About Janet

I'm a 41 year old mother of triplet girls, who are the centre of my universe. I'm an active, busy person: I commute, work full time, regularly run & am learning the piano. Life has been good. I've recently been devastated by my husband's diagnosis of an astrocytoma glioma - an invasive brain tumour that there is no cure for. This blog is Fergus's story, told from my viewpoint.

Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City with Children

We spent a total of 16 nights in Ho Chi Minh City, passing through 3 times (due to our slightly illogical & unplanned trip to Hong Kong). However, each time we ended up wanting to stay longer, as there are simply masses of things to do there, many of which children will really enjoy. Travelling with children is easy in HCMC. Here’s what we got up to with our 8 year old triplets.

“Kiz Citi”


The website is in Veitnamese, but shows the address, location & phone number.

Our No 1 favorite activity has to be Kiz City. Located just a short taxi ride from District 1 (about 40k dong, just over the bridge into D4). Entry is just over 400k dong for a family of 5, and you can stay all day. Don’t be afraid to go at the weekend; it wasn’t too crowded at all, and it’s open until 8.30pm, with very few people still there at that time we almost had the place to ourselves.

The concept is a city where kids do all the jobs. Children are either paid in ‘Kizo’ notes for doing jobs e.g. firefighters, nurses, doctors, post delivery, bankers, police, army etc (there are dozens to choose from); or they pay in Kizo to do activities like art, ice cream making or learning to drive. There’s uniforms for all the jobs and the children adored getting dressed up and learning about what people do at work. What a fabulous idea!

English is widely spoken, but the majority of the instructions are in Vietnamese. It caused some minor problems with a couple of activities, but overall there was enough English spoken for our kids to join in. They even learned a smattering of Vietnamese by the end of the day.

Parents stay outside the rooms, but can watch through the glass windows. There’s an air con café, lots of meals and snacks etc available to buy (very cheap). Bring a book, as it’s the easiest day out you’ll ever go on. Be prepared to spend about 8 hours relaxing on a bench watching your kids have an amazing time!

If that’s not enough fun, there are a couple of really good playgrounds in the area too, one in each direction from the front gate.

Avoid the restaurant directly opposite (with the fish tanks). We had an evening meal there, and it became slowly apparent as the evening went on that we had accidentally brought our children to, at best, a ‘pick up’ joint. Oops.

23/9 Park

As this is close to the central backpacker district in D1, we visited the playground here most days. It’s pretty well designed, with ‘cushioned’ flooring like you get in Europe and all the usual playground acitivities. There’s some exercise equipment for grown ups nearby e.g. exercise bikes, pull up bars if you feel the urge! Also, there are public toilets in the park, and a newly opened McDonalds just over the road, plus a fairly authentic fish and chip restaurant nearby. Feels almost like home!


Hanging out in 23/9 Park

War Remnants Museum

Learn about the Vietnam war, or rather the American war as it’s called here. And if you’re homeschooling, you can do a great deal of work on spotting bias in writing here too, which is on the year 4 curriculum.   There’s some exciting war planes & bomb shells outside, and lots of brilliant old photographs inside. Entry is only 60k dong for a family of 5.

The museum gets fairly graphic on floor 2 with shocking displays of what Agent Orange did to the country, but there’s a helpful play area there too, so that you can drop the kids off and explore these horrors. I personally don’t feel comfortable leaving the children with strangers, so we took it in turns to watch them while the other went off to have a look around. The displays are definitely not suitable for children.

Independence Palace

Most people have one image of the Vietnam war that they can recall: the tank crashing through the gates of what is now called Independence Palace, signaling the end of the war and victory for the communist North Vietnamese regime. It helps if you can show this image to your children before visiting, and explain the history. It then becomes amazing to be ‘in’ history! We loved it here.

The building has been left exactly as it was on that historic day in 1975 (except the gates have been repaired, and the tank is now a replica just inside). It’s fun to see the old telephones, the war room where plans were made, and read about the Viet Cong insider who worked in secret in South Vietnam and stole an American plane to bomb the building. Good war stories for children, without too much horror.


