Currently on a year long travel sojourn with my husband, Chris, and our two children Anderson and Sabine. Real life involves running my cafe and catering company in Toronto. These days I am exploring, writing, cooking and trying hard to love the 24/7 parenting. Still figuring it all out just in a hotter climate.
The train was a full hour late finally depositing us at the Thap Chan station in Phan Rang at 1:30 in the morning. Luckily Vietnam Surf Camping has a taxi waiting for us. It’s always a little discombobulating to arrive at night. We emerged from the taxi into the humid night air to be greeted by Juli and her partner Tony. They welcomed us into an open air concrete bunker lit by the glow from a glass doored refrigerator. Then led us across the sand to our giant tent. The canvas tent is set up on pallets, there is a foot bath with petals floating in the water at the door and a large vase with flowers set up inside. It was spotless and oven hot. Like being inside an actual oven. Immediately the kids were moaning and lolling about on the therma rests on the floor. I had a paper fan so I just fanned away until they fell asleep. We woke up with the heat and glare of the sun stifling the air from around us. It was beautiful emerging onto the grass, dodging a few lizards and wandering over to the concrete room. In the light of day it was much nicer – soaring roof, white walls and bleached wood picnic tables adorned with small planters of succulents. The walls were cut out leaving views of the water and the beach along with the covered outdoor patio – just a corrugated roof with hammocks hanging between the poles, a couple more picnic tables and silk lanterns waving. It was sweet and rustic and perfect. Except for the heat. Our first day was fun – Anderson kitesurfed and skim boarded – I painted and Sabine played with Vietnam Surf Camping owner, Juli. Juli is of indeterminate age – heavily tattooed and very very skinny with long hair and long bubblegum pink nails. She loved Sabine and played with her for hours. She confessed to me that she had a 12 year old son who lived in France. He chose to go there when he was five and would return in the summers. Her eyes filled with tears as she recounted how hard it is to be so far away from him but that she had to let him live his dream. There wasn’t enough wind for Chris to kite so he skim-boarded with Anderson. It was kind of a perfect day. No screaming for screens, no fighting just relaxed and fun. Enjoying each other’s company. In fact the train ride had been the same. I quietly congratulated us – we are finally hitting our stride – it was exactly how I dreamed the trip would be. The heat was crazy – literally everyone else at the “resort/campground” was passed out in hammocks and or whatever sliver of shade they could find.
Evening cool down
Eco friendly straws
No water or sand so COLOURS
As one tends to do with camping we went to bed early and rose with the sun. Chris woke up sick. Fever and blinding headache. Now the heat was really debilitating and halfway through the day I decided to move us to a hotel down the road with air conditioning. There we found ourselves in a dessert oasis. The landscape in this part of Vietnam reminds me of Palm Springs and the Coachella valley. Dessert, rocky, cactus and hot. Sorrento Beach Resort was well watered with a huge lawn to lay kites out on. There were flowering cacti, trailing bougainvillea and more giant beetles and geckos than ever before. At night the sky swooped with huge bats. The couple who own and run it are Australian expats – kitesurf instructors and all around lovely people. We seemed to be almost the only guests. With a smattering of folks popping in for drinks and dinner. Chris was done completely out for three days. The wind died and with Sabine’s foot unable to get wet or sandy it was a pretty lonely few days. Once again plunged into Anderson’s boredom and loneliness. Safe to say I felt pretty silly for allowing myself to be so smug only a few days before.
Jew from the restaurant
Morning solo walk
Girl on a train
Chris is finally healthy or at least able to get up and walk around and with our Vietnam Visa expiring on April 28 we are back on the train – heading to Saigon/Ho Chi Min city. We will be staying with an old friend of Chris’s and his wife and baby. So far the train ride along the coast has been beautiful. The water brilliant blue and sparkling dotted with traditional blue and red fishing boats and big shipping vessels. Out the other side of the train window are huge sandy coloured boulders like in Joshua Tree National Park. Then fields of medusa topped dragon fruit trees, salt flats, rice paddies and solar farms. There is also fields of garbage – for a country consumed with their ancestors there seems to be little foresight or wondering how the piles of garbage will impact future generations. The sky is crystal and smog free and the light is intense. We have turned a little north and inland whipping through villages and towns peeking into peoples homes – darkened but open to the air and any little breeze generated by the train. The light shifts to warm peach and the fields spark with bright fires and black smoke. There are more motorcycles on the roads – people emerging from the shelter taken during the hottest part of the day.
I’m feeling a little nervous about staying with people – it has been so long that I feel like a hermit. How will I talk to anyone? I’m like a cave person. The last few days have been isolating to say the least. But I am excited to eat some real. Vietnamese food again – the Aussie resort was big on meat pies and soy sauce dowsed stirfries.
As we get closer to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh we mobilize the kids prepping them on big train stations and being aware and staying close to us. Both of our cell phone SIM cards have run out of coverage so if we get separated it won’t be a simple fix. We go over the plan. Then we gather everything and wait at the door of the train. Trains move quickly and if you miss your chance getting off you could get stuck on it. The train stops and we pile out. In our little formation we march forward and around the train yard, across the tracks through a wall of eight glass doors and security booths into …….. a small room lined with convenience shops, about 20 rows of stainless seating and that’s it. It’s not Grand Central or Union Station – it’s not even Spadina. Anderson is looking around for any action and eying us with a “is that all there is” look on his face and wondering why he ever listens to us. We get our phones figured out and grab a car to Steve’s. Blasting through the city, the streets chokes with scooters and people, karaoke bars, sidewalk restaurants and giant glittering malls. So many malls. We arrive at Steve’s – five high rise apartments with full retail on the main floors connected with walkways and underground tunnels. Once inside you don’t ever need to leave.
We are happily nestled into our “VIP” cabin for our train ride south to the beach side town of Phan Rang. We did have to evict a very small grandma with a very large rice bag into the next cabin before settling in. Now we are jostling and bumping along past the pastoral rice paddies, fields of burial grounds heavy with stone and marble tombs. Many topped with elaborate dragons, phoenixes and serpents. Our window is a little dirty but there are silk tulips in a vase and just a hint of air conditioning. The kids next door have stopped crying so hopefully the next eleven hours will fly past.
Our homestay – a little worn but we grew to love it
I am sad to leave Hoi An’s incense and charcoal scented air. Chris really didn’t love the packed Ancient City teeming with tourists and knickknacks. The roads were perhaps even more insane than Hanoi, where people at least kept to their side of the street while turning. He lamented that it would have been so much better fifteen years ago. And while I agree with that sentiment it also makes me feel something – I don’t know – guilty? Annoyed? The city is how it is because hordes of us have descended on it and the majority of those hordes want easy tchotchke reminders of their time there – so the good people of Hoi An give them what they want. And then snooty people like us deem it “over” or saturated. I don’t love inching along crowded streets fending off hawkers of cheap Chinese goods either but I feel for the people who’s home we are marching through. I fell for the narrow alleyways, the gentle lanterns bobbing on the river boats and, let’s face it, the delicious pancakes. I also tried some truly delicious vegan and vegetarian foods that were modern takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes. Plus the coffee was incredible. I am a little bummed that Sabine got injured so we couldn’t spend time at the beach. But I did manage to take a fabulous cooking class on our last day – and I took it solo which was also amazing. So freeing to just listen and not worry about outbursts, enjoyment and feeding of the animals… I mean the kids.
Originally I signed up for a master class for chefs and unfortunately no one else signed up so I was shunted into the regular stream. After taking a few classes on this journey you get to know the pattern. Market walk or bike ride, cool drink, back to kitchen where everything is prepared and you just kind of easy bake your way through a bunch of dishes, eat what you made and you’re done. So I was a little jaded going in – even though my early morning walk to the class through the streets and alleys was beautiful. I arrived and as I expected there were about a hundred sweaty and pink tourists melting away waiting for the tour to start. We got broken down into smaller groups and off we went. An ear splitting diesel ride on a boat dropped us off at the market. This time our guide spoke great English and was handing out tastes of anything you wanted to try – silk worms?! No thanks but I tasted new fruits and some very different herbs. We watched noodles being made and tried slicing banana flowers. It was great. Then we hopped back onto the diesel boat to the kitchen. We were treated with fresh passion fruit juice (current obsession) and an ice cold towel. The ice cold towel is literally the greatest gift you can get after a sweaty market walk. Did I mention the humidity is around 60%? After a quick cool down we were given a tour of the restaurant – this place made me think of Ottolenghi in London. It’s a monster with beautiful displays and stations manned with cooks pumping out everything from street food to high end hors d’oeuvres, everything is hand made – there was a literal army of noodle makers and dumpling rollers. We got to sample everything – which was amazing. Then we headed upstairs to a modern clean air conditioned school room with our own individual stations – stocked and ready to go. Our instructor at the head of the room with a mirror positioned over her work space so we could see every move she made. As usual we moved very quickly through and the patter was a little stale but the food we made was delicious. I finally got to make the Banh xei rice pancakes that I had fallen in love with as well as some shrimp mousse wrapped in cabbage – way more yummy that you would imagine. When we were done we were given a Vietnamese mandolin was well as all the recipes. Plus we ate like kings. Not bad at all. I took advantage of my alone time by strolling through the ancient streets with fellow tourists stopping for an ice coffee and then picking up some sandals I had made for me. The only thing I missed was a pedicure but it was time to get Sabine to the hospital for her last dressing change. And to get ready for our trip south where we will be sleeping in tents on the beach….. or near the beach. But in tents. Tents that are on platforms. Tents tents tents.
Walking into the cooking school/restaurant
Sticky rice and sesame cakes
Oh my heart
Women working hard
Bettle wrapped pork on rice noodle
Banh xei (the pancake) reimagined as an hors d’oeuvre
How can you not love a city where silk pyjamas are worn all day and not by lecherous mansion dwellers who keep bunnies, but worn all day by regular folk. Old and young alike, although the demographic most likely to be wearing identical patterned tops and bottoms definitely skewers to Boomer. Hoi An is a city where beautiful lanterns bob in every tree and sway gently across narrow alleyways. Bougainvillea pour over painted cement walls and doorways are always open. Narrow wooden doors carved with gracious swirls reveal shiny ceramic floors, family alters, blinking TVs and at least one or two people bustling or lounging. There are no curtains drawn and no worries about cleaning up for the house cleaner either just real life in small piles.
Walking the ancient city
Sabine has been house bound since the accident. We waited a day and then took her to the hospital to fully ascertain that there was nothing broken. She screamed bloody murder anytime we came close to her foot and was refusing to walk – although she generally refuses to walk so that isn’t necessarily a clear indication of serious injury. She also screamed bloody murder as Chris carried her into the hospital and all the while getting her bandage changed. To be fair it really didn’t look good – and I was the one who had cleaned it after the accident. I thought I had done such a thorough job – soaking it and rinsing it and slathering it with polysporin. I am no Florence Nightingale. I was fully tsked tsked by all three nurses and the doctor checking her out. The cleaning involved a lot of iodine which seemed a little archaic but I guess that’s still how it’s done. She was given a course of antibiotics, anti inflammatory medicine and we were off with instructions to come back daily to have her bandage changed.
Dressing change time
Laying low with LEGO
We have decided to embrace the house boundedness of our current situation – taking turns to go out and do things. Anderson and I took a lantern making class. It was only a ten minute walk from our little homestay but it was one hot walk. The temperatures here are around 35 degrees with what seems to be 100% humidity. We are dripping within a block of walking. Sauntering at a snails pace we get to see a giant beetle carcass the size of a small helicopter splayed in a death pose it’s a miracle that we arrive right in time. Hoi An is famous for its lanterns and we learn that they were brought here by the Chinese and evolved through out the centuries until the last forty years where they have been mostly influenced by tourism. The lanterns needed to be created to pack easily and a new way of making them was developed. The little shop we are taking the class in is – suitably – awash in lanterns of many shapes and colours. We learn the names of the shapes and the significance of the silk. After all that we discover that we are making the most traditional garlic shape and we are given a choice of five different fabrics. This is a little disappointing until we start making the lanterns and then I totally understand why. We could be there for hours crafting but this is a business and they are moving people through two hours at a time. As usual the table and chairs are from a kindergarten class and we end up st a table with two strapping Australian women so there is a fair amount of jostling. This combined with a hurricane gale from the fan, delicate silk panels and some kind of super glue it’s a miracle we made anything at all resembling a lantern. Despite the slightly rushed pace it is really fun and although not perfect we are pretty happy with the end result. The class pops us out rightat noonheat so we decide to grab a cold drink for the walk home. There are spots every two feet selling sandwiches, smoothies, fruit juice, noodles, spring rolls and bbq. It seems like no one ever actually eats at home. The thing is nothing about any of these streetside spots is ever particularly quick. Unless it’s pho – they scoop that up in record time BUT SO THEY SHOULD! It’s already made. It took a full ten minutes to get an iced soda water with a squeeze of lime from a narrow street side shop that had absolutely no one in it. Aaaaand I guess that’s why no one was in it. Although all the shops are the same as far as speed.
