Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmas time, mistletoe and wine! (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

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With our Christmas expenditure being very small (one small present each) we decided to treat ourselves to an all-inclusive five star brunch at the Sofitel hotel. The backpacker budget was on hold for one day and Christmas day was going to be a lavish one.

We picked up Miss Marsh and Miss Hookings in a tuk tuk, put the Christmas tunes on the iPod through my hubby’s new mini speaker (his gift from me) and set off on our merry way.

‘The boy’, who’s a big fan of music, danced to the sounds of Slade as we weaved our way through the busy Phnom Penh traffic.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Christmas brunch in the Sofitel - what a treat!

The brunch was spectacular and ‘the boy’ was in luck. Not only did they have a live band to dance to, they also had a clown and a children’s play area.

The Tattinger champagne was on free pour, the food was delicious and ‘the boy’ was entertained to the point of exhaustion and after a few hours playing curled up on the soft seats and slept for the rest of the afternoon.

Good friends, good food, a great Christmas day.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

It all got a bit too much for 'the boy' who fell asleep for a couple of hours after his mini feast

Top tip of the day:
There’s no top tip of the day today as we were too busy having fun 🙂

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S-21 atrocities (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

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Our time in Phnom Penh was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement to be meeting up with our friends Miss Marsh and Miss Hookings (or Dave as we now call her, but that’s another story), happiness at being able to have a fun Christmas with friends, but overwhelming sadness and disbelief at the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia within my lifetime.

Anyone who knows me well will know that history isn’t my strong point. In fact I’m pretty useless when it comes to British history, let alone historic events that have happened in other countries. In some ways I can be forgiven for my lack of knowledge on what happened in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) as firstly it happened between 1975 and 1979 when I was a small infant and secondly because of a press curfew, much of the outside world had little or no idea what was actually happening in the country during this ugly time.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Miss Marsh and I listen with disbelief as we hear about the horrific events that took place in S-21

My hubby has written a short piece on the horrific events that took place in S-21 (Tuol Sleng), one of the many prisons that were used to torture innocent people before they were killed in inhumane ways. If you are unaware of what took place during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge I urge you to read this (click here).

In short the Khmer Rouge, an extreme communist movement wanted to create an agrarian society where family wealth and status become irrelevant. Their warped vision involved torturing and killing the majority of the educated population. Families were split up and millions of innocent people killed.  Although nobody knows the full extent of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous activity, it’s thought that over 3 million people, almost half the Cambodian population were killed during Pol Pot’s reign.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' walks through the rooms where the prisoners were tortured on a daily basis

The Khmer Rouge did not want the outside world to know what was happening within so the press were banned from the country. Thirteen reporters from around the world were caught in Cambodia. They were killed. One Australian reporter was tortured, set alight and consequently burnt to death.

Almost everyone in Cambodia has been affected in some way. Our guide at S-21, a quietly spoken lady, was split up from her family shortly after Pol Pot came into power. Her parents and three siblings were killed and she, aged fourteen, was forced to work in the fields in atrocious conditions. She was beaten and tortured and has the scars on her legs, a bad back and limp as a daily reminder of those terrible times.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Photographs of the innocent people who were held at S-21 before being taken to the Killing Fields

She described how once the families had been split into age and gender groups, children under the age of five were often killed as they were deemed a hindrance.  It’s impossible to imagine what the parents of these children must have gone through.  Being a mother of a sixteen month old I found it particularly disturbing to hear how the Khmer Rouge killed the babies.  Often they were held by the legs and hit violently against a tree until their skulls cracked. It was hard to hold back our emotions whilst we heard the terrifying ordeal that these innocent people endured and it seemed impossible that this took place just over thirty years ago.

It’s one piece of history that I will never ever forget.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

A young boy has his identification number pinned through his neck

Top tip of the day:
Try and coincide any museum visits with your baby’s naptime. We didn’t, and after thirty minutes of sitting patiently in his buggy he naturally wanted to get out and run around. We spent almost three hours at S-21 and so took it in turns to play outside with him. A sleeping baby would have been a lot easier in these circumstances.

JACKPOT! (General)

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On August 11th 2011 we left the fresh air and beautiful countryside of Wales to set off on an adventure in SE Asia. Our belongings, all packed carefully into a storage container and labelled either ‘shipping’ or ‘storage’, await our return.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia - leaving Wales

Leaving Wales on August 11th 2011 with 'the boy' - our eleven month old baby

After living in Wales for eighteen months post a period of living and working in Mumbai, India, we realised that the job opportunities that we are both experienced in and would satisfy us long term did not exist. We were faced with a choice; move back to London where the bulk of UK media jobs are based or take a risk and head off to Asia for a life changing adventure. I’m happy to say that we chose the latter and the risk has paid off.

