Bangkok and Cha Am, November 2015

 Bangkok is getting more familiar. The sky train is simple to navigate, we found a wonderful homeschool group, we are relatively settled in our apartment, we’ve been to a beach, we mostly figured out how to eat (vegetarian is a challenge!), and we know how to order the delicious cold orange-colored Thai tea.  Im not sure what makes it orange but they add condensed milk- yuuuuummmmm.

  Bangkok sunset and a view near our station, both seen from sky train platform:


  A rare vegetarian dish, not sure where we got this but I took the photo to help communicate that we eat eggs but no meat:

 We went to the science center for education a little run-down but very affordable and we liked the ‘zero gravity’ slide experience. 




 The kids also liked the arts area where they painted ceramic piggy banks and cartoon horses on silk frames. 


 Another day we took public transportation in the form of a canal boat, kind of like a bus on the water. There are stations and tickets and a bold driver with a roaring motor. You have to move quickly to get on and off, and it got very crowded later on the way back. We could see the backs of houses on the canal. 





 Ridiculously, we went ice skating in Thailand before ever setting foot on a beach! There is a weekly homeschool meet up at one of the several (?!) ice rinks around the city. It was great to meet homeschoolers and to be somewhere cold! 


 We also joined an English-language library in town, the Neilson Hays Library. It is a beautiful space with wooden cabinets full of books for kids and adults. They also have art activities in Saturdays.  



 The kids made beautiful floating flower baskets with candles for Loy Krathong, a festival to honor the goddess of water.  This was a library activity and we hope to release the baskets on a body of water on the festival day later. I was happy the craft used cross sections of banana trees for the base of the basket, rather than styrofoam as we hear is sometimes used.



  The day after ice skating, we went to a beach recommended by a coworker of Mr. F. It is not too far from Bangkok, tends to be frequented by Thais rather than foreigners, and is not crowded during weekdays. We took a minibus to Cha Am and stayed overnight.   

Cha Am beach was about half covered by umbrellas with beach chairs and tables underneath. You rent a chair and vendors come by selling all types of food, souvenirs, foot massages, you name it. Weekends they say can be quite crowded, but the weekdays we spent there were quiet. 


Back in Bangkok, we visited the Jim Thompson House. This is an interesting historic building comprised of six traditional Thai houses of teak which Mr. Thompson bought, had disassembled, and had reassembled on his Bangkok property.  




 Jim Thompson is an American known for reviving the Thai craft of silk fabric and for collecting Thai artifacts, some over 1,000 years old, over his 25 years living in Thailand. He is also known for his mysterious disappearance in Cambodia at the age of 61. His house is now a museum where visitors can see his collections and the house itself. It is  a beautiful oasis in bustling Bangkok.

These are traditional dancers that performed, and some silk-making displays: 

The big kids were at a movie, and though the place was not designed for kids the twins did alright during the 40-minute tour. Afterwards, the tour guides seemed to enjoy making tiny origami sculptures with them! 

That is some of what we are up to in Bangkok, more to come!

Bangkok, November 2015


 “There’s a dead squirrel in the car, mama” said Cleverly.  We were traveling from Vang Vieng to the Capitol of Laos, Vietienne, in a minibus, passing rice fields in various states of harvest, rivers, towns. We were listening to a Lao version of Taylor Swift which the driver played from his cellphone attached to- covering, actually- the rear view mirror. This might have been alarming but I reasoned that he didn’t need to look back since the road was so twisted he couldn’t see far behind him anyway. Better to see in front of him- the potholes, cows, sudden drops, slow cars, and other obstacles as we went about 30 mph on a road that alternates dusty and paved. The driver had just stopped so he could buy a dead squirrel from a roadside stand. We made several stops like that, dropping off or picking up riders, getting a snack at a stand, picking up a package. 

“There are now three dead squirrels in the car, mama.”

We must not have taken the express. 

Lovely desserts in Vietienne:   

 We eventually reached Vietienne and made our way to the backpacker area and the English language bookstore where we would meet Mr. Fantastic. It was a kind of miracle that my texting app worked up until the moment I told him of our location, and hasn’t worked since! He found us at a fancy coffee shop where there was wifi and cheesecake. And it was a lively reunion!

