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!


Goodbye Laos

Our last day in Luang Prabang and in Laos.  It seemed far too soon to leave this beautiful place.

So we struggled out of bed at 5:15 and rode bikes into town to see the world waking up.

After enjoying the mellow dawn traffic, we watched, for the second time during our stay here, the monks of the local wats receiving alms, sticky rice for their meals for the day.

We then had breakfast ourselves…

… a nod to the French colonial influence that very much pervades the UNESCO protected old town of the city.

On the way home, we rode through the morning market, a very different and equally wonderful place to be.

This place is very special.  And very far away.  Still, somehow, I think and really hope we’ll be back.

Luang Prabang

Our first morning in Laos came early:  we woke at 5 AM and our guide, Lo, was waiting at our door at 5:30.  The previous day was a long and hot one, so Alex and I gave the kids the morning to sleep in.  We were, however, thrilled to be joined by two new additions to the team, my mom and dad, who had met us in Chiang Mai a few days earlier.  So the five of us headed off into the dust and dawn of Luang Prabang, third-largest city in Laos, which doesn’t have a single stoplight.

Wat Sene just before dawn

Lo brought us to the main street in town, sat us on four plastic stools, and handed us each a bamboo basket full of sticky rice. He told us to be ready for action, scoop quickly, but stay quiet.  Alongside us, a flock of Chinese Tourists (a term we’ve heard uttered with a dismissive shake of the head many times over the past two months) took to their stools.  Their baskets were full of candy and packaged snacks, which could only lead to more shaking of the heads from guides and superior travelers such as ourselves.

A few moments later, the Laotian tradition of Tak Bat was underway.  As has happened every morning for hundreds of years, groups of twenty to thirty monks, each from a different temple, processed by and accepted gifts of food from those seated along the street.  It has, in recent years, become a bit of a circus, with vans unloading bleary-eyed tourists to take part in what is intended to be a solemn expression of devotion and gratitude.  Our stretch of sidewalk was relatively calm, but the cynic in me couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable about dropping in on such an event with a very thin grasp on the significance of this tradition.


The non-cynic in me tried his best to go with the moment, and recognize the commitment that these monks had made to their calling.  They were young and old, many younger than our own William. Theirs is a life of meditation and poverty among the activity of their surrounding towns and cities.  In Sri Lanka, Thailand, and now Laos, we’ve seen young monks walking the streets, often goofing off or on their cell phones. Those same kids are up at 4 AM each day to begin prayers, and the food placed in their bowls on the street each morning makes up their diet for the day.  It was clear that many of the younger monks were not too upset about the Chinese Tourists’ contributions.


When our baskets of rice were empty, we walked through an alley to a smaller street running parallel to the main drag.  Here, we got a glimpse of the other side of the Tak Bat ritual:  a handful of local residents, who likely actually cooked their own rice that morning, sat in silence and waited to give alms to the monks. Again, I felt a bit uncomfortable gawking, but this side of town proved that the simple beauty of the tradition is surviving as Laos has opened itself to tourists from places like China (and DC).


That opening only took place in 1989, which helps to explain the minor culture shock that we felt as we arrived from Chiang Mai.  Luang Prabang seems downright sleepy compared to CM, in the best of ways.  The backpacker and traveler scene is on a much smaller scale, and the buses of Chinese Tourists that run around Chiang Mai are replaced by vans and tuk tuks.  English is much less common, and life is generally not quite as easy as it was in Chiang Mai.  The balance of local and tourist has yet to tip in the way that it has in Chiang Mai. The tuk tuks here, however, can comfortably fit a family of eight.


Laos was a French colony for the first half of the twentieth century, and the remnants of that era are common.  Baguettes and French Doors are everywhere, and we have been surprised to find that the food, Lao and French alike, is much better than the Thai food of Chiang Mai.

An unidentified floater from Kalorama at Kuang Xi Falls

After the French came the Secret War waged by our friends at the CIA and the arrival of a communist government that is still in place today.  We can’t claim to have been affected by that part of Lao life, but did pick up on Lo’s refusal to bite when my dad pressed him on the fate of King Vatthana, who was generally believed to have been shipped off to a re-education camp by the Pathet Lao in the mid-1970s. Lo stuck to the (literally) party line and pointed out that Vatthana was never a legitimate king to begin with, and we thus shouldn’t worry about him.


That’s an unironic hammer and sickle above.  We’ve had some good talks about the history of SE Asia in the later twentieth century, and we hope that this will prepare the kids somewhat for what we will soon see and learn about in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The three big kids, Alex and I left the house late this morning with visions of fruit shakes and a ride into the countryside dancing in our heads.  We biked through a maze of motor scooters, tuk tuks, and pick-up trucks along the way, sucking in 99 degrees of humidity and smoke as we rode. We arrived downtown around 11 AM, at which point the main street, home to the monks’ procession at dawn and the crowds of the night market, was empty save for a few pale and very sweaty tourists at each temple.  The town doesn’t officially shut down for a siesta, but the emptiness of the streets reminded us of the pueblas blancas of Spain back in September. The heat dashed our plans to head for the hills, and the best we could manage was to hit every smoothie stand that we could find, sit in dazed silence while we waited for our drinks, and wonder how we would make it back uphill to the house and, more importantly, the pool.

We set out up the hill after Alex reminded us that no pool was worth the heat stroke we were risking, and that there would be no shame in pulling over and hailing a tuk tuk. Much to our surprise and relief, however, we were greeted along the way by several groups of kids popping out from storefronts and house with buckets of cold water.  They doused us with the water and yelled a few “Happy New Years” as we rolled by, officially marking the beginning of Pi Mau Lao, aka Lao New Year, aka the Water Festival.  The cold splash in the face was a welcome bookend to the quiet solemnity of our first morning in Luang Prabang.  Tradition comes in many forms, and we were especially happy to get a taste of Pi Mau Lao this afternoon.

A steamy sunset over the mighty Mekong River

We would love to stick around for the festival next week, but will move on to Siem Reap tomorrow and take in the Khmer New Year celebrations there.  We are moving quickly through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, but Luang Prabang is clearly a place where we could have set up camp for two or three weeks.

Holly mastered the 13 steps of rice farming

What it lacks in the creature comfort department, it makes up for with a welcome dose of peace and quiet, plus some genuine culture that has yet to be tainted by us loud Americans and our Chinese counterparts. That said, as I type this at 11:30 PM, a wedding party nearby has been blasting karaoke for the past couple of hours.  They have made it from “El Condor Pasa” to “Hotel California,” with many stops along the way.  I hope the monks are far enough away to be sleeping through it.


Kuang Xi Falls