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Singapore

Only a one hour flight away, but a world apart, Singapore was almost as much of a shock to the senses as when we first arrived into Bangkok.  The differences were stark between the two Asian countries who, at least based on geographical proximity, should be so similiar but in reality couldn’t be more different.

The city-state – impecabbly clean, beautifully landscaped, with modern skyscrapers and apartments whizzing by, we made our way from the airport  to our “hotel” – actually a youth hostel.  The fact that our driver was both signalling and staying between the lines of the “suggested” lanes was not something we took for granted anymore.

The first impression of Singapore was one of complete order coupled with a remarkable natural and archictectural beauty.  The streets were lined with beautiful trees, intensive landscaping was everywhere, and the extremely urbanized cityscape still exuded an almost parklike feel.  We later learned that they actually have a Minister of Trees and Flowers – earning a cool $1.6 million annual salary – which speaks both to the intensive investment the government has made AND the cost of living in Singapore.  The investment they have made is clear … and it is working….we have never seen a more beautifully developed city which has earned it the nickname worldwide as the “Garden City”.  It also speaks to the wealth of the country – which ranks 13th in the world for per capita income…one ranking ahead of the United States.

They also have a highly controlled set of architectural requirements which has created a rather remarkable cityscape filled with interesting buildings around every corner – from your basic apartment, to the skyscraper filled downtown core, or the art filled areas scattered throughout the city they all have that extra “flair” which definitely affects the overall impression that the city creates.

Another pleasant aspect of Singapore, for us, is that the language of business (and all schooling) is English – so we were able to communicate clearly, and without reservation, with all of the local people.  This was quite a change from Thailand, of course, and we enjoyed have informative conversations with taxi drivers, or being able to expect clear answers to simple questions we had at stores or attractions.

Underlying the beauty are also some cultural elements that we think would make it challenging to live here long term.  All of the taxi drivers we spoke with commented about how difficult it is for the “normal” people to live in Singapore with its high cost of living.  There is also a very clear governmental presence – from the major fines for littering, the complete elimination of chewing gum (as it makes a mess) from the retail stores, to the $80 “admission fee” that all local Singaporians pay to go into a casino (tourists are free) – the intrusion and directive nature of the state is readily apparent and would no doubt feel suppressive to an outsider from Canada.  That being said….the success they have had over the past decades in comparison to their neighbours is remarkable.

Highlights

*  There Singapore Zoo was simply amazing – and clearly has earned its reputation as one of the top five zoos in the world.  Being blessed to be located very near the equator – they can build their facilities for a year round summer and removes the need to build indoor facilities.  It has also allowed them to use an “open concept” design throughout their zoo.  There are almost no cages …anywhere.  From looking across a small water barrier to watch lions and tigers feed, to physically being able to feed rhinos and giraffes by hand, the difference between a “traditional” North American zoo experience was readily apparent.  Walking through a monkey filled jungle with nothing separating you from the animals has such a different feel to it.  There were also mutliple “shows’ put on for free in the zoo – some rivalling what you would expect at a SeaWorld type park.  It was also here that Katharina fulfilled the life long dream of getting her hand covered by rhino drool – there is one thing that she can strike off of her bucket list.

*  We ended up staying at a youth hostel for our time in Singapore.  We simply couldn’t find a family style accomodation anywhere for less than $300 a night.   Several hours were spent looking before we booked at “The Hive”.  Four bunk-beds (in our own room at least) with a shared bathroom down the hall cost us triple what we were paying in Thailand for our two bedroom townhouse complete with pool.  The girls were excited about the bunkbeds…the parents not so much.  The “free breakfast provided” of loaves of white bread, peanut butter, jam and corn flakes, left us pining a bit for the beautiful breakfasts we were often provided in Thailand.  It was certainly an interesting, if not entirely pleasurable, experience that adds to our memories of Singapore.  The elderly asian lady sitting in the breakfast room loudly humming in meditation as she fingered prayer beads each morning eventually moved from interesting to grating over our five days in Singapore.

*  The downtown Laser Show was amazing.  Over top of a bay, surrounded by a stunning cityscape, they had a very professional high quality laser show on display twice nightly.  Using water mist sprayed out into the air, they created a 3D show above the water…with lasers, smoke, and bubbles shooting out over our heads.  It was a beautiful and enjoyable experience for the entire family.

*  We had continued to monitor the riots in Turkey throughout our last weeks in Thailand and during our stay in Singapore.  With things continuing to be quite violatile in the area, we decided that given that we were travelling with the kids, discretion was the wisest course of action and sought out Etihad Airlines to change our flights.  Dressing our kids up in their cutest outfits, we set off to the Etihad office in person (rather than on the phone) to see what mercy they would show on us trying to change our flight and not fly into Istanbul at all.  Walking in … we met with a very nice lady and indicated that we were concerned about flying into Istanbul with our children given the rioting (queue girls for cute smiles and batting of eyelashes) and wanted to know what other options were available.  We indicated we were VERY flexible and threw out options of Eastern Europe, India, any Mediterrean European country or Morocco.  With an eyebrow arched up very high she looked across the desk at us…then at the kids….and then said she will see what she could find.  Twenty minutes of searching later – we walked out of the office flying to Milan, Italy- with no change fee charged out at all.  Etihad is our new favourite airline …. their service at the office and during the flight was simply amazing.

* Universal Studios gave us another opportunity to test out Lucia’s daredevil personality – we have yet to run into any ride that makes her concerned at all.  The little half inch spider is enough to send her running down the hall in terror, but the Drop of Doom roller coaster is no problem.  It was a fun-filled full day at the park that left us all wishing for more.

*  The Gardens by the Sea are another example of the Singapore focus on being a world class city.  A large natural garden setting that is designed to showcase the Flora from a multitude of climatic zones.  It was only a year into existence when we saw it but it was still remarkable and will be a pretty special place once all of the plants have matured.  The “art installation” of the giant man made skyscraper trees has to been seen to be fully appreciated.  While they could not be fully captured by camera … Katharina certainly tried, over and over and over and over again.

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Koh Samui – Home Sweet Home #3

Our stay in Koh Samui is about to draw to a close – we leave June 10th to head back to Krabi and catch a flight from there to Singapore.  We feel very comfortable in Koh Samui and are sad to be leaving – it has been a wonderful place to spend a month and we suspect it will be a very bright spot in our trip when we look back.