We decided to go to Bangkok right away since he had an apartment for us. We took a bus, crossed into Thailand, then took the overnight train from the border. The train staff had a military-style inspection before we could board the train. It wasn’t overly militant, more like orderly. The participants weren’t averse to anyone taking pictures, and there were smiles and bowing passed between the guy in tan and the line of train workers.    Inside the train was our most comfortable sleeping arrangement on trains/busses yet. Large beds compared to the others we’d had, little green curtains, soft pillows. The upper beds folded down from the ceiling of the train, while the lower ones were made from seats and tables. One complaint was that they left the lights on all night! Other than that, it was a nice way to get to Bangkok.

We got in at around 7am. We got on the “sky train” to the Sukhamvit part of town, down some side streets and to a little one-room apartment we’d found on Airbnb. It was a unique place, full of antique hardwood and with a back porch kitchen. There were banana trees in a small backyard. 



 It was too small for us, and though we hated to leave the cozy place with its sweet kitchen, a few days later we moved two blocks away to another apartment owned by the same landlady. This one had three bedrooms, a less exciting kitchen, and a lower monthly rent- about $480/month including utilities. It will be home for a couple of months.  Below is outside and inside our apartment. We have a yellow gate and we’re the lower floor of a two-story house.




 Our landlady is quite a character! Nim is a Thai language teacher as well as a landlady and speaks fluent English. She collects antiques and has an affinity for worn teak shutters and panels from old country houses. It is a nice break from the modern high rises all over the city. She loves our kids and had us over right away to swim in the pool at her apartment building where she lives. Below: selfie out Nim’s balcony, the pool, Nim pouring us a sweet iced herbal tea

 One of our first days in Bangkok, I took the twins on a kids excursion by a local company. It was about Thai monks, and we went to several related places around Bangkok. We started on a long tail boat on the Chao Phraya River to a flower market. 

The flower market is open 24 hours a day and supplies people with flowers and garlands for shrines, car rear-view mirrors, temple offerings, etc. 

The organizers bought some flowers and the kids made garlands. 

We got into a tuk tuk and went to Wat Suthat, an historic temple famous for its giant swing that was used in ceremonies until the 1930’s.


 A monk met us at the temple and told us about his daily life. He answered questions about his schedule (up at 4am, meditation, alms collecting, studying, two meals a day, bed at 10pm), hair (buzz cut once a month for efficiency in grooming and for humility), and why he became a monk (his parents wanted him to become one). He led the kids through lighting candles and incense, offering these and garlands, bowing, and meditating. 

 The wat was so beautiful with golden Buddhas and intricate wall paintings. 


 We had lunch, then went to an amulet market- what an interesting place! 

By the way, the wat had this to say about images of the Buddha, which I found interesting: 

 That was our first few days in Bangkok. 

Budget, August- November 2015

  I get a lot of questions, and I wonder myself, so here are some details about what we have been spending from when we left on August 28 through the end of October. For more detailed RTW budgets than we have been able to document, I recommend (a couple who travelled 1 year) and (couple with 1 child who travelled 2 years).

In the US, we were able to sleep in 1 hotel room for the six of us, and breakfast was included. For Philadelphia to San Francisco, we had a driveaway car and paid only gas. Before leaving, we spent $800 on travel health insurance (August 15 through Feb 1st excluding the cruise for which we had separate insurance) and a little under $1200 for Chinese visas (must be done in advance, multiple entry for 10 years, awesome!)

August 28- August 31: we began driving from Philadelphia to San Francisco in the driveaway car. We stayed 2 nights with my parents, so only 1 hotel night. We went to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis.

