Good morning Vietnam! Hello from Hanoi

After leaving Thailand we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and is in the northern part of the country. It’s a good-sized city with around 8 million people.

Our first impressions of Hanoi were that the city is busy, polluted, and dirty. But this city also has a lot to offer.

Streets of Hanoi
Night lights

In Vietnam, you take your life in your hands when you cross the street. Although there are marked crosswalks, neither vehicles nor pedestrians seem to notice them. Pedestrians cross the street through traffic all the time. Keep a steady pace and let the scooters go around you–but remember the cars and especially the buses can’t weave around you well, so wait for then.

Still, I get anxiety when I have to cross a busy street with three kids.

Our first night in Hanoi, we found a local street food vendor selling pho and settled down at the plastic chairs and table that felt more like a kids table than a table that adults can actually fit at.

The pho was alright, but tbh (abbreviation for “to be honest” for anyone not as hip as me) it was a disappointment compared to the pho we were used to in the states. Less flavorful broth; crummier noodles; no plate full of basil, cilantro, sprouts, limes, jalapenos; none of that good purple sauce or Sriracha. A few more bowls of pho at various locations confirmed our bias for the American version.

Nolan and Margaret eating pho our first night.

The bahn mi in Hanoi was a little disappointing compared to what we’ve had at the Vietnamese sandwich shops in Utah as well

But we did have some great street food as well–falafel, burgers, hot dogs, and a Hanoi specialty called bun cha.

We ate bun cha at a humble little restaurant made a city landmark by it’s best-known patron. Now, not every POTUS is down-to-earth enough to sit down on a short plastic stool behind a short plastic table to eat a $6 meal (beverage included). But in 2016, president Obama joined Anthony Bourdain for a meal of this local staple. Bun cha is rice noodles served with fatty pork, lettuce and mint leaves, and a bowl of sweet, fishy broth to dip it all in.

Although, the others didn’t love it, Jess did.

A decent bun cha joint
President Obama’s photo on the wall–one of many
Nolan working the chopsticks

Here are a few other highlights from Hanoi.

We took a guided tour of a few sites in the city with a group called Hanoikids. Hanoikids is a student-run organization that pairs travelers with college aged students looking to practice their English and share their insights into culture, tradition, and sight seeing.

Our first stop was Hỏa Lò Prison a prison used by the french colonists for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.

During this later period it was known to American POW’s as the Hanoi Hilton. Former Senator, John McCain, was one of the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam war.

The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum.

Entrance to the prison.
Our family with out guides Morp and V.
One of the prison cell rooms. There were times when more than 50 people would be crammed into one room.
Margaret at Hoa Lo Prison

After Hoa Lo Prison, our Hanoikids tour guides took us to Hoàn Kiếm Lake or Lake of the returned sword -Our kids were more interested in seeing if there were any fish in the lake than listening to any of the history, but for anyone interested here is the story that locals will tell you about the lake:

The tale goes that Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend. It turned out that his friend caught the bar while fishing. The King asked for the bar, brought it home and moulded it into a sword. All of a sudden, there was two words printed on the sword “Thuan Thien” (harmonious with heaven).

Le Loi then understood that the sword was a gift from heaven. He used it in war with a neighbouring country. At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trips to the Thuy Quan (now Hoan Kiem) Lake, a tortoise rose from the water shouting, “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”. Without hesitation, the King threw the sword to the lake. The tortoise took the sword and dove down the water. From then on, Thuy Quan became Hoan Kiem lake.

Here are a few more highlights from our stay in Hanoi.

Ashley and Nolan took a cooking class and learned how to make pho, spring rolls, and a whipped egg drink.


Bicycle taxi ride

The Museum of Ethnology-a museum that shows some of the traditional housing of some of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.

Ho Chi Minh Mausaleum-just as the Russian Communists put Lenin’s embalmed body on display as a human symbol of their revolution, the Vietnamese Communists display the preserved body of their first leader, Ho Chi Minh.

It’s just as an unusual experience to see his embalmed body, in a glass tank filled with fluid, glowing under artificial light as it is to see Lenin’s.

The guards at the mausaleum also observe the same formal, keep moving, keep quiet, no photos, procedure in Hanoi as they do in Moscow.

Photo of Uncle Ho, courtesy the internet.

Water puppet show-a tradition that traces back to times when these shows were performed in flooded rice patties to entertain Vietnamese villagers.

The kids loved this show, performed by puppeteers hidden behind a curtain and standing in waist-deep water.

They didn’t understand any of the words to the songs that narrate the story, but they loved the fire breathing dragons and silly puppets.

