In 2014 we set off on a Year of Nomadic Family Travel and it has been one of the best experiences in our lives. It was all about change, risk, adventure, and discovery. We took, what some would consider, a crazy leap of faith, and although we can’t say what the future holds, we wouldn’t change a thing. The experiences that we’ve had in the last year are more than most could hope for in a lifetime. We are amazed and so grateful when we look back on it all.
January – Life as Usual
When the year began, we were living in Portland, Oregon. We’d called that wonderful city home for more than 20 years. We were surrounded by friends and family, we had great jobs, and our son attended a fantastic private school located just a 2 minute walk from our condo. We really couldn’t complain. It was a wonderful life and we were happy.
We’d spent the previous 5 years working to downsize and simplify our lives. Along the way, we confirmed our belief that bigger is not necessarily better and that possessions aren’t what bring true and lasting happiness. For us, sharing new experiences and time together are what is most fulfilling.
Our spare time was spent daydreaming about simplifying further and finding ways to travel more. We had grand visions and a long list of places that we wanted to see, but as much as we wanted to spend more time traveling, obligations (work, school, home, bills) always seemed to prevent it. We just couldn’t seem to get the travel stars to align more than once each year.
February – Big Changes
Our lives were about to change. Things started off as expected. We went to work, school, and after school activities as usual. There were chores and nightly homework.
After much hard work and dedication, our son was thrilled to earn his Yellow Belt from Portland Judo. He’d been attending classes 3 times each week and he absolutely loved it.
Then, it happened. I was working at a small privately-held software consulting company, where I was also a minor shareholder. We’d had some unexpected bumps in the road and, because of the shift in the type of business engagements that we were winning, it became clear that my position there would no longer be needed.
Now, we’d already made some big changes to our lifestyle over the past several years, and when you make a significant change in your life, it helps you to realize that change is easier than you thought it would be. The logical and safe thing to do in this situation would have been to go out and get another job, which I was confident could be done. Instead, we decided to see this as an opportunity for an even more dramatic change. This was a blessing in disguise and an unexpectedly welcome catalyst.
We decided to make those dreams of travel come true. The obligations that had been standing in our way, suddenly didn’t feel so permanent. We decided to cast them off completely. Getting rid of them would allow us to do what we’d been longing to do. Before the end of the month, we’d decided to sell our condo and most of our belongings, we committed to homeschooling our son, and decided to travel for at least a year.
March – Complete Insanity
March was insanely busy. We’d put our house on the market at the end of February, now it was time to sell it, donate or sell most of our belongings, find places to store the items that we decided to keep, pack up the condo, and move out. While that was all happening, we were also researching possible destinations, making last-minute doctor and dentist appointments, coordinating job departures, beginning homeschool, continuing with judo classes, and I started freelancing a few hours each week.
We settled on Thailand as a destination, we secured extended travel visas, chose a city, scheduled lodging, and booked 3 one-way tickets to Thailand. We stuffed 2 large backpacks and 2 smaller daypacks full of clothes, shoes, documents, and electronic devices. If it didn’t fit in one of these bags, then we’d have to leave it behind.
I’m not sure that we could have made it all happen if it were not for my having had 20 years of project management experience. Those skills were put to the test in every possible way. I’d never juggled so many different balls at once, but we were determined to make it happen.
Equally important to our success was the help and support of our friends and family. We will be forever thankful for their willingness to lend a hand and storage space, words of encouragement, offers of a place to stay upon our return, and a wonderful Bon Voyage party.
April – Welcome to Thailand
After 35 hours of travel, we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand on April 1st. We were exhausted and it took a good 2 weeks before we had fully recovered from the jet lag. The heat and humidity were intense, but we we enjoyed the sunshine. However, it wasn’t long before I bought a sun umbrella and used it regularly. We also learned to appreciate the shade and air-conditioning in a way that we never had before.
We started off renting a room at a guest house in the heart of the old city, near the Thapae Gate. From here we explored the city and searched for an apartment rental. We found an amazing condo on Sirimangklajan Soi 3. We moved into the condo earlier than expected after we discovered that our guest house had bedbugs.
The condo was large, comfortable, stylish, utilities and Wifi were included in the price, it had all of the modern conveniences (including a washer *and* a dryer), and the location was perfect. We were on a quiet side-street within a 2-minute walk from the heart of the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood and we could walk to the Tops supermarket at Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Centre just as quickly. If we were feeling ambitious, we could walk to the old town within 15-30 minutes, depending on our destination, or we could simply grab a tuk-tuk or a songthaew.
