JAPAN: Living the Kawaii Life without splashing the yen

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“How will you afford it?” was the top question we got asked when we said we’d be spending eight days in Japan. However, at the end of our trip I’m pleased to report we’ve had a fabulous time, without singeing the credit card too much.

Kawaii means ‘cute’ in Japanese, in case you are confused by my title. The children are ‘kawaii’ apparently, and so are a whole lot of things we saw on our flying eight-day visit to Toyko and surrounds. Hello Kitty is kawaii, and so are cats, bunnies, maid outfits on grownups and crepes featuring cartoon characters.

Whether kawaii or high culture, Japan has been almost universally fabulous, so if you’re considering taking the children I’d urge you to go. We’ve laughed so much this week – frequently at ourselves. Here are some of my top tips – most of them bargainous. No wonder Japan has fallen back into recession – we clearly weren’t spending enough.

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  1. Bafflement comes for free

The best thing about Japan – its complete and utter otherness from everywhere else, is completely without charge. In fact, you can’t avoid it as it assails you from the second you get off the plane. There’s bowing, unintelligible writing (seldom explained in English, though I was amused to discover the existence of a group of ‘ninja translators’ who sneak into public toilets – presumably at the dead of night – and stick English stickers below the signs telling you to mind the step. God bless you, ninjas) and food that is so beautifully presented you can’t tell whether you should be eating it or soaping yourself with it.

Yoghurt in your tea? Until you learn the Japanese characters for ‘milk’, this, and other Lost-in-Translation-style mistakes come as standard.

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  1. The ordinary becomes extraordinary

Because of the bafflement, you don’t need to go and see the sights to have a completely new experience. The local convenience store will do. What is all that stuff? Even the apartment you are renting is a whole new ballgame. After all, the toilet seat heats up at the press of a button and the water heater will talk to you in Japanese. Still got no idea what it was saying but it sounded pretty cross. Also, you can get almost anything from a bag of rice to a china kitten in a teapot in a vending machine. The children will love this much more than you will. What’s the Japanese for ‘pester power’?

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  1. Youth culture can be done on the cheap

We took a stroll around Harajuko, where the yoof of Japan hang out. Here they eat crepes with cartoon characters on them (and lots of spray cream), and you can spend a whole 400 yen (that’s about two pounds) on something called purikura. This is where you get in a photobooth with some friends (or your family in our case) and come out with a whole bunch of pictures of you looking a bit like an alien (or kawaii, if you prefer – since the booth will add Japanese-style doe eyes, and give you a bit of a pointy chin. Afterwards, attempt to add doodles and backgrounds with special pens against the clock while the machine talks to you in Japanese. As a bonus, everyone in the mall will gather round to stare at the strange English family who are indulging in a pastime favoured mainly by Japanese schoolgirls.

The laughter’s free – for everyone.

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  1. Karaoke is a bargain during the day

If your feet ache while you’re pounding Tokyo’s streets, perhaps a trip to the karaoke booth is in order. Rather like rats in London, you’re seldom more than five feet away from a microphone or two- and because you aren’t a drunk salaryman whiling away your evening, you get an off-peak rate. And you’re singing in private, which removes the embarrassment factor.

Some tips. Make a list of songs FIRST, as your mind will go blank on entering the booth. Do not allow Clover to take total control of the microphone (I’m still bitter). Be aware that you will have to buy an overpriced drink or two. The bright-green melon drink had amusing after-effects in Clover’s case so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Be aware though, that your children may get addicted. Daisy and Clover would probably have spent most of the last eight days singing Katy Perry songs and hits from Frozen. So go on, just Let It Go.

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  1. Lots of things are very convenient – but never in the way you expect

Coin operated lockers in every station so you can leave your bags there? Clean loos everywhere? Print from a USB in any convenience store? For all its bafflement Japan is very comfortable – which makes it great for families.

