Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent 2015: Fasting. Praying. Almsgiving.

We are a little late with starting our observance of Lent this year. Lent started on February 18th, which was only a day after we returned from our month long trip to Thailand. Being waylaid by the affects of jet lag we are only beginning to rediscover the rhythm of being at home. Despite a late start to Lent we still intend to enter into this time of reflection and renewal. As a family we try to mindfully incorporate fasting, praying and alms-giving as part of our way to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Easter.

In this year's Lenten message Pope Francis urges everyone to stand up to the globalization of indifference. He is challenging us to open our hearts to Divine love so that we can in turn "receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous". He claims that this is the heart that will combat indifference in our neighborhood, community and world. (Message of Pope Francis for Lent 2015). As Lent continues I am challenging myself to face the areas of indifference in my own life.

During Lent we we eat simple meals and avoid indulging in luxurious desserts (except for birthdays). This year I am challenging myself to fast from indifference. I am unsure how fasting from indifference will translate into the day to day workings of my life but I think it means being more aware and compassionate to the suffering of those around me and to my own self as well.

This year we will be doing the Jesus Tree together as a family. I am also hoping to practice a little bit of meditative prayer each day.

Throughout Lent we make an effort to donate to various organizations that work towards alleviating hunger and poverty in Canada and abroad. There are so may different organizations that do this but a few that we have donated to in the past include CNEWA and Development and Peace.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Our Family's Top Ten Experiences in Thailand

This will be my last post about Thailand. sad. I've decided to include a list of ten experiences that our family will remember for a long time. At first I tried to prioritize them and then I realized that would be practically impossible, so they are in no particular order. There are many experiences not listed below that are special to us but I promised myself that I would limit the list to ten items, for the sake of brevity.

1. Lounging and playing on beaches. Soft sand and warm water, what more needs to be said.
2. Snorkeling over a magical underwater world at Ya Nui and Ao Sane.
3. Biking through Sukhothai Historical Park.
4. Going to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
5.Visiting Wats in Old Chiang Mai.
6. Going to Bangkok Sea Life Ocean World.
7. Exploring markets in Chiang Mai and Phuket.
8. Taking silly pictures at Art in Paradise in Chiang Mai.
9. Feeding the Languour Monkeys in Prachuap Kiri Khan.
10. Doing all these amazing things with our friends!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Family-of-Five Packing List for Thailand

Below is our packing list for one month of travelling in Thailand. I realize that this is not a particularly exciting read but I found it quite helpful to have a packing list to refer to when deciding what-to and what-not-to pack for Thailand. Now that I have a better idea of what travelling through Thailand entails, I have compiled a packing list to refer to for future travels.

There are couple things that should be considered when packing for an extended family trip to Thailand. The first is that any packed clothing will wear out quickly. Sunshine and frequent washing tend to degrade clothing rather fast so it is best not to pack favourite clothes. The second is that clothing at Thailand's many markets is inexpensive and it only takes a couple good bargains to fill up your bag with new fun clothes. There are only a few clothing items that are worth bringing from home: plenty of cotton underwear, bras, cotton shorts, swimwear and good waterproof walking/hiking sandals.

I should also note that diapers and wipes are widely available at Tesco and 711, so there is no need to pack a month long supply of diapers if you have an infant or toddler in tow. Medication is also widely available from the many pharmacies in Thailand.

We fit everything below into two hiking packs, several day packs and a laptop bag. To help keep everyone's clothing sorted we used packing cubes, one for each person. Packing cubes were well worth purchasing, in fact I think I would get a couple more for our next trip. There are few things I wish we would have packed so I have added them below and marked them with a (**).

t-shirts (3)
cotton shorts (2)
underwear (5)
swim shorts
Keen sandals

t-shirts (3)
light cardigan (1)
cotton capri leggings (1)
skirts (2)
sundress (1)
light pajama (1)
underwear (7)
bras (3)
bathing suit (1)
sunhat (1)
large cotton scarf (for covering up in Wats or added layering when needed)
Keen sandals

Child 1 (age 7)
t-shirts (3)
shorts (3)
underwear (7)
pajamas (1) (long sleeves and pants for wearing on the plane and air conditioned hotels)
swimsuit (shorts and tops)
Keen sandals

Child 2 (age 4)
t-shirts (3)
sundresses (3)
underwear (7)
pajamas (1) (long sleeves and pants for wearing on the plane and air conditioned hotels)
bathing suit (this one)
Keen sandals

