London with kids

So our UK and France holiday has begun – and what better place to begin than London?

I thought I’d share my thoughts on seeing London with a troupe of kids in tow. The way our itinerary worked out, we only had two and a half days for London sightseeing, and while thankfully the long days (it doesn’t get dark here in summer until 10pm) meant we could really squeeze a lot in, if I was planning the trip again I would have allowed longer. The “underground” here is amazing and you can get around fast, but hopping onto the tube and zipping around from sight to sight is draining for kids. Anyway here’s what we did and loved!

The London Pass

These passes weren’t cheap, but we were really glad we bought them. With entry to heaps of sights included, plus the Hop On Hop Off Bus and River Thames Cruise, it was worth it. And the kids were super excited it meant 10 per cent off in the gift shops and cafes 🙂

The Hop on Hop Off Bus

Definitely a winner. A great way to see London, and while it’s a little slow due to London traffic it means you get rest weary legs, and get great pictures.

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Tower of London (including the Crown Jewels)

I think this was our favourite stop, and honestly you could spend an entire day here. We saw the medieval palace and the Crown Jewels, which the kids loved. I would have loved to have seen the Bloody Tower but you just have to miss some things!

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Thames River Cruise

This was included in the London Pass and was a real treat. The young English tour guide gave funny and lively descriptions as we passes various sights and under bridges, and it was lovely seeing Westminster for the first time from the Thames.

Westminster, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey

Little Miss was so excited to see Big Ben and it did not disappoint! It’s much larger than you realise from pictures. And the Abbey was incredible, although by that time (it was one of the last stops) she was pretty tired. We had afternoon tea at the Abbey and it was delicious.

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The Science Museum

The kids loved it, even though I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been on my own. It was interesting, but I would have preferred the Victoria and Albert Museum. When you are travelling with kids that’s just the way it is!

Buckingham Palace

We missed the Changing of the Guard but the kids really enjoyed seeing the palace. It doesn’t really take very long either.

Harrods

One simply must go to Harrods in London! What an incredible place. Of course I could only afford some tea, cards and a half-price carry bag but it’s absolutely amazing. You have to see the cafe, dining hall and patisserie, even if you don’t buy anything.

Hyde Park

We were so lucky to have had perfect weather, and Hyde Park really is the jewel in London’s crown. The gardens are stunning, and the squirrels are delightful. A great place to stop and rest and eat an ice cream.

 

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Poundland

Kids being kids, they were just as excited to find Poundland (where everything is, as you guessed, one pound) as they were about seeing Buckingham Palace. I had pooh-poohed Poundland, and then had to eat humble pie. You can get snacks, bottled water, sundries and other items  – all for one pound! It was exciting.

All up, we absolutely loved London. A note of caution – apart from Poundland, it is expensive to eat, so budget accordingly. Also the coffee is not very good and you have to pay for public toilets! And I’d allow a few more days if possible (we lost a day to the Harry Potter Tour, which I’ll write about separately). But make sure you go! It is such a wonderful city, and even the normal houses and buildings are so interesting and beautiful to see.

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What our children teach us

So much of parenthood is about what we teach our children: to be kind, to listen, to like vegetables (hmmm, maybe failing on that one) and to never, under any circumstances, leave those little pieces of Lego on the floor.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how reciprocal parenting is, and thought I’d share some of the things my kids have taught me.

Bookworm

There were so many delightful things about my baby Bookworm. He was super cute and loved books (obviously) and he was whip-smart – full sentences by the time he turned 18 months old. He had a fantastic sense of humour and he really liked day naps (hallelujah). But he was also very anxious and shy, and didn’t like unfamiliar environments or people. We didn’t go to playgroup much because it just wasn’t fun for me to have a child I was literally unable to put down on the floor (with all the other babies who were perfectly happy on the floor). I felt embarrassed every time people would come over, and he’d cry when they walked in the room. I hated the fact that sometimes other people couldn’t see how funny and gorgeous he was, because he would struggle to talk to them, or even look at them. I was young when I had Bookworm – 25 years old – and still very much in the stage of working myself out. I was also in an incredibly judgemental environment, where any deficiency in your child was seen as a reflection on you – like, your baby cries when you leave the room? Clearly your fault for never leaving them with a babysitter/leaving them too much/no daycare/too much daycare  blah blah blah. I knew I shouldn’t care what other people thought, but I did. I wished he was different. I wanted him to be one of the “normal” kids who was running around playing, not cowering on my lap. I was feeling pretty upset about it one day, and asked my mother what I should do about it; how I could change what was happening. And my lovely Mum said, “I just think it’s really important that you don’t emotionally abandon him.” It really struck me, and turned my thinking round about (and right side up). I stopped agonising about what I could do to change him – and started changing myself. By accepting him just the way he was, I let go of feeling like we had to meet anyone else’s expectations.

