Chiang Mai Birthday

Birthday poem
The elephants’ tails swaying in the wind with the sound of the birds singing
The bow I held with arrows on my back started to sparkled like the sun
The ship I built with the help of my father flew like the wind
The car my brother bought raced faster then ever before
The white water kayaking flowed so fast but the disappointment of my brother’s splash
We fed the elephants like never before and the care we gave them made us love them even more

 

Elephant squirting day
We went to an elephant sanctuary for my 7th birthday. The elephants were massive and their tusks are as hard as stone. I loved the elephants and I think I would like to do this again. The lunch at the elephant sanctuary was massive and we didn’t eat all of it. I would reckon that everyone should do this.

 

My birthday presents were lovely but I didn’t get what I had expected. I only expected to get a bow and arrows. That is all. I didn’t expect to get that much lego as well and I really enjoyed it. I did get a bow and I was really pleased when I found out the bow was for me. In Dad’s rucksack I could only see a string so I wasn’t sure it was a bow. When I got one I was really pleased because I had been wanting a bow for ages.

One of the good things about having your birthday travelling is that you know all of your family will be here.The bad thing about having your birthday travelling is that your friends are not there. When it came to my birthday I wished I was at home with my friends. Luckily we still got a birthday cake and had a lovely meal out at a restaurant called the Dukes. At the Dukes we had a messy sunday which is two scoops of ice crea in a pot with chocolate sauce all over it.

 

Weeks 23 and 24- Chiang Mai

On Wednesday morning we woke up early to pack for our train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Although we had enjoyed the night train for our last long journey, we hadn’t got very much sleep and we had missed out on seeing the scenery changing around us, so we decided to risk the 11 hour day train this time. We had 2nd class seats in an air conditioned compartment which was very similar to an old British train, not luxury but perfectly comfortable enough. The day passed fairly easily, doing schoolwork, writing blogs, reading, watching the scenery, and chatting to MJ, an American who drew the short straw and ended up sitting with us. We were served free drinks and snacks at regular intervals, as well as an incredibly spicy and fairly disgusting lunch of rice, green curry and garlic chicken in a packet that looked like dog food. We had brought masses of fruit, biscuits and sandwiches with us so we didn’t go hungry at any point. The journey proceeded smoothly, through the flat rice plains where we could see vast numbers of cranes flying in the skies, up to the northern hills, until we drew to an unexpected stop a couple of hours before Chiang Mai. Ahead of us was a forest fire, and it was clear the train staff didn’t know whether or not to proceed. We sat for a bit, went forward for a bit, then reversed for a while, then repeated this several times over the next hour until we finally made it onwards and out the other side. The whole family found this wildly exciting and it made our long journey much more interesting! Despite this distraction, we were all tired and very ready to get off the train when we finally reached Chiang Mai at 8.00. On arriving at the station we picked a rot daang (shared red taxi) and were squashed in with 7 other people before finally setting off for town. The driver clearly didn’t know his way around as we ended up driving round and round in circles looking for the various guesthouses, making for a very long trip. We were staying a short distance outside the old city in a rented house, so after everyone else had been dropped off, Ben jumped in the front and successfully navigated the way to our home for the next 2 weeks. We had finally made it, 14 hours after setting off in the morning.

We planned to try a slower pace of life in Chiang Mai, using the opportunity to reestablish regular home-school for an hour or two each morning, making sure we had plenty of days where we did ‘nothing’, letting the kids set the agenda, and working in some one-to-one time with each child. I had also hoped we might meet up with some of the expat community in Chiang Mai, having successfully joined a Chiang Mai ‘worldschool’ facebook group. Unfortunately this didn’t result in any meet ups despite my best efforts but I have found joining the global worldschooling facebook page very encouraging, reading about other families who are struggling with their children arguing, being unable to share beds together, and finding homeschooling difficult. It is very comforting knowing that we are not the only people to find travelling with kids challenging.

We had also planned to organise our visas for China and Russia during our time in Chiang Mai, feeling ready to commit at last to the timings of our home stretch on the Trans-Mongolian railway. Although we had originally planned to start this part of our journey at the end of June, we are all feeling ready to head back a bit sooner and are now hoping to arrive home in time for the kids to join in with the second half of summer term at school. We had always anticipated that getting a Chinese visa might be time consuming, however we had not realised how difficult it would be to get hold of a Russian visa. After researching it thoroughly, we have now been told that we can only get a tourist visa in London, and Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have all confirmed that they cannot grant us one. Vietnam have said that they will give us a transit visa which entitles us to travel through Russia for 10 days, but we aren’t confident enough to actually go ahead and book our train tickets on the basis of one positive email. So, we saved ourselves a couple of days of form filling and queuing for visas, but have instead spent that time generating new ideas for our route home. At the moment the top choice seems to be to complete South East Asia as planned, but to then go on to Japan instead of China, and head home by plane a few weeks later, however I doubt we will finalise any plans for a few weeks yet. Piran is very disappointed about missing Mongolia as he had visions of spending his days riding on horseback shooting a bow and arrow, and Jago really wants to do the incredibly long train journey, but if we can’t get a visa we will just have to accept that it wasn’t meant to be on this occasion, and plan another trip in a few years time.

Our accommodation in Chiang Mai was not far outside the city walls, so on our first day we rented some bicycles for the fortnight, to make it easy to get about. The kids loved riding about on them on the road outside our house and were very happy to just hang out on the bikes for much of the day. Ben and I both managed to get about easily on the bikes when travelling alone, but longer forays into town with the kids proved a lot more challenging. The traffic was busier than I had expected and Jago and Cara both lacked insight into the dangers of riding on these roads; as a result we had more than one occasion where I had to force everyone to walk home, pushing their bikes, after the kids refused to follow instructions. The older two are both so strong willed and very over-confident and do not take kindly at all to being told how to ride their bikes, becoming very rude and defiant when we try to point out the dangers. Despite them noticing so many differences in the various countries they have travelled in, getting them to acknowledge that road safety might be different here to the UK is like banging your head against a brick wall! Despite these difficulties, it was safe enough for them to ride around our quiet, local neighbourhood and they all spent many happy hours experiencing a bit of freedom away from us around here.