The next day Chris takes Anderson back to Denang for surfing and Beansie and I hold down the fort. I am pretty keen to get outside or anywhere really by the time they get back but it’s not to be. We end up going to our regular spot for my new favourite Vietnamese meal banh xeo (sizzling cake) which is the incredible pancake wrapped into rice paper with fresh herbs and lettuce and then dipped in fish sauce with chilies and lime. So good and Anderson loves it too. Sabine’s foot continues to keep us pretty close to home with one of us popping out to grab take out. We have actually tried some restaurants that we normally wouldn’t have when trying to please all our tastes and remaining home. We did venture out to meet Sara and Justine’s dad and his partner B who happened to be down in Hoi An for the weekend. They took us to a restaurant right on the river in the old town where we watched the lantern boats floating along, listened to the hawkers at the night market and met a lovely rat under the table beside ours after our meal.
Boy eats duck
Nighttime in the ancient city – bit much
View from the restaurant over the river
Feeling antsy after a few days holed up I organized a tour to My Son the ancient holy land. We had enjoyed our food tour in Denang so much that I asked our guide if he knew anyone who could guide us here in Hoi An. Luckily he did and Leo arrived to pick us upat 6:30 amfor the hour long drive to the holy land. The ruins at My Son are a cluster of Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and 14th century by Kings of Champa. The temples are dedicated to the worship of The god Shiva. It was the site of religious ceremony for kings and the ruling dynasties of Champa. It was largely destroyed by carpet bombing from America during a single week of the Vietnam war – known here as the American war. It is similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It shows the blending and influence of two civilizations – actually three as there are also example of Roman influence. Leo had all the history down and was able to explain the influences the trade and war paths and the movement of the people and civilizations. He was incredible and this day made me never want to visit a historical site without a guide. It also helped that we were alone with him so able to corral our kids fairly easily and also make decisions when to stop and for how long. We also caught a dance show – I thought would be a touristy gimmick but the dancers were great and it also gave us a little respite from the heat. I know we have been in this climate for months but it is truthfully so much hotter and more humid here than anywhere else. It feels like we are swimming while walking. For Chris it’s double because he’s hauling Sabine – he pretty much always was but now she demands that her food be held up as well. Resulting in an even more ridiculous position that Chris manages to maintain for hours at a time.
Beak for coffee Vietnamese style
Fresh young coconut
My Son ancient holy land
Now before we knew that Sabine was going to be invalid this week we had also booked a cycling excursion. Even after her accident we could have cancelled but the truth is we really wanted to go – and we also thought that four days down the road she would be fine. As it turns out she still was pretty swollen and now we were on the hook. So we decided to tough it out. Yes I realize Sabine was having to do the toughing it out but frankly people – her whining is epic in its ability to shatter my eardrums along with my patience. Fingers crossed we would be the only ones on the trip. The morning came pretty quickly since Anderson has started a habit of FaceTiming his friendsat around 5amour time. But since we were needing to be up and out early this was actually a bonus. Of course we still managed to be late – a last minute meltdown and a slow taxi had us slinking into the tour office apologizing profusely and deeply humiliated to see a family of five all suited up and ready to go. The have Australian accents and look super athletic – I can’t even believe this woman had given birth to three babies. We quickly grab our bikes – this company asked for your height when you book so that the bikes are ready to go. They are good bikes too – nothing like the Russian clunkers that we almost killed Sabine on. Speaking of Sabine I was a little nervous that she would be scared of the bikes. Mainly because she has refused to speak of the accident or let me speak of the accident since it happened. If anyone asks and I even take a breath to say bike she loudly asserts “No!” But she was fine. Anderson however didn’t like his bike and there was further scrambling to find something for him and further embarrassment on my part for continuing to make people wait. It’s a killer – you want your kid to advocate for themselves and that is what we have taught. As well Chris is always super conscientious of how equipment feels before we leave so that once we are out on the hill or road we can just do it. However on a day where we have already made complete strangers wait I just wish he had sucked it up – something to circle back to later.
The tour was incredible – we cycled out to the little villages and rice paddies just over the river from Hoi An. It was lush and peaceful. As usual each little village had a specialty. We got to make fresh rice noodles with a stone mill and an indoor fire fed by rice husks (the ash is then used as fertilizer – nothing is wasted). The fresh noodles were layered with charcoal grilled dried noodles – they puff up like a papadam- then eaten like a sandwich. Then we carried on to see a ship yard, stop for fresh juice and coconuts, try our hand at grass mat weaving and finally after seeing how rice wine is made finishing with a rice wine tasting. This included several flavours of rice wine – ginseng and wild mushroom, banana, plain and lizard! The latter had several good sized lizards bloated and floating in the bottle. By this point we were great friends with the Aussies – three boys – a 13 year old and twin 9 year olds. Anderson was having a blast. The father and his partner live in Singapore and the boys and their mom live in Melbourne. Earlier Stephanie and I had been commiserating on how hard it is to be24/7parenting she said she was in awe of us, saying they were exhausted after five days. This made so much more sense to me when I realized she was the step parent who lives in an other country. Anyway we let the boys have a taste of the lizard wine which was pretty amusing. The tour guide had been telling us all day about the importance of having boys and the strength of men. All about how families would try and try for boys if they had girls. From what I have seen – as a sweeping generalization – the men don’t do too much around here. The market is all women, the stores and shops in the main town are all women, the tailors and leather makers, the homestay owners, the kitchen workers, the servers, the field workers all women. The sitting around on the corner on mini chairs smoking and drinking Bia Hoi – all men. We have seen men with flats of beer under their tables at restaurants. The tour guide proudly says that they put scorpions, snakes and lizards in rice wine because it makes the men more virile. It gives them strength. So that seems like it might not be working. As much fun as the rice wine stop is – my favourite stop was visiting village patriarch whose family had been in the village for 14 generations. He lives with his wife and daughter in the family home and cares for the family temple and burial ground, as well as advising villagers on good matches and auspicious times to marry. He has ten children, five boys and five girls. Five were born before the war and five were born after. He was captured by the Americans and imprisoned for five years. He is a spritely 94 and his wife is 90. They open up their home and temple to tourists because if we learn about each other and are friends there will be no more war. So you know all the Vietnamese men aren’t sitting around drinking beer all day. We return to the tour office and are sad to discover that they are leaving for Singapore the following day. Anderson really could have used a couple of days of one on one friend time. But it wasn’t to be.
Our cycling tour map
Rice wine distillery
She is 90 and has been weaving since the age of 10
It’s been so long since I have sat down to write that I needed to look at the last post to remember where I left off – the days have started to blend a bit. And I think we are into a period I want to call inertia. We have seen so many new things, tasted so many new dishes and tramped through so many night markets that we are saturated. As well as so very sick of each other. We need to do something to bring the joy back. For me that would be magically transporting some VDW – very dear women – to me so we could disappear into a long weekend of yelling stories to each other over wine and cheese, waking up whenever the fuck we want to and taking long leisurely brunches with longer walks all the while TALKING about anything other than how I have screwed something up. It might be a fantasy I have been retreating to lately.
Anyway Chris decides that we need to get to the beach so Anderson can surf and be active to the point of exhaustion for a week or so. Denang is the obvious choice – so we have booked to fly there after a final weekend in Hanoi.
Fifteen years ago I fell in love with Hanoi. I was so excited to come back and show it to Chris and the kids. It hasn’t lived up to my hype – at least for Anderson. He really hates cities – the crowded noisy streets, the dirt and the smells – it puts him off so as per my new plan moving forward I am scheduling the heck out of our time. But then we run into the weekend! This is the time Anderson has to connect with his buds back home and that means he stays up late chatting and playing and that meant our early morning excursion to the ceramics village was a tough go at first. But I have gotten ahead of myself – we left off after our little day boat trip with the yelly captain. So back on Cat Ba Chris decides we should spend a day exploring on a motorbike. Never mind the endless talk of Thailand tattoos and how dangerous it is. Cat Ba definitely seems more tame and it’s off season so there are not as many people on the road. I can tell that he’s a little disappointed that I don’t want to try to ride my own scooter. But – you know – I just don’t. Never mind the average age of the tourists scootering around. Or the insane no rules on the road traffic that flows like water. So Chris rented a bigger bike and we climbed on – all four of us – I don’t want to say we hit the road! But we headed out onto the twisty turny mountainy roads of Cat Ba. As it turns out it was almost the best thing we could have done. Almost – because the kids did manage to fight – the usual car fight but this time it was who gets to ride in front. Seriously! Seriously could someone PLEASE tell me a story of how their children manage to ruin or try to ruin EVERY goddamned fun thing that you try to do for them? I need to know that I am not alone and the buckets of our retirement that we are pouring into this venture is not for nothing. The silver lining is that it was beautiful and the noise of the motorcycle did almost drown them out.
We toodled around and got a little lost looking for a view point. After turning off the highway we found ourselves in a field of cows surrounded by steep hills, the gravel road had dwindled to a dirt path heading up toward the mountains. So we decided to skip it for the day since the four of us on a motorcycle do not make for swift ascents and it was getting late. The next day we were all excited to get back on the road. We had a lovely drive inland to the national park where upon learning there was some walking to do the kids revolted so we turned around and ended up doing a cave explore. As you may remember cave exploring is low on my list of fun things but I bucked up crouched down and explored that cave. There were bats and one occasion of paralyzing fear when I imagined being trapped in there forever. But we made it out the other side. I think I really mean it this time when I say I am not doing an other cave. Then we hopped back on the bike drive directly to an other cave. No bats this time and actual ceilings. This was a hospital built into the mountain. Basically a huge concrete bunker. There were meeting rooms and surgeries and bedrooms – they all were just empty concrete rooms. So just rooms. There were a few with mannequins in them to help with bringing it back to life.
Then it was off to catch our ride back to Hanoi.
At the old armoury
At the top of the armoury
Having a casual meeting inside the hospital cave
Remains of a propaganda poster
We managed to snag an even bigger room at the homestay in Hanoi – a loft space with separate rooms so that was pretty luxurious. We got to spend an afternoon with Greg Wood and his lovely partner B at their place in Hanoi – they live just a short walk from the Old Quarter in a vibrant area surrounding a little lake. Greg informed us that the lake was actually where John McCain had been shot down and he had been imprisoned just a few kilometres away. After our history walk we were treated to an amazing meal from B who also got Anderson to help with the cooking. She speaks French and is a cooking teacher at a middle school so it was perfect. They were such sweet hosts and it was so nice to have a little bit of “family” while on the road.
Meeting a fisherman
Sabine taking her walk in style
The lake that John McCain plane was shot down into
Learning spring rolls with B
The next day was the ceramics village tour. This was the bomb! Our guide was amazing – his English was impeccable- he had a great sense of humour and was super knowledgeable. He talked politics, art, history, pop culture – you name it. The village we went to was called Bat Trang and ceramics have been made there since the 15th century but even prior to them the ancestors of the village had been creating pottery and ceramics at an other village further away. There is definitely a touristy bent to the village – it was filled with Vietnamese tourists as well as foreigners. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were called to by sellers and Son, our guide, gently deflected everyone. Then took us to meet the ceramics guide, a man whose name I promptly forgot, whose family had a ceramics plant and had been in the business for generations. Our tour started in the plant. We walked into a calm zen garden oasis with koi ponds and Japanese style bridges and bonsai trees. On either side of the ponds were show rooms with dark shelves that had well spaced ceramic ceremonial tea pots. It was quiet and beautiful. We walked through the gardens and into a warehouse where there were rows and rows of different stations. At the front the clay is poured into moulds allowed to dry and then removed. Then on to a finishing area where the pots are etched and polished and the handles are put on. Then to where the handles and lids are made. Finally to drying racks and the giant kilns. Apparently it takes at least five years for a worker to become a master at their station. Be it polishing or cleaning and etching. Then we walked back to the street and into a shop that made ceremonial ceramics. These are the classic white and blue vases and pots more Chinese style. The pots are for the incense that is burned at altars. We were lead into the workshop where everything is hand painted. It was all women – sitting and hand painting these incredible scenes – dragons, pagodas, fish, rural scenes, flowers. So beautiful. Then we went to try our hand at throwing a pot. We each had our own little hand wheel and our guide centred our clay and showed us a few techniques. Then we were off making huge messes. After our pottery dreams crashed and burned – it’s very very hard to do – Son took us to a little restaurant down a winding alley off the main tourist track for lunch. Here we got to see fresh rice noodles being made – a little like crepes. They were filled with pork and mushrooms and then sprinkled with crispy shallots. They are served with a warm soup that you dunk the rolled noodle/crepe into. So yummy – even the kids loved it. After lunch we got to paint our lumpy creations and then we headed home. We rested for a few hours and then hit the end of the weekend market so Anderson could get back up on a hover board and Sabine could terrorize us by driving over peoples toes in a mini scooter. I think that evening put a dent in of the romance of Hanoi. The haggling at the market, the sticky heat, the grey sky and the constant honking – even I was ready to go.
