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Krabi, Thailand: Wat Tham Suea (Tiger Cave Temple)

19 Jan

This year we spent another wonderful Christmas on the beaches of Ao Nang, Krabi. We rock-climbed, relaxed in the ocean, and on the fabulous beaches, slept in the jungle at the base of Spirit Mountain (Chong Phli)….where we woke up to the sounds of a rooster and some monkeys….and learned to live with colonies of ants and some scorpions.

It was different from last year in that we got to share each beautiful day with a Brie, Björn, Luka and Zora; a wonderful travelling family from the US that we had met in Cusco, Peru (they were at the start of their Southeast Asian exploration…sorry you weren’t with us GiGi)!

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With Luka, Brie, Zora & Björn, at the entrance of the temple complex

Our one cultural visit, was a motorcycle ride to the Buddhist Tiger Cave Temple, locally called Wat Tham Suea. What is appealing about visiting Wat Tham Suea is that it’s one of the most sacred sites in the province and an active meditation hub where monks live and worship. According, to our friend Michael who lives in Krabi… definitely one of the more interesting temple complexes in southern Thailand. So off we went on our scooters….in search of wisdom and enlightenment!

This golden temple is located about 3 km outside of Krabi Town, and as we slowly we approached it, we saw what looked like a tiny, shiny statue on top of a tall mountain. Filou kept asking me, if I was serious about us hiking up to this structure, so high up in the sky….but of course, I am! (trying to convince him that there might be an elevator, didn’t fool him – he knows better by now).

Western places of worship tend to be centrally located and somber in colour. In contrast, Thai temples are further removed and often located on mountains and in caves. They are very colourful in nature, often ”guarded” by brightly painted animals…a real focus of artistic endeavours (you’ll find unique architecture, sculptures, paintings, decorative arts and crafts in these locations). The Tiger Cave Temple was no exception!

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Tiger Cave Temple or Wat Tham Suea. Statue of Buddhist monk with golden tiger.

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Apparently, Wat Tham Suea (which dates back to 1975), got its name TIGER temple because of a monk named Jumnean, who went to meditate under the cave and witnessed tigers roaming around. Another legend talks about a huge tiger living in these caves in previous times. Tiger paw prints can be found on some of the cave walls and the bulge of the cave also resembles a tiger’s paw.

Besides tiger paw prints, many unique artifacts (stone tools, pottery remains and Buddha footprints) were found around these caves and temple grounds, which makes this an archeological site of interest…however, we were most drawn to climbing the limestone tower, so we could witness the “footprint of the Buddha” and the largest bell tower in southern Thailand.

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Largest bell tower in southern Thailand

So off we were, for our hike to the top. We consider ourselves to be in decent shape (after the many hikes we have done in the past year), but the heat (we chose to go only at 4:30 pm) and the 1260 steps to reach the top (some quite steep ones), made this quite the interesting climb up….

The stairs to the mountain-top shrine are surrounded by lush vegetation. We weren’t even walking for 5 minutes when large monkeys were surrounding us everywhere. This meant a couple of deep breaths, as these creatures might look cute but can indeed be quite vicious.

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Before taking off, some fellow visitors had expressed concern that we were taking our children up this steep staircase (with its many twists and turns). However, they didn’t know our “monkeys” yet…. All 4 children basically ran up the hill; even 5 year old Zora…what a trooper! Honestly, I could hardly move and didn’t feel my calves for a week, but we made it all, and…

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Björn and I. Me with my beet red face (not a sunburn… but the energy from walking up 1260 steps…still smiling though!).

The view at the top left us breathless! The area surrounding the temple is made up of jungles and forests, including many old and growing trees in the Kiriwong Valley. We had a 360-degree view of stunning countryside and the Andaman Sea. It was a moment to pause and take it all in…

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And of course, besides the views there was the huge golden Buddha statue, standing 278 meters tall….as well as several shrines, statues with interesting symbols such as snakes, and antique looking gong bells. The locals and monks were praying and showing us some of their rituals. Most local temples are off limit to visitors, so we felt thankful to have had this experience.

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And so when the sun was setting and it was slowly getting dark, we made our way back down the 1260 steps with a peaceful mind.

With a delicious dinner alongside the river, at the Krabi night market, we said good-bye to our wonderful friends and another great stay in Oa Nang.

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Year in review – 2014

19 Dec

Dear Family & Friends,

I look around & see detailed stories & mini films that continually replay themselves in my head; the vendor lady in Bolivia with her incredibly, colourful tablecloths & scarves, Filou happily strolling The Great Wall of China, Anthony enjoying his favorite coffee in Vietnam, the gorgeous sunset over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the gorgeous, little girl in her traditional Chiang Mai, Thailand outfit, Emile swimming with turtles and sea lions in the Galapagos Islands and me, paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador: snapshots of some unbelievable memories that put a great, big, happy grin on my face. I’ve just come back from the photo shop where I printed about two-dozen pictures, to give our new home in Bangkok that personal touch.

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Still daily, our family reminisces about the amazing life memories we’ve created together this year. The beginning of 2014 was the start of the 2nd. half of our trip around the world. It was on the beach of Krabi, Thailand that we rang in the New Year (and made a wish that one day we would come back here…I guess be careful what you wish for!). After a fantastic month of “beach bum” life & making new friends, we moved on to Chiang Mai. It was here that our (grand)fathers joined us for 2.5 weeks. What a joy for Emile and Filou to have their Opa from Holland and Jichan from Canada together, and share in a bit of their unique, world-schooling, travelling life.

Then it was onto Malaysia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands. The land of the Kiwis was probably our favorite one from that line-up; learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture, seeing erupting volcano’s and hot springs, and eating delicious lamb. Definitely a country to return to one day! It reminded us very much of back home…incredible nature scenes, delicious fresh produce & foods, and a warm & friendly people.

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Our longest, transatlantic flight was from SE Asia, via Los Angeles to South-America. A week-long stopover in the US gave us the opportunity to reconnect with grandma YiaYia and uncle Nuno. We had great fun together bowling, singing karaoke, and taking nature walks.

After touchdown in South-America, we headed to Cusco, Peru – a lovely high-altitude town surrounded by breathtaking ruins and the gorgeous Andes mountain range. The cold weather (no indoor heating) made us put our “adjustment” hats on a bit, but the warmth of the colourful, local people & wonderful friendships with several expat families, turned our stay into a very memorable one. And of course, seeing the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu was pretty sweet!

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Then, we travelled by bus to rugged Bolivia with its incredible Uyuni Salt Flats and gorgeous Lake Titicaca. But South America’s highlight for the family was definitely Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands. We went out with a BIG BANG!

Who gets to swim with sharks, giant tortoises and sea lions, jump off a cliff to go skydiving, fly in a 6-seater plane with the windows open, get close to the very rare blue footed boobies or experience world cup soccer in a beach shack with Ecuadorian Futbol fans & the very best of newly-made international buddies? It really doesn’t get any better….and our entire trip was just like that; a phenomenal dream come true. It is without a doubt that the year 2013/2014 will forever be engraved in our family’s mind as a special one!

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Our world trip ended in mid July, but we couldn’t quite leave the adventure behind…and so after 5 incredible weeks with family back in Canada – re-appreciating our country and taking in the incredible orderliness, cleanliness and calmness – we took off again. This time to settle in Bangkok, Thailand; the place that was our family’s favorite and the perfect location from which Anthony could explore new business opportunities in the ASEAN region.

It’s been close to 4 months that we’ve been living in the Land of Smiles now…and we all love being in Asia. The sun is priceless; no snow shovelling, snowsuits, hats or scarves! Although I have to admit, it’s sometimes even too hot for this sun worshipper….but the winter months of Dec. & Jan are perfect…and we get to enjoy our pool often!

The food here is plentiful, full of variety and scrumptious. Every morning we wake up with a mango smoothie, made from the sweetest fruits you’ve ever tasted. Personally, I’ve become addicted to pomelo; a type of Chinese grapefruit….but so sweet and juicy. And Anthony…well, I don’t have to cook for him anymore; he has developed a love relationship with the street vendors! He goes for the simple chicken & rice dish (Khao Man Gai), even tolerates the very spicy sauce that comes with….and he often eats Lap Moo on our street (which is lined with about 6 different vendors each evening). This is a spicy ground pork & toasted rice dish that comes with anis, cucumbers & green onions. His absolute favourite!

