Koh Tao – Could Thailand ever live up to the backpacker memories? – Day 212 -228

Have I mentioned that I love Thailand? Secretly, I worried that I would find a very different Thailand than the one I remember from when I was a 22-year-old. I knew that I could find a Singha beer, a plate of pad thai and a banana chocolate crepe, but I was going as a middle-aged person with kids…. What was it going to be like? To be honest, the first day had me worried.

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Langkawi – Ringing in the New Year a second time – Days 207-211

Secluded beachfront with loungers

Five nights at a resort in Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian mainland, was a new level of “slowing things down”. Most days involved 4 hours at the pool, 4 hours of television, 3 hours of eating and then an hour at the bar. In between, we would sprinkle in some homeschooling. It rained every day but fortunately, it was limited to 15-minute downpours in the late afternoon. By the end of our 5 days, the family was fit, tanned and in excellent spirits. Our mini-break exceeded all expectations.

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Georgetown – Just keep eating – Days 200-206

Family with children standing in front of historic hotel in Georgetown

Another week, another new place. This time it would be Penang for the 7 days preceding Chinese New Year. Paigey knocked it out of the park by finding a restored hotel smack dab in the historic centre. The kids enjoyed the full week in the comfortable surroundings, and the weather continued to be in our favour, with temperatures above 30 degrees and no rain. Laundry, school, history and food were all on the docket.

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Cameron Highlands – Tea Plantation Time – Days 197-199

I have always wanted to visit a tea plantation. We are not planning to go to India or Sri Lanka on the trip so I figured that the Malaysian Highlands was a must-stop. I knew basically nothing about the Cameron Highlands except that there were tea plantations and it was in the direction of Penang, which was our next destination. We planned a three-night stop (again against our rules of one-week minimum) because there did not seem to be a lot to do in the Cameron Highlands beyond the tea plantations. I also struggled to figure out where to stay as there seemed to be only expensive and cheap hotels with little in between -and everything seemed poorly reviewed. So we opted for an Airbnb in the town of Tanah Rata.

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Kuala Lumpur – Towers, Doctors and Badminton – Days 191-196

Family of three on skywalk Petronas Towers

I grew up believing the CN Tower was the be-all and end-all in Toronto. We had an entire unit dedicated to the tower in primary school, culminating in a field trip. We learned it was the tallest building, with a radio antenna and restaurant at the top. In my 20s, I was humbled when it took me 40+ minutes to climb the 1,776 steps during a charity event. After visiting Kuala Lumpur, I’m not sure my children will grow up with the same reverence for our Toronto-based tower. KL has towers aplenty, and they actually seem to do something (like function as malls or offices). Wherever we went, there would always be some tower lurking in the background, reminding us we were in KL and a long way from home.

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Johor – We really mean Legoland – Days 189-190

Each of us picked a destination that the family could not object to.  Isabella’s pick was Legoland.  When we looked at the map, we noticed there was one across the border from Singapore in Johor, Malaysia.  There was a hotel, theme park and water park all under the Lego brand.  What better way to start the New Year than two days hunkered down with all things Lego.  We also realized that going to Denmark (to the original Legoland) would blow our budget in a couple of days. So off to Johor we went!

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Singapore – Bring on the Food – Days 183-188

With the exception of Melbourne, we’ve been on a good streak of cities we LOVED.  Fortunately, Singapore kept that trend alive.  We were booked into a nice hotel for six days and would welcome the New Year in style. We would use our time here to get acclimated to travelling in Asia. And finally, Paige and I were going to undo all the health gains from the previous weeks by eating non-stop for six days. As Nan and Cathy (a family friend) were joining us, this would also be our last stretch with family.  After Singapore, we are on our own until the end of March.

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Bali – Christmas and Family – Days 168 – 182

On Day 15 in Bali, my mom (Nan) arrived, and the girls were ecstatic to show her around Ubud and visit the Monkey Forest, which we were saving for her arrival. We were sad to leave Villa Ole but looked forward to Villa Gajah, which was on the opposite side of town and promised four bedrooms with spectacular rice field views. We would be there for Christmas, and my mom had booked the place six months ago, so we were all waiting to see it in person.

Villa Gajah was magical but would not be suitable for everyone. It is right in the middle of a rice field (200 metres by foot from the road). Although the bedrooms are properly enclosed with walls, doors and A/Cs, the common areas have no such borders. In the middle of jungle-like Ubud, no walls can make for an interesting menagerie of guests. My fear of rodents was tested when one ran through the living room on Christmas Eve, and frogs all over the floor became commonplace. The girls loved feeding the fish in the fish pond (which, of course, was in the dining room).

