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!


Zen Tourism, Chiang Mai Style

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city.  It bustles with activity across its extended sprawl. Everywhere you look someone is busy with something.  Selling something, building something, cooking something, bringing something somewhere (on a motorbike, in a pick up, with their Mercedes).  And whatever they’re doing, they’re usually in a big hurry to do it.


For all of this hustle and bustle, and all of the ways Chiang Mai is so different from home, Brendan and I found ourselves frequently remarking how easy life was for us in this Thai city.  Bangkok had already revealed that not all Asian urban experiences are alike. While hectic and crowded, the Bangkok streets were downright orderly compared to what we had experienced in India’s cities, for example.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bangkok traffic was no walk in the park.


I’d liken it to a Friday evening around Christmas time in Midtown Manhattan: a frustrating but somehow festive jam, where horns blare frequently, but not incessantly; where pushy drivers may block the box, but at least manage to stay on the correct side of the road.  None of this can be said of the Diwali traffic we witnessed in New Delhi and Jaipur…

But if Bangkok struck us as similar to a relatively frenetic version of NYC, Chiang Mai was like the Asian version of downtown D.C. in August: hot as blazes, and hectic in spurts, but all in all a relatively calm and easy place to be.


Coco and Phoebe riding in one of the red pick ups that make up most of Chiang Mai’s taxi fleet.

Biking was a little white knuckle, but not nearly as hair-raising as in Delhi.

It wasn’t just the low crowds that had us feeling so free and easy in Chiang Mai.  It was also the fact that the city is a pretty tourist-friendly place.  It’s a real city with real people doing real things, no doubt. But Chiang Mai does count tourism as one of its major industries. And that means it caters to tourists.  Big time.

Throughout the winding lanes of the Old City, interspersed among historic and wondrously beautiful wats…


…are countless massage parlors, t-shirt shops, coffee cafes, and smoothies places, all of which seemed to be frequented almost entirely by Western and Chinese tourists.

Like this place, which I loved, but which very easily could have been in downtown Bethesda.


Across the street from the juice place, where I got probably the best massage of my life.

Even outside the Old City, it was rare for us to meet anyone who didn’t speak English. The signs and menus were all translated, even at noodle stalls on the street.  And we were able to find a decent glass of wine with little to no effort.  Something that definitely was not the case in India (except, thankfully, at the Koch’s house!).

Chiang Mai is also rife with 4 and 5 star Western style hotels whose high walls and deep pools offer a respite from the heat and real life of the city.  One of those oasis accommodations was, thanks to the generosity of GooGoo and Bapa, very much enjoyed by our crew.


To be honest (and as much as we all loved the pool, smoothies, and Pinot Gris), Brendan and I had mixed feelings about how pervasively “touristy” we found things in Chiang Mai.  You see, before we left on the trip, we envisioned these 10 months not as an elongated tourist vacation, but as an opportunity to really see the world, to understand how people outside our comfortable, affluent Washington DC bubble actually live.  With our decision to devote almost a year to our travels, we thought for sure we had invested enough time to move beyond Big Site, Check the Box tourism and have a truly authentic travel experience.

See how hopeful (and somewhat naive) we were?

Once the trip began, however, we have often felt that we’ve brought our Western affluence bubble with us: “seeing” the life of others through contrived tourist experiences, with the safety of our air conditioned tourist van, and the refreshing pool of our hotel or rented house, never too far away.  Our misgivings about that dynamic have been present throughout the trip.  But they came into much sharper focus during our time in Chiang Mai.

Perhaps this was because of just how touristy the city and its environs can be….

Like the Hmong village we visited where the little Hmong children quickly threw traditional Hmong garb over their Nike t-shirts when we arrived, leaving their older brothers and sisters inside, glued to their gaming systems and satellite tv stations.

I couldn’t bear to even take pictures of this tourist ploy, cute as those kids were. I did snap this one of our team, some more willing to participate in the pic than others.

Or the Bor San “village” we visited.  Billed as a place where Thai craftswomen handmake Chiang Mai’s traditional umbrellas, the “village” in fact consists almost entirely of a large and expensive shop selling said umbrellas with a lame exhibit of the umbrella making techniques set up out back.