Child 3 (age 2)
t-shirts (4)
shorts (3)
pajamas (1) (long sleeves and pants for wearing on the plane and air conditioned hotels)
swimsuit (shorts and tops)
Keen sandals
diapers and wipes
swim diapers (for hotel pools)
special blankie
extra glasses

First Aid Kit
I have added an asterisk (*) to items that we used on our trip.
medication (*anti-emetics, *anti-diarrheals, *antihistamines, *antacids, *pain and fever reducers, laxative, oral rehydration salts)
AZO test strips (I tend to get UTIs while travelling)
*adhesive bandages
*anti-itch cream
*antibiotic cream (i.e. polysporin)
*antiseptic wipes
*mosquito repellant

nail clippers
natural bar soap
shampoo (a small bottle, restocking in Thailand as needed)
hair ties
hair brush
lip balm
face/body cream
sunscreen (expensive to purchase in Thailand)
hand sanitizer
menstrual pads and Diva cup
toilet paper (a few rolls)
**contact lenses (for snorkeling)

camera, charger, extra lens caps and extra batteries
laptop (for my husband's work) and charger
cell phone and charger
tablet and charger
I-pod, potable speakers, earphones (5 sets) and ear phone splitter

Beco carrier
knife, plastic bowls and spoons (for eating on the go)
**sarongs (3) (for towels)
snorkel and goggles (bring at minimum a good kids set and an adult set)
important documents (copies of passports, medical insurance)
pen, crayons, markers, **paper and colouring/activity books
small toys (Lego, cars, Playmobil)
laundry bar soap, string and a few clothespins
games (deck of cards... some of the games we brought were The Resistance:Avalon, Hive Pocket, Splendor and Hanabi)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Toilets in Thailand

When you travel in Thailand you are bound to discover a few surprises along the day. For first time travelers, such as ourselves, we were definitely a little surprised by the Thai toilet culture.

Toilet Paper

The first thing we had to get use to with the toilets in Thailand was toilet paper, or lack thereof. Many public bathrooms don't have toilet paper so unless you want to clean yourself with the pail of water or the hose provided I insist you bring some toilet paper along. You can purchase toilet paper at Tesco Lotus and 711 or snag a bit from the "napkin" dispenser on many a restaurant table. That's right, the "napkin" dispensers actually dispense toilet paper.

The second issue with toilet paper is that it must be tossed into a trash can and not into the toilet bowl. At home I am often reminding my children to ensure the toilet paper goes in the bowl and not on the floor so it seems counter intuitive to be telling them otherwise. Apparently, plumbing in Thailand isn't the same as in North America and wee bit of toilet paper can cause a whole lot of problems in the plumbing. I will admit that I have, on occasion, accidentally thrown my toilet paper in the toilet, but there was no way I was going to fish it out!

User Fee

The vast majority of public toilets are free but every once in a while you will have to pay a small fee to use a toilet. Usually the fee is around three baht. We have paid for restroom access at beaches and parks but paying for the use of a toilet doesn't guarantee that it will be clean. Some restrooms are kept very clean while others are frighteningly dirty. You never know what you will get. It's always a surprise!

Shoes or No Shoes

In some public bathrooms it is prohibited to wear your shoes. Shoes must be left outdoors and you are expected to don a pair of flip-flops that are provided. The reason for the no shoe policy is to keep the bathroom floors clean but I always find it a little disturbing to be wearing the same sandals as probably hundreds of people who have also done there thing while wearing them. Ewww.

No Hand Soap

Along with the lack of toilet paper many public washrooms, even the ones you pay to use, don't have hand soap. I find this particularly disturbing in restaurants... Anyways, if you enjoy the satisfaction are removing fecal flora and urine from your hands I highly recommend carrying your own soap or at the very least using some hand sanitizer.

The Toilets

There are the various types of toilets in Thailand. Honestly, you never know what you will encounter at any given bathroom. Here is a quick run down.

The Sit Down Toilet
A sit down toilet with a flush lever. This is the kind of toilet we have back in Canada so there's nothing new here. Other than putting the toilet paper in the trash everything is the same. 

The Sit Down Toilet with NO flush lever
A sit down toilet with no flush lever. If you encounter this toilet there will be a large basin of water and a pail nearby. Simply do your business then "flush" the toilet by filling the pail with water and pouring it into the toilet. It isn't too complicated.

