*I took this post down as there was a hint of it getting published in a magazine. That never happened so popping it back here to keep everything together. First posted December 2014.
I was woken at 3.30am by the shrill alarm. I was inclined to stay snuggled up warm in bed with the boys and have Nick continue up to Base Camp without us. The suggestion was not well met. “Shut up and shift your arse Mrs”. The boys were equally unimpressed at being snatched from sleep at that hour as we bundled them up, bewildered in as many layers as possible.
The icy air took my breath away as we left our hut. The majesty of the inky sky dusted with stars was proof enough that getting up was the right thing to do!
With Tom slung on my back we set off. Sharing a head torch, Tanja and I made slow progress quickly falling far behind Nick and George. Each step took a huge effort. My stomach churned with nausea and my head throbbed from the altitude. I had no idea what surface was underfoot. Not quite snow but it felt crispy like frost covered leaves. I couldn’t think more than a step ahead and just held onto reaching Base Camp and having a cuppa.
We could see a trail of lights bobbing ahead and another behind us marking the passage of other trekkers. Somehow Tanja and I lost the main path and ended up crossing a frozen river. I tried calling for Nick but he was too far ahead to hear. I tried to stay calm as we searched for a way back. I feared putting a foot wrong and falling into the freezing water. Newspaper headlines flashed before my eyes Mother and child die from exposure in Himalayas. Relief flooded through my body when a beam of light from another trekker helped guide us back.
The light of dawn crept into the mountains and their magnitude showed against the murky sky. Tomas began to cry from the cold. And as I tried to go faster the energy each step took seemed immense. I dug deep and reminded myself of all my body was capable of (walking on fire and natural childbirth) to get my baby inside and warm. I moved him onto my front, wrapping him inside my coat to share my body heat. This made walking harder as I couldn’t see where I was treading.
As I was nearing the ABC sign Nick appeared like the proverbial knight in shining armour and took Tomas from me. The relief of carrying less weight spurred me on but Nick still managed to go much faster. I lost him. Staggered into base camp and spent several confused minutes searching the cluster of huts. Until there they were. My boys, my loves snuggled up in a duvet drinking hot chocolate.
We watched as the snow-capped mountains were bathed first pink, then gold as the sun rose. As we huddled together for warmth I was hit by waves of nausea and relief. We drank ginger tea, for the sickness, and had a muted celebration of our achievement. We had made it, every one of those 4130 metres.
I needed to get moving to warm up and we started our descent pausing only to get a been-there-done-that family photo beneath the “Anapurna Base Camp” sign. The relief of going downhill was so immense that I ran with glee. Surprised at how even the track was in the daylight. We were reunited back at the lodge for a much needed breakfast and real celebration.
It had long since been decided that New York should be the last stop of our year-long adventure. For Nick we had to literally circumnavigate the globe in order to say we had been around the world. It wasn’t the easiest or indeed cheapest way back to the UK from New Zealand but the little matter of a 36 hour aeroplane journey wasn’t going to stop the Johnsons.
New York, New York. The Big Apple. So good they named it twice. Concrete jungle where dreams are made. New York’s reputation certainly precedes her and my expectations were huge. We got a taxi from the airport, yellow, naturally, and made our way towards Manhattan through the rush hour traffic. The oh so familiar skyline silhouetted against a fabulous sunset. I was buzzing with excitement. But after our epic flight and crossing the international date line our exploration of New York would have to wait.
The next morning we woke up in the city that never sleeps. We’ll have to take their word for it though as we all enjoyed a solid 12 hours kip. We consumed our first cliché of the day by breakfasting on bagels and coffee before heading out to see the sights. Our hotel was just off Fifth Avenue and our aim was to make the obligatory pilgrimage to the American Museum of Natural History to check out the dinosaurs. New York had other ideas.
Although this was my first time there, as the back drop to thousands of movies and TV series, New York was immediately familiar. I walked along her Avenues in awe, making frequent stops to ogle her architecture, with a pervasive sense of deja vu and a suitable soundtrack running through my head. New York is such a ubiquitous part of popular culture that I spent the duration of our stay feeling like I was in a movie.
