Our Special Guest Stars: GooGoo, Bapa, and the Magnificent Mackenzie!

We were beyond thrilled when Goo Goo and Bapa announced their plans to join us for a month of our travels in SE Asia.  From beginning to end, they impressed us so much: their adventurous spirit, their patience for our sometimes idiosyncratic group dynamic, their love of things new and different.

For example, here is Bapa, with a tarantula… Both he and GooGoo later sampled this Cambodian delicacy.

How blessed we are that they became our 7 and 8 for so long and how much we will miss them as we finish up the remaining weeks of our trip.  In a final show of adventure travel dedication, they even wrote a guest blog post, which appears below.

Our blessings only continued when Mackenzie decided to join us for our time in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Saigon.  


She flew 20 hours each way and did not miss a beat in joining our somewhat ambitious itinerary for these beautiful and important places.  We literally saw not one sign of jet lag from her as we tromped through ancient ruins, took tuk tuks through crowded cities, stopped at roadside stands to eat insects, and then absorbed the tragic history of Cambodia.  The whole time Phoebe, who has missed her beloved Naynay so much, was literally clinging to her side….  Nevertheless, she remained upright, in fact downright cheery, throughout her time with us.  She even managed to ask the smartest, most insightful questions on all of our tours  


Amazingly, Mackenzie did not even bat an eyelash when we announced the plan for her final day: a 4 hour motor scooter tour through the heart of Saigon that ended just 3 hours before her flight back to DC.  


We knew Mackenzie was amazing before the trip began.  We are now in complete awe of her.

I will never forget talking to a dear friend, about halfway through the trip, about the homesickness I was feeling.  (This was shortly after William’s accident at the Taj Mahal and in the midst of the Indian currency crisis…)  My friend made the very good point that one of the often overlooked reasons for travel is to remind yourself how much you love and appreciate your life back home.  Homesickness is a form of that.  Being with Brendan’s parents and Mackenzie, all of whom are so integral to our lives in DC, was an even better and much more enjoyable reminder.  We’re very grateful for their time, effort to join us, and of course their wonderful company.  

And now to GooGoo & Bapa’s much more interesting read…

So nerve-wracking to be asked to be guest writers on the blog!

When we first heard about this trip, we were stunned at the fantasy of the plan, scope of travel, depth of planning and organization….how many people take a year off?   With 4 kids to some very exotic destinations. Managing school absence, visas, medicine…yikes, where to begin?

Reality struck when we drove kids to Dulles with their one backpack each.

We connected for a few days in Rome in Oct. and now that we’ve been together a month, we continue to be amazed at the level of activity (where did these genes come from?) and the overwhelming patience and kindness of all involved.  Crossing the street in Bangkok /Ho Chi Minh City / wherever, is a challenge (hold hands, Phoebe)…rock climbing, motorbiking, just about anything that challenges our concept of normalcy.

Hours of dusty rides or tours of temples or museums when everyone is hot, thirsty, tired….there’s an underlying acceptance of inconvenience that is exceptional.  Even Brendan and Alex only had a few time-outs!

Guess that’s what makes this trip possible…a willingness to accept developing world foibles.  Admittedly, Phoebe is 5 and still brushing up on this skill.


The massages also help quite a bit…

One day in Siem Reap, all 9 of us had one at the same time!

We’ve all been reading lots of books on the history of SE Asia and in particular, the tragic recent history of bombing campaigns and wars in and the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia. But visiting the sites with the names familiar to those of our generation (e.g., Hue, Danang, the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh) and seeing the wars of our youth from the SE Asian perspective has been a sobering experience.

We have been avid followers of the blogs tracing the kids’ progress from Morocco, across Southern Europe to India, Sri Lanka and then the outdoor adventures of New Zealand and Australia.  But after finally catching up with them in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we have gotten to experience first hand the adventurous spirit and astounding maturity and intellectual curiosity of this gang.

From bathing with the elephants in Chiang Mai,

to relaxing at the pool at our Mekong riverfront villa,


tuk-tuking around town and swimming in waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos,


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to marveling at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat,


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to visiting the splendid Imperial Palace  and sobering killing fields of Cambodia,to surviving the crazy traffic in Saigon and revisiting the sadness of the war at the war museum and CuChi Tunnels,

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to hanging out at our beachfront jungle villa and motorbiking through rice paddies and small villages near Hoi An,


we have marveled at the sights, but been even more impressed by the ability of these kids and their parents to keep up the pace and absorb the details of the history and culture of each venue.