I was glad when the break after an hour turned out to be the end of the show and not an intermission.

Parks where the ilocals hang- my favorite thing in Hanoi was relaxing in a park in the evening.  You could watch kids skateboard, watch women do some sort of coordinated line-dance aerobic activity, our check out the incredible Vietnamese sport called da cau.  It was so cool to watch.

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai clock tower. Designed by the same person who designed the White temple.

Our original plans in Thailand were to spend two weeks in the south and two weeks in the north. The incident with Nolan changed our plans and we ended up spending much more time in the south. We had however, already purchased our tickets to leave Thailand from the northern city of Chiang Mai and so we had to make our way up there.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. One thing we have learned is that although there is a lot to do in big, busy cities, our family nearly always prefers a quieter alternative. So we had decided that rather than stay in Chiang Mai, we would spend our time in the city of Chiang Rai, just a four-hour bus ride away.

Lucky for us, Chiang Rai was big enough to have a Pizza Hut

Because we had to fly in and out of Chiang Mai and ride a bus to and from Chiang Rai, we only ended up having four days in Chiang Rai.

Our first night in Chiang Rai we walked to a local restaurant where you could catch your own shrimp. The kids spent all night trying to catch shrimp.

One of those days was mostly taken up by a visit to the hospital for what turned out to be the last day of Nolan’s bandage changes and wound care. He’s got a few scars, but is all healed up!

Like many tourists in Thailand, we really wanted to see elephants. Elephants are a big deal in Thailand. Historically, elephants were used in the military and for heavy work such as logging. Now, the four thousand or so captive elephants are almost all used in the tourism industry. There are tons of places you can go to ride an elephant or interact with an elephant by giving one a mud bath.

But if you read about elephants in Thailand, you’ll find that the care these elephants receive ranges from not very good, to terrible. The “training” that elephants need so that tourist can safely interact with them is also cruel and fear-based.

But we really wanted to see elephants, so we decided we would look into elephant sanctuaries. A little deeper Google research (I know internet research isn’t always reliable) showed that most of the “elephant sanctuaries” out there are just relabled and reworked versions of elephant tourism.

In any case, we found one that seemed legit. It was called Elephant Valley. Their goal is to take captive elephants from the tourism and logging industries and “rehabilitate” them to the wild. The elephants at the sanctuary move from a smaller location where they learn essential skills to live independent of humans to a 460 acre sanctuary where they live without chains,  mahouts and in social groups again.

We spent a couple of days here and came out with a little better understanding of the complexities of trying to do something ethical within the captive elephant industry. In the end, I think this was a good organization to support, and I think knowing what we now know, we would still go back. But it’s complicated. The fact that in their ten-or-so years of existence, they have yet to successfully complete the rehabilitation of an elephant should give you an idea of how complicated the issue is.

Interaction with the elephants was mostly at a distance. Since these elephants had been captive elephants, they were accustomed to eating high calorie density foods given by handlers. I guess they get pretty upset initially if they don’t get this and have to be transitioned away from it. So, we did get to prepare food and feed the elephants.

You would think that the closer interaction with the elephants would be the highlight for the kids. But it turns out that picking up “the largest poop in the animal kingdom” was a lot more fun. And they had a giant swing, a sandbox, and a rotting ping-pong table. And Nolan dug up and caught and ant-lion so…..

Watching the elephants at the sanctuary.
The dominant male elephant at the sanctuary.
Riding the poop cart to go cleanup elephant poop, wearing our elephant pants.
The kids fought over who got to pick up the elephant poop. I wish we could get them to pick up dog poop with such excitement at home.

We visited a few temples, the night market, and a huge and well-known park. But between the hospital, the elephant sanctuary, and shuttling to and from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, we didn’t have time for much else.

Standing in front of the white temple.
White temple. Interesting to note that the inside included paintings on the wall of superheroes, Pokemon, and Disney princesses.
Pathway to the white temple included thousand of hand sculptures reaching up.
White temple
The kids loved the White temple because they got to write on and hang up bodhi leafs. They all thought it would be so cool to bring their kids back when they are older to show them their bodhi leafs.
Blue temple
Blue temple
Blue temple
Buddah in front of the Blue temple.

Our last day in Chiang Rai we spent at Singha Park. Owned by the Boon Rawd Brewery, the park consists of a zoo, bike trail, tea plantations, fruit orchards, restaurants and barley fields. Jane and I rode bikes around the park while Nolan, Margaret and Ashley decided to play at one of the ponds.

