Week 31- Thakhek to Pakse

After 2 weeks in Ban Yangkheua, everybody was looking forward to a proper bed, a hot shower, and a meal that didn’t involve sticky rice! We had a long journey south from the village to Thakhek, catching the local bus from the ‘bus station’ at Thabak which was essentially a bench by the side of the main road. The bus was absolutely rammed full of stuff that was being transported from Vientiane, so every seat had a parcel underneath it and there was next to no leg space. It was definitely our least comfortable journey so far, but it was amazingly cheap for a 6 hour drive and I, for one, enjoyed travelling like a local for a while.

On arrival in Thakhek we walked along the Mekong where we could see several ornate temples across the river on the Thai side, feeling very reminiscent of Nongkhai. We tried a couple of hotels before finding a guesthouse that we liked in the building of the old colonial police station. It certainly had character, but we weren’t certain whether the padding on the walls was left over from the old days or simply the owner’s taste in interior design! We managed to find a great restaurant serving Western food, and for once felt no qualms at all about ordering burgers and pizza after 2 weeks of local food including frogs, snails and insects. We had earned it! The hot shower was blissful and we were all appreciative of a proper bed, despite the rock hard Asian mattresses not being much more comfortable than the floor in the village guesthouse.

The following day we managed to hire a car which we were going to use for the next 3 days to tackle ‘the loop’, a circular route usually tackled by motorbike with fabulous scenery and lots of caves and swimming holes to visit. With that sorted, we were able to spend the rest of the day uploading our very overdue blog posts, continuing work on www.smallworldbigchange.co.uk, and taking it in turns to have a bit of one-to-one time in one of the lovely cafes, eating cake and playing cards. The antidote to all that time in a remote village!

We set off early on Monday morning to begin the loop, with Ben successfully managing to drive on the crazy Laos roads in a left hand drive car for the first time on our travels. Our first stop was a small cave just outside of Thakhek, 12km down the main road with enormous karst towering above us either side of the road. We were greeted at the entrance to Tham Pha Nya In by a blind, old man who turned on the lights inside the cave for us, in return for a small donation. We climbed up a staircase to the entrance at the base of one of the cliffs; inside we could look down to a very small pool of water that would have come further into the cave in wet season but which was fairly unremarkable at the beginning of May. We ventured around the upper level past some incredible rock formations, into the inner sanctum where we found a Buddhist shrine and many resident bats. It was quiet and peaceful in there, and made a really nice first stop on our journey. We had hoped to head on to Tha Falang, a nearby swimming hole, but we were told that it wouldn’t be passable in our little car. This created much resentment from the children who thought we ought to risk it anyway, and unfortunately at 3km off the road we didn’t think we were going to have time to walk there and back. It took a few hours, but eventually they started speaking to us again when we reached the next cave, Tham Nang Aen, the biggest cave we had ever seen with a roof as high as a cathedral, fabulous stone staircases heading off into the distance and amazing rock formations, all lit up with coloured lights; after exploring this enormous cavern, we came to a small underground lake which we were able to explore by boat, our guides paddling us into the long tunnel until we reached daylight once more at the other end. Getting out here, we were able to explore the stalactites and stalagmites, the natural statues, the holy water well with resident linga and noni and the enormous pile of bat guano before heading back to our starting point. Having never seen anything as big as this before, we were all impressed with the enormous size and scale of the cave, and although many people might dislike the way it has been lit up for tourists, I loved it all. There was a large picnic area here where we could relax over lunch and a game of cards before continuing on with our drive in the afternoon.

On the next leg of the journey we wound our way up into the mountains, on steep roads with sharp bends, rewarding us with wonderful views first of jungle, and later of the flooded valley. This is the site of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, a hydroelectric plant built as a collaboration between Laos, Thailand and France, which has resulted in 16 villages and large swathes of jungle being flooded to create the reservoir necessary to make electricity. We stopped at the visitor centre which was suitably impressive about how positive the whole venture has been, particularly for the relocated villagers who now have electricity, clean drinking water, schools and health clinics. It is clear that there are also many negative effects as well, such as removing their ability to earn money as rice farmers, and expecting them to become fishermen instead. How many fish there actually are in the new reservoir is uncertain, but despite the propaganda I still left feeling that the benefits of such a project outweigh the negatives, and it is clear that we need as much renewable energy as possible in the world today. Continuing on with our journey, the devastation caused by the flooding became very apparent as we saw mile after mile of dead trees, drowned by the raised water level. It felt strangely apocalyptic but beautiful in its own way too. Shortly before reaching the town of Tha lang, we saw a sign to a weaving project in the village of Ban Sobia. Hoping to buy presents for family members, we turned off here to see what they were creating but despite the presence of many looms, none of the women were at work and nobody had anything to sell. We were not sure if this is a failed project, or if they are commissioned to make handicrafts for a larger organisation rather than selling locally, but either way we didn’t stay for long before driving the final few miles to Sabaidee guesthouse, our accommodation for the night. Sabaidee is supposedly ‘the’ backpacker hangout for the first night on the loop, and we really enjoyed a relaxing barbeque at shared tables, next to the fire pit, chatting to the other travellers for a change. I haven’t felt quite so old in a long time though, as it dawned on me that the others were all closer in age to Jago than to me and Ben! It gave a glimpse of how different travelling might be as a couple, rather than as a family, and although it was fun for a night I was very appreciative that we could retreat to our comfortable private rooms rather than hostel accommodation (still very cheap at less than 10 pounds per night) and enjoy the constant companionship of our little group.

The following morning, we decided to spend a couple of hours fishing on the reservoir before heading on with our journey. After reading the propaganda about how many fish there now are, providing a good income for the displaced villagers, I was hopeful about our chances of a good haul. However half of the time the lines caught on the dead trees that were all around us, and we really couldn’t see any fish in the water anywhere; despite everyone showing great determination and resilience we returned empty handed just before lunchtime. It was a pleasant morning nonetheless in the company of the guesthouse owner who had come from Vientiane to Thalang for work building the dam, and liked it so much that he decided to stay on after work was completed. He felt that despite the loss of agricultural opportunities life had improved for the local villagers with the arrival of electricity and sanitation, and he too was positive about the impact of the hydroelectric plant on the local community. We could easily have spent more time here, but we were keen to get to a swimming hole today after yesterday’s disappointment and we had a long drive ahead, so we decided to press on with our journey. As we drove, the kids were entertained by playing ‘do you want some weetos?’, a game they find absolutely hilarious which just involves shouting that out of the window at pedestrians or motorbike riders. They managed to adapt it slightly to ‘yo, yo, buffalo’ for the locals which for some reason they thought would be more polite. Each to their own, and it certainly distracts them for long stretches of time! We arrived at the cool water pool for a late lunch and had a fantastic couple of hours here in the freezing cold but beautiful green water, the kids enjoying jumping off the rocks into the deep pool below. There were so many butterflies here, it was magical seeing Ben surrounded by them, looking like he was under a tree shedding its blossom in the wind. As we get closer to our return to the UK, I can’t help but wonder how we will cope with the cooler temperatures as even Jago, who was contentedly swimming in glacial lakes in New Zealand at the start of this adventure, struggled to get into this (very much warmer) pool! We have definitely got used to the warmer climate here and I’m sure we’re going to miss it. Our final drive of the day took us all the way to Ban Kong Lor, where once again we were in a corridor of karst towering up on either side of the road. The scenery was breathtaking and well worth the roadtrip. We managed only to stop a couple of times for photos, otherwise we would never have made it to our destination, but I can see why some people end up taking 4 or 5 days to cover the same distance, in order to really appreciate it properly. Stunning. The eco-lodge we stopped at in Ban Kong Lor provided yet more comfortable and incredibly cheap accommodation, so much so that we were able to splash out on 2 rooms and a bed each for the night- luxury!

On Wednesday morning we headed straight to Tham Kong Lor, the highlight of this trip. It is a truly massive cave with a river running through it, extending over 7km through the enormous limestone cliffs. We read about how the villagers in Ban Kong Lor had thought that the emerald coloured water at the mouth of the cave was a sacred pool originating in the mountain, until first a duck appeared out of the mouth of the cave, then a buffalo yoke, and finally a tied-up bundle of rice, which aroused their suspicion that it might lead somewhere and that there might be other people at the opposite end. They embarked on an exploration mission which took them 3 days in the pitch black with just a wooden torch to light the way, until they finally emerged out the other side. Having been through it ourselves, I cannot imagine how brave they must have been! Just entering the mouth of the cave, we could already feel the scale of this natural wonder as we were dwarfed by the size of the opening. We climbed into our boats and headed off into the eerie darkness with only the narrow beam from our guide’s headtorch to light the way. Looking up from time to time, it was clear that the roof of the cavern was a long way up, apparently as high as 300ft in some parts, but the water wasn’t deep and the river wound its way from side to side, initially creating the same kind of excitement as a pitch black rollercoaster, hoping we weren’t going to hit anything as we navigated our way around the bends. Eventually our eyes started to adjust to the darkness and the initial thrill wore off but the cave just kept on going and going for miles on end- I had never imagined that such a thing might exist apart from in the realms of imagination. At times we had to get out and walk as our guides navigated the boats up sections of rapids. At the first stop, we found ourselves on a long path with enormous stalagmite and stalactite formations lit up along the way. It is impossible to imagine the timescale required for such enormous structures to form, well beyond the capacity of my tiny mind! I found it an awesome reminder of how ancient the earth is, and how insignificant human lifespan is in comparison. I felt so small inside, both physically and metaphorically! As we emerged into the sunshine at the other end I felt quite exhilarated, and the rest of the journey down the river to the nearest village, looking back at the enormous mountains that we had just passed through, was beautiful. Reaching the village near the cave exit, we found bicycles for hire which were small enough for Jago and Cara, but sadly too big for Piran. Whilst Pip and I retreated to one of the stalls where we could sit and play cards, the others headed off for a bike ride around the nearby villages for an hour. The locals were extremely impressed with Piran’s Lao language ability, asking for a drink, saying please and thank you, and understanding the price all in Lao. Being able to communicate in their own language, no matter how limited, really helped to build a connection and felt very satisfying. I can’t work out whether it is a blessing, or a shame, that we have been able to speak English and be understood everywhere else that we have travelled to! Whilst it has certainly made travelling very easy, I do feel we have missed out on some cultural immersion by getting by in our native language throughout our journey. Having not spoken another language myself, for so many years, it has really made me want to learn French again and put it into practice once we return home. Yet another addition to my growing ‘to do’ list on return to the UK! Cycling trip complete, we made our way back into the darkness and enjoyed reliving the excitement of the cave again as we travelled back to our starting point. It had been a great morning, and I understand why this is the highlight of a trip to Laos for many people. What an awesome sight!