I’m not saying it happened overnight – I still fall into the trap of caring too much what others think. But I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s because Bookworm was sent to me to teach me the lesson.

Picasso

Ah, Picasso. It’s true that the extra difficult kiddoes are also extra gorgeous. My Picasso is exactly like a bear. At times so soft and snuggly, you melt for him. He’s sweet and sensitive and kind and gives you these long, still hugs that are just delicious. And then at other times he’s just so completely intractable. Unmoving, some would say. Stubborn. He’s the kind of person that won’t just accept what you say – he has to know it for himself. The fact that there’s a rule doesn’t mean it’s a rule he has to agree with. The fact you say the bike is too big to fit in the car doesn’t mean he just accepts the fact that you’re a grown up and know that the bike is too big to fit in the car. He has to KNOW that the bike doesn’t fit in the car. He has to waste half an hour trying everything to fit the bike in the car. Only then will he accept that the bike doesn’t fit in the car (in the meantime you’ve had a frustrated meltdown). He has taught me, I guess, about power and respect. He’s not the sort of child you can say “just do it because I told you so.” He needs explanations. And while this is sometimes really, really frustrating, I’m also glad that he’ll be a person who will need to discover things for himself, and not just blindly accept what he’s told. I love that about him – it’s just a difficult characteristic to parent sometimes. Picasso certainly has taught me a lot about patience.

Little Miss

There’s just something about Little Miss that makes your heart smile. She is always dancing or singing, or doing handstands or making something for the fairies; she fills up every second of her life, always brimming with enjoyment of the moment.

With the boys, I could sneak in work emails or a conversation with a friend while they were drawing or playing blocks. This never worked with Little Miss. It just wouldn’t do. If she was drawing, WE had to draw. If we had a conversation, she’d literally grab my face in her hands and make me look into her eyes. We had to ENGAGE. If I was cooking, she was cooking too, and that’s ALL we were doing. She delights in everything she does, and she does everything wholeheartedly. She has taught me so much about being present.

I’ll be honest – I really struggle with this. I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, or a hangover from having worked in media for so long – I naturally want achieve about 18 things at once before breakfast. A friend once told me I have a “very fast tempo”. It’s hard to slow down and just be present in the moment. But I’m so glad Little Miss has helped (and is still helping) me do this.

 

I’d love to hear what your little people have taught you 🙂

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Oh, to be seven

Of late, I’ve been watching Little Miss and thinking that seven years old is just about the perfect age to be. After some reflection, here are my reasons why it’s just the most delightful age….

It’s super easy to make friends

I took Little Miss to a school holiday workshop the other day, and she was nervous at first because she didn’t know anyone else. When I picked her up afterwards, she told me she’d made a new friend. I asked her how they had become friends and she frowned at me, puzzled by my question. “She asked if I wanted to be her friend, and I said yes”. I love it. It’s fast, direct and you know right away where you stand. Why do we complicate friendships as adults? The next time I meet a fellow human I like, I’m going to try it.

You can do flawless cartwheels

I can only imagine my body would go into some kind of toxic shock if I attempted a cartwheel or a handstand. Little Miss is able to spend most of her day whirling around or upside down, and never seems to get tired. Totes jel.

You still believe in magic

Little Miss has an ongoing letter exchange with the Midnight Garden Fairies. She writes them notes and leaves them flowers, and they draw her pictures and tell her all about the fairy realm. She delights in magic, and I delight in the memory of the magic I once believed in. It’s seriously the best thing about parenting.