Margaret at a little cafe in Singha Park
Margaret and Nolan at Singha Park

So, wearing face masks and washing our hands frequently, we boarded a plane bound for our next destination—–Vietnam!

Klong Maong

After a week in Ao Luek, we decided to move somewhere closer to a beach.

We were planning on a city called Krabi, which we had heard was a more laid-back version of Phuket.

On the advice of our first host in Thailand, we booked a place in a town about 15 miles outside of Krabi. It turned out to be perfect.

It was a group of fairly modest bungalows right on a private beach.

Even when the place was booked completely, there were never more than a dozen people on the beach.

Starfish at low tide
Beach at Pine Bungalow
Sunset Pine Bungalow
Sunset Pine Bungalow
Great place to relax

Unlike most of our stays, we had no access to a kitchen and so we didn’t prepare a single meal. Fortunately, the food they served was quite good and we didn’t have many complaints even from our pickiest one (Jane, in case you were wondering). She even showed some interest in learning to cook Thai curries!

Delicious veggie panang curry
Julie, the chef at Pine Bungalow, let Ashley come back in the kitchen to see how to prepare all the Thai dishes.

We had planned on staying for a week as we had tickets to fly to northern Thailand already purchased.

But we had a terrible event occur (with a fortunate outcome) that changed our plans.

It happened on Saturday, January 18.

I left our bungalow that morning to go for a run on the beach. I didn’t know it, but Nolan had come to follow me a few minutes after I left.

As I reached the end of the beach, I heard some commotion behind me.

I looked back to see a group of feral dogs surrounding and attacking a little boy wearing black pajamas and I realized it was Nolan.

I ran to him as fast as I could and we were able to get away from the dogs. His pajamas were in shreds and he was pretty beat up, but I could tell he was going to be ok.

We were able to get to help fairly quickly and were taken to the local hospital, where we received excellent care.

Fortunately, he had no bites to his hands or his face.

He had to undergo post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies as the dogs were feral and rabies is a problem in Thailand.

Because of his many bite wounds, he had to stay in the hospital for 5 days on IV antibiotics.

Two and a half weeks later, we made our last visit to the hospital for wound care (we got his last vaccination for rabies in Vietnam).

Nolan is in excellent spirits and still loves Thailand, but I’m sure this was the most terrifying day of his life. It certainly was for me.

Finally asleep after an awful day
Riding home from the hospital in an ambulance.
Nolan with the surgeon who did wound care every other day. We really loved him and he was so sweet to Nolan.
Nolan and one of the nurses. Everyone told Nolan what a good boy he was.

In any case, we were all sad when it was time to leave for northern Thailand. I think that despite the terrible event that occurred here, this particular place has been everyone’s favorite.

From canopy ziplining to cooking classes, we did some really fun things over the two and a half weeks at Pine Bungalow in Klong Muang, Thailand.

Ashley and Margaret on an island hopping excursion.
Finding something Jane will eat is tricky sometimes. But we taught the staff how to make grilled cheese. Turns out, she also likes curry!
No matter where we go, Margaret always finds fans. Everyone wants to hold her and get a photo.
Spent a day boating island to island. They were all incredibly beautiful and filled with other tourists–and we chose the less popular islands.
Beautiful and warm. Great for swimming, but we only hit one spot that was great for snorkeling.
Margaret with the kind of jellyfish that are safe to hold.
A view from one of our long boat rides.
Margaret ready to swim in the sea.
One of the islands we visited.
Jane loved the canopy course and ziplining. She wasn’t scared a bit.
This was the longest and the highest of the ziplines. Jane did great, but I bounced off the tree on the other end and ended up stuck in the middle. Had to hand-over-hand my way to the end again.
Saw a six foot Asian Monitor up pretty close. He was rummaging through a compost pile.

Jane, Margaret and Ashley took a cooking class in Thailand. Ashley says it was one of her favorite things that she has done.

The girls at a cooking class, making fresh curry paste.
Prepping the ingredients
Chicken with thai basil and Tom ka soup. Both delicious.
Panang curry and papaya salad.
Jane making the papaya salad.
Margaret loved getting Thai massages. As cheap as $7 for an hour massage, I got a lot of massages too. Thai massage is like a mix of massage, forced yoga positions, and a chiropractic adjustment. They were awesome.

Travel Tips:

Phuket is the most well-known and traveled city in the south, with Krabi running second. We didn’t go to Phuket, but the few times we went to Krabi, we were glad we stayed in Klong Muang. It was much better for our family–quieter, fewer tourists, and less expensive. Pine Bungalow was a great place to stay and we all would go back.

