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South East Asia Summary

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009


Hours spent on long-haul trips: 212
Longest bus trip: 11 hours (with two twenty second stops and one 15 minute one)
Longest boat trip: 2 days down the Mekong
Longest train trip: 43 hours (Saigon to Hanoi)
Favourite transport: elephant
Types of transport:

  • Aeroplane x2
  • Bicycle (2 tandems, 8 solos, 3 tandems with extra seat)
  • Boats
    ~bumboat x3
    ~ferry x4
    ~glorified canoe x1
    ~hydrofoil x1
    ~junk x1
    ~paddle boat x4
    ~slow boat x3
  • Bus x26 (both local and express)
  • Cyclo (high-seated Phnom Penh variety) x4
  • Elephant x4
  • LRT x3
  • Motorbike x4
  • Private car x5
  • Taxis x24 (need three at a time in “civilised” places!), Taxivan x1, Taxitruck x3
  • Tow truck x2!!!!
  • Train: daytime x1, overnight x3, Skytrain x1, Underground train – but multiple trips x2(Singapore, Bangkok)
  • Trishaw (low-seated Penang sort) x3
  • Tuktuk x25
  • Vans x15


Number of places slept in: 31
Worst guesthouse: Phonsavanh (too many rats for us to sleep a wink)
Favourite: couchsurfing in Hanoi (thanks S&T!!!)


  • R&R: Luang Prabang
  • Jboy13 & Mboy6: Malaysia (it’s a food thing!) – oh yes, Rob too!!
  • Jgirl 14, Kboy11, Kgirl10 & Lboy8: Malaysia and Thailand for the food,
                                                       Luang Prabang for delightful character (not food!)
  • Tgirl4 & ERgirl2: whatever the last person said



  • * Mekong sludge river weed
  • * crickets (crunchy)
  • * live huhu grub (yes, singular – well done Kboy11)
  • * black chicken (sounds OK, but it’s the only thing we only took one bite of – each)
  • * buffalo stew (not that unusual, though the hairs take a bit of getting used to)
  • *  deep fried baby crabs (just like potato chips)


  • Singapore: if you stand anywhere near the curb, traffic will stop to let you cross
  • Malaysia: no-one walks anywhere – everyone drives
  • Thailand: in Bangkok it’s best to wait for a break in the traffic – they don’t stop
  • Laos: pedestrians outnumber motorists and all are polite – hardly any cars, just bikes and tuktuks
  • Cambodia: step out into the stream of traffic and it will swerve behind you – scary, but true – but look all ways as traffic goes in every direction and traffic lights amount to nothing more than pleasant suggestions
  • Vietnam: pedestrians do NOT have right of way – EVER. Not even on the footpaths. Be especially careful in Saigon; traffic anticipates lights will change and takes off even if pedestrians are crossing the road – it is unbelievable – they also regularly drive the wrong way up the road!


  • Singapore dollar
  • Malaysian ringgit
  • Thai baht
  • Lao kip
  • Cambodia riel (not real!)
  • Vietnamese dong
  • Biggest rip-off: US$120 on Cambodian visas that were actually free


  • Jboy13: motorbike exhaust burn
  • Kgirl10: dehydrated and non-specific Cambodian virus
  • diarrhoea (from Mama’s one instance to Papa’s multiple recurrences)
  • Tgirl4: big black unknown flying something sting
  • Mboy6: walking stick in gut
  • allergic reaction rash and headaches for the girls, which all disappeared once we learnt how to say “No MSG please”
  • unexplainable fevers of 40 degrees for a few days at a time for various ones
  • mosquito bites
  • warts, nits: these things just don’t go away!


Temperature range: from only just above freezing overnight in the mountains of Thailand to something that broke Jboy13’s thermometer in Malaysia
Oldest lady met: 105 years
Number of New Years celebrated: 4 (Lao, Hmong, international, Vietnamese)
Number of birthdays celebrated: 4