I wasn’t as happy as the kids were to spend endless days around our house. It was very dark indoors, with little natural light, no outdoor space and no views, and I found myself craving a more rural environment. The city was covered in smog during rice-field burning season, and we never saw the surrounding hills. One day we walked up Doi Suthep, reaching a fantastic temple half way up the hill, with water flowing over the rocks, the relaxing sounds of the forest around us, and hardly any of the gold glitz that would have detracted from the natural beauty of the site. This part of the walk was beautiful, along the path that the monks use each morning, marked with orange monks’ robes tied around the trees. So peaceful and meditative. It was quite amusing to find Ben telling the kids to be calm and quiet once we reached the temple, only to have the peace disturbed by a large group of monks chatting and laughing loudly and taking selfies on their phones! As we continued up to the top of the hill we all started to find it far too hot and struggled with the walk. When we finally reached the summit, we could barely see the city below due to the smog blocking the view, and we were too exhausted to look around the temple here- it clearly isn’t the best time of year to visit Chiang Mai. Despite all this, Ben really liked the city and would happily have stayed here longer, one of the few occasions where we have had really opposing views about a place. I think that I could have been much happier if we had been a bit further out of town with more scenery on our doorstep, and if we were coming here again I would definitely research where to stay more carefully before committing to accommodation.

Although I didn’t like the city of Chiang Mai as much as I had expected to, there were loads of activities for us to do there and we had some wonderful times. The city itself had a fabulous night market with delicious, cheap food and the kids really enjoyed being given some money and sent off to choose what they wanted to eat and pay for it themselves. We picked up a few souvenirs here, as well as enjoying our first fish foot spa, where you stick your feet in a tank of fish and they nibble away the dead skin. It took a lot of getting used to, with everybody squealing and finding it incredibly ticklish at first. It wasn’t the ‘relaxing’ experience that was advertised but it was a lot of fun. Our family Thai massage was a lot more relaxing for me with my gentle masseuse, but the kids found theirs funny and Ben looked a bit shellshocked after being walked on, bones cracked and muscles stretched at all angles. The massage girls clearly enjoyed treating the kids, especially Piran, and it was definitely a peaceful hour for us if nothing else! We tried lots of different dishes during our time here, including the delicious Chiang Mai speciality of Khao Soi, which is a kind of noodle curry soup, Papaya salad which is very spicy, made with unripe papaya and completely different to the fruit we usually eat, little crepes containing soft meringue and strings of candy floss, bingsoo which is flavoured milky shaved ice (a bit like shredded mini-milk with added strawberry/brownie/mango etc) and some amazing ice cream at the wonderful iberry garden. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to try the crickets and grasshoppers that were for sale at all the tourist sites, but I didn’t see any locals eating them either. Having enjoyed the cookery classes so much in Indonesia and Borneo, we decided to spend a day with Basil cookery class in Chiang Mai which was absolutely fantastic. We made so many different dishes and enjoyed the feast afterwards, and we will definitely be making spring rolls, green curry, pad thai and mango sticky rice regularly when we return to the UK.

As well as the delicious food, I did love finding so many temples in the city, the monks walking around everywhere (and sitting smoking in taxis), and the narrow alleyways off the main roads where you could find complete quiet and calm in contrast to the busy main thoroughfares. I visited a few of the temples and loved each one of them. The first one I went to was Wat Srisuphan, a silver temple on a quiet street near our house. Cara and I visited at 6pm, and were interested to find a ‘Monk Chat’ session about to start, which we thought would be a good opportunity to ask questions about Buddhism and the life of a monk. We duly signed the register, before realising it was actually a 2 hour course with an hour for chat and an hour’s meditation class afterwards. We had already written a long list of questions during our previous temple visits and the monk we were talking to tried his best to answer them for us. He then introduced us to sound meditation, using a gong to provide a rich sound for us to focus our attention on for 15 minutes. Unfortunately as it became dark, the room became filled with hundreds of flying ants, which kept landing on us and making it very difficult to concentrate! We eventually had to abandon our meditation, deciding that walking meditation in bare feet over a floor of small creatures wouldn’t be in keeping with Buddhist philosophy of not harming other living things. As we stepped out into the courtyard, the temple was lit up with candles, the light reflecting off the silver walls and roof, monks were sitting around the ordination hall, and chanting was being broadcast through the loudspeakers. It was very beautiful and very serene, and definitely the best way to see this temple. Inspired by this taster, I decided to sign up for a 1-day meditation course at Wat Suan Dok, a marvellous day where I learnt more about the Buddhist philosophy and was taught both concentration and mindfulness meditation, using the techniques of breathing, hand moving and walking. It seems only logical to me that we should need to rest our brains and switch off from active thought at times in the day, in the same way that we recognise the need to rest our bodies from physical activity. I also believe that practising mindfulness allows people to be more aware of their feelings, their needs and desires, and that in turn allows them either to address these issues or challenge them. In doing so, I believe we can be calmer and more content, and I hope to establish a routine of meditating every day over the next few weeks. I had been tempted to enrol on a 2 day silent meditation retreat, but I actually found it surprisingly difficult meditating for as long as 30 minutes, and I think more practice will be required before I can take that step. Another temple that I visited was Wat Chedi Luang, and I dragged all the kids along to this one with me. This was very interesting to visit, as the chedi dating from the 15th century had been destroyed either by an earthquake or during the recapture of Chiang Mai from the Burmese. It had only been partially restored, allowing plenty of room for the imagination, and it was also the original home of the Emerald Buddha before it was transferred to Bangkok. We enjoyed walking around for an hour or so before the heat got the better of us and we had to retreat to an ice-cream shop. I have learnt so much about Buddhism during my time in Thailand, and whilst there are a few elements I disagree with, I believe that the philosophies of being kind, generous, respectful, having self-control, and doing no harm, as well as the practice of meditation, are aspects that we should all fully embrace.