You’re discovering amazing books for the first time

The Enchanted Wood. Narnia. The Twits. I feel as though her joy in reading these wonderful, wonderful classics for the first time rekindles the delight I felt when I was her age, devouring Enid Blyton book by book.

Who’d like to turn the clock back to seven with me?

Celebrating milestones

Last week Souljourneyboy and I took the kids to a local shopping centre after school. We decided to eat dinner in the food court – which of course sounds much easier than it actually is! Everybody wanted something different and it took a good half an hour for us to help each child get their meal from their desired food outlet. When we finally sat down together I remarked to Souljourneyboy that I am looking forward to the day when we just give the kids $10 each and they are all capable of sourcing whatever food they want themselves.

Thinking upon it later, I was reminded of similar times, when I’d look forward to various milestones that held the promise of making parenting just that bit easier. It’s funny – you desperately look forward to the time when your child is capable of some new feat, but when they actually do achieve it, it’s easy to rush forward into the new stage without really celebrating that the old one is over. And so, with a 6-year-old, 9-year-old and 11-year-old, here’s what I’m thankful for right now…

Everyone’s finally mastered this sleep thing 

I really think sleep deprivation is the single most exhausting, frustrating and difficult thing about parenting. I remember being up with a newborn in the middle of the night,  just crying, wondering why on earth I’d even bother trying to sleep when I knew I’d have to be up in an hour anyway. And then the years of everyone waking up and demanding attention at 5am! It’s a wonder I’m at all sane. Anyway, I’m pleased to report now that, apart from the odd bad dream, everyone pretty much sleeps in their own bed all night. They go to the toilet by themselves and when they wake up they do their own thing and don’t wake us up. It’s quite, quite wonderful.

Everyone can get their own drink

I know this doesn’t sound like much, but to parents with toddlers this is a REALLY BIG DEAL. I always felt like I’d just sit down after hours of playing/baking/cooking/cleaning and I’d hear a small voice – “I thirsty”. They can get their own drinks and their own food, and it makes life so much more enjoyable!

Having their friends over makes life easier  

When kids are little, there’s a limit to how long a play date can last. They really enjoy it for the fist hour or so – but then all of a sudden your kid doesn’t want to share their “favourite train” (you know, the one they haven’t played with for three years) or their friend throws something and it hits someone’s head, and it’s all over. Now, when they have friends over they disappear for hours and I rarely have to sort anything out.

When they help, it actually helps

I recall gritting my teeth when a little voice asked to “help” cook or mop or use the vacuum. I felt like it drained all my motherly reserves of patience! But now, it’s actually helpful 🙂 They can vacuum and clean and even cook without too much assistance.

There are no more naps This literally changed my life. My day is no longer carved up into pockets of time, with that constant underlying fear that you’ll stay somewhere 10 minutes too long and someone will suddenly get overtired and throw a tantrum at the shops. I really am so glad the napping stage is behind us.

What milestones have your kids reached that you are grateful for?

Fun for the family in Langkawi

When I was organising our itinerary in the early stages of planning, I did loads of research on tropical islands, trying to find the perfect place for a 5 lengthy relaxation stop after 5 weeks of hard travelling. After much research, I landed on Langkawi – and I am delighted to say this beautiful island has not disappointed us! Here’s how we’ve spent the last six days…