Highlights:

  • We were surprised to hear that Bangkok Airways actually owns the airport in Koh Samui.  We thought immediately, “How did anyone let a single airline own the only airport in a major tourist hub??”  The inevitable consequences of this became even clearer when we started researching our own flights out of Thailand.  The cost is nearly triple to fly to Singapore out of Koh Samui when compared to leaving from Krabi (a 3 hr ferry/drive away, and with identical distances).  The cost difference is enough that we decided to drive back to Krabi and fly out from there.  The road trip in our own little car may actually be fun, and now that Amelie’s lip has healed, we be will all be able to swim in the beautiful pool ‘where it all happened’ as a family again.
  • There is an interesting phenomenon on the island – in some fashion the taxis have “organized” and work very hard at controlling the pricing.  No one seems to know exactly how it is being done – but it clearly is.  Taxi prices on the island are 10 times the prices back in Bangkok – literally ten times.  The price is high enough that if we take a taxi trip to and from anywhere we have more than covered our daily car rental.  You rarely see a taxi actually moving – they are all parked on the side of the road waiting for customers while playing games, gossiping and drinking Red Bull.  As one local put it …maybe they have it figured out.  They sit around all day doing nothing, if they can get two fares they have made enough money for the day.  Brad has been seen taking great pleasure in spinning his car keys visibly on his finger as we walk by the sitting drivers and get in to our rental car.
  • Paradise Park Farm – another amazing Thai tourist venue.  You could say that this place has basically been set up as one giant petting zoo….only with a very beautiful aesthetic, with much thought given to design.  It really did seem like a little slice of ‘paradise’ and the name was very fitting.  When we arrived (after many wrong turns through the hilly inland of the island), we were found that we were virtually the only visitors to the farm, and also that the drive was very much worth it.  Immediately upon entering, we were given a handful of bird feed and were let in (alone) to a huge bird cage full of beautifully colored exotic birds, who immediately began eating right out of our hands.  When we’d had our fill of these birds, we left the cage only to find so much more…monkeys, parrots, deer, squirrels, painted chickens (you have to see the picture), baby bunnies, etc etc etc.  The girls were in heaven and completely captivated by petting, holding and carrying around baby bunnies in their own wicker baskets provided by the farm.  While the girls focused all their attentions on the bunnies, Katharina had found a new love of her own.  A large monkey with the most amazing coat of fur fluffed to perfection, sat on a bar near the base of a tree (no cage but on a long line).  Just watching him was fascinating, but Katharina wanted more.  After asking one of the staff whether it was safe to touch him, and being reassured he doesn’t bite, Katharina returned to the monkey with a brush in hand (also provided by the farm…it seemed like they really did think of everything).  For a while the monkey continued his calisthenics routine, and Kat continued to admire him in silence.  At just the right moment, Katharina made the first move by offering up a banana….then the next move…Kat gently reached out to touch the monkey’s beautiful mane.  This was the beginning of what could only be called an intimate courting ritual between Katharina and the monkey.  Using the large brush provided, Katharina proceeded to start combing the monkey (thus explaining the “fluffed to perfection” coat).  The combing induced rapture was clearly evident on the monkey’s face.  This progressed further to more scratching and petting, and finally culminated in the monkey climbing on Katharina’s back and proceeding to do a very thorough check for mites, lice, ticks and any other edible insect that might be found in Katharina’s hair.  We are pleased to confirm she is lice free…..now.  It was a good 3 minutes of primping – the only thing that was missing was some Leonard Cohen music playing softly in the background.  🙂
  • Brad went on a 10K cancer charity run.  It was an interesting experience to see just how well organized (and attended) the whole event was.  We continue to be impressed by how well everything works here despite the veneer of chaos which is often the first impression Thailand makes on you.  Brad confirms that running in the tropics is, in fact, both hot and sweaty and the combination makes that 10km feel a LOT longer than it should.  He also had a minor moment of terror whilst getting ready for the run – when he went to put on his running shoe and felt something soft and squishy inside with his toe. Picturing any manner of snake, spider or otherwise dangerous creature, he quickly withdrew his foot and began knocking the shoe against the ground.  Out popped a frog and hopped away.   He is quick to point out that frogs can be poisonous too.
  • Visiting the animal shelter on the island.  Coming to Koh Samui we had envisioned possibly having Lucia volunteer at an animal shelter on the island several days a week.  We had hoped this would both appeal to her love of animals and provide a venue for her to take on some responsibility (under parental supervision).  This idea was quickly shelved as we slid open the security gate and entered the premises only to be greeted by dozens of free roaming dogs (all in some form of disrepair – missing legs, mangy fur, etc) barking their heads off.  The girls were quick to scurry to mom and dad.  We made our way through the pack and were greeted by one of the volunteers and basically told to make ourselves at home – there are many pens full of dogs (front yard serves as one pen).  They have nearly 300 dogs in their care.  The staff pick up homeless dogs, fix them up and feed them until they are able to find a suitable home for them.  If they can’t find a home they are kept and cared for – all of which is supported by donors.  They have done lots of great work cleaning up the island of stray dogs; it is very apparent how many fewer street dogs there are now compared to when we were here many years ago.  We spent a good few hours there hiding out in the cat house petting the 30 cats residing there and then left – knowing that it was all a bit too much (and not safe enough) for Lucia to contribute in a meaningful way.
  • Brad splurged and went to a man-made and stocked fishing lake on the island.  The lake is filled with a variety of fish – many of them huge (some over 200lbs).  They also guarantee that you will catch something.  Brad was able to catch two 60lb fish- he described reeling them in as trying to drag a microwave through the water.  He can’t, however, lay any particular claim to having any talent in the actually “fishing” part.  This was a “full service lake” – the guide does all the baiting and casting for you; he also coaches you when trying to bring the fish in.  If you are struggling to catch something he will even launch out ‘bait bombs’ into the water around your hook to draw the fish in…..or if required the guide will actually paddle a small boat and drag your hook out and personally drop the hook straight into some of the best fishing holes in the lake.  This strategic placement is followed up by dumping a bucket of chum in to further draw the fish in.  It felt a little strange to watch the whole process happen….but it was a memorable experience to land and hold fish of that size….WITH or without help.
  • Around Thailand they have multiple “Fish Spas” available for use.  Essentially these are large aquarium-like tanks of water filled with hundreds of a certain variety of small fish.  You put your feet in (or entire body in some spas) and the fish essentially “attack” and nibble off all the bits of dead skin.  It is a very strange feeling and a neat experience to share as a family – all four of us with our feet in the tank.  The girls were giggling as the fish tickled their feet and Katharina howling with tickle-induced laughter loud enough to draw a bit of a crowd.
  • A “Daddy Daughter” night out at a Muay Thai fight.  For some reason the girls had gotten it in to their head that they wanted to see a Muay Thai fight (Brad declares that he has no idea how that idea got there). Leaving mom behind for a night of relaxing, Brad and the girls went out for a late evening (the fight doesn’t start until 21:00hrs).  On the way to the arena Lucia piped up from the back seat – “Daddy since we are kindish partying….could you please turn up the music on the radio.”  Music up, and windows down. they cruised down the main drag of Chaweng Beach  in search of the Muay Thai stadium excited in equal measure by the prospects of an exciting few fights and the bucket of popcorn.  The girls were very excited as the fights started and seemed enthralled by the experience. – at least for the first hour.  The girls could only make it through half of the six fights before they needed to pack it in and head home to sleep shortly after 11:00.
  • Brad was recently out for a final run with the Hash House Harrier group.  He found the run very interesting, as the scurrying sounds heard in the bushes during the run were cast in a very different light after having watched the Snake Show only days before.  He was walking through one area looking for the “lost trail” when all of a sudden he felt a large number of burning “strikes” along both legs, and then a large buzzing sound close to his ear – which culminated in his ear being bitten.  It was like someone had splashed acid on his legs and punched him in the ear. Whatever it was – it got his attention as his legs began to burn in 12 different locations and his ear was throbbing.  Talking to some of the locals they think that he either stepped on a wasp nest, or ran into a branch that had a number of ants on it.  Some ants here spit an acid (yes acid) that stings a lot (yes a lot – it was like being shot with BB pellets along the legs.  What was interesting was that the stings all happened almost at the same time in a coordinated way).  In the words of the expat fellow runners, “If you aren’t having trouble breathing by now you are fine…nothing a beer won’t cure!”  The next day Brad developed a bit of”Cauliflower Ear Syndrome” as his ear swelled up by about 40% sending him running to the pharmacy for some antihistimines.
  • For those that are interested – you can check out the “Fruit Video” that Lucia did for a Grade 1 Class project.  http://youtu.be/z00oasksD74.  Not sure if it will work – can’t cut and paste with our tablet.
  • Photo’s are at   http://www.flickr.com/photos/simpsonfamilytravels