$60 hotel, $147 food, $182 gas, $111 admission to The City Museum(which everyone still considers a highlight of the trip!)= $500 for the first 4 days, $125/day or $20.83 per person per day

September 1-11: From St. Louis, we went pretty quickly across Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into California. We reached San Francisco and stayed there and Sonoma for 4 days. Then we rented a car and went north to Vancouver, where we got on the ship on the 11th. $520 for hotels (5 nights; the rest we stayed with friends), $500 gas, $610 food, $500 rental car, $370 miscellaneous (mostly clothes and books, thrift store last minute things I thought we should have- raincoats, hiking sandals). Total is $2500 for 11 days, $227/day or $37.83 per person per day

Sept 11-27: the cruise cost about $6000, not a sustainable travel amount for us but we paid for it over the previous year when we were both working. That includes taxes, tips, health insurance onboard, and trip cancellation insurance. And of course, room and board and entertainment and transport to Shanghai. We spent an additional $276 onboard, mostly for Internet access for Mr. Fantastic for business things. Onshore we spent about another $150 on snacks and entertainment. Total $6426, or $401.62 per day, or $66.94 per person per day.

  September 27-November 16: here it gets a little messier. We calculate we have spent $87 per day (cash we have withdrawn/51 days) plus a few things we put on credit cards. Since we use cash so often, we don’t have the credit card statements telling us exactly where we are spending it. We try to write things down but rarely can we be that organized. We do know the amount includes our expenses to volunteer at Sae Lao, which were about $875 for 16 days (or $54.68 per day, or $10.93 per person per day). Also included are Laos visas ($45 per person= $270), most food and housing and entertainment. Not included are the Gibbon Experience, ($1400), the Shanghai to Kunming train ($530), and hotels and food we charged ($390). With those expenses, total for those 51 days are $6757, which is $129.94 per day, or $21.66 per person per day. If that figure is correct, there may be credit card purchases we haven’t checked or something, we are doing amazingly well because we have SIX people!! Many travelers try for $100 per day for 2-3 people and I knew we would spend more than that, but considering the expensive things we have done (gibbons, getting stuck in China) I am happy with how we are doing. Also, we have gone from Philadelphia to Bangkok by land and sea- no airplanes! I’m glad about this; it really shows us how large the world is and it’s just more adventurous in my opinion.

Income and current plan:

We have about $2600/month income from renting out our house and other properties. We had hoped to get a loan against our house for the rest, but it seems to have failed due to some last- minute snafus and the papers having expired. They had actually given us a check, we deposited it, then they cancelled!! Annoying. The bank wants us to sign again in person and it’s not worth the expense to do so now. 

We may have done this anyway, but we decided to accept a position Mr. Fantastic was offered to teach part time for a test prep agency in Bangkok. He is getting far fewer hours than they had discussed, but he gets a small housing stipend that almost covers our rent, so it is cheap for us to stay here.  Other considerations: the kids wanted to settle somewhere for a while, Bangkok is a travel hub for short trips, it has an expat homeschool community, there is easy access to Cambodia and Myanmar, good medical facilities are here if we need them. 

So, we plan to stay in Bangkok for 3-4 months. We are trying to stay under $100/day here and, though we have to say no to some things, it has not been too difficult. For example, we stayed overnight at Cha Am beach last week and yesterday we spent the day at a water park. Including food and transportation and entertainment, were able to stay under budget, even with our fixed expense of rent. And while I sometimes envy the steady paychecks of the expats we meet, we have so much freedom and time together and that is wealth indeed. 

In our pre-trip planning, we had decided to stay in places for weeks or months at a time. We did not plan on staying in cities, since they tend to be more expensive, but so far we are ok here. We are planning where to go next- from Thailand, either India or back to China (Beijing and west) then westward to Eastern Europe. We will likely have to fly soon, since overland looks expensive either way. That’s all for now on the budget!

Sae Lao project part 2,October into November, 2015

  Water buffalo neighbor at first bungalow

We stayed in 3 places at Sae Lao- their classroom building (where they house most volunteers), a basic bungalow up the road, and the ‘blue lagoon’ bungalows. Each had its charms, and we were very happy to be able to swim at the blue lagoon for free as bungalow guests.   


I think Sae Lao likes families and groups to stay at the blue lagoon, but the owners had a family illness so we couldn’t stay there right away. It was nice being offsite because the second week we were done at 7 and I could get the twins to sleep earlier (the classroom has classes until 8).  Below:sunset and butterfly at beautiful Sae Lao 


 The first week we were all quite tired. We were dancing the hokey pokey, singing the alphabet, and leading “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”with the students. Fiercely did theater games, too. Then there was lesson planning and farm work and cooking/cleaning.  Below: Mama pig had to be fed every day! 