 Relaxing at the Bon Ton Resort

A colleague of mine visited Bon Ton earlier last year, and had raved about it. It was certainly far more pricey than any of our other accommodation (which had been super-budget) but a fortuitous tax return enabled us to splurge a little, and we have absolutely loved it here. I think what I liked most is that it’s not your typical big resort, which can feel a little characterless. It’s not large – a handful of beautiful 100-year old wooden Malay villas situated around a lovely but simple pool, beside a lake. The restaurant is superb, the food delicious – the best I’ve had in this entire trip. There are gorgeous touches everywhere – old statues, a boutique shop, lounge areas with daybeds, fresh towels always available by the pool, free water and fruit delivered to your daybed while you’re swimming… and cats. Loads of cats! The Bon Ton operates a cat sanctuary which desexes and houses stray cats, some of whom live at the resort. The kids loved playing with them. The only drawback is that there is a vet clinic with dogs next door, and sometimes a plane overhead will set them barking. This didn’t happen often though. The staff are super friendly and are happy to organize anything for you. Adding to the chilled vibe was that you didn’t have to go anywhere for breakfast – the staff pack it into your fridge the night before. We loved that, and no one got out of bed before about 9:30am each day! Our villa was gorgeous too, two huge rooms, a kitchenette and two bathrooms, one with an enormous timber bath. It was also next to a sister resort – the Temple Tree, and you were able to use their pools and restaurant too. Highly recommend!

Chilling out on Pantai Cenang

The main beach strip in town is a great place to eat, drink and be merry, and just a few minutes’ drive from the Bon Ton. It didn’t feel as touristy as Nha Trang – it has a really great, relaxed beach vibe but without the sleaze. Probably because Langkawi is a Muslim island. The beach itself is nice and there are heaps of water sports you can do. Souljourneyboy took Bookworm and Picasso out on a jet ski – Bookworm loved it, but it was a little bit too much for poor Picasso.

The Andaman Resort

We’d heard that the beaches on the north of the island are amazing, and so we headed out in our rental car to the Andaman Resort, which is an incredible place right beside the beach and hidden in the jungle. We bought lunch there and asked to use the private beach, which wasn’t a problem. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to – powdery white sand, and crystal clear water. We swam for ages. Then we used the resort-style Andaman pool for a while before heading back to the Bon Ton. It was a lovely outing, though I probably wouldn’t want to stay there – it was a little too far from everything else. Apparently you can do a similar kind of trip to the Four Seasons hotel as well, and their beach is just as lovely.

Island hopping

The staff at the Bon Ton organized this for us, and it was so much fun, except for Little Miss, who unfortunately had a bad cold. We went out in a small boat to visit one of the outer islands with a freshwater lake, which was fun until we were attacked by an enraged monkey that wanted our bag and towels. It was seriously terrifying, and Picasso and Souljourneyboy were the only ones to keep their heads. (If ever I saw proof that Picasso will make an excellent nurse, I saw it then – quick, cool, calm and collected, even when a monkey was chasing him, screeching all the way. Bookworm and Little Miss were completely hysterical 🙂 ). We also visited a mangrove and watched wild water eagles diving for fish, and then went swimming on an uninhabited island on the way back. Heaps of fun, and less than $100 for the five of us on a private boat.

 A note on car rental for Langkawi and Penang

 You really do need to hire a car when you visit Langkawi. There was no public transport I could see, apart from taxis. It wasn’t expensive – about $30 a day, and we really enjoyed tripping around the island. You organize the cars through the hotel where you’re staying, and it’s very easy to do.

We also hired a car in Penang, which was a LOT more expensive, probably because we got it from one of the companies at the airport. I don’t think it’s worth it if you are travelling alone or as a couple – there are excellent hop-on/hop-off buses that go to all the tourist spots. As a family though I think it was worth it. We could keep our own schedule, leave stuff in the car, and enjoy good air-conditioning as we travelled around. I will say though that driving in Georgetown is very stressful (and caused some raised voices on more than one occasion!) For some bizarre reason, the same road will be one-way up to a half way point, and then switch directions to be one-way, but going the other way. The directions meet in the middle, and the road just veers you right off onto some other road, so before you know it, you’ve turned twice and you are ages away from where you need to be with no idea how to turn around. Quite odd!

We’re heading to Koh Lipe next for a few more days of beachside fun, before flying back to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of nights as our last stop. I am so sad our wonderful trip is nearly over! We have just enjoyed it so much.

Great things to do in Penang for the whole family

Penang! Where to start? Only to say – I think I could live here!

One of the best things about travelling with kids is that you visit places you might not normally visit – and you are so glad you did. And the great thing about Penang is that I didn’t feel like the attractions were either for grown-ups OR for kids – they were just fantastic for everyone. We were there four days and we barely scratched the surface, but here’s what we loved:

 Little India

Butter chicken. Need I say more? We had it three days in a row and Picasso was in heaven. Little India is in Georgetown and is, indeed, Little India. We enjoyed the food, the music and the atmosphere, bought some gemstones and just soaked it up.

