As we lead up to our trip to Eastern Europe in February I thought I’d re-visit our first trip with our first child. Backpacking with children is a great experience no matter where or for how long. You learn alot about your child, yourself and the world. This is part two of of my entries on that topic. Enjoy.
If you like this older post you may wan to read when we Backpacked in Bosnia and Eastern Europe with our two children here: Backpacking in Bosnia with children
Backpacking with children- A backpack full of diapers
My daughter Wynter was born five and a half weeks early and under very fragile conditions. No stranger to risky situations, she was born street smart and a survivor… she also loves warm places and makes a runny nose look cute (unlike that runny nose kid on everyone’s street). It’s only now two and a half years later that we can start to realize how fortunate we are to have a healthy little spitfire who so far makes such a great traveler.
I remember a very long train trip through China years ago when my good friend Jackie and I were traveling and we met an older couple, well they were old to us at the time, you know around their mid-thirties…ancient. Jackie and I were on this dirty old train in northwest China and we thought we were pretty adventurous but this couple was doing the same trip with a two and a four year old. They had left most of their old life behind and had traveled for well over a year when we met them. I vividly remember thinking two things, firstly that their oldest kid was a bit weird, but more importantly that you never have to stop following your dreams when the kids arrive.
When my wife and I were traveling before we had kids and we knew that we wanted to be together forever, we often talked about continuing our trips and world adventures when our kids arrived. What may be strange to most others was when Colleen was pregnant with Wynter we often talked about where we’d go when the baby was big and strong enough to travel. Most people talk about the colour of the babies’ room, but not us, we talked about which country would be the first we’d take our baby to. Don’t forget to check out some of the best travel gear here, to help you and your kids be more comfortable during your travels.
Deciding on a Destination
There were multiple things to consider … we started with a short list of places that were on our “Bucket List” and then considered the time of year that we were traveling and what we thought would be safe enough to take a baby to that could take no medications and get no travel vaccinations. Wynter was born in late May and we planned on taking the trip during Colleen’s maternity leave and go for roughly 7 weeks. We ultimately decided on South East Asia-Cambodia and Thailand to be exact. After a few trips to Asia in my past I always lamented about not seeing Angkor Wat so it a major reason for our going back to Asia. Colleen had also spent time in Asia (although separately from me) and we both agreed that it may very well be the safest place we’ve ever been, and we were both familiar with it. In fact I can say without hesitation that I’ve never seen a continent that I felt as safe, at any time of day, from as far east as Beijing to as far west as Western India in my travels around the world.
There is something about my wife (and probably your wife too) that I failed to mention in the last post… my wife hates the cold. I know, we choose to live in Alberta and she hates the cold. We could have stayed in a number of warm countries, but we opted to live and work in a city that is frozen over for nearly 7 months a year. I mention this because not only for the sake of our little girl but also for the older girl, we decided upon a warm destination for the trip.
Another thing to consider was how old is old enough to travel with an infant. I think 30 was perfect but I also wanted Wynter to be old enough too. Although Wynter has really never showed any signs of being anything but a strong and healthy little baby we decided to wait until she was about 5 months old before we left. For us, that was a long wait, but for family and friends that seemed pretty daring. I later found out that even neighbors we hadn’t even met were talking about us. “Those Nashes take babies to Asia”. Like the Bette Midler themed boutique hotel (CC Bloom’s) we stayed in Phuket the one time was dangerous! Ha ha… it was nicer than our own home.
We figured at five months old she would be small enough to carry in the Snugli (my wife actually prefers the Snugli to the Baby Bjorn) only eats breast milk, sleeps a lot, won’t require us chasing her or toting favorite toys and blankets, and doesn’t crawl around eating shoes or rocks. Seriously what’s with kids putting everything in their mouth? Wynter nearly speaks in full sentences yet on occasion I’ll catch her carrying a ball or something around in her mouth.
So we knew that our small, easy to carry, breast feeding baby who slept a lot would not have to worry about getting sick from the food, would be safe and wouldn’t freeze her little butt off.
