As I write this it is day 60 of our 99 days in SE Asia. On the road and online you meet many fellow travelers. You swap stories and learn from their successes and failures. Most travelers are in their 20s or 30s and are taking a gap year in school or in life. It’s rare to meet fellow traveling families and families traveling with teenagers is rarest of them all. Today we connected online with @6explorerz, a family from the United States also traveling through Southeast Asia. We seem to be wandering similar paths but we are a week or so ahead so they were asking for recommendations and ideas. It got me reflecting on the trip so far which ultimately lead to this blog post. Enjoy!
What Was Our Goal for the Trip? After a frenetic 20 years of starting and building companies and raising three busy children, the family needed many things, the most important being a break to reconnect. Both Marian and I had studied abroad as college students and traveled in our 20s. These experiences left us with a general wanderlust as well as an appreciation for what can be learned on the road. Due to life circumstances (read early blog posts) we had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, but timing was such that it was in the middle of the kid’s school year. We consulted with the schools and concluded it was possible to pull them out for their winter trimester. They encouraged us to make it “intentional” and we had our own ideas about how to make this more than just an extended vacation. This trip was about taking a break, going on an adventure, going beyond ourselves by volunteering, and reconnecting as a family. Along the way we hoped to reflect on and possibly change the trajectory of our lives.
What Have We Learned? In the rat race of life everyone is trying to do 30 hours of stuff in a 24 hour period. Most of us do some things really well and other things not so well. Connecting with family in a meaningful way is a constant struggle. Being on the road for an extended time you are able to strip away the noise to become truly present (if you want to). As a family we needed this – more than we probably knew. We’ve had the most amazing “Family Time” the past few months. It’s a critical time in all of our lives and it’s been invaluable to reconnect. I recommend it for everyone. Doing something like this is hard no matter how how long you are gone or where you decide to go. The hardest part is starting, but once you are in motion you will not look back.
How Did You Take Your Kids Out Of School? This is probably our most common question. It was not easy. Our kids are in 8th, 9th and 11th grade. Our 8th grader was accepted into her high school before she left and her school is big into global studies so they were supportive of an intentional trip. The high school our kids attend works on a trimester system and agreed to let us be gone for winter trimester. They have a certain number of credits they need to graduate and each has a plan for achieving the required number of credits. We’ve had such an amazing trip that we would keep going. However, three months is probably the limit without taking a full year and homeschooling. That works for some parents and certain ages but is not us.
How Have Your Kids Done So Far? Amazingly well. The range of reactions from them prior to our departure varied from “I don’t want to go” to “I’m already packed”. We assured them that what they will learn in these three months will be immeasurable compared to not going. They weren’t so sure. After the first month groans of “why are we gone so long?” have turned to “why can’t we just keep going?” We’ve watched their maturity and self confidence grow daily. They are still screenagers so we fight the black hole of social media, but thankfully there is a significant time zone difference so there are many hours of the day when none of their friends are online. Further, they have no data plan here (but free wifi is ubiquitous). It’s been wonderful to spend multiple meals a day with everyone present and fully engaged.
Why Did We Come To South East Asia? When the stars aligned and we decided to take a sabbatical, we went to South East Asia for the adventure. As a family we had never been to this part of the planet. It was distant and exotic. Ethan and I recently went to Vietnam so we had a taste for how different it was. This trip was meant as a journey on many different levels – one of them being to get out of our comfort zone. We wanted to see and experience totally new places, new people, new cultures, new languages, new foods and another way of life. Through those experiences we would learn more about ourselves and bond through the shared adventures and adversity of this voyage.
How Did We End Up In Laos? If you’ve been reading the blog, you know that our path has been fairly whimsical. We are easily influenced by a picture or an idea and suddenly it’s “lets go do that!” In talking to a good friend who’s traveled here before, he said “you should take a boat down the Mekong and go to Luang Prabang”. He had me at “take a boat down the Mekong” and with that we were going to Laos. We are so glad we did. Laos feels like the hidden jewel of Southeast Asia. It’s what Thailand or Vietnam was 20 years ago hidden in the mountain jungles farther up the road or river. These roads are less traveled by tourists for the simple fact that they are painfully under developed – getting here and around is hard (it took us four hours to travel 55 miles on the main road to northern Laos!). Unfortunately (or fortunately) that is about to change very fast with major infrastructure investments by China which will transform the transportation experience.
Would We Recommend Laos? Yes. Go there as fast as you can before it changes further! We spent six days in Luang Prabang – a magical place. We had considered going to Vientiane and Vang Vieng. We wish we had the time to do that. We have instead traveled north to volunteer at a Lao school near Muang Xai. We are trading one adventure for another.
Where Else Are We Going? Our itinerary has evolved since leaving Seattle. Our original plan (for the second half of the trip) was Chiang Mai -> Chiang Rai -> Luang Prabang -> whole bunch of Laos -> Siem Reap -> Vietnam -> Bali. After the first month of fast traveling we decided / learned we needed to slow down – constantly moving was killing everyone. So we replanned on the fly. Here’s the current plan, subject to change:
- Vietnam – Ethan and I were there for a month in May 2018 as part of a school trip (I was a chaperone). On that trip we went to Hoi Ahn, Hue, Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay. The rest of the family really wants to get the Vietnam experience so we are spending two weeks. We will be in Hanoi for the first week, then visit Halong Bay and then go to Hoi Ahn. We are also doing a day trip to Ninh Bihn which is the Halong Bay on land.
- Myanmar – Our trip has been amazing. The more you travel, the more you want to travel. I think that’s the medical definition of “the travel bug”. Our list of places to see is getting longer – not shorter. Angkor Wat (Cambodia) was always a “must do” on our itinerary and as things have fallen off it remained as a mainstay. At the same time, in talking to people prior to leaving and while on the road, Myanmar and Bhutan have constantly come up as places “you need to visit”. For a week or so we took a serious look at dropping something and going to Bhutan but then we learned that the tourism bureau requires each person to spend $200 a day (too expensive!). This past week we switched from going to Angkor Wat (Cambodia) to Bagan (Myanmar). Here’s why: with China’s investments in infrastructure and growing tourism (from their middle class) lots is going to change regionally in the next five years so there was a “what do we see now?” conversation. From everything I’ve heard and read, the time to see Angkor Wat was 10 years ago when it was less traveled and you could explore everything (more) freely. It is still a bucket list item – but it probably won’t change as much as Bagan in the next five years. So we decided to see Bagan now while it is still “wild”.
- Bali – This is the last stop on our grand journey. We are going to Ubud first and will be there Feb 18-23. We are then going to a beach resort for the last week of our journey – probably in Uluwatu (we have not booked it yet). I REALLY want to go to Nusa Pineda and we have been debating between a day trip or spending the night. Under the “don’t move too much” principle it will probably be one (or two) day trips.