We eventually made it to Central Park and sat on a bench eating a hot dog we’d bought from a vendor with a striped umbrella. I had to pinch myself with the surrealness of it. We soaked up the atmosphere, watched street performers and fell in love with the vibrant fall colours while the boys clamboured on the famed rocks. We were so waylaid that the afternoon had run away and our trip to the museum would have to wait. Much to George’s chagrin. That evening we ate pizza at a quaint little Italian restaurant in Greenwich village with checked table cloths and a brash waitress. And I pinched myself again.
The next day was Halloween and after a morning with the dinosaurs we went in search of some costumes. We were invited to Trick or Treat with a New York family we’d met in Japan and needed to get into the spirit of things. Macy’s. Bloomingdales. JC Penny. Nothing. We ended up with two very happy boys Star Wars-ed up to the nines thanks to the Disney Store. And a couple of zombie parents thanks to some fake blood and make-up at our friends’ house. The enthusiasm with which Brooklyn celebrated Halloween was infectious. Everyone in costume, decorated houses, a suitably spooky spectacle put on a stage outside someone’s house. Even the local dentist was giving out candy (well, thats one way to drum up business). Later we took the subway home along with a human Watermelon, a Goat-man and all of the Ghostbusters. That evening will remain one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Over the next couple of days we whistled through our Big Apple hit list. We took a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and rode the Subway back again. We thought about taking a helicopter ride to see the Statue of Liberty for about 30 seconds before the fear of the credit card bill got the better of us and we opted to take the (free) Statten Island Ferry instead. We walked through Battery Park and had a go on the Sea Glass Carousel. We stood in quiet contemplation at the 9/11 Memorial and tried to convey what it meant to the children. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park. We saw a show on Broadway and Nick ate a mac n cheese burger that was bigger than his head. We strolled the high-line with a dear old friend who now calls New York home. We stood inside Grand Central Station and I was moved to tears.
On our last night in New York as I looked down on the dizzy heights of NYC from the Empire State Building I thought of everywhere we had been and all the things we had done. All the people we had met and all of the places we’d slept in the past year. 24 hours later we would be back in our house in Brighton but it felt good to know that as long as the four of us were together, anywhere in the world, we would always be home.
We have been back from our round the world jaunt for just over two months now, so it’s about time I filled you in on the last leg of our journey. It feels very strange to be writing about camper vanning in New Zealand from my dining table in Brighton but that’s a whole other post.
We got our first taste of the quirky Kiwi sense of humour on our Air New Zealand flight from Sydney. The safety briefing video was performed to ‘Men in Black’ by members of the All Blacks (the national rugby team); giving me and Nick a good laugh. We picked up our Jucy camper van rental at Christchurch airport and were ready to hit the road for intrepid adventure. Our first stop was my friend’s driveway just outside of Christchurch (ahem). Where we enjoyed her hospitality for a couple of days while we got to grips with the van, filled it with food and formulated a plan for our month in New Zealand.
Christchurch is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. The town centre was flattened and our walk around was extremely sobering, not least when we visited a poignant memorial near the temporary cathedral. An installation of 185 chairs, each painted white and donated by a family that lost someone in the earthquake, the baby car seat in particular brought a lump to my throat. We also perused the pop-up shipping container shopping precinct which is helping to fill the void and enjoyed a romp around the Botanical Gardens.
Our first true taste of life on the open road was through the gorgeous countryside of Banks Peninsular. Every bend in the road brought a new ‘wow’ from my lips and we had to pull over often to drink in the views. We moseyed around Akaroa, enjoying our first hokey pokey ice-cream and then went in search of our first campsite. We didn’t find it but a helpful local told us we could free-camp anyway. I played on the beach with the boys while Nick made dinner. I felt happy to my very bones.
The following days and weeks passed in an eat, drive, sleep, repeat cycle. We used a fab app to find our campsites, varying from free camping to holiday parks when we felt the need for wifi and a shower. It was great to be travelling under our own steam for the first time in nearly a year and we absolutely loved the freedom that having the van gave us.
We covered many miles on the South Island, ticking off some of New Zealand’s finest tourist attractions. We pondered the improbable geology of Muraki and Punakaki. We hid from wild
weather at Mount Cook, then were awed by the views when the storm cleared in the morning and we were able to hike. Dunedin kept us all happy with a chocolate factory for the kids and a brewery for the adults. Nick and I were bowled over by the beauty and scale of Milford Sound where the boys were more interested in what was in the cruise’s packed lunch.