There are many islands you can visit, the most famous being the Phi Phi islands. We didn’t visit the Phi Phi islands, but we heard they were beautiful but packed with tourists and super loud.

On the advice of some Thais, we chose to go to Hong Island. Still a lot of tourists, but super beautiful and fewer tourists than Phi Phi. Any of the island tours offered are bound to be beautiful though.

The cooking classes were a highlight for Ashley. She took one called KN Lanna Thai Cookery. Jane and I loved the zipline course at Treetop Adventures. I wouldn’t have had fun there by myself, but it was great to watch Jane successfully navigate the course. A great activity for kids at least 10 years old (although they didn’t turn Jane away even though she’s only nine).

Thailand–Ao Luek

We arrived in Thailand after about 17 hours in transit from Prague. While our kids are at the end of their ropes sometimes, they really are world class travelers. As long as they have something they like to eat and a show to watch, a long trip like that goes by without much of a hitch.

Night sky in Ao Luek
View from our house in the jungle
Pond at our jungle home

We chose to go to the Krabi area of southern Thailand, a place that is the less touristy counterpart of Phuket.

I booked us a place on Air BNB that had great reviews but didn’t realize how far away it is from everything. Pretty much a $50 can ride from the main town and beaches. But despite our initial trepidation, it turned out to be an ideal place to spend a week. We stayed at a place called Baan Suan Thip Homestay, and although far from luxurious, it was great.

Road to the homestay. Not a touristy area at all.
We were close to the entrance of one of the National Parks.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after a nap spent the rest of the day sweating in the heat and humidity and chasing geckos, skinks, and frogs with Nolan (this place is heaven for him).

Nolan found a dirty hot tub full of tadpoles

For our first full day, we took a half day excursion to the local beach, some caves, and a Buddhist temple with a family from the Netherlands.

The kids loved riding in the back of the truck
Kids riding in the back of the truck
Although we did swim, the water here wasn’t great. But it was beautiful.
This cave was used as a school for children 100 years ago.
Nolan and Margaret found a tree that looked like a bird’s nest.
Buddist Temple-still under construction. The temple is completely funded by donations.

That night, we walked into town and had some delicious Thai soup—and what a miracle, every member of our family loved what they got!

Can’t believe we found a place to eat where everyone was happy. $5 total for a family of five to eat, too!

Caught a few toads on the way home, finished home school, and hit the sack.

Took the next day easy, getting some school done and adjusting to the time change (seven hours ahead of Prague). There was a big “kids celebration” in the local town, but I couldn’t get my crew out of bed to go. Seven hours is a big time change.

The next day Ashley did a cooking lesson with the family who owned the soup stand we ate at the night before. They were so excited to teach her how to make the soup. They kept taking selfies with her.

Ashley making noodle soup with morning glory

The next day we took a kayak trip on a river. The river read surrounded by lush tropical jungle.

We paddled through some limestone tunnels……

……….and came out in big lagoon

Then we headed upriver to some caves with paintings from the mangrove cavemen who lived here a thousand or so years ago.

After the kayak trip, we were all famished, so we stopped at a little out of the way place.  It had decent Thai food AND a river to swim in.

Nolan, ready to discover a new species of freshwater tropical fish.

The following day we went on a boat excursion.

Our first stop was to take a look at an island with some limestone caves and overhangs where local fisherman occasionally spend the night.

Our second stop was at a beautiful island, where we swam and snorkeled.

Our family on the island

Next stop was another beautiful island where we hiked along a small stream into a mangrove forest where the trees were FILLED with flying foxes. Flying foxes are bars that eat fruit and are quite large. These ones were the size of crows. It was pretty neat to see. I looked it up, they don’t transmit rabies.

After fruit bat island, we boated over to an island that disappears during high tide.

And then we took a look at some local aquaculture. They raise fish and lobster for consumption, as well as large tropical fish for aquariums.

And then we set sail for home.

We did a couple more excursions while in this area (Ao Luek).

One day at the jungle pools.

Nolan sliding into a jungle pool

And a trek to another limestone cave with a large pool on our last day.

Everyone wants a photo with Margaret no matter what country we’re in. I’m not sure what this guys name is really, but it’s close to Dzhem. He went with us on most of the excursions.
Riding in the back of the pickup with Dzhem.
Our mode of transportation in Ao Luek.
Farm near our homestay. The goats ate all the fallen palm leaves.

The Ins and Outs of Long-Term Traveling

I’ll preface this post by saying that Jess usually writes the blog posts, but I’ve been wanting to write a post for awhile about all the ins and outs of long-term travel. I’ve had a few friends that are considering doing the same thing we have done. So here is what we have learned.