On the other hand some things are surprisingly inconvenient. The ATM networks don’t always accept UK cards (so you’ll need to find the few that do – mainly in the 7-11), and my UK mobile phone wouldn’t work on the Japanese network. There’s not a lot of wi-fi either, so be warned. You can circumvent this with a Japanese simcard bought at the airport – surprisingly confusing to set up, but then worked like a charm.

  1. Good food isn’t expensive

Apparently Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any city in the world, but without seeing a single one of them we had fabulous food. The Japanese expect to eat well all the time – and like things to be convenient – so you can get great food anywhere. We stayed in the suburbs and ate sushi from neighbourhood stations, gyoza from the local supermarket and delicious breaded things from all sorts of places. The corner shop would provide a complete meal including edamame (which the children will eat like sweeties), saving you from constantly eating out. When you do eat out, lunchtime is cheaper than evenings. As well as gyoza, the girls enjoyed pork buns as big as their heads from the beautiful department store food halls, breaded chicken from the supermarket, chicken skewers and self-cooked sausages from the okinomiyaki restaurant where Paul and I made our own pancakes under Bethan Kushida’s expert guidance.

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  1. The bullet train is amazing- at least once

Like some picture from a 1980s ‘Visions of the Future’ book, the Japanese bullet train (shinkansen) is more than a tiny bit thrilling. Unless you’re Daisy, who thought it ‘wasn’t that fast’. You can’t impress all of the children, all of the time.

We used it to go to Kyoto, and then travelled from there to Hakone at a more leisurely pace. Slower trains are cheaper, and a bit more squeezed. The Tokyo metro is very good value and you can while away the time trying to work out the bizarre signage. Is this panda crying or sweating? And why?

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  1. With children; pay for experiences not sights

After three months in Asia, I can’t blame the girls for being ‘templed out’. I am a bit myself. Instead of visiting lots and lots of temples, our attempts to experience Japanese culture included;

a) A tea ceremony at Camellia Tea Rooms, where the lovely Atsuko took us through the whole ceremony complete with explanation, and allowed the girls to make the tea themselves. Daisy and Clover have never been so quiet.

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b) A traditional ‘onsen’ (hot spring) bath at the hostel we stayed at – Hakone Tent – highly recommended.

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c) One night in a traditional tatami mat room with sliding paper screens (one night was enough for my old bones, and because of the stress of keeping children quiet under those circumstances- the neighbours can hear everything!)

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d) Studio Ghibli – the fabulous and child-centred museum from the creator of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Buy limited tourist tickets in advance, unless you have a lovely lovely friend who goes out of her way to buy them for you. Thanks Bethan! The girls particularly enjoyed a large furry ‘cat bus’ that was essentially a soft play centre, as well as some beautiful zoetropes etc.

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e) Telling fortunes at Senso-Ji temple – put in 100 yen and pick a stick with your fortune on it. If you don’t like it – tie it nearby and pray for better luck next time.

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f) The Hakone Open Air Museum. Why take children to a sculpture park? Because it has a brilliant children’s area, fantastic stuff to see and a Star Garden for hide and seek. We had to drag them away. The autumn leaves were just so beautiful too.

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g) A cat café. Because the girls insisted. Watch bored cats being poked by feline-loving Japanese people wielding cat toys. The girls liked it, but I felt sorry for the cats.

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h) Ueno Zoo, which isn’t expensive at all – but we felt some of the cages were a bit small. Thrilling to see pandas for the first time ever though – apparently I’ve been wanting to see them almost since I could talk!

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  1. Stay in the suburbs

Tokyo is big, but the transport is efficient, so staying out of the centre isn’t tricky. We picked two apartments from Booking.com for the two parts of our stay. Both came with two bedrooms and a kitchenette, and a bathroom with tub and washing machine. In space-starved Tokyo that’s pretty impressive, and you can keep costs down – and yourself sane – by staying in for dinner and breakfast, thanks to all of that lovely takeaway food available. Suburbs have nice playparks as well, and a little slice of ‘normal’ Tokyo life that is very relaxing for a travelling family. And I could do my own laundry (yes, still obsessed).