The Squat Toilet
Now this toilet is a little more complicated to figure out if you have never used one before. First, the positioning, place one foot on either side of the toilet on the foot rests provided. Usually you want to be facing the door, useless the squat toilet is sideways then adjust accordingly. Once you've got your feet on the right spots and your pants are down then you must squat! Use those quads and get low low low, putting your weight into your heels. It helps to tilt your pelvis so that any excrement goes towards to small hole which reduces undesired splashing. Squat toilets don't have flush levers so you have to employ the good old fill the pail with water technique. 

When my daughter had her first poop on the squatty potty she was incredibly proud. It can be intimidating but it might help to know that the squatting position actually makes defecation easier. So for all you constipated travelers out there the squatty potty might just end up being a really great thing for you.

Tokyo Airport Toilet
And just for fun, above is a picture of a toilet in the Tokyo Airport. These bathroom stalls are fully equipped and very comfortable. The seats are warmed and you can indulge in a rather relaxing and comfortable cleaning of your backside. By far, the highlight of our toilet adventures. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

15 Things About Thailand

There are many things about Thailand that you will read about in travel books and blogs but some that you don't. Below is a list of thing that made an impression on us during our month long trip with our three young children. Some of our observation are positive, others are negative and some simply neutral. Overall, we had a wonderful time in Thailand and we love to return one day so don't let any of the points listed below deter you from visiting.
Smog. Even on the clearest of days in Thailand there was smog in the air. At times the smog was so thick that it obscured the amazing landscape that surrounded us which I found rather disappointing. Both my husband and I experienced allergies at some points on our travel and I was very glad to have packed anti-histamines. Whether our allergies were a result of the smog I do not know but it is important to recognize that smog is a serious problem in many parts of Thailand.
Thais love children. The Thai people love children. Our two youngest were often being patted or picked up by the locals. My daughter loved the attention and learned quickly how to say sawatikha (greetings) which made the Thai people very excited.
Delicious Food. By the time we left Thailand I felt like I was just starting to get acquainted with Thai food. At first I was intimidated by it, well not so much by the food itself but mostly by how it was being prepared. Standards of preparation are not quite the same as in Canada. As I discovered my comfort zone and became a little desensitized I was better able to enjoy the addicting and diverse flavours of Thai food. I loved how the various flavors of a dish would compete for attention in my mouth. There was the sourness of lime, the sweetness of coconut, the saltiness of fish sauce and the spiciness of peppers all competing for attention. All these flavours play together in the many regional variations of dishes found throughout Thailand.

Inexpensive Food. Buying enough food for a meal either at a market, cafeteria or small locally run restaurant can cost anywhere 50-150 baht ($2-6 cad) per dish. At one point we fed our whole groups of six adults and seven children for 800 baht ($30 cad)! The price of food progressively gets more expensive as you move from the north to the south of Thailand, being especially expensive near the popular beaches.
Amazing Fruit. Along with the delicious food to be had in Thailand, the variety and overabundance of fruit is equally inciting. We enjoyed a steady diet of bananas, mangos, melons, dragonfruit and pineapples and tried some mangosteen, rambutan, pomelo, and longan. The longan were my favourite new fruit but my son preferred the pomelo.
Cheap local beer. A large Chang (650ml) cost 65 baht ($3 cad) at a restaurant, it is even cheaper if you buy beer by the box. Our preferred beer was Chang but others prefer Leo or Signha. Oh, I should also note that Thais drink beer with ice in it to keep it cool.

Tap water vs. bottled water. There seems to be some debate about the potability of tap water throughout Thailand. Most locals drink bottled water so that didn't give us much confidence in the water supply. For everything other than washing up we used bottled water.

Safety. Thailand has its fair share of crime to be sure but we felt very safe in our travels there. As long as you take proper precautions and make wise decisions being careful to avoid scammers and seedy places it is safe. Honestly, I felt more safe walking the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai at night then I do walking the streets of Vancouver, BC at night.
Driving in Thailand. Traffic in Thailand is best described as organized chaos. Please note that I am using organized very loosely in this description. Road rules don't mean much as they are constantly being broken. Even sidewalks aren't safe from motorcycles. Nobody stops for pedestrians so better run fast when crossing the road. If you are a confident driver that enjoys a good adrenaline rush then driving in Thailand is for you, just don't forget to drive on the left side of the road, instead of the right like North Americans do.

Firm Beds. I think the Thai people missed the memo on the pillow topped mattress. Almost every mattress I slept on felt like a box-spring mattress, some being worse than others. Some mornings I would wake up with sore ribs from the springs poking me through the night.
Strange toilets. Toilets come in many sizes and shapes. Squat toilets, sit down toilets, lever flushed, bucket flushed, toilet paper, no toilet paper, definitely do not put toilet paper in toilets anywhere! See my upcoming post on Toilets in Thailand for a more comprehensive report.