What to do with your home and stuff-This was one of the biggest decisions/headaches for us. We debated whether to let someone we know stay in our home or rent it through a management company. In the end, we decided to completely move out of our house. We put all of our belongings in storage and rented our house through a management company. For the time being, I am happy we made that decision. The management company takes care of any issues that come up and since we left, I haven’t thought about the house much, except for the unexpected leak that we had to turn into insurance. Trying to coordinate with insurance and the management company overseas was a bit frustrating, but we got through it.

Insurance-Because Jess left his job to go on this trip, we had to find private insurance. If you have ever bought private insurance, you know how expensive this can be. I looked into a few US plans that would cover our family overseas, but found that they were all well over $1200 a month. In the end, I spent a lot of time researching international and travel insurance companies that expats use. There are a few top contenders in my mind: Aetna and Cigna. Cigna ended up being the better value for our family. We pay $250 a month for our family. Our plan is emergency medical only and doesn’t cover any preventative medical care, but we are covered everywhere with our plan. Most international plans won’t let you use the plan in the US, but we found a plan that gives us a very limited coverage in the US if we came back. It also covers us if anything major came up, like one of us getting cancer or some other long-term issue.

Another thing we hadn’t thought about was what would happen with our home owners policy if we rented out our home. Since our home is being rented out and we don’t have another primary residence, we had to change our home owners plan to a rental policy. Without a homeowners policy, our car insurance went up drastically. We also had planned to store our cars with family in another state and found that our insurance wouldn’t cover our cars in that state. We had to switch insurance companies just a few days before we left and it took a lot more time than we expected to sort out all of the details.

Cell Phones and Staying in Touch-Before we left, we switched our TMobile plan to an international plan, but even with an international plan, we only get 2G data in most countries and we are charged .25 cents a min for calls. We can text without any additional fees. Despite the limited data and high cost for international calls, we have found a few ways to stay in touch and get mobile data despite only having 2G. When we are at places that have wifi, we connect to that. We have downloaded Whatsapp. It is free and works with wifi so you don’t have any additional costs to call people overseas who have the same app. I got a cellphone with a dual sim card and we have bought data plans in a few countries. That way we have access to google maps while we are traveling.

School-We have two kids in elementary school. All the public school districts in Utah have a free online school that you can sign up for with the district, but there are other online and homeschooling options. We decided that the only way we could do homeschool is if we had a set program and were accountable to someone. That being said, we don’t like homeschooling. We wish we didn’t have to. It takes a lot of time and is really frustrating. We chose the online program that didn’t require any textbooks, but we frequently have links that don’t work. Jess and I each work one on one with the kids. Initially, Jess taught Jane and I taught Nolan, but we switched a couple of months ago. Doing homeschooling while traveling has been really hard. It eats into the time we wish we could go and do other things. We have also learned, that teaching your kids at home can be very frustrating. Kuddos to anyone who has figured this out, because we don’t always think we do it very well.

Traveling to Europe with just a passport-Most of us in the US don’t think twice about just getting a passport and going to travel, but if you are going to Europe long term there are few things you should know. A majority of Europe is part of the Schengen zone. The picture below shows you which countries are part of the Schengen zone. As a US citizen with just a passport, you can only stay in the Schengen areas for up to 90 days out of any 180 day period. You can’t stay in most of Europe for more than 90 days without getting a visa and unless you have a reason to be there other than travel, visas can be difficult to obtain. We have gotten around this by visiting countries outside the Schengen area. We have spent a lot of time in Asia and Russia.

If you go to areas outside the Schengen zone, you will need to look up each countries specific visa requirements. Many of the countries have a simple online form that you have to fill out and a small fee $10-$20 a person, but some countries, like Russia require a much more extensive application to get a visa and you are charged a hefty fee. The cost for our family to get visas to Russia was almost as much as our plane tickets over to Europe.

Image result for schengen countries map

Adjusting Expectations when traveling with kids-When traveling with kids, I think all expectations should just be thrown out the window. Today I wandered around Prague by myself while Jess took the kids to a park and out to lunch. In one day by myself, I saw and did what it takes our family 4-5 days to do. Our kids are so sick of cathedrals, castles and museums. Even though we don’t go to that many. Kids need downtime. We have spent a lot of time at parks, bounce houses and malls because that is what our kids like to do. We make up games to play when we go to a museum. We make our kids find something small in each room of the museum, like a small figure painted on a vase and at the end they get a prize.

