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.

 

Dec
31

The Anxious Traveller

I am an anxious traveller.  I’m one of those people who stress about pretty much everything. Things that have happened, things that have not happened, things that might happen but probably won’t.  I have always been a worrier from as far back as I can remember. Worry seems to be my natural state.

I had my first anxiety attack when I was pregnant with my second child.  Having no idea what was happening I thought that I was going to die. The room closed in on me, my heart raced, I felt like I couldn’t breath.  It was one of the scarier moments in my life. Since then I have had only a handful of attacks and, thankfully, none of the same intensity.

Although my anxiety is in no way debilitating, I do suffer from it in some form most days when we are traveling.  There have been many mornings where I wake up with a knot in my stomach and an unexplainable feeling of unease.  Luckily this feeling usually dissipates quickly as I start my day but sometimes it will last into the day or into many days.  Sometimes I will have a good cry (luckily my man has a welcoming shoulder to cry on).  Many times I can’t even explain or understand why I am anxious while other times I know what is causing the stress and I can talk it out with Mike who has an amazing ability to put things into perspective for me.

Travel brings out the worrier in me in full force.  I get so stressed out when we don’t have a plan.  Since we left Chiang Mai a few weeks ago we have been flying by the seat of our pants.  We went to Koh Phangan to see friends but the weather was stormy there and we didn’t get along well with the island so we left.  We came to Bangkok without much of a plan.  Now we have to do a visa run but we didn’t know where we should go. (As of this morning we have decided on Cambodia. Phew!)  I do not do well with uncertainty which seems quite counterintuitive to travel.

I’m worst off when we have to fly somewhere.  I have always hated flying.  My mind goes through all the bad scenarios and I work myself into such a stressful state all I can do is count the minutes until we land.  Mike always takes over for me on planes and takes full control of the care of our children because I just don’t function well enough to take care of anyone while we are in the air.  With the recent air travel tragedies in Asia my fears have grown even more.

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So why am I still traveling if it causes such a stress reaction?

Blissful moments.

Can you remember a moment when you were perfectly happy?  A moment when all there is is that moment?  Where life’s energy shines from your soul and there is only bliss?  I have found those moments are few and far between and they are fleeting moments.  I have them no matter where I am but when I travel I have more of them.

Like the moment our family was riding on a scooter at nightfall in Chiang Mai.  There were hundreds of birds singing their night song as we cruised down Suthep Road. The cool breeze tickled my skin and I held out my arms to the night. In that moment, bliss.

Or when we visited Mae Sa Waterfalls.  We hiked into the jungle to find our perfect spot. The kids swam and splashed, hooted and giggled.   Mike and I sat down on a rock to watch these little humans that we made enjoy a perfect afternoon.  In that moment, bliss.

Or when I sat with my friend Jenn sipping from a cold coconut on a beach chair in Nai Yang.  The crystal blue ocean kissed the sand while the sun kissed my face. In that moment, bliss.

Or when we stood on a pedestrian bridge over an overpass in Bangkok watching the hoards of traffic zoom by underneath us.  In a moment that had nothing really special about it except for its exoticness in the mind of this small town girl.  In that moment, bliss.

These moments are what propels my desire to travel.  These moments are addicting because in them I feel truly alive.

And I travel for my children.

I cannot think of a better way to educate my children than to travel with them.  When I think of all of the things they have been exposed to through our travels all my worries about if we are doing a good enough job in educating them seem to dissipate.  Is there a better teacher than the world?  I find peace in those beautiful little moments when they are doing currency conversations from Thai Baht to Canadian dollars to understand the value of an item, or when they wai (bow with hands together) and say Kup Kuun Krap (thank you) to a Thai person who has done something nice for them, or when they are learning about an elephant by sitting on its back, touching its thick skin and coarse hair and marvelling in its gentle beauty. We travel to give our children an out-side-the-box education where experiences take the place of book work and the world becomes the classroom.

I travel for all the good things that travel brings us.  I travel for the experiences, the people, the food, the culture.  I travel to learn.  I work through the anxiety because it is worth it to do so.

It would be easier to stay at home.  But it would be much less rewarding.

Dec
23

Merry Un-Christmas

Today we are wrapping our very few, small presents with bits of scrap paper we have drawn on or made lists on.  The kids have been working hard on a Lego Christmas tree and clay figurines.  We danced around in our hotel room to a few Christmas Carols before bed last night.  Tonight we will watch our first Christmas movie of the year.

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We have been exposed to very little Christmas commercialism this year.  Chiang Mai certainly had more than Koh Phangan.  In the big city of Chiang Mai we got our pictures taken with a Thai Santa, saw Christmas decorations in the mall, and heard Christmas carols at Starbucks.  Even that was extremely tame to what we would have experienced back home where you really can’t go anywhere for the entire month of December without hearing Christmas music and seeing decorations everywhere.