 Penang Municipal Park (Youth Park)

This is one attraction we probably wouldn’t have visited if we didn’t have kids and we would have totally missed out! It’s beautiful – positioned beside a waterfall and in the jungle. It has playing equipment, exercise equipment, three pools, soccer field, skate park, chess sets, archery range – and it’s ALL FREE. Yes, that’s right. There are monkeys everywhere and one cheeky fellow stole the bag of crisps from right under my nose and sat under a bush eating it, mocking me 🙂

 Penang Butterfly Farm

With 3,000 species of butterflies to see, this is one amazing place. They flutter all around you in the enclosure, and there are also other insects and spiders to see inside. The kids learned a lot and loved it.

Batu Ferringhi

The beach strip in Penang. We found a quiet little beach near Hard Rock Hotel and had a lovely time swimming. The water was so warm and the waves small enough for Little Miss to really enjoy.

Penang Hill

This was amazing. We took the funicular to the top, which provides breath-taking views over Georgetown and Penang. There’s heaps to do once you’re there, including a jungle walk where we saw a Giant Black Squirrel, an Owl Museum and places where you get Henna art done – which Little Miss was very excited about. There’s also a temple and other attractions but we didn’t have time for everything. It probably deserves a whole day on its own. My only advice would be to NOT eat at Bellevue Hill Hotel, which was an expensive and horrible lunch.

 Georgetown 3D Art Museum

Again, something we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have the kids, and it was awesome. It’s an art gallery of trick images, which look like they are coming out if the wall. You can have your picture taken and it looks very cool. The kids LOVED this. Here’s an example:

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All in all, I highly recommend Penang as a family destination. I would definitely come again and this time stay for longer. We had such fun as a family here.

The truth about travelling with kids

We’ve been busily travelling for a month now, so I feel it is time for an honest post about what it’s like to travel overseas with three young children.

Travelling with kids is like a distilled dose of parenting. Consumed straight up, neat, in a shot glass. The highs are higher, the experiences more intense, the lows are lower, and the frustrations are more frustrating.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there’s just a lot of stuff to sort out. While you’re in the middle of enjoying an ancient Buddhist monastery, someone will urgently need to go to the toilet. You sit down to lunch, and invariably someone doesn’t like what they’ve ordered. Someone has a sore finger or a bumped head or a question about mythology that must be answered RIGHT NOW. Someone doesn’t like their seat and no one will swap with them, or they’ve suddenly dropped their chocolate biscuit and there are none left; someone’s shoe hurts, and at exactly the same time someone else needs the toilet urgently AGAIN. Yep, it’s pretty time consuming and exhausting.

Secondly, there’s this universal truth – wherever you are, there you are. Sibling issues do not disappear just because you’ve paid thousands of dollars to travel to the other side of the world and experience something amazing. Sadly, my parenting skills or patience levels didn’t miraculously improve either. Picasso is still stubborn and annoys Bookworm. Bookworm still overreacts. Little Miss still gets tired before everyone else and takes out her grumpiness on her brothers. And of course, all this is exacerbated by the fact that you are in each other’s company 24 HOURS A DAY. No breaks. You eat, sleep, travel and play together constantly. This means you witness all the stupid fights that they usually have outside of your hearing. It also means bickering over small things takes on epic proportions. I kid you not, one of the most intense arguments occurred over the microbeads in hand sanitizer. I had no idea it was possible to even argue over hand sanitizer. This then of course led to a mammoth parenting fail on my behalf and I yelled at Bookworm beside the Statue of Lenin. (Bookworm has told me this has now negatively coloured his view of communism – if he ends up becoming a raging right-wing fanatic, I do apologise, everyone 🙂 ).

Finally, travelling successfully with the same five people day in and day out takes two things – selflessness and the ability to practice delayed gratification. Yeah – two things kids are REALLY AWESOME at doing. They don’t seem to understand that at the airport our priority is finding the right tickets and getting on the right plane. Why? Because their priority is making sure they have a turn wheeling the new suitcase RIGHT NOW. They have to work really, really hard at putting each other first, with countless reminders from us, and most of the time it feels like an uphill battle.