We were lucky enough to arrive in Chiang Mai just in time to take part in the famous Songkran festival. It was an incredible introduction to Thailand. What kid, or adult, can resist a 3-day water fight? Leading up to the festival we bought 3 giant water guns and protective plastic pouches for our phones. After the first day of soaking we realized that we’d need to add water buckets to our arsenal. We were doused with buckets of ice cold water frequently, so we wanted to get in on the fun. For three whole days, you could not walk anywhere in town without getting drenched, whether you wanted to participate or not. It was a blast, but by that third day, we were ready for it to come to an end.
During Songkran, and throughout our time in Thailand, our son, Ethan, was very popular with the locals in Chiang Mai. It was not uncommon for us to walk down the street and be approached by strangers that wanted to take a photo with him. People of all ages were eager to touch him, as if to confirm that he was real or that he was a good luck charm. People would unexpectedly shake his hand or touch his hair. On one occasion an older gentlemen that was walking down the street came up to Ethan and hugged him before casually continuing on his way. One Thai teenager asked if he could give Ethan a piggyback ride. It was all very sweet, but also a little overwhelming for him.
Chiang Mai province has about 300 Buddhist temples and many of the most beautiful are located in the city. We visited about 10 of them our first month. The architecture and decor are stunning and each has its own charm. Ethan, ever the observant one, watched as Buddhist’s came to pray at the temples and he was quick to correct us if we weren’t bowing or sitting correctly in front of the Buddha.
One of our friends from Portland, that was teaching English in another part of Thailand, came to visit us in Chiang Mai when he was on a school break. While he was there, we spent a day at the Baan Chang Elephant Park, where we were able to feed, bathe, and ride the elephants. It was every bit as incredible as you might imagine. A few days later, we went ziplining in the jungle, which was so much fun. Next, we went to a rock climbing gym, which was quite a workout, especially in the tropical heat as there was no air-conditioning.
That first month, we were also able to meet up with some locals that we were put in touch with before leaving Portland. We became friends and went on to share several meals during our time in Chiang Mai.
May – Things Get Exciting
By our second month in Chiang Mai, we were settled in and feeling at home. We loved taking walks in our neighborhood and continuing to explore the city and its surroundings. For science class we took field trips to the Chiang Mai zoo and aquarium as well as to the Chiang Mai Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, which is run by a world renown Entomologist who spent many years with the Smithsonian Institution.
In an effort to learn more about Thai culture, we visited the Lanna Folklife Museum, the Chiang Mai City Arts and Culture Museum, took a Thai cooking class, and continued to visit Buddhist temples throughout the city. Although, we had no problems communicating in English while in Thailand, we signed up for a month’s worth of daily Thai language lessons. It was challenging, but fun and it gave us some interesting insights into Thai culture.
It’s no secret that Thai people are very friendly and we enjoyed opportunities to meet and get to know locals. Some of our Thai friends took us to the Royal Park Rajapruek (Flora Gardens) and the very cool Khaomao-Khaofang restaurant. We had a great meal at Khun Nai Dern Sai (the boss lady wakes late) with another local couple that was introduced to us through one of Andrew’s co-workers. We really enjoyed sharing meals with locals because they always recommended new dishes that we hadn’t tried before.
One afternoon, we started feeling a bit dizzy for apparently no reason. We later learned that we’d actually experienced a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. All was well with us, but sadly the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in nearby Chiang Rai was damaged.
We thought that made for a pretty eventful month until, during our two week visit to Koh Samui, we learned that Martial Law had been declared in Thailand. Island life is pretty relaxed and remote from Bangkok politics, so we didn’t see much evidence of political upheaval where we were, but it was certainly disconcerting for us.
Speaking of Koh Samui, we loved it! We arranged to borrow one of our Chiang Mai landlord’s condos. It had a private pool and was located on the quiet side of the island, across from Bang Makham Beach. Between the island’s numerous beaches and the pool, Ethan’s swimming skills improved significantly. He went from swimming like a stone to swimming like a fish.