The rest of the family has also taken to Bangkok’s fabulous street food. Emile devours the most amazing grilled crab on the street and Filou loves his rice-paper wrapped salad rolls (he’s still our salad king!)….and me? Well, I’ve found an award-winning place for Chicken Pad Thai – don’t tell the rest of the family but I go there often by myself during the day….it’s just too good and for $3.00, what’s not to love?

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We all really enjoy the area we live in – 59 Sukhumvit (& Thonglor). Apparently, the Thonglor area is somewhat of a hip area to reside in. We had no idea, but are happy to be in this very Japanese influenced neighbourhood. So many great grocery stores (the Japanese really know how to do the best fresh fish)…. and of course it has many fabulous restaurants for us sushi lovers.

We quickly learned how to say 59 or haa sip gao (actually Emile learned it at school and taught us)… as the first two weeks in Bangkok, we had a hell of a time getting a taxi driver to take us home. The kids did not have school transportation yet, and so we stood on many a hot street corner smiling and waving – hoping someone would take us home to the right location. The traffic in Bangkok is a nightmare although the Skytrain system is fabulous and so we mostly use this BTS system to get around. And of course, then there are the minibuses that pick Emile and Filou up each morning at 7 am to go to school.

Days are long and full of new learnings for the boys at their new school: Lycée Français International de Bangkok (http://www.lfib.ac.th). After some initial adjustments (getting used to being in school again, kids making fun of their different French accent, learning how to write cursive as the French LOVE their “lettres attachées” etc.), the boys are thriving! Emile is in Première with lots of autonomy – he’s on top of his homework, his changing class schedule & acing his subjects.

But more importantly, he is making lots of friends – mostly because of his newfound love for Ping Pong (the kids play every chance they get at school), and his continued love for soccer. He qualified for the “Coupe d’Asie” soccer team & will be competing against teams in the region. He has also started a rock band called “Rock Storm”. As the lead singer & guitarist, he’s working hard towards a grand finale, year-end performance. Très cool!

Filou remains our social butterfly & quickly made tons of new friends at school. He’s also working hard academically & has become the Lycée’s “billes” champion. Marbles is what turns his crank at the moment, and of course; playing music. He still loves his piano & is now taking lessons at a high-tech music studio where he learns to play by ear using animations & computers, under the guidance of a qualified Thai teacher.

As a family, we’ve already taken in some wonderful local festivals such as Loy Krathong (Nov. 6). Loy means to float and a Krathong is a small boat made out of banana leaves & lotus flowers, decorated with candles & incents. We took a boat tour in the Klongs, made our own Krathongs and send our creations onto the lake at night (to ask forgiveness and thanks to the God of the Water or “Mae Khong Kha”). We even put a piece of our hair and nails in our Kratongs like the Thais do….this will take all bad energies away and make for a good year ahead!

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And recently, on December 5, we celebrated the King’s birthday – also knows as Father’s Day. King Rama 9 or his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born on Dec. 5 in 1927, so this day has become one of great celebration for the Thais, who absolutely adore & respect their King. This great man, who has worked incessantly to create a better life for Thai people everywhere, was unfortunately too sick for a birthday speech this year – but regardless, the streets were flooded with people wearing yellow t-shirts to pay homage (yellow is the colour of Monday – the day of the week the King was born on).

And we’ve all travelled to Singapore to arrange for our new Thai visa permits. It was a fantastic week of sightseeing….and with our newly acquired papers in hand Anthony was able to set up his new company – Asia Clean Innovations or ACI (http://www.asiacleaninnovations.com). Last week, he moved with 4 Thai staff members into his new office & is very busy travelling the ASEAN region, speaking and making connections. There are many good opportunities for him to bring Western Clean Technologies to the region and he loves the work in this quickly developing marketplace.

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I have immersed myself in what “expat life” for women here is all about. I help to raise money for various causes, play tennis, get motivated by a fantastic Thai personal trainer 2x a week, socialize (my new friends are warm, interesting women who are a true reflection of the United Nations; Canadian, French, Dutch, Filipino, Indian, Congolese, American etc.), I network…..and spend lots of time with the kids.

Also, I’ve started my own online jewelry business: http://mysilpada.ca/rose.swagemakers and contribute to an on-line magazine called Wanderlust: Expat life & Style. Our family and trip around the world was actually featured in their latest edition: http://www.joomag.com/magazine/wanderlust-expat-life-style-in-thailand-december-2014-january-2015/0084451001417429450/p46?short.

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So life is all good, although we also had some challenges back home this year…..In Holland, we lost our Uncle Guus and recently our very beloved Aunt Else, whose brave battle with breast cancer ended. In Canada, our Uncle Terry went through some major operations – and thanks to his lovely wife Berengère was given a second chance at life. But the hardest was not being able to be there for our sweet brother James who had a major stomach operation. Thank goodness, all went well and he is making great progress to a full recovery….with of course the loving care of Ayako & Betsy. His bravery is inspiring! Also both our mothers are dealing with some health challenges that we are monitoring closely…when it comes to this, being afar is not always easy!

But we will finalize 2014 on a great note and will end the year in the same way that we started it….being happy & grateful on the beach of Krabi, Thailand.

We wish you all a very happy & healthy 2015. May all your dreams come true like they have for us this past year!

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We always love to hear from you…and in case you want to follow our continued adventures, go to https://yolomomonthego.wordpress.com (and click the “follow” button).

Anthony, Rose, Emile & Félix Watanabe-Swagemakers

Photo Essay – “Art in Paradise”; a fun, little, interactive museum in Bangkok

4 Nov

We’ve been going a fair bit to the Esplanade Mall here in Bangkok, as it’s the location for a great indoor skating park for the kids.  Each time, upon entering this mall, we noticed these colourful signs for this interactive, art display.  And I don’t know about you, but when your kids beg to go to a museum, you take that opportunity and run!  After taking the escalators up to the fourth floor, we arrived at the entrance of  “Art in Paradise” (http://www.artinparadise.co); a permanent exhibition of interactive, colourful art.

Here, kids (and big kids), are allowed to touch paintings, sit on them and take funny pictures ….their interaction provides the allusion that they are part of the art works themselves – how cool!  It really did bring out the imaginative and fun side in Emile and Filou, and they’ve never asked to be in so many pictures (they are usually quite good with picture taking because of our world tour adventure and my frequent insistence on capturing their cute faces…but they don’t call mom the “sleazy photographer” for nothing; they can do without the multitude of posing).  But not this time…they wanted to pose, interact, be part of the art…and had a fabulous time. I guess what is not to love when you ask the Mona Lisa a question and she answers you right back?

Our visit to this fun place, is best captured visually – so see below.  For those who want to visit:  The Esplanade Mall is located at the Thai Cultural Centre – MRT Stop in Bangkok. Cost: 300 Baht for adults (about $10), kids are cheaper if they are less than 120 cm tall.

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YEAR IN REVIEW – Our Trip around the World

27 Jul

YEAR IN REVIEW – OUR TRIP AROUND THE WORLD

After:

* Visiting 14 countries, 52 cities and…

* 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

* Taking 30 flights

* Riding on 5 trains

* Bumping around on 26 different busses

* And….sleeping in 54 different beds The Watanabe-Swagemakers family is back in Canada.

To reflect, appreciate and let our world experiences settle in, I did a family interview to get everyone’s perspective on the past year. As this journey has ended, a new one is beginning: we are moving to Bangkok, Thailand in September! As a family, we are thoroughly thankful for this past year (an amazing dream come true), and super excited about our new, upcoming life in Asia. We can only wish (and encourage) everyone to pursue their dreams – it makes you come alive in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Thanks to you all for following our adventures on Facebook, and on our blog (http://yolomomonthgo.wordpress.com) – your enthusiasm (even when you despised us as we were posting sunny beach pictures of Thailand during one of the worst winters in Canada) has meant a great deal to us. So, dank je wel, muchas gracias, thank you and merci!

I will try to keep writing about living in Thailand but now we are signing off to spend some quality time with family & friends…Y.O.L.O everyone!