Koh Samui – Home Sweet Home #2

watching the performers at the Maenam marketSeveral more weeks in Koh Samui have got us pretty acclimated to life here.  We have figured out the lay of the land, discovered some favourite restaurants (and foods), started a bit of a routine with the girls for schooling, dance class and swimming lessons and have gotten to know a few longer term expats and children.  We have embedded our “normal life” on the island with a number of the many many tourist activities that this island has to offer.

Highlights:

  • * Brad was researching some activities on the island and discovered the world wide running club called the “Hash House Harriers”.  The club describes itself as:  “A drinking club with a running problem”.  (ie heavy focus on socialising).  The organization originated amongst a group of expats living in Kuala Lumpur in 1938 and has since spread around the world (with three active chapters in Calgary).  The basic premise is that a volunteer  “hare” heads out to set a trail using something to mark the trail (in our case shredded paper) which the rest of the pack tries to follow/figure out.  The hare also makes several “lost trails” and “false trails”.  Example – if you come across two crossed palm fronds with a coconut on top ….the the trail is lost and everyone has to fan out to locate the trail – which typically starts 100 metres away in any direction.  The false trails lead you off in a wrong direction and eventually end with a pile of paper with a coconut on top – telling you that you have gone the wrong way.  There are also a number of rituals pre and post run – better left to be experienced than told but all of which involve a beer.  It is actually pretty tame and respectable overall.  The runs are hard work – all have been trail jungle runs through the hilly interior of the island and have lasted over an hour.  Add in the heat and humidity and your shirt is absolutely sopping by the end.  The jungle runs have been beautiful but you have to keep your wits about you as you run – there are many coconuts and palm fronds on the trails, and there has been barb wire and the occassional hand-sized spider to dodge.  The group is filled with a very diverse (and colorful) cast of expat characters from around the world – many owning businesses on the island or retired here permanently.  It has been good fun …. and would get much better once you started to get to know the people better.
  • Market nights.  There are several communities on the island, and each of them has a special street market one day a week.  The main street is closed off to vehicles (this creates a rather magical respite from the constant state of alertness that we have to maintain anytime we have to walk with the girls) and the streets are lined with vendors selling all kinds of merchandise and food (….ooooohhhh the food).  All kinds of meats on a stick, fruit shakes, candy cotton, curries, corn on the cob, pizza, pad thai, and a myriad of other foods greet you with each bloated step that you take down the road. The entire family can feed…and feed well…for $10 to $15.  There is also a stage area where local artists can showcase their talents (Thai dancing, bands, fire spinning, singers etc) for tips.  The girls have loved the shows … and have learned the fine art of tipping.  The town we are living in is fairly quiet and draws quite a few families….so there are children everywhere – both Thai and tourist.  It is a wonderful experience and one we look forward to weekly.
  • You never quite know what you are going to get when you cross the threshold and enter one of Thailand’s many tourist venues or shows.  We have yet to be disappointed by any activity we participated in during our time in Thailand however.  No exception to this rule was the Samui Crocodile Farm, featuring both a snake and a crocodile show.  We entered the premises to find an area filled with a variety of different holding pens and cages containing all kinds of monkeys, crocodiles, snakes etc.  Observing these animals offered many interesting experiences, from the cobra that would rear up, flare its neck, and strike the glass when we walked close to the cage, to the monkey that “played” Brad.  Surprising us all, the monkey that Brad was offering a banana to, had other ideas.  Only pretending to reach for the banana Brad was offering him, he did a quick switch up and actually grabbed for Brad’s hand instead (with a pretty evil look on his face we might add).  “Hmmm,” thought Brad, “Now what other animals could I feed?”  Soon there after, we came across a large pen of about 40 crocodiles  – big ones.  For $1.50 you were able to use a fishing rod to feed a chicken to the crocodiles.  Leaning over the questionably thick/high cement wall you would thrust out the rod and dangle the chicken in the pen.  Like a moment out of Jurassic Park, the crocodiles would become alert and start shambling towards you (here you become very thankful for the aformentioned cement wall).  They are quick to snap their jaws over the chicken and rip it right off of the string.  It was a very interesting experience and it felt very primal – not sure how else to describe it.  This, however, was just the precusor to the real shows – the crocodile and snake show.  The crocodile show had two Thai trainers showcasing six large crocodiles.  By banging a broom on the ground and then bringing the broom head close to the crocodile they could induce it to “strike”.  The jaws clamping down made a sound that echoed through the entire area.  The best description for it would be taking a cleaver and slamming it down onto a wooden cutting board as hard as you could…only slightly higher pitched.  The trainers then went on to have the crocodile open its mouth and reach into it to pull out money, put his head into the crocodile’s mouth, and one man reached his hand all the way into the crocodile’s throat (up to his shoulder!!).  We remind you of the sound of the cleaver hitting the wooden cutting board to help give you some sense of the drama we were feeling.  Right before they did all this …both trainers showed us their right hand wrist – which was heavily scarred and disfigured.  Yep…. some previous shows  obviously did not go according to plan.  Seeing the scars made it very real, and we were very very tense during the show.  More than once we thought “we hope this will be an enjoyable memory for the girls, not one that will require therapy back in Canada.”  The crazy, crazy things you see in Thailand.  Next up is the snake show – Brad was nervous enough about the safety of the show to research an escape route over the back wall if necessary.  The trainer was in a small area enclosed by a 2.5 foot  high glass wall which was also what separated him, and the snakes, from the spectators. (yes you read that correctly – 2.5 feet).  He proceeds to pull out 5 cobras and does a kind of dance with them – they try to strike him, he pulls foot/hand/head out of the way in the nick of time.  The cobras are about six feet in length and made quite the spectacle as they all reared up, necks flared, eyeing the trainer.   At one point the trainer grabbed one snake by the tail and swung him out across the barrier towards the crowd.  Later on he had a cobra braced around his torso, one hand controlling the head, and then he stepped over the barrier to walk out into the crowd to let people “pet it”.  He then pulls out a 10 ft King Cobra and goes through a very similiar routine.  At one point during the show Amelie leaned over and whispered in to Brad’s ear – “If I had a job here I would only do the music”.  (They had a man that worked the music/sound effects during the show.)  The “only in Thailand” was further reinforced when the 4 year old son of one of the trainers jumped the wall into the living room sized show area (all while there were 5 cobras striking at the trainer).  He was calmly removed – not once, not twice but three times.  In case anyone is thinking that the snakes had their venom removed – nope…the trainer also walked out to the crowd and milked venom out of one of them.  Not to worry though, our safety-conscious family skulked in the back recesses and top row of the seating area, a spot not chosen at random.
  • Checking out The Ice Bar.  Yes, here in the midst of hot tropical island, is a bar completely made out of ice and kept at -7 degrees.  It felt more than a little surreal walking in from the +35 degree heat to the -7  drapped in warm cloaks and hooded in Russian ‘ushanka’ hats, our flipflops just barely visible underneath.  They had a few ice sculptures in the bar area, including a full-size tuk tuk that we could sit in.  It was definitely worth a good laugh, and the cool air was quite refreshing too! 🙂
  • We stumbled across an anniversary celebration for Bangkok Airways.   They had set up a large fairgrounds – rides all free, and brought in professional dance troupe, and several high end real Thai Rock Stars for a concert in a public square.  It was the first concert ever for the girls (complete with light show, pyrotechnics etc.) and they were completely mesmerized by it even if it was in Thai.  Having recetly watched the movie “Barbie and the Popstar” only heightened their sense of wonder.  They were dancing away with a number of other young Thai girls.  It was a wonderful evening out … and we stayed up way too late for the girls …but unfortunately not late enough to catch the firework show at the end of the evening.
  • We had one of those “parental moments” at the breakfast table with Amelie the other day.  We were eating our morning muesli and Amelie had happily polished off her entire bowl.  Looking up with a pair of bambi eyes she asked for more muesli.  Brad said she was welcome to have some of his and motioned her to bring the bowl over.  She flatly refused because his meusli had bananas and mangoes in it (both of which she enjoys regularly just not on muesli – ie. she was just being picky).  Pulling out the tried and true parenting book “Lessons to teach your children” – Brad told Amelie she was just being picky and did she think that the children in some of those huts we had seen would really be complaining about having fruit in their muesli…or did she think that they would just be really happy to have any food?  Back home this lesson is very abstract in nature – here some of the sights and experiences make it much more palpable for them.  You could see this comment hit Amelie … she just paused, eyes glazed over, and started staring into the corner of the kitchen.  (We believe picturing some of the houses and people we have seen during our trip.)  A full 20 seconds of silence passed …when Brad again asked if she wanted some of his.. otherwise he was going to eat it.  Amelie promptly shushed Brad and told him, “Quiet I am thinking,” and promptly continued to stare off into the corner of the room again.  The parents were both tense….awaiting the ephiphany moment we expected to be coming with each baited breath.  Unfortunately big sis Lucia stepped in to her sister’s rescue and offered up some of her muesli (without bananas and mangoes) which Amelie promptly accepted.  Moment lost…we could only hope that part of the lesson was learned.  We also noticed that the next day Amelie accepted some of Brad’s fruit laden meusli without complaint or comment.  We are not sure if this was a result of the previous breakfast or just too distracted to notice…..  perhaps we will never know.
  • Seven days ago we booked our flight from Singapore to Istanbul – a place that we have always wanted to visit and explore.  It also provided a good starting point to travel west in to Europe through the Mediterranean.  UNFORTUNATEY the current riots happening in Turkey started after we had booked our tickets.   We are currently scheduled to fly into Istanbul on June 17th and will be watching the news very closley as it looks like we will need to be adjustinng our plans.