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Here, on this island in Southern Thailand, the Christmas decorations are blown up balloons, some Merry Christmas signs, and a very tropical looking pine tree decorated sparsely in decorations.

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Full disclosure:  I am not a fan of Christmas.  Sure, I enjoy getting together with family. I love that.  And the food.  The food, the food, the food.  Yes.  But almost everything else I could leave behind.  I HATE the commercialism of the holiday. The pressure of presents, both giving and receiving.  The mounds of garbage that go out to the curb on boxing day.  I dislike the decorations as I feel they are a waste of both money and resources. I dislike the lights as they are a waste of energy.  My husband thinks I am a Scrooge but I just can’t get behind a holiday of wastefulness.

In some ways we are able to create our own family traditions and do our best to keep the commercialism out of our Christmas but of course it is impossible to avoid entirely when our lives are intertwined with the greater community.  And that is why I so enjoy spending Christmas overseas.  We are entirely able to make our own tradition. To make our Lego Christmas trees.  To choose small presents that will need to fit into our backpacks. And to make the day about doing something special with our family (we are hoping this storm we have found ourselves in for the last week will soon pass and we can go snorkelling for Christmas day.)

How about you?  Do you love Christmas?  Do you enjoy making your own Christmas traditions?

 

Dec
16

Old and Grumpy

Last night was the first night since we left Chiang Mai that I have had a decent sleep.  Seems like I have been running on fumes for the last four days.

Our first night we were kept awake by a crying baby in the next door room.  The room we were in was one of those rooms that attach through an interior door to another room. That door was a hollow core wood door so when the little babe in the next room wailed from 1am to 5am it sounded as if it was right in our beds with us.

The second and third night I lay awake in new surroundings in a bungalow that our friends had booked for us on Koh Phangan.  The smell of must, and air freshener (which gives me terrible headaches), hard beds, lumpy pillows, and the sound of a tree knocking on the roof in the wind kept me awake.  Those bungalows were not suitable for our family so we moved house to a small resort a few beaches over.

Haad Salad is a busier beach and on our fourth night we were kept awake by obnoxious, drunk men singing songs at the top of their lungs.  To their credit they sounded fabulous and I liked the folky songs in some language I didn’t recognize, but not at 3am!

I am feeling old.  And grumpy.

I’m not quite digging the Koh Phangan island feel.  There are too many young people here to get their party on.  When we were here 10 years ago we avoided the infamous Full Moon Party and felt the island gave a good dose of laid back island life.  Now, ten years later, there are not only Full Moon Parties, but half moon parties, new moon parties, shiva moon parties, acid moon parties…the list goes on and on.  It seems I have a very low tolerance for the young backpacker crowd who travel half way around the world to get wasted.

We are also feeling quite stressed with Christmas around the corner.  Our resort is fully booked over Christmas and it seems most other places are too.  The prices seem to double from the 23rd until New Years and we aren’t sure what to do.  Keep pounding the pavement?  Pay a ridiculous amount for a room?  Leave the island and fly to Bangkok?  Maybe head up to Prachuap Khiri Khan?  The planner in me is freaking out for not having a plan!

Of course it’s not all bad;

Now that I have had a good night sleep I am hoping this anxious feeling I have had since we got here will subside.  Our hotel is a beautiful three star place with all the modern conveniences.  It is right on the ocean (I’m typing this on my balcony watching the waves pound the shore at 6am while my family sleeps).

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We are very lucky to be surrounded by friends.  Our friends from back home are the reason we came to this island and we have been hanging out with them every day.  We also have friends staying in this resort with us whom we met at dinner one night in Chiang Mai.  Having friends for our children to play with makes traveling SO much easier.  Traveling with friends is like having a babysitter, our children are completely entertained and only come to us when they need to eat.  The adult company has been pretty darn sweet too!

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Have you been to Koh Phangan?  Did you like it?

Dec
11

Chiang Mai’s 3D Art Museum

After seeing photos from a friend of ours at the Art in Paradise exhibit in Chiang Mai, we knew we had to take our kids to go check it out and hopefully get some equally awesome photos.  The entire gallery is dedicated to 3D art and it was pretty darn rad.  The admission was a bit steep I thought (but not compared to western prices) at 300 baht per adult.  Kids are 200 baht if they are under 120 cm tall which our children are not so we had to pay full adult price for them.  The Thai price was written in Thai alphabet so this is one of those places where they charge a reasonable price to locals and an inflated price to foreigners.

Here is our time at the 3D Art Museum in pictures:


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