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Japan. Just brilliant. Perhaps it is true that new experiences make you feel younger, since travelling there made me feel about 15. Or perhaps it was the purikura. But do, do take the kids.

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Kuala Lumpur: Four go mad in M&S

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We didn’t mean to go to Malaysia. Nothing personal – it just wasn’t on the list. But you can’t fly directly from Myanmar to Tokyo, so Trailfinders (who have been really helpful with our round-the-world tickets) put in a change in KL instead. Since we were there, we couldn’t resist having a couple of days there.

But this is not a story about the cultural delights of Malaysia, it turns out, it’s a tale about how we spent three days in a shopping mall, and loved every moment.

In our defence, we’re not normally great shoppers – but consider how long we’ve been away. Our clothes are tattered (all those laundries) and unsuitable for the months to come. I’ve seen few brands I really recognise for months (and even when I do it all goes wrong – such as when I thought our hair was getting a bit greasy in Thailand before realising we were washing it in Dove conditioner).

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KL was the culture shock of my life, in a good way. We left Myanmar via dilapidated Yangon Airport, where there are two cafés, a few souvenir stalls and a barely working escalator. After a couple of hours we arrived in a bright shiny future –fastforwarding about fifty years. There were baggage carousels with illuminated signs, fingerprint scanners, fast airport trains, and machines that took credit cards. And there were shops.

Oh heavens, how there were shops! Not only stores, but the most British of stores. And so even a family who never sets foot in a shopping mall from one year to the next found themselves totally sucked in.

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There was an H&M, and a Uniqlo, and an M&S. Malaysian readers, if you saw a small English lady weeping by the Percy Pigs I do apologise for my uncharacteristic lapse. We bought tights (haven’t had to wear those for a while), and I replaced my long-lost down jacket. Paul bought a laptop. We replaced some phone chargers .

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But not only that, we went to the Science museum (still in the shopping mall, right??), feeling only slightly dirty as it is heavily sponsored by Petronas, and all about how brilliant fossil fuels are… However, it is also very childfriendly, and the non-oily bits are brilliant. There was also an amazing exhibition on visual and audio illusions which we all thoroughly enjoyed.

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We went to the cinema! We had dim sum with the Malaysian Girl guides. The girls enjoyed a really nice playpark and splashpool in the park outside the mall, as well as the aquarium (nice sharks) and the Petronas Towers (nice views). And we stayed in the loveliest place – a guesthouse called Orange Pekoe, that cost £25 a night for four of us. Highly recommended.

I realise that none of this is very interesting to most of you. You can go to cinemas and shop all the time. And you’d probably prefer to hear that we went to some really cultural parts of KL. We meant to, honest. But I can assure you we are thoroughly rejuvenated, cheered and ready for Tokyo. As ready as you can ever be for Tokyo anyway. Let’s hope our bags don’t get lost in translation.

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ENDS

Myanmar: Our Burmese Days

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I didn’t want to like Myanmar, especially not after a nice trip to the beach, where the thought of a visit to Asia’s least developed country loomed over us like the thought of a dose of nasty medicine after a delicious cake.

My reasons for this were myriad. Firstly, it was incredibly hard to get information about the place. Did it accept bank cards? Would we have to pay for everything in pristine dollars? Did it have any wifi/3g you could rely on? For a jobbing journalist with a few deadlines to meet, these are serious considerations, and the more I read, the more confused I became.

Then there were the unavoidable realities. It’s less comfortable than its Asian neighbours, and we felt less comfortable about it too. It’s still only borderline acceptable to visit Myanmar after years of sanctions, and there we were planning to take the kids. Hotels are expensive, and much less comfortable than elsewhere, and the food – from those guidebooks we did find – didn’t promise much.

So why had we planned to go? Mainly it was fascination, I think. It isn’t often you get to visit a country that has so recently opened to foreigners – particularly one that used to be a British colony (yes, I’ve read Burmese Days). Also the feeling that if we didn’t see it right now (two weeks before an election) we’d be missing out. And it was only an hour flight from Bangkok.