New Zealand’s wildlife did not disappoint. We had amazing experiences seeing albatross, seals and penguins. Driving one day we saw an eagle soaring away with a rabbit in its claws, but the highlight was our encounter with a majestic sperm whale. Our time on the South Island was running out so we did a silly long drive to get to Kaikoura. Nick woke early and called the whale watch place and was informed they had a boat going in ten mins but there were no guarantees for later trips as the weather was due to change. This therefore could be our only chance. We hot footed it over, getting the boys dressed when we arrived and took food to breakfast on the boat. The sea was very rough and I was glad the boys were seasoned travellers. As our fellow passengers sought seasickness bags, they tucked into peanut butter sarnies. It was all worth it for the 10 minutes we got to spend watching this amazing creature spout from it’s blowhole, fill it’s lungs and dive back below the choppy sea with a flick of its tail.
I would also like to mention that the Kiwis certainly know how to do playgrounds right in New Zealand. We wiled away many happy hours as the boys clambered, swung and slid on whales, dinosaurs and a steam punk elephant. All with beautiful backdrops of lakes, mountains or coast. There was even a play area on the inter-island ferry which kept the boys entertained for the entirety of the 3 hour crossing from South to North.
I would have enjoyed Wellington more, had in not been from the excruciating pain of an infected sandfly bite. Nevertheless, we visited the awesome Te Papa museum and the only Lord of the Rings-related attraction of our time in New Zealand. The Weta Cave is the studio of the special effects company behind the movies and location of Nick’s best ever selfie.
As we left Wellington we didn’t have much of a plan other than heading North. And after a brief stop to visit New Zealand’s museum of rugby we ended up at our favourite freedom camp of the duration. A gorgeous deserted spot by a stunning beach where we had heaps of fun building a den and splashing in the chilly sea. While we were there a school of fish flung themselves out of the water and onto shore. Nick and George went all hunter gatherer and had them for lunch.
Next stop was with some friends we’d made in Cambodia. Trevor and Kat happen to run a winery in Hawkes Bay and by happy co-incidence (OK, meticulous planning) they invited us to stay the weekend of my birthday. We had lots of fun, eating, drinking and being merry with them. It was really interesting to get the winery tour and taste the wine direct from the barrels to see how that differs from the finished product. They also took me to their local doctor’s so I could get some antibiotics. The doc had a chuckle with me about the irony of getting ill in New Zealand and not India.
We continued North stopping to enjoy the geothermal activity in Rotorua and then onto Coromandel. Where we ate “fush ‘n’ chups” on the beach like real Kiwis. We toured round the peninsular taking in the gorgeous coastline and empty beaches. Our next stop was with some friends of friends who live on their land in a yurt. I’d been following Lucy’s blog for some time and am incredibly inspired by what they are doing; unschooling and simple living. We had a lovely evening round the camp fire and the kids became thick as thieves. Actual thieves. The little monkeys managed to pinch a wedge of cash that nearly ended up in the river when they went for a swim.
The time had come to return the van. We tried at the last minute to extend the rental but as it was a bank holiday we were politely informed that we had no chance. Navigating round Auckland’s one-way system resulted in mine and Nick’s biggest ever row. Tempers were frayed as we had to return the tank full of petrol and somehow ended up back on the motorway heading out of town. It was the only time I wished we had hired a sat nav.
Our last week was spent with some lovely friends and their three boys who moved to Auckland from Brighton. I was apprehensive of how it would go with 5 boys, aged 6 and under all under one roof but they got on like a dream and we were very grateful of Aoife and Steve’s hospitality. Their place was a great base for exploring the city and on the weekend we all got out into the Waitakere area together. A creeping sense of dread came over me in the last couple of days. I had fallen head over heals for New Zealand and really, really didn’t want to leave.
We were lucky enough to spend time with lots of friends; old and new. Including the super siblings of a Brighton friend. And we treasure happy memories from those times. Be they frolicking in streams, bouncing on trampolines, having fun on a vineyard or sharing a meal around the dinner table. The people certainly helped make our time in New Zealand really special. We loved the wide open spaces. We ate kiwi fruit by the bucket load. Affected a Kiwi twang with our speech. And pondered a future in the Land of the Long White Cloud. If it weren’t so bloody far away.
From New Zealand there was just one stop left… start spreading the news… New York blog coming soon.