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1. BEST MEMORY OF THE COUNTRIES WE VISITED:

CANADA

Anthony: Driving around Newfoundland in an RV made me proud to be a Canadian. The natural landscape is absolutely stunning.

Rose: Lobster feasts in Nova Scotia with grandpa Jichan, James & Ayako. The kids skinny dipping in the ocean at “Happy Beach”.

Emile: Catching the big codfish with Captain Dave in Newfoundland.

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Felix: Very peaceful RV travel around Newfoundland; you can sleep anywhere you want.

 

HOLLAND

Anthony: Great weather with Oma and Opa in August, as opposed to our many visits during Christmas holidays over the years. The B&B in Maastricht where, without the kids, Rose and I awoke each morning to a breakfast of classical music, linen tablecloth and lekker Dutch treats.

Rose: Seeing my parents show Emile & Filou their country of heritage for the first time….Such joy! Eating herring up-side down, tasting delicious cheeses, climbing windmills, riding bikes in the beautiful countryside, going to the Aalsmeer Flower Market etc.

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EmileThe best was my 10th. birthday celebration with Opa and Oma. And I loved eating all the delicious food.

Felix: Spending amazing times with Opa & Oma. Eating kroketten and Dutch cheese.

 

FRANCE

Anthony: Emile heading off to the supermarket by himself (his independence was starting) and returning not only with a baguette but also a Parisian accent!

Rose: Strolling the local food markets and re-living France memories with the love of my life. This is where it all started!

Emile: Eating Japanese food while dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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Felix: Playing in the beautiful parks of Paris, especially the play park in le Jardin du Luxembourg, one of papa’s favourites.

 

CHINA

Anthony: Walking the labyrinthine streets of the Dong Cheng area of Beijing where there were tons and tons of people walking and eating at all hours of the day. “Shuffling” was the only way to move through the crowds. And rock climbing, it all started in Yangshuo!

Rose: Hiking the wild and most preserved part of the Great Wall of China while taking in the stunning scenery (China & Mongolia). Such a privilege to walk on this incredible structure & piece of history!  And gliding down the beautiful Li river on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo – taking in the stunning Karst mountain scenery.

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Emile: First time rock climbing experience, great food & friends.

Felix: Running ahead of the family on the Great Wall and getting my head shaven.

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VIETNAM

Anthony: First morning in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, the first taste of Vietnamese coffee knocked me over. By the end of our month, I was making my own and loving it! Pho soup on the streets of Hanoi with Emile and riding a motorcycle in crazy traffic!

Rose: Enjoying the peaceful beach life in Hoi An and riding a motorcycle on the Hai Van Pass – right into the clouds.

Emile: Living through the aftermath of Cyclone Hayan; one of the world’s biggest hurricanes every recorded (lots of rain and wind).

Felix: Everything, especially eating Pho Soup!

 

CAMBODIA

Anthony: Filou getting chased by a monkey at the Angkor Wat temples! Sleeping in a tree hut in the middle of the jungle at the incredible Jasmine Valley in Kep, and helping make a new roof for a family in need in Siem Reap.

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Rose: Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat. These temples are truly one-of-a-kind magnificent! And going by boat to gorgeous Rabbit Island in Kep.

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Emile: Tarzan jumping into a beautiful river in Kampot.

Felix: Driving around Phnom Penh with Mr. Key, our amazing tuk-tuk driver

 

THAILAND

Anthony: Booting around on motor scooters, on the left side of the road! The ocean water being almost too warm. Rock climbing with locals and visitors from around the world. Christmas day boating and snorkeling around the islands. New Year’s eve on the beach – kids stayed up until 1am – barely! Hanging with our dads in and around Chiang Mai.

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Rose: Too many great memories – can’t choose one: Christmas Day exploring the stunning islands around Krabi by boat. Riding the back roads of Chiang Mai on a scooter with my 75 year old Dad (and having both grandfathers spent 2.5 weeks with us), seeing the children’s commitment to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where we volunteered; an incredible love for animals (elephants, dogs, cats etc.) came to light and….Dancing my way into a new year: 2014 while lighting & lifting lanterns into the sky…projecting that one day soon we would come back to this amazing country. Our two months here were paradise!

Emile: Amazing people, fun on motorcycles, and the awesome experience of helping the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Thank you Lek for the amazing work you do to save these beautiful animals. I am going to adopt one (or a dog at your shelter).

Felix: Swimming in the pool at the Best Western. Playing with Zack & Sara on the beach and eating the incredible foods, such as garlic chicken on rice.

 

MALAYSIA

Anthony: Penang and Fiji were tied for hottest places we visited. Fortunately, both had pools. Incredible vegetarian food right outside our apartment – ate lunch there every day after discovering it. Kids’ first music lessons with Nelson near Island Plaza, something which has given us a lot of joy and connection ever since.

Rose: Exploring the amazing street art of Georgetown.  And eating some incredible street food: what a wonderful mix of cultures and tastes, you can find in Penang!

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Emile: Going to the amazing ESCAPE climbing park to celebrate Ian Minton’s birthday (my new friend from the US).

Felix: Starting to take music lessons for the first time: now I love to play the piano!

 

NEW ZEALAND

Anthony: Filou playing non-stop piano in every hostel we visited. At that time, he only knew 2 songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb and Happy Birthday. Just imagine. Great mountain bike ride in Rotorua, stunning scenery and sparking my interest in trail riding.

Rose: Seeing the geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture. For the first time eating lamb that I actually liked! 

Emile: Cool geysers!  Eating delicious lamb, and taking a nice walk around the Auckland Harbour.

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Felix: Incredible poi dance at the aboriginal Maori show.

 

FIJI ISLANDS

Anthony: Definitely the impromptu and incredible dinner with local Japanese eccentric, Taku Murai. In his self-designed house mixing both Fijian (think ventilation) and Japanese features (think sliding walls), he prepared us a feast. After dinner, he shared his philosophy of life with us, much of which was written in English and Japanese all over his wood, unpainted walls. These are the experiences you cannot find in guidebooks. 

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Rose: Being invited by a Japanese man to his house. He promised that he would prepare us a meal we wouldn’t forget. And so he did – scrumptious sushi dinner and interesting conversation with this eccentric, lovely man! And lots of fun pool time.

Emile: Funny Japanese guy and cooking with Seria, making a delicious parrot fish dish.

Felix: Building a fort on the beach and the Japanese man.

 

USA

Anthony: Airport reunion with mom and James, kids screaming and jumping for joy. Family bowling and everyone’s body gestures to help guide the bowling ball. After a delicious Mexican meal, singing Karaoke in the bar, complete with cowboys, line dancing and lots of twang! We sang the Bare Naked Ladies.

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Rose: Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains – enjoying a nice pic-nic lunch and seeing crazy YiaYia (grandmother) still climbing trees to make the kids happy!

Emile: Having fun jumping in the trampoline park and bowling with YiaYia and Nuno.

Felix: Playing in the park with YiaYia and Nuno.

 

PERU

Anthony: Great community in Cusco. Buying the kids their first musical instruments – game changer for their progress. The restaurant owner beside our apartment with gold stars on her teeth – fashion without function? Machu Picchu and other incredible Inca sites. Climbing La Rocca with other families and our guide, Tiffany. Oh, and altitude sickness at 3300 metres during the first week.

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Rose: Taking part in a traditional Depacho ceremony – giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the abundance she provides us each and every day – surrounded by some amazing friends. Spending 3 days on the edge of the Amazon making a commercial for Scotia Bank …and of course, exploring the stunning archeological site of Machu Picchu.

Emile: Making great friends such as Kane Crawford and learning Spanish.

Felix: Having lots of fun with the many friends we made and hiking the hills around Cusco.

 

BOLIVIA

Anthony: Seeing Lake Titicaca as we arrived in Copacabana – reminded me of how much I love water. Our snail-shaped house at Las Olas Hostel. Oh, and the killer llama there – could tell by his gaze. Snow storm during our tour of the Salt Flats, French tourist falling through a hole during a snowball fight with the kids, sleeping in winter coat, gloves, etc.

Rose: Taking incredibly fun pictures on the Salar de Uyuni  (Salt Flats) and taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, Copacabana to a floating reef village.

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Emile: Long but beautiful hike on Isla del Sol.