What to Pack
This is where it got interesting. Like I mentioned before, I hate packing heavy. I like being able to carry everything in one bag, and a small daypack on my front (but only if I have to). My wife’s new daypack had two legs, two arms and poooped a lot. Anyone that has traveled nearly anywhere will tell you his or her bathroom (hopefully a bathroom) tales. (Jackie, remember that bathroom in Lijang?) Let’s just say there was an instance on our trip where not just Wynter had diarrhea, but I also was battling “things”. Ask the fine people that work at the Melaka bus station about “the incident”. I’ll be brief but I was busy clinching my cheeks waiting for a bus to Singapore when Wynter exploded in the Snugli on Colleen and gave everyone one around us a reason to make space. Ha ha. There’s nothing that screams “tourist” more than two people cleaning a baby and a poopy snugli with wet wipes, and then sitting with a naked baby under their shirt for warmth on their laps for a few hours. We don’t always blend in.
Wet wipes, bring wet wipes. We brought 3 of the packs from Costco and they lasted the whole trip. Of course, if you are going somewhere you are certain to get them for a reasonable price, then you don’t have to set aside space in your pack.
Anti-diarrhea Medicine. I typically have an iron gut, but the kettle boiled over on this trip.
Diapers. We are advocates and users of Bum Genius cloth diapers here in Canada but we decided that there was no way we were going to spend any part of the trip cleaning diapers in a hostel or hotel. I naively tried to convince my wife to do it, but she instantly said that would be my job (among other nice words) and so instead we went with disposables. Here’s an important note: Our research warned us that we might have a hard time finding them all the time. Sure the main cites like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Phuket would be easy but the little towns and remote areas would cause us problems. So, of our two main backpacks, one was nearly filled to the top with diapers. I complained a lot about carrying a whole bag of diapers, at least my bag got smaller over time, and they actually lasted us the full 7 weeks.
Hand sanitizer and a few plastic bags—you never know when you will be changing a diaper on your lap on a plane (true story!). It’s always nice to follow that with a warm bowl of noodle soup ( I still have a hard time when I see noodle soup).
A first aid kit which now includes baby items like orajel and a soother (we bought one that clicked shut if it fell keeping the soother clean- Raz Baby Keep-It-Clean pacifier). We also brought mosquito repellant bracelets (since we couldn’t douse our baby in repellant), and an umbrella to keep the baby out of the sun on the beach (since we couldn’t douse our baby in sunscreen).
Guidebooks – hmmm…I have issues with guidebooks, but they’re still so great. What I learned years and years ago is that they are only a guide. They are not the only source of good information but like their title they are a guide. Read them with a grain of salt and don’t believe that everything they say will happen to you. I have tried a few different ones and Lonely Planet is the best in my experience, however I seldom stay at the rooms they suggest as I just go to the neighbourhood that has rooms and see for yourself. If you are hosteling, I think they’re a great reference because nearly everyone who has “the book” follows the same path, same restaurants, same hostels etc. So it’s fun to cross paths with the same people and meet others. I’m not endorsing that concept but that was a fun perk in my mind, at least when I was a solo traveler.
I don’t like Let’s Go as it’s content seems all over the place and is so hard to locate references and the maps are brutal , Let’s Go drops the ball on maps, Frommers is for old people who golf a lot and like steak and wine in every country, and Conde’ Nast is for when you own a yacht and need aprivate island to park it. One day I’ll buy into Conde Nast.
Swaddle – This was magic for Wynter and now for Keir. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s like a straight jacket for kids to help them get to sleep. I call it the Taco Burrito.
Breast Pads – Not for me. haha They’re like little frisbees.
Frisbee – This was for me. It’s like a really large breast pad.
Contact solution – just easier than looking for it. According to Colleen that is. I actually have 20/15 vision, no big deal, I’m just saying is all.
Bug Spray – I still have some good old fashioned Deep Woods Oil. Nearly all deet, yea the good stuff you buy from guys out of the trunk of their car.