We have met a lot of people during our year of travelling and had lots of conversations. There are some questions that seem to crop up over and over. Here are the 10 questions we are asked most frequently…
1 How can you afford to travel for a whole year?
People often assume that we must be loaded to take on a round the world trip. In truth we have spent less this year than we would have done at home. We were able to remortgage our house and rent it out to fund our adventure. We try to stick to a backpacker type budget and we have spent most of our time in countries with low living costs. We are heading home with a hefty credit card bill.
2 Isn’t it hard to travel with children?
I have said before that life on the road with kids is still life with kids. They get hungry, tired and they fight. But the actual travel part I think is easier with children than without. People go out of their way to help, they make room on the bus, let you jump queues and give you food. The children are great at breaking the ice and we have visited some really cool places that we wouldn’t have done without them in tow.
3 What about school?
This has been asked with every different tone of voice you could imagine. From mild curiosity to outright shock. Our boys are still young, nearly 4 and 5 and a half, there is plenty of time for school. They have learned far more this year than they possibly could in a classroom.
4 Don’t you get on each others nerves being together all the time?
Yes. Sometimes. We are human after all. But we have developed coping strategies like going for a walk, taking turns with the kids or just not talking to each other.
5 Has you sex life suffered?
Lots of people wonder about this but as my Mum is reading I’ll just say that as a co-sleeping family this is a familiar question. When you’re all sharing one bed that is the place for sleep and you find other places to have a bit of a kiss and cuddle. This is also true for travelling.
6 What has your favourite country been?
Up until a month ago my answer was India. We loved the vibrancy and chaos. How every day felt like an adventure. The people, the food and how each state was so different from the last. Now I would say New Zealand. You couldn’t get anywhere less like India.
7 Wow, you took your kids to India! Didn’t you get sick?
Everyone wants to hear about the shits. There were some but only for the odd half a day and never accompanied by anything more sinister. One of us wrecked a pair of trousers with a fart that wasn’t a fart but on the whole we’ve been pretty healthy. In fact the most ill we’ve been this year is in the last week where 3 out of 4 of us have ended up with infections from a hot spring.
8 Have there been times you thought you made a big mistake?
Of course! Nearly going up in smoke on a night bus in Vietnam led me to question what the hell we were doing. We had put ourselves in danger and I had many sleepless nights dwelling on the ‘what ifs?’
9 You must have a lot of luggage?
Nah. We’ve got 30kg all together. And that felt like way too much around South East Asia when we didn’t need our warm jackets and waterproofs!
10 Do the children enjoy travelling?
The children enjoy doing the things that children enjoy doing. They love beaches and swimming pools. They love making new friends, playing lego and hanging out in playgrounds. They love seeing wildlife and visiting museums. They are not so keen on temples.
It would be an understatement to say Mrs J was not overly amused when I informed her that, while she was returning to Blighty for two weeks, the Boys and I were heading to Borneo. The flight confirmation had barely arrived in my inbox before they’d dutifully learned the basic rule of all boys’ tours; what happens on them, stays on them. This did little to placate Mrs J, of course.
Fast forward three or four weeks. Time to say our goodbyes to Sam at Kuala Lumpur airport and, perhaps more importantly, time to outline some further ground rules about boys’ tours. Namely disregard for conventional house rules about fizzy drinks and chocolate, brushing teeth religiously, limited TV and not playing rough and tumble at bedtime! And so, with their bottles of fizzy pop and duty free Hot Wheels, we flew to Borneo in search of its unique wildlife and the adventure of a lifetime.
There were many highlights and moments that I’ll cherish and no doubt share again with the boys in years to come. But there are two things in particular that I think defined my experience of our short time together without Sam.
The first was seeing the amazing wildlife with George. Or, more accurately, watching George see all the wildlife. After all, this was always going to be more George’s bailiwick than Tom’s. Anyway, we’re scarcely a week in to our tour and we’ve already seen Orangutang in Semenggoh Nature Reserve and visited the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre that, as the name suggests, looks after all manner of animals including hundreds (perhaps an over estimate) of crocodiles. We’d also seen sea otters, monitor lizards, Bornean bearded pigs and mud skippers. So far, so good.