The best part of Villa Gajah was the rice field hike outside our door. It was a good 30-minute walk into town on a path through the rice fields, with motorbikes passing every few minutes. On the walk, you’d meet artists selling paintings, farmers selling vanilla beans, cafe owners serving drinks and everything else in between. Michael did the walk every day and made friends along the way. He and I even bought ourselves “travel wedding rings” from the Silversmith on the route. For those who did not want to do the 30-minute hike, the villa also came with a staff who could drive us into town. Wayan and Suri were the caretakers who managed the villa and made us breakfast each morning – we’ll definitely remember the tropical fruit and pancakes. Being us, we supplemented the breakfast with treats like Nutella and imported cheese and I think those delicious breakfasts may be something I look fondly upon as we move into deeper parts of Asia (without the gourmet ex-pat grocery stores).

Our time with Nan started with the obligatory Monkey Forest Visit. We were careful not to bring any food or anything the monkeys could steal and we did not encounter any aggressive or scary ones – phew! To be completely transparent, one did jump on me, but she was using me for a bridge between two trees, so I stayed calm and she promptly jumped off (glad she chose to jump on me and not a kid).

We also had a visit from Sayo (the daughter of family friends from Canada) and her daughter Mia. They live in Bali full-time and came to Ubud for a visit. This utterly thrilled the girls who finally had someone else to play with. We visited a waterfall together and Sayo taught us a little more about life in Bali. It was great to see them and we were thankful for their visit.

We (mom, Nan and the girls) did a cooking class (letting dad have the morning to himself). Initially, they had only set us up with one stove (thinking that the girls were more spectators). The cooking teacher soon learned that Julie and Isabella did not intend to be spectators and they were given their own gas stoves to cook. Julie remains convinced she will be a “chef teacher” when she grows up and this experience only solidified her plan.

On week two at Villa Gajah, we welcomed my brother Leif and his partner Kate who came for Christmas too. We only had three days of monsoon-like torrential rain during a month in Bali. Unfortunately, all three days happened in the week that Leif and Kate were there. Nonetheless, they were busy on the days without rain visiting rice terraces, temples and the centre of town. Leif also treated us to a great meal at Nusantara, where Mike broke his Vegetarianism to try Bali’s version of escargot and mom discovered a love for Ginger Flower salad. It was so nice to get to see them and we were so grateful that they visited from so far away.

Initially, we had planned to downplay the Christmas thing since 30 degrees in a tropical jungle was so different from the regular traditions. But two sad little girls a few days before Christmas made us realize that we had to do a little more than planned. The tissue paper tree and makeshift decorations were created and Christmas youtube playlists were streamed. We also organized a special floating breakfast (which did not happen as it rained that morning). Nonetheless, the girls were spoiled with gifts as Mike and I puzzled as to how they would fit into our luggage (we ended up sending a suitcase back with my brother – thanks Leif). On Christmas Day, Isabella built her Harry Potter Lego and Julie played with the Templetina LOL (yes Aunt Kate, the name has stuck).

We said goodbye to Leif and Kate a few days later as they headed to Taiwan. Luckily Nan was coming with us to Singapore so we avoided that goodbye for a few more days. A month in Bali is what you imagine – beautiful, restful, healthful and quirky. So long Bali, we will definitely miss you.

Where we stayed:

By the numbers:

  • Number of Suri’s Breakfast Crepes we ate: At least 40
  • Number of Sound Therapy Sessions we did at the Pyramids of Chi next door: 0, Paige has a regret
  • Number of times Mike ate the local Warung (restaurant): 4
  • Number of nights it took before we finally went to the Balinese dance for Nan: 13

Wildlife Spotted inside our House (yep inside!):

  • Croak the Toad: he visited us every night
  • Whiskers the Christmas Rat: unfortunately he visited us on Christmas eve
  • Hiss the Boxing Day snake: a rice field snake who met an unfortunate end
  • Boris the Bat: he crashed into the fishpond and hung out on a reed to recover
  • Countless frogs jumping through the kitchen
  • Twenty four tadpoles: Julie counted them with me one night
  • Geckos galore: One went into my toiletry bag for a visit
  • The loudest frog ever: he gave us at least 2 terrible night sleeps (just click on the link, crank the volume and try to fall asleep to that)
  • All the fish in the fishpond
  • An unidentified animal Kate and Leif heard on the roof each night: they said it had to be quite large
  • 44 trillion ants: they were absolutely everywhere and meant that everything had to stay in the fridge

Bali – The first two weeks – Days 154 – 168

Two girls looking at rice field

Finally, the weather we had been chasing! It was allegedly the rainy season but we saw little rain and were blessed with hot, sunny days for our first two weeks in Bali. We based ourselves in the south of Ubud at an accommodation called Villa Ole. We planned to spend two weeks there and then relocate to the north of the city. Paige’s family was expected to arrive for Christmas and we would need a larger place. We relished our time in Ubud and got off on the right foot. The children got beautiful tans, we explored the surrounding areas and, most importantly, we slowed things down.

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