The Epcot Center feel of the place was completed by the 3-D cartoon depictions of the ladies who make the umbrellas.


William was appropriately skeptical that these ladies, rather than a factory in China, actually crafted these crafts.


Or maybe our misgivings had a different origin.  Maybe they deepened in Chiang Mai because our arrival in the city felt like it marked the beginning of the end of the trip.  (We come back to the States in just 6 weeks.)  With the end so close, it seems natural to wonder:  Are we spending these 10 months as well as we should be? Are we doing  enough to open our eyes to the world?  Or have we reverted too often to what is comfortable and easily available, like umbrellas in Chiang Mai?

Now in Laos, I ask myself these questions as I sit by the infinity pool in a villa outside Luang Prabang (again thanks to the amazing grandparents), listening to the women inside (whose names I don’t know) prepare our Western style omelets, watching men who may be their husbands set off to fish the Mekong, and realizing I know very little about the real life of the people I’m observing from my chaise lounge.
It’s not the most positive realization I’ve had on this trip.  But even as I experience it, I decide that I am okay with how these ten months are unfolding.

For one thing, it’s hard to feel that badly when this is your postmorning view.

The “10 Steps to Zen” that Brendan recently shared with the family (during lunch in tourist trap, but very delicious Chiang Mai cafe) have also come in pretty handy.


To name a few…

No regrets.  If our ambition had been to really understand another culture or place, we should have planned a very different trip.  We should have picked one village, one city, or even one country and spent our ten months living real life in that place.  For better or worse, that’s not the trip we chose.  That choice means we haven’t had the time, repetition, and lived experience required to truly know a place or people.  But it also means we have been able to ride camels in Morocco, surf point breaks in Portugal, eat tapas at 10pm every night in Seville, climb the foothills of the Himalayas for a view of Mount Everest, ice climb glaciers in New Zealand, dive on the Great Barrier Reef, bike through rice paddies in Thailand, jump from a high tree into a Laotian waterfall, and so on…  And there’s really nothing to regret about that.

Practice Acceptance.  For me, today, that means, accepting that there is nothing at all wrong with comforting your kids (or yourself) with things familiar from home when sometimes 10 months on the road starts to feel a bit much.



Phoebe opted not to try some of the street food the rest of us samples (and loved).

And was understandably overjoyed when we found orange Popsicles at the Chiang Mai Zoo.



Give Up Comparing.  Sure Brendan and I have felt a little lame the times we have chosen upscale accommodations over more authentic homestays or hostels. Something we did in India as well as SE Asia.  Many of the parents in the other family travel blogs we read brag about living in places like Thailand on less than 10 dollars a day.  That’s something we haven’t come close to achieving.  We could spend a lot of time asking why we aren’t as strong/pure/centered as those rugged families seem to be.  Or we could accept (there’s that word again) that for us it is no sin, and in fact pretty smart, to recognize that our Irish genes need a pool to retreat to when staying in a city where the average temperature is 98 degrees.  We can even relish the joy that these pools have given us and our children.

Don’t Judge. Stop judging yourself, and others, for focusing their tourist efforts on a city’s Trip Advisor Top 10.  After all, there’s usually a good reason these places are so popular.  Like their jaw dropping beauty…


Wat Doi Suthep.  Trip Advisor’s number one thing to do for Chiang Mai, perched in the hills above the city.

Or the fact that these sites offer the opportunity and privilege to experience something you could never do or see back home, which of course is the point of tourism.



Goo Goo and the kids respectfully pointing their feet away from the Buddha.

(((Backtracking for a moment… also good to accept that if you drag your family to enough Buddhist Temples, there may come a point where the grandparents are the only ones still paying attention.)))


As the Buddha knew we would eventually realize, one benefit of not judging is that it lets you see the good in an experience you might otherwise dismiss as useless.