During our stay in Chiang Mai, Piran had his 7th birthday. We spent the day with a family who own a couple of elephants that were originally used by their grandfather and father for logging, but which are now retired and kept on as family pets. They do not get a lot of visitors, limiting it to a maximum of 8 people 3 times a week, but we were actually the first tourists to visit this year. It was important to me that we didn’t exploit the elephants by going to a large camp with hundreds of visitors every day all expecting to wash and feed them and I had spent a long time researching the different elephant experiences on offer before settling on Chiang Mai elephants. It was clear that Sumalee and her family love their elephants, and we felt happy that the elephants weren’t being put under stress when we rode bareback on them, just as their mahouts do. They were allowed to wonder about, at their own pace, stopping to eat as they wished, seeking shade, drinking water and spraying us with mud and water whilst we sat on their backs. It was an amazing experience being up so close and personal with them, feeling their hairy, leathery skin and watching their trunks move in such an agile manner, acting as an arm but with complete flexibility due to the lack of bones within. They really are awesome creatures. Lunch was an amazing feast cooked for us by Sumalee’s mother: delicious pad thai, vegetable stir fry, chicken with holy basil, rice and fruit. We all had an amazing day, and Piran was pleased that he could practice firing his new bow and arrows at lunchtime, a present he has been asking for, for the past 2 months. We finished the outing with a trip on a bamboo raft down the river which was lined with lots of teenagers drinking and splashing water on everyone who passed. We emerged at the other end soaked through but very refreshed and it was a fun way to end the trip. As we were punted down the river we could see other elephants carrying tourists in boxes on their backs, and some on short chains with no forest nearby, and the contrast with our day couldn’t have been greater. It is clear that more can be done to promote ethical tourism as many travellers think that ‘no riding’ means that the elephants will therefore be well treated, and it was easy to see the importance of choosing your outings very carefully. We finished off the day at Dukes, an American restaurant back in Chiang Mai, where we celebrated Piran’s birthday with a lovely meal. What an amazing way to spend your 7th birthday!

Whilst in Chiang Mai we did manage to take advantage of some of the multitude of activities available. Cara wanted to do an art class, so she and Jago had a 2 hour session at Noina art studio, where Noina showed them how to make sketches of their chosen photographs. They were both very pleased with their masterpieces and enjoyed it so much that we all went back the following week for another session. We all produced some great work and it was fabulous for Piran’s confidence who had been worried that he wouldn’t be any good and would ‘get it wrong’ despite my reassurances. Ben was very pleased with his pencil portrait of me, and I enjoyed using watercolours to paint the beach at Koh Bulone. This was one of the best activities we have done whilst travelling, and it has inspired us to see if we can find a similar class when we return to the UK. Jago wanted to play football and cricket; unfortunately none of the football clubs would take people on a drop-in basis, but Ben found a cricket club where he could go and practice his bowling and they enjoyed a couple of afternoons together there, one watching other people playing and one getting involved himself. The coach was very impressed with Jago’s talent and assumed he had been coached before, so Jago is now keen to take up cricket as his summer sport when we get home. Piran mostly wanted to ride his bike and play with his bow and arrow and new lego kits, but he did enjoy an afternoon playing crazy golf with me, very satisfied when he got each ball in the hole regardless of the number of shots needed. Cara and I had a lovely afternoon at the park playing on the gym equipment, chatting and enjoying a drink at the cafe, and we also enjoyed a trip to the insect museum where we learnt more about mosquitos and saw lots of different dead insects which was strangely interesting. Ben found a couple of co-working spaces to spend his days which worked much better for all of us than having him trying to work at home and getting annoyed by the distractions and interruptions. There was even an English speaking multi-denominational church in Chiang Mai so we were able to go to a service for the first time since New Zealand. This wasn’t as sociable as I had hoped and the kids didn’t really enjoy Sunday school, but it was good to revisit our own faith after spending so many months learning about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, especially with Easter just around the corner. Given that our stay in Chiang Mai was a break from all the busyness of the previous few months, we managed to fit in a surprising amount of stuff without ever feeling like we were doing too much. It has been encouraging to realise that by slowing down and travelling a bit more slowly we can still have the travelling experience we hoped for, and this realisation has helped us to summon up enthusiasm as we continue on in to Laos.

We finished our time in Chiang Mai with another white water rafting trip, something we have all enjoyed in other places, and an opportunity to get out of the hot, smoggy city and see some of the surrounding countryside. As it is dry season, the water levels were fairly low so we felt brave enough to tackle the grade III-IV rapids, with the kids sitting out the most challenging 2km stretch in the middle. We were given inflatable kayaks rather than the bigger rafts so that we wouldn’t get stuck on the exposed rocks in the shallow river. It was so wonderful being out of the city for the day, and my mood lifted quickly as soon as we retreated into the countryside. The quiet and calm of the river was such a contrast to the city, and the kids were able to relax, muck about and splash each other with water without me having to worry about traffic or noise levels, happily turning over responsibility to the guide who was paddling with Jago and Cara. He was great fun, very happy for them to get wet and stand up in their kayaks, whilst successfully directing them as they went down the rapids. The faster rapids were much more fun than the grade I we had tried before, though I found the anticipation more exciting than the reality which often felt quite tame. It was a fun final family activity in Thailand, and made me think that I might have enjoyed Chiang Mai so much more if we had stayed in a slightly more rural location; I am clearly just not designed for city life!

Tuesday of week 25 was our final day in Chiang Mai, leaving us just 1 day to get to the border before our visas were due to expire on Thursday. I felt like there was so much more of Thailand that we didn’t get to see, but that is part of travelling as a family. Our priority at this time had been to provide stability for the kids and to enjoy some more ‘normal’ activities for a while, and we definitely managed to achieve that. The Thailand that we saw was more developed and commercialised than we had been expecting, apart from the lovely Koh Bulone, and it would have been interesting to venture further into the hills in the north. As we head on towards Laos, we are hoping that we will find a simpler way of life combined with more untouched countryside, that we missed out on in Northern Thailand. What better way to start our journey than with 2 days floating down the Mekong river!