Felix: Uyuni Salt Flat – we took fun pictures and I scooped up lots of salt.

 

ECUADOR

Anthony: Hanging with Filou in Quito while Emile suffered through chicken pox and Rose tended to him. The incredible lightness of being, after yoga sessions in Canoa. Getting into World Cup frenzy with Emile, talking schedules and stats and of course watching the Dutch win their first 4 games. Beautiful beach in Canoa and truly wonderful people there, locals, expats and travellers we met.

Rose: Yoga mornings on the beach with Leanne & bonfires with friends… Of course HUP HOLLAND, and let’s not forget PARAGLIDING!!!

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Emile: Cheering for the Dutch. World Cup frenzy!!!

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Felix: Learning to surf on some amazing waves.

           

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Anthony: Snorkelling through the incredible, glass-like water, being a guest in another world while holding Emile’s hand

Rose: Being the first person in the family to see a white-tip reef shark that was swimming right below me!  I screamed loudly so that everyone could swim back and see him too, but they were too late – it was a real big one too! And having a sea-lion play and swim all around me and the kids…so much fun!

Emile:  Snorkeling with the turtles and sharks

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Felix:  Playing with the sea-lions, and playing soccer with David and Martin.

 

2. WHAT WAS THE SINGLE BEST MEAL YOU ENJOYED, AND WHERE WAS THIS?

Anthony: Very difficult, but if I must: Pho Ga on the streets of Hanoi with Emile for $1.50. For each of our 2 nights there, we took a foot massage, followed by the best Pho we have ever tasted.

Rose: Ginger Crab in Kep, Cambodia overlooking the beautiful ocean.

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Emile: Morning Glory (green vegetable dish) in Thailand.

Felix: Noodles in China.

 

3. WHAT WAS YOUR WEIRDEST EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVATION DURING THIS YEAR?

Anthony: I saw anti-corruption messaging on billboards, TV, magazines and newspapers in virtually every country we visited. And at the same time, I was following news of scandal, misappropriation of public funds and dishonesty at every level of government in Canada. Corruption in government is, alas, universal. The difference is the degree and the level of transparency.

Rose: Seeing a skinned dog hanging up-side-down in a Chinese food market (during my cooking class market tour), and learning that many petdogs are killed each Fall as it’s a delicacy on menus during that time of year.  So sorry for the loss of all your dogs ahLong and Jessie!

Emile: Eating Guinea Pig in Peru.

Felix: A lady in a village in Hue, Vietnam grabbing my private part 3 times! Just to be friendly (bit of a crazy custom)!

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4. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITY COUNTRY TO VISIT AND WHY?

Anthony: Overall, Thailand had the most checkboxes. But really, every country created unique experiences and memories for us.

Rose: Thailand without a doubt! The amazing hospitality of the Thai people, the scrumptious food, the stunning beaches and mountains, the fun of getting around on motorbikes and the SUN, SUN, SUN!

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Emile: All of them: every country had something special.

Felix: Thailand – cause the food always has a little kick to it and you can swim around some beautiful islands.

 

5. WHAT WAS YOUR SINGLE MOST FUN, EXCITING/THRILLING ACTIVITY?

Anthony: Rosie, you’re killing me – boiling it down to one thing is tough. But I realized that Vietnam had a number of thrilling experiences. Driving through the huge, jam-packed roundabouts in Danang on a motorbike en route to the stunning Hai Van Pass was a nail-biter. Then there was the adventure Emile I took to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, including early morning bus with Vietnamese Karaoke, getting swindled at least twice and seeing a motorcycle death along the way. And once there, we did deep water soloing – climbing rocks without a rope over water – that was also pretty thrilling. Then of course, we returned to you and Filou in central Vietnam only to be evacuated from the beach to an inland hotel because Typhoon Haiyan was coming towards us. So the most thrilling “activity” would have to be Vietnam.

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Rose: Riding a motorbike in Thailand in my bikini – and trying not to hit an elephant – and motoring on a motorbike in the absolute insane traffic of Vietnam where lights or traffic rules do not exist! Paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador and swimming with sharks, huge tortoises and sea lions on the Galapagos Islands.

Emile: Paragliding in Ecuador.

Felix: Climbing up on tall, funky looking climbing walls, playing laser tag, skating and going to the science lab at Kid’s World in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

6. BESIDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS: WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU MISSED MOST ABOUT HOME & THE ONE THING YOU COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITHOUT ON THE TRIP.

Anthony: Missed most: I didn’t realize how much I missed the clean and green spaces of Toronto until I got home. The world is not so proper and organized. Couldn’t have done without: Besides my co-travellers? My iPhone. Might sound trivial but it was my camera, my connection to locals and folks back home through phone, email and social media. I could have survived with half the clothes, my guitar and my iPhone alone.

Rose: Missed most: Fresh green salads with lots of yummy things in them. Couldn’t have done without: Earplugs; the world is an awfully loud place…and my I-phone for pictures.

Emile: Missed most: Sushi, Greek and Indian Food. Couldn’t have done without: I-Pod to read and contact friends.

Felix: Missed most: Canadian Summer Camp. Couldn’t have done without: My mom.

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7. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT TRAVELLING THE WORLD?

Anthony: I learned that there are many, many different models for how people live and work and that around the world, some folks actually build their work around their lifestyle – foreign concept for us in the West. I consider myself a tolerant person but I tried even harder not to snap judge those who come at life from a different perspective and who have made choices different from mine.

Rose: Our “once-in-a-lifetime” travel experiences have made me live more in the moment.  They’ve also shown me to value friendships more and be more accepting of others – as people from all around the world have accepted our family this past year and showered us with their kindness. I have learned to have deeper compassion – as it is amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. How can you not care? I also hope that we as a family have lost our sense of “entitlement” and that from now on, we will appreciate that the truly important things in life are not material items, but the creation of unforgettable memories with those you love!   Also, I learned that world schooling is amazing (although I have a whole new respect for teachers) and that travel brings out enormous creativity in children. And finally I have learned to appreciate that there are many ways in which to achieve work-life balance and enjoy life!

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Emile: That I am very lucky to have what I have!

Felix: I never thought Asia would be so poor and that you can make nice friends all around the world.

 

8. WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU TRIED DURING THIS TRIP

As the list would be very long, here is a family recap:

A = Anthony, R=Rose, E=Emile, F=Filou

Family: Paragliding, swimming with white-tipped fin sharks, huge turtles, sea lions, penguins, rays and other amazing marine creatures, eating guinea pig, sitting in a cave mud bath, swimming in a hot & cold geyser stream, floating on a bamboo raft down a beautiful river surrounded by Karst mountains, dancing on stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, going out on a night boat to see fire-flies, rock-climbing and deep-water soloing, eating cricket cookies, flying on a 6-seater plane, volunteering at an amazing Elephant Park.

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Plus for….

Anthony: Let’s just say that I am now a Spanish-speaking rock climber and yogi who has reconnected with his musical sensibilities and enjoys reading somewhat esoteric French novels. Oh, I have tried, and succeeded, in not wearing a tie for a year!

Rose: Blogging, learning to deep-sea dive, be an actress in a commercial, riding a motorcycle on the left side of the road, in insane traffic with no rules, with a child in the back, preparing to be evacuated for a hurricane, learning what world and un-schooling is all about, taking a Chinese and Vietnamese cooking class in the local countryside.

Emile & Filou: Learning to surf, zip-lining, fishing a 30LB lake fish (E), learning to play the guitar (E) and piano (F) and sing, performing music on stage, presenting world travel to a group of Dutch school kids (E), cheering on the Dutch soccer team like never before (E), standing up in the back of a pick-up truck that was driving fast, making a bon-fire by myself (E), learning Spanish, hand-weaving a bracelet, poi dancing (F), skinny dipping, holding a live lobster, taking a Vietnamese cooking class (made a delicious curry – F), riding on a FAST motorcycle with no helmet while being squeezed between mom & the driver (F), learning to compose my first original song (F), karaoke singing, volunteering in a dog shelter, collecting starfish out of the ocean, sleeping in a hotel completely made out of salt, being chased by a monkey (F) and getting our first massages in Cambodia and Thailand.

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9. DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAST YEAR HAS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU. WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE?