The heat of the sun motivated us to find somewhere we could swim to cool down after our cave exploration, and the Lonely Planet recommended a nearby resort on a clean river where we should have been able to get lunch and splash about, so we headed there for our next stop. The place was absolutely beautiful with bungalows set in a tropical garden and the food was absolutely awesome, but sadly the hospitality was somewhat lacking as the owner informed 3 very disappointed children that only residents are allowed to access the river from the resort. Clearly it is a public river, and there weren’t even any other guests at the resort- I couldn’t believe it! In nearly 8 months of travelling I think this is the first time that we have encountered such rigid behaviour, and I was so surprised that it happened to be in Laos which has been so friendly and laid back elsewhere. Needless to say, we didn’t sit around spending money on drinks which we would have done if the kids had been playing happily, and instead we walked down the public path to the river after lunch and Jago and Cara enjoyed a short time splashing about before we had to continue with our journey back to Thakek for the night. It was on the next leg of the journey that we had our near-death experience that I am sure none of us will ever forget. Winding our way out of the ‘limestone forest’ in the mountains, the roads had many steep sharp bends and lots of lorries travelling from Vietnam border over towards Thailand. As we climbed up one particularly steep bend behind a lorry that was so slow it was almost rolling backwards down the hill, the lorry indicated for us to overtake. Despite being unable to see round the bend, we assumed that the driver had a better view than us or wouldn’t have indicated that we could go, so Ben pulled out and started accelerating around him. As he did so, a songthaew appeared round the bend coming straight towards us down the hill. In his wisdom, rather than dropping back into the hole he had left, Ben decided to accelerate forwards into the ever diminishing gap between the enormous lorry on our right and the songthaew in front of us. I honestly thought we were going to die, and I am not proud of the expletives that would have been my final words if we hadn’t made it! The songthaew managed to get right over the edge of the road, and we made it through by a whisker, amazed not to have sustained even a scratch on the car. Wow! I have never felt so grateful to be alive! The kids were equally shaken, and we were all content to travel at 5 mph after that rather than risk any more crazy overtaking, and when we stopped for our final selfie overlooking the limestone peaks and back out over the valley below before returning to Thakek, our huge smiles were the genuine smiles of people very relieved to still be standing! I am never going to let Ben forget this if he ever criticises my driving again in the future! Despite our close shave, the loop had been a great way to spend 3 days, with interesting and fantastic scenery, lovely caves and pools and nice cheap places to stay.

Having made it back to Thakek, we now had the challenge of getting to Siem Reap as quickly as possible for our final week abroad. We really wanted to maximise our time there so that we could explore lots of temples without it becoming too draining for the kids, so we decided to travel straight there without breaking up the journey in 4000 islands as we had previously planned. Logisitically, getting to Siem Reap seemed to be a bit of a nightmare with much of the travel information on the internet about night buses not being up-to-date, and the stated journey times varying wildly, with the same leg supposedly taking anywhere from 4 to 8 hours depending on which source you look at. We finally concluded that the only sane way to get there was to get a bus from Thakek to Pakse on Thursday followed by a mammoth 12 hour journey by minibus from Pakse to Siem Reap on Friday. So it was, that we found ourselves at Thakek bus station at 8.45 on Thursday morning, planning to get the air-conditioned bus at 9.00, only to find out that it had gone at 8.30! We spent a long time debating whether to get the next (local) bus which would be leaving at 10.30, or to wait for the next air-con bus at 12.00; eventually we agreed that the sooner we got there the better as we didn’t have any accommodation booked in advance, and that we would rough it with the locals for one final journey. As it was, we didn’t have anything to worry about; apart from the cracked door and windscreen and the leaking roof, the local bus was perfectly comfortable and the torrential rain during our journey meant we didn’t miss the aircon at all. In fact, the kids and I got absolutely soaked to the bone as we had got off for a toilet break and to stock up with sticky rice, only to find that the heavens opened before we had time to return to the bus. The 30 second sprint back was enough to drench us, and none of us were worried about being too hot for the rest of the journey! The bus made regular stops for local food-sellers to board and offer their food, mostly chicken on a stick and various other unrecognisable snacks that I wasn’t willing to risk at this stage of our travels. There were also stops for everyone else to use the toilet- rather than paying for a western loo as we had, they just used a field by the side of the road, the women just holding up a sarong around themselves as the whole bus squatted around various bushes. There are some aspects of Laos life that I’m just not quite ready to fully embrace just yet! We made good time to Pakse and found a big, comfortable family room in a nice guesthouse not far from the bus stop, opposite a genuine Indian restaurant. There was much excitement at the thought of a good curry for our final night in Laos and we had a delicious meal out to conclude our long stay in this wonderful country. After a lot of travel-fatigue in Malaysia and Thailand, Laos had been just what we needed to regain a sense of purpose, to genuinely feel like we were getting to know a different culture, to get back in touch with nature and to enjoy working together as a team, bringing us closer to each other again. I truly loved our time in Laos and have found it to be the most interesting and rewarding part of our time abroad. 6 weeks here was enough to really experience the country properly and as we departed, I felt ready to return to ‘sight-seeing’ mode for our final week in Asia. Walking between the borders of Laos and Cambodia in the midday sun on Friday, I was content to bid farewell to this fabulous country for now, drawn on by the excitement of Angkor Wat to come.

Weeks 29 and 30- Ban Yangkheua

After a weekend of settling in, by Monday we were ready to get into our new routine for the next 2 weeks. At 9.30 each morning we taught the primary school children for just under an hour and after dinner we spent an hour teaching the local guides. The village children congregated at our homestay during their lunch break from 11.30 to 1.30 and again when school finished at 3.00, so we didn’t have a lot of time to ourselves but what time we did have was spent working on the kids’ school project (www.smallworldbigchange.co.uk), drawing, swimming, playing backgammon and draughts, washing clothes and preparing for our lessons. Occasionally in the afternoons we wondered around the village or joined in with some local activities such as fishing, basket weaving or gardening but mostly we were playing games with the village children, reading books and singing nursery rhymes, drawing and colouring together, and speaking to them in English.

Our lessons at the primary school were good fun and we all enjoyed getting involved. Although we were meant to teach the children, aged 5-9, every day for 2 weeks, one day school was cancelled because it had rained too heavily the night before for the teacher to get to the village on the dirt road, one day the teacher was unwell, one day was a public holiday and one day the teacher had to go to a meeting, so in the end we only took 6 classes. With such a short time frame, our goal was to make our lessons fun and to build their confidence, in the hope that they would be motivated and inspired to continue learning English in the future. With so many of us teaching it was easy to make sure that every child took turns at speaking out loud and receiving smiles and high fives for their efforts. We began all our classes by singing ‘hello…, how are you’ which helped us to learn everybody’s names; then we introduced our topic and taught with the use of pictures we had drawn or flash cards that we had found in the guesthouse; sang a relevant song half way through; then played a game such as bingo, guess the animal from a description, matching pairs or drawing a picture; and finished by singing ‘if you’re happy and you know it’. In this way we managed to teach numbers (singing 12345 once I caught a fish alive), colours (I can sing a rainbow), animals (Old MacDonald had a farm), body parts (head, shoulders, knees and toes), activities (this is the way we…. on a hot and sunny morning- with the words changed as we didn’t think cold and frosty would make much sense), food and adjectives such as fast/slow, good/bad, happy/sad etc. For this last topic we decided to put on a play of the 3 little pigs and the big bad wolf which we all enjoyed doing and the children thought was hysterically funny, especially when the fat wolf (Ben with a pillow inside his t-shirt) huffed and puffed and the thin pigs pretended to be scared, squealing and jumping in each others’ arms. The transformation in our own children during the 2 weeks was really noticeable, with them really embarrassed to be up at the front of the class singing on day 1, to letting all their inhibitions go by the time we were acting out the 3 little pigs 10 days later. They all took active roles in teaching, asking the children questions such as ‘what is it?’ while showing a picture of some food and then ‘do you like it?’, getting them to repeat answers such as ‘I don’t like …. or I like ….’. By the end of our time there, some of the schoolchildren had really improved from speaking single words to speaking in sentences and even the shy, quiet girls were volunteering to have a go at our activities in front of the rest of the class. This was far and away the most rewarding part of our time and Ban Yangkheua and I really loved it, leaving each class feeling uplifted and happy that we were delivering fun lessons that everyone seemed to enjoy. Jouy told us that the children were always so happy after our classes; the feel-good factor was huge!

Spending so much time with the children both in and out of school, meant we got to know them really well. Life for these kids is so different to that of our own children. One of the first things I noticed was the terrible condition of many of their teeth. It was really easy to see what happens if you consume too much sugar and don’t brush your teeth when spending time here, as some of the 5 year olds only had a few black stumps and no healthy looking teeth left at all. I felt terribly sad for them, and hope that my own children now understand better why we try to restrict sugary foods and enforce strict teeth cleaning. Another very noticeable difference is that these children spend many hours each day with no adult supervision, playing in the river and around the village together. They do wind each other up, but they sort out all their disagreements quickly, usually with the bigger child hitting the smaller child without force, and the smaller child then retreating or stopping whatever they were doing. I never heard one of them cry in all the time we there, and they seemed content to hang out in each others’ company day in and day out. Even when they fell over and hurt themselves they usually just picked themselves up and brushed it off; our constant adult intervention in the West clearly has lots of unhelpful effects, despite the obvious positive outcomes from spending more time with our children. There was clearly a difference in the wealth of the children, with many of them only owning a couple of outfits which were worn day in, day out, and a handful of others having several outfits which were always clean and in good condition. Early on we were able to tell most of the children apart by recognising what clothes they wore, until we learnt their names better. Despite some of them having nice clothes (certainly better than our children after 7 months of travelling), and their parents having good houses and even the occasional car, everyday items that we take for granted such as colouring pencils and plain paper, packs of cards, and toys were things that they didn’t have, which they were so excited to see and use. Piran’s bow and arrow were especially popular and when we threw a broken one into the rubbish, they fought so strongly over who got to keep it that it sadly ended up being snapped in half. One of the older children managed to make his own bow out of wood whilst we were there, and when Piran’s bow broke towards the end of our stay we were happy to give him the rest of the arrows which worked well with it. Growing up in the jungle, the local kids didn’t have any of the squeamishness of our own children, happily picking up live shrimps, water lice and fish with their hands whilst we were fishing, catching beetles and cicadas to eat and pulling their wings off without hesitation, and not letting the enormous leeches in the river put them off swimming for a second. I confess that these huge leeches were a step too far for me and I kept my swimming time to a bare minimum, leaping over the river bank and swimming out to deeper water as quickly as possible, not standing still for more than a couple of seconds. Our kids eventually stopped worrying about them as it was far too hot to avoid the water and although the locals had a couple of ‘bing’ during our time there, none of us were bitten by these huge bloodsuckers.