TO VIEW MORE OF OUR TRAVEL PHOTOS, GO TO:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/simpsonfamilytravels

Koh Samui – Home Sweet Home #1

We had been looking forward to setting up a longer term house rental (and the accompanying stability and extra room that would come with it) for some time.  We had very fond memories of our time in Koh Samui 12 years ago – picturesque beaches, a calm peaceful road circumnavigating the island, and bamboo huts right on the beach front.

With a gleam in our eye, a smile on our faces, and a bounce in our step, we headed off the boat and boarded a shared taxi minivan to head to our temporary hotel that would serve as our base to scout out the island and pick a place to live.  Stuffed like sardines in the minivan we cruised out of the parking lot and onto the main island road.

Wow! …. can things change a LOT in 12 years.  Gone were the peaceful roads (Brad had envisionaged renting a car and driving with one finger on the wheel while looking into the back seat chatting with the girls), and gone were the beachfront huts (replaced by 5 star resorts).  Our quiet peaceful island of yesteryear has turned into a busy tourist hub – chock full of tourists, traffic, and unbridled construction.  As we drove to our hotel, we both shared a look with each other saying, “Oh boy”.

Our first impression of Koh Samui was not great … and almost prompted us to move on to the neighbouring island which promised a bit more of the peaceful living we were looking for.  We stuck it out … and now we can say that Koh Samui has really grown on us … so much so that we don’t really want to leave.  We have adapted to the business of the island and have come to appreciate all of the amenities that come with the tourism – the island is chock full of activities, dining options, free events, etc etc etc.