Another thing we do, is get out of big cities as much as possible. We all do better when we have good outdoor space, a nice grocery store close by and a good kitchen. We also find that moving around a lot doesn’t work for us. We are staying longer in each place than we originally anticipated. We stayed in Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Spain all for a month each. I feel like we got a better sense of the culture, country and what it would be like to live there.

Costs-I won’t break down all of our costs here, but I do keep a detailed spreadsheet and would be happy to share with someone who wants to know exactly what we spend each day. But here are a few things to think about. We use airbnb to book all of our accomodations. That way we almost always have a kitchen. Having a kitchen helps save on our eating out costs. We average around $60 a night for accomodations, but have found some gems for under $40. I don’t think a family could stay much cheaper than that. Individuals can do hostels, but we find that a hostel for our family is as much as an airbnb apartment.

We have also found that getting a car in some cases is cheaper than paying to ride the buses, metros and taxis. In Spain, we paid $15 a day for a car. Having a car also lets us get out of the city and the touristy areas and see more of the country. It makes it easier to get groceries and go places.

Packing-We made the decision to all just bring one carry-on and one small item. This way we don’t have to pay for packed luggage. Once you are in Europe and Asia, you can get inexpensive flights from country to country, but the weight and size limit on bags is small. Smaller than a lot of the US airlines. We each only have one pair of tennis shoes and one pair of sandals. We only have a few clothes and the kids each only get a small bag of toys. It helps when you are moving around to not have as much stuff.

Shipping stuff home-A few times we have bought gifts and souvenirs and shipped them home. For the most part, we have found that even though you may get cheap and cool souvenirs by the time you pay to have them shipped home you haven’t saved any money and it can be such a hassel to figure out the postal system in another country. My advice, check out all the cool markets, but avoid buying a lot of souvenirs.

Souvenirs-Our family enjoys going to all the markets in each of the countries we have been to and while it is so fun to buy things, we have ended up leaving quite a few things behind because we just don’t have room to bring it with us. Our kids love to get cheap toys and play with them for a little while and then find something new at the next place.

I really wanted to buy a rug in Turkey, but I didn’t have the knowledge to know a good rug from a crappy one and I heard stories of buying a rug and having the store ship a cheaper one to your house for you. In the end, I don’t regret not buying things.

Credit cards and cash- we have found that a lot of countries, including Morocco, Thailand and Turkey use cash almost exclusively. Even places you think would take a credit card don’t. When credit cards are an option we try to use those, we find that we get a better exchange rate than getting money out of an atm with our debit cards. The credit card I use, is the Costco visa card. If you do get money out of an atm, try to get as much out at one time. Doing so will reduce your fees.

If you have any other questions, send me an email and I will try and answer them. Traveling long term can be a very rewarding experience.

Czechia

We arrived in the Czech Republic on New Year’s Eve. This time of year, it was hard to find accommodations–there were just a few air BNB’s available in Prague, all out of our budget. Initially, I had us booked to stay in a rustic little place an hour outside of the city, but it turns out there was no heat in the place so I cancelled that one and booked a place two hours south in a little town called Trebon.

Trebon–Trebon turned out to be a sleepy little town this time of year. I chose it because of it’s proximity to Czesky Krumlov, a picturesque town that is a popular destination.

On New Year’s Eve, we wandered the streets of our sleepy town, stopping to watch the few revelers in the park fire Roman candles at each other (a favorite tradition of young men everywhere you can buy Roman candles).

Cesky Krumlov–On New Year’s Day, we drove into Cesky Krumlov. Despite the cold temperatures and the fact that it was New Year’s day (and thus many attractions were closed) this picturesque little town was fairly well packed with tourists. We wandered the streets, ate some Czech street food, and then headed back to Trebon.

Czesky Krumlov with the river that curls around part of the town
Castle in Cesky Krumlov
Colorful homes along the river

More Trebon–We spent the next day in a “natural area” near Trebon that turned out to be a pond in a strip of trees. While Nolan chopped ice from the puddles near the pond for sale in his “ice shop”, and Jane wandered around listening to an audio book (Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary), Margaret and I ice skated in our shoes around the edge of the pond. Turns out that four hours of this monotony was not enough for the kids who all melted down when it was time to leave.

Nolan on ice
Margaret braving the ice
Jane, wandering around with her audio book

Kutna Hora–Our third day in the Czech Republic was spent driving to and exploring Kutna Hora, another quaint and picturesque town (Czechia is filled with them) whose main attraction is an ossuary–a bone depository.