It wasn’t just the leeches in the water that worried me. There were always buffalo in the river, which at times was very stagnant with excrement floating about in it, and I am thoroughly amazed that everybody remained well during our stay, apart from a bit of earache. That said, I am sure I have eaten some form of parasites, causing a low level grumbling abdominal discomfort and think we will all need to be tested when we next reach somewhere with western medical facilities. When we first arrived in Ban Yangkheua, at the end of the dry season, there was hardly any water in the Nam Leuk, and I for one was unable to do more than splash about in it, but over the course of 2 weeks the daily rain caused the water to rise by well over 6 foot. Like many waterways in Laos, the water levels have been affected by the building of a nearby hydroelectric plant, and although my anxieties about the health risks eased as the volume of water increased, I couldn’t help but worry that the volumes are allowed to drop so low in the dry season so as to pose a risk to an entire village. We are so incredibly lucky that we have clean water to drink, wash and swim in in the UK, and these 2 weeks really brought home to me how impossible it is to avoid unsanitary water when you live in a really hot country and are dependent on the river for cooling down and washing in.

Although it was wonderful spending so much time with the village kids and getting to know them so well, we all found it quite tiring and intensive to have them around so much of the day, particularly on the days that we had expected them to go to school, only to find that class was cancelled. The village community is so cohesive with them almost living as one extended family, coming and going freely in each others’ houses, that I imagine they wouldn’t understand our strange Western desire to have time alone. On the whole we managed to cope by taking it in turns to have time out in our bedrooms whilst one or more of us manned the fort, entertaining the troops on the balcony or just providing them with cards, games, paper, pencils and books to occupy themselves. The afternoon visits to find out more about village life provided some much needed respite. Over the course of 2 afternoons we learnt how to weave sticky rice baskets out of bamboo, an activity that I found very calming. It is amazing how quickly the villagers can make them, compared to how long it took me to make a very poor version with lots of mistakes! We also saw an old man weaving baskets for fishing, and as we sat in his house we could see beautifully handmade furniture, and carvings on the entrance gate, clearly the work of a true craftsman. Later in the week we commissioned our own set of rice baskets which were made by the wife of Mr Ping, one of the local guides; it felt so special to have spent time relaxing in her company and learning from her, and wonderful to know exactly where our souvenirs have come from. I also enjoyed a very happy couple of hours gardening with Cara and the woman who owns the local shop, in her small organic plot. It was very satisfying pulling out the weeds with a hoe, and because I had to pay much more attention to the plants and what they looked like to avoid digging up the wrong thing by mistake, I emerged much more familiar with the local herbs, chilli plants and pumpkins that were growing where we worked. Despite the language barrier, it felt very companionable to work alongside the villagers, and I felt like a bond developed between us through our shared activity. She certainly made us feel very welcomed during our whole stay in Ban Yangkheua, making a special effort to cook food that we liked including delicious pork scratchings and giving the kids fruit, cakes and other treats that she knew they would like. It felt like a great privilege to be invited in to their community and to share their lives with them for that short period of time. Another day we heard that the villagers were collecting trees from the forest to build a new pagoda for their temple. One of their income sources is collecting wood to sell for charcoal production and Ben was interested to see how they manage this out here, so we wandered down to the temple to take a look. Most of the men in the village had gathered to work together on this project and by the time we arrived they were all sitting around chatting and smoking, eventually reaching the decision that they had done enough work for one day. Pim, the village chief, told us when the next day of building would be, but it never happened. I was left with the impression that the village chief doesn’t have as much authority as he might like, and that nothing actually gets done until everybody else decides they are ready, which in a laid-back culture like Laos might be very rare!

One day when school was cancelled for the second day in a row, we asked whether we could go for a walk and escape the village boundary for a while. It didn’t take long before we had 3 local guides lined up to escort us to a nearby waterfall: Moht, Jek and Jan, all primary school children with their hats on and bags of water ready. It was seriously cute. We had such a nice morning making our way along the dirt road seeing the surrounding jungle, passing a lake with hundreds of butterflies who hitched a lift on our arms as we walked, until we reached the tiniest waterfall in the world ever, apparently more impressive in rainy season but mostly dry rocks at this time of year. There was still enough water to splash around in and we enjoyed cooling off in the stream and watching the amazing pink dragonflies and butterflies. Cara managed to pick up one of the enormous leeches while splashing about, alerted by the local kids shouting ‘Bing! Bing!’. It says something about how used to them we have got that Cara managed to flick it off herself without getting worked up into a panic, luckily removing it before it had bitten her. What adventurers we have become!

On Saturday we embarked on the longer trip to ‘the waterfall’, the tour that is offered by local guides which we had spent every evening discussing with them since we had arrived. This is the trip that is meant to entice eco-tourists to the village, and we had repeatedly practised phrases such as ‘can I go to the waterfall’, ‘how much will it cost’, ‘how long does it take’, ‘what will I see’ etc, making them practice the answers, at their request. Unfortunately after all this practice, none of the local guides that we had been working with actually came with us which felt like a huge missed opportunity for us to tell them what we were seeing along the way and make our conversations more relevant. We found out that much of the information they had given us when practising their stock phrases wasn’t actually accurate! For example, throughout the week we had been told that it would take an hour to walk there, then when we were about to leave we were told it would actually take 3 hours to walk there, so when we set out we actually had no idea how long it was going to take (in the end it was roughly 2 hours). We were also told that we might see monkeys by one guide whilst another said that the monkeys were all far away, and one guide said we could spend time fishing whereas this clearly isn’t an option. I don’t really feel that we achieved anything during our sessions with the local guides except for all of us getting very confused! It is a shame that teaching the adults didn’t prove as successful as teaching the children, but we tried our very best. Despite this, we had a wonderful day out with one local guide and Jouy trekking with us as far as the waterfall. Once there, we met another villager who had come by boat, bringing lunch and company in the form of 10 year old Mitur, who was able to take us back along the river a few hours later when we had finished relaxing and playing. The trekking proceeded well despite the heat, through lovely jungle with the loud soundtrack of thousands of insects. We had a short challenging spell when we had to wade through the river where the path had been lost as the water levels had risen. It was out of the children’s depth, and none of us wanted to be soaked through in our trekking shoes so we spent quite a long time sticking bamboo into the ground until we found a way through for the adults where we only went up to our knees in the water. Our guide carried the kids across for us! After taking our shoes off, we could see that there was more of this to come, so we proceeded barefoot for a short while until we were back on the path again. There were small brown leeches along this part of the trail, and as I put my socks and shoes back on I failed to notice that one had attached itself to my foot. By the time we reached the waterfall and I stripped off for a swim, it had swollen to the size of a small slug. After so many leech experiences on our travels, I am going to be so grateful that we don’t have them at home! In the wet season this waterfall is a series of fast moving rapids, and I am sure would look very dramatic. When we were there in April, most of the rocks were dry, lacking the visual impact that we had been expecting, but this meant that we could play in the water really safely and I enjoyed sitting under the waterfall having my shoulders massaged. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall was deep enough for us to swim in, and we didn’t have to worry about whether the current was too strong for the children. For a fun day out, this was an excellent time of year to visit. The kids spent hours sliding on a natural waterslide where the rock was covered with moss and dropping plastic balls at the top of the cascade, trying to catch them as they whizzed past on the current. They also dropped masses of white berries in to the water and enjoyed watching their movement. Ben and I were able to relax in the sunshine together, playing cards and listening to music, whilst Jouy and the guides slept under the trees. The day finally came to an abrupt end when the rain came at about 3.00 and we had to run into a nearby cave for shelter. The torrential downpour passed quickly and soon we were able to make our way back to the village by boat, enjoying seeing the buffalo and the fishing nets, and appreciating how far we had walked earlier in the day. I can see why the village is keen to set this up as a tourist attraction, and we certainly recommend that other travellers who wish to get off the beaten track visit Ban Yangkheua, and hire one of their local guides to visit Tad Leuk.

Before setting out to the village, we had bought some exercise books to give to the primary school children as presents, and during the course of our time there we had personalised each one with one of the songs we had taught them. We also had enough colouring pencils to give each child a small bundle of their own at the end of our time when we no longer needed them for entertainment purposes. So on our final day in Ban Yangkheua we invited the children over to the guesthouse where we repeated our performance of the Three Little Pigs, this time watched by the secondary school kids as well as the younger ones. Later on in the day we sang songs and handed out our gifts. It was such a nice way to finish our stay, and we found children still walking around the village clutching their book and pencils several hours after we had given them out. The older children were so grateful for some of the plain A4 paper that we had brought with us, as well as some of the cards and toys that we no longer needed. I found this to be another incredibly humbling experience, to think about all the times that our children are unhappy with gifts because they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, in contrast with the delight on the faces of these kids at receiving a simple book and colouring pencils. Reflecting later on why these people seem so much happier than many of the people we know, despite having so much less material wealth than us, the kids concluded that it is because they spend most of the day hanging out with their friends and because they don’t expect to have or yearn for any material goods, so rather than being disappointed by what they don’t have, they are grateful for what they do. I hope that we can all learn from this observation and keep it in mind when we return to the UK in a couple of weeks. What a wonderful lesson to have learnt first hand at a young age!