Monday, February 2nd, 2009

by Rachael
Hanoi, Vietnam


We had been expecting to hear a bit more English in Vietnam. Not sure what gave us that idea, but we had it all the same. And it was wrong.
In our few days at Vung Tau we met only a handful of people with ANY English at all. We managed to find rooms and food and bus tickets home again, relying entirely on sign language and rudimentary illustrations. We still don’t know why we had to go across town to the bus station to get a receipt on the day before travel and then pick up the actual tickets on the day. But we did it.
By the time we left VT we had picked up a smattering of food vocabulary – even a little language is empowering. It meant that on the train we could approach the dining car with some sense of confidence and ask, “Rice soup?” Cook’s head shakes.
“Noodle soup?” Head shakes.
“Rice?” Head nods.
“Beef?” Head shakes.
“Fish?” (seeing as I could see a big bowl of fish pieces sitting on the counter). Head shakes.
“Pork chop,” a young lady announces as she walks through the kitchen. That seems to be all the English she knows, and even then I’m a bit dubious – the pork is very very dark for pig! But it seems worth trying to find out how much.
“Dhong?” Cook holds up two fingers. I guess that means 20,000 for a plate.
Ordering ten is the next hurdle. Even with pointing to all my fingers, Cook will not believe I am asking for ten pork chops! So I point to myself and say, “Eight children.” Her questioning look indicates she has understood and the barrage of words that follow are accompanied by confirming smiles and handshakes. Cook collects ten takeaway containers and proceeds to fill them. Even a little language is empowering – without these few words we would have been limited to buying cans of coke and plastic containers of popcorn that we could point at on the refreshments cart.

Language-wise, we did this trip the easy way. Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok….there was no need for anything other than English. In North Thailand we started to pick up some local lingo as we met people without English. By Laos we were in full swing and within a week there had enough words to communicate at the market and not feel totally alienated. On our return to Bangkok, we were able to learn even more Thai by trying out the very similar Lao we had learnt. In Cambodia we started over again, this time with Khmer. Greetings, numbers, the word for children, yes, no, food items…….

Then one day we heard English, native-speaker English. We had entered the SOS Hospital in Phnom Penh and Tgirl4 beamed, “They speak very English.”

Hearing staff and also a lady, who had walked in off the street, speak clear English felt comfortingly familiar – it was so nice to fully understand what we were hearing. There were other languages too, but we could pick out our heart language, the one we feel most at home with.

It reminded me how hard it must be for refugees and new migrants – and so often they have not only a language barrier, but are disempowered in other ways as well. Having to cope with trauma, displacement, loss of family and uncertainly about the fate of loved ones, no familiarity, new food, new housing, new transport, different clothing, different rituals (in short, a totally different culture), and usually with bleak job prospects, very limited finances and misunderstanding to boot. In that situation the language barrier would be far more difficult than for us as tourists-staying-in-a-comfortable-guesthouse-with-riel-in-our-pockets-and-US$-in-the-bank. We can even go home if we want to – we *have* a home to return to.

Both Cambodia and Vietnam have had their fair share of refugees over the past few decades. More often than not they were nothing more to me than fleeting television images of unwanted people. My views on them were molded more by the reporter’s disapproving tone than by any political understanding. I ask myself now, who is responsible for ensuring freedom for those who want to escape from oppressive regimes? Who will foot the bill for those who risk their lives and give up everything they know to seek out a new life of hope? I look at Real Live Faces here and wonder if these people I am passing on the street have family members out in the refugee-quota-restricted world of the west. I wonder if they tried to escape themselves. The micro-picture and macro-picture blur together as thoughts swirl round my head. To make a big difference you need the language of diplomacy, the language of international relations, language full of legalese.
But even a little language is empowering – at the end of this year, Rob will return to his job helping refugees and new migrants settle into their new lives in New Zealand. While he was always aware of the issues they face, I imagine he will now take with him an even deeper understanding. While he is naturally an empathetic person, having re-experienced the inability to communicate, he will now feel more fully and their cries will resonate more clearly for him. 


Saturday, December 6th, 2008
Luang Prabang, Laos A simple graphical journey of reflection on our trip so far, two calendar months on (actually, just an excuse to use some of our favourite reflection photos)....

Singapore Quay Area 002[Continue reading this entry]

the first long-distance train ride

Saturday, October 11th, 2008
I've always looked with admiration and wonder at those classic shots from trains that other people we are in the position to take our own. Expect more of these! Train Journey Number 1 on the Ekspres ... [Continue reading this entry]

things we did and didn’t do

Friday, October 10th, 2008

First the did nots.
  • *LINGER around Chinatown (it was the first day and the kids were tired so we stayed for a couple of hours and then headed back to the Nest for ... [Continue reading this entry]

Jurong – the Singapore posting

Friday, October 10th, 2008
Rob writing... Today was another little trip back in time. The six older kids and I took the MRT with Grandpa Bear out to Jurong - in part to go and visit the Singapore Science Centre, and also to see where ... [Continue reading this entry]

Busy Singapore

Thursday, October 9th, 2008
by Rachael The heat is relentless, even oppressive and travelling with children means taking things more slowly, but we have still managed to pack a fair bit into our three days so far. As well as wandering around Little India, where ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ali’s Nest

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008
by Rachael Snuggled in a row of houses along Robert's Lane is Ali's house. It's where Ali lives with his family, including girlfriend, daughter, two nephews, a niece, sister and deaf mother. Fading photos of previous generations line the walls, as ... [Continue reading this entry]