History Museum

Worth a visit of an hour or two, especially if you are also going to visit the temples of My Son, Angkor, Borobudur or Bagan in your trip. The museum helped our children to understand the place in history of some of these ancient sites; and how the map of SE Asia changed from 1000 AD to the modern day.

Entry was 45k dong for all 5 of us.

HCMC Museum

We visited this museum towards the end of our stay in HCMC, which was great because by then we felt we’d got to know the city a bit, and could make more sense of the old maps etc. It was fun to find out that our favorite park 23/9 used to be the old railway station, which explains it’s long, thin shape.

There’s some fantastic photos in here, and the building itself is a wonderful colonial style mansion, complete with original flooring and staircase. It’s magnificent.

Entry was 45k dong for all 5 of us.


Snap Café in D2


Although it’s a long ride in a taxi (around 150 dong from central D1), this is an excellent place to go if you want to meet up with adults and be able to chat! We met an old friend here, and were able to have a really good catch up while the kids played & played. The food’s OK, nothing special, but the playground is excellent, comprising mainly wooden climbing frames, sand pits and a playhouse. It’s also an interesting insight into the main ex-pat area of HCMC, with a Lego shop, a butchers with refrigerated meat (first one I’ve seen in Asia), and a very cute kids clothes shop (at European prices). Feels like a very safe, if somewhat un-natural, slice of Europe.

Swimming at the Workers Club


For an authentic HCMC Saturday afternoon experience, try the central ‘leisure centre’. We just used the swimming pool, but there’s tennis and badminton courts here too. The changing rooms are, frankly, horrible, but the pool is clean and it’s good to be amongst the locals rather than just in a hotel swimming with other tourists. There’s plenty of seating around the pool, and a cheap eats café with cold drinks etc. At 80k dong for 5 people, it’s almost free.

There’s lot of options to swim in hotel pools in HCMC, if you fancy somewhere a bit more classy. But I would recommend the authentic experience just for the people watching fun!

Take a look at this website for more public pools, some of them look better than our choice! http://vietnamcoracle.com/top-5-public-swimming-pools-saigon/#top5


The Hungry Pig


Although not strictly speaking an ‘activity’, a visit to the Hungry Pig is a sure way to cheer up any homesick young (or old) travellers. Having come from Indonesia, we were ready for some bacon, and this place really exceeded our expectations. Located on the edge of the backpacker area (144 Cong Quynh), the main attraction here is the ‘make your own’ menu, where you get a pen and a pig with tick boxes for what you want to include in your sandwich. We set a price limit of 100 dong per person, and everyone could get exactly what they wanted in their sandwiches (choices of bread, different cures of bacon, veggies, pickles, sauces, cheeses…yum!). So good we went twice, and wanted to go again. Lovely, lovely food. Oh, and you got a free beer with each sandwich (which they swapped for a soft drink for the kids), making it good value for such high quality food.

10 Pin Bowling

At the top of the Diamond Plaza mall, there’s a 10 pin bowling alley where we spent a rainy afternoon. It cost 375k dong for 1 game for 5 people, including shoe hire and disposable socks. At the speed we play, this was excellent value for money, as it probably took the best part of 2 hours to take all our turns!

There’s also a token-based amusement arcade which looked a lot of fun, but we were out of time so we didn’t try it out.

Pho 24


A chain of Pho shops across the city that (nearly always) has colouring pictures and pens available. We found this place by chance when we dived in during a downpour, but then sought out various branches to repeat the experience. They always have a special Pho for 29k dong, and spring rolls are just 16k for 2. Water is free if you ask for a glass of water (refuse the bottle). If you stick to this you will get a delicious, filling meal at a bargain price, with the comfort of air con and happy colouring kids! What more can you ask for?

Professor McGonagall Tower


OK, that’s not really its name. It’s called the Bitexco Financial Tower, but looks just like Professor McGonagall’s hat, according to our children. The tallest building in HCMC by some margin, you can choose between going to the restaurant for a drink or meal, or going to the viewing platform. We went for a drink, on the basis that a couple of beers each was the same price as the entry to the viewing platform, and according trip advisor, the view’s the same, making the beers free! However, be warned, the drinks are VERY expensive so you need to be prepared to nurse them if you want to stay there a while and watch the sunset and the city light up, like we did. The kids loved being high up, and watching the traffic snake around the streets. All in all, a worthwhile activity.