Take that Hmong village.  We realized afterward that it actually provided pretty good fodder for discussing the complicated balance between cultural exploitation and economic opportunity.  We all felt uncomfortable seeing those cute little Hmong kids paraded around in their cute little costumes for Americans, like us, to take pictures.  On the other hand, many Hmong young people have been able to attend university and make a better life for themselves and their families because of the tourists, like us, streaming into their villages and buying cute little Hmong outfits to take home to their grandkids.  Is it wrong to exploit a proud culture’s heritage by buying Hmong souvenirs to bring home to Chevy Chase?  Or is it the ultimate Western elitism to look down on this village’s economic enterprise?

A final Zen step bears mention:  Put fear aside.  As we’ve traveled the world, all of us have tried to practice this step when we do get the chance to get off the beaten path, to do something that is not the easy tourist option.

A Chiang Mai case in point.  On a day that Brendan took the big kids rock climbing outside the city (an option not many tourists elect)….

I had the choice to take Phoebe to a touristy craft market that we had already visited and I knew would be a fun and easy option.


Instead, on advice of some wonderful friends who know the city well, we ventured to a local food market, outside the Old City, where the Chiang Mai people do their daily shopping and, as we learned, you really don’t hear a lot of English.

Apprehensive as the tuk tuk dropped us off, we were almost immediately comforted by this scene…

20170331_083842Young monks gathering their morning alms.

We followed the monks for awhile then, with our fears (mostly) allayed, we ventured off to explore.  Seeing live frogs and baby turtles being sold for supper occasioned some apprehension.


As did a little spill P took on her scooter.

But, overall, I think we were both very glad for the adventure.


48 Hours In Bangkok. Wow.

Coming off nearly 3 months of chill in New Zealand and Australia, our arrival in Bangkok was a bit of a shock.  Crowded, loud, fast, frenzied, and HOT.  A steamy, woozy, draining hot. A hot that cuts waves across the scenes of traffic that whiz by your aircon cab from the airport. A hot that hits you like a giant hair dryer as you first step out of the swishy comfort of your Royal Orchid Hotel (the digs we somewhat guiltily choose over a more authentic homestay or hostel…).  A hot strong enough to keep this crew away from the amazing sites of the city?  Almost…but not quite.


Note young Phoebe’s enthusiasm…

Our stop in Bangkok was a short one. With only 48 hours in this major metropolis, we hit Google with searches like “what to do when you only have 2 days” and “sites you absolutely can’t miss” in Bangkok. Given the number of references to the redlight districts of Patpong and Soi Cowboy, it was pretty clear these lists were not designed for those traveling with 4 kids in tow….

We did manage to stumble upon the neighborhood for tattoos, all manner of piercings, and “body tunnels”…

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While we chose not to partake in this particular Bangkok activity, we otherwise did pretty well ticking off major items.  Especially considering that we traveled only by tuk tuk and commuter ferry with not a (paid) tour guide in sight to assist.



We did learn a lot from a free tour guide at the Grand Palace.  Here he is explaining the 5 Buddhist precepts to William.


To name a few of our Bangkok bucket list accomplishments…

Visit some major temples (or wats). ✔  On Day 1, we saw several beautiful Buddhist temples, including those enshrined in the city’s Grand Palace.



Built by Siam ruler King Rama I in 1782, the opulent Grand Palace was the home of the Thai King for 150 years. Today, the royal residence has been relocated to a site about 50km north of the city. But the Grand Palace grounds remain central to the Thai monarchy.  Most importantly, they are now home to the remains of recently deceased and immensely popular Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.


A famous portrait of the King.


The building that holds his remains.

King Bhumibol was the world’s longest serving head of state and Thailand’s longest serving monarch when he died last October, at age 88, ending a nearly 70 year reign and prompting a year long period of official national mourning.  Described to us as a man of warmth, grace, and great intellect, the late king is credited with helping to unite the ethnically diverse Thai people and promoting more universal education. He and his wife, Queen Sikirit, are also praised for having enhanced the world’s respect and admiration for the Thai culture through their frequent diplomatic world travel.


On a trip to London in the early 60s. A very glamorous couple.

