Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hello Hong Kong

In the fall we had started planning our 2014 Chinese New Year trip, but when the tornado happened and we lost our house, we couldn’t focus on both things.  We pushed pause on our original idea and instead planned something much simpler.  We chose to return to Hong Kong and spend time outside of Hong Kong Disneyland, which we visited on our first trip to Hong Kong.

We landed on a Tuesday afternoon and I didn’t want to waste a moment, so I made reservations on a replica Chinese Junk Ship.  We sailed around the harbor and took in the Hong Kong skyline and lights.  I loved it, but LBean was less-than-thrilled to be tossed around a boat with the wind whipping around us.  To say the least, it was not a highlight of the trip for her.

Hong Kong Skyline
Replica Junk Ship
Tad bit windy
Bright and fun!
The next morning we strolled through Hong Kong stopping at a bakery for breakfast and a children’s toy and clothing store I had discovered during my online research.  In the afternoon, we took the Star Ferry line across the harbor and had a proper English tea at a hotel.  It was fantastic and, for me, a highlight of our trip.  The McClintocks to get excited about tea!  We have tea parties at our house often, complete with tiny china tea-cups, sugar and biscuits and I think our girls enjoyed going to a real one.  Also, it was exciting for them to see adults having tea and using all the manners that we constantly talk about.  Each girl got their own set of fancy desserts and tea or hot chocolate.

On the Star Ferry

EBean deciding what sweet treat
to eat first!
ChinaBean enjoyed afternoon tea too!
That is a tower of pure goodness!
A bit of cream for ChinaBean's fresh scone.
The next day we took a double-decker city bus to visit the Stanley market area.  We enjoyed wandering through a part of the market and walking along the boardwalk.  After the girls had worn themselves out a bit at near-by playground, we had lunch at an Irish pub that overlooked the water.  Irish pub in Hong Kong, why not?!  We eat Mexican and Indian in Suzhou all the time.

Shopping for some fresh fruit for a snack.
ChinaBean was fast asleep in the Ergo carrier.
Snacking on the boardwalk.
Let's get Baba (daddy in Mandarin) in a photo too.
One of our views as we took the bus back to
the city center.
Jamie and I planned a surprise trip to Hong Kong Disneyland for the girls.  We had told them that going to Disney was not the focus of our trip (and it hadn’t been) and they had not once complained or begged about going to see the mouse.  We were happy to take ChinaBean to Disney for the first time and enjoy all the Disney magic as a family of five.  It was also our first time to get to Disney via a subway ride!
My three little peanuts could not be cuter-
but I am biased!
LBean pretending to have Tinkerbell in her hand.
When did this girl get so big?!

Dizzy in the tea cups.
A photo op with a Chinese "Army"
man from Toy Story?  Yes please.

Our last full day in Hong Kong we walked to a near-by theater to see a children’s play called The Gruffalow’s Child, based on a book of the same name.  It was an hour-long production and completely geared towards young children. It was part of a series of productions called KidsFest Hong Kong.  The girls enjoyed it even though parts of the play were still a little intense.  It reminded me of how much I miss theater, both musicals and plays.  We have ballet and some children’s shows in Suzhou, but most (and maybe all) are in Mandarin and there certainly isn’t the variety.  I started having crazy thoughts about how we could fly down to Hong Kong every so often to see a play…
LBean, getting a new do.
ChinaBean wanted a "haircut" too.
The kind woman braided Amelia's hair for her.

That night (our last night) at dinner ChinaBean didn’t eat much and she kept saying “full”.  I had an idea of what she meant by that, but I pushed that thought out of my head.  Unfortunately, I was right, and later as we were getting read for bed she got sick, really sick.  (If you’ve been keeping track this now means the McClintocks have had a stomach bug in Indonesia, Thailand and now Hong Kong.)  We got her settled and we all headed to bed.  

In the middle of the night I heard the gagging sound again and I yelled to Jamie “We’ve got another puker!”  We had to flip on the light to see if it was LBean or EBean.  EBean had one the prize this time.  Morning came quickly (or maybe it was slowly, I don't know) and we packed up the best we could.  We stuffed extra clothes for the flight home in our carry-on bags and crossed our fingers that we would make it home safely.  Jamie took EBean and I had ChinaBean and we tried to conceal our vomiting children as much as we could on the plane (sorry fellow passengers).  I was praying that our sick kiddos wouldn’t set off the temperature detectors at the mainland China airport when we arrived.  We got lucky and made it through immigration and customs.  Jamie stopped for a moment to grab some drinks before we hopped in the van to drive home.  When he stepped out of the store he sniffed the air and said “Something smells out here.”  I looked up and said “I’m pretty sure it’s us honey.  We’re covered in vomit.”  He still swears that it wasn’t us, but I’m not so sure.