Giant bonsai and koi ponds
The very liquid clay
Out of the moulds
Before firing – after it will be cobalt and white
The following day was travel day – our flight to Denang was in the afternoon and we magically transformed into sloths for the entire morning. Cozy in the little loft – everyone on their personal screens. I feel itchy just thinking about it. But I told myself that sometimes we need a zone out reset. The flight was only an hour and everything was moving along fairly easily until I decided to stop at the cell phone kiosk at the airport in Denang. I needed to top up and it’s easiest at the airport because usually the person at the kiosk can speak English. But not this time – it took ages for us to understand each other. Then when we got to our hotel, the room we had booked was not a available so they offered to move us to an other hotel. So off we went on foot. The other hotel was a couple of blocks away and the room for us was nothing like what we had booked. So after some more haggling we were taken back to the first hotel where they magically found us the room we had originally booked. Bright side is that the kids learned of the term bait and switch. We woke to very loud construction and no hot water. Which – honestly would not have been an issue any other time – but this time I specifically booked a room with an actual tub and shower to properly bathe Sabine and also for ourselves just to have a relax. Our bathroom situations have been very modest. Modest in that the “shower” at our hotels and home stays for the last month and a bit have been just hoses with small shower heads hanging on a hook above the toilet. I was really looking forward to having a long hot shower and a long hot tub. But it was not to be. At least there was a pool and it was bright and hot out. Chris and Anderson has surf lessons and Sabine wanted to play at the pool. So off we went. But as it turned out the pool was at an other hotel! Upon reading the small print on our booking it stated very clearly “access” to a pool. So two blocks later Sabine and I found ourselves at the rooftop pool. Alone for the entire day – not even a mosquito stopped by let alone an other kid. It was nice to swim but it was a little lonely. The guys didn’t have any luck either – the surf was canceled for lack of waves. So after that bummer day we were really ready for our food tour that I had booked for the evening. This was an other stellar tour! Airbnb experiences have been knocking it out of the park. We got picked up by Tam, Tim and Jack and scootered around Denang stopping at the beach and flying over bridges and eating at four different spots to try the local traditional foods. They were super hosts – funny and fun and full of interesting facts. We tried so much food that we never would have tried – just because we wouldn’t have known what to order. It was a spectacular night – Anderson loved it and had a great time on the back of the scooter whipping around town. He even tried Durian. We all did. That is one confused fruit. The next day woken again by construction, no hot water and no waves we made the radical decision to get out of dodge. It took an entire morning of negotiating with the hotel and booking.com but we were able to get out money back from our prepaid room. So we booked a family room in a homestay in Hoi An and hopped a cab. I was really excited – the homestay looked great, two separate bedrooms and a beautiful pool. Upon arrival everything was a little more worn than the pictures depicted and even though that seems to be standard I felt a little flat and disappointed. I hate letting everyone down. But the smaller dingier pool was filled with children as was the worn couch in the big reception area. Phew. Other kids and families – just what we really need right now. So we drop our bags into our well worn room and head back down to the reception. It turns out the majority of the kids are leaving. But we do get a tip on an excellent kid friendly restaurant around the corner. Aaaannnd we almost make it. But it’s that little bit too far past lunch and the sun is a little bit too hot and we stop to check to see if we are on the right path just a little bit too long and the meltdown happens. These just drain us all. I can feel myself switching off so I don’t take all in. They really rock Chris and I – so much that sometimes when we are all having a great time and Anderson cracks a particularly sarcastic joke we just freeze thinking we are back in a meltdown. We have meltdown ptsd. Anyway we get through it – and this is now how I get through them – I just remember that it will end. He will come back. I will not say the incredibly angry and horrible things that I want to say. The good news is that the restaurant was great – inexpensive and not super touristy as well as delicious. We head back for a swim and the plan to walk the old town in the evening. We have the swim but something happens – the inertia comes – we listlessly lie on our beds reading or playing with dolls depending on our age. Finally we can’t even convince Anderson to come out. So we leave him and take Sabine to a restaurant across the street. Where she is a nightmare. What is happening??? I can only guess that we are tired – burnt out from travel – have spent too much time lazing about? I don’t know. We make a plan for an excellent bike ride in the morning. Hoi An is known for lanterns, tailoring and being easy to bike around not to mention the Unesco world heritage site at its core.
So the morning comes and as usual we are slow to rise but we manage to finally get our butts onto bikes with towels and bathing suits packed by 11. Once on the road it quickly becomes clear that Hoi An is not actually a great place to cycle. Well not if you are 9 and your parents have neglected to teach you your bike signal skills. Once again things got a little tense. Chris was in front with Sabine on the back of his bike – they had a leather cushion over that flat part that you could use as a book holder. She rode like that when we did our bike to the village on Cat Ba. In the morning we had gone over the rules about keeping her feet in the little pegs installed on the side of the wheel. Anderson had just narrowly missed being swiped by a scooter because he misread a signal so we had stopped to check in. He was scared and angry and hot and he didn’t want to go to the beach anymore so we abandoned the plan to head home – with the idea we would get off the road we were on and find a quieter street. We had just started down the street when Sabine wailed in that horrible way you know means a serious injury. I looked ahead to see her shoe on the ground and her foot bent into the wheel. Chris had stopped the bike and a man ran out from a cafe to help. Chris got her foot out and had her at the side of the road. Luckily we had water and towels to clean it and get a better look. We got a cab and I took the kids home – Chris got the bikes back. So day one in Hoi An was a bust. Sabine is doing well – her ankle is very swollen and bruised and her heel is raw but she spent the rest of the day watching videos, her ankle on a pillow with a bag of ice. Just before she fell asleep she said, “I keep thinking about it and I don’t want to remember it.” Poor little angel. I guess this will slow us down a little. Well probably not that much since Chris carries her everywhere anyway. Really considering all the crazy ways we have traveled we are lucky this has been our only injury.
Honouring the women whose silent scarifies help the Motherland – mothers who lost their children or husbands
I was heart broken to see the smokey air obscuring everything including the airport as we landed. I had booked a ride through our hotel because they said on the website the hotel was hard to find and down an alleyway. There is a totally different style of driving here than everywhere else – tons of honking and light flashing. We crossed a bridge from a unicorn fantasy with arches lighting up in rainbow colours. Our room is nice and clean – a little small but we aren’t planning to hang around. We find a restaurant that is supposed to be good – Yin and Yang – and it was fine maybe even good for a first night but both Chris and I wished we had grabbed a small plastic stool at the streetside hot pot bbq close outside of the hotel. We were all a little rangy with travel and feeling like we wanted to sit non actual chairs and not stools. Our bed is – if possible – harder than the dock. No matter what happens we are not stying an other night. The next day we find a better spot – a little homestay that is bright and cheerful with a restaurant next door that has its kitchen on the third floor and sends the food down in a dumbwaiter. We barely manage to pull the kids away. We walk – through the Old Quarter and get tickets to the water puppet show, the kids get their portraits sketched and we stay out late walking the night market. The streets close down to traffic on the weekend for the night market. It’s the usual suspects of meat on sticks, treats and shopping but with the added bonus of street theatre. It’s a fun night that finds us home late with an Elsa ballon and nitrogen cooled ice cream balls that smoke.
Hanoi pulses with an energy that is at once welcoming and alien. The traffic flows like water around river rocks. You pretty much close your eyes and step out on a wing and a prayer. Both our hotels have been down narrow alleys off the side streets. The Old Quarter is twisty and narrow with remarkably huge trees. The streets have a canopy of electrical wires and leaves. It is a little disconcerting to repeatedly have to veer off the side walk onto the street to walk around parked scooters. We decided to stay the weekend because the weather at Cat Ba and Ha Long was calling for rain and the night market in Hanoi is only open on the weekend.
All the classes we took while in Laos were so much fun that I book us into three more “experiences” here in Hanoi. The first is a small version of the homestay that we did in Thailand. We take a cab a few kilometres out of the city – like any big city it doesn’t really seem like we have left the city – the suburbs blur into the village seamlessly. All of a sudden the streets are narrowing the buildings have fallen away and we are dropped unceremoniously on a corner and pointed down an even more narrow alleyway. At the end of that alleyway we bumped into our guide Manh and his wife and kids on their way home. The village has been there forever – as long as Hanoi at least. There were tombs and monuments on the side of the narrow streets – the village has obviously grown and changed into more of a neighbourhood but people were buried on their land and those people have not been moved. The Vietnamese are not united with religion – there are many iterations of spiritual life some that revolve around Pagodas for the more formal honouring of Buddha and other gods and Temples which are for remembering people who have become godly with their lives. There is big Chinese influence – burning paper that signifies your wishes as well as worshipping the Mother Goddess with music and dance. One tradition that unites the Vietnamese is the honouring of their ancestors. We saw this on our first day in the Old Quarter when we visited The Ancient House – the main room had a huge heavy teak wood armour with pictures of dead family on top surrounded by food offerings, incense and candles. Every house we peaked into as we wandered down the alleys of the village had the same style of alter set up. Mostly the houses are one room with big doors open. The kitchen and sleeping rooms are smaller buildings set away from the main home. There is usually a courtyard style front that is paved or tiled or stoned. Then some gardens, pots of orange trees, bonsai pots, jack fruit and guava trees, chicken pens and koi ponds. We wandered the streets past a few larger plantation areas with banana trees and then down to the river’s edge to watch the sunset. Manh’s five year old son joined us, happy to try out his English skills and to teach Anderson and Sabine a game involving violently whacking the heads off weeds – it was a huge hit no pun intended. Then we walked back up to the village to see the temple that was built at the furthest point on the small peninsula that the village is situated on. It was a temple to honour two women from the 11th century who were warriors. This is an other reason I love Vietnam – the women do it all here – they have always been not only central to family life but they are also warriors and soldiers as well as business runners. You see only men sitting about on tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Ha (young or fresh beer) the women are busy getting stuff done. The Temple has three rooms and is cared for by a league of people in the village – again I saw mostly women. We gazed out over the water to the crazy disco unicorn bridge we had driven over in the dark just two brights before. Then we went back to Manh’s home that he shares with his family and his wife’s family. His brother in law lives up the street with his family and his in-laws. Inside we find the big ancestral altar along with giant poster sized pictures of Manh’s wedding. When I booked the experience we were supposed to cook with his mother in law – I’m
not sure what happened – maybe we played too long at the beach or stayed too long at the Temple but the food was cooked and ready when we arrived. We sat down – low as usual – you would think that I would be getting better at the squat but it eludes me still. I am as awkward as ever all knee and limb sprawled about taking up as much space as a small family. The food is amazing – pretty much all pork based – but super fresh and with tons of my favourite morning glory on the side as well as a huge fried river fish. Everyone eats family style picking bits of huge plates with chopsticks and putting it on top of little bowls of rice. Anderson is now an expert with the chopsticks while Sabine still eats with a serving spoon. We eat and talk through Manh learning about the family and the customs of the village. Then Manh organizes a cab to bring us home.
Cute homestay in Hanoi
Watching the dumbwaiter
Just some light electrical
We do not fit the furniture
Outside an artist house
Obsessed with lanterns
Temple in the pond
Our brunch spot
My love affair with chickens continues
Walking to the temple
Sunset looking toward Hanoi
Dinner with the family
The following day buoyed by the new found “experiences” booking magic – I find a leather workshop in the Old Quarter as well as a well as a cake making class with a women who owns a bakery. It’s brilliant. The leather making manages to keep us engaged and working for five hours! Anderson even designs and makes a bracelet for Chris.
