New Zealand; we love you.

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.

Photo credit Lucy AitkenRead

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.

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From New Zealand there was just one stop left… start spreading the news… New York blog coming soon.

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Happy travelversary to us!

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.

From rainforest to concrete jungle (aka Malaysia part II)

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?

 

The thrill is gone

Discovering new food was once my favourite thing about travel. I used to love arriving in a new country and becoming acquainted with local dishes. Eating out all the time and avoiding the hassle of cooking and clearing up may seem like living the dream. Not any more. My children have sucked the joy out of it.

Picture the scene:

It is breakfast/lunch/dinner time. The boys go from being fine to “I have to eat right now or I’m going to eat my own eyeballs” so we find a restaurant and settle down at a table.

We get drawing books and pencils out of the bag for the kids whilst we look at menu.

Tomas is unhappy with the seating arrangements. We swap seats.

I draw a horse.

I try to illicit a response from children about what they want to eat.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

I ask them not to get to play with the toothpicks.

Nick tries to illicit a response from children about what they want to eat.

We decide what to order in between requests to draw dinosaurs, chinchillas or whatever else pops into their imagination.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

Nick moves the serviettes before they pull them all out of the box.

I ask them to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

Collect up all the spilt tooth picks (why oh why do they put so many on the table?!) Waiter arrives.

George tries to order fish and chips.

We cancel the order for fish and chips. We order food. We change our order because our choice is unavailable (why oh why is it on the menu then?!)

We try to hold adult conversation (hahahahahahahahahaha).

I mediate an argument over pencils.

I draw another penguin.

Drinks arrive.

We talk about Star Wars.

We mop up spilt drink.

Nick asks the boys to stop using the chopsticks as light sabres.

The boys transform into rabid squirrels during the wait for the food to arrive.

  

 

Food arrives. It is not what we ordered. We send food back.

Food arrives again. We ask for plates (why oh why don’t they bring the plates before the food?!)

This usually goes one of two ways – the children dig in and stay quiet for 5 minutes whilst they devour said food. Or, more likely, they decide they don’t like the look of it and proceed to let their feelings be known. Loudly.

After I’ve eaten approximately 1 mouthful one of them will announce they need the loo.

After two mouthfuls the small one will climb onto my lap and ask for more drawings or to tell me a story or to eat my dinner or, or or… you get the picture.

Three times a day. Every day. Oh, how we’re looking forward to having our kitchen back!

Cambodia

Our first land border crossing of the trip brought us to Cambodia. On the Thai side Nick asked our ‘guide’ what time we would be leaving, which for reasons unknown caused massive offence. This resulted in us being shouted at and separated from our fellow passengers. It was baffling, even more so when one of them called Nick a F***ing Ladyboy. (first, I didn’t understand why this would be an insult and second, have you seen Nick?!)

The border crossing itself was pretty straightforward. I had to make a dash through the rain at one point carrying our 10kg back pack and Tomas on my shoulders. In Poipet, on the Cambodian side, we were told there would be a two hour wait for the bus to Siem Reap but they took pity on us being with children and we completed the journey on a bus full of contraband biscuits. That evening over a cold pint of Angkor beer we decided there must have been something fishy going on as we were the only ones from our bus that already had Cambodian visas.

 

We gave ourselves a day of playing round the pool to recover from the journey and then headed out to get a big tick on our bucket list; Ancient Angkor. Knowing that the kids would run out of steam pretty quickly we decided to limit our visit to the top three sites; Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. We spent an enjoyable morning exploring the ruins; playing (can you guess?) hide and seek and pretending to be Lara Croft. Nick and I loved the majestic stone faces at Bayon but the highlight for the boys was the millipede they found at Ta Prohm.

 

That evening, after I’d donated blood at the nearby children’s hospital, we treated the boys to a visit to Bugs Cafe. Some mealtimes can last forever persuading the kids to eat unfamiliar food. Not so with our discovery platter where they wolfed down, tarantula doughnut, ant spring rolls, scorpion skewer and the cricket salad. Nick and I barely got a look in.