Scoozi Pizza


Sunday night is buy one get one free at Scoozi, a great fun way to spend the evening with kids. The list of ‘free’ pizzas is pretty limited, but the quality of the pizza is very good and the atmosphere is friendly. Book ahead if there’s a few of you, we were lucky to get a table.

Suoi Tien Theme Park


You know you’re in Asia when you’re at a Buddhist themed waterpark! This is definitely a full day out; partly because it will cost you around 320k dong in a taxi just to get there. However, it’s a lot of fun!

The place is split into the theme park, and the water park. I would give the theme park a miss, and make a day of the water park. We paid once to get into the main gate (280k dong for 4), and then again to get into the water park (320k dong for 4).

The theme park is giant – I mean really huge, over a massive area. However, the rides don’t look particularly well maintained. Safety standards here are not well enforced, so I would be cautious. We tried out just 2 rides, which had to be paid for individually.

First we did try the Harry Potter Castle (150k dong for 4)…but it was a disaster. Scared the life out of my 8 year old kids…definitely not for younger ones! It’s like a ghost train that you walk though, in almost pitch dark, with things that reach out and hit your legs and head. It’s disorientating and claustrophobic, with extremely loud noises and no exits in sight. Not great with panicking children!

Secondly, we tried the ‘high speed’ rollercoaster (240k dong for 4), which the pictures show with a loop the loop. Evie has been wanting to go on an upside down rollercoaster for ages now, and she’s finally tall enough, so I thought we’d give it a go. It was terrifying, for all the wrong reasons. As we sat down, I pulled down the safety U-shaped restraining bars. They didn’t lock into place. I pointed this out the men working the ride, who said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” as the ride set off. OMG. I was panicking so much! There was also a car style lap-only seat belt that did work, but I was seriously worried that it wouldn’t hold us in – this is a loop the loop for goodness sake! How am I going to ring my parents and tell them we’ve had another serious accident on this trip? I was hyperventilating by the time the ride reached the highest point, then down we went…very slowly and gently. It turns out that the pictures are nothing like the actual ride, and it’s little more than a gentle ‘big dipper’ style rollercoaster, barely getting above 15mph I would estimate. A relief for me, a huge disappointment for the girls, and the end of our experimenting with the theme park.

The water park, however, is a different story. It is excellent! The main attraction is the slide that you have to ride down on your choice of various inflatables, or head first on a mat if you dare! You then emerge from a serpent’s mouth amid peals of laughter. This entertained the children for approx. 6 hours and they would have stayed longer if I’d let them. Elsewhere, there’s stepping stones, smaller slides, buckets that empty water onto your head etc… the usual stuff, but really well done. The changing rooms are a bit grotty (actually, they’re awful) and we seem to have managed to hit some kind of national holiday, so the place was packed. But if you can time it for a weekday (check for holidays) I bet it would be have been even more fun.

One other point to note – you have to pay for a locker, and then if you want to get something out, you have to pay again to put your stuff back in, so try to be organized and not keep going back like I had to. Only 15k dong a time, but it adds up!


As well as 23/9 park, we also found really good playgrounds at Tao Dan Park and outside Kiz City. Look out for the park wardens! They come along with a whistle and tell you off for various things (sometime we weren’t sure what)! They make sure teenagers don’t hog the swings etc which is really nice, and probably ensure that the parks don’t get vandalised like the do in the UK, where we take so many good things we have for granted.

Get a ‘Proper’ Hair Cut

As one of the most style conscious cities in SE Asia, HCMC is full of great value salons.  The skills of the hairdressers here rival Europe and the USA, at a fraction of the cost.  So, for the first time in their lives, our girls were treated to a grown up haircut!  Cost was 200 dong each.


