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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.

Boys Massages 

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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GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

15 Jul

GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

The ecologically rich islands of Galápagos are a magical place to observe biodiversity and enjoy many enchanting natural wonders. Galápagos is the most important tourism destination in Ecuador and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The number of endemic species of flora and fauna inhabiting this paradise, which informed Charles Darwin’s Theory of the Evolution of Species, was given the nickname: The Enchanted Islands.

The geographic isolation that characterizes this archipelago – located about 1000 kilometers off the coast – has transformed the region into a biological laboratory of great interest for both tourists and researchers.  The province of Galápagos consists of 13 large islands, 6 small ones, 107 inlets and countless rocks, all of them of volcanic origin.

From Guayaquil, we flew into the tiny island of Baltra; the world’s first ecological airport. Here, we took a 10-minute ferry over to the largest and most populated island of the Galápagos named Santa Cruz.

 

ISLA SANTA CRUZ

To think of the Galápagos, is to think of tortoises. The very name, Galápagos is derived from an old Spanish word referring to their saddle-like shape. So on our way to the town of Puerto Ayora, we stopped at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre – where giant tortoises roam freely. They live there in muddy Mother Nature, so we put on some boots and went exploring. Not soon after we left, we found some – and they were so impressive and gigantic!

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Blue boots are on, to go find the turtles in muddy terrain

We learned that the giant tortoises are the most celebrated animal in the region (about 15,000 to 17,000 are left here) and can grow up to almost 600 pounds (270 kg), with a curved carapace length of about 4 feet (1.22 metres). Surprisingly, they live well over 100 years – some reach it all the way to 200!

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The boys with a BABY giant tortoise; only 25 years old

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With giant tortoises at Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre

On our second day, we took a 40-minute hike up to Tortuga Bay Beach. After about half an hour, we reached a perfectly preserved beach with incredibly high waves. Filou was ready to show off his surfing skills but unfortunately this beach is forbidden to swimmers as it is preserved for wildlife.

After a stroll along this beautiful sandy beach, we reached a gorgeous inlet with stunning blue water. It was here that we were allowed to swim and observe wildlife. We saw a colony of black marine iguanas on the beach, several beautiful pelican birds (one was bathing right in front of Emile & me), a stoic heron and many colourful, large, red Sally Lightfoot Crabs.

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A stoic heron on the lava rocks at Tortuga Bay

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Beautiful red Sally Lightfoot Crab

Our last day on Santa Cruz, we headed by ferryboat for Las Grietas. Once across the pond,we walked for 20-minutes through enormous cacti and over impressive lava rock formations. Las Grietas, which literally means “the cracks”, is a geologic formation; a canal formed between steep lava rock cliffs on either side. It’s a really beautiful hide-away and unique swimming hole (a mix of salt and fresh water come together here which makes for crystal-clear, snorkeling water).

The kids loved swimming in this cove and saw the most amazing blue-yellow fish. Also, as is commonly done here, Filou jumped into the water pencil-style from a high rock ledge. It was then that he made a remark that describes him so well. He said: “But mom and dad, you know – I was born to risk my life” (with the biggest smile on his face)! Anthony too jumped from the high perch, but without the whimsical quotable that Filou offered!

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Snorkeling and jumping off rock ledges at Las Grietas, Santa Cruz

And after 3 wonderful nights at Casa Tortuga (a gorgeous 2-bedroom bungalow with amazing amenities) (http://www.flipkey.com/puerto-ayora-vacation-rentals/p295060/), we were ready for our 2-hour boat ride to the next island: Isla Isabela.

 

ISLA ISABELA

We heard some stories about what the 2-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz to Isabela was going to be like, but nothing could have prepared us. I would say that this was an “once-in-a-lifetime experience” (but then not in a good way). A small boat with 22 people, trying to work itself through extremely rough waters – I counted 16 baggies of puke; need I say more? (and yes, the boat crew is completely prepared with black plastic bags and Kleenex; they know what’s coming! And the 16 bags were only on the lower deck; God knows what was happening above us).

Very happy that our family kept it together! Our strategy: lots of stomach muscle tensing, staring at the horizon and no breakfast. We were handsomely rewarded with the most stunning blue-green ocean waters, a group of cute penguins swimming alongside our boat, and several sea lions sunbathing on deck, as we entered the harbour of Puerto Villamil.

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In the harbour of Puerto Villamil, Isabela

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That afternoon we took our first swim and had the most amazing playtime with sea lions; they were swimming and twirling all around us – just incredible! One sea lion even slightly touched Filou; he loved it and said it had the softest skin.  Emile had the same experience the next day when several sea lions came up close to hang out and play. What a treat!

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Emile playing with a sea lion

The following day, we strapped our snorkeling equipment on our backs, rented bikes and went to explore the island.  First we stopped at the local UNESCO funded Tortoise Conservation Centre, which houses various sizes of tortoises; many of which have experienced high levels of poaching within the last 10-20 years. We saw both hatchling tortoises and older breeding animals. Emile particularly liked the little ones.

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Biking along the beautiful coast of seahorse shaped Isla Isabela

From there, we passed a beautiful pond with 15 majestic, pink flamingos. Then, heading in the other direction, we rode all along Isabela’s gorgeous coastline to find a good snorkeling spot – which we did locate at Playa del Amor. Here we had a refreshing swim and a chance to observe large marine iguanas up-close.

