A Very Munich Christmas

We flew from Bangkok to Munich just in time to stroll through Christmas markets, drink mulled wine, savor brats and marvel at the lights. A box of winter clothes, packed back in August, awaited our arrival and we were gleeful at the sight of old jeans and our woolie hats.

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After months of the sultry heat, vibrant color and the chaos of SE Asia, the calm order of Munich with its soft blue sky and rows of decorative pastel buildings felt meditative. The Christmas markets were just beautiful…gingerbread, ornaments, orange-cinnamon potpourri, mulled wine, spiced nuts…it was a delicious meander. The gothic “new” Town Hall stands proud above the Marienplatz awakening the historian in me.

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Imagine the surprise our first day when we stumbled upon Bavarians in wetsuits surfing the Isar River, steps from our apartment. Or the modern-museum-quality street art. Or the angels looking over me from tall buildings everywhere we went.

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Christmas was low key perfection. We found a tree slightly larger than Charlie Brown’s. Decorated it with ornaments found at the Christmas markets and strings of popcorn and hard sought cranberries. Kyle made the traditional German Christmas Eve dinner of sausages and potatoes. We were joined by a sweet rtw family from Florida who rounded out our meal with a beautiful Christmas salad, and we swapped stories about our adventures.  Of course, we had a German stollen for dessert…which looked dangerously close to a fruitcake but was actually quite delicious.

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Church bells rang throughout the day, reminding us that we hadn’t just downsized to a NYC apartment but were actually in Europe.

It took quite an effort to make our standard Christmas cookies…we painstakingly but eventually found most of our ingredients, not all. A mid-aisle discussion with locals led us to believe that Germans don’t use baking soda.  When getting ready to roll the cookie dough, I realized there was no rolling pin in our apartment. At long last, years of reality TV paid off…I used a cold bottle of white wine instead…thank you, Top Chef!

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On Christmas Day, we quickly worked through the meager presents and moved onto a breakfast of French toast and Starbucks Christmas Blend. We stumbled onto the streets of Munich for a Christmas walk in sunny blue sky weather with many other Munchner.  A walk through the English Gardens brought us to an open Christmas market and we drank mulled wine and munched on spiced nuts.

Julia turned and asked me “Why don’t we live here?”

It’s funny how some of our destinations have required a month of hard effort to enjoy while others slip on like a comfortable skin.

Happy New Year, everyone!  Thank you for following along with us in our adventure!  Wishing you adventure and serendipity in 2014.

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The Beach Crawl

We had one goal in mind. To see Catching Fire in English. Our options were to head from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok or Hua Hin. With a political coup brewing in the former, we chose the latter and went by minibus. A moment of politeness on our part resulted in seats at the back of the bus with Kyle sharing 1/2 of a seat with a pink suitcase. Fun.

We picked a seriously cheap hotel right next to the movie theater. Clearly we were on a mission. And it was perfection. I don’t think I’ve ever been so giddy about seeing a movie but a dose of Hollywood blockbuster is just what we needed.

Hua Hin, however, was not for us (well, Sean feels differently…see his post) – a dusty strip of chaos: knick knack shops, construction and tourists abound. We packed the next day and moved onto Prechuap Khiri Khan, 1-1/2 hours south.

In Love with Karsts

In Love with the Karsts of Prechuap

Prechuap Khiri Khan

Here we hit gold. The quintessential mellow seaside town, replete with seafood, smiles and sun. Thanks to a prior rtw traveling family, we knew to look up O Design Bay Hotel, an inexpensive oasis in the middle of town…spacious, modern co joining rooms with desks for homeschooling and good coffee to boot. Prechuap has a long, clean promenade perfect for a morning run along the shore….you learn to appreciate a good sidewalk in SE Asia!

National Park Hike, Teak Temple & the Lovely Promenade

National Park Hike, Teak Temple & the Lovely Promenade

Plenty of mellow activities for families in Prechuap. Amy of the Worldschool Adventures blog captures them well here: http://worldschooladventures.com/2013/02/09/things-to-do-in-prachuap-khiri-khan/

Ao Manao Beach in Prechuap

Ao Manao Beach in Prechuap

Our last day in Prechuap was the King’s birthday, who is quite revered in Thailand. We watched the parade in his honor and then took our celebration to the beach with inner tubes, endless waves, seafood fried rice and Chang beer.