Highlights

  • Our hotel that served as our base of operations (www.pandorasamui.com) was a wonderful oasis near the heart of the busy tourist hub.  The place looks like something right out of the Flintstones and clearly demonstrated the French owners love of mood lighting.  There were ambient lighting gizmos everywhere you looked … including the rooms.  The girls had quite the time playing with the light show in the room.  The owner was fantastic – and we had many laughs with him.  Added bonus was Mimi the cat … Lucia was in love again….not for the first time nor the last time.  Tears were shed again when we moved again and had to say good bye.
  • The house hunt.  This ended up being much more of a hassle than we were expecting.  We discovered that the mulitude of houses listed on the websites are often actually rented – it seems they don’t pull them off the website if they are rented.  Add to that the fact that many owners take this time of year (slow/low/and hotter than ever season) as an opportunity to leave the island …. many places we contacted didn’t respond at all.  It took three long days and a fair amount of frustration to source out a place to stay….but we found one and are really really enjoying it.  The girls held up really well during the search and we so appreciated their patience.
  • Our home – http://www.samuiislandestates.com/rentals.  Ahh….how we enjoy the space of living in a “normal” home again.  We have a two bedroom townhouse in a nice complex that holds around 12 units in total.  We are here in the low season and our complex is entirely empty except for one single Russian man…so we have the place and pool almost to ourselves.  Brad looked at the website for the first time recently and was shocked by the pricing listed on the website – we are paying a lot less (approx $35/night).  Apparently it does pay to wait until you come to the island before booking a place.
  • We have wheels!!!  Having access to your own transport, and the associated freedom/independence that it provides is something we always take for granted back home.  A few weeks without it….and you sure appreciate it when you get it back.  We have rented a car for our time here and love it.  The roads are definitely crazy compared to back home – we drive on the left side of the road, watch for scooters everywhere – they will pass you on both the left and right hand side of the road, and the yellow line in the middle of the road is considered more of a “suggested” division of the road and is regularly ignored.  For added excitement scooters will often travel the wrong way on the sides of the road ie. coming towards you in your lane.  For our first while here – it was definitely two hands on the wheel, radio off, and no talking in the car while Brad navigated the streets.  It didn’t help that we witnessed an accident our first day driving.  Two scooters collided and sent a helmetless lady through the air right in front of our car.  She (and her head) hit the ground and skidded for a meter where she lay semi-conscious and barely moving.  We stopped the car and Brad got out with another westerner that was passing by and carried the barely moving lady to the side of the road.  Luckily for the lady the other westerner had medical training and took control of the situation while a Thai man jumped in to direct traffic.  A bit of a scare for us at the start – but Brad is pretty comfortable driving on the road now with a number of days driving under his belt.  Also, because of the traffic, speeds rarely go over 60km/h and our little mini car is big enough to keep us protected from most likely incidents on the road.  We definitely would not be comfortable driving a scooter here, unlike the locals who often wizz around one one with their entire family seemingly comfortable, all while one adult is balancing a large propane tank.
  • Settling in to a more “normal” lifestyle routine.  Doing dishes (yes even this is pleasurable…right now), going grocery shopping, booking the girls in swimming and dance lessons,  eating at the local markets etc.  Our first day in the house – we found a spider the size of a raquetball in the girls’ room.  Luckily for us, the girls weren’t present when said spider was found, terminated and removed from the premises otherwise our dreams of seperate bedrooms from the girls might have ended on our first night.
  • Living in a “jungle environment”.  You can’t leave ANYTHING in the cupboards or on the counter.  All food is kept in the fridge or freezer…otherwise within an hour you have a swarm of miniature ants attacking the food.  We have almost used up an entire bottle of ant spray to try and keep them out…but they always find a new way in.  Things aren’t built very air tight here for obvious reasons.
  • Things you don’t say in Canada but do say in Koh Samui:
  1. Hurry up, close the door, you are letting in the hot air!
  2. Who left the sugar out of the fridge again?  There are ants everywhere!
  3. Girls, salt is like a vitamin….it is important to make sure you eat enough of it.
  4. I am finding doing dishes kind of carthartic for some reason.
  5. I am liking this Justin Bieber CD we have for the girls more than I probably should be.
  6. Why are there so many people that look like us here in Koh Samui?
  7. Guys you might have to get out and push – I don’t think our car can make it up this hill.
  8. I have sand in my bum.
  9. Did you see that monkey riding on top of that truck full of coconuts?
  10. Lucia it is time for homework … please go outside and count rocks again.
  11. That meat on the skewer – is it chicken breast, skin or cartiledge?
  12. Girls do you want some deep fried crickets or Mang Mou beetles from the market?
  13. Wow…I just saw a scooter with 5 people on it…and one of them was carrying a ladder!

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Krabi Town – Calm, clean, orderly and the hospital was ok too

We were only planning on staying in Krabi for a couple of days before heading off to Koh Samui but we ended up having to extend our stay due to an incident at the hotel pool with Amelie.  We were practicing swimming again with the girls when it happened…. (But first a short aside from proud parents/part-time swim instructors: Lucia has gone from jumping in to the swimming pool and sinking right to the bottom in Bangkok to now being able to jump in…..swim several meters under water….pick up an object from the bottom of the pool…swim to the surface and then front crawl to the other side.  Amelie is not far behind.)   Now back to what happened that day in the pool in Krabi….after a long practice session, Katharina broke one of the cardinal pool rules (no horseplay) and started tickling Amelie.  Good thing it wasn’t Daddy this time, or he would have been in trouble!  🙂

As the two of them played and tickled one another in the pool, Amelie abruptly turned for cover, slipped and hit her lip on the edge of the pool steps.  The ensuing cries made it clear that this was serious; Amelie’s lip had been split at the bottom with a gash that looked big and wide enough, along with a respectable amount of blood, that we decided to take her to the hospital to have it looked at and see if stitches would be required.  The hotel was gracious enough to set us up with transport and even had the driver wait at the hospital for us while we went in to the emergency room.

The hotel’s driver took us to a public hospital so it was a bit different than our last experience with the hospital care in Thailand back in 2001 where we ended up in a very posh private hospital (well kept resort-like grounds, private swimming pool, no queus for anything etc.) where Katharina was put on an IV to combat the dehydration that we had misdiagnosed as a”possibly deadly” tropical disease.  What we saw this time around was definitely a “working hospital” with ambulances coming in at a steady pace bringing in all kinds of injured and elderly patients.  The hospital was a bit run down and dirty by our standards – but the wait wasn’t too long and soon Amelie came out with three stitches and a big bandage.  Katharina was in the room with her when she got her stitches and was very impressed by how brave Amelie was throughout the whole thing – not one tear or complaint during the entire hospital visit!  Still, of course Amelie was pretty tuckered out and just wanted to go back to the hotel room where she fell asleep immediately.  That night, after both girls were in bed, Mommy began to feel the stress of the evening’s incident and worried about whether Amelie had gotten the appropriate care for her wound.  Were the stitches done well?  Should we go to a private hospital for follow-up rather than back to this hospital daily for cleaning and check up as we had been asked to do?  Was it appropriate to prescribe antibiotics? etc.

Well, a good night’s sleep helped both Amelie and Mommy.  When Amelie woke up feeling a great deal better, so did Mommy.  After receiving some helpful advice and reassurance from our nurse friends back home, we decided to stick it out with the public hospital here in Krabi.  Amelie completed a full course of antibiotics and we went back for several check-ups and dressing changes at the hospital.  This ended up being a time-consuming process between hospital waits and challenges arranging transportation to and from the hospital.  Though the hotel did provide us with their driver whenever we left from there, it was unusually difficult to find a taxi or tuk tuk anywhere else in town.  The motorbike taxis were prevalent but definitely not a safe option for us, so we either walked a little further than we might like or learned to wait for the local public transport sorng-tau (small pick-ups with two benches in the back for passengers).

So, between the daily hospital visits and the healing time for Amelie we didn’t venture out to far, or too often, from our hotel.  Most of the time was spent watching Swiss Family Robinson episodes, doing school work, and reading to Amelie while Lucia went swimming with Brad as little Miss Ami had to stay out of the pool and ocean while her lip healed.  Thankfully, our hotel was a lovely place to rest, offering a delicious breakfast buffet that included freshly ground coffee, the pool and courtyard was beautiful for those who could use it, the rooftop restaurant provided amazing views of the angular limestone karsts jutting along the horizon…. and the computer in the lobby was the best we’ve used so far in Thailand and kicks butt on our little laptop.  That alone seemed like reason enough to stay a little longer.

Krabi Town certainly did capture a spot in our hearts though – it is so quiet and calm compared to anywhere else we have been.  It is also very clean and orderly, shockingly so in comparison to everywhere else – clearly the government has got involved in some fashion.  Everyone seems to know everybody else here: when we couldn’t find a taxi, one of the staff from the little cafe we frequented ran across the steet to find a ride for us…our chauffeur was her brother.  Just down the street where we liked to have an ice cream, we could always find the local shop’s good friend, an interesting Dutch retiree who spent his life working around the globe but now settling here.  Just up the road, at our favorite hip restaurant, we enjoyed chatting with the Italian businessman turned restauranteur, who together with his Thai wife and three children had become tired of their stressful lives in Hong Kong, where now building a simpler life and a successful restaurant here in Krabi.  Our girls were always mezmerized by their children as they ‘helped’ their parents in the restaurant, the oldest all while on rollerblades.  Very impressive!