Headlamp – one for each of us. Way better than a flashlight IMO.
Wash stuff- sink stopper, soap, clothesline, hangers. It all fits in one little bag and you need it more than you think you will.
Swiss Army Knife
Vaccinations card, malaria meds (again this is up to you) and other prescribed drugs and advil. In my experience every place that has malaria has medication for it readily available over the counter and cheap.
Clothes. Pack light— everything can be bought there, everything. We brought a few shirts, running shoes, sandals, one pair of pants, a couple shorts, one lightweight MEC zip up sweater, a raincoat, a few pairs of socks and the ginch we needed. It’s easier to buy stuff sometimes then over packing then hating yourself for bringing it. Plus Asia is a really fun place to shop for clothes.
Mesh bags – Colleen made us a bunch of these from mesh fabric for Africa. They allow things like soaps and shampoos (we bring kids 2 in 1 for the whole family), sandals etc to air out and you can see them through the bag.
Travel Docs: Passport, US Cash, travellers cheques (useless most of the time), Visa and MC, flight tickets, travellers health insurance info. Above all make a list of these items online and make it easy to locate for either you or family if you need it. Also leave a photocopy of all documents with a responsible person at home.
Of course there was a few other things, but this is the important stuff I can think of.
How things are different
I can’t think of any trip that I didn’t bring back something good from. What we wanted most on this trip was this: Just to do it! It’s one thing to say we were going to travel when we had kids but it was important to actually follow through with it. We knew that if we could do it with our first-born at a young age we’d learn from our experience and have confidence that it can be done and do it again. It was nothing like I thought it would be. Nothing ever is though is it? We always imagine something slightly or drastically different than we actually experience it.
Before we left we knew we would have to make changes to our travel style. We did our very best to avoid areas with malaria of course, but when we were in them, we had to devise a way to totally mosquito proof Wynter’s bedding, which took some creativity, and an awful lot of duct tape. While in Cambodia we had a room where I duct taped all cracks in windows and door that I could find, it was like I lost my mind that night but Fred Green would have been proud. Ha ha. Or maybe I had Malaria, hmmm?
Health – I can say now because my little girl is two years old that newborns are much easier. What made traveling easy was the ease of carrying her and that she was pre-crawl. The hard part was that we had to make sure that we had a cool place for her, shaded or otherwise just a place to keep the beating sun off of her most of the day. So we couldn’t just take off on a three-day hike or sit in the sun all day, it just wouldn’t have been fair to my little one. In fact everyday we truly had to consider how long we’d be out and bring plenty of water to pour on Wynter’s head to cool her off or drink ourselves and just take plenty of breaks into air conditioning for her. Colleen was feeding her so that wasn’t too bad (for me) but we also had to make sure that Colleen had plenty of energy, we found cookies and potato chips provide lots of energy. Ha ha (I’m a dead man).
Well we just didn’t do it like we used to (i.e. There were no “Mekhong whiskey buckets”). We actually had my Aunt and Uncle (the one who met us in Africa) and cousins meet us in Thailand. It was fun to catch up and have some party time, but above all Colleen and I could only go together if it wasn’t late, and certainly couldn’t get crazy, no stumbling home in the dark! It’s not to say we didn’t have fun, we just brought the bundle on one of our chests and enjoyed the warm nights out. Many of the places we stayed at had the ocean or a above ground pool nearby so at night we’d stay close, have a beer and just chill or read. Really what more could I ask for?
We did sneak out one night for some Thai Fighting..always cool. And I won’t lie…I had a few nights out when Colleen would hit the sack early with Wynter.
Where to stay?
I have only really stayed in hotels in the past 5 years. I had almost stayed in hostels before because they were cheap and had lots of people hanging out. They are a great place to meet others and see where they came from, are heading and ask advice. Since the advent of great websites like Priceline, Trip Advisor and Expedia to name a few, you really can stay at a nice hotel for the same price as a hostel. And when you want that added safety or privacy it’s hard to pass up a $30-$50 hotel room over a hostel where the staff sleeps in your bed during the day. Yea, I’ve seen a lot in hostels, a lot. And most of the bizarre stuff didn’t piss me off more than coming back to the hostel after a full day’s hike and seeing a guy that works there sleeping in my wife’s bed, with his face drooling on the pillow. I guess if I had worked harder and saved more money I could have found a better hostel!