So I was grumpy about the whole thing (are you sensing a theme here?) up until the moment we arrived – though briefly cheered by the large American tour group on the plane (if they were going, it couldn’t be that difficult, right?). And in the end arrival went surprisingly smoothly, from the plane to finding a working ATM, to finding a phone shop in the airport that kitted me out with a 3G signal for a few US dollars.

Surreal as it is to see a Coca Cola Welcomes You to Myanmar sign when you arrive, it set the scene for a country that (at least in Yangon) is changing faster than you would believe.

Because it is so hard to get information – and because we can’t be the only people who are confused, here are some of my (currently up to date) observations about travelling in Myanmar, particularly relevant for families.

1) Everybody is so lovely

I know everyone says it, but it’s true. From our taxi driver, who told us he had cried every evening because he was homesick while working in Singapore, so he had to come back, to the staff of our budget hotel who arranged themselves into a welcoming committee every time we came back from the corner shop, we were universally looked after. No-one pushed or shoved, and everyone took care of the children – cooking them special meals and showering them with smiles and food.

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2) The internet works

Not always, but it does. 3G is better than wifi, and not expensive. Telenor works in most spots, including Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle. It only costs a couple of dollars to stick a SIM in, and gave me the peace of mind that I could get my work done if everything else failed.

3) The breakfasts are.. bizarre

Everything is fried and beige. Eat the eggs. The eggs are your friend. The butter substitute is not your friend, and the non-dairy creamer to put in your tea might be better employed as an exfoliant to scrub the bathroom floor clean. Or eat noodles, like the locals do. For some reason my body rebels at breakfast – so I didn’t, and nor would the girls. Pity.

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4) Everyone wears skirts, even the boys

This is of course funny when you are six and eight – though Daisy would now point out to you with a weary sigh that ‘actually they are longhi’. It will however, be very funny to see Daddy wearing one because he’s been caught in a storm while trekking and has no dry trousers.

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Everyone wears Thanaka too – which is a type of sunscreen/moisturiser/makeup made from a tree. Spot the Thanaka professionals wearing stars, swirls and leaves. But won’t they have tan lines? Bizarre – but beautiful – and uniquely Myanmar. Looks odd on westerners though – rather like the aforementioned longyi.

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5) Your children will be celebrities

Want to watch sunset over Bagan while your children draw some temples? Fine. But what does the average Burmese tourist want to do? Stand on top of a temple at sunset and take pictures of small Western children, it appears. Preferably they would like to be in the pictures with the children too. Mount Popa is even worse than Bagan for this – and the steps are covered in monkey poo and the monkeys steal food from your hand (sorry Clover). On the plus side though, it’s really surreal and I’ve never felt so far from Forest Hill.

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6) You can buy really great firecrackers

I know, I know… health and safety. But they are really good ones. We all spent a lot of time pretending to be Harry Potter. Shouting ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ and then throwing a firecracker to produce a gratifying small explosion is what passes for nightlife in the hill station of Kalaw, I promise you.

7) Everyone will go to the pagoda, all of the time

If South East Asia is Buddhist, Myanmar is like, really, really Buddhist. Also we were there at a particularly holy time (Thandigut, the light festival – see firecrackers above). Everyone was always at the pagoda, giving fruit and flowers, feeding the monks or hanging about with Thanaka on their faces, looking like a photo opportunity. Obviously they’d rather take photos of our children (see above) but the locals were considerably more picturesque.

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Schwedagon, in Yangon, is a must, but there are monasteries everywhere.

The beautiful wooden ones are now being pulled down and replaced with ugly concrete ones – so see them while you can. But don’t stay too near to one, unless you like chanting at 3am. They do have clean loos though – so are good when the children are desperate.

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I also particularly loved the fact that our marvellous trekking guide, Maung Lan, shouted ‘Oh my Buddha’ in alarm when we were nearly gored by a herd of cows in the rain on a trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle. To be fair, I was alarmed too, and did worse than slightly blaspheme.