 

We enjoyed the ride out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum passing some of the lesser known Angkor sites along the way. T refused to go in, preferring to hang out with our tuktuk driver. G handled the visit very maturely; sitting quietly and listening to the audio guide. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a child soldier under Khmer Rouge who went on to clear the land mines he’d helped install. The mock-up of a minefield shows the sheer number of ordnance that can be hidden in a small area and how hard they are to see. We learnt  more about the ongoing issue of landmines and stories of those affected. Children are often maimed picking up a mine thinking it is scrap metal that they can sell.

On the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Pen I read First they Killed my Father. One woman’s account of the atrocities that saw a quarter of the population of Cambodia (over 2 million people) systematically killed. Loung Ung was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. The narrative, written through child’s eyes, really brings home the horror of the time; forced labour, brutal killings and life as a child soldier. Travelling through the very countryside where the atrocities took place with my own 5 year old made her story incredibly vivid.

The following day we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This was one of the most moving experiences of my life. On first sight the area covers a peaceful wooded field. But as the audio guide leads you around you come to realise the horror that occurred there. Thousands of bodies of men, women and children were recovered from mass graves and there are still remains coming to the surface so that at times there are bones and cloth poking through the very path you walk on.

The audio guide ends at the memorial stupa displaying thousands of skulls. I was disturbed to see people taking photos, it felt really inappropriate. Even more so when I later discovered the images on Instagram. To me using a hashtag to share photos from the Killing Fields is not only disrespectful but also trivialises the genocide. However as education is key in reconciliation perhaps I am wrong and it is simply a way of sharing history with a younger generation.

Next we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum a former school used as a prison under Khmer Rouge. The museum is filled with haunting photographs of the prisoners taken on their arrival at the prison. Their eyes looking back at you give a human face to the numbers. It is a tough place to visit with photographs and instruments of torture on display. As with the Killing Fields we didn’t take the children. I was left feeling helpless, dispairing of the horror that humanity can inflict on itself. I was haunted by our days activities and didn’t sleep that night.

Phnom Pen itself is a flagship for a new Cambodia. Boutique hotels, fancy eateries and impressive architecture portray an image of extravagance vastly at odds with the scenes of poverty. One can’t help but wonder if the government has its priorities wrong when faced with so many children begging and sleeping on the street.

From the business of the capital we escaped to Kep. A sleepy seaside town, which was perfect for a few days RnR. We stayed in a bungalow and loved being serenaded by frogs, giant geckos and crickets whilst fireflies put on a show. The boys enjoyed the company of other children at the beach and we all enjoyed some fantastic seafood.

 

We spent a couple of days exploring the surrounding countryside on a scooter. We visited nearby Kampot by accident when we couldn’t find the road to a cave we wanted to see. We got there the next day with the help of our 7 year old tour guides. They cycled alongside the scooter to show us the way and escorted us around the site of this pre-Angkorian temple and cave. We learnt that villagers hid there from Khmer Rouge reminding us again how the regime affected every corner of the country.

This week we are volunteering at Khmer New Generation Organization (KNGO) School. Located in the village of Bospo near Battambang, the school is a grass roots project that offers English lessons to the children in the surrounding area. The permanent teachers use a fixed curriculum and welcome native English speaking volunteers to assist with pronunciation. Nick is struggling with the Americanized [sic] English but we’re having lots of fun. The students are smart, engaged and eager to learn. The eldest class is working on ‘the future’ and it is so inspiring to hear them talk about their aspirations.

 

Throughout our time in Cambodia I have found myself trying to guess people’s ages. Wondering  whether they lived through the dark years of Pol Pot’s regime and how they managed to recover. Not for the first time I feel incredibly privileged to have been born where I was and not into the famine and unrest that Khmer people my age have lived through. We have passed through many countries ravaged by war but here the impact is much more evident. Despite the horror of the recent past and the resultant poverty Cambodia is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. It is a truly beautiful country to visit and if the KNGO kids are anything to go by the future is bright.