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Marine Iguanas at Playa del Amor, Isabela

All in all it was a lovely, relaxing day of observing wildlife and taking in scenery. However, the next day was even better for “los animales”. We booked a snorkeling tour with Rosedelco Tours and were off to Los Túnelos.

 

Los Túnelos

After a thrilling, 45-minute boat ride with Captain Leonardo (who was the spitting image of John Travolta) & crew – we arrived at our first snorkeling destination. Here, we quickly spotted several large Manta and Golden Rays. Then we moved on, to locate the most anticipated  marine species of all (especially by the boys); the White Tip Reef Shark! We first saw some hiding in a cave, but quickly we had them swimming right by us. Apparently these sharks are rarely aggressive towards humans as they have an abundance of food in the area, but still… pretty exhilarating to see several 5-foot sharks swim right underneath you!

Sharks

To prove we really swam with them, here’s a shot of a couple of White Tip Reef Sharks.

Next, we swam against some strong currents (kudos to the kids for keeping up), and arrived at the area of the giant tortoises. It was very cool to see these enormous, pre-historic animals majestically float in the water: especially as they come right up to you.

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Emile having fun snorkeling with a giant tortoise

Then it was break-time and we got back onto our boat for a delicious sandwich lunch and some local, sweet treats. Round two of snorkelling was aimed at spotting the impressively, large Pacific Sea horse (of which we saw several). To conclude the snorkelling part of the tour, Emile braved deep waters to swim under several arched rock formations.

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A very large Pacific Seahorse

After being warmed-up on our boat, we made one last stop at the area known as Los Túnelos. It is here that lava has formed beautiful arcs in the ocean. We got off to walk around a bit, take in the scenery and spot the famous Galápagos Blue-Footed Booby birds.

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The arched lava formations of Los Túnelos

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Filou who loves “boobies”

These birds, especially the males, take great pride in their fabulous feet – especially during mating season, as the bluer the feet the more attractive the male is considered to be. The colour of their webbed feet actually comes from carotenoid pigments that are obtained from their fresh fish diet. And the healthier the boobies are, the bluer their feet.

Also, boobies nest on land and lay only 1-2 eggs each year (of which only the strongest hatchling will survive). Therefore, it was pretty special for us to see a set of boobies safeguarding their egg.

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Famous Galápagos Blue-Footed Booby Birds with egg

 

ISLA SAN CRISTOBÁL

From Isabela, we took a flight, on board a 6-seater airplane (pilot included), to the next and final island: San Cristobál. The ride was thrilling, especially for Emile who sat in front with the pilot (window open and all!). As you can probably imagine, flying over the Galápagos Islands, gave us the opportunity to take in some magnificent views.

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Emile sat in front of with the pilot, during our magnificent airplane ride (6-seater), from Isla Isabela to Isla San Cristobál

Once on the island, we jumped right in with a day tour to the most popular snorkeling spot in the area: Ln Dormido (also called Kicker Rock). We booked with Ln Dormido Expeditions and took a fabulous catamaran boat to this popular landmark and snorkeling spot. It is here that two majestic volcanic rocks (remains of a lava rock, split in two) tower about 140 metres tall above the ocean.

When viewed from the south, the formation looks like a sleeping lion, hence the name Spanish name Ln Dormido, while from another side it looks more like a boot (soccer shoe?), hence the English name Kicker Rock. Apart from its scenic beauty, Kicker Rock is the best place to spot sharks in the Galápagos, so of course the boys were excited to go!

We were instructed to swim through the narrow channel between the two rocks. The water was crystal-clear in there, and the bluest we’ve ever seen. All along the rocks, we found the most magnificent brightly coloured fish, including the spotted Eagle Ray (we saw a massive one!) and many sharks. We saw several Galápagos sharks (and some Black Tips), but unfortunately the Hammerheads were not around during our swim; these were the ones Emile really wanted to see!

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Popular snorkeling spot: León Dormido or Kicker Rock

Nevertheless, we had a fantastic day in the water – in certain spots it looked like we were floating over a carpet of fish (so many of them together)….. and of course swimming with the many tortoises and sea lions was phenomenal; they are just so majestic and impressive in the water.

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Snorkeling selfie at Kicker Rock – Leon Dormido, San Cristobál

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Emile and I, swimming with some giant tortoises. Great fun!

The next day, we chilled out with some great new Ecuadorian-German friends; Bastienne, Pablo and their sons Martine and David.  We first met this lovely family on Isabela and now again on San Cristobál. We had stimulating conversations about sustainability, business and life with them. They live in Quito but run a fantastic lodge in the Amazon Jungle, called Huasquilla Amazon Lodge. Check this out: http://www.huasquila.com

On our winding path leading to Las Tierretas, we visited the Galápagos National Park Visitor Centre with them. Here, we learned about the natural processes that have made the Galápagos such a unique place (a complete and documented history of the Galápagos, its ecosystems, flora and fauna was presented here). As well, there was lots of information about the efforts underway to protect and preserve the islands.

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With new friends Martine and David at the Galápagos National Park Visitor Centre

Then the kids were ready for their last snorkel. And what an amazing one it was – almost like a dance with baby sea lions (Filou got to use the GoPro under water camera for the first time and captured some great shots).