Week 22- Huahin and Bangkok

This week we have been well and truly spoilt by my lovely schoolfriend, Pomme, with comfortable accommodation, fantastic food and wonderful company during our time in Huahin and Bangkok. It has been so nice to meet up together for the first time in 9 years, and to meet her daughter Porpla and husband Danny at last. We have experienced such amazing hospitality and been blown away by her generosity; despite many years passing between seeing each other, it felt so natural to be back in Pomme’s company and I have felt truly grateful this week to have such a wonderful friend.

We arrived back in Hat Yai on Monday lunchtime and had a few hours to kill before we were to catch the sleeper train to Huahin that evening. We managed to engage a tuk tuk to take us around the municipal park which is spread over several miles up a steep hill, containing a Hindu and many Buddhist temples, and one of the largest golden Buddha statues in a blessing pose in South East Asia. We now seem to have a running joke that every Buddha in the country is spinned as the largest Buddha of its kind, so long as you are specific enough about its unique feature. The tuk tuk struggled up the steep hill, and at one point I wasn’t sure we’d make it, but eventually we were treated to fabulous views over the city, as well as the delights of the temples, where people were waving incense sticks, releasing birds from cages and exploding fire crackers in an effort to obtain good karma. Seeing a prayer tree, I was particularly struck by the fact that all the prayers were for luck, happiness, good fortune and husbands for themselves whereas our prayers tend to be more about asking for intervention in difficult situations such as illness, poverty, war etc. There seems to be a strange disparity in Buddhism between the goal of not desiring anything, and the existence of karma which results in people making offerings and dedicating their good deeds in the hope that good things will happen to them as a result. The municipal park was a great introduction to Thai temples and statues of Buddha and it was a fun afternoon to break up the long journey from Koh Bulone to Huahin.

We finally boarded our sleeper train at 6.00 in the evening to great excitement, particularly from Ben who couldn’t wait to experience a night train and who was like a small boy in a sweet shop. The train was clean, comfortable and air conditioned, perfectly pleasant accommodation for the night. We had booked 2 seats either side of the central aisle which were quickly transformed into bunk beds not long after we set off, with Jago and Cara on the top bunks and the rest of us on the bottom bunks, Piran sharing with me. We quickly settled into bed and everyone enjoyed the idea, but the reality was that not much sleep was had by anyone due to a combination of excitement, the fact it was so different to usual, the noise of the train, the very cold air conditioning and the fact that the lights weren’t ever turned out. I think I managed an hour or 2, but by the time we pulled in to Huahin at 7.00 we were all pretty exhausted! It was raining when we arrived but we managed the long walk to Pomme’s beach house, gradually getting soaked through, very pleased to be greeted by the caretaker and let in when we finally got there. We were staying right on the beach in a lovely simple house with whitewashed walls and comfortable beds. It had such a nice, homely feel and there was everything we could want on our doorstep. Jago and I went out for supplies and treated ourselves to a delicious breakfast in Starbucks, a business I would normally shun in favour of local coffeeshops, but after so little sleep it was exactly what we needed. I was reminded of how awful I feel after a night shift at work and felt very glad to have had so much time off since October. As we shopped, Jago decided he wanted to cook the meals in Huahin and decided to set up ‘Restaurant Jago’ for our stay, writing menus for us to choose our food and drinks from and enjoying serving it up. All the cooking classes are starting to rub off on him! Unable to make it through the morning, I had a couple of hours sleep after breakfast, before heading to the beach with the boys after lunch. Huahin is a kitesurfing centre, and the number of kites out was phenomenal. I loved all the colours of the kites racing to and from the shore, and had fun watching the tricks performed by the surfers as they reached the beach, leaping up and somersaulting in the air. We found proper Italian ice cream, some enormous jellyfish washed up on the beach, and had a refreshing swim in the ocean, before an early night all round to catch up on some much needed sleep.

On Wednesday we hired a car for the day, and headed out to the national parks nearby for some walking and the chance to spot elephants in the wild. Despite the scary Thai traffic, it felt so liberating to have our own transport again and I really appreciated having our own wheels. We made it to Khao Sam Roi Yot national park in good time, where we had a good uphill stomp to look out over the limestone cliffs and fish farms below. Back down at ground level, we watched a monkey take a bottle of Ribena out of a bin, take the lid off, then drink it down! It’s amazing how much monkeys can do with their hands and how this can make them seem so much like humans. We carried on to the beach for a relaxed lunch before setting off to find Kui Buri national park which looked to be directly over the main road on our map, about 30 minutes drive away. After driving backwards and forwards repeatedly for a long time looking for our turning, we finally saw a road sign with a left arrow to Kui Buri; however after we had covered 10km and not seen any further signs we finally decided to turn on Ben’s (expensive) mobile data to find the route. We were, of course, on the wrong road and still another 40km or so from our destination. Having planned to reach the park at 2.00, we finally arrived at 4pm, all thoroughly fed up of spending so long in a car, but relieved to have eventually found the place. We piled into the safari truck (an open pick-up with benches in the back) with our guide and set off into the jungle. There is a large number (200) of elephants in this relatively small national park so there is a good chance of seeing them here but we didn’t have long after arriving so late in the day. Shortly after we set off, our guide noticed an enormous male elephant on the road in front of us. We managed to catch up to it as it set off into the jungle, stopping at a lake to spray itself with water, before disappearing into the surrounding trees. We didn’t see any more after that, but it was such a wonderful privilege to have sat and watched such an awesome creature at close quarters even for such a short time. Very special indeed. I am so glad we have seen an elephant in the wild, the way it should be, majestic and free, before heading up to Chiang Mai with its profusion of elephant shows and the mass tourism in its elephant camps. It was dark by the time we arrived back, so we took advantage of having a car to visit the night market in Huahin. The street food in Thailand is great as most of it is freshly cooked there in front of you and it is really affordable, so we all enjoyed a tasty dinner finished off with some mango sticky rice. Yum!