Yet it was one animal sighting in particular that stands out more than any other for me. We were being led on a night walking safari in Bako National Park. It was sweltering hot, humid and pitch black, save for the lights on our head torches. There was the constant ringing in our ears of crickets and cicadas, frogs and the occasional owl. Suddenly, George jumped off the boardwalk into dense woodland having just spotted a large scorpion glowing under the beam of his UV torch. Aside from seeing a real live dinosaur, which even my 5 year old knows isn’t going to happen, I cannot imagine seeing him more excited! I, on the other hand, nearly had heart failure and so too our guide, who jumped into the bush after him! Tomas, meanwhile, missed most of the excitement of that evening, including sightings of a tarantula, Pit Vipers, more scorpions, poisonous tree frogs, giant ants and millipedes, because he fell asleep on my back. George on the other hand could not stop smiling for days and promised to tell Steve Backshall (his hero) all about it when he gets home.
It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that by the end of our first week on tour it had become apparent that to some the appearance of a single man with two children was a curiosity not to be missed. And so it was that on numerous occasions I was asked to explain, firstly, the whereabouts of “their Mother” and, secondly, my relation to the Boys! I obliged, naturally, and explained that “their Mother” (who by happy coincidence happens to be my Wife) had returned home for a family wedding and that our family unit would be soon be reunited in Singapore. But it nevertheless struck me as a peculiar thing to ask a stranger. Especially given the lack of other preliminary pleasantries, such as “hi, where are you from?”, which was often the case.
Now for second most memorable moment of my time with the boys. Put simply it was our playtime, of which there was lots. The most popular game we invented was named ‘Animal Theatre’ and entailed the Boys hiding behind a curtain whilst I did a “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls….” type introduction, before they’d emerge from their hiding place and proceed to the other side of the bedroom whilst mimicking their chosen animal. I’d have to guess which animal they were. You get the idea, I hope. Tomas was in his element, throwing his heart and soul into his performances – a sign of things to come perhaps? George similarly got stuck in, although there’s only so many times I can see a T-Rex impression in the confined space of a hostel bedroom. If Animal Theatre was the main act of an evening, some rough and tumble was the encore. With Tomas and me pitted against George in a Sumo style wrestling match. Happily, our neighbours in adjacent rooms didn’t complain (or so I’m aware) and our matches were only curtailed by one of us either shouting our safe word, “bananas!”, or urgently needing to use the toilet before an accident ensued.
And so, dear reader, much of the detail of what happened on tour has stayed on tour. And rightly so. However, I hope you get the gist of what we got up to. We met some wonderful people on our trip; notably a family from Queensland and an expat family in Singapore. Plus we had a lovely time chilling out in Melaka (which is a bit like Camden, only warmer). We even managed to squeeze in Jurassic Park and Singapore Zoo and wash down a few pints of Guinness in a pub. Lastly, I successfully managed to hand our children back to ‘their Mother’ still in one piece!
Today (well, two days ago but we haven’t been online) we have been travelling as a family for one whole year. It’s amazing that we haven’t killed each other, are still talking and, for the most part, are actually enjoying spending so much time together.
It hardly seems possible that six months have passed since our half year travelversary; the time has gone in the blink of an eye and yet we have done so much!
Here are our favourite moments from the past six months:
George: all the cool encounters with wildlife. Especially snakes and scorpions.
Tom: going to elephant Katherine’s place and seeing seals at Milford Sound.
Sam: snorkelling with George to find Nemo and sea turtles. Volunteering at the school in Cambodia. Our visit to Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary. And pretty much all of New Zealand.
Nick: snorkelling in the Perhentian Islands, the school in Cambodia and the elephant sanctuary. The boys tour to Borneo!
Our two weeks at my sister’s house in Sydney did wonders. Family, familiar food, good wine and a heap of toys ticked a lot of our homesickness boxes and we felt buoyed for the last leg.
Now we’ve just a couple of weeks to go before we get home we are thinking more and more about what we are looking forward to:
George: going to the Natural History Museum in London, seeing friends and being reunited with his dinosaur collection!
Tom: playing with all my toys, having lots of baths and seeing my grandparents.
Sam: my friends, a cold Christmas and some time to myself!
Nick: friends and family, real ale and having a fixed abode.
We had a blast in South East Asia. However there are definitely some benefits to being in a Western country. In this post we look at why travelling in South East Asia wasn’t all sunshine and sandcastles. Here are the top 10 things we won’t be missing…
Long sleeves, trousers, mosquito nets and bucketfuls of repellant. The little buggers will still find a way to get you. There have been far too many sleepless nights where we’ve been kept awake scratching. We are very glad to be leaving them behind. So long suckers!