Anyway, it was a nice place to have to stop unexpectably….and most importantly, Amelie is back to her smiling -self!

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Phi Phi Island

We caught a large tourist boat from Ao Nang to Phi Phi Island – about a 2 hour trip by boat off shore.  It is a very small and picturesque island that was hit very hard by the Tsunami in 2004….and it felt a little bit surreal being there in person after watching some of the videos on Youtube.

We ended up picking a “wilderness” hotel fairly far away from the main tourist town on the island – so it was a quiet, peaceful, and relatively short stay on the island for us.  Our hotel was right on the ocean and had a small, essentially private beach right out front.  The place was beautiful – http://www.vikingnatureresort.com with both large and small houses/huts carved into the jungle cliffs along the beachfront.  Much to Kat’s delight, ours was unexpectably huge and beautiful!

Although we loved the place and the location – the rooms didn’t have air conditioning (we feel a little wimpy writing that) and the entire family just cooked in the room the first night.  It was a hot, sweaty and sleepless night for the entire family (we are here in the hot season – so it is 30 to 35 every day with 70% humidity and only cools off a bit at night.  We decided to cut our stay short….and start making our way back over to our planned longer stay in Koh Samui on the east coast of Thailand.

Highlights

*  The resort itself was beautiful and had an almost Gilligan’s Island feel to it – with the restaurant, tables, huts, and houses all incorporating larges amounts of natural building materials,

and “blended” in with the natural setting.  The setting and the private beach combined to create a very beautiful environment.  The children were able to spend a lot of time jumping in the waves and looking for fish and seashells.

* The invasion of the Mang Mows bugs.  Unfortunately we were “trying” to sleep through it – so we remained blissfully unaware of the flurry of activity happening outside our door.  We had a very large balcony attached to our house – and when we awoke to head for breakfast we opened the door and found the floor of our balcony literally carpetted with hundreds and hundreds of large bug wings.  Each wing was probably two cms in length and we had to use a broom to sweep them all up.  Apparently after a rainstorm they will often be drawn into shelter (lights help), drop their wings, crawl off and mate, then die.  We talked to a Thai lady about it – it is fairly common and eating the bugs is apparently a bit of a delicacy in northern Thailand.  We spoke to one of the resaurant managers and he said they litterally swarmed into the open air restaurant and kitchen last night – they were everywhere.  He actually had to run into the restaurant office and close the door there were so many of them.  He had at least one male guest come to him in the night saying that his wife was scared and crying her eyes out.  The guest had been sent down to reception to ask if the staff could do anything about all of the bugs – manager had stuck his head out the door and said “No sorry “

Ao Nang – West Coast Beaches

Being the now family-travel savy parents that we are, we ensured that we had an ample supply of car sickness bags easily accessible and boarded a mini-van to head from Khao Sok National Park to Ao Nang on the west coast of Thailand.

The mini-vans are large and modern – although they look a LOT bigger before they stuff 14 people and accompanying luggage in them.   Katharina tried to help minimize the car sickness by taking the three front seats by the driver with Brad in the back.  We were again hit by the dreaded “my stomach hurts” after a couple of hours but we were lucky enough to stop before there were any “international incidents”.

Ao Nang is a tourist town through and through – with all the accompanying stores, restaurants, bars, massage parlours, travel agencies and hotels that you would expect.  From our hotel to the beach (1 block) we pass six travel agencies all vying for your attention to try and sell some kind of tour, excursion or activity.  Along the main road in front of the beach you are regularly peppered with “Taxi…taxi?” or “Boat….boat…taxi boat?”  Amelie has picked up the cute habit of saying “Boat … boat…taxi boat?” in a low deep voice with a Thai accent periodically as she walks around.

While Ao Nang itself is not very picturesque….it does serve as an excellent base to catch a boat to some of the beautiful islands and beaches which surround the area.

Highlights

*  The beaches.  There are some of the most beautiful beaches in the world on the west coast of Thailand.  The water is warm and clear while the sandy beaches are made of fine white sand and, for the most part, relatively clean by Thai standards.  Swimming with goggles on – we almost always spotted fish of some kind underwater swimming near the shore.  The whole scene  is back dropped by beautiful jungle covered karsk formations jutting up out of the sea.  It is beautiful.

*  Ocean kayaking around some of the islands – it gave a great perspective on the beaches and allowed us to get up close to some of the nearby karsks. It did, however, generate a fair number of debates over who was in actual control of steering and who, in fact, was paddling the hardest.  We also had to be sure to keep a watchful eye out for the long tail boats that regularly ply the waters and brace for the impact of their wake as they motored by.

*  The roti stand that we visited every evening.  The lady would recognize the girls immediately when we stepped up to order and always gave us a present of some kind of fruit for free.  One evening we brought down some Canada flag tattoos and pencils for her seven year old boy who would spend hours hanging around her cart while she worked.  (another difference in the life of a Thai child that we were sure to point out to our girls).  The roti/pancake is basically a ball of dough that is stretched out until it is almost paper thing.  They slap it down on a frying pan that is covered in oil and margarine ….fry it up and put a cut up banana (or other fruit of you choice) on top.  The roti is then folded up, slathered in Nutella if you so choose (which of course we do).  Then to top it off, the entire bundle of goodness is then drizzled with a healthy dose of sweetened condensed milk at the end.  They are very good …. and we hope healthier than they sound.  They also may be the reason that Katharina’s parents tell Brad that his face is “looking fuller” every time we talk on skype or they see one of our pictures.

*  Our girls are often a source of much facination and interest for the Thai people.  Thais LOVE children and seeing two blond headed girls that look like twins (we get asked if they are twins at least six times a day, every day)  is sometimes too much to resist.  We often see people “sneaking” photos of them … and it is not at all rare to have Thais or Asian tourists come up and have the girls pose with them for a shot.  For the most part, the girls are good sports about it and it doesn’t seem to be going to their heads yet.  🙂  One day at the beach we decided to bury the girls in sand.  It was not long before we had a large group of Asian paparazzi completely surrounding them popping off photo after photo.  For Amelie the inability to move, and the rush of attention, quickly got to be too much and we had to do a quick search and rescue dig for her.

* Sometimes the economics of what we see here baffles us.  We are here in the slow season – so we always see lots of restaurants, bars and massage parlours that are filled with workers, but empty of patrons.  We strolled along one section of the road in front of the beach and there were AT LEAST 12 different massage parlours within one block (the massage parlours probably filled up 70% of the available retail space).  Most were empty….and all of them had people out front calling out “Massage…massage??”  It was a bit much, so much so that Amelie pleaded with us to walk back another way.  Mommy and Daddy also preferred to take the more scenic (and quieter) beach stroll back.

Jungle Treehouse – Khao Sok National Park

Leaving the lovely Dolphin Bay Resort, we needed to decide if we were going to head over to the east-coast islands where we plan to make our longer term home on Koh Samui, or travel a bit further south and west to the treehouse hotel that looked so intriguing, followed by a visit to a the west coast before the rainy season hits there (apparently a good deal earlier and more intensely than on the east-side).