After two months of travelling it was time to get our heads in gear for the little challenge ahead, to find a job! We both had an interesting meeting with a London contact who is now the CEO of a media company in Singapore. It threw up a few interesting avenues to investigate for both my hubby and I, but we decided to hold off contacting the recommended agencies until my hubby had met with a company he had arranged to see in Kuala Lumpur, five days later.

His meeting went well, so well in fact that they invited him back two days later to discuss the opportunity in more detail.  The morning of his second meeting we were so excited. I walked around the city centre with ‘the boy’ for a couple of hours trying to imagine what it would be like to live in Kuala Lumpur. Could this become a reality? Would the risk of leaving everything behind with no income between us pay off?

Four hours later he returned with a huge grin on his face. He’d done it. He’d been offered a job and not just any job, a Director level job with huge scope. We were so excited but decided to put the celebrations on hold until the contract had been signed and sealed by both parties. Two months of final negotiations were fringed with nervous anticipation as to whether the opportunity would become a reality. It has.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia - leaving Wales

Kuala lumpur by night

The new job commences on March 1st giving us enough time to continue our travels around Cambodia and Vietnam, visit our family and friends in the UK, before shipping our possessions and our life to Asia (again).

Are we nervous? Yes of course. Will we miss our family and friends? Yes hugely so, but with technological developments and travel being so much easier these days the world feels like a smaller place than it did even ten years ago.

We join our growing number of friends who have made the leap to move abroad. In the last few years we’ve had friends from London who now live in San Francisco, Boston, Texas, Vancouver, Argentina, Auckland, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. Friends we made in Mumbai, India who now live in Singapore, Bangkok, Washington and Melbourne, and friends we both made independently whilst travelling in Australia who now live in Papa New Guinea, Kathmandu and the Sunshine coast, Australia.  It’s a global network of friends that continues to grow and now we’re a part of.

In short, the risk’s paid off and we’ve been lucky and hit the jackpot.

 

 

Paradise…… for the moment (Otres, Cambodia)

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After researching the five or six beaches that are based along the coast in Sihanoukville, we decided that Otres sounded more like our cup of tea.

Described as ‘basic and rustic’ we knew we would be away from the hustle and bustle of the busy tourist filled beaches and be amongst fellow backpackers. Otres was not to disappoint.

On arrival we hunted down a simple eco establishment that had six unique rooms in the form of a concrete domes that looked like igloos.  The garden was perfect for ‘the boy’ to roam around and had many resident chickens that he was intrigued by and loved to follow around.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'Done Right' eco huts on Otres beach, Cambodia

The beach, well the beach was near on perfect. Shallow crystal clear water, shady tress for ‘the boy’ to play under, white sand and the entire beach lined only by rustic wooden beach cafes and bars.  It reminded us of our weekends in Palolem, Goa – another rustic unspoilt beach but Otres wins hands down for being the most beautiful, for now anyway. Over the last few years Cambodia has been selling off it’s many beautiful islands and land on its unspoilt beaches to rich Westerners and Otres beach has not escaped this fate.  A foreign investor has bought an entire stretch of untouched white beach and plans are already underway to build a huge concrete hotel right on the sand. It’s very sad that within a few years this lovely quiet unique place will be just like every other resort in Asia.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Relaxing in the shade

‘The boy’ was in his element on the beach and became very confident in the water, almost too confident. If we turned our back for a few moments he’d make a dash for the water, laughing mischievously and running in until up to his chest before waiting for a wave to knock him under. For some reason he loves getting dunked under the waves and even after swallowing mouthfuls of water finds the whole thing hilarious.

The family that ran the beach café that we frequented were lovely and one of the sons took a shine to ‘the boy’. He would often entertain him or take him for a walk around the café showing him the resident newly hatched chicks.  One evening, after ordering a drink my hubby and I realised that ‘the boy’ was no longer in sight.  We knew that the café’s son had picked him up and carried him off, as he did, but after a minute or two of looking for him the panic set in. It was dark, we knew who he was with, but we didn’t really know him, did we? I felt sick. The boss of the café started shouting franticly for her son and then in the distance came a shout from the darkness.  We could just make out the silhouette of ‘the boy’ in the darkness. There he was, standing on a table, a stereo blasting out tunes whilst he danced (something he loves doing) for a small group of local teenagers. Let’s just say we were VERY relieved and the café’s son had a huge scolding from his mother for taking ‘the boy’ out of our sight. To be fair, he had no idea that what he’d done may cause us worry (just slightly!) and was very apologetic.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

A morning stroll on the beautiful Otres beach (before the concrete hotel gets built)

Tomorrow we head to Phnom Penh to meet up with our friends Miss Marsh and Miss Hookings for a sunny Christmas, but after our great experience here I think Otres deserves another visit very soon.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

The main road in Otres - a dirt track

Top tip of the day:
Baby tiger balm is handy to have to sooth ant bites (of which ‘the boy’ has many on his feet). It’s possible to buy a similar product in Cambodia, but is more readily available in Thailand.