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Filou’s selfie with the GoPro

It was fitting that we ended with sea lions as the island of San Cristobál, is particularly known for them. We got to observe many up-close, both in and out of the water. Our conclusion is this; as majestic as sea lions are in the water, as sleepy, coughing, stinky and awkward they are on land. There are so many of them in the centre of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno that you have to be seriously careful sitting down on a bench as it might be taken!

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The beaches and shores of San Cristobál are filled with sea lions

San Cristobal, the capital of EL PARAISO, quickly became our Galápagos favorite. Efforts put forth to keep this earthly paradise intact have been great; a wonderful conservation example indeed and perfect finale to our REgeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com).

And now, I sit here on our 30th and last world tour flight, thinking of my very first international flight to Portugal when I was only 11 years old. I vividly remember the excitement of soaring higher and higher and seeing that beautiful white blanket of clouds that just makes you want you to jump in.

Now here, some 30 years later, I am once again looking out the window of an airplane, marveling at that gorgeous sky (with stunning red glow as the sun is just rising) and that same tingling, travel excitement, feeling is rising. I envision and hope that my boys will have similar vivid memories of their first travel experiences; we have certainly given them some to remember this year.

The world is stunningly beautiful and so worthy of exploring and protecting. Thank you Galápagos, your paradise was our “icing on the cake”; a fitting end to an incredible year of adventure, exploration and unforgettable world-travel with my three wonderful men – for which I am more grateful than can ever be expressed….Y.O.L.O!

Note: There will be one more blog that recaps our round-the-world-trip reflections and thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Penang, Malaysia

26 Feb

MALAYSIA – PENANG

Penang, or Pulau Pinang as the locals call it, is a small island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia.  In ways it is similar to Toronto as it is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language, and religion – however it is different in that the sun shines here every day (average of 35C during our stay; consequently our deodorants ran overtime!).

We chose to base ourselves in the highly popular district of Batu Ferringhi and rented a nice, 3-bedroom apartment at Eden Fairway Condominiums (www.penangguesthouse.com); mostly a hangout place for British and Dutch retirees (with whom I had lovely chats during my morning swims); a centrally located place with ample space and a lovely pool.

Our stay in Penang was focused on homeschooling, as well as taking in the unique, local culture & arts scene, enjoying the widely varied and delicious assortment of foods (Penang is dubbed the greatest street food capital of the world) and learning some new skills.

In Thailand, Emile and Filou started to get really excited about learning music (mostly after jumping on stage and giving an impromptu performance with Anthony at a local bar in Chiang Mai).  So to encourage their excitement for guitar (Emile) and piano (Filou), we signed them up for some music lessons and took them to Cornerstone Music Studio (https://www.facebook.com/CornerstoneMusicStudio). They loved it! Emile is now eyeing Papa’s new travelling guitar and both kids are dreaming about a boy-band!

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Emile taking his first guitar lesson (with his delighted Papa in the background!)

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Filou made excellent progress during his four piano lessons

Also, what better way then to take in more arts and culture, then to visit nearby George Town.

George Town

George Town is a UNESCO world heritage site as it is one of the most complete surviving historic cities on the Straits of Malacca, with a multi-cultural “living heritage” originating from the trade routes from Europe through the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Malay Archipelago to China.

The city reflects a mixture of influences that has created a unique architecture, culture and townscape. In particular, it has an exceptional range of colonial shop-houses and townhouses.  George Town is also very well-know for its unique street art which is something that piqued our interest.

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Shop house in George Town

Anne, our landlord, pointed out that there was an art exhibition in town, by street artist Ernest Zacharevic.  The“Art is Rubbish”, his first solo art display in Penang, was a wonderful open-air showing of some very unique art pieces.

I have to admit that I’m pretty particular about the art I like; not many works please me easily. But these pieces were just incredible; not only does Ernest Zacharevic use very unique, sustainable media to paint on – old city walls, antique doors, used window blinds or coffee-bean sacks – he paints the most vivid facial expressions (the face of the little Asian girl was so real, it seemed to pop off the old wood it was painted on – just surreal)!  There was frankly not one piece in his collection of 20 artworks that I didn’t want to bring home. Absolutely loved it! But alas, all the works had already been purchased.

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Man in rickshaw, painted on old window blinds

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My favorite piece!  The face of this little Asian girl was mesmerizing!

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Mother hugging her son, painted on an old coffee-bean sack

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Man sleeping on a bench, painted on an old door

Now, we were inspired to see more art – so a few days later, we got two trishaw drivers to take us around town and show us the street art. We were happy to have taken this approach, versus walking around ourselves, as many of the pieces were hidden in small street alleys.

Ernest Zacharevic’s beautiful wall paintings of children, all across historical George Town, are funny, fascinating and open to interpretation…and the attention for his work is apparently building rapidly. He painted his first series of murals for the George Town Festival in 2012. But what really started the art in the city, was when a Kuala Lumpur based art company won the Penang state art challenge ‘Marking George Town: An Idea Competition for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The company proposed to tell stories of Penang inspired by their residents and culture through 52 steel rod caricatures placed all over George Town. Together with the wall murals, they are now catching the world’s attention.  We were certainly happy to observe how the walls of George Town are gaining a new lease on life…with art that is not only beautiful and fun to watch, but that is is also helping to implement a brilliant city beautification strategy!

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Little Children on a Bicycle Mural, Armenian Street, George Town

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Boy on a Bike Mural, Queen Street, George Town

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Steel rod caricature art

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Reaching Up Mural, Cannon Street, George Town

Tropical Spice Gardens 

Situated in what was once an abandoned, rubber plantation on the north-west shore of Penang, the Tropical Spice Garden (http://tropicalspicegarden.com) was on our hit-list to visit as part of Emile’s homeschooling repertoire.