Eat a Burger Bigger Than Your Own Head

As everyone knows, Miss Piggy advises never to eat anything bigger than your own head.  But there are exceptions to every rule, and the Black Cat Big Cheese burger has to be one of them.  Weighing in at half a kilo and costing 439 dong, it definitely classifies as an activity rather than a meal.  You could make a day of it.

Overall, we were surprised how many things there are to do for families in this big city.  Another big plus is the abundance of air con metre taxis, which are a cheap way of getting around and avoiding having to cross the roads too often!  HCMC would definitely make it into my list of most ‘liveable in’ places in Asia, although I do think the motorbikes would drive me crazy.

Busy Doing Nothing in Hoi An

It’s been good to slow down.

Instead of hurtling across the continent on various forms of public transport, trying to cram in as much as possible before our visa expires, we’ve chosen to spend the last 10 days moving no further than a couple of square miles, settling into our new Vietnamese lifestyle.

Our days consist of morning yoga, a leisurely breakfast, a trip to the market & the deli to buy the day’s provisions, back to our bungalow for home school, and then either a stroll around the town, a trip out or simply spending the rest of the day in the pool.

In many ways, I feel we are seeing more of the country, not less, by doing so. Travelling with children is a different experience.  We’ve got past the stage where all the old ladies at the market shout “Sing-ba! Sing ba!” (triplets) over the entire area and create a mini-crowd-surge of excitement around us. They know us now, and are very welcoming, and very funny. We talk to them in English, they reply in Vietnamese, and we seem to get along just fine. For the first time in the trip, the girls have been able to enjoy the pleasure of exploring a really good fresh food market, and finding out what all the ‘funny stuff’ is, without being hassled. It’s lovely.

We’ve also found ourselves a great place to stay. We have a ground floor flat in Botanic Garden Homestay, with 2 bedrooms, a living room and a little kitchen. There’s space for the kids to play, and a little swimming pool to cool down in. We got a good deal for our longer stay, and are compensating for our wild overspend in Hong Kong! It’s lovely to be able to cook together and we’ve even attempted some old favourites – spag bol and bangers & mash have banished our home food cravings.

So what’s next? We’ve just extended our stay for another week, so more of the same. There’s some ancient Cham ruins, and a couple of promising beaches that will make good excursions. But mostly we’ll be staying right here. And loving it.

A Jungle Journey — A Swampy Surprise and an Anty Attack!

by Jemima Hadley

It was on the second day of our boat trip to see orang-utans in Borneo when it happened. We were on a muddy river in the south of Borneo which, after one day on a boat, became a glossy, black river even though it was clean.

We were going on a walk to see orangutans. The walk took us along rotting, wobbling planks that often went underwater. We had to keep on the planks because they kept you off the mud. If you stood on the bed of leaves resting on mud you would sink past your knees if you were a child. The planks that were above the water sometimes bent under. We found out that you sink in the mud when there was a round, fallen tree instead of a plank. Evie decided to walk in the swamp so she got in and started to walk towards the next plank. She was almost there when she took one step and SQUISH! She was up to her bum in – mud!

When we pulled her out again her feet were covered in gunk so we washed her shoes. We carried on.

Soon the swamp ended and the pain began! Bum – bum – bum! There was jungle on either side as we walked along every now and again the guide pointing out fire ants. We stopped to look at a stick insect when our guide said, “Owch!” and moved away! We moved after him, then we realised we had been standing in a fire ant patch. I realised I was still in it and sprinted quite far away. Evie started crying, Daddy picked her up and swatted the fire ants off her feet and hurried up to me. He didn’t get bitten. Tettie and Mummy went back the way we came to get out of the patch. Daddy went back and carried Tettie back through the patch. Mummy ran.

When we were safe Evie realised she had 5 bites. I cried in sympathy and cuddled Daddy and we went on.


Fire ants – nasty little things!

After loads more sprinting through fire ant patches and leaping over lines that crossed the path we reached the long wooden walkway and started to walk along it.

When we reached the boat we had a rest then realised it was orangutan feeding time and hurried off. There were no fire ants on the way. There were loads of orangutans when we got there. About 16. The guide book said you were lucky to see 4 or 5. We saw an enormous orangutan who we thought was Tom (the biggest, strongest orangutan in the forest – the king).