 I loved their big compost pile and chose to turn it as a chore- I have a special place in my heart for compost piles ever since I worked briefly on a farm in my 20’s, and after living in the city so long I appreciate a large rural pile’o’compost!

Below: heading to Sae Lao in the morning, the chore board

Below: the glorious compost pile, Cleverly planning a lesson

The students were very sweet, modest young teenagers. They came on bicycles as the sun set each weekday evening. It was tremendous to see them biking on the dirt road to Sae Lao after their school day, cheerful, giggling, eager to learn.  Below: younger kids with Cleverly,  bikes parked on the road 


 Most were shy, but there were a few rowdy ones as well. Women and girls in the area wear hand-woven skirts, usually black with a stripe towards the bottom. They all had long hair. We did see western clothing, but never short hair on the girls and women. The boys and men wore western clothes or dark pants with button-down shirts and all had short hair.

 Nearby, women wove beautiful cloth for sale. We bought some gorgeous silk skirts in the local style.


We also bought a sweet cake sold by this bakery-on-wheels. He had a loud recorded woman’s voice singing about the cakes. We could hear him far down the road. 

 We bought a bunch of cakes one day for a Halloween activity for the young kids group. Bobbing for apples was out because apples are quite expensive. No hands, cake-on-a-string went over well! 
 And there was the cave! We loved swimming at the blue lagoon to cool off many afternoons, and there was also a wonderful cave there. It was a short, steep climb to the entrance. Inside was a golden reclining Buddha, and many passageways to explore. You could rent a headlamp and spelunk to your heart’s content. The kids were like mountain goats running up the path and inside the cave. 

 Above: path to cave, below: inside the mountain!


One Buddha day, the kids went to the annual longboat races in Vang Vieng. I stayed home with Truly, who had a fever. This was a big event; school let out early and lots of people attended. Photos from Cleverly:

Truly was much better, but still had a mild fever after 5 days, so the staff recommended we take her to the local hospital. Sae Lao founder Senkeo kindly went with us to translate. I was amazed that we were seen immediately by a doctor at the ER, had blood work done, got results and then 3 prescriptions, and were out of there in under 25 minutes, prescriptions in hand, for less than $20! She did not have any concerning results, and in fact the fever was gone after that, but I was glad to have her checked out. Some shots of the Vang Vieng hospital. I felt shy about taking too many pictures, but you can see it is an open-air building, not crowded at all, and had some funky specimens in jars on the filing cabinet there:


Cleverly turned 12 at Sae Lao. We had a great time with our new friend L from the Czech Republic in town and climbing the mountain a second time. Below: in town at a cafe and climbing the mountain with L. Monks on bikes as we walked to the mountain path


Random notes and pics from Sae Lao:

More of our animal neighbors, cow with a bell and duck family:

We loved the sticky rice and it was kept in this nice basket:

“Woven walls and crooked cats” is the title for my book if I ever get it together! We saw many walls made in the traditional style of woven bamboo, such as behind the shovel in this photo.  

 And for some reason, many Lao cats have a kink or two in their tails. We thought it was an injury at first, but realized it must be genetic since we saw it so often. 


Staff meal in the restaurant:   
View from the restaurant:

 Repurposed bomb near the bridge to Vang Vieng:

Really with some sugar cane:

 Snails and frogs harvested during rice harvest. We didn’t get to try these, I was curious how they would be prepared. 

And that’s about it for Sae Lao. We were sad to say goodbye; it had been a wonderful time. Also, though, we had been away from Mr. Fantastic the whole time and we missed him. We headed to Vietienne, where we would meet him and go to Bangkok. Next stop, Thailand!

Sae Lao Project, Laos, October, 2015, part 1


 I did the hokey pokey and I turned myself around- that’s what it’s all about! I was making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of barefoot, giggling, Lao middle-schoolers, some of whom were not really paying attention in that way that middle schoolers do. Fiercely was close by, doing something similar, teaching one of the other four classes happening in the same room. It was one of our first days teaching English at the Sae Lao project outside of Vang Vieng, Laos, where the kids and I had decided to volunteer.   