So when we had the foresight to know our next stop we used one of those sites. That only works when you head to a spot that has hotels listed. On the islands of Koh Samet (which really took a turn for the worse if you ask me), Phuket, Krabi, Siem Reap and a few other spots, we just had to hop in the back of a truck, or hoof it and find a place to crash. It wasn’t always fun (but still is exciting), at least it was a challenge when you are kid-less, but with the munchkin you kind of want to get settled immediately, and walking around for hours searching can get pretty exhausting and if you have a crying baby when you eventually get somewhere, they sure aren’t going to rent you a room!
Note about booking through websites
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that booking a four star or higher hotel from a discount website can be exciting for the price but consider expenses on top of your stay. For instance, we booked the Crowne Plaza in Kuala Lumpur (through the bidding function on Priceline) for a few nights for something like $45 a night. We thought, “Wow, this luxurious hotel, a huge pool, near the Pretonas Towers and train, what could be better?” Well the problem with staying at these great hotels is that it’s hard to find anything cheap when you’re there. The food at the restaurants is usually expensive, if they have internet or a business area where you can use e-mail; it costs money and so on. So the comfort of the room is all we tend to take advantage of on a long trip, but on a short trip, why not treat yourself? However when you want to make your trip last you can’t spend too much money on things that you know are 1000% cheaper outside the building. So with a little research and asking the staff (who also don’t eat at these hotels, ha ha) we were able to find nearby stalls where the locals eat. In KL, a block from the hotel, in a long alley behind another fancy shmancy hotel we found the most amazing breakfast stalls, chapattis and curries, and fresh fruit, for about a buck a plate.
Asia in general has so many ways to travel, most of which are really inexpensive by north american standards. We took a rented driver, a few short flights, a few boats, local buses, taxis, Tuk Tuk’s but no train this time. Flying in Asia is so so cheap. We took Asia Air from BKK to Phuket and it cost us something like $79 each, kids under 2 everywhere are free or 20% of a regular fair. As for Tuk Tuks, usually I’m a big fan, and it the outskirts of a major city do it. However we got stuck in bangkok high traffic for about two hours and I never felt worse about my parenting than I did that day. There was so much smog and it was hard enough for us to breath but we did everything we possibly could to filter the smog from Wynter, it was terrible. They also can be very dangerous.
The buses are so fun, so fun. Brightly coloured, sometimes like a disco on wheels, and sometimes just full to the rafters with people and so much local life. I love it, and I loved the people who would sit with us in Malaysia and just look and smile.
And the boats, you can’t get to the islands (aside from flying) without them and I just love the feel of the fresh air and spraying water hitting you in the face.
Bottom line, it’s easy to get around and all you have to do is ask people when in doubt. The people are friendly and there is always someone or some thing heading in that direction.
I love street food. I’ve been very lucky in my life, considering what I’ve put in my body, to not get more ill, more often. Colleen certainly was more cautious than I was, but not by much. And she went sick free where I got something for a few days, a few days where the toilet and I cried together. So we often eat fruit like crazy, and less meat than usual. I eat what ever looks good normally so I really didn’t attempt to eat anything in particular but finding Colleen food was the challenge, she can be picky!
If you are going to Asia, eat the food! Do you know who makes the best Thai food? Thai’s! Seriously, there is nothing better than eating green curry every day and watching pants get tighter. The food is one of the main reasons to travel. It’s enlightens you to the people, how they prepare food, experience meals, what they eat and what they grow. It’s really an important part of traveling. You don’t fly to India to hit up the McDonald’s and learn that they sell only chicken dishes, you go for the best indian food on the planet. But,it’s nice to have a familiar meal every once in a while.