The baking class is at Thuey Anh’s home. She owns a bakery but since it’s a Sunday we meet her at her apartment building and spend the afternoon making brioche and caramelized banana bread. She has her own recipes and is self taught. Her kitchen is tiny and her main room dominated with the altar to her ancestors as well as a large poster sized picture from her wedding. She also has two kittens so it’s a fun day for both kids.
It’s true we are too big
Making stuff with leather
Guys my kid can make something useful
From the women’s museum in Hanoi- work and be ready for combat
Waiting for our pick up
The next day we are picked up at ten am for a bus ride and ferry to Cat Ba island where we will cruise the bays – Lan Ha and Ha Long. Here is where full time travel is a drag – researching and finding the best way to see the spots – tours – I know this isn’t the most cool but I tend to like tours – maybe I’m lazy but I like getting picked up knowing we don’t need to worry about food or where we are going we just have to look and learn. But of course there are all manner of tours and prices and it’s easy to get ripped off or to just get something that is not right for us. Ha Long is a tourist Mecca so there a about one million companies to look through. There are at least as many blog posts on them as well. Chris also really resists organized tours – wanting to figure it out himself and to try to get the most authentic experience. So while I find two really well reviewed options for families they are both a little pricy and when Chris looks at booking it all separately we end up deciding to do that. The other thing is the age range with us – Sabine can’t do a lot of the fun tour things like kayaking and hiking. Anyway we decide to just get ourselves there and figure it out. It’s a packed ride up – one thing that they excel at in Vietnam is packing it in – small space? No problem – motorcycles are parked with not even a whisper between them. Buildings touch with narrow alleys leading to back stairs that run up to many doorways. And tourists, giant non Asian bodies, get jammed into busses narrow enough for the streets. We are poured out of our bus and onto a tiny half submerged ferry bobbing in the grey green murky water at the bottom of a ladder. “There is NO way that all of us and our luggage is going to fit in there”, I think. Oh but it does. Tetris in real life as the bags are tossed down into the ferry and quickly shunted left or right onto a growing pile that remains neat as a pin. Then we are back onto a bus on Cat Ba Island navigating a lane and a half width highway past piles of oyster shells and women mending fishing nets in their front yards – the bus’s horn warning cows and goats to get out of the way. Our hotel is halfway up a hill outside of the main town – it is higgilty piggly all crooked staircases and steep inclines with little terraces jutting out in all directions. We are led to our room by Thea – originally from Norway who has chucked it all for a life of travel and front desk duty. We get the full run down including learning all about her cultural mix and her previous eight months in Africa. While she is a Chatty Cathy her stories are entertaining and she promises to help us set up a private tour. Our family room is fantastic. It’s a loft with huge two story windows overlooking a bay filled with fishing boats all toggled together as well as small fish farms lashed to the small shacks with laundry hanging outside. It’s bright and colourful and the kids love it. They run upstairs and wave to us while standing beside the “safety” railing that is at best to their knees. I love what passes for safe here. And yet everyone seems to stay alive.
In the morning we are picked up for our private tour – as soon as we get to the pier we can tell something might be amiss. We have booked any tours during the last few months – classes, day trips, overnight trips and it is always surprising that everything always seems to turn out right. We have been shunted off to different rooms, our pick ups have been late, seats have been uncomfortable but everything has always worked out in the end. So it was bound to happen once. A bad trip. Truthfully it wasn’t even a bad trip it just was not the trip we thought we had booked. The captain did not speak English, the boat was very uncomfortable, we were taken directly to the one location we specifically did not want to visit, the food was cooked with egg so Sabine had nothing to eat except for rice, there was no drinking water – like no actual water to drink on the boat and to top it off it was a grey and moody day. It wasn’t all bad. We had a great bike ride into a village. The lunch was delicious and more of it for us. Lan Ha and Ha Long are beautiful
No matter what the weather – there was swimming. I know Chris was thinking what I was – which is WTF is going on?! But we both decided to just go with the flow. Even though our captain knew one word in English that he would yell to get our attention – HELLAH – and then occasionally he would yell – HA LONG – I guess to remind us we were on Ha Long bay. It was still a beautiful day. Although it was a day that made me lean more toward booking further tours with everything all included as opposed to playing broken telephone with hotel desk jockeys. Today is scooter around the island day. It’s also the day to decide where to go next …….. north or south…..
Truth be told I am having a love hate with Laos. It is at turns beautiful, crumbling, dusty, lush, friendly, rude and above all smokey. We have yet to see a snippet of blue sky or the hills and mountains that surround the city unless we are in the back of a tuk tuk driving up them. On our first day we hopped in a tuk tuk and headed up to Sueng Ki the famous waterfall with milky green water. And boy was it famous. The parking area rimmed with little lunch kiosks was rammed with busses, taxis and tuk tuks. Around the corner the wide gravel and dirt road leading to the entrance was lined with more food stalls, T-shirt hawkers and ice cream tuktuks. We pay our entrance fee and stream past the gate towards the falls. Then a happy accident – there is a moon bear sanctuary – I’m embarrassed to admit I had never heard of moon bears. They are over hunted for their gall bladders for medicine in China and they are also kept in cruelly small cages as tourist draws to restaurants and shops across Laos. We are given a tour by a wonderfully informative Australian guide. Aside from Sabine kicking what might have been the heaviest foot stool in the world over onto my big toe it was a lovely bonus experience. Then it was on to the falls – which were in fact beautiful – what was visible beneath the masses of tourists of which Chinese outnumber backpackers at least four to one. Chinese tourists get a bad rap. Yes they swarm around indiscriminately and think nothing of pushing in front of anyone – small children included – to get a good selfie. They are also very joyous with lots of laughing and joking around. Not to mention on the day we were at the waterfall I saw quite a few snappy dressers and the men were not afraid to strip down to their skivvies for a dip in the cool waters. The main downside we have found – and this is not exclusively directed at Chinese tourists because this has been our experience everywhere we have been in South East Asia – people really like to touch the kids without asking them first. They also snap pictures of them as well. Sabine – who is never afraid to speak her mind – just loudly says, “Don’t touch me!” But Anderson can be a little more skittish and on this day he scooted away quickly and ended up falling down causing embarrassment on both sides. The water was cold and the pools were also filled with the foot cleaning fish. The kids didn’t love it but managed to get in and swim up to the falls.
Milky waterfall water
On our first night we were set to go out for dinner – it was a little late when we got to our guesthouse after the boat and by the time we figured out where to go and what we were going to have. The night market was vetoed by the kids who even though they had been on their butts for the entire day on the boat did not want to walk. They also did not want to eat Thai food – or Laos food. After a quick search we found a Mexican restaurant – it had good reviews so we headed out the door. Only to be thwarted by an epic meltdown which left only Sabine and I in the tuk tuk on our way. I almost didn’t go but I’m so glad that I did because I met the most wonderful Australian woman named Alicia who runs the restaurant with her Laos born, Toronto raised husband Pike. Along with having two girls of her own she was a wealth knowledge on things to do in the city. We ordered take out and had a great chat while waiting for our food and then she popped us into a tuk tuk and negotiated a great price for us. Top on her list was Indigo Farms an organic farm just outside of town that has a full play land built onto it. There was a parcour course, BB guns, ninja star throwing, two play areas with toys, games, slides and balls, bunnies, baby parrots and a restaurant serving food prepared with the produce from the organic gardens. The seating for the restaurant was individual grass roofed bamboo terraces over a small pond. The only thing missing were more kids. Anderson and Chris had a blast shooting guns, driving rc trucks and doing parcour, while Sabine and I spent the day playing with toys, digging in the sand and feeding bunnies. The man who owned and ran the farm was from France so communication was easy and he was a super host. Our lunch was incredible too.
The pool we visited almost everyday
The drive home was – as usual – harrowing in the open back of a truck flying over budget gravel roads. But then we spotted a truck of monks just ahead so I guess if it’s good enough for the monks it’s good enough for us.
Chris discovered a company that runs half day classes – everything from spear making, pottery, crossbows, embroidery and cooking. So we sign up for a bunch of classes. I get to do a pottery class solo. Chris and Anderson decide to make crosssbows and fish spears and we decide to all take the knife making class. This company turns out to be the bomb! I meet my guide in front of a hotel not far from us and he takes me on a small ferry to the other side of the Mekong where we are met by a tuk tuk and driven not a village. There are three ethnic Laos tribes – Hmong, Mung and one other – there used to be many more but at some point they were made to amalgamate. This is a hmung village and it is where pottery is made. Almost every house in the village has a potter – there are shared kilns and machines to mix the clay but everyone has their own wheel. The wheels are shaped like an egg cut in half with the narrow end dug a little into the ground. As usual every crouches so I am thrilled to see two small stools on either side of the wheel at my spot. When I arrive I watch the wife spin the wheel for the husband and he throws at least three pots in about ten minutes. It’s incredible. They are all perfect and balanced and not too heavy. Next up it’s me and most of all I am regretting having worn shorts – once I am crouched on the bitty stool my shorts become hot pants creeping up my bum and my legs are not unlike a daddy long leg spider’s – useless appendages that seem to be everywhere. On top of all the women in the village are wearing their long skirts and t-shirts. I am not blending in. The clay is stiff and slightly grainy. It feels very heavy even while it’s being spun. The master lets me start but continuously reaches in to correct or fix. I get to throw about ten pots and of those ten four are ashtrays – the master is smoking through out the lesson. I’m definitely not a master my pieces are more doorstop weight rather than water bearing vessel weight. But it was fun to get into it. I leave with two small pots from the master as mine won’t be ready for two weeks although I highly doubt my will even get fired. The kiln is the most interesting and I am unable to get a really satisfactory answer to how it works. I am brought over to a hole in the ground like a well black with smoke and white on the sides and then we walk about 20 feet away to find a steep groove dug into the ground leading toward the bottom of the well. He explains they light the fire down there and push the coals through the tunnel to the bottom of the well/kiln. But I’m not able to ascertain how they set the pots into the kiln (which is like a tube). All in all it’s a fun solo day.The boys also really enjoy their crossbow and spear making – not certain how we are getting anything home or the weapons across the border but that is future Erin and Chris’s problem so I won’t worry about it now.
Motor bike ferry across to the left bank of the Mekong
Mouth of the kiln where the fire is built
The Master and his pots
The ones with the cut outs are lights
Walking to dig clay
Sabine and I get to have a mother/daughter day. I have lofty plans to tour a couple of temples and then hit the Royal Palace. To get her in the mood I talk up the Royal Palace like she might get to see some princesses there and how we can get some delicious princess fruit shakes on our way.Everything starts well she is walking and talking and interested. We dip into a wat to watch the monks and see the statues and altars. Then down a few more beautiful streets lined with leafy trees and climbing flowering vines and I am feeling so good. Even through all the smoke and heat. There are huge beautifully carved teak doors, long narrow windows and doors framed in wood are open to the street. We are only out for about forty minutes and Sabine demands a carry or at least a ride in a tuk tuk so I think we can just grab one to the royal palace. Long story short the Royal Palace closes between11:30-1:30and Sabine is not into walking anymore so we head back to the guest house and get a tuk tuk to take us to an other Alicia recommended spot. The brand new five star Pullman resort where we can pay to hang by the pool and play in the kids club for the day. It’s a master class in colonialism. Uber lux with what seems like two staff to help us along – sign us in – bring us welcome drinks (Getting a cold virgin mojito for me and fresh watermelon juice for Sabine upon arrival with a couple cold cloths is worth the $20 day rate I say). Then two more staff drive us over to the kids club. A glassed in oasis with all the toys you can imagine. I settle in to write and read while Sabine plays and explores. We manage to while away a few hours and then head to lunch overlooking a murky pond jammed with fish and a few ducks – they bring bread for Sabine to feed the wildlife and we order lunch. Then it’s over to the pool which is actually about four pools – sadly there are no children – none – if fact it seems like the resort is totally empty save for hundreds of staff cleaning, raking and watering. They bring us a plate of dragon fruit and mango along with two tall glasses of ice water when we settle in by a pool. All in all pretty lux.
