We’ve been building up to today for weeks. Months, even. We’ve booked into a posh (for us) resort in Tangalla, Southern Sri Lanka for three days of swimming pools, huge buffet meals, comfy beds and aircon because today, all my children turn nine. And, being my children, they love buffets. And they’ve always loved nothing more than splashing about in water. And, well, the comfy beds and aircon are just a bonus.
As they slept last night, we did our best to transform the room into somewhere exciting. We hung up the “happy birthday” banners and bunting we bought in Bangkok on the walls, and blew up the balloons we bought in Cambodia. Janet had already snuck back to the room earlier to wrap up the presents we’ve been squirrelling away whenever we saw something suitably portable, and I had added several new books to their kindles (virtual presents being the most portable of all).
At breakfast, Evie came back from the buffet with a plate piled high with cake and chips which I thought summed up today rather well. These few days are a break from budgeting and eating cheap local food.
We bought the girls boomerangs so we’ll head down to the beach to try them out later, too. And little plaster of Paris moulding sets that well have to make very carefully in our posh hotel room. Between that and the pool and gorging ourselves, I think the rest of the day should contain lots of nine-year-old fun. Plus we managed to pick up three Swiss rolls and some “9” candles so we can sing “Happy Birthday”.
We’ve been anxious that being abroad for their birthday would make our girls homesick but now that it’s here, and they seems happy and excited, I’m starting to feel excited, too. When Scarlett opened her eyes and saw the sparkly banner over her bed, she squealed, “How did you do that?!” And her sisters popped up from their own beds, wide eyed at the decorations and balloons everywhere and, all piling into our big bed for happy birthdays, I think we’ve made it ok for them.
Since turning eight, my girls have only spent one month in the UK. Eleven countries and all kind of adventures and accidents later, their birthday feels like a milestone. Once today is over, we only have 14 days of travelling. Turning nine marks the beginning of a year where we’ll be going home, returning to jobs, school, home ownership and all the normal routines, rewards and responsibilities of a sedentary life.
But today, that can all wait. Today we splash around in the pool, play on the beach, eat ourselves silly at the hotel buffet and play with presents. Worrying about coming home and coming to terms with the idea that my babies can possibly be nine years old and on the cusp of teenagerdom can wait for another day.
When swimming in the ocean, remember to take the wallet containing nearly a hundred pounds in cash and your only bank card out of your swimming shorts’ pocket. Unlike me.
The Big Mango is Bangkok, by the way. And we’re back.
This is actually the fifth time we’ve passed through the city in our travels. But on our previous visits, we didn’t want to stop around because of the Shut Down Bangkok protests, then there was a curfew after the army took over, but the situation has settled down now so we’ve rented an apartment for nine days and have been alternating at sightseeing and using the luxury of an apartment to pretend that we live here.
Janet and I both love this city and we didn’t want to go home without having spent a little time here, and shown our kids around, so we’re here again, right at the end of our time in SE Asia. Of all the cities we’ve visited, it’s the wildest and most exciting. Everything has an edge here. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been transported into the future, at others like you’re in an incomprehensible otherworld, but always like you’re at the centre of something dynamic and barely-controlled. Not dangerous, mind; just thrilling.
We’ve also been reveling in city life. We’ve spent days in big malls, awestruck at the abundance of stuff. After Cambodia it just seems so decadent and astonishing to see shop after shop brimming with more things than anyone could ever buy. And things we need: new Crocs for our girls and a new wardrobe for Janet from Uniqlo, her new favourite shop.
We’ve done the tourist thing and visited temples, including the massive reclining Buddha at Wat Pho which, despite being ram-packed with SLR-wielding farangs, is still a must-see and the who-needs-adventure-playgrounds Wat Arun over the river. We’ve travelled around by sky train, taxi, tuk-tuk, motorbike taxi (never again!) and, best of all, on foot. And we’ve visited what turned out to be two of our girls’ favourite places on the trip: Kidzania (where kids get to try out different adult jobs earning and spending money) and Dream World (a theme park where Evie finally got to experience a ride that turns you upside down).
Just having an apartment is exciting enough. We have three separate room (plus two bathrooms)! A year ago that wouldn’t have been anything special but after so long sharing one room with travel beds filling the space on the floor between whatever beds the hotel provides, it feels enormous. We have a sofa. We even have a dining room table. There’s a kitchenette. A fridge. A washing machine!
The girls can run around and play without having to be shushed and ordered down off the walls. We don’t have to usher the whole family outside by 10am in order to stop ourselves eating our own children. It’s even possible for everyone in the family to be in a separate room by themselves (if there are two of us in the toilets)!
Who’d have thought we’d revel so much in home comforts? Things like sitting around a dining room table eating a meal in private rather than a restaurant have become real pleasures. Lying on the sofa watching my girls singing tunes from Frozen, or just playing on my ukulele, feels like luxury. I’d never considered how great it is to be able to put our girls to bed then have a different room to sit up and chat in. But it is! Janet even whooped when she saw the apartment has the washing machine. No more waiting for dirty clothes to build up enough for a trip to the laundry to be worthwhile. Clean clothes every day!