Stop to eat sandwiches on the way to Kutna Hora from Trebon
Pyramid of skulls and femurs in the ossuary (photo from my trip there in 2007)

In the thirteenth century, an Abby of the church on Kutna Hora was sent to the Holy Land. When he returned, he brought with him a container of soil collected from Golgotha which he sprinkled around the small cemetery surrounding the Sedlic Chapel in Kutna Hora. This connection to the Holy Land resulted in thousands of people desiring to be laid to rest in the small cemetery. Over the years, so many people were buried there that the bones of the deceased had to be exterred to make room.

The dilemma of what to do with the bones of an estimated 40-70,000 skeletons resulted in the macabre display within the Sedlic Chapel. The bones were used to create coats of arms, chandeliers, and other decorations within the chapel. Skulls and femurs were stacked into floor-to-ceiling pyramids.

Skulls with crossbones (photo from my trip there in 2007)

As the popularity of the Czech Republic as a tourist destination had increased, so has the popularity of the ossuary at Sedlic Chapel. Over the years things have gotten so out of hand with tourists trying to get the perfect selfie along side the bones that they just flat out banned any photos (the ban going into effect Jan 1, 2020).

Macabre wall decoration (photo from my trip there in 2007)
Graveyard around the ossuary

We checked out a few more of the sites in Kutna Hora, and Jane found a little cafe that served hot chocolate and pancakes. Then we drove into Prague.

St. Barbara’s church in Kutna Hora
St. Barbara’s Church
St. Barbara’s Church

Bohemian Switzerland— For our first day in Prague, we drove out of the city to an area known as Bohemian Switzerland. Two Swiss artists who visited the area named it as such because the geography reminded them of their homeland.

Walking in the mist and rain

We reached the area after another drive through the Czech countryside filled with farm fields and small towns.

We made the hike to a large arch in a narrow sandstone rock formation called Pravčická brána.

Sandstone arch in Bohemian Switzerland

Margaret is getting older, but is still the baby and gets “too tired to walk” after a few steps and ends up being carried up the mountain and back down again.

Margaret at the top, wearing my coat, carried nearly the whole way

The day was gray and we got a little wet, but it was a fun trek.

Snowing and blustering

Prague –We saw a few sites around Prague for our second full day in the city. For a few other days, Ashley and I took turns taking independent excursions into the city while the other entertained the kids who at this point completely lose it at the thought of seeing sculptures, cathedrals, castles, etc.

Playing in the park while Ashley saw Prague
Parade at the close of the holiday season
View from the main square in old town
Statue honoring Kafka, a Prague resident and unknown writer in his lifetime

Prague is a truly beautiful city. It was spared the bombing that destroyed so many old towns in Europe during the second world war.

Over the last twenty years, it has become a popular tourist destination. While summer is the height of tourist season in Prague, the winter holidays also draw quite a crowd. The streets and squares of old Town are filled with Christmas markets and tourists.

The most common scene in Prague during high tourist times
More crowds in old Prague

Ashley and I both walked the town after the Christmas markets had closed and there were much fewer tourists then, which was nice.

Golden street
Saint Vitus Cathedral
Saint Vitus Cathedral
Saint Vitus Cathedral
St Vitnus
Red roofs of Prague

Brno--we drove a few hours to see the second largest city in the Czech Republic. We checked out since local sites and ate some local food, which for Ashley and the kids was chimney cakes, something we first encountered in Georgia, but can be found all over Czechia, and for me was a baked pork knuckle.

1.2 kg pork knuckle
Brno shark statue
Lots of Christmas around Czechia
Brno Cathedral

Czechia was great–lots of fun, easy to drive in, good food, very picturesque. But now we are headed to warmer climes.

As this is expected to be our last time in the cold (we’ll be back in Europe later in the Spring), we offloaded some of our warm clothes and hopped the plane for the long overnight flight to Thailand!!

Spain Part Dos

After a week in Barcelona, we drove south down the coast a few hours to a town called Peñíscola. We intended to stay a few days and move on, potentially driving all the way to Seville.

But the kids act like 2 hours in the car is torture, and our air BNB in Peñíscola was great, and there was a lot to see in the area, and our rental car was due back in Barcelona (so we would have to return north anyway), and the thought of not having to pack up our stuff for a few weeks all combined to keep us in this beautiful little town.

We made a lot of excursions but were still able to take it easy so it worked out great.

Despite being the first Western European country on our trip and arguably the most expensive, our daily expenses (Ashley keeps a detailed log) in Spain proved to be lower than almost all the other countries we’ve visited except Lithuania. Because it was the off season, our lodgings and car rental were significantly cheaper than other times of the year. Our car was only $15/day.