Bottom line, Asia is far more westernized than people who haven’t been there would believe and in my experience, in the past ten years and the trips I’ve been there it just continues to get more chain restaurants and the selection of western comforts foods is more available. If that’s what you are looking for of course.
And in Thailand you can’t go 2 blocks without seeing a 7/11. So you can always get those energy rich foods you desire…at 3am.lol
So here’s the thing. I packed one camera and one lens for the SE Asia trip, a D300 and the 17-55 2.8dx. It just wasn’t number one on my list to shoot, as I wanted to have a family trip. And it’s a good thing it wasn’t and I’ll explain. When I returned home I transferred all my images onto my home computer and then formatted all the cards and life went on. Of course I was too busy to make back-ups when I should have and during some sleep deprived day I completely erased and did something stupid in disk utility (don’t ask) and as a result all my photos from Asia were lost…every picture I took off my SLR, aside from 11 that I found on my laptop Lightroom were all gone. I was so upset, so upset I couldn’t be talked to for a whole day. I learned a valuable lesson, not only for travel and personal photos, but also for my business… I can’t afford something like to happen again. Since then I have been a huge advocate of backing up numerous times and places.
The pictures you see here are from my cousin, aunt and uncle, Colleen’s camera and the 11 I took. I’m a big contributor, eh?
So I plan to make some serious changes and decisions for this next trip in order to prevent that.
What we learned
What I really learned though and this goes far deeper than traveling with children but more about adjusting to life with children… For those of you who have children remember (or try to remember) what it was like before you had your first. When you wanted to do something, you just did it. When you wanted to sleep longer, you actually could. When you went on a trip you could do whatever you want. You could put your money towards whatever you liked. Prior to the birth of Wynter people would tell us you don’t get much sleep. We sort of brushed it off and would say, “I’ve been without sleep before”. NAH! I didn’t get it. When you don’t sleep and it’s not on your terms, it’s very different! So not only did we expect life to be the same after she was born we somehow figured the trip wouldn’t be that much different either. Way off! Everything changes when you have a child; you are responsible day and night for that child. It’s a great experience and huge responsibility. Basically our job is to keep them alive and happy. So this trip had more walls than usual but it was an experience that as we bring up our new little man and head to Eastern Europe for 7 weeks we have an understanding of what to expect, at least with the infant. I’ve never traveled with a 2 year old before though, and so I’m sure this time we will be lugging a favorite toy or two, rocks and other “treasures” that she finds, and more snacks. So far it’s easy for me to say that an infant is much easier to locate most of the time, less picky about food, not as cranky and generally smaller and so the trip with a 2 year old will be exciting!
So I guess as we lead up to the next trip we are feeling more confident about doing it and actually maybe even more excited this time. We know our limitations and have a small idea of what to expect. Of course there will be good days and bad days but traveling without children you still have those. Some of the greatest stories from my life are about the shitty days. Like the night I slept under a bridge in England (I met a few unsavory people), the day Wynter exploded on us in the train station, the ferry to Morocco, the ferry to Jordan, the poverty worldwide, bus rides in Kenya and Bolivia, the dark walk down the alleys in Rwanda (Colleen didn’t enjoy that night), the days spent with food poisoning etc. And then the amazing days like seeing the Taj Mahal, Pyramids, African jungle, deserts, Angkor Wat, Pompeii, Lallibela, amazing secluded beaches all over the world, getting married in Costa Rica, Macchu Pichu, Heineken Brewery, and hiking in South America. This time though, we want our kids to see the world and we want to share those incredible days with them, and have them realize how big and incredible the world is.
One really important thing we learned is that people really help out when you have a little one. People held doors for us, gave up seats for Colleen and helped us at dinner. I can’t count how many dinners we had at small tea huts where the staff would come along and hold Wynter for ten plus minutes while we ate. A little white haired blue-eyed kid will get you places!haha
Oh, and an old rule of thumb: If a tall beautiful thai girl has an adam’s apple…just keep walking.haha