The Last Stop.

It had long since been decided that New York should be the last stop of our year-long adventure. For Nick we had to literally circumnavigate the globe in order to say we had been around the world. It wasn’t the easiest or indeed cheapest way back to the UK from New Zealand but the little matter of a 36 hour aeroplane journey wasn’t going to stop the Johnsons.

New York, New York. The Big Apple. So good they named it twice. Concrete jungle where dreams are made. New York’s reputation certainly precedes her and my expectations were huge. We got a taxi from the airport, yellow, naturally, and made our way towards Manhattan through the rush hour traffic. The oh so familiar skyline silhouetted against a fabulous sunset. I was buzzing with excitement. But after our epic flight and crossing the international date line our exploration of New York would have to wait.

The next morning we woke up in the city that never sleeps. We’ll have to take their word for it though as we all enjoyed a solid 12 hours kip. We consumed our first cliché of the day by breakfasting on bagels and coffee before heading out to see the sights. Our hotel was just off Fifth Avenue and our aim was to make the obligatory pilgrimage to the American Museum of Natural History to check out the dinosaurs. New York had other ideas.

Although this was my first time there, as the back drop to thousands of movies and TV series, New York was immediately familiar. I walked along her Avenues in awe, making frequent stops to ogle her architecture, with a pervasive sense of deja vu and a suitable soundtrack running through my head. New York is such a ubiquitous part of popular culture that I spent the duration of our stay feeling like I was in a movie.

We eventually made it to Central Park and sat on a bench eating a hot dog we’d bought from a vendor with a striped umbrella. I had to pinch myself with the surrealness of it. We soaked up the atmosphere, watched street performers and fell in love with the vibrant fall colours while the boys clamboured on the famed rocks. We were so waylaid that the afternoon had run away and our trip to the museum would have to wait. Much to George’s chagrin. That evening we ate pizza at a quaint little Italian restaurant in Greenwich village with checked table cloths and a brash waitress. And I pinched myself again.

The next day was Halloween and after a morning with the dinosaurs we went in search of some costumes. We were invited to Trick or Treat with a New York family we’d met in Japan and needed to get into the spirit of things. Macy’s. Bloomingdales. JC Penny. Nothing. We ended up with two very happy boys Star Wars-ed up to the nines thanks to the Disney Store. And a couple of zombie parents thanks to some fake blood and make-up at our friends’ house. The enthusiasm with which Brooklyn celebrated Halloween was infectious. Everyone in costume, decorated houses, a suitably spooky spectacle put on a stage outside someone’s house. Even the local dentist was giving out candy (well, thats one way to drum up business). Later we took the subway home along with a human Watermelon, a Goat-man and all of the Ghostbusters. That evening will remain one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Over the next couple of days we whistled through our Big Apple hit list. We took a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and rode the Subway back again. We thought about taking a helicopter ride to see the Statue of Liberty for about 30 seconds before the fear of the credit card bill got the better of us and we opted to take the (free) Statten Island Ferry instead. We walked through Battery Park and had a go on the Sea Glass Carousel. We stood in quiet contemplation at the 9/11 Memorial and tried to convey what it meant to the children. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park. We saw a show on Broadway and Nick ate a mac n cheese burger that was bigger than his head. We strolled the high-line with a dear old friend who now calls New York home. We stood inside Grand Central Station and I was moved to tears.

On our last night in New York as I looked down on the dizzy heights of NYC from the Empire State Building I thought of everywhere we had been and all the things we had done. All the people we had met and all of the places we’d slept in the past year. 24 hours later we would be back in our house in Brighton but it felt good to know that as long as the four of us were together, anywhere in the world, we would always be home.

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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.

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.

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…

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.