Lack of disposal bins. Good luck finding public disposal bins. They are a rare creature to find, possibly on the brink of extinction. If you need to throw out something you simply leave it somewhere which goes against my ingrained beliefs around littering. Surprisingly though the streets of Thailand are kept quite clean. There must be a secret cleaning crew that goes around collecting garbage. And where does all the garage go? Well, that is the question I was constantly asking myself.
Plastic problems. I thought that Canada had an unhealthy attachment to plastics...until I went to Thailand. I was not surprised to see that Thailand is rated number six as worst offender for "mismanaged plastics" being dumped in the ocean. Plastics are everywhere! Obviously the problem isn't being helped by the questionable water potability and the significant influx of tourists.

Dengue happens so take precautions! Dengue is a mosquito borne illness that causes high fever, severe bone and joint pain, headache, rash, along with other symptoms, that last for about a week. It is a very unpleasant illness to experience and often requires being hospitalized and monitored for a week to ensure that it doesn't progress to the more serious Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever. One of our friends was infected with dengue on our trip and I would not wish it upon anyone. So take precautions by covering up and wearing mosquito repellent if there are mosquitoes about, particularly in the early morning and evening which is when the dengue carrying mosquitoes tend to come out.
Returning. Yes, yes and yes! I would definitely return to Thailand. Despite the smog, pollution, hard beds and risk of dengue, which is a risk in many parts of the world, I would return again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Back Home

After more than thirty-five hours of travel, which included three international flights and a five hour drive, we are finally home. Walking into our home after such a long journey from the other side of the world felt both strange and comforting. Even though we are home it feels like we are still in Thailand. In the same way we had to adjust to Thailand a month ago, we will now have to readjust to Canada. I suspect that the shock of returning home will be a fraction of what we experienced travelling abroad but I can already tell you that there have been several surprises. Yes, the change in weather has been jarring but so has the cost of food! I almost shed a tear after paying for some very basic groceries on our way home. My husband had to retrain his brain to driving on the right side of the road after learning to drive on the left and we both had to drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake today.

As we drove home through varied terrain that covers British Columbia my love for this part of the world was rekindled. We truly live in an amazing place and I am excited to go out exploring as soon as the jet lag wears off. However, before the details of Thailand begins to slip from my mind, which is a sad reality, I want to write a few more posts about our trip. Over the next few days I will keep on sharing about our adventures Thailand and then probably by next week I will have made the transition to being fully back in Canada.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bangkok Sea Life Ocean World

With only one day in Bangkok before returning home we had to prioritize the things that we wanted to see and do. Actually, our list was fairly short which made decision making quite simple. We wanted to explore Bangkok Sea Life Ocean World and shop at MBK Centre.

Bangkok Sea Life Ocean World was our first destination. It is located in the basement of the Siam Paragon Shopping Centre and we found that it was fairly easy to find. I was already aware of the steep admission fee which helped me prepare to hand over a ridiculous amount of baht. We purchased the family package which cost us 4,500 baht, had we purchased our tickets online twenty-four hours in advance we would have saved about 700 baht. The family pass allows you to get a short tour behind the scenes of the aquarium, ride a boat over the aquarium, see the 5D movie and get some popcorn and pop. What is worth it? The behind the scene tour and boat ride were interesting, but the 5D movie was underwhelming and the popcorn was gross. It was fun to try it all but if we were to go again we would get the simple day pass and save on some money.

The aquarium itself is awesome. It has over a dozen distinct areas each with its own theme and music. We were all intrigued by the amazing diversity of sea creatures. Beside each tank there is a plaque that describes the various sea creatures contained within, the description is written in Thai and English. There are also a significant amount of information detailing the importance conserving marine wildlife around the aquarium which comes with it being part of the Sea Life Trust.

Our favourite part was the ocean tunnel where you walk through a tunnel with sharks and sting rays swimming over you. Teddy refused to enter the tunnel at first and my husband had to carry him through while he wailed "too scary!!!!" at the top of his lungs. Who could blame him! It is such a surreal experience walking trough a tunnel with majestic sea creatures swimming over your head. Some other highlights were the jelly fish, sea horses, penguins, spider crabs and octopus. But really, we were captivated the whole time we were at aquarium. I would say that this place is a must see if you can don't mind spending a small fortune to get in.