We opted for the treehouses and west coast and will later likely fly from Krabi to Koh Samui – intra Thailand flights are very reasonable.

Direction chosen, we booked our spots on the train (air con this time) and headed out.  Just in case anyone is thinking that it is all rainbows and cotton candy on this trip … it isn’t…. it is actually a lot more work than people probably picture, and definitely requires a lot of ‘flexibility’.  We had but another reminder of this during our “travel day” to the tree houses.

After rushing away from our beloved Dolphin Bay Resort in the morning, we arrived at the train station in Hua Hin only to find that our train would be departing two hours later than expected, which put the entire schedule behind from the very start.  We were not quite clear on the logistics of getting from Surat Thani (destination of the train) to the actual treehouse in the national park so we had opted to book a private vehicle through the treehouse hotel to pick us up from the train station.  Unfortunately our later arrival….meant a later departure with the private vehicle.  The road trip from Surat Thani was also longer than expected (double) which meant our travel day ended up starting at 0900AM and ending at 1000PM which was hard on the adults, never mind the kids.  It also meant we needed to drive on the roads at night … which is something we try to avoid unless we are in a very big bus.  (Might makes right in the games of chicken on the Thai roads.)

About halfway through the road trip Lucia started to complain about a pinchy belly and this was quickly echoed by Amelie.  Fifteen minutes later we had both of them wailing in the back seat with Katharina trying to console them (to no avail) and Brad apologising to the driver for the noise.  We were worried about another car sickness episode so had bags ready but we think we stopped just in time to dodge that bullet.

We arrived at our resort and immediately had the sounds of the jungle competing with our two girls for charting on the decibal scale.  Some knowing looks were exchanged between reception and the driver, and we were quickly whisked through the check in process.  Tears streaming and kids still at high volume we were escorted down a very dark jungle path by flashlight while trying desperately not to wake up the other guests.  We lugged our packs up some very steep stairs into the jungle canopy and found some respite in our lovely treehouse.  Outside the frogs, birds, monkeys and the multitude of insects created a literal cacophony of sound – we tried to capture it on a video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od-cx_dfhos.  Play it loud for the “real” feel.  We were awoken in the morning to the sound of monkeys playing on our roof.

Highlights

  • The treehouses hotel itself http://www.khaosok-hotels.com/ was amazing.  Trails throughout the jungle with treehouses lodged in the trees periodically.  It was beautiful and nature only turned down the volume a little bit during the day.  The restaurant was wonderful and served up some fantastic meals.
  • Elephant Jungle Trek – With granola bars in hand, as the restaurant was not yet open for breakfast, we were picked up by an open-back covered pick-up truck with benches, a common look for taxis in the area.  This early morning ride was so refreshing, and offered both temperatures and views not available during the day.  As we whizzed down the road, we saw an elephant walking on the shoulder of the road (perhaps on his way to ‘work’), and several groups of orange clad monks on their morning walk.  Arriving at the elephant ‘camp’, we were guided up a small flight of stairs in pairs (Brad and birthday girl Amelie, and Kat and Lucia), that allowed us to climb on to the seats mounted on the elephants backs.  The chairs wobbled with each large elephant stride, and especially at that height, it did take a bit of getting used too….but man it was fun!  The relatively early morning (0700AM) start to our elephant trek was perfect, allowing us to dodge the heat and still have morning mists in the air as we went through the jungle on the elephants.  The kids loved the experience and it was very beautiful – surrounded by lush jungle and towering limestone cliffs.  We regularly heard the VERY loud roaring of a leopard …. it’s roar literally echoed around the jungle and made him sound a lot bigger than we hoped he really was.  🙂  For the last portion of the ‘ride’, Lucia was even able to ride on the elephant’s head with one of the guides.  Her love of animals, and her lack of fear, never cease to amaze us.  The kids also had an opportunity to feed the elephants some sugar cane after the ride was over.
  • Amelie’s 5th Birthday.  We had the elephant trek in the morning and had several travel appropriate birthday gifts (ie light-weight and practical) for her.  One of the gifts – a new birthday dress – was expertly wrapped in a banana leaf courtesy of Katharina.  We had also special ordered an actual birthday cake to be brought in to the restaurant for the occassion.  We were fortunate to meet a Swiss family travelling with two young boys 3 and 5 who were staying at the hotel and joined us for a joint dinner/birthday party.  Later in the evening another family from France with two girls aged 4 and 6 arrived and also joined us.  Cake and birthday candles and then games of freeze dance and musical chairs completed the party and what we think will be a very memorable birthday for Amelie.  In fact, that evening Amelie said the same thing she does each year on her birthday, “This was my favorite birthday ever!”
  • Swiss Family Robinson.  Brad had completed reading the Robinson Crusoe book to the girls and came up with the idea of downloading the Swiss Family Robinson tv series onto our computers.  We watched several episodes in our treehouse during the hottest parts of the day and the kids are completely enthralled with each episode and are often twisting and squirming in the bed in a mix of both anticipation and fear (during the “scary” parts).  Though the series is older, stories are still charming, and even offer lots of opportunities for learning and discussion.  We, the parents, are happy to confirm that the special effects industry has come a LONG way since the mid seventies.

We are heading off to Ao Nang, Krabi on the west coast of Thailand next where we hope to go ocean kayaking and for the girls’ first snorkelling experience.

Dolphin Bay Family Result – Family Bliss

We hired a private taxi to take us the 45 minutes south of Hua Hin to the Dolphin Bay area to stay in the number one rated family hotel on Trip Advisor – Dolphin Bay Family Resort.

Wow … we are not sure what family travel perfection looks like … but it has to look something like the Dolphin Bay Family Resort.  http://www.dolphinbayresort.com/en/  It would be a young backpackers worst nightmare – families and kids everywhere, nothing but silence after 9:00pm and $5 cocktails … but to for families it is down right next to perfect.

Three separate pools all with varying depths, waterslide, beautiful outdoor playground, and indoor play and movie room, nice beach, a wonderful restaurant with plenty of western and Thai food to choose from.  Amelie ate macaroni and cheese for 6 straight meals – lunch and dinner.  Thankfully as the days passed, other favorites were discovered including banana pancakes and even chicken satay.  The daily breakfast buffet also impressed the children with choco corn flakes, and ‘Hello Kitty’ dishes and cutlery, while we parents were impressed by the ample fresh fruits, omelets, and even nice hearty rye bread we could insist the children eat rather than the white ‘Wonderbread’ otherwise most readily found here.  The staff too has been wonderful, and together with the clientelle and the layout of the hotel, have created a very very family-friendly environment.  We have extended our stay twice while we were here!