Two weeks in Thailand

As much as intrepid is the name of our blog, it has also become a bar by which we measure ourselves. A reminder to be brave and do things out of the ordinary. Despite this, I just couldn’t get my head round the idea of the 30+ hour journey it would take us to reach Laos from Vietnam. And so we flew to Thailand.

We had a couple of pleasant days in Bangkok before heading North for our elephant rendezvous. Our hotel was on a quiet soi (lane) not too far from Khao San road. After securing our train tickets at the station we joined the backpacker throng on the infamous street. The boys tucked into scorpion and declared it much tastier than in Beijing. We partook in a fish spa but resisted the urge to get a tattoo or buy elephant pants.

The following day we had a date with a lovely Thai man, Earth, who we had met trekking to Annapurna Base Camp back in November. We enjoyed his narrative as we sped around Bangkok’s canals on a long tail boat. Afterwards, he took as to a local eatery that has been in the same location for 40 odd years. We left the ordering up to Earth and sampled a range of authentic Thai dishes – delicious!

After our wonderful visit to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary we headed to Sukhothai for a dose of ancient temples. We hired bikes and cycled round the historical park. This UNESCO world heritage site was built around 800 years ago and is similar in style to Angkor Wat. We had fun playing hide and seek amidst the ruins. That evening we enjoyed some tasty food near the market. Our food stall of choice shared their seating area with the local mechanic and we chowed down our noodle soup under the hydraulic lift.

We took a bus up to Chiang Mai. The five days we had there flew by and we could have easily spent longer. We had some wonderful food and met some wonderful people. The boys highlight was definitely our visit to the Siam Insect Zoo where we got up close and personal with all manner of bugs. George and I even held a scorpion! I decided to treat myself to some RnR and went for a Thai massage. Despite going for the ‘relaxing’ option, it was agony and I would hate to experience a ‘strong’ one! We really enjoyed walking around the old town and even dragged the children kicking and screaming persuaded the children to visit a temple or two.

We were thrilled with the sleeper train back to Bangkok. The bunks start the journey as seats and are converted about hour into journey, complete with sheets, blankets and comfy pillows. We were in lower bunks and they were pretty roomy, even sharing with a small wriggly child. It was best sleep on a night train we’ve ever had.

We split our last couple of days in Bangkok between doing something for the adults and something for the children. The grown ups chose a visit to see the massive golden Buddha at Wat Pho (My brain is still processing this as it would in Vietnam – what fer?). The boys were in a cooperative mood and we discussed the various merits of Wat Pho’s Buddha versus the giant one we’d seen at Leshan in China. We’d taken their sketch books and they were happy to sit by the pond drawing the fish.

For the children we went to KidZania the following day. A miniature city where the children get to dress up and role-play different jobs. They got to be firefighters, riding on a mini fire engine to put out a fire. They looked for a missing person whilst being police officers. They were vets, doctors, 7eleven cashiers and even took part in a stage production of the Little Mermaid. They earn kidzos for their endeavours and can spend them on other activities such as making a drink at the coca-cola bottling plant or having a good old boogie at the disco. There is also a department store where they are supposed to be able to by items with their hard earned kidzos but they all cost too much. A life lesson too far perhaps. The boys however had lots of fun. It is very clever marketing for the companies involved, an exercise in brand recognition and capitalist brain washing for the next generation of consumers.

This was not our first visit to Thailand and I’m pretty sure it will not be our last. The country is beautiful and the people friendly. It is easy to get around (apart from Bangkok where the traffic is awful) and the food, as you may have gathered, is amazing. We were happy and well fed for the long road to Cambodia.

Walking with Elephants

When people think of Thailand they think of elephants and an encounter with the gentle giants is high on many a travel agenda. Since logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 many working elephants have been put to work to serve tourists often in poor conditions with poor treatment.

We were very fortunate therefore to spend time with these incredible creatures in a way that did not compromise their wellbeing. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) was founded by my incredible friend Katherine Connor who has made saving elephants her life’s work. BLES is located in rural Sukhothai, surrounded by plantations and forest – it’s a far cry from the restaurant in Essex where we worked together 17 years ago!