We thought this was Tom

As we went back, we saw the real Tom lying on the ground. He was even bigger than the other one! We looked at him for a bit, then we went to look at the visitor centre.

There were loads of fire ants crawling around the steps and we had to sprint through them and run up the steps then quickly take off our shoes. We looked and Mummy, Daddy, Tettie and Evie all had fire ants on their shoes. I was the only one who didn’t.

We had a look inside the visitor centre. There was a family tree inide and lots of other interesting things. I learned that the longest living orangutan lived to 58, but I’ve forgotten his name. It began with G.

On the way back there were possibly more fire ants outside the steps. We put on our shoes; the fire ants had crawled off them. Our guide had said that the best way was to walk slowly through them as there were gaps all along the patch. Daddy tried and at the very end a fire ant got him. He didn’t complain except saying, “Owch, one got me!” Mummy went and carried Evie across the path, running. Then our guide carried me and did the slow method meaning that I got the longest ride. Daddy went back and ran with Tettie, who yelled, “I’m on a dinosaur!”

On the way back to the boat, we saw Tom in a tree. Our guide tried to feed him bananas by putting them at the base of the tree, but he wasn’t hungry.

But this was Tom!

But this was Tom!

We went back to the wooden walkway and started to walk along it. Daddy dangled me over the swamp which the walkway was built over. Then we started talking about how Mummy would get really cross if I lost my shoe in the swamp. Then slop! Tettie’s shoe was in the swamp! Our guide stepped off the walkway, into a tree and just about managed to pull it back and give it to her, then climb back onto the walkway himself.

A couple of minutes later we were back on our boat and we could carry on with our beautiful boat adventure. After a painful and sloppy explore, we were glad to be back on the boat at last.

Orangutans kissing, while the smaller babay hangs off the side

Orangutans kissing, while the smaller baby hangs off the side

The Beautiful Mooooooooooooooon

by Evie Hadley

The boat trip was set on a large river in the middle of nowhere on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. It was on the second and last night that I did it…

I was tired and fell asleep almost as soon as I had closed my eyes (and rolled over about 10 times). I can’t remember my dream. When I awoke it was still dark and I guessed it was about 1 or 2 O’Clock in the morning.

Suddenly I remembered, me ad my sisters had planned to go down to the front of the boat and look at the moon (forget the fizzy drinks). So I got up, put my fleece on, and I walked to the front of the boat, sat down one of the benches and, I looked at the moon.

It was slightly blurred by clouds with smaller whispy clouds dotted around in the midnight-blue sky. The moon was diagonal to the forward-right bank of the river where tall trees grew up infront of the sky creating a wide and beautiful scene. Oh, and the noise, crickets chirping, birds chirping, orangutans chirping – “Wait a minute, orangutans don’t chirp!”

“Not usually!”

After about a minute I got back didn’t fall asleep. I lay there for a long time until zzzzzz snort.

Suddenly pop. I was awake and at last it was time to get up and dressed.


Special Times

by Scarlett Hadley

On the second day of our excellent boat trip I had two wonderful experiences, the first with Daddy and the second with Mummy.

The boat trip was set in Borneo, the third largest island in the world, on a long winding river, named Sungai Sekonyer, flowing all the way down to the wide, rippling sea. This first event was early in the morning whilst our boat was speeding along and the engine was rumbling quieter than the bees buzzing under the sun-shelter just behind us. Me and Daddy were sitting on the only cushioned seat on the 45 foot boat when I got up and sat on one of the two white benches one foot forwards and two foot to the side on left and right of us. Daddy followed me. He sat down behind me.

He put his arms around me and laced his sausages. I unlaced his sausages and Daddy SQUEEZED me! I quickly unlaced his sausages for him again and he relaxed. This game went on for some 15 minutes. Just then we arrived at the first orangutan feeding station and the game dwindled into nothingness. (His sausages were actually his fingers).

The second experience will take less time to read.

Mummy had been playing the ukulele for around 5 minutes when I came up to her and she said we should finish with her playing and us both singing. I agreed. We began.