It feels like coming home, being in Bangkok. The city is familiar, we know the food – and the abundance of street food means we can find all our favourites, we can speak enough Thai to get along, we have space and time and, for these nine days, our mounting homesickness seems to be on hold. We’ve found a home from home.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, our girls have been able to keep in touch with friends and family back home through email as we travelled. Recently, a friend of theirs (Hi, Megan!) mentioned that they had been learning about rainforests. Well, today we found ourselves in a rainforest in Cambodia, trekking into the jungle to see Kbal Spen, the River of a Thousand Lingas (a thousand year old set of Hindu carvings covering the banks and bed of a jungle stream, lost to the outside world until 30 years ago). We paused on our trek for the girls to make a short video to say hello to everyone back home and share a little of what it’s like to be in the rainforest itself.
I’ll leave it to you to Google what lingas are if you don’t know. But if you do know, needless to say they were the source of a lot of sniggers and giggles rather than the reverent awe religious sites are supposed to invoke. There were quite a lot of yonis, too.
We’ve been pretty adventurous in our eating as we travelled round Asia. Deep-fried crickets haven’t defeated us. Nor have beetles, grubs, silk worms, bamboo worms or caterpillars. We’ve eaten frogs (curried and fried), fish heads, pig’s brain, chicken feet and pig’s ears.
I was determined not to chicken (sorry) out on this trip, because last time I travelled through South East Asia, my big regret was not being able to bring myself to try eating insects at the night market. Several times I set myself to do it, would walk purposefully up to the insect stall but, as I regarded the baskets of crisped-up insect bodies, something inside me would recoil and I’d find myself backing away.
My greatest surprise this time round was that, upon persuading my girls to try crickets in Koh Samui, they were soon begging to try all the other kinds. With exclamations of “yum, gooey inside!” and expert advice of “don’t forget to pull the sharp back legs off”, bags of critters were soon disappearing down their gullets. I thought they were adventurous eaters when their favourite food as babies was olives but this was something else.
Yesterday, as we explored downtown Siem Riep, we discovered a new challenge: a stall selling barbecued snake on a stick.
Once again, I feel my stomach revolting, the urge to back away mounting. But now I have to appear brave in front of my kids. I started off this whole “you’ve got to try everything once” resolution. So when we go out into town tonight, we’ll have to do it. Tonight, our evening’s ‘appetizer’ is going to be snake on a stick.
Wish me luck.
We all know, as adults, that Vietnam and Cambodia have traumatic pasts. And the people of those countries haven’t forgotten either. We’ve just arrived in Phnom Penh and with only one day here, we’re wondering what museums and memorials are appropriate to take kids to. S21 – the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured so many prisoners before their execution – clearly not. The Killing Field, though? It sounds crazy to suggest a mass-execution site and pile of 8000 human skulls as somewhere to take children, but it’s an important part of this country’s history and a reminder to us all of how dangerous political extremism can actually be. Should we also not teach our kids about the Holocaust for fear of upsetting them?
When I was a child, my family were living in Iran when the revolution happened. I remember being shot at by soldiers of the Revolutionary Guard. It was confusing and frightening but it was also real. History doesn’t pass children by. It sweeps them up, along with everyone else. In many ways, children were the greatest victims of both Vietnamese and Cambodian conflicts.
We had the same decision to make in Vietnam. At the War Remnants Museum there were galleries devoted to the effects of Agent Orange: walls of shocking photographs showing deformed children, and jars containing still-born human fetuses. Needless to say, we didn’t take our kids in.
But we were in a war museum, and I really didn’t want to just show them the cool tanks and fighter planes and have them come away thinking how exciting and glorious war is. We did let them see photographs of carpet-bomb blasted landscapes and American soldiers flame-throwering villages. And we talked about how the war came about; about communism and Americas “domino effect” theories; and we tried to point out ways in which the museum was biased, only showing things from the victorious North Vietnamese perspective.
But maybe the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero atrocities are just a little bit too recent. I’d have no qualms in telling my kids that thousands of slaves died building the Ancient Egyptian pyramids. But Year Zero happened in my lifetime. There are still people alive for whom it was the defining event of their lives. It’s a personal tragedy, not just a statistic.
[NB. I wrote the following part later, as we were leaving Phnom Penh…]
In the end, we decided against visiting S-21 or the Killing Field. I’m mostly certain that my girls could have handled it, and would have come back having learnt something important. But it wouldn’t have been fair to run the risk of traumatizing them.
Instead, we went to the National Museum where we laid the groundwork for our visit to Ankor Wat by learning more about Khmer history, then we went to the royal palace to see how the royal family live nowadays, as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where as well as the “Emerald” Buddha, there is more gold reliquary than I’ve ever seen in one place and the vast hall is floored with 1kg solid silver tablets.
It’s better, I think, to stick to ancient history until their older.
The monsoon is really starting to kick in here in HCMC, with driving rain every afternoon sending street vendors scurrying and causing mopeds to pull over so the passengers can put on their 2-headed ponchos.
We’ve finally gotten wise to weather and went out this morning to the Ho Chi Minh City museum, getting back to our hotel in time to do afternoon homeschool while it bucketted down outside.
Once the weather had cleared and the girls’ brains couldn’t take any more educatin’, we figured we deserved a treat, so walked up to the nearest ice cream parlour: Fanny Ice Cream.
If ever a sign deserved a photo…
Can you help us resolve a family dispute? This is serious. Without your help I don’t know what we’ll do. Normally, we can sort out differences as they occur but this time, I’m not sure anyone is willing to back down. We need outside help.
See, the problem is this: who was the best Bruce Lee when we visited his statue in Hong Kong?
Here’s the evidence:
So? Who is the ultimate martial arts master?