This eco-attraction, tucked away within a natural valley fronting the Straits of Malacca, houses over 500 species of herb, spice and tropical plants. Together with our new friends Alana and Ian, we set out to learn about spices and were directed by our guide Tan Choon Eng (CE), towards the Spice & Ornamental Trail.

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Emile and Ian Minton at the Tropical Spice Garden, Penang (only natural and recycled building materials were used from pre-war shop houses & local antique stores to landscape this garden)

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We quickly gathered from CE that Malaysia boasts one of the richest collections of spices in the world due to its long trading history (spices were discovered and traded by the Dutch and British who planted the best of its varieties in Malaysia).

She also taught us many interesting facts about spices such as:

  • Spices can be obtained from seeds, fruits, flowers, roots, bark etc.
  • Rice, Wheat, Bamboo and Sugarcane all belong to the grass family. Bamboo is the fastest growing grass type and comes in over 1000 varieties (we saw the yellow, black, green and fishing pole kind)
  • Nutmeg is a pit of a green fruit about the size of a peach and Penang is called the nutmeg state. For more info: (http://tropicalspicegarden.com/2011/03/nutmeg-state-penang-island-malaysia/
  • Cardamom is the fruit of the ginger plant
  • Turmeric is a type of ginger that has anti-bacterial and tumor fighting tendencies and is used both for cooking and religious ceremonies.  In India, turmeric is used to stain the robes of monks, due to its rich orange colour!

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“When we cut away forests, we take away medical miracles”.  Emile’s conclusion: let’s hug our trees instead!

It was all very interesting and educational and upon parting CE stressed that “when we cut away forests, we take away many medical miracles”.  We, and I am sure our YiaYia, couldn’t agree more!  With this important message and a cup of very fragrant and fruity “cooling tea” called Luo Han Guo, we were on our way….

 

Penang National Park

Penang National Park is the world’s smallest national park and one of the few natural forested areas left on the island. With 1181 hectares of forest and 1381 hectares of wetlands, the Park’s ecosystem is a diversity of habitats with hills, sandy and rocky beaches, streams and coastal forests – representing much of the local natural habitats.

Together with our new friends from Texas, the Minton family, we set out to explore this natural wonder. After a beautiful, fierce hike for about 2 hours through dense forest (during which we encountered some unique, long green snakes… to the delight of some and dismay of others), we reached Turtle Beach.

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Hiking Penang National Park with the Minton family

The Penang Turtle Sanctuary is located on this beach, set up to help protect the dwindling populations of Green Sea and Olive Ridley turtles in Malaysian waters.  These species of turtles come onto the beach at night to lay their eggs, which are then protected by the sanctuary from predators, until they hatch up to 60 days later.

Emile was a little disappointed we only saw the baby turtles in a basin, and not in their natural habitat on the beach. So, with a pre-arranged local boat, we moved on further to Monkey Beach.  This beautiful, small isolated beach, certainly gave honour to its name, as we saw several Macaque monkeys around – jumping the trees.  But after our Cambodia incident (where a monkey chased Filou), the kids are not so keen on them anymore – and had more fun swinging on tree ropes.   All in all, a fun and active day!

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Can you spot the snake?

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Peanut eating Macaques on Monkey Beach

Food & families

With the incredible quantity of amazing hawker food stalls, Penang is a dream come true for those who love to eat; such as the Watanabe-Swagemakers family!  The many different food cultures and traditions spanning from Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mamak and Nyonya cuisines make for a very unique eating experience. We tasted such diverse and rich flavours in every dish: just out of this world!

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My favorite hawker stall food: Chicken Satay (grilled chicken with a delicious peanut sauce and sticky rice squares)

Eating is always more fun with others and Penang seemed to be the perfect place for get-togethers – as it is a very popular stop-over for travelling families.  We loved meeting up with 5 of them – from the US, Australia and England – and had a few great meals together.  Our most favorite hang-out: the “Long Beach” hawker stalls!

We seem to share a unique bond with these travelling families; people we have never met before but instantly click with.  They share our deep passion for travel, for wanting to give our children a “world education”. They gladly share their best travel tips & stories as well as the ups and the downs of being long-term on the road.  So from commiserating over  homeschooling difficulties to sharing the many wonderful ways in which our children are developing and learning on the road… we discuss it all and agree full-heartedly that travel is the very best thing…a priceless adventure that we are thankful for every day!

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Kids on the move

So thank you Malaysia, for have given us a great social and learning time …we have enjoyed your wonderful culture and arts scene, our bellies are full and we’ve soaked up enough of your hot hot sun….now it’s onto New Zealand!

 

 

 

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.

 

CAMBODIA – Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville

28 Nov

KAMPOT

The charm of Kampot, a somewhat sleepy provincial capital & port town, lies in its colonial architecture and its attractive riverfront. Kampot has a retro ambience and is mostly known for its caves and pepper plantations (they produce varieties of pepper that are well sought after by chef’s worldwide- and having tasted it now first-hand, we know why!).

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Kampot’s pepper (red, green or black), sought after by chefs worldwide!

In Kampot we stayed at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge (http://www.mangokampot.com) – a wonderful compilation of wooden huts, overlooking the Kampot River with stunning views of the mountains. The sunsets there completely draw you in!