On our last night the women who had cooked for us and some of the local guides gathered at our guesthouse for a small party and send off before we left. After sharing food together, they produced a beautiful flower arrangement, looking like a stupa, made out of rolled up banana leaves pinned together with flowers on each cone, known as a ‘pha kwan’. It was presented on a silver tray with cakes and packets of crisps surrounding it. On the pha kwan were many bits of cotton thread, some plain white and some plaited into thin bracelets, known as baci threads. They took it in turns to give us some of the food, then tie the bracelets onto our wrists whilst we held one hand up as a sign of respect, so we all ended up with 8 or more bracelets by the end of the evening. This baci ceremony has great significance in Laos, and we were told that the threads would tie us to the village, ensuring that we would return to visit again in the future. The thread is a lasting symbol that we are part of their community, and it is important that it is allowed to fall off by itself in its own time, never less than 3 days later. We felt very honoured to be treated as members of the village, and delighted that they had enjoyed our presence as much as we had enjoyed being there. Everyone was particularly concerned that Jago should return, hopefully to find a nice woman and settle there when he is older! When we left the village on Saturday morning straight after breakfast, I felt sad to be leaving such a welcoming community of people. I really do hope that the threads work their magic, and that we might be able to return there again one day in the future.

Temples

In Siem Reap, we went to a temple called Preah Khan. Preah Khan is a Hindu temple. The temple is dedicated to lots of gods one of which is Vishnu.We also went to another god’s temple and their name was Shiva. Shiva’s temple was next to a big foot print. There were carvings of dancing girls on the edges of the passages in Vishnu’s temple. There were also carvings of Shiva. There were loads of piles of fallen rock on the ground. We were surprised that you were allowed to just walk around, there was no path.

We went to another temple that was the reason we went to Siem Reap. The name of the temple is called Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat has an unnecessary wall around it. It is the biggest temple in the world. It has small temples around the main centre. Inside the small temples are Buddhas. There are five tall towers on the main building, with four smaller ones surrounding the tallest tower in the middle. There were also carvings of the Gods in a tug of war to try and make a potion of immortality. In the end none of them got it. I don’t know what is in the four towers because children aren’t allowed in but my Dad went in.

There are loads of temples in Siem Reap and one is on the water with Lilly pads surrounding it, another one has faces that no one knows who they belong to, another one has loads of carvings on it. There are at least sixty temples in Angkor. I thought the temples were fine if you only did one a day. I also thought they were interesting because of how many people it must have taken to build these enormous temples. It would have taken forty thousand elephants to get all the rock to build Angkor Wat. Each ceiling and wall was carved by hand.

 

 

Week 28- Vang Vieng to Ban Yangkheua

After 4 days of water fights, dancing and vast quantities of Beerlao, Pi Mai finally came to end on Monday, so on Tuesday we felt brave enough to risk the roads again. We were ready to leave Luang Prabang after so long there and decided to get up early on our final day to see the monks collecting alms in the morning quiet, before departing this wonderful place. At 6.30am the city felt so calm and quiet with the wide streets nearly empty of people and the usual food stalls, a complete contrast to the activity of the past week. There were, of course, women trying to sell sticky rice to the tourists so they could join in the alms-giving, but it didn’t feel right to participate in this ancient tradition that is not part of our culture, so we stood down a side street where we could observe but not interrupt the daily ritual. It felt like a great privilege to witness the monks processing in their bright orange robes, humbly collecting food from the locals who were lining the streets, putting a small donation in each monk’s bowl as they passed. How wonderful to start each day with the act of giving.

We were expecting to start our volunteering project in Ban Yangkheua, a couple of hours east of Vientiane, next Monday, so we decided to head to Vang Vieng which is roughly half way there, to work on the kids’ school project in a more rural location. Although it used to have a strong drugs scene, I had read that that has all been cleared up in the past 10 years and Vang Vieng is now more family-friendly, with beautiful scenery and plenty to do. Despite booking a ‘VIP’ bus, we found ourselves in a minivan when we set off after breakfast; luckily our journey only took 4 hours and I enjoyed seeing the largely unspoilt scenery winding through mountains on the way. Arriving in the heat of the day we managed to walk from the drop off point to the lovely Maylyn guesthouse where we found a cheap room and a beautiful garden. We would never have managed this simple act a few months ago without the kids moaning about their rucksacks and dissolving into tears at the distance and the temperature, so they have definitely toughened up a bit whilst we’ve been travelling! Jago even managed the walk barefoot, in his baggy trousers and long white shirt, sporting a necklace and bits of string around his wrist. He is looking more like a hippie every day! The guesthouse was just what were looking for, a beautiful garden oasis in which to work and relax for a while; more importantly their dog had 3 young puppies which we felt confident enough to let the kids stroke, something we haven’t allowed whilst travelling due to the risk of rabies. Cara, in particular, was in heaven and just wanted to spend all her time cuddling puppies! The town itself was pretty grotty, but we were very happy in our home for the next couple of days.

Vang Vieng is on a river that’s famous for tubing and kayaking, with enormous limestone mountains jutting up out of the ground that are famous for caves and swimming holes. I was really keen to explore but the kids were so motivated to work on their project that we spent the whole of Wednesday morning in the garden, Jago designing the website with Ben, Cara writing and filming a video for it, and Piran taking photos. We managed to drag them out for lunch by the river, but unfortunately we sat at the nearest restaurant for nearly an hour before realising they had forgotten our order. We had been busy playing in the water, having drinks and playing cards, and hadn’t noticed time passing but now we were hungry! We headed back to the guesthouse and finally ate a very late lunch and enjoyed more puppy-stroking time. Late afternoon I succeeded in dragging everyone out for a short walk to a cave and swimming hole just outside the town. As we walked, there were still plenty of Lao people out drinking and dancing to EDM, clearly not quite ready to finish New Year celebrations just yet! Once we left the main road, we started to appreciate the beautiful scenery more with the enormous karst cliffs jutting out of nowhere alongside the calm river with beautiful flowers along the riverbank. Unfortunately the cave was closed for the evening by the time we arrived, but we had a dip in the freezing cold water and found a couple of tiny openings in the mountains with Buddhas inside to explore. It was a nice, easy outing for a couple of hours, and I was glad that we had got to see a little bit of Vang Vieng whilst we were here.

We hadn’t intended to leave Vang Vieng so soon and there was still so much to see, but on the Wednesday we found out that OpenMind wanted us to start our volunteering earlier, on the Friday rather than the Monday, so we had to press on with our journey to Vientiane. Realising that we needed to extend our visas beyond the 30 days that we had been given on arrival, we decided it would be easier just to go to Nongkhai in Thailand for the night where OpenMind are based, so we could have a proper briefing and just get new visas on return to Laos the following day. So on Thursday morning we found ourselves back on another bus for a 6 hour journey back into Thailand. The border crossing was a bit chaotic and it wasn’t at all clear what to do or where to go, particularly having to queue for a free ticket to get through a manned barrier where we immediately gave them the ticket straight back again, but we eventually managed it after being herded and shouted at by our bus driver who was clearly in a hurry! At one point he took our passports with a small bribe to jump the queue which did make me a tiny bit nervous, but luckily our passports came back with the tickets we needed and our bribe was returned to us as well.

On arrival in Nongkhai we went straight to the OpenMind office by tuk-tuk where we were warmly greeted by the whole team of management, trainees and volunteers. At their Nongkahi centre the trainees live as a family learning English and IT as well as health and the environment. The organisation coordinates various volunteer projects such as ours in Laos, and others in Thailand, Myanmar and Nepal. They also organise camps for young people from disadvantaged villages to spend a week getting a taster of what the trainees learn, hoping to inspire them to want to learn new skills and showing them how to use smartphones to find out information and educate themselves. The main goal seems to be motivating them to learn, showing them that if they do so they can get employment in the towns or tourist centres rather than resigning themselves to life in a poor rice-farming community and marriage at a young age (here girls get married as young as 12 and start having children as young as 13). We spent a couple of hours with Sven, one of the founders, Golf, the project coordinator and Jouy, one of the trainees who is from Ban Yangkheua, the village we were going to, and who would be accompanying us during our stay. Everyone was very friendly and they kindly invited us to stay for dinner; unfortunately the kids were exhausted and in need of an early night so we had to decline but it would have been nice to get to know them all better.

We retired to our guesthouse which was possibly the best place in the whole world ever, due to a bed each and an abundance of enormous cuddly toys making for some very happy children. We stayed on the riverfront in Nongkhai, a really nice area with statues of Nagas along the Mekong and on all the streetlamps, with bunting strung up across the street, and we managed to find a very nice restaurant for dinner. It was a really nice place to hop over the border for a visa run! We did encounter our first major disaster since we started travelling that evening, as Ben discovered that his business had been shut down and bank account closed due to him missing the deadline for the annual return with Companies House. Although we set up mail forwarding to my stepDad before we set off, who very kindly agreed to scan anything important and email it to us, we haven’t always been able to open these documents and we definitely haven’t received all our emails so I guess the communication from Companies House must have got lost somewhere in the ether. After a couple of hours of frantic telephone calls to the bank and Companies House, we managed to ascertain that we will be able to recover it all on return to the UK, thank goodness, so we don’t need to despair too much. Another lesson about travelling learnt- it is necessary to have a really robust communication method for important stuff!

With another day of travel looming on Friday, I was really glad that we would be spending 2 whole weeks in the same place once we finally arrived in Ban Yangkheua. After packing up our stuff yet again, we set off back to the border in a tuk-tuk with Golf and Jouy on Friday morning. We have been managing to cram ourselves into smaller and smaller tuk-tuks as time has gone on, and I can’t quite believe the engine coped with the 7 of us and all our luggage, most of us squashed inside with Jago standing on the bar at the back and clinging on for dear life. Going back through the border to Laos was much easier with our companions and they found us a local bus to Vientiane on the other side, a short journey where Cara shared a seat with a Laos couple and got plied with new fruit that we hadn’t seen before, like a very small lychee in look and texture but extremely sour and only good for sucking rather than eating. The bus station in Vientiane was a complete shock after the calm of everywhere else we had been in Laos, with people, traffic and street vendors everywhere. Cara had decided she wanted to become a vegetarian, so we walked for miles trying to find somewhere that would serve vegetarian noodle soup- apparently this is impossible to find in the market so we ended up in a shopping mall away from the hustle and bustle where we had a delicious lunch before continuing with our journey. After further discussion with Cara she agreed that she would settle for being a ‘shouldhaveseenitaliveatarian’ rather than giving up all meat ie. she wants to know that it has been well treated and had a good life. We all agreed that this is a good idea, and that this is something we should all do once we return to the UK. However it seems quite clear that this isn’t going to be possible in Laos!

