Birthdays Abroad

Pooltime delayed due to discovering just how much fun you can have with bouncy beds, balloons and ceiling fans.

Pool time delayed due to discovering just how much fun you can have with bouncy beds, balloons and ceiling fans.

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.

Back to the Big Mango

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.

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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.

A Video Message from the Cambodian Rainforest

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.

Snake on a Stick

Silk Worm Salad

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.