So, with all of this – why would anyone travel with kids??

I’ve thought about it a lot, and my answer is this – travel makes the most sense when you do it with children. Doors open when you travel with kids – particularly in Asia. Everyone has a smile or a present for them. Everyone wants to chat to them or take their picture. It gives you a unique perspective you wouldn’t get as a single person, or as a couple. And if travel is about expanding horizons, then that is magnified a hundred fold in children. You see their world view growing and changing right before your eyes. Kids don’t have the same prejudices and hangups we do. They encounter something they don’t understand, or something new challenges the way they think or what they know – and the process to acceptance and understanding is very quick. It’s fascinating to watch. Travelling with kids also opens up the most amazing conversations with them about all kinds of things – politics, religion, poverty, government, family, obligation, deformity, sex, drugs, disease – you name it, we’ve discussed it in the past 4 weeks. It also forces you to really work through some of your relationship issues quick smart. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself as a parent in the past 4 weeks, which has been somewhat confronting, but very useful.

So, if you are brave and foolish enough to travel overseas with children, I’ll share some things that the past month has taught me:

Lower your expectations and let go of unrealistic ones

As an only child, I really struggle with the sibling bickering thing. I just don’t get it. I can’t stand listening to it. It makes me feel like I’ve failed as a parent, which I know is ridiculous, but I can’t help thinking it anyway. Travelling has brought me face-to-face with some of my unrealistic ideals and forced me to just embrace the moment as it is. They WILL argue, whether you’re in your own home or on the Eiffel Tower. Just be prepared to try and ignore it as much as possible and not rise and fall with their emotions (this is a real struggle for me).

Spend a bit more for hotels with good breakfasts and a pool/outdoor area if possible

The times we scrimped on hotels and had a crappy breakfast, we had a crappy morning. Kids are happier if they are not hungry. Also, it depends on the season you’re travelling in, but kids need to burn off energy, and pleasantly strolling through unknown streets doesn’t count. They need parks, pools and play areas.

 Understand they won’t necessarily like the same things you do

We’ve been pretty lucky with this one, because the boys particularly have really enjoyed the museums and touristy sites we’ve gone to. Little Miss not so much, but I keep reminding myself she’s only six. However one of the most delicious memories I have is being in Lake Como with Soul Sister and reading in bed for hours on a cold, rainy day. When faced with similar weather in Hue, spending the day like that would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, and while the kids were pretty good most of the day, everyone was climbing the walls by bedtime.

Split them up on occasion

When the personalities start to grate, it’s a good time to split up. We have found it works more naturally for Little Miss and Bookworm to come with me, and Picasso with Souljourneyboy.

Appreciate the good moments when you have them

In some moments, I did despair. But then there were these moments too – Little Miss writing on a beautiful card she bought at the night markets for her brothers about how much she loved them. Picasso offering Bookworm money when he lost his wallet. Bookworm giving up his window seat in the plane for his little sister. Its important to appreciate them when they happen, and remember that these shared experiences are good for them to soften some of the sharper edges of their personalities as well.

Find the technology balance that works for you

I’m sure there are parents out there who could entertain their kids on a four-hour bus trip with a set of teeth and an egg carton. I am not one of those parents. With that in mind, we decided to buy the kids an iPad mini each for Christmas before we left. We are really happy with the balance we’ve found – the iPads do not come anywhere with us when we are sight seeing or out to eat or playing. They are for the hotel room and long trips only. They have honestly been a godsend – they’re not just used for games, but we also downloaded a couple of movies and TV shows, as well as books, and apps that tell you all about the country you’re in. With all the travel we did in Vietnam – traversing a country 1650km long – they were invaluable. Also, when you have five people living in one room, they’re a good way of each person having some space.

And my final, most important piece of advice? Travel as a single person (I’ll forever regret I did not do this). Then travel as a couple. Then, make sure you travel with your kids (and bring some valium along for the ride 🙂 )