Long Live the King!

Long Live the King!

Ban Krut

An hour south of Prechuap, we landed on the near deserted gulf beaches of Ban Krut. Most tourists go to the Andaman coast in winter and leave the gulf until summer. Wind, waves and solitude.

The first plunge brought jellyfish stings and thereafter we enjoyed the view from the hammock but not the sea itself.

Ban Krut Beach, Jellyfish Sting Herbal Remedy, Bachavara Bungalow

Ban Krut Beach, Jellyfish Sting Herbal Remedy, Rachavadee Bungalow

The town was quiet…relaxation is the only item on the menu in the low season. We stayed at Rachavadee Beach Resort, simple beach bungalows with outdoor stone and rock bathrooms. A couple of the bungalows have a loft for kids (steep ladder…not safe for small kids). The property itself is beautiful, albeit overpriced, with a gorgeous slice of beach. Kyle said it was the first place in Thailand we’d been to that he’d return. Got to get that man a hammock when we return home.

Kyle's Perch, Ban Krut

Kyle’s Perch, Ban Krut

Ko Lanta

Heading southwest, we made our way to the island of Ko Lanta. When deciding which Thailand beach to visit from afar, the choices seem endless. We picked Ko Lanta because it was described as laid back, party free, family friendly. In reality, its one of the many spots in Thailand that is no longer as precious as it once was…tourist development abound, dead coral washing up on the shore (due to climate change). Had we come straight from a Seattle winter, I’m sure we would have found it paradise. But we were just plain tired…it was the end of our SE Asia leg and we were ready to move on.

Not to say we didn’t have fun! Staying at Castaway on South Long Beach, we explored every nook and cranny of the beach…even stumbling upon the nude beach at the north end (Kyle & I stayed nonchalant thinking the kids hadn’t even noticed and as we walked away, Sean asked “Why were those people naked?”). We swam, snorkeled, read, napped and started again.

Long Beach, Ko Lanta

Long Beach, Ko Lanta

Our best day was our last day in Ko Lanta…we took a long tail boat to Ko Rok and snorkeled in the most gorgeous emerald green sea followed by dips in the clearest Tiffany blue water. We saw live coral and the bright, beautiful fishes that come with it. It was a perfect way to end our time in Thailand.

Ko Rok

Ko Rok

I’m still processing Thailand. Perhaps its because the paths there are so well trodden by tourists…or that the sex industry is so openly on display…or that we personally failed at making local connections. But we didn’t love it in the way I anticipated and I’m still working through why.

I find a look in the rear view mirror helps.  So as we soak in our next destination, I’ll be pondering Thailand.  Munich, here we come!

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The Kanchanaburi Files

Wat Wang Wikeraram

Wat Wang Wikeraram

Anchorless in Northern Thailand, we struggled with “where to next?”  Do you plan your every move or let fate have its say? Long term travelers will tell you to keep a serendipitous schedule, but what you don’t plan in advance, you plan from the road. And starting each day with tripadvisor gets old.

That’s how we started a day in Chiang Mai and ended it in Kanchanaburi, a province four hours west of Bangkok along the mountainous border of Myanmar. Less frequented by tourists, the region boasts four national parks replete with waterfalls, rivers, hot springs…well basically our kids favorite thing ever…water. And as the location of Hellfire Pass and the River Khiaw, a history lesson for us all.

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Erawan Falls

Kyle believes that you can see one too many waterfalls. I disagree. Erawan was a seven tiered wonder with natural made rock slides and a free fish spa for your toes. As with anywhere, go early to avoid the tour buses that pull up mid-day.

Erawan Falls

Erawan Falls

Raft Bungalows

Beautifully situated on the riverbank in Sai Yok National Park and flanked by yes, waterfalls, is Krit Raft House. Longtail boats tug floating restaurants up and down the river to beachfronts, raft houses and directly under the waterfalls. Water everywhere…the kids happily pruned up.