The highlights:

  • The utter simplicity of staying here.  Everything is within a 20 second walk – pool, restaurant, computers, beach, playground etc.  It has been a very nice and relaxing stay.  We had a chance to film the Justin Bieber lip synch video on the beach here to send back to Lucia’s classmates.  Lucia was in a “Fish Creek Idol” competition back in Calgary and her group had made it through five rounds of eliminations and were in the finals.  Unfortunately she missed the finale as we had left for Tokyo.  They were doing Justin Bieber’s Baby Baby. You need to watch the YouTube video until the end to catch Lucia’s “Peace sign”.  Who knew they were that hip??  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHZpEuM_JUo
  • The pools.  The three pools offer a variety of depths for the girls which allows them to swim without their flotation belts. We have been working hard on teaching the girls to swim and they have made a ton of progress.  Lucia is flying around the pool (and down the waterslide in a variety of front, backwards, belly and riding floaties positions) while Amelie went from barely being comfortable dipping her toe in the water to being able to swim across the entire width of the pool without help and without stopping.  Lucia was regularly mocking Amelie’s swimming technique until Amelie successfully crossed the pool on her own.  Lucia hopped in to do the same – and couldn’t make it.  The silence was deafening whilst Amelie’s smile went on forever.  🙂
  • Monkey Island.  A very short boat ride across Dolphin Bay is Monkey Island … aptly named for the tribe of monkeys that await you when you beach.  They all look pretty docile and tame as you approach the beach, but as soon as you put one foot on the beach they start moving in.  We had monkeys crawling up our legs, standing on our head and shoulders, baring fangs, fighting each other over the bananas and doing an end run around us to hop up on the boat to pillage the bananas and mangos for themselves.  Cool experience overall … but it was certainly an “interactive” one.  While we were on the beach quite the windstorm came up out of nowhere and forced us to shelter inland a bit.  The sand was blowing so strong off the beach that it actually stung our legs.  We had been talking about Robinson Crusoe (you can see the tie in with being a castaway on a strange island we hope) on the way over (Brad has been reading it to the girls every night and they have been LOVING it).  As we saw the whitecaps on the ocean, the wind blowing so hard and the Thai captain of the ship looking a little nervous (at least to us), we had a few moments of concern…but the wind quickly died down.  Interesting side note – In the Robinson Crusoe book there are a fair number of references to God.  While Brad was reading to the girls one night Lucia piped up during the story and asked “Who do you think is more powerful, God or Santa Claus?”  There was quite a debate/discussion that went on between Lucia and Amelie (Brad was staying out of this one).  Lucia started out firmly on God’s side, while Amelie was fully on Santa Claus’s side.  Lucia started to knuckle under when Amelie talked the fact that Santa Claus wears a magic suite.  Lucia finally fully threw in the towel when she remembered that Santa Claus wrote her a letter back before Christmas in Grade One.  We are happy she still believes in Santa Claus.  🙂
  • Elephant Safari in Kui Buiri National Park.  We hired a taxi through the hotel to take us to the park for an Elephant Safari.  Lucia has been working on a video on Elephants that she can send back to her Grade 1 class for Mrs. Murphy to play on her Smartboard for the students.  You can see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfZCyUGhdxo  Unfortunately this was our first time doing multiple excerpts with our Samsung Tab … so we didn’t realize that the orientation of the tablet would be an issue until we got home (that’s what we call our hotels now).  Sooooo…you have to watch half of it with a tilted head…but it is interesting and “VERY” educational.  Simply sitting on the back of the truck with the wind blowing through our hair (and our otherwise often sticky sweaty clothing) was enjoyable.  We felt real suspense and anticipation as we navigated the dirt roadways through the park, with all of our senses on high alert.  In fact Katharina was so highly tuned to the sounds of nature that when she asked the guide what animals made that ever-present squeaking sound she was hearing, that he smiled and advised her it was just the shocks of the truck.  To this Brad quipped ‘She lives in the city!’  We did however see some real animals….more than 50 elephants in fact, which is apparently very rare.  We were told many times how ‘lucky’ we were.  Apparently, it is fairly common to not see any elephants at all.  We did feel lucky and had lots of fun!

Hua Hin Beach Resort Town

We took the train from Bangkok down to Hua Hin – a beach resort on the east coast of Thailand. Much of the 5 hour train ride was spent just getting through Bangkok.  After playing many rounds of ‘I spy with my little eye’, we talked about what the girls had learned about Thailand in their first few days.  It was amazing what they came up with on their own, noting differences not just to Canada but also to Japan.

The SongKram festival was nearing its end, so the trains were busy as Thais travelled back home after visits with their family.  For this reason, we weren’t able to get an air conditioned car on the train … so suffered a bit in the heat.  Still, the train ride was quite interesting.  With SongKram not yet over, we witnessed the streets alive with water fights in each town we passed through.  We even got ‘shot’ once through an open window, which actually felt very refreshing in the hot train.  Rice fields, farmers fertilizing their fields by hand, waterfowl, lifestock roaming freely, and interesting mountain ranges provided entertaining landscapes during the trip.   

We checked into our hotel, http://www.myplacehuahin.com/ and headed out to explore the town.   The town, while still bustling, is a very welcome reprieve from the hectic pace in both Tokyo and Bangkok.

The oppressive heat sent us shuffling lethargically through the streets towards the first beach experience on our trip.  With temperatures hitting at least 35 degrees daily, we had to revise our traditionally fast Canadian walk, and simply creep along as best as we could manage.  The girls of course tiring even more easily than the parents, had to be carried quite often.  This became known as the ‘daddy taxi’ (which was more often used than the more easily-fatigued ‘mommy taxi’).  In exchange for a ride, Lucia sometimes offered ‘air-conditioning’ to the taxi

The girls had a great time exploring the ocean and beach and quickly built an acquarium in the sand and filled it with dozens of hermit crabs and a starfish (which accidently became crab food – ahhh the life lessons our girls are learning on this trip – smile).

Another lesson we taught our girls was the importance of wearing sun screen.  We liberally applied sunscreen to the girls, but we (the parents) ended up getting distracted by the girls excitement and forgot to sunscreen our Canadian winterized translucent flesh and scorched ourselves horribly on the first day at the beach.  Many bottles of Aloe Vera aftersun cream (I think we went through 4), and much whining, awaited us over the next few days.  Another lesson learned for the entire family.

Highlights of Hua Hin

  • THE BEACH!  It was the first beach experience for the girls ever… and learning how to dig for clams, capturing hermit crabs, finding starfish and starting an ever expanding sea shell collection was the name of the game.
  • Brad headed down to a Muay Thai fight after the rest of the family was in bed.  It wasn’t what one would call an “authentic” experience with 95% of the audience being of European or North American descent… it was entertaining none-the-less.
  • The large fish pond at the front of the pool.  The fish (perhaps Japanese Koi) were quite large and were often fed some scraps of bread (at least by our family).  Lucia, as is typical for her with any animal, immediately became completely enamoured and could not walk in to, or out of, the hotel without stopping to watch the fish.
  • A pony ride for the girls on the beach.  When Milo and Lucky stopped to releave themselves, the girls both noted that they were male horses.
  • Trying out some of the food from the street vendors in the hectic night market – plates of Pad Thai ($1), Chicken Satay skewers ($0.75), and some nutella and banana roti (pancakes) ($1).  So far so good – no stomach issues.  Although working around the kid’s restricted menu options continues to be a real challenge … but for some reason they absolutely loved the banana and nutella roti!
  • As we shuffled slowly around town, finding breezy open-air restaurants serving italian, or scandanavian food, and even some real italian-style gelato (locally made but some key ingredients flown in from Italy) offered a much needed break. 
  • Did we mention it is very hot here?