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Our bungalow, overlooking the Kampot River at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Stunning sunsets overlooking Kampot River & surrounding mountains

Emile & Filou loved this “French place” (run by a French-Cambodian couple), as Les Manguiers attracts many Frenchies with kids so a great deal of friends were made!  This eco-lodge also had some fun things to entertain the young ones – such as a Tarzan rope that propelled the kids into the water (Emile and Filou spent hours perfecting their different jumps!), animals to pet (the sweet looking rabbits where their favorite), and many board games, table tennis, swings, hammocks etc.

They even offered a fabulous night river cruise where we saw hundreds of fireflies light up the trees like it was Christmas!!! – Going out on a boat and exploring the river by night (it was pitch black)… was priceless!

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Filou spent several hours feeding and playing with the rabbits at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Emile rope-jumping into the Kampot River

One of the highlights of staying at Les Manguiers was their Table d’Hôte menu (2 options to choose from at each meal).  The surprise of what we would get to eat each day was first a bit daunting for the kids (we don’t get to choose? What if we don’t like the food?), but this quickly turned into the wonderful surprise of the day! All the dishes offered were amazingly fresh, copious (even for the “light” meal option) and absolutely scrumptious! Eating, overlooking the river made the meals even better and the kids still can’t stop talking about them (we are starting to create some real foodies!).

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The scrumptious Table d’Hôte Menu at Les Manguiers, Kampot

On our first morning in Kampot, we took a tuktuk and ventured out to the local Phnom Chhngok Caves that house a 1200 year-old temple. The drive on the extremely muddy road, full of potholes, was half the adventure!  It was an hour-long roller coaster ride before we arrived, but it was worth it, as we were greeted once again by many warm Cambodian smiles & “hello’s” while enjoying beautiful green landscapes & rice paddies– and of course the caves. With our very young Cambodian guides (they probably shouldn’t be working yet, but were all smiles and had good English), Emile and Filou climbed very steep walls down, deep into the dark, slippery caves and loved every minute of it (mom and dad decided it was best not to risk breaking a leg)!

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Climbing the Phnom Chhngok Caves

We also learned about the local social initiative “SAMAKI” – a program supported by Solaid International that provides school support & help to the most vulnerable families by association. So to give back a little, we took our bikes and rode to the local school “Kampong Kreng” to go help with their English program.

We all had our turns in front of the class while helping the hardworking children practice sentences & improve their English pronunciations. At the end, class was divided into four, and each of us had a small group to interact with (they loved learning about the snow in Canada and wanted to know everything from our favorite colour to how old we were)!

At the end of the 1-hour class we were all sitting in the dark – as electricity is very expensive and the one light they had in the classroom was not put on (also we could hear every word of the class being taught next door as windows and doors are just holes in the walls). But even though the class had the most basic of amenities, the kids were happy with their enthusiastic English teacher and our “surprise” appearance.  After a productive class and a smiley group picture, they happily jumped on their bikes and raced back home…

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English teachers Filou & Emile  in front of the class!

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The kids we helped with their English, at Kampong Kreng School in Kampot

And after a last look at Kampot river‘s “Green Alley” via canoe, we raced to the next local town of Kep.

KEP

An idyllic coastal location, backed by hills covered with lush jungle, Kep was originally built as a retreat for the French colonialists.  For sixty years it thrived as Khmer’s favorite coastal holiday resort, with its heydays in the 50s and 60s until it fell into ruin – especially after the Khmer Rouge, when locals in need of money and food started to dismantle the old villas.  But Kep is currently experiencing a tourism revival and we got to enjoy it (thoroughly!!!).

We stayed at Kep’s Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort (www.jasminevalley.com)– where our accommodations were a large jungle tree house, complete with veranda overlooking the Cambodian Jungle! Every night we enjoyed the many sounds of nature (a chorus of vocal frogs and birds) and took in the magnificent views of the mountains, and smells of Jasmine and jungle blossom.

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Our jungle tree house at Jasmine Valley Eco-Lodge

Kep is known for its seafood, and in particular its crab dishes. We went to Kim Ly Restaurant (http://www.kep-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKep/kimly-restaurant.html), well known for having the best crab in town, and we were not disappointed. Emile is still raving about his crab dish with ginger! It was truly divine and without a doubt, the best we have ever had!

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Kep and its famous crab!

We also spent an absolutely lovely beach day on Rabbit Island, an island just of the coast of Kep, given its name mainly due to its shape. It is a true idyllic beach hideaway, with its gorgeous blue ocean water and stunning views of clouds with fishing boats on the horizon.  We took a 30-minute boat ride to get to the island (which is delightfully non-touristy) and enjoyed swinging in the hammocks, swimming in the incredibly clear blue waters and taking in a lovely massage on the beach.

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Sweet little Cambodian boy on Rabbit’s Island

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The views from Rabbit’s Island

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Rabbit’s Island, the perfect place to chill for a day!

And to end our wonderful stay in Kep, we took a 6:30 am morning walk, via the local monkey and mountain trail, to reach the mountaintop. The few enjoyable hours that we explored Kep National Park, were aided by the useful and very informative signage posted by the local Squirrel Association. The park is home to many red squirrels, as well as many snakes, birds, butterflies etc. – overall amazing flora and fauna! Filou was eager to capture it all on camera (he took pictures of every little animal, flower or leaf we saw in the park)!