Out of nowhere, fifty-plus Russians in orange life jackets bobbed by our deck waving and shouting hello as they went.  Later that evening, a tour bus of Thais arrived and boarded the raft across from us…we enjoyed listening to their bad karaoke (I say this with affection because its the 1st time I’ve felt I could join in without judgement because I’d simply be another tone deaf voice). Eventually their raft was unhooked and driven down river for the night and, as the only guests at Krit, we owned the river again.

Krit Raft House

Krit Raft House

Bamboo Rafting

Moving further afield toward to the Myanmar border, we arrived in Sangkhlaburi for a day of bamboo rafting, where we learned another talent we lack. En route to the rafting, we explored an underwater temple…submerged in Khao Laem Reservoir by the building of a dam. (Hydropower continues to be significant economic development in SE Asia with environmental and humanitarian concerns growing as indigenous villages and wildlife are destroyed when a river is rerouted and a valley flooded.)

In addition to Thais, Sangkhlaburi hosts Burmese, Mon and Karen peoples and has a number of longer term volunteer opportunities available in support of these political refugees. Set between an expansive lake and mountains, Kyle and I agreed this would be a sweet place to settle down for six or so months.

Khao Laem Reservoir

Khao Laem Reservoir

Hellfire Pass & Museum

Did you know that the Japanese occupied Thailand during WWII? We didn’t. We also didn’t know that the Japanese marched into Malaysia, occupying Singapore (which was at that time a British colony…funny sense of ownership all the way around), taking POWs along the way. Many of these POWs (British, Australian, American among others) were brought to the border of Thailand and Burma and forced into harsh labor camps to build a railroad that would carry war supplies to Japanese forces.

The museum is well done and the 45 minute walk through Hellfire Pass beautiful and eerie at the same time.

Hellfire Pass & Memorial Museum

Hellfire Pass & Memorial Museum

Three Pagodas Pass

So you’re on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Cool. Now unless you are a shopping fiend, time to keep moving.

Kayaking Down the River Khiaw

Not recommended. This river is somewhat industrial and simply not as enjoyable as a more remote location. Nevertheless, walking across the bridge Khiaw, immortalized in the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” is worthwhile.  The bridge was bombed in 1945 by Allied forces in an effort to stop the Japanese.  (Khiaw vs Kwai? Thais spell it with a H.)

SLEEP

Oriental Khiaw Resort: Loved this property. 13kms from town, its an oasis on the river with spacious, upscale bungalows, a decadent pool area, sweet resident dogs and great service. Highly recommend.

Krit Raft House: This is all about experience not decadence. Very basic rooms…type of toilet you pour water in vs flush and then listen for the fish flurry below you (really). But the beauty and quiet of the location. The thrill of swimming to a waterfall and jumping off the raft…it’s just one of those places where the smile doesn’t leave your face.

P Guesthouse: Odd. The location is great, right on the river and there are a number of accommodations to meet various travelers needs.  I believe its mostly know for small, inexpensive fan rooms with beautiful views and shared bathrooms. We had a family room and while the view was wonderful, the place had an odd vibe. 3-D topless lady art hanging above my son’s bed didn’t help sell it to me.

Coffee Resort: Pass. We spent Thanksgiving night at this nondescript motel on a Kanchanaburi highway. Being called the Coffee Resort, you can imagine what I conjured up prior to arriving to disappointment. Clean, yes. Character, no. Kyle said it was what he imagined a white collar prison to be.

But, we did enjoy our Thanksgiving spread, complete with sautéed pumpkin, and were thankful to discover Kanchanaburi, which hadn’t even been on our radar two weeks prior.  Serendipity and thankfulness go hand in hand.

Thanksgiving Dinner, Thai Style

Thanksgiving Dinner, Thai Style

Three Months In

We’ve been on the road three months now and we’ve learned so much about the world and ourselves in it. A few thoughts.

This Is Hard!

24-7 with ones family on the road isn’t easy. Quarters are tight, there’s little-to-no privacy & we’re living out of backpacks. Tweens bring a daily hormone induced drama of some form or another. Parents get grumpy. It is not a holiday.

Cramped quarters! Our bedroom in Kanazawa...the kids are actually under the comforters!

Cramped quarters! Our accommodations in Kanazawa…the kids are actually under the comforters!