Thursday was our final full day in Huahin, so after finishing blog posts the boys and I headed to the beach in search of some fun. Jago wanted to try his hand at jet skiing, so putting our lives in his hands Piran and I piled on behind him for a ride. I was very encouraged by what a nervous driver he is, as I fully expected him to go off full throttle throwing us all off backwards! However as soon as he got any speed up he scared himself and let go of the accelerator, lurching us slowly through the sea. He slowly built up his confidence and by the time we finished he was driving relatively smoothly and fairly fast over the waves, totally exhilarated. He ran home to tell Ben about the excitement, while Piran and I stayed on the beach playing ‘it’ and Uno for a couple more hours before we, too, headed home for lunch. Cara finally finished her work towards the end of the afternoon, so she too managed to get a short time on the beach, looking for shells, swimming and building a very quick sandcastle. Whilst Huahin didn’t have the same level of beauty of many other places we have stayed, it was a good transition between the simplicity of Koh Bulone and the busyness of Bangkok, where we were headed next, and it was a great place to spend a few days.

On Friday we had intended to return to the beach for a few hours for Jago to take Ben and Cara out on a jetski, before catching our bus to Bangkok at lunchtime. However shortly after heading out we felt the wind picking up and were able to see a storm travelling towards us across the sea. We knew we wouldn’t have long before it hit, and after much agonising decided that we would have to skip the fun of the day. The initial disappointment was quickly forgotten as the morning turned into a Minecraft session instead, and we left Huahin on a good note. Arriving in Bangkok at the central bus station 4 hours later, we successfully navigated the skytrain which was very similar to the London Underground with throngs of people squashed into the carriages, but noticeably cleaner. The kids took it all in their stride and it was great to think that when they are older they should be able to show up in any city of the world and have the confidence to tackle the local transport. We passed big, glitzy shopping malls full of familiar names and big cinemas at every turn, the Bangkok I had been expecting. We had a short walk from our stop to the apartment block we were staying in, where we passed street food vendors on the road outside smart hotels such as the Hilton, a real mix from all walks of life in one place. Up on the 28th floor we were able to look out over Bangkok, but there was a thick haze over the city, with visibility not much more than a mile or so, and I was astonished how light the night sky was. The contrast from Koh Bulone couldn’t have been greater!

We had arranged to meet Pomme for lunch on Saturday, so we decided to hit the shops first thing in the morning. We only brought a couple of t-shirts and shorts each travelling with us, so after 6 months our clothes have seen better days, and this was a nice excuse to pick up something a bit smarter for a change. We walked to the Emporium mall at the end of our road, where we found some new shirts for the boys and a dress each for me and Cara. Putting on new clothes felt like we were changing out of ‘backpacker’ mode and into ‘normal life’, and I found it quite refreshing to have a break from the traveller mindset for a few days. Lunch with Pomme was fantastic. We had delicious English food at her Mum’s restaurant and were introduced to all the family, feeling very welcomed. After lunch we decided to go to the Sea Life centre which is in the basement of a central shopping mall. We had a fun afternoon seeing sharks, penguins, seahorses and fish but the highlight was an enormous octopus who moved around his tank attaching his suckers to the glass, giving us a fantastic view. What an amazing creature! Afterwards we attempted to get dinner at the food hall in the mall, but there was a system of paying with a pre-paid card that we couldn’t work out, so we settled for quiche and salad at home instead. We decided to take our lives in our hands as we caught a tuk tuk home that evening, swerving at full pelt in and out of the traffic, frequently heading straight towards oncoming cars as we pulled onto the other side of the road and holding on for dear life as we sped around corners. It was truly terrifying, but the kids obviously thought it was great fun and now seem to think we should drive like that all the time! I was just glad to get home alive!

We had a lazy Sunday morning until I finally dragged the kids out to the park to use up some energy before going to Porpla’s birthday party that afternoon. I hadn’t really taken account of the weather when coming up with this plan, and by the time we finally reached the park the kids were all too hot to play! Lumpini park was pleasant enough with a boating lake, outdoor gym and basic children’s playground but it lacked the size and beauty of the landscaped gardens in the London parks and is definitely a place to visit early or late when the weather is cool enough to run around. After walking through the park, we retreated to the entrance where we bought egg and rice from a street vendor which we ate under the shade of the trees before heading back home. Porpla’s birthday party was a fabulous event with a mini merry-go-round, bouncy castle, trampoline and clown who made balloon sculptures on request. There were so many delicious treats for our children who haven’t been to a party for so long- beautifully decorated cakes, lollies, ice-creams, cookies for them to decorate, sandwiches as well as ‘proper’ food such as rice and pork. Unfortunately for them, the kids have given up fizzy drinks for Lent and I have given up alcohol, so we had to go without the coke and champagne that was being offered, definitely the most tempting time we’ve had yet, but we managed to resist these valiantly. As we left, the kids were even given party bags which contained some small toys; these were such a delight to children who haven’t had toys for 6 months! The boys particularly loved building their own dinosaurs and playing with the small toy motorbikes that they were given. What a great party, and a fun way to end the week.

