How are the children settling back in school?

One of the questions I get asked most is: How are the children settling back in school? People want to know whether they are behind and whether we did much homeschooling on the road. In short the answers are: fine, no and no.

On coming back, the first thing we did was go to the town hall and re-register them for school. I had already been in contact with the school and had been told there were spaces available. We were lucky that a new, free school had opened and some children had moved and therefore freed up spaces. Town hall told us that it could take up to three weeks to get paperwork sorted but when I spoke to the school they chased it up for us and they were back in school within a week.

My two returned to year 4 and 2 (they were in years 3 and 1 when we left). When we returned, they both managed to get back in their old classes and both teachers told me that within days it was like they never left. My eldest struggled a little bit socially in the first few weeks as her best friends had both moved school in our absence. She has now found her feet though and sees those friends regularly outside of school. My daughter in year 2 was absolutely fine straightaway and although not having done much work ‘on the road’ seems to have caught up already.

We haven’t received the end-of-year reports yet so don’t really know exactly what level they currently are. Saying that, I don’t really know what level they were before they left…They seem to enjoy learning, happy at school and feedback from the teachers is that they are doing well. It is all I need to know.

Regarding schooling on the road, we didn’t do that much. At least not that much when it comes to structured school work. I’d like to think they received an education, it was just somewhat different than the national curriculum!

I had downloaded a maths app for the eldest and she practised a little bit on that. I downloaded any book that she wanted to read on my Kindle for her and she must have gone through about 30 or 40 books. They learnt a bit of Spanish, they practised their time tables with currencies, we did a bit of fact finding on every country we went to and of course we visited many, many museums and world famous sites. Educationally I don’t think they have missed out.

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Settling back home

After the beautiful beaches of Thailand and Malaysia, the time had really come: our flight home. We finished off with a few amazing days in Kuala Lumpur (lots of shopping) and had a very cramped and long, long flight back. We arrived late in the evening and waking up in the morning in our own home, well, was weird. It was all very dream-like.

We spent the first couple of weeks unpacking our stuff (it was mostly in the attic) and catching up with much-missed friends. The children were so excited to see their friends again, the weather was good and it was all wonderful. The school had spaces for the children in their old classes and a space in the pre-school for the youngest. Our house was rented out for the year and left spotless. John has his old job back and I will be looking when the youngest starts school in September.

The depressing bit is that it is like we never left. It is almost like it never happened. We’ve done the thing that we have been looking forward and thinking about for years. So now what? It is unlikely we will have do this again due to commitments we have here and, let’s be honest, finances. It hasn’t cured us though, John and I would do it all again in heartbeat. Tomorrow if we could. The children might not be so keen as they found a year long and missed home comforts and their friends. So we might have to wait until they are adults before we can pack our cases for long-term trip again!

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Koh Tao, Koh Phangan or Koh Samui: which one is the best?

After a quick stop at Hua Hin, we tested all three of these islands. They all have their different attractions but which one out of Ko Tao, Ko Phangan and Ko Samui is the best one when travelling with children? Well, they all three have their different attractions for different reasons:

Koh Tao
This was our first stop of the three islands. I had been here before, 16 years ago. I have to admit that I don’t remember much of it as it is so long ago and nothing at all looked familiar. We stayed at the main beach, Sairee Beach. If at all possible, when you arrive instead of taking a taxi (extortionately expensive), hire a motorbike straightaway. The hire costs for the day is cheaper than the taxi drive if you are with more than one person. Sairee Beach has many facilities, a west-facing beach (amazing sunsets) and shallow waters. The islands is small and easy to get around by motorbike. There is a lovely lane running parallel between the beach and the main road which goes all the way from Sairee Beach back to Maehaad pier in Ban Mae Hat. Very nice to stroll at night with many cafes, shops, restaurants and resorts/hotels. All in all this island is very suitable for children without it being a mega tourist place. We ended up staying for almost a week. 20140418-132147.jpg

Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is of course known for its full moon (and half moon and whatever moon) parties. We deliberately stayed at a time when we were nowhere near a full or half moon as it is not really our thing and also somewhat impractical to party all night with three children. Having said that, outside the full moon party scene it is a lovely laid-back island. It is quite flat, spread-out and roads are in fairly good condition so excellent to discover by motorbike. The beaches are nice, although not as beautiful as in Koh Tao. On Saturday night there is a small walking street market near the pier, with a lovely local atmosphere. In the (small) town centre there is a food market, which is well worth stopping by for your lunch and/or dinner. We loved our three days here.

