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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Cambodia 1: Angkor, What?

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For Paul and I, Cambodia represents our first step into the real unknown. While we’ve been to India, Thailand and Finland before, Cambodia is somewhere quite new.

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We flew in on Cambodia’s premier (and only) airline Angkor Air to Siem Reap on a sub-forty-five-minute journey where the crew attempted to serve us a meal in the whole five minutes that the plane wasn’t ascending or descending.

I couldn’t get my head out of the inflight magazine – particularly loving the article about Cambodia’s first Western-Style cinemas, which arrived last year.

Siem Reap is best-known as the jumping-off point for Angkor Wat, the fantastic jungle temples that are so much part of Cambodian heritage that they now grace its flag

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For us it was less a jumping-off point and more a splashing-off point, as we arrived at the same time as Tropical Storm Vamco, which provided atmospheric and somewhat inconvenient sheets of rain.

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Siem Reap also very much attracts the backpacker crowd to its ‘Pub Street’, a mass of cheap beer and pizza joints near the main market. Next to the real Gap Year students we felt particularly ancient – you’re practically invisible to other backpackers when you have children, they clearly just don’t see you as part of the same category.

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Angkor’s temples can be best described by photo – so I’ll let Paul’s pictures show you how impressive they are. The girls liked the tuk tuk rides in between sites, and suffered the temples extremely well (Daisy even said ‘Wow’ in the right places), but they were mostly playing some imaginative game in which they were being princesses – so if you ask them what they thoughts of Angkor Wat I suspect they might just look a bit baffled – Clover in particular.

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Top highlight for them, apart from the swimming pool at the hotel, was a night at the Circus called Phare. We’d impressed on the children a little of Cambodia’s bloody recent history (since there are landmine victims everywhere, it would have been hard to conceal it), and the Phare Circus is one of the initiatives to get Cambodian families back on their feet.

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The Phare Project is a school teaching circus skills, amongst other things, and the most promising performers put on a nightly ‘Cirque de Soleil’ style performance in a big top in Siem Reap. It might be a charity, but it was very far from worthy- think huge skipping ropes of fire, improbable gymnastics and impressive climbing. The girls were far more entranced by this than they were by Angkor Wat.

Chiang Mai: Elephant kisses and cooking by emotion…

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How do you get an elephant to kiss you? No, it’s not a joke – just one of the things we learned during our stay at Chai Lai Orchid – the elephant camp in Chiang Mai. Visiting elephants in Thailand is fraught with ethical dilemma, since the beasts often have a fairly miserable life, carrying tourists on heavy metal and wooden chairs through the jungles all day. Chai Lai was our compromise – the hotel is a charity that works with trafficked women from the Karen hill tribe, many of whom have come from Burma. At Chai Lai, they are trained in the hospitality industry. So far, so ethical.

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Oh, and did I mention there are elephants? The hotel shares its land with a traditional elephant camp, so while the elephants don’t belong to Chai Lai, the hotel guests can choose to interact with them in a more natural way – no chair rides, plenty of food and of course, many happy baths in the river. You can bath an elephant whenever you want to – so perhaps it isn’t surprising that we didn’t do a lot else.

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We arrived at Chai Lai in an absolute downpour, across a slippery suspension bridge that made me feel like an extra from Indiana Jones and made Mum and Dad wonder what mess I was getting them into this time.

We were nervous walking across the bridge holding the children’s hands. The locals rode their motorbikes across it nonchalantly, sometimes hands free.

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The children were in elephant heaven and Dad (who does love to take a photo or two ..million…) was pretty happy too. First up we fed baby Chai Lai, who likes to take sugar from your hand and break your umbrella given half the chance. Then we spent plenty of time bathing Dee Dee – a five year old elephant (“she’s big for five”, Clover remarked sagely). That’s when we learned how to get an elephant kiss – Dee Dee will ‘kiss’ you with her trunk when you say ‘choop choop’ to her – a little like having a sink plunger attached to your ear, but very cute.

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Spending time in the water with Dee Dee was an amazing family experience. We laughed a lot, and the children bravely climbed up on her back and scrubbed her with a brush. As Dad – watching wisely from the bank – remarked, she really is the best bath toy ever.

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What was really nice was that the charity volunteers at Chai Lai love bathing her as much as we did. They are raising money to rent the elephants from the camp for six months to prove that tourists will care for them without chair rides – paying only for baths and bareback riding – you can find out more here.

Speaking of riding an elephant, we tried it of course – but bareback elephant riding is not for the fainthearted. Or the fainty in general, it turns out. I used to pass out a lot as a teenager, so Paul’s quite used to it, but even he will admit that my timing was pretty poor this time. I did manage to get off the elephant first, but it was touch and go – Clover continued to ride the elephant with its mahout, while the lovely Chai Lai volunteers got me back to camp.

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After two nights of elephant bathing and watching, we decided something a little more culinary was in order, so went to central Chiang Mai for a cooking course. Cue the girls in aprons, wielding huge knives, learning how to cook their favourite spring rolls. From our chef teacher we learned how to season a Thai curry (‘by emotion’, and using a lot of fish sauce), and made and ate an entire seven-course meal. No wonder we were ready for a sleep on the night train back down to Bangkok, ready for our flight to Cambodia the next day.

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And we know Daisy’s been dreaming about elephant kisses – she’s been saying ‘I want a choop choop’ in her sleep!

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One night in Bangkok

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…. Two, actually, but I’ve had the song going round in my head for the last week (thanks so much to Mr James, secondary music teacher for his assiduous instruction in popular musicals).

I’m rapidly finding that changing country is the hardest part of a trip like this. After all, you’ve got used to the last one, for all of its fallabilities and frustrations. I adored India, so perhaps it’s natural that I thoroughly resented Thailand for being ‘not India’, and it took me a few days to get over it.

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Fortunately, Bangkok had one big attraction, in the form of Grandma and Grandad, who have very bravely arrived for a month to come travelling with us. We caught up with them at Bangkok airport. As well as being delighted to see them, the girls were thrilled with gifts from their auntie that are so large that we are seriously wondering how we are going to fit them in the case.

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It’s been ten years since we’re been to Thailand (then sans kids) and Bangkok seems to have become even bigger and buzzier. The area we stayed in was also devoid of recognisable breakfast food, so we end up cooking pancakes made from tempura flour – not bad, actually.

The best thing about our apartment? A washing machine (did I mention my utter laundry obsession?).

Tempted as I was to simply stay in and do washing, I forced us out to do a ‘klong tour’, or trip on Bangkok’s old canals. Mum and Dad coped surprisingly well with the early start, the getting on and off a boat, and eating sticky rice in the market and noodles cooked on a boat.

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Our guide Nui, educated us all about Buddhist Monks who are ‘not allowed to do the sexy’.

Apparently, it is common for older men who are married and have had children to leave and become Buddhist monks, and they welcome it. “They think, ‘he can go – I have the farm, and the grandchildren’ she explains.” I’d not previously seen Buddhism as a way of getting your menfolk off your hands when they retire, but it is always good to have a new perspective.

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We also indulged in a little health tourism (hoping not to have to visit the hospital in every country we visit) when Clover went to have her stitches out. Thai private healthcare proved as efficient as everyone has said – she was in and out in twenty minutes, it cost £14 and she’s healing beautifully.

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After Bangkok we took the night train to Chiang Mai, in the north, where we nearly got arrested for drinking beer on the train. “Did you not see the sticker!” shouted the guard at me, dragging me over the other end of the train carriage where a small sticker showed a glass of wine with a line through it. Felt like a naughty sixth former – haven’t had my alcohol confiscated in years.

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