Border crossing control (Koh Kong, Cambodia)

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Today we took the final part of our journey in Thailand to the Cambodian border.

There are many land crossing entry points into Cambodia but according to our guide book the Trat route is the worst in terms of consistent scamming. Having been the subjects of a scam a few days previously we were adamant that we were not going to be ‘had’ again.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Taking the local bus to the border crossing into Cambodia

The scenario is that the government officials charge you 1,200 baht for a visa that should only cost 600 baht ($20) and they make it extremely difficult for you not to pay their asking price. On arrival at the visa office we witnessed many people handing over the 1,200 baht. Some were aware of the scam and on speaking to them had decided they weren’t prepared to argue, others were plainly unaware of how much money these (so called) officials were collecting for their back pockets. Sure enough we were ordered to pay 3,600 baht to cover the three visas we needed, but then followed a twenty-five minute stand off with us adamant that we were only going to pay the $60. Finally, after standing our ground and taking details of staff names, shift time etc and threatening to report them to the Ministry of Tourism, we were reluctantly given our visa stamps. In a country where the average wage is $2 a day, and with almost every tourist being charged $20 more than they should this is scamming on a huge scale.

Cambodia has limited transport options. Local minibuses that are piled high with people (sometimes 30 plus!) and are so old and badly maintained that accidents are frequent, local buses, tourist coaches, tik tuks, motos (motorbike taxis) and taxis. Taxis are the most interesting as you pay per seat, but unlike the West where a standard car would carry four passengers (three in the back and one in the front) these carry seven passengers! Yes, that’s right, seven. Four in the back, two on the front seat and sometimes the driver will share his seat. I have no idea how that works, but it’s something I’m not keen on trying.

After a few minutes of negotiation we finally jump in and take a taxi to Koh Kong, ten Kilometres down the road.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Local children and 'the boy' playing in Koh Kong

Koh Kong is a small town spread around two main roads and a large river. The main reason it’s become a tourist location is because it acts as a natural stopover point once you’ve crossed the border into Cambodia, but it being a ‘normal’ bustling town made is all the more interesting. We took a walk around the market and water front. ‘The boy’ became the Pied Piper of Koh Kong, followed by a group of local children who were fascinated by his white skin. There were chickens running freely, cows plodding slowly up the middle of the streets and stray dogs sleeping in the heat of the sun. It reminded us of India, only here there were more push bikes.  We ate in a local roadside café and the food was superb.  A large plate of spicy beef noodles, tasty noodle soup, stirs fried vegetables and two drinks for less than three dollarss – perfect for a backpacker budget.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Local children take a ride in the buggy

The only down side of Koh Kong was the type of traveller it attracted. Now, I can’t be 100% sure what everyone’s motive for being there was, but let’s just say that we saw more single, sixty plus Western men travelling on their own than we had done in the previous four months on the road.  Needless to say ‘the boy’ was close by our side at all times.

Good times ahead as tomorrow we’re hitting the beaches.

Top tip of the day:
If you find a god quality nappy on your travels, or are at the start of your trip, keep a couple back to use for teething days when your baby may suffer from loose stools. We’ve found that some brands of nappies in Asia are very synthetic and give our baby nappy rash.

Thursday, Friday, Scamday (Kao Sok, Thailand)

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After our two weeks in Phuket, Kao Sok was a welcome respite from touristville. Kao Sok National park nestles in the hills and therefore has a cooler climate than our previous destination. The majority of the accommodation in Kao Sok consists of simple wooden huts, many raised up on stilts set amongst lush gardens.  Activities in the area included hill treks, elephant safaris and canoeing. As we were only in the area for two nights we chose to explore the area on foot and book ourselves onto the river canoe trip.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

'The boy' playing with a toy truck in a wooden hut

With a nice temperature, relaxed vibe and no fixed agenda apart from the canoe trip we were looking forward to feeling refreshed before embarking on our mammoth journey to Cambodia. What could possibly go wrong? Oh yes, it’s teething time again! ‘The boy’ having suffered with teething problems in Phuket was still not over the worst. Two nights of VERY broken sleep followed with my hubby and I barely getting three hours between us.  Someone pass me the coffee.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Taking a walk

Luckily, the canoe trip that we’d booked for our last morning was more relaxing than we had anticipated as each canoe came with an experienced canoeist. All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the scenery. The boy, strapped firmly to me in the ‘wriggle wrapper’, seemed very content and after thirty minutes drifted off into a deep sleep, missing our guides amazing spot of a tree frog, although the way I was feeling I would have traded the nature spot for a further two hours sleep.