Anthony: On the surface, it was an unforgettable experience of new places, new friends and tons of discoveries, both geographic and gastronomic. But below that surface, I think we will realize gradually how the year has taught us to communicate better, to appreciate more and to contextualize our life through a broader perspective. As a parent, one of the profound takeaways was of course sharing these experiences with the boys, discussing their impressions and watching them learn and develop. Virtually everyone we met was excited about how such a trip would shape them as men. And while I, too, am eager to see how they develop following this year of privileged family time, there’s a part of me that just wants to hold on to those moments of holding their hand while walking on a beach in a far off country somewhere in the world.

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Rose: I only had one major goal for this year and that was to experience, learn and grow as a family: to create unforgettable memories for a lifetime. This year has given me all that and sooooooooo much more!

Emile: It was so much more exciting – and we made so many more friends than I expected!

Felix: Exactly what I expected. Very best year of my life!

 

10. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT STARTING A NEW ADVENTURE IN BANGKOK, THAILAND?

Anthony: I’m inspired and grateful that we have found a way to combine the adventure of travel and so-called normal life. Thailand holds new opportunities for growth for all of us: the kids in an international school (or any school, for that matter!) and Rose and I starting a business in the ASEAN region. We are also fortunate that all family members are unselfish and lovingly supportive of our decision.

Rose: Just thrilling…A new start which will once again bring many new learnings, challenges and incredible joys.  Thailand, here we come!

Emile: Can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome!

Felix: I am excited about going to Lycée Français International de Bangkok as this school has a science lab, track & field, pool etc. Here I will be meeting lots of new, international friends.

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11. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHERS ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS?

Anthony: I don’t have any advice. While I realize this year of travel was a big deal in many respects, for me it was just something we needed to do. The tour itself was truly amazing, but I don’t think that our decision to do it was amazing. It just felt right for our family at this time, and so we went with that feeling.

Rose: As one who LOVES to travel and enjoys being on the water, this quote sums it up for me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Emile: Just do it. It’s awesome…make the most of it!

Felix: Following your dreams will make you HAPPY!

With incredible thanks and gratitude to Anthony, Emile and Filou for their exploratory and open minds. You guys have made this world travel experience for me what it was; a life-changing, incredible journey that I will carry in my heart forever. You are the loves of my life. Now and always!

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Thailand – Bangkok and Chiang Mai with the grandfathers

1 Feb

How lucky we are as a family to still have all four grandparents enriching our lives, able to enjoy Emile & Filou growing up. It goes without saying that the kids miss their grandparents very much during this year away and it was important for us that, where possible, they join us on our world tour.

So the idea came about that it would be a unique experience for all of us to have both grandfathers come at the same time! They were quickly game (my Dad ADORES Thailand and was dreaming of travelling there one more time, and Jichan just took his first trip to Japan which he LOVED, so was eager to travel to Asia again)…..and so Opa jumped on an aircraft in Düsseldorf and safely reached Bangkok via Abu Dhabi , and Jichan boarded a plane in Toronto and headed to Bangkok via Seoul. Here in the capital city, we were delighted to see our Dads and Granddad’s again!

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Reunion in Bangkok

It was an interesting time to be in Bangkok.  Demonstrations against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and the upcoming elections in February, led opposition camps to block off the streets, and march to express their dismay about the current political situation.  The Sunday we were there, two explosions and some gunshots killed 1 and injured 28 people (which is rare for the very peaceful Thai people!).

We are not easily scared, and went about our way to enjoy the city. With Opa we took a nice boat tour of the Klongs (the waterways that snake through the city) during which Emile and Filou were thrilled to see a huge water monitor lizard.

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Demonstrations on the blocked streets of Bangkok.  Declared “State of Emergency”!

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This demonstrator was all over the news the day I took his picture. He was leading the pack and near the explosions that went off.  We were close to the action, for sure!

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With Opa through the “klongs” of Bangkok

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A huge “water monitor lizard” (komodo dragon family), on one of Bangkok’s riverbanks

And the next day, when Jichan had arrived – we all took the local mode of getting around – a transport boat that grazed the canals at high speeds (fun experience of boarding this busy vehicle that only stops several seconds to let people on and off – kudos to the granddads for joining into the jumping on and off madness!)…and went to Siam Ocean World (http://www.siamoceanworld.co.th). 

This stunning aquarium houses 30,000 different species and is located in the basement of the equally beautiful Siam Paragon shopping complex (http://www.siamparagon.co.th) The boys were super excited to see the many unique, aquatic species like the humongous octopus and giant crabs.  As well, the aquarium houses a 270-degree glass tunnel where the many, large sharks seemingly swim right towards you!

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Big sharks at Siam Ocean World, Bangkok

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After a fun night of exploring the Bangkok local night markets and eating delicious street food – we were all happy to leave the “troubled” city and head for the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai or “new city” is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. This “Rose of the North” has several hundred historic “wats” or temples, intriguing diversity among hill tribes, many cooking and massage schools, numerous elephant camps, a variety of cultural performances and fun shopping at its famous night bazaar.

So, we were excited to make this city our home base for 2 weeks and stay at the lovely Villa San Pee Seua (http://www.villasanpeeseua.com).  Our large, 3 bedroom, 2 level “hometown” bungalow with view over the river (at a calm location on the outskirts of the city), was the perfect place for us all.  Prae, the lovely owner certainly helped at making our stay as wonderful as could be!

Emile’s burning desire (he couldn’t talk about anything else for days….) was to have a fishing trip with both his grandfathers – as each one of them has taught him some angler tricks and ignited his passion for this sport!  So the three of them went off for a day of fishing with Big Game Fishing (http://biggame-fishingthailand.com) – expecting and hoping to catch some giant Mekong catfish.

The day, guided by Suvit and his capable team members, was beyond their wildest imagination – together the boys caught a total of 130 kilos of catfish – with Emile catching the biggest one of all – a 35 Kilo/77 pounder!  This fish was as big as he was… and so heavy, he could not hold it standing up.  From the smile on his face, you can tell – this is not an experience that can be topped easily!

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Emile’s all smiles; with the big one, a 35K/77 pounder (that he could only hold up sitting down!)

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Memories for a lifetime: Emile’s dream to have a fun fishing day with both his grandfathers! 

After some fun times walking the colourful streets of Chiang Mai, buying souvenirs for those back home at the lively Night Bazaar and enjoying some great, local Thai massages, we set off for a day of cultural sightseeing.

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Street vendor at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

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Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a Theravada Buddhist temple that is still very sacred to many Thai people. The temple is located high up on a mountain called Doi Suthep, and although getting there was less fun (the ½ hour drive on sharp, curved roads combined with gas smell, made half of us feel like vomiting for a while), it was worth getting there.  At its base, we had the choice of climbing the 309 steps to reach the pagodas or take a tram (you can guess which one we chose!).

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Once inside the temple grounds, we took off our shoes and started to explore the site that has many pagodas, statues, bells and shrines. I think Emile was taken by the serenity and spiritual vibe of it all and joined the Thai women in prayer – perhaps a conversion to Buddhism is in the works?

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Emile converting to Buddhism?

The copper plated Chedi (the most holy area of the temple grounds) – together with the five-tiered golden umbrella, were truly impressive (and shiny!).

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The copper plated Chedi and five-tiered golden umbrella at Phra That Doi Suthep

The Wat draws many Buddhist that come to serve, bring food offerings and pray. Even though they are not of the Buddhist faith, Emile and Filou were welcome to receive a blessing from one of the monks, and receive a string tied around their wrist for good luck (together with the monks’ blessings from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, they are gathering quite the collection of blessing bracelets!).  Also, my Dad had a lovely chat with one of the monks, who came to pray and rub a large bell for good luck.

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Rubbing a bell for good luck, a monk is praying at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

After enjoying some graceful, dance performances by beautiful Thai girls, we headed further up into the mountains.

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Thai dance – starting at an early age

There are a number of different hill tribes living in Northern Thailand such as the Thins, Lawa, Karen and Meo for example.  They live about 4-6 hours north of Chiang Mai in the mountains although several hill tribe tours are offered in and around town.  Apparently those close by are Burmese refugees posing as tribal villagers so we weren’t going to engage in this kind of tourism– but the Meo Tribe Village happened to be close to the temple and the grandfathers thought it interesting, so we made a stop.