After lunch we stocked up on supplies for the village- pencils, colouring pencils, plain paper, exercise books etc, before getting a local songthaew (pick up truck with benches) that was heading east. We would be going as far as Ban Thabak on the main road, a 3 hour journey with lots of stops to collect and drop off deliveries as well as people, seeing the lovely scenery and so many glimpses of local life along the way. Herds of cows walked along the roads, people were working in the fields with their baskets on their heads using equipment and machinery from a long forgotten age, and everywhere people sat around chatting in groups of men, women and children. From Ban Thabak it was another 30 minute journey to the end of a dust road with the village chief, Pim, who had come to collect us. At 4pm, after 2 days travelling, we finally made it to Ban Yangkheua.

We were absolutely exhausted on arrival, but the local children appeared in droves to greet us as we arrived, and it wasn’t long before our kids headed down to the river to cool off with their new friends. We were staying in a purpose-built wooden guesthouse on stilts, on the edge of the village overlooking the Nam Leuk, with the unexpected luxuries of 2 separate bedrooms and even electricity. The location was idyllic, on the edge of the Phou Khao Khouai national park, surrounded by jungle. After settling in, Jouy took us on a tour of the village, pointing out the village pump where we could collect drinking water each day, a couple of local shops selling snacks and toiletries, the meeting hall where the men meet to make plans for the village, set on a village green with a rattan ball net and lots of roaming cows, and the village temple with one resident monk. There were just over 200 residents and about 40 households and we were able to walk from one end to the other in about 10 minutes. The houses were simple but big, often with concrete or brick bases, and all with electricity, often with a little organic garden attached where people grew their own vegetables. There were also several fruit trees in the village that seemed to be a free-for-all. At 5.30, many of the women and children headed past our guesthouse down to the river to wash their bodies and clothes, although some of the houses had containers of water and bowls for showering, including ours. There were a few squat toilets around the village, all with bowls to flush water, but it didn’t look like many houses had their own apart from ours.

At 6pm we had our first of many meals there, brought to us by 3 or 4 of the women who all offered a dish or two of meat and vegetables plus masses of sticky rice which they sat and watched us eat, sitting on the floor of the guesthouse balcony. As it grew dark we were inundated with hundreds of insects, particularly beetles and cicadas, which were attracted to the light. The women caught the bigger ones of these for their own meals each night and we couldn’t help but develop a curiosity for what they might taste like as a clearly popular food amongst the villagers. However they had clearly been instructed in what to feed ‘farang’, and generally our meals weren’t very adventurous or spicy. For the first few days we were given far too much food and felt incredibly rude that there was so much left over from each meal. Luckily as time went on our meals got smaller and after a big cooked breakfast of vegetables and pork with sticky rice on Saturday and Sunday, they agreed to stick to egg and rice or bread, and fruit when available, for the rest of our stay. Over the course of the week we mostly ate morning glory and pork, bamboo shoots, pumpkin, and noodles as well as the mountains of sticky rice. However we did have the occasional interesting meal: shrimps and water lice after an afternoon of fishing, fried frogs, snails and finally assorted insects (at our request) for breakfast on our last day. I would definitely eat frogs again, and the rest were all perfectly edible, but I don’t think I would choose them again if given the option!

After dinner we went to the meeting house where we were to teach English to 4 local guides most evenings during our stay. That first evening all the village children came as well, and we spent our time on introductions, with each person announcing their name and age. It was an easy way to start our stay and get to know people without feeling too overwhelmed, and we felt very welcomed by these warm, friendly villagers.

On Saturday night one of the village girls, Amon, was celebrating her 12th birthday and invited us to her birthday party. We arrived late after teaching the local guides but were quickly welcomed in and given huge slices of cake to and bright green fizzy drinks. After all the balloons had been popped at once, making the sound of firecrackers exploding, and the cake had been eaten, the next phase of the evening began with the younger boys hitting the couple of remaining balloons to each other inside the house, and the women and girls tucking in to the Lao-lao (local whiskey), Beerlao and noodles with sausage. All ages drank alcohol together, the youngest I saw being about 3 or 4, and the teenage girls turned up the music and took selfies much like girls the world over. Everyone was so happy and relaxed together, but with my Western eyes I couldn’t help feeling sad at the sight of a 4 year old boy gyrating to the music in an alcohol-induced trance-like state whilst everyone laughed at him and kept plying him with lao-lao, and it felt like all these children had lost their innocence far too young. Seeing 12 year old girls behaving like young adults, was a fairly shocking reminder that they have already reached marrying age, although none of the girls I spoke to were intending to marry so young. We were so lucky to be invited into their personal celebrations after just 1 day in the village, and it was a fantastic evening for getting to know them better and see what life is really like for these people. Luckily we were able to refuse offers of alcohol for our own children and we all slept well when we finally got to bed at about 10.00 that evening.

In hindsight, I am very glad that we started the project on Friday rather than Monday, as it gave us time to get to know the children in a relaxed environment before going in to the classroom. We spent Saturday and Sunday daytimes with most of the children hanging around the guesthouse, drawing, painting and colouring; reading the books that we had found there – Dear Zoo, nursery rhymes, Dr Seuss, and Where’s wally; showing them photographs of our home and all the places we have visited on the laptop; splashing about in the extremely shallow river; and constantly naming things as the Lao children repeatedly asked ‘what is your name?’ whilst pointing at things, and then repeating the answers back to me. Jouy attempted to teach us Lao, and we successfully mastered counting to 10, saying hello, how are you, I’m fine, My name is… , and I am … years old. It felt good to be learning as well as teaching. The days passed quickly but we all found them pretty exhausting with little to no time to ourselves, as well as the late finish after teaching the guides in the evenings. We hadn’t really been prepared for how difficult those sessions would be, as Sven had emphasised that the OpenMind approach is simply to get people to practice conversation and to focus on being able to communicate with each other rather than on perfect English, which is what we had been doing at Big Brother Mouse. Unfortunately the guides here had so little English that it was impossible to get a conversation started in the first place. They knew several stock phrases, but did not understand when to use them and did not have the idea of looking up phrases on their smartphones or using google translate, technology we couldn’t provide as we didn’t have a local sim card. Jouy came with us to translate, and we ended up teaching them more stock phrases and attempting to practice using them in conversation, but whenever we offered a leading question they would just repeat the question rather than giving the answer! Very frustrating! We really enjoyed the weekend and it felt so wonderful to be part of a community, with a sense of purpose, and doing something meaningful again, but by bedtime on Sunday we were all very tired, looking forward to having a few hours break whilst the kids were at school on Monday and getting into a new routine.

Week 27- Luang Prabang and Lao New Year

We hadn’t originally intended to stay in Luang Prabang for so long, but Lao New Year (Pi Mai) was fast approaching and sounded like far too much fun to miss, so we decided hang around for another week. Besides, Luang Prabang is such a nice city and there was still so much that we wanted to do here, so we were all happy to hang around a bit longer. After our week at the Elephant Conservation centre, Monday was mostly spent catching up on blog posts and having long discussions about how to spend the rest of our travelling time. Until this point Ben had been working remotely 2 days a week and we had managed to spend less of our savings than we had anticipated; however his contract finished at the end of March meaning we had to think more carefully about the way we were going to spend our money. Travelling has been wonderful for us all, but has had diminishing returns as time has gone on, with sightseeing fatigue setting in for the kids big time, and the longing for friends and stability starting to outweigh the ongoing benefits of seeing more of South East Asia. We would really love to see Japan, but after much thinking about it, decided that we couldn’t justify the expense when the children are really longing to get back to the UK. The more we started to think about cutting our travels short and heading back home in the near future, the more it felt like the right thing to do. However, after so long away it also felt really difficult imagining just returning straight back to our old life and carrying on as though we had never been away. The idea of a transition period started to form in our minds, where we could continue our travels for a while, but back in the UK, with family nearby and friends within visiting distance. We have all loved being by the sea during the last 6 months, enjoying surfing, swimming and running by the beach, and with Ben’s Dad living in Cornwall it seemed like a logical place to head for a couple of months before returning to the farm. By the end of the day we were all mulling over the possibility of trying to combine the fun activities of our travels by staying near the coast where we can spend our free time at the beach, with the stability of school and work. We were delighted to hear from our lovely farm-sitters that they would be happy to continue with the current arrangement until July, even with us back in the UK, so we all agreed to think it over for a few days before making any firm decisions.

After a morning of planning, we did at least manage to venture out in the afternoon. Top of our to do list was to find some bamboo straws that we could carry around with us and use instead of plastic ones. Laos has a plentiful supply of bamboo and the ECC had been advertising locally made bamboo straws, but had unfortunately run out of them during our stay. We came across a lovely shop called Ock Pop Tok, which commisions villagers from all around Laos to make clothes, accessories, toys and bamboo items and then sells them in Luang Prabang and on the international market, providing a good income for locals using their traditional methods of weaving, silk production and dying. We were able to find bamboo straws there and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that our money was going to local people, much more rewarding than buying metal straws from Tesco would have been. After our shopping, we went for an ice cream at the old Royal Ice cream parlour, the 3 Nagas, and over the course of an hour the kids came up with the idea of buying bulk quantities of these straws, and selling them back home. At first they thought they would give talks at school and sell them to their friends, but after an hour or so they had decided to set up a website to spread the word far and wide, to give talks at lots of local schools, to ask cafes and restaurants if they would be willing to sell them and display cards and flyers advertising their website, even contacting Blue Peter when it takes off. They want it recorded that this was the day they decided to save the world one step at a time, starting with straws. Having agreed that developing this idea could be their home school project for the rest of our time travelling, we went back to Ock Pop Tok to check that buying in bulk would be possible (it is), and we signed up for a Tie Dye course later in the week, so we could learn more about their organisation and the traditional handicrafts that they are supporting. As we reach the end of our travels, it feels right that we should put our efforts and attention towards ‘giving back’ in some way, and this project will bring together everything that we have learnt about as we have journeyed around the world. We have seen first hand the effects of human destruction with widespread loss of rainforest and associated loss of wildlife, as well as all the rubbish and plastic on the beaches. It is time to do something about it!