But Human Nature Is To Remember The Good

Despite some crazy hard days, we look back and only remember the positive. We are poetic about the order and attention to detail in Japan, forgetting how difficult it was to simply order dinner. We dream of the lush hues of green and fragrant flowers in Cambodia, not the garbage strewn down the street. We remember the lazy, calm days of Lao, not the family bickering. How wonderful that this is the human condition.

Water cures all!

Water cures all!

Homeschooling Sucks

People choose to do this permanently? Really? Why? The whole family agrees…the parents lack of ability to teach and the kids lack of ability to listen make for a painful partnership. Seattle Public Schools, they are all yours come September 2014.

Having fun yet?

Having fun yet?

But We’re Learning So Much!

So maybe we’re lapsing with the book smarts but our world smarts are growing. The kids exposure to currency rates, languages, religions, geography, history, food, music, even a potential political coup… it’s an avalanche of world schooling. Feeling earthquakes in Tokyo and then studying them at the museum of emerging science, conversing with Lao students honing their english at Big Brother Mouse, touring the Land mine museums in Cambodia and Lao, visiting Hiroshima in Japan and then Hellfire Pass in Thailand to see interconnected brutal war histories. The list goes on and on.

Sean sitting through his 1st Japanese team ceremony at the insistence of a man who'd had a bit too much sake at lunch. Now if that's not learning, what is?

Sean sitting through his 1st Japanese tea ceremony at the insistence of a man who’d had a bit too much sake at lunch. Now if that’s not learning, what is?

Expectations = Disappointment

I have an active imagination. It leads to fully imagined locales before we’ve even arrived. Oh we’ll find a charming colonial rental on the river, I’ll do yoga every morning while eating fresh baguettes, mangos and drinking iced coffee. Our new neighbors will welcome us into their homes with an authentic local meal.

It never turns out like this.

Keeping an open mind and lowering expectations leads to a better experience overall. Plus I didn’t do yoga back home, so why did I think I’d make time for it here?

Launching lanterns in Chiang Mai for the Loy Krathong festival...something we were really looking forward to that ended up being a bit too chaotic for us.

Launching lanterns in Chiang Mai for the Loy Krathong festival…something we were really looking forward to that ended up being a bit too chaotic for us.

But Serendipity = Pure Delight

We’ve had many unexpected moments that are serendipitously delicious.  Stumbling across a tiny blues club in Kyoto. Typing in “bring us your recommendations” in Google Translate and settling into one of the best Japanese meals ever.  Having a schedule snafu that unwittingly put an unscheduled week at Care for Dogs in our lap and hearts. It’s easy to play it safe while traveling but the incredible moments happen when you leave your comfort zone.

Traveling up the Nam Ko River with Grandma Cindy & Papa Phil

Traveling up the Ou River with Grandma Cindy & Papa Phil

iPads are Both Good and Evil

They are one stop khan-academy-number-crunching / kindle-app-reading / write-at-home-online-class-writing / Ted-talks-learning / music-listening / movie-watching / video-game-playing madness. They have saved us and they have led to our biggest family fights. We love them. We hate them.

Minecraft & Macklemore

Kids, look, we’re in Japan. Kids? Kids?

But We Have Them. We Have Everything. How Did We Draw This Card?

It’s not for me to judge whether one life is better than another. (My kids actually told me this.) But I’ve met young women whose families won’t let them travel. I’ve met young women whose families won’t let them learn English. I’ve met young women whose families WILL let them travel and learn English but they don’t have the funds to do either. Or can’t get a visa.

Today I watched a young boy play with his kite in the wind. Actually it was a white plastic grocery bag and a stick.

Hmong village's fishing boat

Hmong village’s fishing boat

Eight Months Is An Awfully Short Amount Of Time

I thought eight months was a lot of time. When I was sweating homeschooling, long term travelers told me “heck, eight months, that’s a flash in the pan, don’t homeschool at all.” And I was offended, like my BIG eight months were being belittled. Well they were right. It IS a flash in the pan. It’s the right amount of time for us but its fleeting and I’m learning to not sweat the small stuff.

Not sweating the small stuff in Prachuap Khiri Khan

Not sweating the small stuff in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

I could go on and on…there’s so much that we’re learning. For today, I am simply in tremendous gratitude for a life of opportunity.