The Meo Tribe, also called Hmong come originally from Western China and claim their name from the word Mongol. Their village consisted of a large centre surrounded by several commercial areas, where they displayed their craftsmanship – mostly needlework and sewing, jewelry (fake diamonds and all) – and weaponry (bow and arrow).  The boys enjoyed some archery, learning from the local experts and we visited the small Tribal museum where we learned about the history of these people.

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Bow and Arrow shooting at Meo Hill Tribe Village

On top of the hill, in a large, beautiful garden – Thai tourists dressed up in Meo tribal costumes and took pictures of each other (and us with them!).  And little children in tribal costumes stole our hearts – especially the one in the bathroom that was trying to spray me with water as I was attempting to take a picture of him (who could blame him?). He was full of laughs till his mother came barging in and gave him heck!

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Little Meo tribal villager in the bathroom – having a ball trying to spray me as I was attempting to take a picture of him 

The boys also enjoyed some great times with the grandfathers at the Chiang Mai Zoo (http://www.chiangmaizoo.com), where they saw many colourful flamingos, hippos, giraffes as well as the amazingly beautiful white tiger and panda (we missed the pandas in China, so they were happy to have an opportunity to see one up close).

And Jichan was so nice to take the bus with the boys (45 minutes north-west of Chiang Mai), and go for a day of zip lining. With The Flying Squirrels (http://www.treetopflight.com), the boys had an absolute thrilling day of biking high in the sky, sliding down the trunk of a massive ancient tree and of course flying trough the tree tops.  The longest zip line was about 600 metres – so long that they had to put the boys together in one harness to have enough weight to reach the other side!  Of course, our daredevils loved every minute of this adventure!

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Jichan took the boys zip lining; a thrilling day with The Flying Squirrels

With Opa, Filou and I were happy to join in with an international group of backpackers and learn the unique style of Thai cooking. With Smart Cook (http://www.smartcookthailand.com) we learned to put together some delicious local dishes (as well as pick the ingredients from the nearby market) – from Coconut Milk Soup with Chicken to Pad Thai and Sticky Rice with Mango – it was all fun to make and scrumptious!   Ps: Mam, make some room in the kitchen as your hubby is coming back with lots of enthusiasm, some local spices and a Thai cookbook in hand!

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The two master chefs at work, learning to cook Thai style…

While the grandfathers were having some one-on-one bonding time with their grandsons, Anthony and I took advantage, rented a scooter and ventured out to drive the Samoeng or Strawberry Loop; a 100KM rollicking circuit through the mountains of Chiang Mai (well-known by motorcycle and bike enthusiasts as it claims to be the best ride in Northern Thailand – in a region, known for its delicious strawberries!).

Our first stop on this breathtaking ride through lush greenery was Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in which the well-known Mae Sa Waterfalls are located. Mae Sa are actually a series of 10 small waterfalls and cascades spaced anywhere from 100m to 500 m apart from each other. We hiked the winding road up the river and made it as far as level 5 – which was a great location for a rest, a chat and selfie on the bridge!

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From there, we stopped at the restaurant of the Pong Yang Ang Doi Resort (http://www.pongyangangdoi.com). This eating establishment is located high up, amidst lush greenery, overlooking the slopes of Pong Yang mountain. With a beautiful waterfall as our backdrop, this was a wonderful little find with incredible views! The food was pretty good too – I tried a banana flower salad that was really unique in taste.

The next day, we did it again! We took the whole family for a picnic lunch at the waterfalls and enjoyed the spectacular views at Pong Yang Ang Doi restaurant, while having a refreshing beverage.

Ps: We also quickly saw a crocodile show, both to please the grandfathers and to instill a teaching moment.  Emile was so taken by the animal cruelty (the animals looked like they were drugged and were pushed around and stepped on), he left crying within 5 minutes.  We are proud of how he’s developing his critical thinking skills.

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Good times at Mae Sa Waterfalls, Chiang Mai

So, after having enjoyed a multitude of great “adventures” with the grandfathers, it was time for one last Y.O.L.O experience.  I took my Dad on a motorcycle ride through the back roads of Chiang Mai.  Probably, not something he would ever do at home, but he LOVED it!

En route we stopped at a beautiful estate (we are nosy and wanted to explore a little!) and found out that a Thai princess was living there with her family. She had just given the rights to a British-Thai couple to open up an upscale restaurant on the property.  It was gorgeous and I am sure they will do well. The owner was happy to chat with us and we enjoyed a delicious, complimentary coffee.

It is these kinds of unique experiences that you have while touring around – and the exact reason why travelling and experiencing the world is so great!

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Cruising the back roads of Chiang Mai, with my 75-year old father on a motorbike. Y.O.L.O!

It was amazing to share some of the incredible experiences we are having on our Regeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com), with our Dads-Granddads!  Together we created some very dear memories! Thank you Opa and Jichan for your love, support, many laughs and great conversations. We had such a great time and will miss you both.  Safe travels back home!

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We will miss you Grandfathers….It was an incredible time of creating priceless memories together!

And now it is time for some poop and scoop as we are off to the Elephant Nature Park for a week of volunteering.

 

Thailand – our month in AoNang, Krabi

15 Jan

It is in meeting fun or inspiring people along your travel path that sometimes define where you’re heading next. So too in this case! We met Michael….. an all-around, nice American guy, avid rock climber & Tai Chi enthusiast in Yangshuo, China. After some lovely chats, he convinced us that his hometown of Ao Nang, Krabi would be a great place to settle in Thailand for a while.  So off we were to Southern Thailand – a country so very near to our hearts as it was here that Anthony proposed to me over 20 years ago (most romantic proposal ever to boot!!). We couldn’t wait to get back and observe how this lovely country had changed during this time, and see if we still LOVED it as much as we did then!

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With new friend Michael Weitzman, an avid rock climber and Thai Chi enthusiast 

We arrived in Krabi on Dec. 15 – shortly before the holiday season. We rented a room in the comfortable 3 Bees Guesthouse (http://www.3beesguesthouse.com) and got us a set of motorcycles, allowing us to find a house for rent, for the month. I was a bit concerned showing up so close to Christmas with still a place to find, and rightly so. We scootered around for 2 full days in 30-35C, stopping at each hotel, hostel, apartment building and house – trying to find something to rent.  We only got NO’s – FULL!

At one point on day 2 on the scooter, the heat was starting to get to me so I stripped down to my bikini, sprayed myself with water and started to sing loudly (to keep the spirits up!!)…..when I turned a corner, I almost hit a huge elephant!!! Surely, I was starting to hallucinate! The kids were laughing at my erratic behavior, probably thinking that I was going to be certifiable soon …..but when I stopped and focused in, I realized I was not quite ready yet for the loony bin. This is Thailand after all!

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Majestic elephant walking along a busy road in Ao Nong, Thailand

With the assistance of Michael, we ended up finding a great, 3-bedroom, Thai style house in the charming village of Chong Phli, just on the outskirts of Ao Nang ($400/month!). We loved living surrounded by locals (mostly Thai Muslims), riding our motorcycles everywhere and taking in the local vibe.

Anthony for example, went to cheer on our neighbor Son – a local Thai boxing champion in the 60Kg category – at one of his matches.  He drove to the spectacle with him and his family and after a great time at the ring – he had a lovely chat with these fine people on the porch of their house.

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Thai Boxing match – supporting our neighbour Son

And, we quickly started to connect with and frequent the local Muslim women with their delicious food – our morning lady, who would drive by with her food cart offering us delicious crunchy chicken on a stick, rice curry, sesame balls or sticky rice in palm leaves with sweet coconut…or the lady with the best chicken & rice with spicy ginger sauce for dinner… All for $1-2 per dish. As Emile said, when you are in Thailand, eat like the Thais do….And so we did – without any hesitation!!! as Thai cuisine is so fresh, varied, delicious and incredibly cheap!

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At the entrance of our Thai Style house in Chong Phli

Ao Nang is one of the top destinations in Krabi Province and we quickly noticed why.  This bustling, touristy town is the gateway to some of the most beautiful and top rated beaches and islands in the world (such as Railay, Kho Lanta, Hong & Kho Phi Phi Islands etc.). In addition, Ao Nang is surrounded by the most stunning rock formations making it a top destination for rock climbing (and the sunsets – WOW)!