Hanging with my girl
The beautiful wood doors
On our last day we take a class together in knife making. It was so amazing – again outside the city to a village up dusty narrow roads to the side of a house with a few low benches arranged around a metal stump. And so it begins – first we learn to pound on the flat side of our mallets then heat the metal to cut out the rough shape of our knives. We have been given a few to choose from. It is very hot and dusty work. There is a small kiosk beside the house selling cigarettes and homemade whiskey. The plug in leading to what is essentially a large blow torch to heat the metal is frayed and the fire from the blow torch is kept in check with some corrugated metal sheets propped around it. Sparks fly and land on our arms and legs and toes singeing our skin repeatedly. Nothing like the safety standards in SE Asia – if you aren’t hurtling along in an open tuk tuk with giant trucks piled high with unsecured bags of concrete you are sitting adjacent to a huge blow torch heaving a huge mallet with your nine year old. It’s a very involved process and the master has his son and an other helper working right along with us essentially completing everything we try. After four and a half sweltering hours we leave with some incredibly beautiful hand forged wooden handled knives. Next to get them across the border.
Checking out the handy work with our English speaking guide Keo
Sabine set up a Barbie hair salon beside the flying sparks
The three knives
Hand carved handles – not carved by us
The knife crew
Stamped with the Master’s stamp
On our last day we make it to the morning market – we have been told it’s amazing and it doesn’t disappoint! It’s filled with all things not seen at the touristy night markets. Things like frogs, bugs and baby pigs with umbilical cords still attached – brains and skins and livers – it’s eye opening. The only thing we buy is a couple of cups of coffee, a fruit smoothie and a few croissant. The rest of the day is spent finding a box and packaging our weapons and knives and taking them all to the post office to send home. At the post office – Chris’s hard work is stripped in front of him – they cut open the box and tell us no knives can be sent. We have to put them in our luggage and hope they don’t get confiscated at the border. Then we have to pick up our Visas for Vietnam.
More flattering visa shots
Leaving Laos I am as usual hot, dusty and sweaty. Both Chris and I are strung pretty tight as Anderson and Sabine can’t be near each other without erupting in screams and shouts. We have separated them all day while packing and running errands and getting ready to go. Transition days are always a little stressful no matter how hard we plan and try to time things out. But today Anderson has a smirk on his face every time he makes Sabine scream and she has started hitting him. We actually sit at opposite ends of the departure lounge. Maybe the heat is making everything worse – I mean we have been in tropical temps for a few months now but it seems particularly stifling here. My entire body is sticky and drippy and I desperately want to wash my hands about 37 seconds after I wash them. I have been feeling really ready to leave Laos – which is weird since we have barely been here a week. I’m itchy to move on. It could be that it’s not nearly as smiley a country as Thailand. You can feel the colonial past here or maybe I feel the colonial guilt. Like I am traipsing through indiscriminately. There are more shrugs and frustrated looks when trying to communicate and the biggest shock of all is that we hear no a lot. Not more than we hear yes but then do not get what we have asked for. So as I walk out of the barely air conditioned airport onto the sweltering tarmac I am surprised to see the sun yellow in the sky and the outlines of hills and mountains – it’s beautiful and I feel a pang of regret. I didn’t give Laos enough time – we came in the wrong season – we need a little break from the kids, the kids need a break from us and they need more kids around. I take one more look across the tarmac up into the hills dotted with small homes and climb the stairs into the plane for Vietnam.
Our return to Chiang Mai after the Village has the unexpected hiccup of Chris and Eh Paw needing to leave Anderson and Sabine and I at a little pizza place owned by his friend so they can return to the village to pick up Chris’s glasses. Boo. We have already left later than we anticipated – Eh Paw runs at a break neck pace but is always a few hours behind. Now we are an hour out of the village so the return to get the glasses will be a two hour affair. Hanging at the pizza joint isn’t all bad – there is wifi for Anderson and a couple of young girls to play with Sabine. Eh Paw’s friend Jeung is, not surprisingly, super generous and ushers Sabine into his little flat adjacent to the outdoor pizza parlour to play with his daughter and her friend. The pizza parlour is actually his front yard – paved over and dotted with chairs and benches made from wooden pallets – it’s hipster at it’s most uncomfortable. But even more fortuitous than being left at a hipster pizza joint are the two women who pop in for a pizza and invite me to join them for a beer. Aahhhh some adult conversation in my mother tongue where I do not worry too much about inadvertently offending anyone – well no more than usual. Gael is from China – she has a farm! She is a force of joy – hopping up to make her own pizza (turns out she knows the owners as well) and throwing the dough around. Her friend Liz is Australian with a head of wiry curls and many many opinions. Liz explains that the air quality this year is the worst it has ever been. Which explains my sore chest and throat. Chris has been fighting a cold for the last week or so and we thought it was being made worse by the smoke in the air as well as sitting indoors with a wood burning fire. Apparently there is a law against burning after March 1 but it is largely ignored and almost never enforced against large corporations who can make “donations” to government and regulatory officials. Liz is also worried about a military coup happening after the election on the 24th and declares us very smart for leaving before the election happens. I’m thinking Liz might be a valuable employee in my new company – Watch out for that Spoon – disaster preparedness. It’s a good thing that Chris and Eh Paw return before I get completely saturated in conspiracy theories and the inevitable downfall of the world listening to Liz’s ideas. We collect the kids and finish the journey back to Chiang Mai. Eh Paw drops us off at a hotel that he has chosen for us near the bus station – we are taking the bus to Chiang Rai in the morning to meet our tour that will take us on the slow boat on the Mekong. We have a family room with a shared bathroom – not ideal since we are filthy from being in the dusty village and not showering for three days. It’s a room with two bunkbeds which is perfect because no fights over the top bunk. Everyone is in really good spirits and Anderson says that the village has been his favourite part of the trip so far. Aside from the jaunt down to the end of the hall to pee in the middle of the night – it’s a fairly comfortable sleep. In the morning I’m feeling pretty positive about our time in the village and it’s impact on Anderson so I’m extra disappointed and sad when he pulls a classic self entered tantrum before we even get to the bus. He wants pizza – but a specific stuffed crust pizza from a chain company here and it’s 40 minutes from the hotel so it makes no sense. It goes on and on and on. Then there is a delay at the bus station and we are all getting a little antsy to just get moving. Finally we get on our bus – Chris sprang for the VIP bus with extra legroom which would have been lovely however we are pretty sure that this isn’t that bus. The seats are also tipped forward a little bit so we keep sliding out of them. I’m not kidding – every few minutes you had to hitch yourself back up to a sitting position. But the kids are plugged in and quiet so I can just watch the country roll on by. The smoke is obscuring the mountains and the road is under construction so it’s a bumpy ride made more exciting with the slippy seats. The construction ends as we get into farmland – verdant fields each one with a small thatched huts in the centre for shelter. The smoke is making the sun appear like a glowy red ball. Into Chiang Rai the smoke intensifies and I’m having flashbacks to Doomsday Liz. Our hotel is a five minute walk from the train station so we hoof it over to find our huge family room on the 5th floor! Not surprisingly there is an other burst of anger and annoyance as we are heading out for dinner – over – and I’m not joking – how we – the parents – have made Anderson wait. I can’t even. We are barely even able to get him back on track with stuffed crust pizza for dinner. I wonder if anything from the trip will sink into his consciousness – he continues to dwell on stuff – what he is getting – what he wants – what he perceives as Sabine getting more than him – what his friends might or might not be getting – just stuff. In the morning we are picked up by our tour and treated to a very comfortable van taxi with non slippy seats and air conditioning. We will make two stops before we get to the border. The first stop is at the White Temple. We have been skipping the temples to avoid embarrassing meltdowns in places of worship and also because we know they won’t be that interesting for the kids. The White temple is glorious – glowing so bright and white you almost have to avert your eyes. There is a wall that seems to be depicting the dangers and evils of western society. It is the back wall inside the actual temple facing the Buddha. The back walls depicts the farthest you can be from enlightenment – at least that is what I could glean from the cartoonish pictures of star trec, Jessica Rabbit, Keanu Reeves in his Matrix getup and even Micheal Jackson mid hoo hoo grab. Then if you follow the walls around and toward the Buddha they become lighter and there are fewer images-more people floating in boats eyes forward carrying lotus flowers until we get to Buddha who has almost nothing around him just golden light and his peaceful expression. Through the temple and out into a courtyard we find a chance to write down a wish – you can buy a stamped Tin ornament to write your wish on and they are hung clustered together along the surrounding the temple – it’s quite beautiful. Anderson writes a wish for his friend to recover from cancer. This makes me cry – for the beautiful boy who is fighting for his life and for my boy who isn’t as self centred as he has been behaving. I guess I am putting too much pressure on us all for this trip to be a life altering experience. For it to somehow erase the rampant consumerism and me – isms of western culture. As we walk past all the venders to the luxurious air conditioned van the duality, of what I want and how we live, practically hits me over the head.
Look closely for the icons of Western consumerism and sin …. spot MJ
Even at the Temple Chris carries Sabine
Looking at mirrors – hundreds of thousands of mirrors
Next we visit the Opium Museum which, surprise!, actually turns out to be a huge highlight and throughly enjoyable and enlightening. We definitely would not have chosen to go if it wasn’t included in our pick up and border transfer. Back in the village we had started to learn about the initiative to end the growth of poppies in Thailand by the King’s mother and we had even seen examples of it with the villages that we visited. But this was a perfectly laid out journey through the growth and use and trade of opium over centuries. It was interactive and save for some very preachy anti drug messages at the end was so eye opening. Plus it was simple enough for Anderson to follow. Sabine on the other hand would probably have more enjoyed actually taking opium – and the truth of our journey with age difference rears it’s head. Next it’s to the edge of the Mekong River where we can see Burma and Laos while standing in Thailand. We get the classic picture with feet and squinty eyes under the Golden triangle arch- no Sabine because she is done from the opium experience and wants only to stay in the van and to watch the screen.
Golden triangle – Burma, Laos and Thailand
Then we get to the border crossing and then the fun really begins. We need to purchase visas with American dollars (one of our American hundred dollar bills has a small tear and it is not accepted – thank goodness we have an other one) and we need to have our pictures taken because somehow we have lost the ones we had done on Koh Phagnan. There is a giant cockroach on the wall and a small girl who we think is the daughter of the cleaners because she keeps taking chips from the kids and throwing them on the ground then pointing and yelling HA! It’s kind of funny but in the stress of trying to get the documents and filing done along with our kids being right on the cusp of full nuclear meltdown its humour is getting overshadowed. Finally a full hour and half after arriving at the border we are across – all we have to do is get a taxi to our hotel. Chris is toying with the idea of walking because he booked a hotel close to the customs building. But I veto that and veto the bargaining to save two dollars on the ride. We pay the little transport officer and we get a driver and load our things and then wait. It turns out it’s dinner time and the drivers won’t get their money until the transport officer finishes eating. He is sitting beside our taxi on a small patch of grass around a makeshift table with a small homemade bbq beside the coals ashy and white but a plums of smoke still rising and surrounding the five or six small fish on top. There is a basket of sticky rice and bowl of chilies that they are dipping the sticky rice into and the transport officer is pouring and drinking whisky from the cut off top of a Pepsi bottle. Of course I begin to video the scene and I am quickly cut off because there is a customs officer there as well. We wait for about thirty minutes – at this point we have lost the kids entirely and pretty much ourselves as well. Chris and I are repeating the mantra just go with the flow. Finally our driver pushes away from the plastic table on the patch of grass and collects his money from the transport officer and we are off. It turns out to be at least a half hour drive to the main strip and we make a few stops to drop some others off along the way.
Welcome to Laos
We arrive to find a very worn looking guesthouse packed between more worn looking guest houses across from Hot Wire Bar and a few convenience type stores. Their displays of whisky and cigarette prominent. Home Pho guesthouse reminds me of the first pension I stayed at in Barcelona about a quarter of a century ago. There is no one at the front desk no little bell to ring – only a phone number but we don’t have SIM cards for our phones yet. Luckily a woman comes down the stairs – she is a guest but she has a phone and in ten minutes a small very pale very, thin man appears. He wears vintage goggles – the kind that drivers in the 1900’s wore racing around in convertibles or motorbikes with thick black frames tight to the face. He wears a baseball cap over dyed orange hair. Our room is pretty bleak but its clean and we are done for the day. Our super budget accommodations do not include breakfast so we pop across the street – along with a couple of chickens (chickens crossing the road which makes the kids laugh). Here we get to experience one happy consequence of French colonialism – baguettes!!! Oh baby it is so wonderful to tear into some chewy toasty hot buttery bread after two months of rice and noodles. Over baguette and instant coffee (hey we can’t have all the treats all the time) I start to panic that we have made a very poor choice – the boat is not going to be comfortable – there will be epic whining and we will be trapped with people or more accurately people will be trapped with us. Our taxi arrives and there is a couple from the Netherlands already on board and thankfully they start to distract the kids with questions.
