO’s.  Our two favourite places were Marum and Haven.  Both of these places help at risk youth by giving them food, shelter, education, and training in the restaurant business so that they can go on to find jobs in the tourist industry.

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If you find yourself in Siem Reap, give yourself time to do more than just the temples and you will be rewarded!

 

Jan
12

My Advice For Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat only recently came onto our list of things we wanted to do with our children.  We needed to do a Visa run from Thailand.  Airfares were expensive to everywhere we looked at so we narrowed it down to either Laos or Cambodia as these are easily reached overland from Thailand.  We weren’t keen on Laos, not that we didn’t like it but because we have been there with the kids already.  So the decision was Cambodia.  We would bus it over from Bangkok and show the children the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat.

I am so glad we made this decision as it has become the highlight of our trip so far.  We ended up buying a three day pass to the ruins for $40 per adult (kids under 12 are free).  There was also an option to do a seven day pass but we felt like after three days (and possibly after one!) the kids would be totally templed out.

We had three full on days of exploring. Each day we spent between six and eight hours in the hot, hot, hot, sun.  We clambered through ruins, climbed their steep stairways, and explored their dark corridors.  Our kids surprised us with their sheer enthusiasm and energy.  The only complaints we got were usually a the end of the day when they were so exhausted they just wanted to get back to the hotel to cool off in the pool.

We learned so much from our time at Angkor Wat.  Much of what we learned we learned from reading our guidebook as we walked through each ruin.  We also hired a guide to take us around the main temple (the one that is actually named Angkor Wat) and learned even more of the history and stories of the Hindu legends that inspired the building of these temples.

Our children were enthralled with the stories of the Angkor God-Kings, their wars, their drive to build bigger and better temples.  They asked questions about the Hindu stories and loved to hear about Vishnu and Shiva, Naga and Garuda.  They interpreted stories from the ancient carvings that line the walls and giggled at the beautiful half naked Apsara dancers who smiled at us everywhere we looked.

We walked through corridors and wondered what it would have been like to live here in its heyday when its inhabitants were said to number one million.  We imagined what it would have looked like in all of its splendour.  We touched the stones and felt the energy of this magical place.  We marvelled at the power of mother nature in the places where she has not yet been pushed back from her slow assault on the temples.

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And so my advice to you, if you are ever thinking of making the journey to Angkor Wat, is:

GO!

Jan
10

In Which We Get Ripped Off

I thought I had the procedure for the Cambodian border crossing down pat.  I researched all the possible scams for the notorious Poipet border crossing online and researched the different options for transportation.  We decided to go with the new bus route offered by Thailand’s Transport Company Ltd which is government run (buy tickets at Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal).  According to my research this is the only reliable bus option that takes you all the way through from Bangkok to Siem Reap thus avoiding the tuk-tuk, fake borders, and taxi scams.

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Our bus left Mo Chit station at 8 am and the journey took us 8.5 hours from start to finish.  The bus was comfortable and the ride was smooth. We were given snacks on board (juice, pastry, cookie) as well as a luke warm 7-11 lunch of fried rice.  We avoided the first scam when the bus stopped before the border at a travel agency so we could “conveniently” buy our Cambodia Visas at an inflated price.  Yay us!  We are too savvy to fall for that!  Ha!

Then the bus continued on to the actual Thai-Cambodian border.  We stamped out of Thailand without a hitch.  Next came the rip off.  When I had done my research I had learned that children under 12 are not charged for their visas.  However, when it was our turn to get our Visa’s the border officials claimed that we needed to pay $30 for each of our visas including the children’s.  I argued, saying that children were free and the very stern looking border guard explained that in fact children were only free if they were traveling on their parents’ passports.  Hmm. I faltered.  The border guard stayed his ground and would not budge.  Ummm.  OK then.  I could continue arguing but from the look on the guard’s face I knew he held all the power.  I paid.

After all the kafuffle, another line up where we got stamped into the country and fingerprinted (what?), we had the chance to look at the full page visas in our passports.  Guess what it said on the kid’s visa?

Gratis.

Yup. Those border guards lined their pockets with an extra $60 US from us.

And here I thought I had all my bases covered.

 

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