  Above: students outside the classroom building, below is the restaurant

 We were excited to stay on a farm and participate in the eco-conscious projects and English classes there. Oh, and there were two litters of kittens, one set only a couple of weeks old, too! And a puppy!! I think that sealed the deal for the kids.


 Sae Lao is many things- a farm, restaurant, and sustainable development center. Their largest project is teaching free English classes to local Lao and Hmong villagers, with 250 students in the children’s classes alone. Volunteers participate a minimum of two weeks.  

  Above: shower building showing the way to the toilet, below: crepes, potato pancakes, and fresh veggies we made for breakfast

 It was started by a Lao man who is still involved and employs several locals, as well as a few foreigners who stay for varying lengths of time. While we were there, projects included the organic garden and rice fields, a manual brick press that uses local soil, a biodegradable soap-making business for local women, a rainwater filtration project for drinking water, a biofuel system, and of course the restaurant and school. They were also hosting a permaculture workshop soon and building a new structure to house volunteers. Wow, right?! Here are the kids making bricks:

   Our first week, we were the only volunteers and we taught quite a bit-3 classes a day for me, 2 for Fiercely, and 1 class of younger kids done by Cleverly and the twins. This took up our late afternoons Monday-Friday. In the mornings we did chores and made breakfast from scratch, then did morning work like the bricks or the garden.  Here are the younger kids teaching and a Saturday activity of making a sculpture of the new Sae Lao logo with recycled bottles:


 It was really lovely watching my homeschooled kids teach. They mostly loved it, and I think it was a great experience for them and the students. They also helped out a little in the kitchen and restaurant. 

  Below: making noodles and hanging out with the kitchen staff, who doted on them  
 The rice harvest started while we were there. It was hot, sweaty work, but fun for us for a while. We definitely did not have the stamina of the locals! Rice is a labor-intensive crop and I think we all appreciate it more now. Our new friend L from the Czech Republic was a volunteer with us our second week, BTW. 


 So there was a lot of work, but time to play as well. The locals celebrate ‘Buddha day’ once every 8 days or so, following the moon cycles, when no work is done. We did the same, though classes were still taught. Our first week Buddha day we (minus Truly, who didn’t feel well, and Fiercely who chose to stay with her) climbed this mountain to the little hut on top. You can kind of see the hut below, at the top left of the mountain:

 Looks high up there right? It was a steep hike, but seemed short compared to the ‘gibbon experience’ treks! The views were mind-blowing! 

That’s all for now, I’ll write a part 2 on this soon.

Vang Vieng, Laos, October 2015

The next stop was Vang Vieng. We took a minivan for about four hours from Luang Prabang. The scenery was beautiful- rice fields, villages, and mountains. We started seeing the limestone karst mountains that push dramatically out of the ground into the clouds and the blue sky:

Vang Vieng itself was dusty, full of tourists, and under construction. It was small and easy to navigate, again with the easy food like fruit shakes, baguette sandwiches, and crepes.
We crossed this small river to get to the larger one, the Nam Song:

And we had a relaxing two- hour inner tube float down the Nam Song next to the gorgeous mountains. I went back and took pictures of them the next morning with the mist.

I do want to mention that Vang Vieng has had a reputation as a backpacker party town, though they say this has lessened over the years, especially in regards to drugs. There are a lot of bars, however, and tourists who disrespect local modesty norms by being loud and drunk, wearing revealing clothing, etc. I’m all for flaunting what you got, kids, but not here; they actually have signs, which get ignored, asking tourists to cover up as they walk through town. When we first got on the inner tubes, there were so many Beerlao-drinking, European looking college-age kids, I felt like I was in Fort Lauderdale on spring break! Also, there are bars along the river as you float along. They will actually toss you a rope and pull you in if you like. Luckily for us, these seemed concentrated at the beginning of the river ride, and we quickly put them behind us and enjoyed peacefully floating downstream. At the end, we stopped and sat on hammocks and had fruit shakes at a riverside cafe while sitting in hammocks. Later, we carried our tubes back into town. We crossed this bridge back to the town:

I got up early the next day and watched the town wake up. Here are kids heading to school in the morning:

I loved seeing these ducks in a submerged boat:

 Mist over the town in the morning:

This was our favorite place to eat. A lot of places had these low tables on platforms where you remove your shoes, relax with a pillow, and enjoy. They had fruit salad, yogurt and meusli for us tourists, along with delicious shakes like coconut, mango, and pineapple.