The boat turns out to be amazing and made even more amazing by the fact that we have thirteen people in our group on a boat that is meant for forty. It is called a slow boat but it moves much faster than I anticipated. The Mekong is wide and seems flat and serene but once you are right on top of it you can see how swiftly the water is moving and catch the eddys and whirlpools. Its’ dark khaki green colour makes it look dirty but supposedly it’s very clean from being fed by glaciers high in the Himalayas. It is so peaceful floating along watching water buffalo and little villages on the banks – the air is smokey and mountains are slightly obscured but it is still beautiful. It must be spectacular when it’s not the burning season. We pass smaller long boats that are ferries for Laos not tourists as well as even bigger long boats with two story structures on them and they are for cars and trucks. Today there is one stop at a village. We are immediately overwhelmed by children with their arms outstretched with bracelets, bags and scarves to sell. The kids follow us up and into the village. It’s unbelievably hot – Anderson lasts about 15 minutes before returning to the boat. Chris, as usual, carries Sabine as we wander the dusty dirt roads like the pied piper with a motley mini crew trailing us. We let Sabine buy a purse – it’s dirty and made from scraps of fabric the stitching crooked and uneven but she loves it for its sparkly strap. The couple from the Netherlands tell us that buying from the kids encourages them to stay out of school so that makes me feel bad. The guide tells us that school costs money and is only available for the first few grades in the village – if the kids want to continue they need to move and pay to go to school in a bigger village. It certainly doesn’t seem like there are any kids in school they all seem to be following behind us. There is a sweet boy who is pulling a homemade truck on a string. The houses are not raised and many of them have thatched roofs that need to be redone after every rainy season. I can not even image a few days in this heat and dust but to contemplate what the mud bath of the rainy season must be like is even worse. No one is wearing tribal clothing – no skirts or woven shirts like in the Karen Villages. The younger children do not wear pants or bottoms of any kind. I assume this is because they do not have diapers. This experience feels a lot like we are gawking and taking pictures in a zoo. That’s why we buy the dusty misshapen purse. I wonder why they don’t try to sell us cold drinks? There is electricity and people have motorbikes – it’s not totally isolated. The kids follow us back to the boat where many jump into the river and wave and yell goodbye as the boat pulls back into the current. The rest of the day is more watching water buffalo and small fishing boats, that remind of blades of grass slicing through the water with slightly upturned bows and sterns, carrying one or two men with long bamboo poles.
Smokey skies and murky green waters
Waiting for the tourists
This dude got my heart
Abandoned for a swim
We arrive at Prekbang around 4 and after a ten minute walk straight uphill we arrive at our guest house – where we are greeted with cold clothes and a fresh lemonade. Man the villagers could do a brisk business in cold clothes and fresh lemonade. Next up a trip to the local market and it really was local and authentic – blocks of chocolate cooked with sugar cane (Anderson bought and tried and it was a definite thumbs down), fermented buffalo skin usually eaten when drinking whisky – and I’m talking lots and lots and lots of skin at every stall, wild dog leg with paw and skin still on and all manner of leafy greens, giant squash, roasted purple and white sweet potatoes, beautiful chilies and home made chili pastes. Next up drinks with our little boat crew – it was so much fun to talk to other adults. We all split up for dinner with us hauling kids back to the hotel for a quick bite and bed.
Banana leaf – everything is served on it or wrapped and grilled in it
Pink coriander seed
Chilli paste with toasted garlic – so delicious
Drinks with our crew
In the morning we were woken by the sound of trumpeting elephants. For reals!! We rushed out to our little terrace over looking the river and on the opposite bank were two elephants having a grand ole splash down time – kicking water at each other and spraying water all about. Glorious. Quick breakfast where I slathered my eggs and baguette with the homemade chili paste I had bought at the market. Sooo good. I was so happy to board the boat again. Slow boat with almost no one on it is definitely my favourite way to travel from city to city. You feel connected to everything, its quiet and peaceful and there is lovely chatting and reading and card playing. For the first half hour or so I sat at the front of the boat – outside and alone on a little bench facing the altar on the bow of the boat. Then I was joined by Sabine who snuggled right in. It was perfection – with mist rising off the water and the quiet chill of the morning – then our guide kicked it up a notch by bringing us a blanket. We stayed wrapped together watching the banks roll by for almost half an hour (then the three year old needed to move). But it was perfect while it lasted. There is a stop at an other village where we are greeted again by hordes of children pushing things into our faces. We walk up into the village and this one has a temple and some monks – it is a weavers village so the street is lined with women selling their beautiful woven scarves, some are even sitting at their looms weaving. We move through the village set up to sell us as many scarves as it possibly can. Everyone calls out as we walk past – it’s not pleasant even though all the women are. Chris whispers to me that they should be selling lemonade or chilled coconuts – again the heat is intense and this village seems much more well off than the one yesterday. It still feels not nice – that is the best way to describe it. Not that the people are not nice but just the experience of traipsing past people’s work choosing to buy it or not – like choosing to validate it. What would be something better to be done to have these people make money from the hordes of tourists that must march up the banks of their river. Chris and I buy a few scarves and a blanket – we spend time talking the women as best we can – well you know Chris loves practicing his charades. Through open doors we see the floors are tiled and there are fridges inside so maybe they are doing well.
Morning view from the bow of the boat with the altar
Long flat fishing boat
Village temple – there is a monastery here
Oh back to being carried
Village kids running around
Back on the boat and the kids are rangy – they need to run and burn off steam so instead they turn on each other. It is starting to get to that embarrassing stage where you have asked in your best “parenting for other adults” voice to please pipe down and they just blatantly ignore you. They are in between having fun with each other and starting a full on war. Just teetering there one little push or bump away from it all ending in tears. Traveling with children is a real lesson in compassion, grace and letting go. Everyday there is conflict – not unlike getting the family out the door in the morning but now we do not have any clear ends – there is no break or that sense of accomplishment when you arrive at school on time. Every moment of grace – when the kids are happy or demonstrably learning and taking in the world around them is immediately followed with a display of selfishness or petulance.
Luckily we get to our next stop on the river. A cave filled with statues of Buddha that was a sacred place for people to worship over 450 years ago and was rediscovered in 2004. Inside there are over three hundred Buddha statues. It is now guarded by people from the local village. There are kids selling all of the things – most notably baby birds in bamboo cages. There is beer available and hot food too. Despite the over abundance of sellers it is an interesting sight. The couple from Netherland deploy their drone instead of walking up to see the cave. They have already explained that they like their creature comforts and dislike walking.The walk/ Chris carrying Sabine is a nice little break that manages to put off the inevitable meltdown.
This is the face before he tasted the chocolate and sugar cane bar
Selfie with the entrance to the cave and the river bleached out
When we arrive in Lunag Prebang in the evening I am sad to get off the boat – it was such an incredible way to travel.
Eh Paw our guide and driver is harried when he arrives at our hotel. He is a little late and I see him physically take a moment to collect himself and say hello after we greet him. But it’s just a moment and almost simultaneously he is grabbing our ragtag assortment of bags and stuffies and throwing them into the back of his gleaming white Toyota four door sedan. Today is the day we go to the village for three nights. I have a little knot of fear in my stomach. The fear of the awkwardness of being in someone’s home, a strangers home. How are we going to make small talk? Google translate doesn’t have Karen. I’m worried about them feeling like they are in a zoo being stared at while we gleefully stomp through snapping pictures cooing at their simple life.
Eh Paw’s English is great and he can answer our questions and help outline what will be happening for the next three days. About two hours out of Chiang Mai we arrive at the national park there we meet an other guide who will hike with us to her village two kilometres away. Meanwhile Eh Paw has to visit his father in the hospital – this fact accounts for his slight sir of impatience. Deung Soo is wearing a long traditional skirt with a hoodie (it’s crazy hot!). Of course we completely gloss over the “hike” aspect and practically shouted over Eh Paw in the car when he brought it up. Somehow neither kid seems perturbed and we start off. Luckily it’s through the forest so it’s cooler – and the promise of a beautiful waterfall and maybe swimming seems to be keeping the kids whining at bay. Deung Soo points out some trees – cinnamon!! And small plants whose leaves delicately curl down when touched – carnivorous plants! Then a bright leaf green snake coiled and draped in a small bush to the side of the path – pit viper!!! Whoa! Yes a green snake otherwise known as a pit viper. They are deadly – we know this because we went to the snake farm. They are mostly nocturnal and strike quickly when they sense heat. They are the most common snake bite in Thailand. Not usually fatal if you can get the anti venom within three hours. Apparently the bite is very painful – luckily the two we pass are sleeping. Then she points out a HUGE spider – like freaking huge – suspended between bushes on the side of the path in the centre of a beautiful web. At this point I don’t know if I’m happy to have Deung Soo here to point out all the deadly creatures nearby or annoyed that she keeps pointing them out. I decide on happy and relieved. The waterfall is suitably magnificent – after all the creature spotting the kids have zero desire to go off piste and hop into the cool pool of water. Luckily it’s still cool in the canopy of the forest so I can claim that I’m not hot enough for a swim. My sweaty face isn’t fooling anyone. We carry on – by now Chris is carrying Sabine and maneuvering the bamboo ladders and walkways down and over the river and up the bank on the other side and finally up and out of the forest. In the clearing there are rows and rows of flowers up and down the valley. This used to be poppies but now since a new initiative from the King in the late 80’s they grow marigolds, carnations and gerbers. Through the fields and then up and into a Karen Village. Deung Soo deposits us at a coffee shop. A thatched roof over a fire pit with a blackened kettle on it. There is a small bar at the front with a hand crank grinder on it. The coffee shop owner grinds the beans and offers to let Anderson try. He then pours boiling water into the ground beans stirs it and pours that through a cloth filter into a tin coffee pot. He directs us to a low table under an other hut and we sit and sip this most delicious coffee out of small ceramic saki cups. He cultivates, picks and roasts the beans. Lining the walls of his shop are photos of the king and the Princess (the kings mother) visit to this area in the 80’s when they started an initiative to educate the villages and to stop the production of opium/ growth of poppies. The government started to provide education in thai and mathematics as well as agriculture so the villages could be self sufficient and rely on other crops – coffee and flowers and nuts. He also teaches us how to say hello in Karen – oh mucho bueh and thank you – tah blueh and thank you very much – tah blueh pah dough. Next thing we know Eh Paw is there to drive us into Pha Mon the village we will be staying at and where he lives.
Walking to the waterfall
Making coffee magic
The highway is two lanes and weaves in switch backs higher up into the mountains and then abruptly Eh Paw turns the wheel and I think he is turning us into an actual tree but there is a narrow road beside the tree that dips down and around and over a river finally curving out into a village – teak and bamboo houses on stilts. Although stilts isn’t really the right word because they are thick posts. There are fields in a valley and up through the hill houses are scattered and then packed closer in. The road is very steep in spots. We round an other sharp bend and pull into a driveway which is under a house – we are here!