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Sunset at Kluong Muong Beach

After his first thrilling experience in China, Anthony was eager to continue learning to rock climb!  With Michael by his side – he got a chance to go out several times and improve his skills.  Often, my brave husband came back with cuts and bruises but always in great spirits, loving his new hobby!  Emile & Filou also quite enjoyed this new sport and took several rock climbing classes on beautiful Tonsai Island, called Basecamp Tonsai (http://www.basecamptonsai.com).  This climbing company did not only expertly guide novices to climb the beautiful rocks in Ao Nang, it also housed a wonderful rooftop café where we hung out with the hippies and young backpackers – savouring the healthy snacks and great java’s!

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At Tonsai Basecamp rooftop terrace. Does it look like I am starting to blend in with the hippy, backpacker crowd? 

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Filou doing his best to reach the top

Ao Nang is also an ideal location for boating & yachtsmen (I am working on a collection of boat pictures from around the world, and I surely got my fill here!), scuba-diving and snorkeling.

I LOVE the water – swimming, sailing, snorkeling etc. and have always dreamed of scuba diving.  So, I connected with Mike, a local scuba diving instructor who guided me through the P.A.D.I  (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), Open Water Diving Course.  I studied the 250 page book and was ready to take the exam, but after a first day in the water (in the pool, practicing emergency procedures where I choked a lot and felt completely suffocated), I realized this is sport is not for me.  Very happy for having tried something new……This one however, will have to go into the book of “fails” (with a good example for my sons that in life nothing is ever lost if you’ve tried your best)!

Michael was kind enough to show us some of the local beaches and less touristy places like e.g. Kluong Muong Beach, where the kids had a great time playing with his kids, Zach “Attack” and Sariya (lovely children that the boys got very attached to!  We called ZachZach “Attack” as he loved testing out his very good boxing skills on Filou – who enjoyed returning his punches!)– and where we enjoyed the pool of the luxurious Sheraton Krabi Beach Resort http://www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1438 , pretending to be guests!

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Some fun times with Michael, his son Zach “Attack” and Sariya 

As well, we went to Koh Yao Noi Island, a favorite hang out location for the climbers where we arrived by Longtail Boat and had a fun social overnight stay. Here at La Luna Italian Restaurant (http://lalunakohyao.com) Michael & friends thrilled us with a great guitar performance while we enjoyed the restaurant’s delicious pizza.

Upon leaving Koh Yao Noi, we learned from local ladies about the traditional style of Batik painting (Batik is a cloth that is painted on, using a manual wax-resist dyeing technique).

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Batik painting on Koh Ya Noi Island

We were extremely thankful to be in sunny Thailand, at the end of December & early January to take in the lovely rays of sunshine and celebrate Christmas & New Year’s here – because our family and friends in Toronto, Canada were battling extreme cold temperatures of up to -30C!  (so sorry friends!).

Besides a couple of touristy Christmas trees & decorations, there was not much Christmas spirit in Ao Nang, which didn’t bother us in the least bit.  For Christmas Day, we planned a day of tropical, island hopping!  We rented a private longtail boat, operated by a lovely driver and set course for Hong Islands (a series of 4 gorgeous islands about ½ hour from Oa Nang).  Emile & Filou had received a new set of snorkeling gear that they were eager to try out…and the first Hong Island did not disappoint!  The aquatic life on this main island was incredible and due of the clear, turquoise ocean water – the kids could easily spot and feed the many colourful fish (of course, a little bread always goes a long way in getting the fish to surround you!).

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Filou feeding the fish at Hong’s main Island

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From there we went into Hong Lagoon, a stunning, peaceful lagoon where we were “ordered” to jump off the boat to go and collect starfish.  It was thrilling how many starfish were located here on the ocean’s bottom – Emile alone must have caught 20 of them! We were a little hesitant to take the wildlife out of their habitat (not quite our thing), but our boat driver kept insisting. We then realized he wanted to put them all over our bodies to take a crazy picture…and fun it was so we made it our Christmas shot to send to friends and family!

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Collecting starfish in Hong Lagoon…fun Christmas picture!

From there, we went to Lading Island – which was frankly a bit overcrowded so we didn’t stay long. It did have a great tree rope so the kids got some of their energy out by making crazy jumps!

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Crazy monkey on a rope!

Lastly there was Phak Bia Island where we where the only tourists which was quite refreshing (due to their stunning natural beauty, the Thai Islands have unfortunately become quite overcrowded)!  The kids played crazy games in the water and tried an incredibly sour, local fruit – after which we took a nice breezy boat ride back to Oa Nang. All in all, a fantastic Christmas Day!

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Breezy boat ride back to Ao Nang, Krabi – in local style with Thai wrap-around pants and bandanas!

For New Year’s, we had promised the children that they could stay up till midnight – a first for them both!  Firstly, we headed to the main strip of Oa Nang where the locals had set up all kinds of food and fun game stalls (the choice was yours – a bowl of crickets or other local creepy crawlers – or a large crispy pancake with nutella!).  The kids had great fun playing with local Thai kids on a large jumping castle and we all enjoyed a local entertainment show – where little girls and boys from the nearby school were performing dance and song routines (in rather provocative clothing)….but very sweet!

From there, we went to play some pool in the Luna Bar, a fun establishment on the beach where Emile and Filou had their first sip of beer (I know they are a bit young, but it was just a little crazy thing for New Year’s… and better not to make alcohol a taboo in M.H.O)!  From there, we walked onto the beachfront to partake in the local tradition of lighting a large lantern and releasing it over the sea for a year of good luck!

It was a delicate operation…our lantern almost crashed in the water – but Emile saved the day by putting it back over the fire to properly burn & fill with gas.  From there, it took off beautifully and together with all the other lanterns, turned the midnight sky into MAGIC!

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Lighting a lantern and releasing it over the ocean for a year of good luck

It was then that fun music tunes were starting to blare and the countdown was there.  It was at that moment that I felt intense happiness, and thankfulness for our beautiful trip & family– looking out at this gorgeous sky (now filled with magnificent fireworks)….  So, I danced my way into 2014 (somewhat to the dismay of the children who thought their mom was rather crazy for dancing on the beach – while others watched.  Honestly, I didn’t care – I was having a great personal moment of gratitude and fun!).

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Me, dancing myself into 2014!  Priceless, fun way to start the new year…

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Fireworks all over the ocean….. and even right on the beach

Although we certainly missed our loved ones back home this year, this was a fantastic way to start 2014 and the second half of our Regeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com). Thank you Thailand for your magic – you are as beautiful and special as we remember you to be 20 years ago! Ao Nang is the first place that we all really did not want to leave after 1 month. You stole our hearts…

But we still have some time to enjoy you Thailand, as we are off to Bangkok and Chiang Mai to meet up with the grandfathers: Jichian and Opa here we come!

CAMBODIA – SIEM REAP; its stunning temples, countryside and more…

2 Jan

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the capital of the Siem Reap Province in Northwestern Cambodia.  It is a popular town as the city is the gateway to the Angkor Region with its magnificent temples.  These Angkor temples are the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia and while we usually shy away from busy, touristy places, this is not one to skip. (If you like travel and have a bucket list item, I suggest adding these temples to the list!)….but more on them later.

We noticed right away that Siem Reap is more set up for the tourist trade than some of the other cities in this country. The town boasts many lively café’s, even a dedicated Pub Street! and has a lively core with its Old Market and bustling night markets, restaurants and numerous street vendors.  Massages here were the very best! For $3-5 (yes, you read that right), you can have an hour-long foot or shoulder & neck massage…Needless to say, we had many!! And the street vendors had the most amazing food – one lady was making these wraps that had sticky white and black rice, with bean paste and shredded coconut inside them.  Two of them for $1 – my favorite dinner by far!

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Street vendor with delicious wraps in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have any copyright laws (yet), so locals can copy or download any movie, tv-show, book, language program etc. you like. (Cambodians copy complete books such as the various Lonely Planet Guides and other current bestsellers and sell them on the street for a fraction of the price – however these books are mostly sold by very young, street children which makes buying them an ethical dilemma).