On Monday morning we set off early to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, ready to tackle the tourist throng and see some of the sights of Bangkok. We caught a longboat up the Chao Phraya and admired the buildings and temples along the side of the busy river. The Grand Palace was certainly a site to behold, with so many different buildings in distinctive Thai style mostly covered in opulent golds, reds and greens, all crammed into a relatively small area. I particularly liked the Yakshi, giant goblin-type statues that guard the temples, and the serpents that line the stairs. We joined hoards of other tourists to view the Emerald Buddha, a small Buddha statue actually made from jade, that we had read about in our book. It was in a magnificent room with beautiful walls but surrounded by so much other gold and glitz that it was actually quite difficult to make it out amongst all the competing stimuli. It was so crowded with people that I felt quite faint, and Piran really did not like being so surrounded, so we didn’t go inside any other buildings but admired the stupa and the rest of the buildings as we walked around the grounds. We also enjoyed seeing the guards, who must have been incredibly hot in their smart get-up, both standing at their posts and marching to changing of the guard. After escaping for some lunch, we went to the temple next door to see the enormous resident reclining Buddha. It was truly enormous, and very impressive. It was located inside a hall which felt too small to contain it, reminding me of Alice growing inside the room where she eats the cake! It was quieter than the Grand Palace and I was glad we had come on here before giving up on sightseeing for the day. After the cultured morning, we let the kids choose how to spend the afternoon. Piran just wanted to relax in the apartment playing with his toys, so he headed back home with Ben. I took Cara and Jago on to Madame Tussauds where we enjoyed the wax works and watched a short 4D Ice age film, followed by a trip to the cinema to see Black Panther. Before the film started we all had to stand for the national anthem whilst pictures of the King flashed before us on the screen; as well as this display of patriotism in cinemas, there are pictures and statues of the king all over the place and everyone stands for the national anthem when it is played at 8am and 6pm every day in public places. Thailand clearly does its utmost to ensure that the monarchy is integral to Thai identity, and all the pomp and grandeur of the Grand Palace clearly contributes to the impression of a wealthy and awe-inspiring royal family. A far cry from us in the UK, where our children definitely wouldn’t recognise Prince Charles, and probably wouldn’t even recognise the Queen if she wasn’t wearing her crown!

Tuesday was our final day in Bangkok and it was time to venture further afield. Pomme had arranged a day trip to Ayuthaya, the old Thai capital, for us, taking in Bang Pa In Palace, a European-style summer palace dating from the 17th century, the bizarre Buddhist temple of Wat Niwet Thamaprawat in the style of a gothic Christian church and reached by a dangling cable car across the river, the fabulous ruins of Wat Chai Wattanaram and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and the floating market. I loved the day; we saw so many interesting places but all at a relaxed pace, stopping for a fabulous lunch on a floating restaurant on the Chao Phraya where we tried one of the huge river prawns and a very spicy steamed fish with some of our usual stir fries. After travelling in so many relatively new countries, it was fantastic to see some old ruins and feel a sense of history in this place, and Cara and Piran particularly enjoyed using their imaginations to picture how the temples would have looked 600 years ago before the Burmese destroyed the city. The city was relatively quiet and we never found ourselves amongst the large crowds we had encountered in Bangkok. If we were doing the day again we would leave out the floating market, which was clearly just for tourists with no authenticity to it, but we did enjoy the short ride around the market in a longboat. Otherwise it was perfect. We finished up at a fantastic restaurant in a converted rice warehouse down by the river back in Bangkok, where we had an amazing dinner with Pomme and Porpla, sampling lots of different Thai dishes. The area was so calm and beautifully lit with lanterns, it felt like it was a million miles away from the busy city outside. It was such a nice way to finish our time in Bangkok and I was sad to say goodbye at the end of the evening, stepping out of the calm, tranquil environment of the Chinese docks back to real life and on to the next phase of our travels.

Rice growing

On Tuesday we went to a rice growing farm so we could learn how to make it and see where it was grown. Here are the 12 steps of making rice:

1. Get the good seeds by putting an egg in salty water so it floats. Then take out the egg and put in the rice. The rice that sinks to the bottom is the good rice.

 

 

 

2. Plant the baby seeds in the nursery, which is a flooded area with lots of squelchy mud underneath the water.

 

 

 

 

3. Attach a plough to a buffalo and shout “Hua! Hua!” to make it go. You then walk behind him and make sure it walks straight.

 

 

4. Next you took the rice out of the nursery and planted it in the ploughed field a hands width apart. For the next few months the field alternates every 5-10 days between being flooded, which stops weeds growing, and being dry, which encourages the roots to grow deeper and increases the amount of rice from each plant.

 

 

 

5. After 3 months you chop it down with a scythe and bundle it up using 2 of the rice strands.

 

 

 

 

 

6. After that you leave it in the sun to dry for a while

7. Next you get 2 sticks joined together by rope and then thrash the rice to get all the grains off the stalks.

 

 

 

8. After that you dance around the pile of grains you just thrashed waving a fan around to get rid of the straw.

 

 

 

 

 

9. Next you thrash it so you can get rid of shell that surrounds the actual rice because we can’t eat it.

10. Then you sieve it to get all the fine dust out.

11. Then you soak it in water for four to six hours or overnight

 

 

12. Then you cook it by steaming it in a wicker basket for 30 minutes.

13. Finally you can eat it.

You can also grind it again to make flour or make rice wine with it.

 

 

After I saw the rice being grown I would never think of rice the same way as I used to. I used to think that it was very simple and easy to make but now I know it is not! My favourite part was when we had to plough the field using Rudolphe the pink Buffalo. When we went in the fields the squelchy mud came up to our knees and it was very hard to get out.

Malaysian Musings

Next stop on our route up through South East Asia was Malaysia. We ended up travelling more slowly here, partly due to Chinese New Year causing us to rethink travel plans to avoid local crowds and partly as the children started to struggle keeping up the hectic pace we had maintained so far. They were all desperate for some time to sit and just play, so we added in an extra stop on the east coast at Cherating. Travel through Malaysia was by bus, usually four to six hour stretches between three or four day stops. This gave plenty of time to look out of the window and think about the country.

Continuing my theme of judging a place on its billboards (or lack thereof) – the average Malaysian poster would be advertising some aspirational product with a picture of a serious looking child in a business suit apparently promising that using this washing powder or whatever would help your child become a corporate wage slave^W^W^W leader of commerce. Most of the country, especially Kuala Lumpur, felt like somewhere on a mission to grow up and do it fast. The roads were new, wide and largely empty. The fields were freshly carved out of the forest and palm oil plantations again dominated across the middle of the country. Up in the Cameron Highlands, I have never seen such intensive market gardens. Every inch of every hillside – regardless of how steep – was covered in polytunnels, small fields or packing warehouses. Producing some of our favourite afternoon treats – tea and strawberries – they also grew masses of vegetables and salad leaf as well.