I felt happiness flooding through me as we cuddled together. I could hardly hear the rumbling of the boat’s engine. We sang Brown Eyed Girl.

When we finished it was time for lunch and we settled round the table for the second meal of the day. We had 3 per 24 hours. I love our special times.


Goodbye Indonesia

And we’re off! After 24 days, we are now on our final epic journey through Indonesia, this time with the final destination being Jakarta for a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Of course, this being Indonesia, it’s 5 days from setting off to arriving. First there’s the 7 hour ferry (plus the 2 hours you have to wait on it until it sets off); then the 2 hours crammed onto a tin can (i.e. bus); a layover in a transit town called Bima (possibly our least favorite place in SE Asia so far); an airport hotel called ‘Aerotel’ (sound inviting?); another early morning flight to Jakarta; then a stopover in a very nice looking hotel, described on Trip Advisor as ‘the best layover hotel ever’ (swimming pool, gym, sauna…on the edge of our budget, but we’ll deserve a treat by then); then another early morning flight to Singapore, where we have a 4 hour wait (yay – we love Singapore airport, it has shops from home in it! Last time we were there we had a cheese scone, it was sublime); then our final flight to HCMC. Where our only plan is to meet an old friend (Hi Scott) and stay still for a while. Very still.

We are currently sitting in Bima airport, which is just outside Bima town centre, both of which I feel deserve a special mention. Described by the Lonely Planet as ‘the hard sell olympics’ and ‘no one’s favorite getaway’, it’s an experience here. The moment we disembarked the tin can bus, we were surrounded by throngs of men trying to sell bus tickets and women grabbing at the children and saying, “tumbar tiga!” (triplets). No different to many other places except in the intensity and ferocity of the intrusiveness of these people. They step in between us as we try to speak to each other, pull our kids in different directions and follow us as we try to make a getaway. This culminated in my first shouting match with a bus ticket tout. Screaming, “Go away!” repeatedly in his face kept him off us for at least 3 minutes. Bima is the destination of choice if you fancy dodgy food, being overcharged or a grotty hotel. I’m glad to be leaving, and even more glad that we are now at the airport waiting for a flight and not at the bus terminal waiting for the 14 hour bus (travelling with children 1 way on the 14 hour bus was enough).

Which brings me to Bima airport; we decided to get here early as we’d not had chance to reconfirm our flights, and really can’t afford to be ‘bumped’ (common practice is to oversell the tickets here) as we have so many connections. Now, I would once have described Stanstead airport in London as having ‘nothing there’. However, Bima I think is the most devoid-of-anything-to-do airport I’ve ever seen in my life. When we arrived one small shop was open selling crisps, biscuits and soft drinks. There were 2 security grilles for neighbouring shops. A second shop opened for business. This one sells crisps, biscuits and soft drinks. A few minutes later, the third and final shop opened. This one sells crisps, biscuits and soft drinks. And, brilliantly, “I Love Bima” T-Shirts. But it’s all good because we’re not on the bus.

Indonesia has been a country of highs and lows for me. I’ve peered into the smoking cone of a volcano; seen the world’s most sulphurs lake; braved the world’s most active volcano; spent time deep in the jungle with orangutans; walked through isolated forests with Komodo dragons; seen coral reefs that could put a BBC documentary to shame; ticked off manta ray, octopus and megapod on my list of wild animals seen; and marvelled at some astonishingly beautiful scenery along the way. But I’ve also inhaled the sickening passive smoke of too many clove cigarettes; sat on too many long bumpy buses and been harassed and bothered too many times to make me really want to come back here. If I ever do, it will be with a targeted itinerary with flights factored into the budget. Flashpacker next time, not backpacker!

The Neverending Journey

Picture the scene. It’s Sunday morning, we’ve not slept properly since Thursday night. We’ve been travelling for 3 days, and are on the final leg of our journey, a 7-hour ferry. Only we’ve been on it for 2 hours and it’s not set off yet.

There are chickens flying around the boat, which have just been recaptured by their owners, and there’s a group of about 12 kids crowding around our children pointing, laughing, and generally gawping at the on board entertainment (the existence of triplets).