Memories of muddy feet,  dusty hikes, constant sweating, smoothies, microscopic restaurant napkins flying all over the place, elephant pants,  games of Bananagrams, butterflies, massages (even all at one time), giant geckos screeching like cat fights…and so much more. Thank you, A,B,W,H,C, and P, for sharing yourselves with us; we’ve had a magical journey!


Cambodia. Sadness, Resilience.


Of all the places we’ve been on the trip, Cambodia is by far the most decimated by war, oppression, and base human cruelty.  From 1970 to 1975, the Cambodian civil war, together with spillover from the war in Vietnam, ravaged the country.  One million Cambodians died.  Cambodians killed Cambodians.  Hundreds of thousands, sometimes entire villages, were annihilated by American bombs, as U.S. fighter planes tried to root out Viet Cong hiding themselves among Cambodian farmers.  Unexploded ordinance, as well as land mines laid by Cambodian ground soldiers, still litter the country.  For years, scores of curious children have been killed or maimed when they tried to play with these souvenirs of war.

The problem persists today but has been slowly improved by the painstaking efforts of international organizations working to remove these deadly hazards.

In 1975, Cambodia’s civil war ended, with the Communist Khmer Rouge defeating the U.S. backed military government.  Rather than bringing peace, this is when country’s real horror began.  For nearly 5 years, the Khmer Rouge, led by the fanatical Pol Pot, implemented a plan to transform the country into a “utopia” of agrarian simplicity.  As described to us, Pot’s goals were to remake society, erase all class structure, and “restart at Year Zero.”

To achieve their communist vision, the Khmer Rouge drove the people out of Cambodia’s cities, towns, and villages.  They forced the population into work camps where men, women, and children over 6 spent 16 hours a day toiling in the rice fields.  They burnt down people’s homes, and blew up their cars and trucks, so they would have no reason or way to go back.  (We heard that much of the rice harvested during the Khmer Rouge regime was sold to Vietnam and China to line the pockets of party leaders, many of whom were corrupt from the start.)

The Khmer Rouge also destroyed all of the banks and cancelled all currency.  They forbade ownership of private property.  People were not even permitted to accumulate their own food; they ate communally and had only what the soldiers decided to give them. Children were torn away from their parents and put into child “care” centers to facilitate indoctrination efforts.  The Khmer Rogue turned boys and girls young as 11 and 12 into child soldiers.  They eliminated medical care and schooling for all but the Khmer Rouge leaders and their families.

To destroy the elite, the Khmer Rouge rooted out those who had been academics, teachers, doctors, and lawyers before the Revolution.  They tortured these “bourgeois” until they confessed their crimes against the State and then executed them en masse, in areas known as killing fields.  Some were simply buried alive.

The Khmer Rouge cut off all ties with the outside world, depriving the Cambodian people of any international aid and obscuring the full extent of their terror.  Of course the world was not entirely clueless.  But there was no will or international consensus to take any action.

In 1979, the increasingly empowered Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.  They deposed Pol Pot, drove the Khmer Rouge leadership into hiding, and installed a new government.  Many Cambodians describe this as a fake liberation, which simply replaced one authoritarian regime with another; this time one that would do Vietnam’s bidding to the detriment of the Cambodian people. But with the Khmer Rouge out of power at least the atrocity subsided. And the full extent of Cambodia’s devastation revealed itself to the world.

We now know that, during their 4 year reign, the Khmer Rouge caused more than 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people to die–from execution, starvation, disease, or forced labor.  We also know that, as part of its campaign of cultural cleansng (and to enrich themselves and the party), the Khmer Rouge vandalized and plundered numerous awe-inspiring works of the Angkor Kingdom, including magnificent temples that had been discovered by archaeologists only decades earlier.

The Angkor Kingdom constructed and maintained its beautiful cities in central Cambodia from the 11th to 16th century.  The sophistication of the architecture, urban planning, and infrastructure surpassed anything that existed in Europe at the time.  In the 1500s, under attack by the Thai king, the Angkor monarch moved the capital south to Phnom Penh. The central cities were abandoned and fell into ruin.  These marvels were found, 300 years later in the late 1800s, by a French naturalist looking for rare butterflies.



We’re in Phnom Penh now, after having spent 3 days exploring the damaged but still amazingly beautiful Angkor ruins.  It is amazing to walk around this bustling capital city, knowing that after the Khmer Rouge took power, they literally emptied the city, turning it into a ghost town.