“BLES is devoted to creating a safe & natural environment for elephants.                                                                    No shows, no tricks – just elephants being elephants.”

Katherine keeps visitor numbers low at BLES so as to not disturb the elephants. There are just 3 guesthouses on site and these are booked up at least a year ahead. We weren’t able to plan that far in advance, instead Katherine allowed us to come as day visitors and we lodged at a wonderful homestay a few miles away. We cycled to BLES through the countryside each morning; sawadee kaa/kap-ing merrily to the villagers.

 

When we arrived for our first full day at BLES we were quickly introduced to The Gossip Girls; Wassana, Lotus and Pang Dow. Two of them have serious disabilities from their logging days and they have all had very difficult lives. These magnificent female elephants now spend their days trumpeting and squeaking to each other as they browse in the forest. They were feeling thirsty and took long drinks from the hose right next to us. Katherine explained that we wouldn’t be able to be this close with all of the elephants as some of them are not comfortable around people.

After a wonderful breakfast with fellow visitors we watched Katherine and the Mahouts attend to their injuries. Wassana and Pang Dow have problems with their feet which need daily treatment. The boys were fascinated at the puss that shot out of Lotus’s leg as Katherine drained an abscess. Pang Dow walks on her ankle having never recovered from a serious break sustained from forced breeding. Wassana’s foot is badly damaged from standing on a land mine and she now has a specially made boot to protect it from infection whilst she is out in the forest.

 

The boys stroked trunks and busied themselves collecting grass for the elephants until they were ready for their morning walk into the forest. We follow behind at a safe distance, waiting as they pause to graze along the way. At one point we needed to stand aside to let Mee Chok pass. A cheeky young bull, with unpredictable behaviour who spent his early life chained up in a filthy shack. We caught up with the Gossip Girls and spent a couple of happy hours in their company and with another group. It was fascinating to watch their social interactions and get interpretation from Katherine about why one elephant may have beef with another.

We walked back for lunch and enjoyed watching elephants frolicking in the pond while we ate. We witnessed a tussle between Lotus and Mee Chok. Katherine explained that she is the only elephant that stands up to his naughtiness. We also watched as Wassana had her boot removed and proceeded to pull her bandages off with her trunk.

 

In the afternoon we piled into the sanctuary’s ‘limousine’ to collect additional food for the elephants from a nearby plantation. The ride on the old tractor was windy and bumpy but it still managed to lull the boys to sleep. The mahouts cut down banana trees and we carried them to the truck. It was heavy grubby work and we were soon drenched in sweat. Then we headed back to BLES sitting atop the banana trees.

 

Katherine’s capacity for caring seems boundless, she just can’t see an animal in distress with helping. Because of this the sanctuary is not only home to elephants but also also dogs, cats, cows, wild boar and tortoises. The pond in the tortoise enclosure needed cleaning and the boys were keen to help but quickly lost interest leaving Nick and I to finish the job. After dinner and a tropical downpour we cycled back to the homestay tired and happy. To cap a perfect day we saw our first wild scorpion on the track outside the homestay, George was delighted.

The next day was Saturday and the boys were very happy that Katherine’s older kids weren’t at school. They were soon busy with a pile of lego. We repeated the routine of the previous morning walking into the forest with the Gossip Girls after their clinic treatment. Nick wasn’t feeling very well so he stayed at base for a snooze.

Photo credit Katherine Connor

 In the forest I had great interaction with Lom who took my water bottle and drank from it. I sat at her feet feeling very small with Katherine offering reassurance from nearby. The boys climbed a tree and collected stones. Katherine told us more about their complex social lives. Meanwhile back at base Nick had a visit from Tong Jai, an old and intimidating tusker. An encounter with Tong Jai is sure to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Only Anon, Katherine’s husband, is able to handle him and she told him how he once single handedly scared off poachers who were after Tong Jai’s impressive tusks.