2 Scary driving
It’s surprising how quickly you become accustomed to the haphazard road rules in SEA. You learn to cross the road by walking into oncoming traffic, and to not watch out of the front window of the bus as it hurtles down the wrong side of the road into the path of a lorry. I even managed to brush off being knocked off my bicycle by a scooter in Hoi An as no big deal. It feels good not to be taking our lives into our hands each time we board a vehicle.
3 Dirty public loos
We have stayed in all manner of budget accommodation but we didn’t compromise on cleanliness when it came to the bathroom. Unfortunately we didn’t have any control over outside facilities much less the timing of the younger Johnsons’ need to use them.
4 The children being centre of attention
They stuck out like sore thumbs and caused a stir. At times they were mobbed by interested parties. They had their cheeks pinched, their heads patted and were randomly picked up. They were most definitely over it.
5 Menus with half the dishes not available
I may have mentioned the drag that dining out had become in an earlier post. One of the most annoying parts of this were missing menu items. You’d spend ages trawling through the menu, looking at the photos (from Google image and bearing no relation to the food that would appear) only to be told you couldn’t have it. Grrrrr.
6 Having to haggle for everything
It may be fun to drive for a hard bargain over souvenirs but when you have to be alert to being ripped off over every little thing it gets tired.
7 The lack of pavements
The boys love to roam and I love to let them so its no fun for anyone when you have to hold hands as you walk down the street in the flow (and exhaust fumes) of traffic. On the rare occasion that you find yourself walking on a pavement, do not let your guard down; scooters trump pedestrians on sidewalks.
8 Rock solid beds and pillows
I love a firm mattress, really I do, but for some of the beds we slept on we may as well have been on the floor. This would have been easier to endure had the pillows been soft and fluffy. Alas, they may as well have been bricks for all the comfort they offered our weary heads at the end of a long day.
9 The weather
No more sweating just from sitting still. No more clothes drenched in sweat the minute you step outside. Goodbye humidity!
Our chopstick wielding skills are much improved and we are happy to use them to slurp up our noodles. However we will not miss the chopsticks abundantly supplied on restaurant tables. The boys will just have to find something else to knock on the floor or use as a light sabre.
Another month has flown by. I enjoyed my trip back to Blighty while Nick and the boys got friendly with the animals of Borneo. Whether we’ll get more detail about their adventure remains to be seen because as the children have been taught to say “what happens on tour, stays on tour”. We were reunited in Singapore before boarding a flight to Sydney. Now that the South East Asian leg of our tour is over here are the 10 things we will miss the most!
Mostly delicious, mostly cheap and mostly healthy – what’s not to love? Trying out new dishes (tarantula donut, anyone?) and getting re-aquainted with old favourites (Tom Yum!) was a big highlight.
2 Bum showers
Once the boys had got over the novelty of spraying each other and the bathroom the ‘bum shower’ became a welcome part of our ablutions. It makes so much more sense to have a good rinse than to send masses of loo paper down the u-bend. Not to mention it being more hygienic. I’m even thinking about installing one when we get home!
3 The weather
As much as we may have moaned about being hot and sweaty at the time, it’s been surprisingly chilly in Sydney and we’re more than a little worried about arriving back to UK winter!
4 Traveller camaraderie
The upside of sticking out like a sore thumb meant it was easy to meet fellow travellers and strike up a conversation. A casual chat can lead to weeks of shared travel.
South East Asia has long been a draw for budget backpackers. You really do get a lot of bang for your buck. You can cover long distances on local buses for a couple quid and feed a family of 4 for a fiver. In some countries beer is cheaper than water. Need I say more?
6 Warm sea
We spent hours in the warm waters of South East Asia, swimming, snorkelling and generally having a giggle. Fast forward to a spring day in Sydney and the boys were not happy. Tomas lasted about 10 seconds, George slightly longer. I hope they begain their hardiness by the time summer rolls round in Brighton.
Vietnam is pretty well known for its coffee but when I was first offered one with condensed milk I turned my nose up. One day I got one by accident and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Served over ice with condensed milk Vietnamese coffee is like liquid caramel. Things will never be the same again.
