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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Money, sex and diarrhoea: our 10 most frequently asked questions

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.

Boys’ Tour

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!

 

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?

 

Bangkok to Butterworth and beyond (aka Malaysia part I)

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.

To be continued…

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!

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…

China

Due to the visa restrictions we didn’t have a whole lot of time for our China explorations. Now that we are out the other side it is safe to say we packed a lot into a short time.

 

On the whole we found China a really easy place to travel, despite the obvious language difficulties. There are super efficient trains, a great choice of hostels and Chinese curiosity about the children was unobtrusive (apart from one time an entire family invaded our hostel room to gawp).

  

Our first tick on the places-to-see-in-China list was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace’s buildings are imposing and beautiful. One can not help but imagine the fear and respect they would have commanded back when they were not surrounded by skyscrapers. 

 

Our visit to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù was fun if surreal. Surreal in part because it is such an iconic and familiar structure but more surreal because of the toboggan ride back down to the car park and the resident bi-lingual Mynah bird.

 

On the high speed train out of Beijing we hurtled past vast swathes of agricultural land with mile upon mile of fruit trees and poly tunnels interspersed with the odd town and/or power station. 

 

We spent a few chilled days in Pingyao exploring the ancient city walls and temples in between lots of lego time for the boys whilst we worked on the plan. The beauty of Pingyao is somewhat jaded by an ever-present layer of dust from the coal mines nearby. We particular enjoyed Ri Sheng Chang Old bank – the birthplace of modern banking. And Pingyao’s Newspaper museum which is a collection of front pages from around the world and we had fun playing guess the news story. 

  

The Army of Terracotta Warriors was next on the itinerary so we took a train to Xi’an. The three sites are housed in huge buildings and truly awe-inspiring. The statues are quite eerie, they so realistic one could imagine them coming to life any second.

  

We decided last minute to cut short our time in Xi’an so we could to fit in a Yangzi River cruise where we were able to be still for a couple of days as we sailed past the stunning scenery (read about it in Nick’s blog soon).

 

After noticing a dinosaur museum in our guide book it was just a matter of working out how we would fit in a detour to Zigong. The seven hours we subsequently spent on buses were well worth it and an added bonus were the beautiful landscapes we passed on the way, rolling hills and rice terraces. The dinosaur museum itself was a big hit with all of us, dinosaur models, skeletons, fossils and a real life excavation site! 

  

We enjoyed Chengdu not least for its most famous residents (pandas) and by far the biggest bed we’ve had so far! Nick took the opportunity of a DVD player in our room to introduce the boys to Star Wars. 

  

We took a day trip to Leshan to see the Big Buddha (it really is very big). And we loved wandering around People’s Park. Where we discovered a festival atmosphere with groups of couples ballroom dancing round sound systems. 

  

A storm in Shanghai gave us a long delay at Chengdu airport which although frustrating saved us the cost of a night’s accommodation. The weather system hung around and we had a wet and windy stay in Shanghai, exploring the city clad in down and goretex. 

 

Highlights include: a great day exploring the vast Science & Technology museum, seeing the cityscape lit up at night from the 87th floor of the Jinmào Tower, wandering round the French concession with its gorgeous Art Deco apartment blocks and the spectacular Acrobatic show we saw on our last night in China. 

 

Food references littered my posts from India but my taste buds were not set alight in China. We tried lots of street food and local delicacies; Peking duck and xiaolongbao were our favourites but I definitely didn’t fall in love with Chinese cuisine. 

   

The boys enjoyed the food more than us. They couldn’t get enough noodles and dumplings. And at Dōnghuámén Night Market they even tried snake and scorpion. G should have been on commission from the stall drumming up quite a bit of business with his proclamation that the scorpion was delicious!

 

We enjoyed China but we weren’t blown away. We didn’t experience the great highs and lows of our travels in India and Nepal. Where getting a train was an adventure in itself. With everything so easy the journey was, dare I say it, a little dull. Maybe we just didn’t have the time to appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong (or how to blow the budget)

Our flight from Calcutta was at 12.40am (aka ridiculous o’clock when travelling with children). And in keeping with the chaos of the city the journey to the airport was rather, well, chaotic. A tram had broken down in the middle of a crossroad causing major gridlock. Happily we had left plenty of time so enjoyed the drama without the worry of a missed flight.

 

Check in was also eventful. Our first experience of Air Asia’s dubious fine print and a hefty pay out for onward baggage transfer. Also the algorithm’s of the booking system are idiotic as 3 year old T was allocated a seat on his own. The journey itself was fine and we even managed to (finally) purchase a Lonely Planet for China.


Arrival in Hong Kong was like a dream. So clean, so efficient and so easy. We were certainly dazzled by the bright lights and after checking into our teeny room we made a bee-line for the familiarity of M&S food hall. 

Our guesthouse was in the backpacker destination of Chunking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. An old tenement block packed with ‘budget’ lodgings. Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive and you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Whereas a double room had always been ample for the four of us in India the double bed we were presented with was akin to a large single in a broom cupboard so we shelled out for a (not much) bigger ‘family’ room complete with shower over toilet. But it was comfortable and oh so clean.

 

After five months on the road most of our clothes were falling apart. We were due some serious retail therapy and that is something Hong Kong dishes out in (Gucci emblazoned) bucket loads. We wandered round the many shining shopping malls in open-mouthed wonderment. And we spent. New outfits. New lego. New shoes for the boys. We were the definition of shop ’til you drop. 

We managed to shake free of the consumer trance we were under and venture past the bright lights and shopping malls to see what else Hong Kong had on offer. We visited the Tian Tan Buddha (tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world) and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping on Lan Tau  Island. It was a steep climb up to the ‘big Buddha’ and sadly low cloud blocked the apparently stunning views but it was impressive nonetheless.


The weather was kinder to us when we rode the MTR out to the New Territories to follow the Peng Shan Heritage Trail. Where we had a glimpse of pre-colonial Hong Hong with fascinating ancestral halls and walled villages.


The kids enjoyed sampling Hong Kong’s many playgrounds and we enjoyed sitting back watching them play, safe in the knowledge there wouldn’t be a gaping rusty hole in the slide. They loved Disneyland and Ocean Park. I was less enamoured by the latter finding the layout hard to navigate but the aquarium was spectacular.


Temple street night market was a real highlight. We really enjoyed perusing all the wares on offer albeit whilst shielding the boys from some of the more adult stalls. There was a great atmosphere and the fresh seafood (straight from a bucket on the pavement) was delicious.


Hong Kong had us; hook, line and sinker. Our week there flew by in a blur of socialising and fine dining. We loved the ease of the metro and the fun of the Star Ferry. We ate some amazing pan Asian food. We rekindled friendships we’d made long ago and far away with people who now call Hong Kong home. And even had childcare for a night out on the town. 


It was a great place to recharge the batteries (and empty the wallet). And we consumed enough wine and cheese to fortify us through the next chapter of our adventure. Watch out China, the Johnsons are coming.