The endurance test began with a couple of flights, then a long taxi ride and some haggling over bus fares, so fierce that even Fergus got into a shouting match. After a very short nights sleep in a truly disgusting hole of a hotel, we set off on our 14-hour bus journey (I kid you not). The bus was packed, people on stools all down the aisle, chickens, luggage and men smoking everywhere. The smell from the strange Indonesian clove-scented cigarettes is sickening; I thought I was going to throw up most of the way. Thankfully, the girls all dropped off, but sadly it coincided with us all having to exit the bus to go on our first ferry.

Two hours later, after an on board captive-audience toy sales pitch set in a fog of cigarette smoke, we clamboured back onto the bus, when Scarlett’s seat broke. It did provide some entertainment as it swung back further than the full recline position, so she was effectively lying on the lap of the lady behind her. Futile attempts by the bus conductor to repair it with some string continued the entertainment; in the end we were in luck and someone got off the bus so she could swap seats.

The girls all managed to get back to sleep, only to be turfed off the bus again for the complimentary lunch. Now, I’m not a fussy eater, as anyone will tell you, and I’ll try anything once. But there was something about the luke-warm vat of fish-head curry, left lying in the sun for hours, that just didn’t appeal somehow. We bought ice lollies. The only other food we’ve had en route is a pot noodle, some deep fried seaweed and a few biscuits, plus a few chewy mint sweets a nice Indonesian lady gave our children. There have been a few eaterys along the way, but you know when you senses scream food poisoning? Spontaneous 3 day fast.

It was the last 6 hours or so that were the worst. I was just daydreaming and looking out of the window, lost in Adele’s greatest hits on my ipod shuffle, when the terrible thing happened. My ears physically recoiled as the on-board sound system spluttered into life, booming Indonesian pop hits at full volume, making even listening to music through headphones impossible. This woke up everyone on the bus (most of whom had been sleeping); then TV screens were pulled down from the ceiling with karoke-style words on so you could sing along. Thankfully, no one did. I’m not quite sure what planet the driver was on at this point. I guess he must have been thinking, “I know what this bus of overtired, frazzled, grateful-to-be sleeping people need; some high energy, high volume music to wake everyone up and rattle their nerves to breaking point.”

I thought about getting off, but that wouldn’t have helped. Miles from anywhere, I’d only have to find another bus, which would be the same. Possibly worse. I thought about crying. That wouldn’t help either. I thought about the poor children, who seemed to be dealing with it better than me. So I smiled, looked out of the window, and tried to daydream through the cacophony. We were bound to arrive eventually.

Eventually arrived rather sooner than expected. Around 2 hours from our final destination, we were told the bus goes no further, and we have to change busses. Odd, as we’d bought a direct ticket, but never mind. We were ushered to our new bus, a small, ancient tin can, pitch black with no driver. Luckily, there was one guy who spoke great English, who explained that we were welcome to sleep on the bus, and it would be setting off to our final destination at 5am. It was 9pm. So much for direct. He was very helpful though, and showed us a to nearby hotel, where we took their top priced ‘VIP room’ (£9) and were treated to a reasonably clean, not too damp resting place, where we snatched 6 hours sleep.

The 4.30 alarm was a killer, but we made it onto the bus by 5am. It set off at 6am. We were still in plenty of time for the ferry though, as it was suppose to set off at 8am, but set off at 10am. At least we have seats on the boat, and the TV is on but actually muted with subtitles (this is a first). We’ve seen some World Cup qualifier highlights, and are now 10 mins into Pretty Woman. All good so far. Here’s to hoping that the karaoke isn’t about to start up.

It was always going to be a tough one. We were pretty tired after clocking up the kilometers in Java, followed swiftly by a flight up to Borneo for our boat trip, which was spectacular but remote. In fact, we called a family discussion to decide if the journey from the heart of the jungle to the island of Komodo was worth it. I think we were all tempted to check into one of the great value 5 star hotels in Java and hole up for a week instead. But where’s the fun in that? And surprisingly, it was the girls who persuaded us to take this once in a lifetime chance to see the Komodo dragons.