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Sunset playing on the beach at Kep

SIHANOUKVILLE

A jolly Khmer taxi driver took us on our 2-hour trek from Kep to Sihanoukville.  He told us that he used to work in construction but that he had to leave his post behind due to the pain in his arm.  I did notice the many scars on both his arms! He explained that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge (as they thought he was a policeman), and that he – at 5 years old – was given a gun to kill someone. When he refused, they broke and cut his arms in many places. Such a sad tale, from a man that had the happiest face and seemed to be the local comic entertainment for the girls at Jasmine Valley. We were happy it was he who took us safely to Sihanoukville! 

Once there, we arrived at the Don Bosco Hotel School (http://www.donboscohotelschool.com), where we were welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic students.  The Don Bosco Hotel School, created by a foundation with the same name, is a unique concept in that it is at the same time a quality, 31-room hotel in Sihanoukville (with fantastic food and an amazing pool in a lovely, quiet location), and a professional school educating and training Cambodia’s disadvantaged youth for the hospitality industry and a better life.  A former hospitality student myself, this was totally up my alley…

One of the volunteer teachers, Thomas Lerch (specializing in Front Office Management), was kind enough to tour us around the hotel & technical school complex. Set on well-kept grounds, the school provides bright classrooms and clean, comfortable eating and sleeping quarters for the students.  Thomas explained that each year, about 1000 students from all over Cambodia, apply for the program (of which 200 get enrolled into the hospitality program and 400 into the technical one).  The selection criteria used are guided by the core principles of the Don Bosco Foundation, which is to provide the most disadvantaged children a chance of education.  Although the students are required to pay for their own school supplies; some of their English textbooks and pencils (usually a couple of dollars a year), few cannot even afford that.

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The hard-working students of the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville

Educating and supporting these children makes a real difference in their lives (and the lives of their families as they go on to support not only themselves but the many loved ones around them!).  Thomas Lerch (pictured above) and his volunteer colleagues – educators from England, Germany, Poland – are truly committed to making these kids succeed (Thomas for example is taking a full year away from his wife in Dubai, and is totally driven to see his students land jobs at top 4 or 5 star hotels in the country – positions at local guesthouses is not what he has in mind for his protégés!)

Apparently, they do lack a volunteer French teacher, so if anyone is interested  🙂 or would like to stay at this great hotel, please contact: Thomaslerch2003@yahoo.com

We were grateful that our stay helped a little towards the education of these very friendly and hardworking students! A wonderful program and relaxing stay in Sihanoukville before heading to the jungle in Koh Kong!

VIETNAM – Saigon, Hue, Danang, Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

14 Nov

CHI MIN CITY – SAIGON

Good Morning Vietnam! (how cool is it to say that…. arriving in the Southern Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Min City….or Saigon as the locals still call it).  The city welcomed us with an incredible heat wave….even standing still made us sweat, so we moved very slowly during our two days of exploration. Saigon is a bustling city….and another one where the motorbike is king and it is a roll of the dice if you survive crossing a simple street!

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Street scene of Saigon

We stayed in the wonderfully, lively backpacker area where it was very enjoyable just to be sitting in a café, looking at people pass by….what the Vietnamese carry on their motorbikes is just beyond incredible! At night, the cafés fill up with the numerous backpackers enjoying the incredibly cheap Saigon beer….and the creepy old, white guys with the very young, and pretty Vietnamese girls.

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Underwater Puppet Show in Saigon

Saigon was the city where we had the pleasure of meeting up with friends: Bryan Rappaport, who works for the Canadian government in Saigon, with his lovely wife Angela and their adorable newborn son Leo. We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch with them and their friends at a breezy and elegant restaurant.

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Anthony with Brian Rappaport and his adorable son Leo

And we got to meet a couple of friends, which were purely made on-line (via my Families on the Move – Facebook group). We enjoyed breakfast with Australian couple Bethany & Lee Davies and their energetic son Rueben and got together with Barbara Adam and her adorable daughter Poppy.

Barbara, a funny Australian native, married Vietnamese Vu, and together they run Saigon Street Eats (http://saigonstreeteats.com),  offering unique, behind-the-scenes, street-food tours.  Barbara met us at a fun place called Snap Café (http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/the-snap-cafe/), a favourite for families with children as this lovely courtyard restaurant has a great play park to keep little ones entertained (Filou and Emile quickly bonded with the many expat kids there).

After a nice welcome chat, Barbara showed us the ropes of Vietnamese cuisine by taking us to a local restaurant where she expertly ordered a variety of dishes that melted in our mouths. At night, she also took us to her home, showed us the nearby river (where kids come to schmooze as they have little privacy at home), and gave the boys a spin on her motorcycle!  The boys’ were sad to say good-bye to Poppy, as they truly enjoyed their evening with her and her cool mom!

HUE

From Saigon, we flew with Vietnam Airlines to Hue in Central Vietnam to spend our next 5 nights, as it was highly recommend by some other travellers.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we got to see quite the beauty of this little town as it poured rain continuously while we were there. However, we still made the best of it and did some fun things….

On the only day calling for dry weather, we engaged Hue Riders (http://www.hueriders.com), a local motorbike adventure company, to take us and our travelling friends Sonja Everson & family, on a spin to explore the local countryside.  Four riders showed up with lots of enthusiasm and rain gear in tow to provide us with a great day.