This desire to spend the rest of our travels giving something back to the world after spending so many months focussing on having fun whilst seeing and learning about different countries and cultures was also nurtured by our week volunteering at the ECC and the time we had spent at Big Brother Mouse. It felt like Laos would be the perfect place to find a worthy project to get involved in before heading back to the UK. After more time browsing the internet, I came across an organisation called OpenMind projects which focusses on teaching English language and IT skills to locals to enable them to earn an income from Ecotourism. They were looking for families to spend 2 weeks or more in a remote village homestay, to teach English to the local guides and children, to go trekking with them and tell them what we would expect from them as tourists. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for us, but also slightly daunting. We had agreed to go on a long trek to some remote villages near Luang Prabang with our new friends on Wednesday, staying in a Hmong village overnight, so we decided to see how that went first, but assuming that went well then we all agreed that the OpenMind project would be a great way to spend the rest of our time in Laos. Our plans were coming together at last! We finished Monday with a visit to the Grand Palace, delightfully simple after the excesses of Bangkok, another trip to Big Brother Mouse, and our usual crepes at the Night Market.

After months without any clear ideas of timings for our travels, when we would be coming home, and even all the places we would be visiting, it felt really good to be forming a picture of how the rest of our time would be spent, at last. On Tuesday we even felt ready to book our flights home, confident that one more month divided between Laos, to give us time for our volunteering project, and Cambodia, to finish with Angkor Wat, the last ‘must-see’ on my to-do list, would be plenty. We settled on May 20th, to give us time to see family and friends before, hopefully, rejoining the British school system after half-term at the start of June. I suddenly had to start thinking about work again, a huge shock to the system, and a rather worrying reminder that I really haven’t done anything at all to maintain my knowledge whilst we have been away. I am taking comfort from the fact that I did even less when on maternity leave but still managed to ease my way back in after having Jago and I still have a few weeks to revise before starting back. Applying for my old job again back at Thorpe Hall hospice, it was remarkable how long it took me to switch back into the necessary frame of mind, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I am looking forward to that level of mental stimulation and human contact again. The desire for our ‘gap year’ was partly a response to the very long hours I worked for the past 3 years, so figuring out how to create a better ‘work life balance’ on our return is important for us. The first decision we have made is that I am not going to return to the hours I worked before, instead cutting back to no more than 3 days a week, and limiting locum shifts to one a month. Hopefully this will create more time for hobbies and family; otherwise we might have to keep taking regular breaks to travel the world, like one of the other families we met in Luang Prabang who spend 6 months a year in Norfolk and 6 months a year on the road!

Our main activity on Tuesday was a trip to the ‘Living Land’ rice farm to learn about traditional rice production. We had a fantastic morning, wearing our bamboo hats, ploughing the fields with Rudolphe the pink buffalo, planting rice, harvesting it and threshing it, finishing up with lots of tasty rice snacks and a drink of rice wine. The morning was brilliantly organised and we all enjoyed it a lot. It was astonishing to see how much work goes into the production of a food that we really take for granted as such as staple part of most people’s diet. Although a lot of rice farming is now more mechanised than we were shown at Living Land, there are still plenty of subsistence farmers growing rice in this way, doing everything by hand. We are so lucky that we no longer have to toil like this in order to have food on our table.

 

On Wednesday we set off early to the ‘White Elephant Adventures’ office, to begin our trek to some of the remote villages north of Luang Prabang. Luckily we were able to leave our big rucksacks at their office so we only had to carry the kids’ packs with our overnight gear, some snacks and water. Joining us and the Parkers were a young German couple, and we had 3 local guides accompanying us: King Kong, Sing Song and Yalli, all of whom had excellent English. Going with White Elephant Adventures was an excellent experience where we really felt our money was going to the people it was meant to support rather than just the tour agency. The guides clearly enjoyed their jobs and felt they were well paid, and they were all from the local area. We dropped in to see Yalli’s aunt and uncle in one of the villages, and we finished the walk at King Kong’s house. It was a long, hot walk taking us about 5 hours to reach the first Khmu village, but the company and the surrounding jungle scenery made for a nice walk. Piran and Libby spent hours chatting to each other about minecraft as they walked, happily lost in conversation as the distance passed. On the way we saw a woman catching cicadas with a sticky stick, something we still haven’t brought ourselves to eat, but clearly a popular food here. It was late afternoon when we reached the village, which largely comprised wooden houses on stilts. The women and children were gathered around the village shower, water flowing through a pipe from the mountains, where they washed both themselves and their clothes. There was a small primary school which was no more than a room with benches and desks, no pictures on the walls, and very dark inside. The animals walked around freely, including cows, pigs and chickens, with no enclosures to separate them or keep them contained. The road was a dirt track, passable by moped, and there was very little evidence of technology in the village. I didn’t even see any mobile phones, although one villager was using a satellite phone just outside the village as we arrived, and there were no electricity lines. The villagers were very friendly and enjoyed having their photos taken, smiling as they looked at themselves on the screens afterwards. Ben enjoyed seeing a medieval looking blacksmith’s forge still in existence, and we could see equipment for manual rice production, still in use here. It is very humbling to see that people really do still live like this, as subsistence farmers with none of the basics that we take for granted. We found out that they get some money by selling cows to the Chinese; one cow will buy a moped that will last about one year. After we had had a good look around here, we continued on to the next village, a further 30 minutes down the dirt road, everyone now feeling very tired after the long trek. This one was a Hmong village, another minority tribe, and was to be our home for the night. Most of the houses here were on the ground rather than on stilts, and more of them had concrete or brick bases. We were staying in the home of a local family who retreated behind a screen in the corner of their main room for the night whilst we slept on thin mattresses under mosquito nets in the rest of the room. They had a small bedroom which they gave to the German couple for the night. There was a small amount of solar power which provided us with a dim light bulb. Food was cooked on a fire out the back; the toilet was a ceramic squat toilet in a hut through the garden, washing facilities again comprised a couple of mountain water outlets where villagers gathered to shower and wash their clothes. After the hot trek I was desperate for a shower so headed down in my sarong, only to realise, too late, that the thin white material became see-through once it was wet. After the quickest wash ever, I literally ran back to the homestay to change into something more modest as soon as possible! Despite the embarrassment it was well worth it to get rid of the sticky sweat. We had a delicious meal of soup and rice, washed down with Beerlao, and a relaxing evening before heading to bed. I cannot remember ever sleeping anywhere as dark as that ever before, and I managed to sleep well after all our walking despite the extremely hard floor.

On Thursday morning we looked around the Hmong village and visited their school which had 3 large buildings for kindergarten, primary and secondary school. Again, the classroom walls were undecorated and lessons consisted of teacher standing at the blackboard with the children at their desks with one exercise book and pencil. I don’t think our kids could quite believe how different school here is from their own experience back home. There was a football pitch, where a ball was being kicked about, and also a game of rattan ball in progress, consisting of 3 players either side of a volleyball net hitting a hard ball to each other, without it hitting the ground, using any part of their body except their hands. Having tried it since, I can vouch that it is extremely difficult, but the kids playing managed to make it look pretty easy! After spending some time at the school, we continued our walk past another Khmu village where we found an old woman selling beautiful purses that she had embroidered herself; I couldn’t resist buying a couple. We also stopped in at the home of Yalli’s Aunt and Uncle where the children were much admired. Here I was interested to see the second enormous goitre that I had encountered on this trek, evidence that they still have nutritional deficiencies in this part of the world despite the global increase in food production and improved nutritional status worldwide. Our guides told us that in these villages, people still have 5-10 children, expecting that many of them will not survive childhood, and men will sometimes have more than one wife if they can afford it. They are animists, despite the surrounding Buddhist influence. The trek was certainly an eye-opening experience for all of us, and everyone seemed up for spending more time living in a Laos village, so we finished our walk that afternoon hot, weary and keen to pursue our next volunteering experience.

All thoughts of the trek quickly vanished on our way home as we discovered that Pi Mai (Lao New Year) celebrations had already begun. For 4 days the Lao people wash away the bad stuff from the past year and bless the new year by pouring water on each other. It transpires that this basically involves drinking lots of Beerlao, dancing to electronic dance music, and spraying passers by with hoses, buckets, water pistols, and anything else you can find until they are completely soaked through. Groups of Lao teenagers drive around in the back of pick up trucks chucking water on pedestrians, and great fun is had by all. As we neared Luang Prabang, revellers started to throw water in to the pick up truck and we were all wet by the time we arrived back at the White Elephant office. The kids absolutely couldn’t wait to get out and buy some water pistols to join in. After a week at Villa Oudomlith already, we had booked alternative accommodation for the New Year due to a large price hike but arrived to discover that our room wasn’t actually available and we didn’t think much of the dark, smelly rooms we were offered instead. We jumped back into a tuk tuk and managed to return to our old room at a negotiated rate, delighted to have comfortable beds and a familiar home for another 5 days.

In many ways it was very lucky that we ended up back at Villa Oudomlith as it wasn’t until we returned from our trek that we realised Piran’s toy dog, Chocolate, was missing. The kids’ cuddly companions have been so important for them on our travels, keeping them company and giving them security no matter where they’re spending the night, so the loss of Chocolate was pretty devastating. We worked out that we could only have left him at Villa Oudomlith or on the tuk-tuk on the way to our trek, so we were hopeful of being reunited when we returned to our guesthouse, but the manager, who we call ‘Green Hair’ since he dyed it for New Year, told us that noone else had used our room whilst we were away and there was no sign of Chocolate. Our last hope was to ask the cleaning lady the following morning. Despairing by now, we managed to find a photo to show her, and could not believe it when she nodded and said that yes, she had Chocolate, but he was staying in a nearby village so she couldn’t give him back until the following day. What a huge relief! Thinking that some poor child was about to have the present he’d been given now taken away again, we managed to find a toy elephant to swap for Chocolate, and when Piran was finally reunited with him the next morning he was so happy! We had great fun imagining the adventures that Chocolate must have had whilst he was away, and we were so grateful to the lovely cleaning lady for returning him when she could easily have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. The people here are so nice.