It didn’t help that we deliberated so long over the price of flying a huge chunk of the journey, that when we finally decided to fly, the flights had sold out. And that the bus turned out to be quite a lot more than the guidebook suggested, despite shopping around and haggling (which did almost halve the first quote), but even so our 3 days of torture have saved us the princely sum of £90. If there’s a flight back, we’re on it, whatever the price!

We look a motley crew as we make the final leg of this epic journey. In fact, we sat down for a coffee & the café owner brought out a comb for the children. The town of Labuan Bajo looms on the horizon, where the Lonely Planet promises a café called The Lounge that sells ‘home comfort food, think burgers that need 2 hands, fish & chips…’. Now that’s something to look forward to. And there’s beer available as it’s a predominately Catholic corner of Indonesia; we’ve seen nothing but Biltang Zero (a no-alcohol beer) for a couple of weeks.

We should be able to afford the luxury of staying still for 3 whole days, our longest stay in Indonesia, before taking a 2-day trip to Komodo from Labuan Bajo. The dragons are something I’ve been longing to see for years, so I’m sure the horror of this journey will melt away once we arrive and prepare for the trip.

However, we then have to get back again…!

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Walking to the ferry with "dodobears" in Sape, Sumbawa

Walking to the ferry with “dodobears” in Sape, Sumbawa

Favorit by name... but not our favourite by any stretch.

Favorit by name… but not our favourite by any stretch.

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

We're there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We've made it!

We’re there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We’ve made it!

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

800 Kilometers, 6 Busses, 5 Days, 3 Volcanoes, 2 Trains and 1 Temple

It’s been quite a trip through Java. Braving daunting distances on rickety old busses, we’ve covered a serious amount of ground. We’ve travelled alongside chickens, with our bags piled on top of us, feet inside a market trader’s basket due to lack of space on the bus. But we made it, and were rewarded for our endurance by some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Merapi was our first stop, where we groaned our way out of bed at 3am for a sunrise hike in the hills. Merapi is the most active volcano in the world, having had a full-scale explosion in 2010, the damage from which can still be seen in the landscape. The surrounding area has new forest growing amid the scorched remains of huge old trees, with lava trails hardened into new riverbeds.

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Next stop was Borobudur. It’s a huge, 1400 year old Buddhist temple that was overgrown by forest for circa 1000 years until it was rediscovered in the 19th Century by the famous Sir Raffles. The loving detail carved into each stone coupled with the beautiful landscape make an awe inspiring scene. My personal highlight is the tale of how historians have studied the boats depicted in the stone carvings. Doubts about the ancient Indonesians’ ability to sail to Africa had to be cast aside when they actually sailed a full-scale copy all the way to Madagascar.

Outside the temple of Borobudur

Outside the temple of Borobudur

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

Bromo was our next destination. Rising from a bed of volcanic ash, the lunar-like slopes of Bromo and its neighboring peaks are a photographers dream. It’s a shame Ferg’s SLR camera chose this moment to stop working. (And lucky we have a half-decent pocket camera too). It was my first chance to climb to the rim of a volcano’s crater and peer inside its mouth. With sulphurous gas swirling constantly from the centre I found it terrifying to be so close to such a natural wonder, and felt very far from home.

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We were unsure if it would be worth the journey to see another volcano at Ijen. It involved 7 hours on the worst quality bus we’ve seen so far (quite a claim) plus a further 3 hours in a jeep, and a vigorous walk. Astonishingly, it was worth every minute. Quite unlike the other 2, Ijen has a sulphurus lake inside its crater. It’s a steep climb, but as you round the final corner you are rewarded with a change in landscape so dramatic and unique, you feel you have entered another world.

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Java is quite simply the most astonishing place I’ve ever been. Arduous and uncomfortable, yes, but it has left me with a sense of being exceptionally lucky to have seen such things. It reminds you that ‘normal’ life at home is far from normal, the vast majority of people in the world do not live in a small semi in suburbia like ours.

I wonder how it will impact the children to have seen such amazing sights so early in life?