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Koh Samui
And then there was Koh Samui, a whole different kettle of fish. Again, we stayed at the main beach, Chaweng beach. Having come from two lovely little islands with independent shops, cafes and restaurants, this was a bit of an eyeopener. Chaweng has a major tourist strip with most of the big chains represented. Starbucks, KFC, Maccy D’s and the like are all here. We hired some motorbikes but the islands is too big to easily travel around. Unless you want to spend the whole on the bike, it is not easy to do in a day. We did spend a couple of afternoons at a beach bar watching the world go by. There is lots to do on the beach and Chaweng beach itself is quite pretty. What Koh Samui did have though, is an indoor play centre (Fairways) where you can drop your children off for the day, which we did. It had been a while since we had a whole day without children so that was lovely.

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So which one gets our vote? It has to be Koh Tao, beautiful sunsets, safe shallow waters, shady trees and enough facilities for it to be easy and enjoyable.

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Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi

We had heard many good things about Hoi An (it is a highlight in the Lonely Planet) and were not disappointed. The small city looks like a fairy tale at night with lights and lanterns everywhere. The centre of the city is closed down for traffic (except at rush hour) and it makes for a very relaxed way to discover the city. Not having to watch the children on the road is bliss. No beeping mopeds, just cyclists and pedestrians.

We spent a few relaxing days here, wondering around and having some dresses tailor made for the girls. And one for me too. 20140331-165443.jpg

In the old town there are several historic buildings and museums to visit. You pay an entry ticket which has five stubs on it and you can choose which museums or buildings you wish to visit, each costing one stub. We didn’t end up using them all but visited an old merchant house, the main museum and the Japanese bridge. We also had the obligatory cyclo ride and a leisurely boat ride on the river. 20140331-165627.jpg

Reluctantly we moved on after spending five days in Hoi An. We transferred to Danang, spent one night there and then took the train to Hue. The train ride was amazing with absolutely wonderful scenery. 20140331-165757.jpg

Arriving in Hue though, we almost wish we hadn’t left Hanoi as all of a sudden the weather was much colder. We did a city tour and visited the Forbidden City, a craft village, several tombs and came back on a dragon boat.

20140331-165908.jpg All quite interesting but Hue left us, well, a bit cold. Maybe anything after Hoi An was going to be a bit of a disappointment.

Next stop was Hanoi. We didn’t expect it but it was very cold. And wet. It felt like home. Hanoi is a very buzzing city though with great old town buzzing with street life, a fancy French Quarter and a lake in between the two. We enjoyed just strolling around and watching life happen.

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We managed to squeeze in a trip to Halong Bay, a beautiful area of the country and a UNESCO heritage site. The bay is made up out of thousands of limestone islands. It is a stunning site, even though it was misty and we didn’t see it in the best light.

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Da Lat – fabulously kitsch & Nha Trang – beach capital of Vietnam

The bus journey was incredibly bumpy as the road from Mui Ne to Da Lat isn’t exactly smooth. We actually had a few cuts and bruises from being thrown around in the bus and I managed the get a bruise on my arse. Luckily Da Lat did prove to be worth it through as it was a lovely town. It is a tourist hot spot, mainly for the Vietnamese wanting a romantic getaway. It is known for its kitsch and several parks are decorated with incredibly stuff that certainly deserves the accolade! The lake in the town has little paddle boats in the shapes of swans. We quite took to it, it is also a very friendly place.

We did a tour around the town and visited several temples, a waterfall, parks and strawberry farm. But mainly we enjoyed wandering the streets and on Saturday and Sunday night they close the town centre for traffic from 7pm until 10pm. Wonderful! When we had a half day spare before leaving we visited the ‘Crazy House’, wonderfully wacky house that is particularly interesting for kids. It got mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, but for kids it is a must!

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Nha Trang is the beach capital of Vietnam, it is (again) full of Russians as they can book package holidays directly to here. It does give it a bit of a Costa del Sol feel. However, there is lots to do, beach is big and clean and the food is great. With children, this is a pretty easy destination.

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In front of the beach there is a little island with Vinpearl land on it, a fun park with all sorts of rides, a water park, restaurants, shops, an oceanarium and a beach. It isn’t cheap, for our family it cost $90, which includes the longest cable card ride of water to get there. You are not allowed to take food on the island, so you are forced to buy it there but it is reasonably priced. All the rides were free and the girls in particular loved the wave pool. The waves go on every hour for half an hour and we had to drag them out of there at the end of the day as they couldn’t get enough of it. So although costly, it was money well spent.

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Ho Chi Minh City (great) and Mui Ne (not so much)

The border crossing into Vietnam was a bit laborious but we got in without any problems. After Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Min City seems a different world. Where Phnom Penh had rickshaws and not much modern development, Ho Chi Minh is a world city with everything that comes with it (good and bad).