Street view from our place
Under our house
I always thought the houses were raised because of rainy season and it is that but it’s also where they keep their animals, keep clothes, keep firewood and other things. We are welcomed in by Boe Dee and her mom Bae Joo and Boe Dee’s four year old daughter Key Mu. There are actually two houses – the one we parked under is where we stay and the the main house is across a little dusty square. Both houses are teak and the main house has bamboo flooring – it’s peeled bark lain flat. Like a tube sliced and flattened. The kitchen is the centre of the house and off the kitchen is a room with fire pit in the floor where we will eat all our meals. The other room has a loom, a small fridge and an altar. There is a little raised area at the back that is a bed and a small room that looks to be an other bedroom as well. There is electricity but only one led light per room and the windows are small with no glass just shutters. Our house has two bedrooms and a main area and a small deck. We also have electricity, large thin mattresses on the floor and huge mosquito nets that float above and down around the mattresses. We are set up in our home and then taken on a little tour. I end up weaving with Grandma Bae Joo. The loom is a long bamboo branch with different length pegs in it and we are creating the width of the fabric. The colours are bright. Deep pinks, vibrant reds, navy blue, yellow and white. The women wear long narrow skirts – there are no chairs anywhere so everyone just squats like toddlers. Bae Joo is unbelievably nimble she can stand right up from a full floor squat lickity split. Forget yoga just remove all the chairs and tables from your life and start squatting. The older women also wear what appears to be a hand towel or kitchen towel on their heads. In fact many turn out to be hand towels. The men wear thai pants and wrap tops or woven pull over tops. Boe Dee wears the skirt but with a t shirt that says chill on it. There is a fair amount of charades and we are relying on google translate – but it only translates to thai not Karen so there is an other level to decode. It’s a little stilted but the family is quick to laugh and we manage to make jokes. They serve us dinner and then leave the room. We are seated on the floor on a rug and the food is family style on a small raised tray. They won’t eat with us and try as we might they insist on leaving us to eat. When we are done they return and light the fire in the small pit on the floor and gather around and we talk. It’s simple conversation by now as we are all so tired and we quickly retire. After breakfast – eggs, rice, greens, soup and fruit we follow Boe Dee and her husband Laah down a path leading from their garden to their flower fields. Their 13 year old son So Pah joins us to pick gerbers under the already intense morning sun. The boys head up one row while Sabine and I trail behind Boe Dee and Laah powers through the field. Gerbers are surprisingly hard to pick. The stems are actually quite strong and a little prickly or rough. We walk back to the house with Laah carrying all the flowers in a basket on his back. Then we set out packaging them for the market. The flowers are picked every two weeks and driven to Bangkok the flowing day. The are wrapped with a small cello bag over the head of the flower and then bundled into twenties. We all do it sitting on a rug pulled out from somewhere in the house and set up under our house. The only thing really difficult about it is the sitting cross legged or on our knees – you’re not supposed to show the bottom of your feet so I can’t stretch out my legs and I am for sure the most inflexible person ever and I can’t even imagine squatting for an hour.
Bow Dee and me
Laah – Boe Dee’s husband
Sitting down for lunch
Making whisky for the wedding
The kids painted with me
Heads of garlic roasting
Chris continues to carry Sabine
Coffee with Eh Paw
Walking home from Eh Paw’s
So Pah and Anderson
Altar in the house
The view from our balcony
There is also a wedding happening – we were told that we could attend the night before and we are so excited to see it. We have asked what to expect and when it will happen but we aren’t able to really ascertain anything. It turns out that there are several ceremonies and they happen over two days – one day at the brides parents and one day at the grooms parents. Everyone is invited and food is available all day – when a guest arrives they are seated and fed. The wedding happens to be just a few houses down so we can see and hear the party. People are also dropping by Boe Dee’s all day as well. Maybe because they are coming and going for the wedding or maybe because they want to check us out. Surprisingly I realize that we are like the living zoo – everyone is so very curious and also so incredibly generous – they bring gifts of fruit, they take us on walks to see other parts of the village and feed us. No one will accept anything from us. The kids grab Sabine’s hand and they play chase and she brings out her toys and all the little kids gather around to play together. There is a lot of laughter and a lot of talking and crouching around. All the women are wearing traditional skirts and tops and the older women are wearing the tea towels. The afternoon is spent visiting and just hanging around. As the afternoon wears down the older kids head to the football pitch and I join Boe Dee and her sister to prepare dinner. We have yet to eat a meal with them and I am now suspecting it’s because we are given simple – read not spicy -dishes and they want to eat with some spice. Every meal is rice, eggs and some vegetables and fruit. Finally BoeDee’s sister gets me making the most delicious concoction in the mortar and pestle – it’s like a salsa or sauce and it’s magic. Whole heads of garlic, whole tomatoes, whole shallots and green chillies are roasted over the open fire then ground into a sauce with a mortar and pestle. Fish sauce is added and lots of fresh dill and cilantro. After dinner we all sit around the fire talking and charading and laughing – it’s warm and friendly and surprisingly easy. Everyone is very interested to learn about us. The village seems very healthy – new homes are being built and there are nice trucks and lots of scooters. People seem very affable and happy. Of course I know that we won’t get a full picture of village life in the same way they won’t get a full picture of our lives. The Grandfather expressed his concern about keeping the forest safe but said he needs nothing more than what he has here. It reminds me of the fisherman John Snow in Newfoundland who hadn’t travelled more than three hours in any direction from his house because he loved where he was and had no desire to see anything else or go anywhere else. There is incredible beauty in being with people who are content. Interestingly their altar is a Catholic altar complete with a soft blue image of Jesus (white man with long hair) and an open chest exposing a garish red heart. I tried to find a way to bring up religion to ask why they weren’t Buddhist – but I wasn’t able to find a way to do it – I was scared of offending them – it’s very tricky to ask questions through google translate. Chris accidentally pushed a little too far asking about a shirt that Grandpa was wearing – the shirt said something about changing the world and it sparked Chris to ask a philosophical questions that inadvertently offended grandpa and consequently he took off the shirt! It was awful for us and we apologized and hopefully they understood. So I am a little hesitant to ask about the underside of the idyllic village life. The next day we walk up to Eh Paw’s which is just directly up the hill and a sharp turn to the right – he is working on building a terrace but graciously stops to brew some of his coffee for us. He grows and roasts it just like the man from the first village but he brews his in an Italian stove top espresso maker that he adds a small flat paper filter to. The coffee is incredible and I am so happy to have it. We have been drinking “three in one” instant coffee that is pre sugared and creamed. It’s horrible sometimes we can find instant espresso – also not yummy. But up here in the villages I have had two of the most delicious coffees of my life. Eh Pah explains how land works here – the Villages are located inside a national park so the land could be taken from them at any time – but the King is very supportive of Village life and has a keen interest in preserving the culture while also encouraging development and sustainable growth. It was his mother that started the initiative to stop growing poppies and introduce other crops as well as being educating the Villages in Thai language and mathematics. Most families build onto their lands and they have learned and adapted as technologies have been introduced to the villages. We have seen satellite dishes as well as cell phone towers and on the football pitch most of the kids have cell phones. On our last day Eh Paw takes us to an other village for an other wedding. The previous day we had seen the two fathers meeting – they drank homemade whiskey on a rug beside the tables laden with food and surrounded by people. The father had arrived with a group of men and boys banging drums and getting pelted with small buckets of water to signify a new start. This time we drive the winding one lane road past the fallow rice fields and vibrant flowers in their rows. We arrive in the next village and pull over beside the gas station (see picture). Eh Paw knows everyone – he is gregarious and warm and fatherly even though he is barely 40. In fact he had stopped a few times driving up the narrow road to chat with people walking. He also has a hurried and slightly distracted air about him perhaps because his father is ill, or because he seems to be doing many jobs. He guides us over to a table covered in bowls of food. A water bottle of homemade whiskey, a bottle of strawberry Fanta – yes its a thing here – and a bottle of Pepsi. The food is wonderful. Fiery and bright. We are the object of much staring and smiling. Eh Paw introduces us to a few people but at the same time ushers away some others – gracefully but with a few words in Karen that of course we don’t understand they smile and bow away. As we are leaving we catch a glimpse of the Buddhist ceremony with four monks chanting as the couple sit cross legged with their heads bowed. I am starting to understand that there are many intersections of faith here – Buddhist, Karen, Catholic and they are woven together to create unique ceremonies. Faith and life are ever evolving but at the core is family, friendship and community. The most impactful times are spent engaged with the world around us no matter how small and simple that world is.It’s not new and earth shattering but a beautiful reminder. We leave the village that evening with hugs and well wishes and I feel so lucky.
Chiang Mai makes me think of peaches – the light is soft and delicately fuzzy both in the morning and at night. I love walking around the old city’s narrow roads lined with climbing vines and strung with lanterns. Luckily the young backpacker stops seem to be grouped together so they are easy to avoid. I never tire of seeing the monks’ turmeric coloured robes and smooth brown heads weaving through street life. We are on the edge of the old city but the little alleyway behind the hotel is filled with a multitude of perfect little spots. A massage parlour with two giant fish tanks to slip your feet into and have the dead skin gently nibbled away, a vegan bakery with endless cookies and loaves all suitable for my little “zert” (dessert) addict, a vegetable market, a smoothie stall, endless cello bags of pre cut fruit (the end of chilled precut fruit is going to RUIN me when it goes away), the most delicious pad thai and Tom Yam soup and a laundry that washes, dries and folds for $1.20 a load. Yes it is a magical land where food, body rubs and cleaning are all taken care of.
Our next little adventure after elephants was a cooking class – I have been super keen to learn more about the Northern Thai foods but it was a little bit of balancing act to find a course for us all and in the end we went with a private course with the hope that Sabine wouldn’t annoy people and that I could also ask as many questions as I would like. I also liked the way this course seemed to be designed – a market trip and then a train ride to the country and then bicycling to an organic farm where we cook en plein air. It all sounded great.
It was surprisingly easy to get us up and down to the breakfast room by 8 – our guide was to meet us at the hotel a 8:30. Suddenly it was 8:45 and no guide – immediately I have the sinking feeling that I have done something wrong – date? time? – finally we find our guide in the lobby wandering around and we are off. He whips us down the alley beside our hotel to the market. We haven’t ever been there at 9 am and it’s packed – packed with people taking cooking classes and getting the run down on ingredients. There are little clumps of people eagerly staring up at someone holding thai basil or galangal limply in their hands and explaining it’s uses. Some of the guide/chefs are in chef jackets with the name of the school embroidered on the breast, some are wearing aprons but our painfully thin guide is wearing a hoodie and ill fitting jeans (you could just call them trousers they were so bad). He is speaking very quickly and really giving us the bums rush through this portion. Then after I question about bergamot (which to be honest was not in any of the recipes we were to cook that day) he explains that we need to hurry or we will miss our train. That’s fine – I can question him later. We hop on the train – similar to the one we took to Hua Hin, all open windows and seventies colours. There is big patch of garden growing in between the tracks and it turns out it is the station master’s garden. We meet a strawberry farmer on the train and buy some beautiful strawbs from her – she tells us that strawberry season in Thailand is from January to October. We tell her strawberry season in Canada is from June 1 to June 17.
We arrive at our little station in the country to find a row of vintage bikes. The company had promised that Sabine could ride in her own little seat attached to one of the bikes and this turns out to be the flat back spring loaded carrier we all had on the back of our ten speeds in grade ten. There are no guards on the wheels so it will take no time for her to put her toe in and flip the whole thing right into next week. Chris ends up hoisting her onto one knee and off we go – across a four lane freeway and onto some, thankfully, rural roads. The organic farm is run down and is no longer a working farm. We get a tour anyway and there are still some remnants to show. Then it’s time to cook and I am very skeptical but at least it’s pitched perfectly for Anderson. He loves all of it and most of all he loves eating it all. We cook a dish and then eat and then relax and take a break…. all to keep being able to eat. It’s a lovely relaxing day. I do learn of a new vegetable – baby eggplants – they look like really big peas.
The next day Chris is sick so I strike out alone with the kids. I decide to take them to POOPOO Elephant paper – where paper is made from elephant dung. This park was the bomb! The guides were amazing and it was all very hands on – we cooked up the poo (large dried haystacks that do not smell at all!) then put it in the cutting machine added dye and spread it out on screens to dry in the sun. Then we got to make some passport holders with the paper.
Chris continues to be knocked flat with a horrible cold that has some flu like symptoms including fever and chills. Not fun. So after a little background checking I decide to take them to Tiger Kingdom. I was wary because it is essentially a zoo where you can climb into a cage with a tiger and pet them. What could go wrong right? I mean it is Thailand – known for it’s safety – just hop on your scooter without a helmet and bomb down the highway with your nine month old in a bucket dangling from your handle bars and then mosey into this tiger cage. It checks out from various sources as having a big educational aspect as well as providing excellent care for the tigers who have been born into captivity and would not survive the wild. Our dollars go to keeping them in excellent care for their lives as well as providing veterinarians the chance to learn all there is to learn about caring for tigers. So we hop into the back of a pickup truck with no seat belts or door and head out on the highway…. looking for adventure and tigers. When we get to the “kingdom” we are informed that Sabine is too small to go and see any tigers. Tears ensue. Treats are promised and before you know it Anderson and I are hanging with the most beautiful white Bengal tiger cub. Well actually two white bengal tiger cubs to exact. One is very frisky and really wants to play with us. The trainers distract her with some huge kitty toys and we get to snuggle with the boy who is feeling lazy in the late afternoon heat. It was very exciting, thrilling and a little terrifying – I couldn’t get myself to actually hug the tiger – because I’m not a maniac but I did manage some petting.
Beanzie getting the full treatment – well a manicure that stayed on her fingers for 12 hours
That was a wrap on Chiang Mai – we indulged in an other family foot massage and some fish pedicures. Well I couldn’t bring myself to actually put my foot into the fish tank but Chris and Anderson did and loved it.