Home sweet home felt so good (and so did a very hot shower).

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The McClintocks Take on Thailand (Bangkok)

Our first full day we went to visit the Grand Palace where the Kings of Siam (and then Thailand) lived until the 1920’s.  Our time in Thailand also happened to overlap with some of the major protests leading up to their next election.  We had not put “attend a political protest” on our to-do list, so before we left we asked the concierge if he thought it was safe to go.  He nonchalantly shrugged and said “I think today it is okay.”  You think?!  We prepped the girls that we were headed to the palace, but if we saw anything that made us nervous or uncomfortable, that we would turn around.  EBean said to keep our eyes on the trees and look for bad guys.  I have no idea where that thought came from.  

I am happy to say that the Grand Palace was a very safe place to visit that day.  The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is also on the palace grounds.  During our time in SE Asia I have seen my fair share of temples.  In fact, I have told Jamie that I am about “templed” out.  (Similar to trying to visit every cathedral in Europe.  You can only see so many before they all run together.)  However, I have to say that the Thai temples are just amazing.  The detail work and intricate decorations are stunning.  So far the Temple of the Emerald Buddha has been my favorite.  

Getting ready to go inside.

Men had to wear pants and ladies were
required to have their knees & arms covered.
Clothing was provided, if you did not come prepared.

So pretty!
I've never seen anything like it!
Every historical monument must include ice cream, right?!

LBean took a turn at being the photographer.
After touring the palace grounds we took a tuktuk ride to a the Museum of Siam.  The museum had several interactive portions, which really appealed to our three girls.  We enjoyed wandering through the exhibits and seeing what caught the girls' interest.
Is the road ready for these two?
Pretending to dig for artifacts.
In some "traditional" garb.
Colonial traditional.
Pretending to be on TV.
Do these ladies have their driving licenses?
Pretending to work at a food cart.
In the evening we hopped on the subway to find the Siam Niramit show.  The performance showcased many different songs, stories and traditional dress in different areas of Thailand.  Some parts were a bit scary and intense for our girls, but generally they enjoyed it.  At one point during the performance elephants were walked through the theater and at a different part, the front of the stage was turned into a river where boats floated by.  If we would have known, we should have gone earlier.  Outside the theater was a recreation of several different types of Thai houses, farming practices, weaving looms, etc.  It was really appealing to our girls, but we were rushed to get through it all.

Enthralled with the performers.

LBean receiving a traditional Thai greeting,
which included a string bracelet.

The rest of our trip took a turn for the ugly at this point.  LBean was the first to succumb to a stomach bug.  She spent her last day in the hotel munching on dry toast and watching television.  We cancelled our plans to visit a floating market and I wandered around the mall across the street with EBean.  Things were looking up until Saturday, the morning we flew back to Shanghai.  ChinaBean became ill at breakfast and was not well during our flight and drive home.  EBean didn’t get sick until we returned home, and well...I didn’t get sick until the following Tuesday.  Unfortunately stomach bugs and international flights have become our new norm.  With everyone not feeling well, it was a good time to return home and to our own beds.
In the end we were all smiling.  It was good to be home!

Friday, May 2, 2014

The McClintocks Take on Thailand (Phuket)

We made the decision at the end of last summer to not return to the US for Christmas.  The girls and I had just spent 3 months in the US and we thought we would be moving back to the US this coming summer (2014).  So we made the choice to take advantage of our current location and remaining time in SE Asia to cross another destination off our must-see list and go to Thailand for Christmas break.  

Shortly after we booked tickets and made hotel reservations we found out that our time in China would be extended (not really a surprise and not unwelcome).  Then November 2013 rolled around and we lost our house in the US to a tornado.  We spent some time debating whether or not to change our plans, but ultimately there was nothing we could do to help with the clean-up during the middle of winter, our house lot would still be waiting for us, and temporarily escaping a bit of stress sounded really great (and maybe wise too?)

Jamie and I have always enjoyed seeing new places and experiencing new things.  Not only is it just plain fun, but we believe that it is an important part of our family.  It brings us together and we develop our planning, communication and conflict resolution skills.  We believe that having shared experiences are important for our girls.  And, nothing cements a marriage like handling two girls with the stomach flu on an international flight!  You take that girl, I’ll take this one and we’ll see each other when we land.

The day after Christmas we flew from Shanghai to Phuket, Thailand.  Phuket is on the western side of the peninsula.  Our flight landed in the middle of the night and we were so grateful that the hotel was not far away and we could crawl into our beds and sleep for a few hours.