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Our rainy countryside tour of Hue, with motorbike adventure company, Hue Riders

During our ride, we saw very colourful and intricate family homes – that looked more like temples – but were Vietnamese houses built for the sole purpose of families coming together to celebrate or enjoy each other’s company.  At the beach, where we were supposed to have a seafood lunch, we saw the structures of what used to be the seafood restaurants destroyed by a recent storm (so we ended up eating under a tent at a local little place – beef ribs, duck, green garlic veggies, egg & rice – $16 worth of deliciousness for the eight of us)!

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Vietnamese Family Home

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Just the skeleton left of a beach seafood restaurant, due to a recent storm

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We also saw farmers, working the rice fields the very traditional way with yaks and had the pleasure of making a stop and interact with a local family – where we got smiles from the very young and the very old (90 years!).

We (and by that I mean Filou), also got to learn about a somewhat unpleasant/surprising habit some Vietnamese have.  The lady of the house took a particular liking to our little guy. She kept asking if he was a girl (perhaps it was not clear as he had a big helmet on at first?) and kept grabbing his private part (I thought is was to check if he was indeed a boy). Later I learned that this is a non-sexual, normal custom – that just shows affection!  Filou took it really well…. just laughed the whole thing off!

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Farmers still working the rice fields, the traditional way with Yaks

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The young (very adorable)…

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And the old (90 years to be exact!)….

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Vietnamese lady that took a “particular” liking to Filou

For the rest, we had fun playing pool at a local café (where again the boys were adored by the many sweet girls that worked there), had our first family foot massage – all four at the same time!, and ate some of the best and cheapest Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) on the street- one that came with many interesting condiments (quail eggs, samosa type bread for dipping etc.) and the most delicious vanilla/lemon frozen yogurt in a bag with straw, we’ve ever tasted!

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Best Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup), eaten alongside the road, in Hue, Vietnam

And one day in town, trying to dodge the rain, we sipped delicious mango smoothies while Anthony made an attempt at starting a Vietnamese rock band with the locals (unfortunately, I don’t think great success is in the cards as Anthony had to try not to laugh when one of the guys started to belt out an English song – in a tone so off key, it would make chickens cringe!)

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Anthony and his “talented” Vietnamese music friends

DA NANG

We quickly learned that Vietnam is best explored by motorbike!  Officially it is illegal  for foreigners to ride a motorcycle without a Vietnamese license but everyone does it. And so did we!  For the entire time we were in Hoi An, we had two motorbikes that would take us anywhere. So fun!

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Our first big exploration was a coastal ride from Hoi An to Da Nang, the biggest city on the South-Central coast of Vietnam – beautifully located along the water.  We rode past some gorgeous, deserted beaches all the way up to see the Lady Buddha (or Goddess of Mercy – a HUGE stark white statue, not dissimilar to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ de Redeemer), and Monkey Mountain (a rainforest type habitat that supports many Langur monkeys – although their habitat is getting more endangered with the numerous high-end resorts being build in the area). 

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The Lady Buddha or Goddess of Mercy, on top of Monkey Mountain, Da Nang

Upon our return to Hoi An, we stopped at the Sailing Club restaurant at Da Nang where Filou quickly took a dip in the water to cool down – and Anthony, Emile & I had some great laughs – jumping in the air, snapping shots!

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Jumping for Joy at our Y.O.L.O Life!

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Filou practising Kung Fu, with a bamboo stick found on the beach

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Some great laughs at Da Nang Beach

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Calm Beach scene of Da Nang

The second wonderful ride was the one to the top of Hải Vân Pass – or ocean cloud pass – referring to the mist that rises from the sea – reducing visibility.  This is the 21 km long mountain pass consisting of twisting roads and stunning scenery, between Danang and Hue (according to the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, this road is “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coastal roads in the world’).

Once we survived the hair-raising task of crossing Danang (we made it alive crossing insane traffic on streets and roundabouts in the city), we were rewarded with a stunning ride through the mountains where we enjoyed magnificent scenery, gorgeous waterfalls, mountain goats – and the thrill of a fantastic ride up, high up in the sky!

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Many pretty, small waterfalls on Hải Vân Pass

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Riding the clouds on a gorgeous mountain pass

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Hải Vân Pass, or Ocean Cloud pass (we rode through a cloud of mist!)

HANOI & CAT BA ISLAND

Anthony interjecting here, to tell about a quick jaunt to Hanoi for Emile and me. On short notice, I had the chance to attend a workshop on climate change in the nation’s capital. I decided to bring Emile with me and make a trip of it.

It was his first ever conference and he was pretty excited. He registered, got a name badge and participated fully in the “tea breaks”. After 10 minutes of formal presentations however, he tuned out preferring to focus on his homework – a good thing indeed! At lunch, he made some new friends amongst a group of Master’s students, one of whom returned later that afternoon with a small parting gift for him. The conference was very interesting and I learned a lot and made some good contacts.

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Emile at his first conference

After the event, flanked by an afternoon of walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and some delicious Pho, Emile and I headed to Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay for some rock climbing. As our time was limited, we had to get an early start (5am to be exact!). After 7 hours on buses, taxis and boats, we finally made it to the island.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Our guide extraordinaire at Asia Outdoors Adventure Company  (http://www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn) created a custom program to do some climbing the following morning – again an early start. But was it worth it! Rather than traditional rock  climbing, we took a boat out to the many rocks in the harbour and did some “deep water soloing”. This is essentially rock climbing without a harness, using instead the water to help break your fall. Very cool!