With our eyes propped open with matchsticks we left Koa Sok in a minibus for the two-hour journey to Surat Thani where we had planned to book a place on the sleeper train to Bangkok.  Unfortunately this was not meant to be. On arriving at Surat Thani train station at 17.00, and having not been able to book a sleeper carriage in advance, we were faced with a decision; book a sleeper carriage for the first available train leaving at midnight, or head to the coach station and try and get a night bus to Bangkok.

Normally this would have been an easy decision to make – head to the coach station, but we’d made one mistake when leaving Phuket. Knowing we only had a few days left in Thailand we’d left our guidebook with my hubby’s parents, so we had no information to hand on where the coach station was, how much the journey should cost and details on the regularity of coaches to Bangkok. This was a big error and for the first time in our four months of travelling we became the subjects of a ticket scam involving the tuk tuk driver at the train station, a travel company and the travel agent’s husband (also a tuk tuk driver).  It’s actually very sad how quickly you can become a target for a scam if you’re not armed with local knowledge, and although we didn’t back down quietly we eventually had to get on the coach with our wallet a little lighter than it should have been.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Taking a canoe ride on the river in Kao Sok

This was my first experience of a night coach and it wasn’t quite as bad as I had expected. ‘The boy’, who was sitting on my lap, fell asleep within half an hour of the bus leaving the depot and didn’t wake up until we arrived at Bangkok coach station at 4.30am, 8 ½ hours after leaving surra Thani.  We had planned to stay a night in Bangkok, but knowing that we wouldn’t be able to check into a guesthouse until lunchtime we made the decision to push on with our journey and take the 6am bus to Trat, a further five-hour journey north.

Trat old town was a pleasant surprise. Small wooden buildings nestle along the banks of the river and there are many quirky guesthouses and cafes lining the larger streets. We found a lovely wooden guesthouse with double rooms costing £4 a night. Bargain.

Tomorrow we’re heading to the Cambodian border where scamming is a regular occurrence. One scam is enough, thank you.

Top tip of the day:
Keep a small perfume pump spray (you can buy these for about £0.60 in Thailand) in your baby-changing bag.  When you’re travelling long distances on public transport and need to make necessary nappy changes the perfume helps to omit odours.

 

Nana, Gramps and Aunty Kim are in town (Bangkok / Phuket, Thailand)

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After 3 ½ months on the road Nana, Gramps and Aunty Kim arrived in Thailand. Having spent the past few months communicating via Skype it was finally time for ‘the boy’ to re-acquaint himself with them in person.

‘The boy’ had a chance to show off his new skills: new words, new actions and his new headstrong personality that seems to have come to the forefront over the last month.  With three extra people to give him attention he was in his element and now he’s faster on his feet we enjoyed not having to constantly keep our eye on him.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Nana and Kim taking 'the boy' for a walk at the Palace

He also received many lovely new gifts from the UK: new clothes to replace his well worn stained ones, a couple of much needed new books and some picture cards to help him learn some new words.

We spent three days in Bangkok taking the boat to the famous temples, visiting the grand palace, introducing Nana and Gramps to the adrenalin rush you experience when you jump in the back of Bangkok’s many Tuk Tuks and we opened Gramp’s eyes to the he/she gender confusion (click here to read about Lola), before heading down to Phuket for some pool, beach and relaxation time.

Having already been in Thailand for five weeks, Phuket was a shock to the wallet. Once in touristville the prices for food and drink double (or triple in some places) and transport costs, well they just seemed ridiculous.  It’s amazing how much further your money goes once you’re away from the package holiday crowd.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

Gramps and 'the boy' play by the pool

Anyway, the place we stayed in was very nice and relaxed and ‘the boy loved having Nana, Gramps and Aunty Kim around. He spent time in the pool with them, played on the beach and had a few sleepovers to give mummy and daddy a nice break.

One evening we ventured into Patong. Wow! It’s a crazy, bright, brash place and let’s just say it’s very in your face. Luckily ‘the boy’ is too young to understand what was happening around him but I’m not sure the local punters appreciated the fact that a pint sized ‘lil man was getting all the attention. A few hours were enough time to soak up the atmosphere before heading back to our sleepier and preferred location.

backpacking with a baby SE Asia

The bright lights of Patong

After two weeks had passed it was time to say goodbye and get back on the road, heading north towards Cambodia.

Top tip of the day:
Many guesthouses offer laundry services but often charge per itme. With baby clothes needing regular washing we’ve found it a lot cheaper to take our washing direct to the laundry house where we pay a set price per kilo (circa 50p – £1)