The hotel was on the beach and the irony of Jamie and I on a beach vacation has not escaped me.  Before our time in SE Asia, we were not “beach people”.  Our fair skin does not handle sun well - it’s pretty obvious!  I joke that when I “tan” I go from white to ecru, or if the day didn’t go well, lobster red.  Now though, we can appreciate a good day at the pool and beach playing with our girls and enjoying the fresh air and breeze.

Our typical beach vacation follows the same routine…large breakfast buffet, morning at the pool or beach, lunch poolside if possible, afternoon naps for ChinaBean and one parent while the big sisters are at the hotel’s kids club staying out of the sun, then back into the water until dinner.  The routine usually ensures that everyone sleeps really, really well at night!

Our room included this nice alcove with
two Thai triangular pillows.
Painting at the kids club.
LBean also enjoyed painting a parasol.

Enjoying the beach.
This trip was no different, we enjoyed a lot of water time.  LBean has discovered the joy of being tossed around in the waves and loves to jump and splash.  EBean has been taking swimming lessons every Wednesday afternoon at school and has become much more confident in her swimming ability.  She had fun showing off her new skills.  And, ChinaBean was happily along for the ride!

Being the connoisseur of massage that I am, I was very excited to get a Thai massage on the beach for an extremely reasonable price.  As my friend pointed out to me, why pay more to go inside to the spa and listen to a recording of the ocean, when I could just stay outside and listen to my personal ocean soundtrack.  I also enjoyed listening to the Thai ladies speak to each other.  The Thai language is so melodic and gentle and very different from what I hear daily in China.  I imagine they were sharing stories about their children, poking fun at all the tourists and making plans for what they would cook for dinner, but it was music to my ears!

The massage "room" on the beach.  (I forgot to take
a picture during the day time.)
One of the days we left the resort and went to on an elephant park to take the family on an elephant trek.  To be very honest, I was very skeptical as to what we would see and the conditions of the elephants.  How do I put this…my past experiences traveling in some parts of SE Asia have made me very wary and we have seen some very poor living conditions for animals.  But, I was extremely glad to be wrong about my assumptions.  The facility was really nice and clean.  We were placed into a group and taken to different stations on the property where Thai women explained to us how all the parts of the coconut are used, showed how rice is harvest and prepared, explained the ingredients in traditional Thai green curry, served us Thai tea and coconut “pancakes”, and told us about how rubber trees came to Thailand. 
Preparing a coconut.
Passing around the outside of a coconut.
Cleaning out the meat of the coconut.
Making coconut oil.
A Thai curry presentation.
ChinaBean thoroughly enjoyed her Thai rice.
Explaining how Thai tea is prepared.
Enjoying some refreshments.
Water buffalo.

A Thai pancake.
After all of the demonstrations we were escorted up to a viewing ring.  Two of the elephants were brought into the ring while our guide explained the elephant training.  The elephant handlers are an ethnic group of people from the far boarder in western China.  They handlers live and work on the grounds, so they are constantly with the elephants.  We purchased a basket of fruit to feed to the elephants.  

Even for elephants, our family of five is too big!  We divided up and Jamie took LBean, who was a bit nervous and I took the two littles.  EBean looked as if she was sitting on a throne and was just as proud.  The view was idyllic, the breeze was gentle and warm, and the sway from the elephant was gentle.  Pretty much perfect.  At the end of the ride we were given the opportunity to take a picture with our elephant and its handler.  To this day, ChinaBean will tell you how her elephant gave her an “ouchie”.  What she means is that she felt the rough whiskers on the elephant’s trunk.

I'm on an elephant! 

EBean loved her ride and sat as tall & proud as a queen.
LBean was a little less excited about the adventure.
Our vacation put us in Thailand for New Year’s Eve.  Even though Jamie and I don't seek out extreme ways to celebrate NYE, we have done some pretty fun things…fireworks on the Vegas strip, the Rose Bowl, a concert in Chicago.  This year LBean & EBean jumped up and down and started begging when they heard that the Kids Club at the hotel was having a kids NYE party.  We agreed to let them do that, and Jamie, ChinaBean and I went to a Thai restaurant for dinner.  After our big girls had danced the early evening away and gotten some gifts at their party, we sat by the reflecting pool on one of the giant swings and tried to stay awake until midnight.  The girls didn’t make it, but Jamie and I did step out on the balcony to watch the fireworks on the beach.

This girl is ready to party! 
Mmmm, Thai food!

Our hotel
Happy New Year!
The next day we packed up our exhausted girls and headed back to the airport.  Next stop, Bangkok.  We had to fly through the city anyway, so I decided we might as well spend a few days there.  Bangkok has a bit of a reputation, as many people might have heard (cough, cough).  We managed to keep it family-friendly and have a memorable time.  I'll post more on Bangkok next time.