Our guide, Matt, said it best: “Have fun guys and don’t take it too seriously. I mean, we’re climbing rocks and jumping in the water – how serious can it be?” Wise counsel!

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Enjoying a Vietnamese breakfast with Matthew, our rock climbing guide

As Typhoon Haiyan was set to hit Vietnam, Emile and I got home to An Bang Beach as quickly as possible to reunite with Rose and Filou. Upon arrival, I learnt we had been evacuated from our villa and put into a solid concrete hotel. And so the adventure continued…

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On the ferry to Cat Ba Island

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Emile & Anthony doing some deep water soloing at Cat Ba Island

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XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

22 Oct

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

From Beijing, we moved by overnight train to Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province located in the middle of China and one of country’s oldest cities (Xi’an is one of China’s four Great Ancient Capitals).

The kids were quite excited to go per sleeper train (about 12 hours) – although the arrangements were rather small (2 tiny bunk beds) and a little cramped for my long Dutch legs – it was a great first, overnight train experience (the train is really a great way to see the beautiful and interesting countryside!).

Anthony was invited to speak at the EuroAsia Economic Forum in Xi’an where he was presenting on Innovolve’s exciting low carbon housing work in Latin America.

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Anthony presenting at the EuroAsia Forum in Xi’an, China

As part of the conference we were staying at the luxurious 5-star Hilton Xi’an (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/china/hilton-xian-XIYHIHI/index.html).  To have super comfortable beds (with 5 choices of pillows), fluffy bathrobes, a bath to soak in and a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, were real treats after several nights in hard bunk beds.

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Lobby of the Hilton Xi’an Hotel

Our first day, we were offered a complimentary conference tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors Factory. We misunderstood, as we thought we were going to the coveted museum & site– and we probably would have skipped this tourist trap – but in the end is was quite interesting to visit the place where they make the beautiful replicas of these world famous warriors (the ladies who make the replicas go through years of ceramic studies!). Apparently, the replica statues are made from the same clay as the real warriors in the ground and full life-size ones can take up to a year to make (and yes….we were weak, couldn’t resist– a nice, small copy of a Warrior General is being shipped to Canada  – we hope this souvenir will arrive in one piece!).

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Filou with life-size replicas of the Terra Cotta Warriors, at the factory where they are made

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The real Terra Cotta Warriors site is of course the main reason why many visit Xi’an and we were also quite excited to explore this phenomenon.

In 1974, farmer Yang Zhifa found a piece of old terracotta as he was digging a well.  What he dug up was the first warrior of the now world-famous Chinese Terracotta Army (a selection of 2000 year-old Qin warriors, chariots and horses depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China).  It was absolutely incredible to visit this impressive, large historical site that has now turned into a must-see museum.

When you enter the complex, you walk into a large Pit (they have about 3 pits in total). Pit 1 is the largest excavation pit of the Army and the most impressive one – it is also the easiest one to see as it is the only one in bright light (some of the warriors were found with colours on them – red, blue, black & yellow tints – that disappeared when dug up and exposed to light.  Therefore, Pits 2 & 3 can now only be seen in darkness).

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At Pit 1 of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum

In the Pits, we saw the warriors still in the clay and surrounded by the walls they were found in – several of them in full condition – while others are mere fragments of horses, warriors and wheels of chariots.  The figures vary in height and dress according to their roles (the largest and most impressive being the general). It was truly mind-blowing!

Our guide told us one funny story about the farmer who found this historic treasure. When Bill Clinton came to visit Xi’an and wanted to meet the farmer who dug up the national treasure, the Chinese government prepped him to say a few word in English.  “How are you”? “Thank you” and “Me too”.  When the farmer met the former US President, he was so nervous that he said; WHO are you, instead of HOW are you. So Bill said: “I am Bill Clinton, President of the United States”.  The farmer was confused as he expected “I am fine” in answer to HOW are you – so he asked again: “WHO are you”?, so Bill said: ”I am Bill, husband of Hillary Clinton”.  So the farmer answered: ME TOO!

Everyone had a good laugh and the Chinese still to this day, very much like Bill Clinton who was quite amused by the whole thing!

The children were also quite amused when I rented some bikes with them (Filou and I on a tandem) and we rode 1.4 km on the ancient city wall of Xi’an.  This beautiful, ancient wall that surrounds the core of Xi’an is the most complete city wall that has survived in China. It was quite special to ride on top of this beautiful piece of architecture – but it has to be said that the ride was quite a bit more challenging and longer then we expected (it was also incredibly hot).  But we are troopers and the views both inside and outside the city wall were worth it.  The bikes were not like good solid Dutch bikes though and we had some nice red behinds and hands to show for our adventure!

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Cycling the Xi’an historic city wall

On our way back from our bike tour, we walked passed several locals selling various pieces of jade, local rocks and coins. Filou was absolutely thrilled to find a small piece of Jade and Emile was super happy to add an old Chinese coin to his collection.  We found a very sweet Chinese lady who made the beautiful pieces into a necklace that the boys don’t seem to want to take off (Filou has learned that Jade is as valuable in China as diamonds are in Canada so he feels that he is walking around with a diamond around his neck – so precious!).   So with “diamonds” around our neck we left Xi’an and headed for the airport to make our flight down south to the mountain retreat of Yangshuo.