One day we got motor scooters and went to the ‘blue lagoon’ swimming spot. I was proud I could drive this thing, though Cleverly loves telling me how slow I went! We wanted Fiercely to try, but she was sick that day and stayed in the hotel room. We had planned on rock climbing but Fiercely did not feel up to it, so we went swimming.


Here is the ‘blue lagoon’, not a lagoon at all as Fiercely pointed out but part of a river with a deep swimming hole and a cloudy turquoise color from the minerals.


Here are the twins jumping off the high tree branch- the crowd loved this! It could get crowded with tour groups, especially Korean tourists. We ended up staying in a bungalow here (see next post) so we swam here a lot.

Lao bathrooms were strange to us at first. The shower is not a separate space, rather the floor is tiled and has a drain. The nozzle is on the wall and you just shower right there. There is a second, lower shower nozzle next to the toilet (we saw this both with sit toilets and squatties) in most bathrooms to be used in place of toilet paper.

While scootering to the Blue Lagoon, we stopped for fruit shakes at this inviting cafe and learned about their community projects and their volunteer program.

It became our home for a little over two weeks! Stay tuned for that adventure!

Luang Prabang, Laos, October 2015

We were optimistic as we left Huay Xai. We had scored the last few seats on the overnight bus and we would be riding with friends we had met on the Gibbon Experience. Luang Prabang was said to be lovely and we looked forward to seeing the famed mystical Mecca in the mountains. Here we are on the bus:  

Things became a little more exciting than we bargained for. As it turned out we had a manic driver who went at breakneck speed and never stopped for any reason. We were thrown to one side of the bus then the other, over and over again, while going up and down northern Lao mountains, where there are no tunnels and no straightaways and we were definitely not in China anymore! The seats were not beds, but rather molded plastic reclined seats, but I did get a little sleep. We arrived about three hours ahead of schedule at 330 am and the place for all its charm was closed and dark and quiet. A kind hotel manager offered the sleepy twins (who were sleeping in papa’s lap on a bench) his own bed, which was so generous, and the three of us slept for a couple of hours while the other Fantastics made do on the stoop where we had been deposited. On the upside, they saw the daily early-morning alms-giving ritual where locals give food or money to monks from the wat, the temple. The next day we were all tired but we saw loveliness all around.

 The food was very easy to get used to- crepes and fruit shakes!

  We went to a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall called Tad Sae that had been developed as a swimming area. It was touristy, but mostly Lao and other Asian tourists.  We took a boat to get there:


We all swam, and climbed the tiers. They looked like they were made by pouring cement onto the forest, around trees and everything! The water is a cloudy blue color from the minerals. It was refreshing and we spent hours here.


I went walking upstream on one of the many paths near the swimming area. Beautiful!

There was a large hardwood tree, beautiful!

In town, we walked around and saw aged structures and the beautiful temple on the grounds of where the king of Laos used to live. 


We saw this dragon boat housed in an out building on the property:

The gold shone in the sun, the place was exquisite!



In the later afternoon, people began setting up the night market mear this temple. 


I walked around a temple from the 1800’s with beautiful, worn details. 

These are stairs to a temple above the King’s palace area. 

 We loved eating dinner by the glorious Mekong River. There were many restaurants outside on platforms overlooking the river and we loved watching the sunset.  We could watch the boats and see the sky change color. We were there several nights and never got tired of the views.

Then we went to the night market. It glows with color from the lamps and beautiful merchandise, much of it made by hand. We were lucky enough to go during the low season for tourism so we could wander and bargain and just look at the colors. We didn’t buy much, since we have to carry everything in our backpacks.

Below are beautiful paper sculptures that fold into a greeting cards.


That was beautiful Luang Prabang.