Highlights of our stay were meeting Mark and Tina in KL and the long, left hand point break at Cherating where Jago and I had a fabulous day surfing together. Cherating was our only experience of a more rural Malaysia, staying in an old wooden house on stilts in the middle of the village. The village was still quite busy for Chinese New Year, but mainly with Malay families – very few westerners. We felt really welcomed and it was good for the kids to have a few days of downtime, just playing on the beach and in the waves without being dragged round yet another walk/temple/museum.

My favourite city in Malaysia was Georgetown – it had a very Chinese feel in the older part of town with the rows of beautiful but often crumbling ‘shophouses’. These are rows of terraced buildings, each having a workshop, office or shop on the ground floor and living accomadation above – usually with brightly painted balconies. All the signs are in Chinese and you just got tantalising glimpses through doors or shutters of boxes, desks and machinery all packed in higgledy-piggeldy. Interesting street art and great food also helped – we’re thinking of introducing the ‘IceBalls’ back to England on our return! We also had some interesting conversations with locals here – there are clearly ethnic and racial tensions in the country between the majority, muslim Malays and the large minorities of Indian and Chinese – many of whom are now third or fourth generation and who feel unfairly excluded.

I find it interesting, that before I came out here I had no real understanding of the different countries making up South East Asia. From Cambridgeshire its easy to think Indonesia and Malaysia are probably pretty similar, but up close its clear that whilst Indonesia is still (hopefully) ‘developing’, Malaysia has very clearly ‘developed’; with modern infrastructure, city sprawl and all that that entails. We ended up spending three weeks coming up through the country from South to North and could have easily spent longer if we weren’t drawn onwards by the promise of island beaches and forest elephants in Thailand.

Quang Si Waterfalls

For the first time while travelling we found ourselves on a longboat starting the 7 hour journey down the Mekong river. I was very excited but Cara was more interested in her sandwich. When we were on the boat it was fun for the first part but not the second because you didn’t have anything to do. After we finished, we stayed a night in Pak Beng and then had anther journey to Luang Prabang which was 7 hours like the last.

On Easter Sunday we got a tuk-tuk to Quang Si waterfalls so we could spend a day there. When we arrived we bought some fizzy drinks because for lent we gave up them and we got them as a prize for lasting 6 weeks without having one. After that we got the tickets and walked straight in.

 

Before we reached the actual waterfall there was a sunbear and moonbear center so we went there and learnt that a sunbear had a yellow V on it’s neck but a moonbear has a white one. Next we walked up to the top of the waterfall and took some photos because it was really nice. It was one of our favourite waterfalls so far.

We then had lunch while looking at the waterfall crashing down in front of us. Once we finished lunch we walked down to the pools where you could swim. We found one that had a smaller waterfall and then somewhere that looked liked you could jump off into the pool below. First we swam over to the waterfall in the corner but the water was freezing. We had a back massage on it then swam back.

Next I asked Mum if she could check if there was any rocks under the good looking place for jumping off. She checked and said no so I jumped in and it was really deep. It was fun so I went and did it 10 more times till I was told to get out.

I really enjoyed Quang Si waterfalls and it was really fun especially when I jumped in the water.

Chiang Mai

On Thursday it was Piran’s birthday and we had booked a trip to see some elephants. Before we went Piran opened his presents. He got a bow and arrow that he had been nagging Mum for since Borneo, some massive boxes of star wars lego, a transformers car and three thousand Thai Baht.

When the van came to pick us up we all got in though Piran insisted he brought his bow. When we got there, we got out and ran down to see if we could see elephants. There were two and they were being fed by their mahouts. Mahouts are elephant trainers and for the day we had to dress up as them.

We then started to feed them and they ate loads of food. We were told that they ate 300kg a day and weighed 2000kg. They were each fed two buckets of sugercane and bananas using their trunk. The elephants then were told to kneel down so we could get on their backs. We then rode on them around the fields they lived in. I thought it was really cool sitting so high up and I really enjoyed it.

After lunch we rode them to a small pond where we were put down and given brushes that we used to clean them. Cara and Dad’s elephant rolled around in the water using its trunk as a snorkel. Once we finished, the elephants walked up to a tree and sprayed dust all over their backs ruining the work we had just done.
We then went and swam in some clean water to refresh ourselves. Once we finished cooling off the elephants needed feeding again so we gave them more bananas. Next we said goodbye to the elephants and went on a bamboo rafting trip down the river.

 

On Saturday we woke up at six o’clock to get ready for a long day of fun ahead. We had breakfast and got in a minivan that took us on a one and a half hour journey to the camp. When we got there we signed in then got back in the bus that would then take us to the start of the white water kayaking route.
We had a quick demonstration of what to do and what not to do then we got in our kayaks. Cara and I went together in a inflatable kayak with a guide called Tom. Once in, we set off down the river and towards our first rapid.
The rapid was the biggest on the route and we went flying over the top and landed in the white water below. We then had a few smaller ones then there was nothing for 1km. In the still part we stood up and paddled like we were on a stand up paddle board. After 4km we got out because there was grade 4 rapids ahead and only Dad could do it. We drove round instead stopping to see Dad go down a rapid. We only drove 2km then we got back in kayak for another 4km that was just like the last.

A few days after kayaking we got a taxi to a place called Noina art studio where Cara and I were going to get a art class. I had brought a photo from Milford Sound of a dolphin jumping out of the water. I did that in an hour then a did another of a sun set. She showed us what to do and then we copied. I thought it was really fun so we came back a week later and that time I drew a dog and a cat.
Chiang Mai was really fun and I especially enjoyed the elephants. We also hired bikes for the two weeks we were there that we rode every were even around the block.

How to make elephant poo paper

In Laos we spent one week volunteering at the Elephant Conservation Center. One of the activities we did was making elephant poo paper. This is how to make it.