On recommendation of the hotel we took a walking tour around town, spread over a few days. The heart of the city is beautiful with a mixture of modern buildings and old-fashioned French architecture. In parts it has wide streets with many upmarket shops. Not quite what I was expecting! The street food in Ho Chi Minh is plentiful and amazing and we had many tasters which were all excellent.20140305-164849.jpg

We visited the War Museum. It is gruesome, depressing and totally not suitable for children. Luckily there is an actual playroom on site where the kids could entertain themselves whilst John and I took turns to have a wonder through history. The many photos are graphic and sometimes sickening. The suffering for the people is not over yet as the Vietnamese still live with the after effects of Agent Orange (the nasty chemicals used by the Americans) that have caused cancer and all sort of disabilities in the population living through the war. Unfortunately it is also causing birth defects in the generations after and it is still a problem now. 20140305-164708.jpg

Also along our walking tour was the Skytower, a newly built skyscraper with a viewing platform. Nice as it was, it was pricey and not all that exciting. Lift up to the 47th floor in 30 seconds was pretty neat though.

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The Central Park had a nice play park for the children, whilst the park itself is nice to walk through with no traffic. The Vietnamese like to exercise in the evenings and you see people have aerobics lessons and play badminton.

John had a look at the Reunification Palace whilst I waited in the shade with a sleeping Nesta on my lap. It is huge and built in the 60s so quite interesting architecture and furnishings. The central market at the end of the park was worth a visit although the Vietnamese can be quite assertive salesmen so don’t think you can have a nice browse without being hassled.

After a couple of days we moved swiftly on to Mui Ne. A seaside town recommended as a highlight in the Lonely Planet. Normally you can’t go wrong with recommendations in the Lonely Planet but this time we were very disappointed. Really don’t get the attraction here. Yes I am sure the surfing is good because of the strong winds but the beach is small and mainly covered in high concrete walls from the hotels and restaurants. And mostly you cannot even reach the beach as there is hardly any paths to it so you have to walk through the hotels and restaurants, which they don’t like you doing. Mui Ne itself is a very, very long stretch of road. And I mean really long, it goes on for miles. So no nice area to walk around in and no nice beach, so what is the appeal? Unfortunately I do not have an answer!

Saying that, John took the children on a half day trip whilst I did some work. They had a nice time sliding off sand dunes and visiting the Fairy stream. But Mui Ne itself? Unless you are really into kite surfing, I would give it amiss.

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Phnom Penh: eating, drinking, culture and roller skating

We ended up spending nearly a week in Phnom Penh, mainly because we splashed out and stayed in a very nice hotel with swimming pool. We slipped into a very comfortable pattern of sightseeing in the mornings, chilling at the pool in the afternoon and going out for dinner/drinks in the evening.

The riverfront is definitely worth a look and walk along the promenade. There are many bars and restaurants to choose from for a rest if the sun gets too much. There is even a Costa Coffee here (near the Royal Palace). We visited the Royal Palace, with its many different buildings and beautiful gardens (including a monkey) and the National Museum (not that special to be honest).
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Of course there is also a very gruesome history in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge and it is from here you can visit the Tuol Sleng Museum (former prison S21) where they tortured people to get a ‘confession’ before shipping them off to one of the Killing Fields. Both very interesting, but very, very depressing. It is amazing how this country has recovered from this disastrous period in which about 2 million people were killed. This is a quarter of the population and was mainly the educated that were targeted. Imagine a whole generation of academics, teachers, musicians, artists etc. vanished. It has hard to imagine what that does to the psyche and the population make-up of a country. Despite this, the Cambodian people are some of the nicest and friendliest people we have met on this trip.

On a brighter note, around the corner from our hotel we discovered a rolling skating park. The girls had great fun skating around with other children and teens although be it to very inappropriate music. Luckily the girls aren’t streetwise enough to know what it means when someone is harping on about a teeny, weeny dick man… Can only think that the English of the Cambodians isn’t good enough to know what it meant!

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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

The night bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap was interesting. They call it the hotel bus, we had two double beds on the bottom (they are bunk double beds) and you can almost stretch out completely on a – very – thin double bed. The window is from the bottom of your mattress to the top of the bed above you. You can’t really sit up so are forced to lie down, where you can watch out of the window. It was a pretty cool experience and, of course, the kids absolutely loved it. It was a bit rickety as the roads in Cambodia are not always in great shape so quite bumpy. However, we all slept most of the way on the 13-hour trip.