Being on the road though, we are always on the look-out for the next book to read, or movie/show to watch. So, we did go into a fun shop in town named Rogue Cambodia (http://www.roguecambodia.com/shops/siem-reap/). It is here that they have learned to cash in on what travellers want – they offer to download any music album, movie or book to your I-pad or I-pod in a matter of minutes for a very reasonable price. We made a small investment of $20 which got us 15 of the newest movies to watch. So now we are set for entertainment for a while!

After a few days of exploring Siem Reap, and actually doing a little bit of shopping (the temptation of $2 designer sunglasses, the most beautiful silk scarves for $4, and cool wrap-around pants etc. was just too tempting!)…..it was time for our day of temples!

Angkor Wat

Our temple experience started with an early rise (4:30 am) to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (this most famous temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture, and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and currency). We were certainly not the only ones with the sunrise idea as there seemed to be a stream of drivers with sleepy tourists heading to Angkor in the early morning. However, we had a great tuktuk driver that picked us up from our lovely Tanei Guesthouse (http://www.taneiguesthouse.com) and took us to the famous temple in time for a magnificent red glow to slowly appear over its silhouette. It was quite magical!

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Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  A real Y.O.L.O experience!

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Taking in the beauty and serenity of Angkor Wat

The temple of Angkor Wat (or “City of Temples”), was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer empire (present-day Angkor), as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  It is the only temple that remains a significant religious centre since its foundation. We observed this by the many monks dressed in orange that flank the various corners of the structure, praying and bringing offerings.

Emile & Filou got quite excited about praying with these monks, who would offer a colourful bracelet with a meaning (“happy family”, “safety”, “long life” etc.) in return for the purchase of some incent sticks.  Before we knew it, the boys were looking for monks everywhere to make an offering, pray and get their good luck bracelet as a kind return gesture!

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Ta Phrohm

After Angkor, we opted for the “small temple circuit” – a loop of about 17 kilometers past a diverse set of temples, all completely different in look and style.  The first one was Ta Phrohm – a 13th.century temple, built in the Bayon style and founded as a buddhist monastery and university. What we liked about Ta Prohm was that unlike most of the Angkorian temples, it has been left in much of the same condition in which it was found. This amazing UNESCO World Heritage site has jungle-like surroundings and the boys particularly liked all the trees growing out of the ruins – some of which they were happy to climb!

Besides the many beautiful trees that had wrapped themselves around these ruins, Ta Phrohm had an overall adventure type feel and we could see why the producers of Lara Croft’s movie, the Tomb Raider had chosen this location for filming. It was very cool!

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Tree climbing at Ta Phrohm, just like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

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The beautiful details of the ruins at Ta Phrohm

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Angkor Thom

Next, it was onto the city of Angkor Thom, a temple ruin with the most impressive sculptures at its entrance.  A long causeway leading to each entry tower is flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side (demons on the right with grimacing expressions and gods to the left, looking serene), to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding this city.

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Stone Figures at Angkor Thom

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We weren’t actually allowed to visit the city of Angkor Thom itself, which looked mighty impressive with its very long, central staircase – as the kids were deemed too young (not 12 yet) to climb the very high structure of stairs. However, by this time, it was getting incredibly hot and the kids were easily distracted to move on.

At the base of Angkor Thom, Emile & Filou found a huge, gold buddah temple where monks were praying. Hoping to make another donation in return for a bracelet, they quickly joined them.  While I watched them from a small distance – a monkey “fell” out of a tree, right in front of me.  Before I knew it, he saw Filou, making his way back from the temple.  He must have liked his bright red t-shirt or something, as the animal made a bee-line for him and started chasing Filou at high speed.  I have never seen my little man run as fast as he did!  The monkey finally gave up his chase and Filou concluded that he was a speed machine (“but mom if it was you, or I was still 5 years old, the monkey would have gotten to me”). He was quite right, so thank goodness he ran fast…. as a monkey bite is not an experience we wanted to add to our list!

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The nasty monkey that started chasing Filou

And although many tourists like pictures with monkeys, we know better now.  They are actually quite vicious, and not all that cute. Our tuktuk driver told us a story about one of his tourist clients who insisted on a picture with one of them. He took out some bananas and in no time, had a few monkeys on his shoulders. However, when he “mistakenly” grabbed a little one by the tail – its squealed so loudly that monkeys from trees all around, quickly came to its rescue and attacked the tourist.  He was lucky that the tuktuk driver quickly came to his defense, but the tourist had major scratches all over his face and body, and had been close to losing an eye….

We also noticed that the local Cambodian kids are actually quite afraid of them. So NO…the monkeys – we don’t like so much anymore…but the temples.  Wow, were they ever impressive, stunning, must-see!!!  What a fantastic day.

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Resting after a great day of Angkor Temple visits

To close off our time in this wonderful country, we took the “Day in the Life” Tour of Husk Cambodia (www.huskcambodia.org), a non-profit organization that is working with communities to help improve the lives of Cambodian families. Their goals focus around the basics of providing access to safe water, livelihood opportunities, health, education and environment.  This outing, run by Beyond Unique Escapes (http://beyonduniqueescapes.com) – was a tour that our friend Brian Robertson had recommended.   The hands-on experience promised a first-hand look at life in rural Cambodia while providing us the opportunity to learn and give back a little.

Following our arrival in the local village (about 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap), we quickly climbed onto two traditional ox carts and were driven around the village. The roads were very dusty, and at times extremely wet with thick mud – however the animals seemed to pull us through with ease. We did however, have to dodge the occasional thick tree branch and steady ourselves to remain seated on the wobbly cart (taking pictures was virtually impossible), but it made us laugh and thankful for the unique experience!

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Our fun Ox Cart Ride

We arrived at the local family, most in need of our help that morning. It was a very poor, childless couple that needed a new roof; theirs was full of holes and consequently leaking.  After we said our hello’s, we sat down on a large, square mat. A big pile of bamboo sticks and palm leaves were put in front of us and we were taught how to weave (overlap) the leaves and string them together with the bamboo sticks to make a waterproof ensemble.

Anthony, being Mr. Green Building, was just thrilled that this was the way in which were asked to help out.  He really wanted to do a good job for this couple but the lady of the house, just kept laughing at him (as his work wasn’t quite what she was hoping for, I think). However, he quickly got the hang of it and got very productive….as were the kids!

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Learning how & helping to make a roof out of palm leaves and bamboo

While we worked, we were in the company of many beautiful, sweet children – who came to spend a little time with us.  They were just so happy to have their pictures taken (showing them their shots –gave them great laughs!) and interact a bit with Emile & Filou (swinging together in the hammocks and feeding the chickens together was a thrill).

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Village children coming the spent some time with us

We were very pleased to have spent the morning helping this warm, smiley couple that apparently received one bag of rice as a thank-you for hosting us (the rest of our tour fee went into projects such as planting trees, implementing water purification systems and building houses and schools – things to benefit the entire community).

From there, we went to another family, where together we made a chicken curry for lunch. The lady of the house (a beautiful widow), first gave us some big knives and a large mortar and pestle. With that, the kids had fun cutting and mashing up all the fresh ingredients and spices. After an hour of cutting, mashing, stirring and boiling – we ate fried fish on a sugarcane sticks and a very tasty chicken curry with lots of local vegetables. A fun, personal cooking class & wonderful experience with a great end result!

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Lady of the house!

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Emile mixing up many wonderful, local spices for our curry dish

Following a little rest, we took a long walk through the village and visited a local school (insulated with empty water bottles filled with dry rubbish), a beautiful temple and a successful community project – where women were learning how to make children’s toys and gift items from sowing materials together (we bought a little pencil case for the boys).

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A community-sewing project. Emile joined right in!

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Several of the villagers we encountered on our walk through their area

We learned a great deal about current life in Cambodia and its people, mainly because of our knowledgeable guide, Kimthet.  Although the country is still extremely poor (apparently more poor than AfricaCambodia’s GDP is made up of 60% foreign aid), its people are extremely hard working and moving towards of a better tomorrow. We felt privileged to have learned from them and experienced a little with them….….and to have travelled this incredible month in their beautiful country.

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Kimhet, our wonderful guide during the “Day in the Life” Tour

So thank you Cambodia & your smiley people, for the many wonderful memories you have given us!

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From here, it is onto beautiful Thailand….a country especially dear to our hearts!