Katherine had recently organised some clinics for sterilising local cats and dogs and that afternoon we went to a nearby temple to check on some of the animals. When we got back the plan had been to wash some of the dogs but the water was off so we chilled instead. The boys enjoyed the company of Hope, Noah and Aaron. They played animal rescue together and got really muddy. When home time rolled around they were both really upset to say goodbye to their new friends.

 

Whilst the children played I read all the elephants stories and I was moved to tears. I felt very guilty about having ridden elephants in India and Nepal. At the time the animals appeared well cared for and we enjoyed the experiences. But I didn’t know then about the brutal process of training an elephant, or that despite a long history of carrying heavy loads, elephants do not have strong backs.

Later I asked Katherine about photos I’d seen of the mahouts riding the elephants as I knew they didn’t do this anymore. She adeptly quoted Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can. Then when you know better, do better.” It was a well-timed reminder for me to not beat myself up about the past and to act differently in the future. We certainly won’t be riding an elephant again.

Katherine has built BLES from nothing and works tirelessly for the continued running of the sanctuary, caring for the animals, planning further rescues and the mammoth task of fundraising, not to mention being mother to five children. To say she is an inspiration is putting it mildly. It is rare to meet someone living their values with such conviction and the space she has created is testament to her love and passion.

BLES survives on donations if you are able to help please click here.

Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.

Vietnam Part I

The geography of Vietnam lends itself to one of two routes for exploring. You either go from North to South or from South to North. The flights worked out cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City so that’s where our Vietnamese adventure began.

The heat and noise hit us as we left the arrivals hall. It felt strangely familiar, despite never having been there before. We couldn’t get a price we were happy with for a taxi into town so climbed aboard a local bus and whilst the children were free we had to buy a ticket for our large backpack. We trundled through the swarms of motorbikes and were set down somewhere near our hotel. The welcome in HCMC couldn’t have been more different than in Tokyo. “The room you have booked is too small for you and your children.” Oh, here we go again we thought. “I’ll put you in a bigger room for the same price. Your kids are so cute!” I knew then that I’d like Vietnam.

We spent a happy few days in HCMC. My faithful flip flops from Western Nepal gave up on me so we wandered round the market looking for replacements. Everything is fake branded so I am now the proud owner of a pair of Aberconnbies [sic]. There are some cool playgrounds which the boys enjoyed no end. Not least because a random encounter with a lovely family from New Zealand provided them with a playmate for a large portion of our time in Vietnam.

We weren’t sure about visiting the War Remnants Museum with children but it worked out really well. They enjoyed seeing the planes and tanks outside and there is a playroom on the top floor. Nick and I meanwhile took it in turns to play with the children whilst the other visited the museum. I walked through the exhibition with tears streaming down my face. I learnt more about the American/Vietnam war and the far reaching implications of Agent Orange. There are some truly horrific photos of the brutality of war, in particular of children, which made me despair for humanity and stayed with me for a long time.

After zipping round the Far East we were in need of a rest. The plan had been to settle for a month in the beach town of Mui Ne to recuperate. We had a not-so-little house that I’d found on Air BnB and we were happy to fall into the routine of domesticity after so many hotels. We were excited to cook our own food and do our own laundry. We loved having mango trees in the garden and having time to think about where we’re going (literally and figuratively).’

 

Mui Ne is a big draw for Russian tourists so between self catering and all the Cyrillic signs we didn’t really feel as though we were in Vietnam. We enjoyed the company of our Kiwi friends who joined us for a few days and all had fun in the nearby sand dunes. The beach was a let down however, as the water was dirty and I was savaged by sand flies. We took to using the pool at Joe’s (a local cafe/resort) where the boys perfected their swimming. After a couple of weeks, feeling rested, we cut our losses and were back on the road.

We headed up to the Central highlands and the hill town of Dalat. Enjoying the cooler climes whilst we saw the sites including Hang Nga Crazy House, Elephant falls and the beautiful Xuan Huong lake. Dalat is well know for growing vegetables and the surrounding countryside is covered in poly tunnels.