As we wandered around a beautiful festival celebrating Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei (the Cambodian New Year) at Wat Phnom, it was almost impossible to believe that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge actually occurred–in our lifetime, to people our age.

But the reality of what occurred in this country was brought home by a visit the next day to S 21, a Phnom Penh school that Khmer Rouge converted into an interrogation and torture facility.  Only 7 people who the Khmer Rouge brought to the facility survived.  Two of them were young boys.

We also saw Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, at Choeung Ek, where an estimated 20,000 people, including little babies, were executed in less than 4 years.  (Only the older kids saw these places, which we wandered in silence, our knees weak with sadness, disgust, and even fear.)

The reality is evident not just at these sites.  It is evident when you look around a crowded city street and see so few older people; so many of our parents’ generation were killed.  You see it in the stunted development of the country’s infrastructure.  The Khmer Rouge saw no need for electricity, running water, or motorized transport for the people.  Progress has been made in providing these basic services in the ensuing years, especially among the country’s wealthier segments.  (I saw at least 7 Range Rovers, and one RR dealership as we drove from our hotel is S 21.)  But even now an amazingly low percentage of villages has electricity or clean running water; one estimate we heard was 20 percent.   The reality of what happened is also reflected in the dark sadness you sometimes glimpse in the eyes of people who witnessed and survived “Khmer Rogue time,” as one of our guides called it.

Perhaps what struck me most, however, given what this country has endured, is that sadness and dark are not all you see in Cambodia.  You also see remarkable displays of resilience and the strength of the human spirit.

The friendly smiles we received from villagers preparing for the New Year celebration.  Some of these people no doubt remember when the Americans dropped so many bombs on the country and then withdrew all support as the Khmer Rouge finally overtook Phnom Penh.  But they shared their balloons with Phoebe and Coco, and even replaced the one Phoebe popped on a Buddha.

The industriousness of the people working so hard to make a better life for their children.  Like our guide for Angkor Wat, Phally, who is three years younger than Brendan and me.  He spent the first 8 years of his life running with his family from the Khmer Rouge. They lived in a series of refuge camps. His older brother died of starvation when he was 3.  Phally learned later that the Khmer Rouge had plans to execute all of the adults in the camp where he and his parents were living.  They survived only because the Vietnamese invaded just two weeks before that planned killing.  Today, Phally lives in a village near Siem Reap with his wife and two sons; his parents and 7 siblings born after Khmer Rouge time live nearby. He speaks nearly perfect English and makes a good living as a guide.  Phally taught us so much.


The struggle for freedoms we take for granted.  In the decades since the Khmer Rouge lost power, the country has been ruled by one party.  The same prime minister, Hun Sen, has maintained power for more than 3 decades.  He lives like a king with immense wealth and a 1000-man security force.  There is an Opposition Party and elections are held every 5 years.  But many dismiss these elections as rigged and only for show.  In 2013, though, the year of the last election, people came out for the opposition party in unprecedented numbers.  That evening the news began to report that the ruling party had lost several provinces. Suddenly, the nation’s televisions and radios went blank.  When the broadcast came back on a few minutes later, the news had changed:  the reporters said that Hun Sen had been victorious again.

In the following days, protesters took to the streets.  Many were arrested and put in jail.  The Opposition leader, Sam Raimsy, was also threatened with prison and Hun Sen the threatened to outlaw the party if Raimsy refused to resign (which he has now done).  Still, the Opposition remains and people are optimistic for a victory in 2018.

Many Cambodians are calling on the UN and the US to do more to help ensure a free and fair vote.  I wonder whether I would have the courage and strength to struggle for political rights if I lived under these circumstances, where so recently mere survival of my family was in jeopardy.

I feel an urge–and, at the same time, at an utter loss–to do something, anything to respond to what we saw and learned about in Cambodia.  Give money to an NGO?  Petition our American government to push for election monitoring in 2018?  To be honest, those easy options all feel pretty empty.  I do take to heart the words inscribed on the  UNESCO memorial at S 21. “Never will we forget….”

And I remind myself that new atrocities are happening in our world right now. Imagine if we could go back and do something to stop the Khmer Rouge.  How could we not?  And if that is so obvious, I have to ask, what can we do, what are we doing, to stop the atrocities happening now? Maybe each of us asking ourselves that question–one I myself spent little or time on until recently–is the best way we can honor the promise to the Cambodians to never forget.