Next up is a three night homestay with a family in a Karen Village in the northern mountains. I am feeling a touch apprehensive (surprise!) and so is Anderson – change and the unknown and all. Plus three days feels like it might be excruciating although it will provide so many opportunities for Chris to charade. I have no idea what to expect – running water? Electricity? Cold temperatures up in the mountains? Spiders?!!! Long awkward silences?
The last couple of days in Bangkok were relegated to doing very touristy kid friendly things. Again we are always in this push and pull of trying to see the real city and meet people and then being with two kids. So we gave right into Kidzania – we heard about it chatting with some other families we met at the snake farm. I will let the pictures do the talking for the snake farm. It’s run by the Red Cross and it is a cross between a hospital, a farm and a museum.
So amazing to see all the snakes, get to hold a giant python and wander the informative displays. There we met a lovely French family – mom Claire and three children Rose (12), Gasper (10) and Pierre (8). They live in Manila and work for the W.H.O. so they move every three years. Very interesting to hear her different struggles with where to go next as the children age and need different things. A little of the fantasy of raising children around the globe and then having actual humans that have needs other than what you may have anticipated off the top. Balancing all that with where the work is and where you want to be. We ended up wandering with them to Lumphini park after the snakes where we met an other traveling family from Mexico. It was there I learned of Kidzania – playzones that are actually mini cities where children get jobs and get paid and then can buy goods and services with their money. No parents are allowed into the work and play zones – we can only watch as they interact in factories, hospitals, police stations, stores and restaurants. It was expensive and also amazing. Both kids got so much out of it and it was really fun to watch. Apparently a Kidzania is coming to Toronto soon.
Anderson as a surgeon
Anderson in the hospital doing surgery – not sure if the patient made it
Sabine likes spending her money at the salon
Team work at the public broadcasting company
Walking through the city
Hard at work at the peanut factory
Being a vet
Our final day was spent on the water. We decided to take a canal tour to see all the temples from the water and to see how people live as they have for many years on the water in houses raised on stilts. As per usual we have read some guidelines online in how to procure a longtail boat and guide with the caveat that the guides are actually drivers and not guides but they will slow down when you request. Also with warning that they can whip you through quickly. But it seems a more “authentic” way to tour other than booking through a big tour comapny. Armed with that knowledge we head to the main pier Taksin and try find a boat. The pier seems to be run by a tour company that has a strangle hold on all the boats and we can’t find an independent driver. Even though there are a bunch of different “guides” hocking the canal tours – they are in fact all working for the same company. So we send in Anderson. He is keen to practice his bargaining skills. Well maybe not so much keen as intrigued and nervous so we have been gently leading him in – we really need a little auntie Lala for this – she is the queen bargainer and has been ever since a family trip to Mexico when she was thirteen. The first dude he talks up is not even remotely interested in bargaining and just points to everyone walking by shrugs and walks away. So we carry on – managing Anderson’s expectations – maybe these guys don’t bargain? Not sure. The next guy is up for it but Anderson starts too high so we don’t get much of a deal but it’s a great first try. Then we are off on a two hour Klong (canal) tour. As soon as the wind hits our hair everyone’s spirits improve. It’s clear to me that the big city hustle and bustle is getting to us – it’s crowded and loud and we are generally not certain of where we are going or how we should get there. So it is really nice to sit back for two hours and just get to experience the city and the klongs sliding by. These boats are wide and flat so they hit up and down on the waves hard and loud – the kids love it and we all squeal with delight as we round our first corner into the canal. These boats are also not built for turning so its a slopping long turn. I love buzzing along peaking into homes with corrugated metal roofs, pots of plants lined up, woks hanging and toothbrushes at the ready. All of this beside beautiful teak homes with shutters and hanging plants. Then along the banks under a crumbling apartment building with black smudged walls, balconies dotted with satellite dishes sits a monitor lizard warming in the sun. Suddenly a huge Buddha appears resting atop a platform flanked with altars and flowers. More temples in all styles with glowing white walls or shiny tiled roofs crawling with red dragons and hung with lanterns. There are mangroves and swirling knots of fish churning beside a bank lined with children tossing in bread. The water is deep army green and murky and smells of all descriptions. It assaults and soothes alternately. There are riots of bouganvilliay that spill into the water. We are loving it – at least the first hour. The second hour drags a bit and it gets hot – the kids start to get restless and our collective PTSD of the horrible cab ride rears. Just when I think one of us is going to loose it we pull out onto the main river and it’s churning! Tons of boat traffic in and out of the canals along with piers where the ferries are stopping has the water heaving or at least it seems to be from our low down vantage point and the loud smacking of boat on water makes it crazy. Thankfully the splashing water distracts the kids and cools them in the heat. Then we are back at our pier. We have the best of intentions to go to Jim Thompson house but after we accidentally ride the skytrain in the wrong direction and have to ride ALL THE WAY back across Bangkok we are starving – then we manage to get off at a stop that has a lot of hotels but strangely no street food. We finally stumble into an Indian restaurant where we are treated to the absolute sweetest and most mind boggling bad service ever. We watched as he made each drink individually – walking to the fridge, removing a soda water, walking to the bar and placing the soda water down, turning and walking to the counter to get the opener and the repeating with three other drinks. Then he repeated the same with the ice and glasses. Excruciating. We finally order – we do the allergy dance – essentially we have flash cards to help explain Sabine’s allergies and so far we have been fine – we are firm and Chris has mastered miming dying after eating egg or milk or butter. Somehow it seems to all magically work out – plain vegetable, plain rice, plain chicken no spice – no sauce. Except for this time. It takes forever to get the food (I know it probably seemed longer because we were starving and the table was glass topped and Sabine was “playing” house with the glasses and cutlery) and then when it arrives there is palak in Sabine’s vegetables and spicy sauce on the chicken so she gets to eat rice and the dried mango from my purse. Needless to say we are tired and done with the day so we head back to the hotel to swim. We haven’t used the pool once this entire week because it closesat 6pm. I am assuming they do not want the guests bringing their “special” nighttime guests into the pool. The pool is underwhelming and we are not warmly welcomed by the three people lounging and smoking on the deck chairs. The best part of it is overlooking the street below – we are three floors up so we can see everything but we are far enough from people’s eye lines that they don’t see us watching and by us I mean me. Me staring down watching the food cart guy reach under his cart to surreptitiously take a slug from a small whiskey bottle. I love the bird’s eye view of peoples’ food, the tuk tuk’s interactions and the cab drivers maneuvering.
Long tail boat
On a boat
We bid adieu to Bangkok in the usual intense fashion that somehow all our travel days seem to turn into. The kids were rangy and playing good cop bad cop Jeckle and Hide all morning as we tried to whittle down our load. We ditched the kites and kite bags at the airport which left us with much less room. A bit brutal and I’m sure there will be something that we will need that we leave behind but it’s done. Our cab picks us up and we are off to the airport. Off as in we are in the cab in traffic inching toward the airport. The highlight is Anderson seeing a sign that has Ding Dong written on it. We arrive at the airport on the edge of implosion. Chris disappears with the kite bags to place them in storage and I and my ticking time bombs head over to Air China to pick up Anderson’s glasses that he left on our flight from Beijing. And hilarity ensues. So much hilarity, in fact, that we miss our flight to Chiang Mai. Well we don’t miss our flight we miss the check in for the flight by 1 minute and we are not allowed to check in. So we and our plane are at the airport separated by a minute. As we stand in the security line my mind flashes to our sunscreen, cream and bug spray…. full size bottles and we haven’t checked any bags. More hilarity as Chris has to return with one bag that contains our body care products and maple syrup to check. Finally we reach Chiang Mai. We grab a cab to our hotel. Our cab driver is a woman – which we have yet to encounter on this journey. So already Chiang Mai feels different. Our hotel turns out to be lovely – with a canopied walkway lined with plants and vines, a koi pool and nice sized room. We set up – by now we are experts at unpacking and settling in – blowing up Sabine’s air mattress and unpacking in record time. Then we hit the streets – not totally sure of where we are – luckily we find some amazing street food stalls half a block away. Our hotel is on a narrow street and the stalls are on the main drag that runs one way with a mote/canal separating it from the road running in the opposite direction. We manage to get food for everyone in record time and are nestled back into our cool room to enjoy it before anyone has a chance to be hangry. This food is so so good and so much cheaper than Bangkok with a perfect pad thai that Anderson loves. What a relief to know we can eat easily and cheaply next door to the hotel. Taking the guess work out of eating is a big lifesaver. Between Sabine’s allergies and Anderson’s simpler palate it has been challenging.
We spend our first day in Chiang Mai getting a lay of the land and booking some tours – I have decided that although tours can be expensive and touristy they are the absolutely easiest way to plan a day with kids – food is handled – there is a timeline and usually the tourist things are geared to kids. So we book a day at the Elephant sanctuary and a cooking class and start properly looking into a home stay with a hill tribe.
Then we hop an open backed cab for the market. As usual left to our own devices the walk around turns tetchy. It’s hot and crowded and all Sabine wants to do is look at crappy plastic toys. I tried really hard to get a sitter in Bangkok but it didn’t happen. You could find nannies but one off sitters were sketchy at best. We haven’t been staying in luxury resorts that have babysitting services available. So here I am longingly looking at beautiful fabric as I am pulled along with a sweaty little hand. I am also developing a theory that women deal better with minor discomforts – I spend a lot of time slightly uncomfortable – in clothes, feeling bloated or hot (peri menopause), shoes pinching, legs hurting any number of things – there is always some minor discomfort. I think most of us do. Yes I do lose it when I am too hungry but the rest of my family seem to start to lose it with any direct sunlight. Of course it is hot – I know you are hot – we all are – I mean for the love of everything! It seems to be such a surprise as well. We work it out by splitting up and taking turns and then we hop a cab to the park. Our hotel is in the old city surrounded by a mote with the streets running in one direction on one side of the mote and an other on the other side so it’s tricky to cross the road and there is a fair amount of over shooting and looping back. You can see remnants of the old wall and as usual there are temples everywhere. The park is cramped and bustling with joggers and an exercise class – aerobics taught by an other Richard Simmons look a like in the early evening air.
Day two we are up at the crack of down to see the elephants. There are so many elephant tours – obviously we are avoiding the trekking tours where you ride elephants but so many are listed as sanctuaries or ethical and it really is hard to know. The one we have chosen is listed on various websites as the best and most ethical with a large portion of the money from the entrance fee going back to the elephants. I am skeptical when after our group is all picked up and settled into the van the guide pulls down a screen and starts a video about rescuing elephants in Thailand – the subject matter is on point bu t the video is pure amateur hour (this was a sanctuary listed by National Geographic – surely they could have whipped up a little introductory video). Instead we are subjected to a couple who have set out to make what must be their first documentary ever. They are dressed in camouflage pants the man with a Rambo style head band and the woman with a tight whit man’s button up dress shirt over her camouflage cargo pants. The deliver pithy dialogue like – I think this elephant deserves better than the concrete jungle (eyes misting. over grainy shots of elephants walking the streets. To be clear Thailand has banned elephants from the streets of cities seven years ago so this is not a new documentary. They also film portions in the jungle looking for real elephants – but they are in the back of a Toyota truck being driven by a Thai guide and film from the side of the road where we are treated to other scintillating dialogue – like – THIS IS THE SHOT THIS IS THE SHOT – when ever an elephant enters the frame. The documentary finishes with a rock video montage that Chris and I agree was also sung by the documentary filmmakers. It has me really worried about the park. Luckily that was the only misstep – our guide is knowledgeable and has very good English – she can answer all our questions and tells us the back story of all the elephants. Each elephant has a manhout or keeper that walks with them all day long to anticipate what they might need and to keep them feeling safe. Almost all the elephants are rescues – save for a few that were born there. Some have psychological issues others have physiological injuries. They group themselves naturally and spend their days eating and bathing and walking. There is a kitchen even prepares coconut sticky rice packed into banana leaves for the oldest elephants who have weak teeth and jaws. They build fires at night for them as well. It’s a well oiled machine but the elephants seem happy and well loved. The day is super hot and Chris has to carry Sabine pretty much the entire day because the elephants can get scared of small children – although our guide says Sabine is one of the good ones because she has no fear around them. Which is true she was enthralled the entire day. I have to take back my comments of women handling discomfort better or at least partially because it was hot as hell and I could never have carried her all day. We learn a ton and get to feed them up close, touch their skin, watch them bath and just generally walk amongst them – it is a magical day.