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We lucked out with the hotel we booked, it was clean, spacious and most importantly it had a swimming pool. It is getting hotter now and it is great for the children to have a nice cool swim at the hottest of the day.

Of course, Siem Reap is where Angkor Wat is and this was the main purpose of our stay. The town of Siem Reap is surprisingly nice, lots of French architectural influence although a bit of a party town as well. They even have a street called pub street and you guessed it is full of pubs.

We spread our Angkor Wat visit over three days, there are so many associated temples and buildings to see that you really can’t do it all in one day. More importantly, after about 4 or 5 hours of walking around in the heat looking at temples, the children get understandably tetchy. A one day pass costs $20, whilst a three day pass cost $40 and you can use the three days within a week (so you can take a break as well).20140212-164145.jpg

On day one we saw some of the bigger temples and The Royal Palace. On day two we saw some smaller temples and Ta Prohm (the overgrown Tomb Raider temple), we were meant to see Angkor Wat too but decided to keep that for the morning of day three when we were all fresh. It was all mesmerising and so interesting. There are many stories behind these temples (Hinduism, Buddhism, Kings, Khmer Rouge, The French etc. etc.) It was pretty challenging to get our head around it all!

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Sihanoukville, Cambodia

One more beach resort on the other side of the border: Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We are not quite sure what to expect. We spoken to a Russian family on Koh Chang and they didn’t really paint a good picture. The beach is dirty and it is partying central. We thought we give it a go anyway and if isn’t great, we’ll move on to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) a bit sooner than we had planned. Since we were going to arrive on a Saturday night on one of the busiest weekends of the year (Chinese New Year) we booked and paid our accommodation ahead. We had great problems finding something as everything seemed fully booked. So unfortunately, we had to pay a steep price (highest on the whole trip so far) for our room but at least we wouldn’t be sleeping on the beach like some people had to! We stayed at Otres beach, which is a quiet beach quite far from the main strip and it was actually really nice. We did decide to move to the main beach as John managed to get a beach hut overlooking the sea. We are a bit high up so we see the palm trees and the sea. It is one of the most lovely places we have stayed so far. The main strip is VERY loud at night but we are just far enough away that it is just background noise.

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At Otres beach we bumped into an Australian family who live in Taiwan with two children of similar ages as ours and they played together very well. We hung out with them for a while, just sitting at the beach, chatting and watching the children play. It was very tranquil for all of us. It is great when the children make some friends as this happens few and far between.

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Altogether we ended up spending 5 nights here and did…. not much. We sat on the beach mainly. And that’s it. We are usually not very good at just chilling out so it was actually bloody fantastic. We have now booked our night bus to Siem Reap. They call it the ‘hotel bus’ and it actually has double beds in it! Not quite sure whether we’ll sleep well in it but it sounds intriguing.

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Koh Chang: Elephant Island

From Koh Samed we took the minibus to Koh Chang, another Thai Island but closer to the Cambodian border. Another stop before we cross, we are dreading the border crossing a bit as we have read so many horror stories of being ripped off. We were told we would arrive around noon but this turned to be around 4pm. We are learning quickly to add a few hours to whatever travel time we are told. First we had to take a taxi to the boat, then on the boat to the mainland where we waited for our bus. This turned out to be an open tuk-tuk-like van. After about 30 mins into the journey, just as we wondered whether the whole 4-hour trip was going to be in this rickety thing, we were transferred to a huge bus on the side of the road somewhere. It all seems somewhat chaotic but somehow we always seem to arrive where we were supposed to.

We hadn’t arranged any accommodation but went to the busiest beach, White Sand Beach (sounds good hey?) and the first place we walked into luckily had a good room available. Only about 100 metres from the beach – we haven’t been able to afford to stay on the beach yet. It’s high season at the moment so everything is much more expensive than we had anticipated, maybe further into our trip we’ll manage it.

Koh Chang is surprisingly beautiful, bigger than we though and a nice place to hang out for a while. Obviously many different beaches to explore but also other things to do. There are several waterfalls inland and Elephant Island (Chang = Elephant) is also the place to ride on one of the big beasts. Which we did. Very interesting experience and of course, the kids absolutely loved it. They got the opportunity to feed them some bananas and sit on their necks. I was also happy to see that the elephants looked healthy and well looked after.

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On another day, we hired a car and had a look around the rest of the Island. We visited a few remote beaches, saw a few collapsed roads and visited a temple. The day was slightly spoiled by me getting the runs and Amy throwing up. Perhaps a warning we need to watch a bit more carefully what we are eating!

All in all, Koh Chang was a very relaxing few days for us and can recommend it for a beach holiday.

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