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8) It’s not just Buddha either

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When you’re not busy venerating Buddha, you’re propitiating the ‘nats’ – the animal spirits that predate Buddha by some hundreds of years. Don’t urinate near the banyan tree, as the nats will get angry. Nats really like bananas, and flowers, and money. They don’t appear to have led particularly virtuous lives (one is known as the ‘Drunken Nat’ for obvious reasons) so I’ve no idea why they’ve become so powerful. But don’t mess. Or urinate. Nats don’t like it.

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9) People can get very personal

There’s no pussyfooting around in Myanmar. As if I didn’t know already, I now know that I’m “quite wrinkly” (but the Thanaka will improve it, apparently), and that I seem charming but should reduce the size of my body. Reader, my self-esteem barely escaped with its life.

10) Bagan is brilliant

Like Angkor Wat, but with a hundredth of the tourists. Climb a big temple for sunrise and sunset (but not both on the same day or your children and your sanity won’t thank you) and don’t expect the children to do much more than that. Two thousand temples is a lot for anyone to take in – a big overview will do just fine. They’re all full of buddhas, if you want a general explanation. How long before it gets overrun? At the moment it is mainly full of sleepy horses drawing carriages, a few tourists on e-bikes, and some bizarre hotels. Our hotel appeared to be a deliberately designed ruin – a folly, perhaps. With terrible breakfasts, but I’ve already pointed that out. Nice pool though – otherwise I think the children would have rebelled.

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11) Don’t mess with The Lady

Two weeks before the General Election, so perhaps no wonder the populace had gone Suu Khi mad. At seventy, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has achieved extraordinary status amongst the average Burmese village dweller. There’s a calendar in every home with her face on it. Even the girls can recognise the National League for Democracy poster. We can only hope the elections go well, since I can’t imagine anyone else managing to hold the country together. On the other hand, there were still plenty of people, our various taxidrivers assured us, willing to demonstrate for the ruling party in return for a small payment. Twas ever thus. Go ASSK, as they also call her – making her sound a little like an icecream cone.

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12) Take your raincoats when you trek

We didn’t. Kalaw to Inle is amazing (a two night trek) but the heavens opened on us and, together with the bullock carts, the small boys riding buffalo and the returning cows, we struggled to make our way to the village we stayed in for the night. It was a medieval scene (and somewhat nightmarish). Sadly too wet for Paul to have taken any pictures. Don’t expect to sleep on the trek either, since the family we stayed with started to get up at 4am (well, they had to go to the pagoda, you see).

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13) Inle is a bit in your face

Too many fume-belching noisy boats, and too many tourists. Inle was a bit of a shock when coming down from the mountains. Lovely floating tomato gardens, but I preferred Kalaw. Nyaung Shwe has some excellent restaurants though. One Owl Grill does the best food I’ve had in weeks (not that this is saying a great deal – see Myanmar breakfasts above) but it is genuinely recommended.

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14) The toilets are squatty

Least said about that the better I think – but the children are getting better at them. I’m still not a fan though apparently if you’ve used them all your life certain muscles in your legs don’t atrophy. Poor creaky-legged westerners like us just have to cope. No doubt this will change.

15) Ngapali beach is a world apart

A handful of resorts along a gorgeous coastline, Ngapali is easy, but expensive even for Myanmar. Worth it for two days to recover though – fab waves, fantastic cheap seafood and still lovely, lovely people. Suspect it is only a matter of years before it is over developed though.

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16) You will have culture shock like you won’t believe

Bullock carts as the main means of transport? Scarcely a car in rural areas? No electricity in the villages (where the houses are made of woven bamboo and not much else?) and Yangon Airport’s solitary and practically sedentary escalator seem normal very quickly. Until you fly straight to Kuala Lumpur, that is, and start wandering around like a small child in a sweet shop. More on KL to follow, but my goodness, what a change.