Mangos fresh off the tree. More pineapples and watermelons than you can shake a stick at. New delights such as mangosteen and rambutan. We were spoilt for choice. The tropical fruit back home cannot possibly compare and then there’s the bill.
9 The hospitality
With few exceptions we were welcomed in SE Asia with smiles and open arms. People went out of their way to help us by showing us the way or occupying the boys. We were given food and presents.
We have loved learning a bit of local language along the way. And hearing the kids say thank you in Vietnamese or Thai always raised a smile. We’ll be in English speaking countries for the rest of the trip and we’ll miss trying to figure out the lingo. Mind you, Tom does still ask how to say things in Australian and is picking up his cousins’ accent. Fair dinkum mate.
The road to Taman Negara was long and winding. George and I cosied up to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, interrupted occasionally by Nick’s shushing as I got louder in the exciting parts. Outside the window were scenes of destruction. Vast areas of rainforest decimated for palm oil production and lorries carrying huge logs passed us on the road. Malaysia has the highest rate of deforestation in the World. 14.4% of its rainforest cover has gone since 2000, thats an area larger than Denmark. We all know the theory of deforestation but seeing it for ourselves was truly upsetting.
We found a comfortable hut in Kuala Tahan across the river from the park entrance. It had two sets of bunkbeds which turned out to be 50% more beds than we needed as the kids still wanted to sleep with us. After a good night’s sleep (no, really) and a delicious roti breakfast we stocked up on drinking water and headed to the jungle.
Nick’s insistence on singing a certain Guns and Roses song anytime someone said jungle got old quickly as we walked along a boardwalk through the rainforest. We noticed interesting leaves and insects as we pootled along at Tom’s pace. That is until we met some people walking in the opposite direction who informed us that the canopy walkway closed at midday. It was 11.40am and we had a mile to go. We chucked Tom in the sling and legged it, getting there just in time. Our lack of planning worked in our favour as we had it to ourselves and got to enjoy being up in the treetops without anyone else around.
We had planned a circular trail that would take in Bukit Teresik look out point. However, the heat and humidity along with George’s complaints got the better of us and we followed the trail downhill instead of up. We marvelled at the huge trees and tried to guess how long they took to grow, parts of the forest here date back 130 million years. I felt humbled and saddened again at the rate of receding rainforest. The trail lead us to Lubok Simpon where we stripped to our underwear and took a cooling swim in the river. We had confirmed our suspicions that a multi-day trek sleeping in the jungle would be too much for us.
We made the most of having good wifi and booked our accommodation for the coming weeks. Whilst we were otherwise engaged the boys made friends. They went on a scooter ride round the village and learnt about some indigenous crafts.
As we wandered down to the jetty, that evening for our night walk in the jungle, a man tried to scare Tom with his deformed hands. He was accustomed to children running away in fear but his party trick didn’t work on Tom. He held the man’s hands, looked at them intently and asked what had happened. The man was shocked by Tom’s reaction but it made sense to me. During our travels we have seen many people with missing limbs and deformities so the boys have learned that there is no reason to be scared because a person looks different.
The night walk was far from intrepid. We joined the throng of tourists and were separated into groups. In conveyor belt fashion we followed a trail just inside the jungle, where at various points our guide would point out insects and give a commentary. Our guide didn’t teach us anything we didn’t know already, thanks to our very interested-in-nature 5 year old, was unable to identify a spider I found on a tree and he didn’t even have a UV torch (everyone knows you need one of those for scorpion hunting – right?!). But we did see a snake and a scorpion so it was a good creature count for George and that is good enough for me.
The driver was going way too fast on the bumpy road on the way to Cameron Highlands. Tomas announced he felt sick and whilst we were busy focusing on him George puked. Happily, with 4 hours to go, it just smelt of the chocolate roti he had eaten for breakfast. We got the minivan to stop did a quick clothes change and got back on the road, having asked the driver to slow down. We have gotten off lightly, this was our first incidence of travel sickness in 10 months. The boys have coped with the crazy driving in India, Nepal and Vietnam so it goes to show how fast this guy was going.
As we were stopped to change a tyre the driver shouted that we would need to sit on the puked on seat as another passenger was getting on. We said fine but asked for something to cover the wet patch. During the exchange the driver was using a very loud voice which did not sit well with Nick. He asked the driver to stop shouting. The driver didn’t seem to understand. To which Nick shouted “THIS IS SHOUTING” needless to say this did not go down well and I hastily tried to placate the driver whilst inwardly cursing Nick’s unique brand of how to make friends and influence people.