Step 1. Light a small fire.
Step 2. Put a big pan over the fire.
Step 3. Fill up the pan with water until it is 3/4 full.
Step 4. Put mulberry bark and two tablespoons of caustic soda into the pan.
To prepare the bark chop the tree and peel off the bark. Then cut off the skin and leave the bark to dry for 2-3 days.
Step 5. Let the bark boil for 1-4 hours.
Step 6. Drain the water from the pan and rinse the bark.
Step 7. Next boil three handfuls of elephant poo and two tablespoons of caustic soda into the pan.
Step 8. Boill the poo for 1 hour.


Step 9.Whilst the poo is boiling, smash the mulberry bark on a rock for 10 minutes or until it feels like thin wet cotton wool that breaks when you rub it in water.


Step 10. Separate the bark in a barrel of water and take out the hard bits.
Step 11. Line a wooden bath with sheets of plastic.
Step 12. Fill the bath with water and put a fine mesh in a rectangular frame into he water.
Step 13. Drain out the poo.
Step 14. Get the poo and mix it with the barrel of water and bark.
Step 15. Spread out two buckets of the poo and bark onto the mesh until there are no holes and it is evenly spread.
Step 16. Take the mesh out of the water and leave the paper to dry for 1-3 days.
Step 17. Carefully peel off the paper.

Laos elephant conservation centre

The goal of the elephant center is to help the elephants stop being nearly extinct. We stayed for a week in a nice bungalow with really comfortable bunk beds and cosy duvets. They were really nice. They made us lunch, breakfast and dinner. The main things I liked were the elephants and the cats.The elephants were so cute especially the baby. The most playful staff were Mike and Josef.

Elephants are endangered because people make them perform in tourist camps and circuses.The elephants lost their jobs because logging became against the law. The elephant center is trying to stop elephants being hurt and made to perform. The problem is that all the elephants that are in captivity are not having babies. The other problem is that the home of the elephants in the wild is being destroyed, hundreds of hectares of their home a second. I think the elephant center is doing a good job.

There was only one elephant that was good with children. The only one that was good with children was called Mae Dok. The elephants I liked the best were Mae Dok and the baby. I was very surprised that one of the big girl elephants looked like a baby. To help the elephants learn how to live in the wild we hid the food in containers and under leaves. I sliced banner grass with a machete. I also scooped elephant poop and dug with a mattock. I thought that volunteering was very hard work but I really enjoyed it. I would like to be a mahout when I grow up.

 

Bangkok story- The thieves of the Golden Buddha

Chapter One:  The golden Buddha

Tom and Bob are two really nasty thieves. The thieves are both twenty years old. Tom is tall and thin while Bob is big and muscly. They always wear black and white. One day they decided to steal a famous golden Buddha’s head. They went to a temple next to the grand palace called Wat Pho. When they reached the Buddha they noticed it was in a reclining pose. They went to the Buddha’s stand and took out their sonic screwdriver. Then they scanned it across the neck of the Buddha. The head fell off. However there were also two ordinary brothers called Frank and Ben who were visiting the temple. Frank is a 15 year old boy who is brave and has pale skin and green eyes. He is on holiday with his 14 year old brother Ben who is generous and likes adventures. They spotted the head roll off and started chasing after the thieves to try to catch them.

Chapter Two: The code

Bob and Tom ignored the brothers. Instead they started to run towards a fifty story apartment block.The second they got next to to building they charged through the doors and into the lift. The thieves went to the top floor, then opened the door with a code they obviously knew. Ben and Frank ran after them but when they reached the lift, the thieves had already gone. They got in the lift and guessed a floor. Luckily they picked level 50. When they got up they realised that they had to crack the code to get inside the flat.

 

Chapter Three: The parachute ride

The two brothers spent hours trying to crack the code. Luckily Frank was a trained code breaker. Eventually the brothers entered the number 9342150 and the doors swung open. Frank checked that the thieves were not looking before sliping in to the condo. They we’re just about to take the Buddhas head and give it to the police when the thieves noticed the brothers. The thieves jumped to the table, snatched the Buddha’s head, swung open the window then leapt out with parachutes on their backs. Then Frank had a idea. He told his brother he would jump on top of the thieves. Frank launched himself onto the blue and white spotty parachute and the two thieves shouted to each other, “You go ahead with the Golden Buddha, I’ll deal with this guy. See you in the Cup”.

Chapter Four: The tuk-tuk ride

The next second Frank and the thieves were landing in the swimming pool of the Hilton. Ben decided to go down in the lift. The thieves both tried to throw a punch at Frank but he manage to duck under the water. When he came up from the water, Frank chased the thieves who were now running towards the road and getting into a tuk tuk. When Ben got down he decided to get a tuk tuk ride to follow them and Frank jumped in. The brothers noticed that the thieves were in the tuk tuk in front. When the thieves noticed as well, they pulled out what looked like a light saber. The thieves tried to stab at Ben but Ben swung on the pole and landed back in his seat. They repeatedly swung the light saber at the brothers whilst the tuk tuks weaved in and out of cars and mopeds. The brothers were terrified that they may fall out any second now.

Chapter Five: The capture

Frank decided the only hope was to call the army. So Frank reached into his pocket and pulled out an old fashioned mobile phone. The phone was covered in webs. He dialled the number for the army and he said, “There are some thieves who have stolen a golden Buddha’s head. They will meet in the Cup restaurant.” The Cup, on the outside, looks very smart and has a big golden sign saying ‘The Cup’. When they got to the meeting place the army was already there, arresting the thieves.

 

Chapter Six: The face splat

The brothers thought they were now safe when one of the thieves escaped, jumped up and started to run towards Frank. The thief that had escaped uncapped his lightsaber. Bob almost hit Frank with his lightsaber but Frank side-stepped and the thief fell face first down, landing in a lovely raspberry pie.Then an army man stepped forward and said, “let’s get this guy to prison as well.” The army man gave Frank and Ben a special army badge and two thousand dollars each as a reward for saving the Golden Buddha!