We had planned an overnight trek with camping at nearby Mount Langbian. The start of the trek was rather disappointing with lots of rubbish and noise from jeeps. However after a steep climb we were soon away from the busy tourist area and horses painted to look like zebras. The next part of the walk was really enjoyable as we ambled through lush pine forest, even Tom managed the whole thing without complaint. As we got to the top the clouds had rolled in and we seemed to be right inside the peals of thunder. The heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin on our way down the mountain. Slip sliding on mud and trying to avoid the torrents that cascaded down the path next to us. At one point I had a couple of kilos of extra weight in clay stuck to my feet. We decided we didn’t have anything to prove by staying in the tent and beat a retreat to the warm shower in our hotel.

From there we hit big brash seaside town of Nha Trang. The beach was lovely, if crowded and the boys loved jumping off the diving board at the Central Park pool. We attempted the ‘Total Wipeout’ style bouncy stuff in the sea, but didn’t really get the hang of it. It was a good place to break up the journey northwards but boy were we happy to reach Hoi An.

 To be continued…

Highs and lows in Japan

Tokyo did not give the Johnsons a warm welcome. George got kicked on the metro and our hotel refused to let us check in until we’d paid for an extra room. The hotel had us over a barrel, it was the beginning of the Golden Week period when the majority of Japan is on vacation and accommodation in Tokyo was rarer than a bleu steak. When you get a bad first impression of somewhere it can be hard to move on. I spent our first couple of days in the capital in a foul mood feeling like the whole place was against us. And I didn’t even see Bill Murray.

Our accommodation woes followed us to Kyoto. Where we were informed that children weren’t allowed in the room we had booked and we would have to pay more for a different room. We sucked it up. Clearly this was how they rolled in Japan. The guest house, owned by an ancient matriarch, was run down and infused with the delicate aroma of cat piss. It was interesting to stay in a traditional japanese house but with the warning from granny to keep the children quiet I didn’t warm to its paper-thin walls.

Happily our digs with their lumpy futons were the lowest point of our stay in Kyoto. The neighbourhood was great. Although a way out of town we were right next to a massive temple complex, with exquisite gardens, a playground nearby and wonderful local restaurants. We made the most of our Japan Rail passes, enjoying day trips to enchanting Arashiyama and to visit the tame deer in Nara.

And so it was we went from the ridiculous to the sublime. A yurt, on a smallholding, in the Japan Alps. Our own space where the kids could run around and make as much noise as they liked. Yuu and Megumi run a book shop/cafe/gallery space as well as guest house accommodation. There are a couple of fabulous installations in their grounds including a giant organ and camera obscura.

Our days were filled with happiness: hunting tiny frogs, hiking in the Alps and soaking in the local Onsen (public bath). Our evenings were spent feasting on Megumi’s wonderful food, sipping sake and conversing with their artist friends. On our last night we were treated to a mini-gig from Yuu’s band. The hills were alive with the sound of Beatles covers.

We were dreading leaving our haven in the hills and we bickered our way through the bus journey back to Tokyo. We’d had no luck finding somewhere to stay but Yuu and Megumi came to our rescue, securing a place to stay with a family friend in the suburbs.

That’s how we found ourselves at Maki and Yossy’s house where we were embraced as part of the family. They live in a lovely old house in an inspiring community and run ’Alumonde’ a workshop space where people can use tools to fix their stuff or swap unwanted items for things they need. They live near a city farm where we gatecrashed a bbq and got to make gelatinous rice cakes. We hiked a nearby mountain, enjoyed a full moon dinner party, ate Wagyu beef and experienced the intensity of a Japanese festival.

We didn’t  see a Geisha, Sumo wrestler or Mount Fuji but Nick did manage to soak himself pressing the wrong button on a high-tech toilet. The trains are super fast and the food is sublime. However it was away from the stereotypes that we saw Japan at its best. We got to experience a side of Japan that many visitors to the country would not see. I certainly would not have missed our haven in the hills or the sense of community we had for all the sushi in Japan.