We spent a very relaxed few days in Brinchang in the Cameron Highlands. The area is renowned for tea, vegetables and hiking trails. Sadly George had a bad blister so that ruled out the hiking. Instead we drank tea and ate vegetables. We visited a tea estate and celebrated Nick’s birthday with a delicious afternoon tea. Nick and I took advantage of the cooler climate to stretch our legs with a run round a nearby golf course. And the children enjoyed having a TV in our room, especially because the only channel it picked up showed back to back Pixar movies.
And so to Kuala Lumpur. City of skyscrapers, mega malls and amazing street food. This is our third time here on this trip albeit the first time we have seen the outside of the airport. We’ll be seeing the sites in between plenty of rest before Nick heads to Borneo with the boys whilst I pop back to England briefly for a family wedding. George and Tomas now have their very own UV torch to hunt for scorpions in the jungles of Borneo. What could possible go wrong?
Our border crossing from Cambodia back to Thailand was thankfully uneventful and we were greeted back at our guesthouse in Bangkok like family. After nearly 10 months on the road discovering a new place every few days is getting tiring. It felt good to slot back into a place where we already knew the lay of land; where to find the supermarket, the cheapest place to get laundry done and other fun things like that. We had a fridge in our room and stocked it so we could avoid the joys of dining out for every meal for a couple of days.
We caught up with our friend Earth again and he took us out of town to Amphawa, a UNESCO site and (at the weekend) massive floating market. As it was a weekday evening we had the place to ourselves. We ate the most delicious Tom Yam Kraw and took a magical boat trip along the canal where we saw thousands of fireflies twinkling in the trees like so many fairy lights at Christmas. We had nearly decided to skip the boat as it was late and the boys were tired. We were very glad we didn’t.
We took the boys to the Children’s Discovery Museum, whilst under renovation it still gave us plenty of fun with a playground, water park and dinosaur digging area. The best bit was the library stocked with both Thai and English language books. We read and we read and we read. I didn’t think we’d ever get them to leave and there were tears when we did.
We survived the 24 hour train ride from Bangkok to Butterworth in Malaysia unscathed. The boys got stuck in to their new sticker books (no pun intended) and George and I made headway on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Other than us the carriage was filled with a big group of young American Missionaries who made great companions as they were thrilled to entertain the boys.
A short ferry ride and we were in Penang. Our stay in Little India in Georgetown whisked us back to the beginning of our trip on the subcontinent. Delicious smells and Bangra beats filled the air as we feasted on yummy Indian food washed down with masala Chai. We explored Penang’s vibrant street art scene; took the train up to Penang Hill to admire views of the island; and had a fun day at the beach which ended abruptly as a tropical storm swept in. We met a British family who have been on the road for 2.5 years and spent a couple of happy days in their company. Their 11 year old son shares his birthday with George and they were definitely cut from the same cloth spending hours playing in the sea together.
For once a bus in Asia arrived way ahead of schedule and we were dropped at the jetty at Kuala Besut at 3.30am. Unfortunately the first ferry was not until 7am so we had a few hours to kill before we could head to the Perhentian Islands. It was worth the wait. The sun rose as the boat sped us across the sea and it is a memory I will cherish. Unlike the hunt for accommodation that welcomed us at Coral Bay. After traipsing up and down the beach we finally found a very basic hut where for two nights we got savaged by mosquitoes whilst listening to the loud music from the bar next door.
Our days on the island were wonderful and when we moved into a bigger better (more expensive) hut at the other end of the beach we very much on holiday mode; late starts, lazy breakfasts and days spent snorkelling and playing in the crystal clear water. We took a couple of boat trips to get to better snorkel points where we saw turtles, rays and (joy of joys) clown fish. Not for the first (or I daresay last) time I wished we had a waterproof camera. Not to add to the hundreds of snorkelling selfies taken by Malaysian tourists but to capture the look of joy on George’s face at finally Finding Nemo! We swam out to a platform off the beach in late afternoons and had fun jumping off. We rested our travel weary bones and were generally smug about being in paradise. We could have easily stayed another week but our budget was taking a battering and so we bid farewell to the islands and made our merry way to the jungle.