Friday and Saturday were basically spent having water fights from morning to evening. It was a fun and easy way to spend a couple of days, and we definitely think that all villages in England should have similar celebrations on the first hot weekend of each summer. We will have to see if we can introduce it to Willingham. Of course it helps that in Laos the temperatures are nearing 40 C at this time of year, so being soaked through is actually quite refreshing once you resign yourself to the fact that you cannot avoid it. We all particularly enjoyed soaking the tourists who wanted to remain dry whilst walking down the busiest street in Luang Prabang with water being chucked everywhere. When it all got a bit much for Cara, we headed home to dry off and rest for a while before venturing out again. The thing that most impressed me was the fact that after drinking and partying all day long, all the Lao people quietly packed up and stopped for the night at about 6pm. No antisocial drunken behaviour whatsoever. They certainly love to party here, drinking alcohol from a very young age, but they also know how to control it. I love Laos!

On Sunday we had a break from the water fights as we had booked on to our Tie Dye class at Ock Pop Tok in the morning, a short tuk-tuk ride out of town. We had chosen a good day as it was wet and rainy, much cooler than the last couple of days, and we would all have been cold if we had been soaked through all day today. Ock Pop Tok was fabulously organised in a beautiful garden next to the Mekong river. We were taken through the steps of silk production, before learning about the natural dyes used to make the lovely colours we could use for our scarves (adults) and t-shirts (kids). We saw the plants and trees growing in the garden before we started producing our dyes. Piran wanted monks’ orange so he needed to take the seeds out of pods from the annatto tree, pound them up and then heat them in water with his t-shirt. Ben and Jago were using the bark of the sappan tree which they chopped and put into boiling water to make a pinky red for Jago. Ben’s had already been fermented for a few days so he just needed to heat his with a rusty nail to turn it purple. Cara and I were both using the leaves of the indigo bush, which had been fermented for several days. We needed to squeeze the dye into our material for 5-10 minutes to turn it from green to blue. The more you squeeze it the more intense the blue colour. The staff helped us tie plastic around our scarves and t-shirts before dying them, to create the patterns that we had chosen. It was fantastically simple, yet really fascinating. I can’t imagine how people came across these processes in the first place- did they have to try the bark of hundreds of trees before they found one that gave a good colour, or did they just accidentally cook it with a nail after fermenting it for several days? After our class, we were able to see the weavers making their beautiful handicrafts, including some fabulous silk wall hangings which I adored. I would so have loved to buy some but can’t carry anything more in my rucksack which is already splitting at the seams and looking dangerously like it won’t quite make it home in one piece.

On return to Luang Prabang at lunchtime we headed to our new favourite lunch spot, a small food market that sells sandwiches, crepes, fruit shakes and local food, passing an enormous procession that was lined up along the road waiting to make its way down the main street, past the important people at the Grand Palace. There were hundreds of locals representing businesses and villages, promoting recycling, martial arts and musical groups etc, that all waited for well over an hour before they finally got started mid-afternoon. It was fun to watch it for a while, particularly seeing the traditional costumes they were wearing, but we did eventually get rather bored and headed home for a quiet afternoon before another day of water fights on Monday.

Monday was our final day in Luang Prabang and I finally managed to drag everyone up Mount Phousi, a short 30 minute walk up the central hill to a small temple and large gold stupa, with great views over the city. We managed to resist buying any of the small birds for sale in little cages at the bottom of the steps which are supposed to give you luck when you release them, despite the kids thinking that it would be much nicer for the birds if we set them free. We appreciated the little piles of sticky rice that had been placed all the way up the wall as offerings, and wondered if these offerings are to bring good karma too. From here we could see many of the temples that Luang Prabang is famous for, that we haven’t visited after seeing so many in Thailand. It was amazing to notice that there was jungle on the hills as far as we could see in all directions, with just a clearing for the city with its beautiful tiled roofs and lovely French colonial buildings. Even in New Zealand, the countryside had been cleared away far more than this, and it seemed like a completely impossible sight- a city surrounded by jungle with no visible major roads or other towns nearby. After all the developed countries we have visited, it is so nice to find ourselves somewhere again, at last, that still has so much dense forest and nature throughout. So far, I am really loving Laos!

Week 26- Elephant Conservation Centre, Sayaboury

Exactly 6 months since we left England, we set off to spend a week volunteering at the Elephant Conservation Centre in Laos. I was really looking forward to a whole week in the jungle with beautiful surroundings, elephants galore, having all our meals planned and cooked for us, and most importantly having a sense of purpose again. The first major excitement as were transferred to the centre by minibus and boat, was the discovery that there was another family from Northampton volunteering with us: Jane, a Consultant Haematologist with Libby, aged 9 and Emma, aged 13. Other kids to play with at last, hooray!! We all hit it off really well and their company made the week really special for us after so long away from friends.

 

It took a couple of hours to reach the ECC from Luang Prabang, through windy mountain roads, and unfortunately Piran was hit by travel sickness on the way, so we were all pleased when we finally reached our home for the next week. As we arrived there were elephants playing in the water in front of the accommodation and we really had to tear ourselves away in order to settle into our dormitory. We had hostel-style accommodation, all sleeping under one roof that had been divided into rooms with 2 or 3 sets of bunk beds with mosquito nets in each. Our room was next to our new friends, and the kids quickly discovered that they could climb from one top bunk to another in the adjacent room, over the top of the wall. It was basic but relatively comfortable, with the benefit of being right next to the lounge area and near the bar and dining room, all of which had fabulous views out to the surrounding lake. Over the course of the week, I got into the routine of rising before everyone else and enjoying the peace and tranquility in the lounge, meditating for 15-20 minutes before anyone else ventured out. This was such a special time for me and I felt a great sense of calm in this wonderful place.

We spent the first couple of days just watching the elephants and learning about the ECC and the work that they do. They have their own group of about 15 elephants, all of whom have been rescued from logging or the entertainment industry. Each elephant has its own mahout who feeds it and takes it to wherever it is meant to be at any particular time of the day: the jungle overnight, one side of the lake to bathe in the morning followed by the socialisation area or ‘enrichment’ area, then the lake in front of the centre to meet the tourists in the afternoon, and once a week or so the hospital for training to get them used to lifting their feet, opening their mouths etc so they can be examined when they are unwell and need attention. Although all the staff involved in the centre would love the elephants to return to the wild, that will not be possible until they have learnt to live as a herd, to forage successfully for themselves, to find their own way to water, and to keep away from local villages and rice fields where they will be shot if they destroy or eat the crops. So despite the structured day, the elephants are not fed or handled by the tourists, or ridden by anyone except the mahout, as the focus of the centre is to, eventually, rehabilitate them back into the wild. Another focus of the centre is to encourage elephants to have babies, as one of the reasons they have become endangered is due to the long period of time (5 years) that an elephant needs to have off work in order to carry and raise an infant. Elephants in captivity are not allowed this time off. The centre supports mahouts who allow their elephants to get pregnant, by allowing them to bring their elephants to the centre in order to have the baby and paying them an income and providing bed and board for 2-4 years during this period. They also have a breeding programme for their own elephants. When we arrived the ECC had just received another 15 elephants from the government, rescued from being sold to a zoo in Dubai, along with a large expansion their area of jungle, so the herd is growing rapidly.

Just observing the elephants, it was fascinating to see how different they all were. Some loved people and some really didn’t; similarly each elephant had certain ‘friends’ in the herd and others that they couldn’t mix with, resulting in the staff having to think carefully about which elephants to put together in the socialisation or enrichment areas at any one time. We spent a lot of time with Mae Dok, the oldest elephant in the herd at 54, who was the only one who liked children. Most of the elephants didn’t seem very keen on splashing about in the water despite the fact that all the tourist camps feature ‘washing elephants’ as one of the highlights. They displayed varying abilities to hunt for food that we had hidden inside tyres and tubs and under logs and leaves, some proving themselves to be very intelligent indeed. Seeing them up close, we were really able to notice all the details of their skin and trunks, the way that some of them cross their legs when they’re standing, and the fact that some of them will use a stick to scratch themselves; they were so incredibly strong, effortlessly lifting and throwing logs, and some of them were playful, chucking toys around and stamping on them repeatedly like a kitten with a ball of wool. Their calls sounded like dinosaurs, and I was interested to discover that the sounds in Jurassic Park are actually elephants, explaining why I expected pterodactyls to fly overhead at any moment when they were growling at each other. They really are fascinating animals.

As well as learning about the ECC, we were taught more about our role in contributing to the decline of elephants and all animals that are losing their rainforest habitats. Annabelle, the resident biologist, spoke very eloquently about the fact that the enormous palm plantations in Asia are a response to the consumer desire for palm oil, driven by us in developed countries- in our toiletries, our snacks, even in nutella much to the kids’ disappointment. She also spoke about the fact that much of the rainforest in Laos has been destroyed due to the flooding of rivers to make hydroelectric power for China, in order to make all the consumable cheap goods that we buy so many of back in the West. It was another useful reminder to think about how we can minimise our contribution to the destruction by getting out of the habit of buying cheap things that only get used a few times and then thrown away, and instead buying better quality goods that will last longer; we will also aim to reduce our use of products containing palm oil and where we can’t cut it out, at least look for products that contain sustainable palm oil. We will need to change so many of our old behaviours when we return back home!

When we weren’t watching elephants, we spent our time kayaking and swimming in the lake, playing cards, painting, reading and chatting. It was very relaxing indeed. We were served 3 delicious meals each day- the food was excellent and it was very sociable as we sat at big tables and chatted with different people from around the world most days. There was a steady stream of children through the week who had come for the one night tourist package, so there were usually a few of them playing on the seesaw or swings, and even when there weren’t any extras our kids had great fun with Libby and Emma. It was such a nice week.

