The answer, of course, is that you can’t. We’ve spent half our lives in Asia. We met each other here. Our four boys were born here. Over two decades we’ve made friends, built careers, learned languages and explored this huge, diverse, amazing continent from Uzbekistan to Sri Lanka, Sumatra to Kyushu and Harbin to Kathmandu.
Our last few months in Bangkok had been intense. I resigned and started informing clients, some of whom I’ve known almost 20 years. Nori sold our beloved “Black Bull” van, most of our furniture and a good share of our books, toys and art. We moved out of “Baan Brixen”, our Gatsby-esque triplex apartment in the sky. We cancelled our broadband service and extended our international driver’s licenses. There were leaving drinks and leaving dinners, occasionally with the same people multiple times. By the end, the organizing, pre-packing, packing, unpacking and repacking had drained us completely.
Our family of six was sitting on flimsy plastic stools and eating ba mee moo daeng (egg noodles with barbecued pork) from a Chai See cart parked in front of a 7-11 located beside a large wet market. We were somewhere in rural Buriram Province – all flat fields and big skies. Apart from us, the scene was pure, provincial Thailand. It put a smile on my face. Bangkok is amazing, but I love the “upcountry” – and we were going to be seeing a lot of it.
There are over 100,000 photos tagged #jamesbondisland on Instagram. Guys with six-pack abs, women testing the limits of their bikinis, Muslim ladies in swimming hijabs, kids doing the ‘happy beach leap’ – all posing in the same spot with that famous limestone spike behind them. They look happy. It’s all good fun.
Nori still hasn’t caught on to one of my greatest deceptions: I find places and activities that I really want to experience and then I pitch them as ‘something the kids will really enjoy’. Of course, it helps that my kids are all boys and that I have childlike desires. What Scott likes, the boys will like, she thinks – and in general, that’s accurate. Still, I was surprised that she wasn’t more heavily revising my plans to visit a half-dozen wadis during our Oman/UAE trip.
We never expected to return to the Maldives. Not that we didn’t want to. It’s just one of those unique places – like Bhutan, the Galápagos or Antarctica – that you dream of visiting once in your lifetime. Beautiful, remote, romantic and take-your-breath-away expensive, the Maldives is for honeymoon splurges, silver anniversaries or “closing the deal” on that special relationship. It’s not a repeat destination, and it’s not appropriate or affordable for families like ours.
My confidence was beginning to slip. After a one-hour flight to Surat Thani, a one-hour drive and a one-hour wait we were motoring away from the deeply unimpressive Ratchabhrapha “Light of the Kingdom” dam across an underwhelming lake. Logan had fallen asleep on the bow, at least until it started drizzling. The other boys had ‘are we there yet?’ on repeat. Nori was giving me that ‘what have I let you get me into again?’ look.
Travelling in coastal Thailand during the rainy season is risky: it might bucket down for days, cities can flood, many businesses close shop, and if the sea whips up boat journeys can be dangerous. During the drier months (typically November-April) the Anantara Si Kao offers day trips to its private Beach Club on beautiful Koh Kradan. It rained every day we were at the Anantara, but it didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the hotel and its stunning location. Between the Kids’ Club and hotel-based activities like fish-feeding, our boys kept busy. And whenever the sun showed its face, we all rushed to the pool.
With all this talk about ASEAN integration and the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), you’d think that driving a Thai vehicle into Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar or Malaysia would be easy – but it isn’t. As we approached the Cambodia border down a narrow finger of Thai territory, we still weren’t sure if we had all the necessary documents. Google didn’t know. Lonely Planet’s “Thorn Tree” had more questions than answers. And even if we DID have everything, there was still no guarantee that Cambodian Customs & Immigration officials would let us drive our right hand-drive vehicle all the way to Sihanoukville without greasing a few palms.
If hundreds of people wearing lurid, ghoulish masks with schlongish noses and shaking giant wooden penises doesn’t sound like a family-friendly event to you, then you’re clearly not from my family AND you’re not getting an invite to my next party.
I’d been desperate to see the Phi Tha Kon (ผีตาโขน) “Ghost Mask” festival in the northern province of Loei since I arrived in Thailand. It’s not that difficult to get to: a 1-hr flight to Loei followed by 1.5-hr drive to Dan Sai Village. But work kept getting in the way of my vacation (something I plan to address). And it doesn’t help that the date for the festival is divined each year (sometime between March and July) by local mystics. This year, however, the penises were aligned and the festival weekend was wedged between business trips to England and Singapore.