Finally, here’s a link to the article I wrote for the Telegraph about the rather fabulous Myanmar Girl Guides – starting up again after 50 years.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11963588/Burma-Myanmars-Girl-Guides-are-recruiting-again-50-years-on.html

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It doesn’t contain the pictures of the girls in their brownie uniforms receiving Myanmar guide badges,or the mountain of extra sweeties bought by the chief commissioner.

Myanmar. Go now, before it becomes just the same as everywhere else.

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Last shot at Thailand: Koh Chang

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Nothing to see here- especially if it is dark and rainy outside at home! Our last destination in Thailand was the ‘Elephant Island’ of Koh Chang, which is six hours drive from Bangkok Airport.

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Six nights in the same place is a major luxury. Six nights near the beach even more so. I won’t make you too jealous so will just say we fell into a routine of a couple of hours ‘school’ in the morning (I’m still no teacher, but it has to be done) and then afternoons and evenings on the beach.

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Real highlights included a snorkelling trip where even Clover jumped off the boat into the water to see the fish around the coral reefs (though she hated the breathing tube and would only use the mask), and lots of candlelit dinners on the beach and by the lagoon, where we saw huge hermit crabs, and beautiful sunsets. We took a trip to the Little Sunshine resort – built by my friend Caroline’s late father – with a laughably perfect private beach, as well. Time passed fast.

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At the end of the week we all felt a little more ready for Myanmar – though far from perfectly prepared. Yangon is only an hour and twenty minutes away by plane, but thanks to years of isolation is utterly different. An account of our Burmese Days will follow.

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Thailand Revisited – a Bridge too far?

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There’s one last thing to do before Mum and Dad leave for home. Dad had expressed a desire to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, and we didn’t have time before heading down to Vietnam from Thailand.

So, back in Bangkok after the flight from Chiang Rai that followed the Laos cruise, we took a (very) local train to Kanchanaburi.

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The bridge, made famous by the film of the same name, isn’t over the River Kwai at all, it turns out, but over the river Mae Klung. The Thais though, being an enterprising bunch, decided that it was easier to rename the river after the film than move the bridge – so it remains there, over the ‘Big Kwai’ river. Clever, huh?

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If you don’t know your Second World War history – or your films, the Bridge is part of a railway built by the Japanese during the second part of WWII to transport goods from China through Burma and Thailand. It was built by local forced labour and by prisoners of war. Conditions were horrific and many, many died during the building of the railway, from starvation, malaria and torture.

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The bridge itself is just part of the story, and makes a slightly depressing monument. We walked across it to the accompaniment of some truly terrible buskers –one bizarrely playing the Harry Potter theme on the violin. Then we turned around and walked back. The girls were baffled.

The nearby museum shed no light since it was basically a collection of old items with labels such as ‘Japanese sewing machine’ or ‘old car’. Scarcely a fitting memorial.

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Kanchanaburi does have other charms, it turns out, in the shape of a nice hotel called the Good Times Resort (where we did indeed have a good time, and are grateful to the Coxes for their recommendation). The hotel had a great motorbike taxi, and excellent pie and mash (sometimes the Asian food gets too much, besides I’ve never had my mashed potato served in a banana leaf ‘boat’ before). Oh, and a pool.

So happy were the girls that I was unable to drag them out the next morning to visit the ‘proper’ museum we discovered down the road near the Kanchanaburi war cemeteries. Dad and I went – and it was very moving. Hundreds of thousands of casualties caused by the Japanese need to get the railway done fast, and little care taken of those that built it. The man who built this museum is extraordinary and his obsession and vision for it is immense. We paid our respects at the war graves, thinking of soldiers who died very far from home.

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The trip also made me grateful for the existence of the malaria pills in my backpack, which we’re still taking after being in Laos. So grateful that with these and repellent we can mimimise the danger there (and the girls are tolerating paediatric Malarone really well).

One more night in Bangkok followed – this time at the Girl Guide hostel in the centre of town (are you sensing a Girl Guide theme to this trip?), which was surprisingly comfortable. Then we said goodbye to Grandma and Granddad at the airport, hoping we haven’t put them off taking another trip with us in the New Year. Next stop for the Bigmores; the beach!

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