From Wednesday onwards, we started our volunteering and were finally put to work. Our jobs through the week comprised:
• Hiding food at the enrichment area and then mucking it out in the afternoon. After hiding the food, we were able to spend an hour or so watching the elephants hunting for it, so this was a really nice activity. Early on ‘scooping the poop’ was Piran’s highlight of the ECC- after all, how many people can say that they have cleared up elephant poo? On the final day, he got to cut banner grass into small pieces with a machete, ready to be hidden, and this was truly fantastic. He loved it, and now wants to be a mahout, mostly so he can have his own machete.
• Clearing a patch of banner grass near the centre by cutting it down and digging it out. This was hot, exhausting work but the boys really enjoyed it and it was very satisfying to get it finished. Once Piran discovered that he could use a mattock here, this quickly replaced scooping poop as his new favourite job and he was happy to dig for hours each day. This area will eventually be turned into a bamboo garden as part of a nature walk.
• Digging steps into a pool for the elephants in the socialisation area so the baby elephant won’t get stuck there once it fills with water. More digging- see comment above.
• Clearing grass away from the electric fence surrounding the socialisation area, with hoes and mattocks, so that it doesn’t short circuit. This involved working on a very steep slope surrounded by flies in the hot sun and was really hard work. Even Piran couldn’t be persuaded to join in the digging on this job!
• Cleaning the hospital training area.

The kids joined in with most of the jobs, and we enjoyed working as part of a team to get everything done. The first day was pretty easy and I felt a bit frustrated that we weren’t working harder, but that sentiment quickly disappeared once the digging started! The volunteer work was coordinated by a Liverpudlian called Mike who was very laid back and easy to chat to, and most days we felt able to do as much or as little as we wanted, enjoying chatting to the other volunteers at the same time- a French couple, a Belgian primary school teacher and an Israeli girl who had just finished military service, as well as us and the Parkers. We were led by the same guide throughout the week, a local called Pong. By Saturday I felt very ready for a break from digging, and really enjoyed making elephant poo paper instead. Cara has written a step-by-step account of how to make it in her blog so I won’t repeat it. I was mostly struck by how little paper was made out of a whole mulberry tree and the enormous amount of time and effort that went into making it. I definitely have a new sense of appreciation for paper! We were each given a piece of the paper that had been made by the group before us, as ours was still drying when we left, and I intend to turn it into a photo album of our Laos trip when we get back home.

On our final day we finished setting up the enrichment area at 10am, then spent the whole morning watching the elephants in the lake and in the enrichment area. It was lovely to have an unbroken couple of hours with them before we left, after days of being around them but not stopping to watch them properly. The kids also managed to fit in a final swim in the lake. We had a fabulous farewell and thank you lunch away from the other visitors before heading back to Luang Prabang, a parting made very much easier by the fact that our new friends were also going to spend the next week here so we would see them again. Arriving back at Villa Oudomlith felt like coming home to our lovely room and comfortable beds and we finished the week by treating ourselves to burgers, pasta and nachos at a lovely cafe called Dexters after our week of Laos food. What a brilliant week it had been!

Week 25- Down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang

On Wednesday morning we began our 3 day long journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos, travelling 7 hours by bus on the first day and the same by boat down the Mekong on days 2 and 3. We made it as far as Chiang Khong on day 1, a small town on the border of Thailand, where we spent the night in a slightly bizarre, enormous ‘Grand’ hotel where we were the only guests, a slightly surreal experience. The next morning we were transferred to the border by tuk-tuk before walking through Thai emigration, where we caught the shuttle bus over the bridge to Laos immigration. Obtaining our visas was very straight-forward as we had paid a company to complete all the paperwork for us, and we were through in about 10 minutes. Another tuk-tuk was waiting for us on the other side to transfer us to the boat at Huay X’ai. It didn’t take long to notice that we were driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time on our travels and that the road quality in Laos was much poorer than it had been in Thailand, but by now we’re pretty used to different road conditions and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Nothing in Laos seems to happen very quickly and we spent a lot of the morning waiting around, but we were quite happy to adjust to the slower pace of life. We were given baguettes to eat for lunch on board the boat, a fabulous treat after months with only sweet plain white sliced bread available, one of the perks of arriving in an ex French colony. About 4 hours after leaving Chiang Khong we finally boarded our boat for the 7 hour journey to Pakbeng. The boat was filled with old chairs taken from a minibus in rows of 3, either side of an aisle, that could be shuffled forwards and backwards leaving some people with plenty of legroom and some extremely cramped. There was a Laos family on board who sold drinks and snacks, and appeared to have a bedroom at the far end of the boat. As more and more people climbed aboard and all the seats filled up, tourists eventually had to start sitting in the bedroom, with the incredibly loud noise of the engine- there is clearly no such thing as a maximum number of passengers allowed on the boat! We finally set off, floating very slowly down the Mekong where we enjoyed seeing women panning for gold in the river, men in the water and in long boats fishing, naked children swimming, water buffalo along the river banks, simple Laos villages with dust roads and bamboo houses and the occasional Buddhist temple. I found it a very relaxing way to travel. After an overnight stay in Pakbeng, we continued our journey the next morning, this time split into 2 slightly smaller boats that we all fitted into with seats to spare, until finally reaching Luang Prabang in the late afternoon. Laos is a communist country but with a capitalist system, and we were immediately struck by the fact that both in Pakbeng and Luang Prabang every guesthouse had the same sign outside and sold the only beer to be had, Beerlao, evidence that the communist approach still applies in some parts of Laos life. A short tuk-tuk ride to our accommodation later and at last we were relaxing with a watermelon juice in the very lovely and extremely comfortable Villa Oudomlith, very happy to have reached our destination at last.

I immediately fell in love with Luang Prabang, a surprise after writing about how little I like cities in my last post about Chiang Mai! It is a small city with lovely French-style cafes and bakeries, baguettes and crepes freely available in the market, wide streets lined by fabulous buildings with tiled roofs rather than corrugated iron, a simple palace with a beautiful temple, a central hill with a golden stupa shining at the top, 2 rivers with lovely views (the Mekong and the Nam khan), and most importantly friendly, smiling Lao people. It was a perfect mix of the simpler way of life in Laos with the luxury of comfortable accommodation and western food that we have been missing for the past few months. It was Easter weekend when we arrived and after 7 weeks without computer games for Lent, Jago just wanted a minecraft marathon whilst we had a lovely room to hang out in, with a good internet connection. The boys managed to spend the whole of Saturday playing, with just a short lunchbreak out of the room. Cara and I chose to explore the city instead, visiting the ethnology museum and the UXO centre with a lovely lunch at a small bistro in between. The UXO centre was very moving, and we both had tears in our eyes as we read about, and saw, the huge number of cluster bombs that were dropped here during the Vietnam war releasing thousands of small ‘bombies’ that didn’t explode and which still cause injuries on a daily basis as children and villagers disturb them or unwittingly pick them up. We didn’t stay for long, and opted not to watch the video as Cara thought it would be too sad, but even a short visit was enough to increase our awareness of this awful situation and to be reminded how lucky we are to feel so safe in the UK. Our outing led to many conversations with the kids about war and bombs and for a short while Piran was nervous about the thought of walking in the countryside, requiring a great deal of reassurance that we wouldn’t go anywhere that there might be unexploded bombs. For now, at least, he is convinced that all bombs should be destroyed and nobody should be allowed to make them. Maybe he will be a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize when he is older if he can make this his life’s mission!

After our busy day out, Cara and I decided to take advantage of the spa next door to our guesthouse and treat ourselves to a full body massage each before dinner. We were in a small room with 2 beds next to each other and were able to relax together whilst being rubbed, prodded and pounded with oil. Having never had a massage before we went to Thailand, Cara seems to have taken to being pampered very easily indeed, and I can foresee many happy spa days to come in the future. Whilst we were lying around, the boys finally emerged from their minecraft session to visit Big Brother Mouse, a drop-in centre for locals to practise speaking English with volunteer tourists for 2 hours twice a day. They were humbled to speak to a young man who had left home for an orphanage in Luang Prabang at the age of 12 after his rice-farmer mother killed herself because she couldn’t support her 9 children, leaving a father who was addicted to opium. He had worked hard and learnt English in search of a better life for himself. We have since met many young Lao people who have left home at similarly young ages in search of an education and who have had to work hard for it. Our children have developed a bit of insight into how lucky they are to have a free education and so many options available to them when they grow up. Whether or not this will carry over into an improved attitude towards school work remains to be seen!

The following day was Easter Sunday and we decided to spend the day at Kuang Si waterfall, a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride outside of Luang Prabang. As always it was nice to escape the city and to see the surrounding hills, gardens and rice fields, the pink buffalo still doing the work of tractors, and the locals with their bamboo hats shielding them from the sun. At the entrance to the waterfall was a small village with food and drink where we stocked up on beer and coke for a small Easter celebration, having survived the whole of Lent without alcohol (me) and fizzy drinks (the kids). Immediately inside there was a small sun bear conservation centre; it was nice seeing them for a second time but the bears here didn’t look as happy as the ones we had seen in Borneo, with a few of them displaying repetitive behaviour such as banging their heads into the wall. Whether this is related to their time in captivity or to their time in the conservation centre is hard to say, but it didn’t make for very pleasant viewing, and we moved on to the waterfall itself pretty quickly. The waterfall spills into a cascade of several pools over a distance of half a kilometre or so, each with the most amazing blue coloured water, and it was absolutely stunning to see pool after pool as we walked uphill alongside it. Although there were lots of visitors, the site was big enough not to feel overcrowded and after walking up to the main waterfall we were able to find a table to have our packed lunch and play some cards in the beautiful surroundings. After lunch we chose a pool to swim in, although the freezing cold water and the fish nibbling your feet if you stood still meant that only Jago stayed in for a significant length of time, enjoying jumping from one pool down into the deep water below over and over again. It was such a nice place to relax for the day. We finished off with a special meal at an Italian restaurant, with a genuine Italian chef where I had my first glass of wine since New Zealand and a truly delicious meal of pork loins and mashed potato. Although I love the food we’ve been having recently I have definitely reached the point where I’m missing some of our home comforts and this meal was just what the doctor ordered! Happy Easter everyone!

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.

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.