The king, whose wealth was estimated at 30bn USD shortly before his death, was not without his detractors, including those who generally oppose what they perceive as an archaic and expensive monarchy. Human Rights Watch has condemned a pattern of frequent imprisonment for Thais holding this view.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve heard none of this sentiment during our tourist time here.  Rather, all indications to visitors is that the king was much beloved and his death uniformly mourned. His picture is everywhere …

And during our visit to the Grand Palace we saw thousands of people, clad in black attire waiting in huge queues to pay their respects.  With temps in the upper 90s and smothering humidity, we felt for these folks.  But, consistent with what we’ve seen of the Thai temperament, these respectful mourners kept calm as the lines dragged on.


Here, a small family taking a break from the line to have their lunch.

Us, not so much…and we weren’t even wearing black.


But the heat, while draining, didn’t (much) damper our awe for the Buddha.  After the Grand Palace, we visited Wat Pho, one of the oldest temples in Bangkok and home to the awesome Reclining Buddha. The Buddha figure measures 46 meters long and is plated in its entirety in pure gold.  The head of the figure is 15 meters high.


Inside the wat, there are 108 bronze bowls representing the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. Visitors may drop coins in these bowls as it is believed to bring good fortune, and it also helps the monks to maintain the temple.  Our crew managed to share this fortune conferring activity with only minor bickering.

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Another key objective for our time in the Thai capital?  Eat the city’s world famous street food. ✔ Much as we came to enjoy Kiwi meat pies and Aussie fish & chips, we had long anticipated the culinary adventure awaiting us in southeast Asia.  We wasted little time getting that adventure started.  Our very first activity in Bangkok, before the wats (though not before the first Starbucks we had enjoyed since New Delhi) ….


… we took a wonderful 4 hour eating tour of the famed Bangrak (or Village of Love) Market.  The market and the food lived up to the hype.








Visit Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown ✔.  With the basics of the street food scene under our belts, we took our learning to Yaowarat.  Bangkok’s Chinatown, this is where we planned to eat dinner our second night.  For the most part, we accomplished that goal.  The scene was overwhelming, to say the least.  But the kids dove right in.  Brendan and I marveled at their ability (and willingness) to navigate the chaotic night traffic, sample food that looks, smells, and tastes like nothing at home, and to do so with relative good cheer.








Phoebe (5) made a valiant effort.  But for her the whelm did eventually overcome.



My Heineken, not hers.

Luckily, Brendan’s back managed to survive carrying her home.



And, by the next morning, she was all vim and vigor, ready to hit the pool, after terrorizing the Royal Orchid phone lines once again…


Go to the Mall.  ✔  It’s a cliche to be sure, but Bangkok really is a world where old meets new.


One example: centuries old markets and temples dating even further back mix with shopping extravaganzas that put Mazza Galleria and even my hometown wonder, the Mall at Short Hills, to shame.  So completely over the top glitzy, how could we possibly skip it?  So we assembled our most fashionable duds (limited) and headed to Siam Paragon, the quintessential Bangkok shopping experience.  Again, we were not disappointed.

Brendan, Phoebe, and Coco spent hours in KidZania, a “funutainment” (sp?) center that provides the Bangkok younger elaborate sets and costumes to be used in role playing different professions, optometrist for Coco and for Phoebe, industrial engineer.



Making friends.

Meanwhile, Holly, William, and I did some window shopping and our own role play..



And, of course, no trip to the mall is complete without a visit to the Food Court.


This one happily (?) brought us back to our street food experiences.


It was a whirlwind for sure, one that prepared us well to spend much of the 13 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai that followed fast asleep in our berths.  I won’t say that was our secret motive for such a jam packed Bangkok itinerary, but we certainly didn’t complain.



Quack quack.


We’ve been in Chiang Mai, a smaller northern Thai city, for 4 days now and have another 4 days to go.  It’s enough time for a slower pace and a chance to really get to know the place. The time, for example, to figure out which spot has the most delicious red Thai iced tea.



Chiang Mai is also where we will make our eagerly anticipated rendez-vous with Brendan’s parents.  The kids, and Brendan and I, are literally counting the days until we start to share this adventure and more whirlwind with our beloved Goo Goo and Bapa.