Koh Samui’s public transportation isn’t comprehensive or frequent, and our condo wasn’t within walking distance of Nathon town, Chaweng or Lamai, so we rented a car for the duration of our visit. This was Andrew’s first experience driving in Thailand or the left side of the road! Even with the slow pace of the island, it was still a bit stressful and unpredictable. It wasn’t unusual to see people driving on the wrong side of the street, if they only needed to go a short way or their turn was just up ahead, to have bikes going both ways on the road, have dogs running in and out of traffic, as well as pedestrians competing equally with the auto traffic. There were a few white-knuckle moments, but we are so glad that we braved it. It allowed us to explore the island pretty thoroughly during our 2 week stay.
We had the ability to drive to restaurants on any part of the island, but we found that our favorite restaurants were just up the road from our condo. The food at both Kalasea and Bang Por Seafood (Takho) were delicious and affordable. You simply can’t beat the setting of either of them.
June – Expanding the Adventure
By this time, Thailand’s Martial Law had evolved into its 19th official Military Coup. After reading about a million articles and opinion pieces, there seemed to be some underlying political issues that weren’t being discussed openly. Why? Well, it was against the law to discuss certain topics. That notion, along with the coup itself, left us feeling a little conflicted. We loved Thailand, but with a child in tow, the uncertainty of the situation presented a challenge for us. We were intending to visit Vietnam at the end of June and then return to Thailand, but instead we decided that we’d use this as a springboard to explore other parts of Southeast Asia.
Now, we set out to enjoy our last 3 weeks in Chiang Mai. We walked over to Noina Art Studio just off Moon Muang Road in hopes that the resident artist had time to give Ethan a couple of drawing lessons before we left town. We were in luck and scheduled two separate sessions. Ethan learned some new techniques and really enjoyed himself.
There were still parts of town that we hadn’t explored and top attractions that we hadn’t visited, so those topped our to-do list. First up, we spent the day wandering through Chinatown and the Warorot Day Market. When we had another friend from Portland come to visit us, we took her there as well and we also revisited some of our favorite temples, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Prah Sing. We spent a couple of days east of the Ping River, where we had some of the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai at Smer Jai Khao Soi restaurant on Charoenrat road and we explored the Wat Kate area, stopping in at the Vieng Joom On Teahouse for cold drinks. The silver district and silver temples along Wualai Road were amazing and we also enjoyed strolling through the Saturday Walking Street (market) on Wualai Road.
Almost three months into our trip, we still hadn’t visited Doi Suthep, which is one of Chiang Mai’s top sites, so one morning we woke up early and set out. The ride was long and the road was incredibly windy. It made me horribly car-sick, but when we reached the temple, it was beautiful and absolutely lived up to our expectations. Next, we had another item to check off our list. While in Thailand, we’d made an effort to try new foods, including several new fruits, but we’d not yet tried a durian. Honestly, it wasn’t really that appealing, but we felt we couldn’t leave Thailand without tasting it, so we compromised and had durian ice cream at iBerry instead. Not great, but not horrible either. We wouldn’t get it again, but we’re glad we tried it.
During our last week in Chiang Mai, while out walking, we came upon the Wat Buppharam temple and decided to enter. As we walked around, we noticed an older monk beckoning to us. We weren’t sure why he was gesturing for us to come over to him, but we went. He indicated for us to kneel before him, so we did. He indicated that we should each hold out our right arms, so we did. One at a time, he tied a piece of white string to our wrists, said a prayer, and sprinkled us with water. We weren’t sure of all that he said, it was all in Thai, but it was clear that we were receiving his blessing. It was a very special moment for us that we won’t forget.
On June 24th, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. One of my old co-workers had moved to Vietnam 10 years earlier and, since we were in Thailand and as close (geographically) as we ever expected to be, we thought it would be fun to visit. When we learned that one of Ethan’s schoolmates was planning to visit with their family that same week, it was a done deal. We loved Vietnam and wished we could have seen more of it, but we were only there for a week and we wanted to spend that time with our friends. It made our experience so much fun to explore the city with locals. We loved being taken to places that we never would have thought to go on our own. We also arranged to take a market tour and have dinner with some locals that we didn’t know, so we signed up to have a meal with Tiffany and Ahn. It was a truly fantastic experience. They were so kind and generous. They even took us out another evening for Vietnamese hotpot and karaoke.
From Vietnam, we flew to Malaysia, where we planned to spend the next 3 months… To be continued in Part 2 (July – December).