Because we had a car to drive to a decent grocery store and because our Air BNB had a decently equipped kitchen, we ate out relatively little and prepared most meals at home.

And so despite the higher cost of gas, museums, parking, and other services in Spain, we did alright. Even including the speeding ticket I got in Spain, which could have been higher had there been a fine for driving without an international driver’s permit–which was a little bit of a scare when the officer had to call in to find out what to do with an American without the permit. “So many problems” he kept saying and told me several times “I don’t know how it is in your country, but we have rules here.”

But in the end, he discounted the ticket from 300 to 150 Euros and had me pay with a credit card on the spot, so I thanked him and shook his hand and we were on our way (this was still much more expensive than the ticket I got in Georgia for a more serious infraction).

A few more things learned about Spain these few weeks.

Ham (jamon) is a big deal. A really big deal. It does not resemble what Americans refer to as ham at all. It’s dry cured and resembles but is far superior to prosciutto. The most expensive varieties are from a breed of pig called Iberica that is fed almost exclusively acorns. The finest ham can sell for over $200 a pound. Jamon is everywhere. I made sure to eat some every day.

Jamon at one of the markets in Valencia

The Spanish take a different approach to business. Many businesses, even large chains shut down for a few hours every day and have much more limited hours than businesses in any country I have been in. So if it’s 7pm and you need some groceries, you might be out of luck until 9am the following day. Or if your want to eat a meal in a restaurant, you better plan to be there between 2 and 4pm or after 7pm.

Although we call the official language of Spain Spanish, Spaniards call it Castellian, and there are several other languages spoken in Spain. For example, although you can speak Castellian with anyone in Barcelona, all the street signs are printed in the local dialect, Catalán, and it is much closer to French than to what I learned in my high school Spanish class. In Valencia, all the signs are printed in Valencian, which looked to me to be equal parts French and Spanish.

Here’s a quick rundown of the towns we visited after Barcelona.

Peñiscola–a town a few hours south of Barcelona right on the Mediterranean. The castle and old town sit on a small peninsula projecting into the sea. Sometimes called the Mykonos of Spain due to its similarity with the famous Greek town. Clearly a summer resort town, the miles and miles of hotels and condos were nearly empty. The highlights in this town were many days spent taking it easy on the park and on the beach and walking through old town.

View of the old town and fortress from the Peniscola Beach
Pensicola

Tirig–famous for it’s UNESCO site, Les Coves Dr la Valtorta, a series of cliff side shelters with ancient cave paintings. Highlights were hiking to the caves and exploring the old stone homes and shelters among the terraced fields with almond and olive trees.

Almond trees near Tirig

Sant Mateu–a town like so many in this part of Spain with a beautiful central plaza and church and a castle on the hill.

I loved the bright blue buildings in San Mateu

Valencia–the third largest city in Spain, located right on the coast with way more than could be seen in the day we spent there. But we did experience three of the highlights of the town: paella (people here say Valencia is the home city of this dish and still does it best), beautiful modern architecture, and the Valencia cathedral where you can see (from a small distance) the stone cup that according to tradition is the Holy Grail or cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper.

Morella--on the list of “nicest towns in Spain”, we arrived in Morella after a few hours of slowly winding our way through miles a miles of olive groves. Although it was quite cold and windy, the town surrounded by castle walls was one of the prettiest we’ve seen on our whole trip.

Prat de Cabanes-Torreblanca–a nature park where Ashley and I took turns walking the beach while the other sat in the sand and watched the kids catch a dozen or so hermit crabs and put them in the “hermit crab sanctuary” they constructed.

Vilafamés–built into and from the local red sandstone, this town’s castle and stone walls were built by the invading Moors with architecture different from most of the local castles.

Castellón--the provincial capital. We mostly played in a park and walked around admiring the old buildings and the Christmas decorations. We also enjoyed a meal at a tapas restaurant.

Feliz Navidad in Castellon

Vall D’uxó–took a boat ride on “the longest navigable underground river in Europe” in Coves de Sant Josep (no photography allowed).

At the cave entrance in Vall’ D Uxo

Tarragona–another provincial capital that we visited on our drive back to Barcelona. This was one of the larger towns we visited and we didn’t spend much time here, but we did enjoy the few hours we spent wandering the old town. At least tied with Morella and Peñíscola in our minds for the prettiest towns we visited.

It would have been nice to see more of the various areas in Spain, but we had a great time and I’m glad we stayed at a home base for a while. Constant travel is hard on us all and it was nice to change it up a little.