How a Teacher and a Therapist Took Their Family Around the World for Four Months.

In 2017 we did it.  Our family of four spent four months travelling around Southeast Asia, we called it “Four for Four – Cheeseburgers in Asia.”  We communed with elephants, we soared across the Laotian jungle, we licked the most delicious peanut sauce from our fingers, we laughed with faces that spoke no common tongue to ours.  Four months away from work and regular life.  Four months exploring different landscapes and cultures.  Four months of intense togetherness.

Many people have asked us how we did it.

This post is such a description – how we managed our jobs, our money, the kids’ school, and our attachments back home.  If you want to read more about what we did, I included some links to adventure blogposts at the bottom of this post.

Also, this blogpost is an invitation to my new blog project.  I am back in Bellingham, Washington, and I have been building a new business  called Trail Financial Planning.


We do financial planning and investment management for regular people.  Primarily, we work with families like us.  People with kids, with businesses, with values; people who care about life, and they way they live it.  As part of that endeavor, I blog about financially related matters that matter to me and my family – paying for college, retirement, taxes, our investments, etc.  My blog posts include:

Risk and return in the stock market

What I did to secure my credit

Should I request a refund of my Washington GET units? 

If you are interested in following that blog, you can either:

This blogpost is also a taste of financial planning.  It describes how we set a goal, and set about carrying it out.  We needed intention, money, time, and a bunch of logistics planning.  I’d be lying if I said it was easy.  But, I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of us.  I usually don’t like to make “brag-media” posts, but I know a lot of people are interested in doing something like this with their own families.  So, this post may get a little braggy.  Hopefully, this post will inspire others to reach for their big goals in life.

Here is a description of how we pulled off “Four for four.”

Step 1 – We built intention.

In 2013, Amy and I went out on a dinner date.  Our dinner dates are infrequent, and often careen into existential conversations like, “What the hell are we doing with our lives?”  While I was looking at the bill, sipping the last of my wine, we started talking about travel and trips with our kids.  At that time, Mia was in 5th grade, and Porter was in 2nd.  We had several trips we wanted to do, including a longer overseas travel experience.  On the back of the restaurant receipt, we listed the places we wanted to go, and the time available.  We figured we could pull off a semi-big trip every other year.

Travel goals – Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, Mexico, Central America, and a longer travel experience.

Time resources –  Seven summers before Mia would finish high school.

Oh crap.

Step 2 – We planned the time.

We decided  a four month trip made good sense for our family, and for Amy’s business.  We identified Mia’s 7th grade year as the right time – after she had a full year start to middle school, but before 8th grade and high school when school might feel more academic.

We circled the year on the receipt, and told the kids about our plans.  They took the news as kids often do about something totally incomprehensible:

Mia, our 11 year old, looked at us thoughtfully, “Uh, ok.”  Then her brow furrowed, “I guess so, but like when?  Which grade will I be in?  Where will we go?  How will we get there?  What would I do for school?  What would I eat?  What about Josie (our dog)?” She is her mother’s daughter.

Our 9 year old boy, Porter, responded with “Uh, sure.”  He is his father’s son.

We started telling others of our plans.  By writing down our goal and saying it out loud,  we gave the trip a certain destiny.

We went back-and-forth about what time of year to travel.  Amy and I decided on December through April, mostly because the window offered the best weather in Southeast Asia.  In addition, we could leverage the kids’ school holidays.

In the Spring of 2016, I wrote a letter to my school district asking for the time off (without pay of course) from my job as a high school teacher.  My principal was completely supportive.  So was the head of human resources.  It was as if these people read my request, and wanted the same thing for themselves.  They enthusiastically endorsed my plan.

Amy’s time off was a bit trickier.  She is a mental health therapist in private practice. Six months out she began telling her clients that she would be gone that winter.  At first, it seemed okay.  But then, the election result came in, and many of her clients seemed to experience re-traumatization.  Challenging.

Nevertheless, we left for the airport on December 11, 2016.

Step 3 – We planned the money.

How much?

I did some research.  Major research.  Meaning, I googled “How much does it cost to travel through Southeast Asia with a family?”

Turns out, there are many people who have written about this.  The “Indie Traveler” site was particularly useful (see note [1] for web reference).  Costs were reported as between $30 – $50 per day, per person, depending on the country.   I budgeted about $150/day, or $20,000 total, for our family.

This turned out to be a pretty close estimate.  At the end of the trip, I totaled our expenses: $19,262 for everything except flights to and from the USA (We used frequent flyer miles for those), or about $156 per day.  Wow, pretty close!

How to pay?

We paid for our trip out of savings.  We didn’t have the money saved before “the receipt,” but once we had committed to a dream, it was amazing how good we became at saving.  For about a year and a half before we left, we examined our monthly cash flows, and took a knife to our expenses.  We skipped a couple ski trips, and we cut down on restaurants.  We aimed to save about $1,000/month.  After a year and a half, we had about $25,000 in savings.  We didn’t want to use all of our savings (an emergency fund is important), so we also pulled some money from one of our Roth IRA accounts where some stock investments had done well.  Thanks to Apple and its iPhone!

Our actual travel costs

Although we tightened our belts before our trip, as travelers we lived well.  We did everything we wanted to, basically without regard for cost.  Of course, one’s travel style will be important here.  Our style is sort of the Do-It-Yourself, but without the cooking.  The major categories of expenses (listed in order of fun), were activities, food, accommodation and transport.

Activities and adventures were about one-third of the cost.   Some adventures were cheap (hikes or public museums), some were expensive – our guided trek in Nepal cost $2,700 for seven days.  I included some links to written up descriptions of our travel at the bottom of this post.

Fresh spring rolls on the street

Food was about 20% of our budget.  We ate good food every day, at restaurants or on the street.  The hotter and fresher the better we discovered.  We could eat on the street for about $2/meal per person.  Restaurants and cafes were more – around $4-5/meal per person.

Accommodation was about 25% of the budget.  We stayed in lots of different styles of accommodation, from gritty hostels to fancy hotels.  Our favorites were moderately priced home stays, where nice, clean, rooms cost between $30-$50 per night.  We loved the individuality, the people who ran such places, and the other travelers we met there.

Mia with Dung, the owner of one of our favorite home stays in Hoi An.

Transport accounted for about 25% of the cost as well.  We traveled by plane, train, bus, taxi, motorbike, tuk-tuk, song taew, long boat, bike, foot, and the back of a few trucks.

Amy and Mia buzzing around Ninh Binh, Vietnam


How we accessed money overseas

During our trip, we paid some for some things with a VISA card, but mostly we used cash.   We took out $300 – $500 from an ATM every few days; the machine delivered local currency of Baht, Dong or Rupiah.  The fees were modest, and well worth the saved hassle of needing to carry a lot of cash, travellers checks or some other method.  The machines were ubiquitous in popular tourist areas.   Sometimes I got a little stressed if I knew we would need a bunch of money to pay ahead.  For example, at “BEES Elephant Sanctuary” (see [3] for link), we needed to arrive at a remote location with over $1000 for a several day experience.  We planned ahead and hit the ATM a few days in a row, so it worked out.  There were other issues – border crossings usually required US dollars instead of the local currency of the exiting country.  If I did it again, I would have figured out how much US cash we would need, and just brought it in a hidden pocket.  We could have used around $500 US total for travel visas and other miscellaneous costs.

At first I kept track of our expenses with a detailed travel budget app.  But after some time, it became annoying.  I just wanted to experience the time and reflect upon it;  at some point even I, a spreadsheet geek, didn’t want to analyze it.  However, I persisted, because I knew I wanted to write this post.

US-based expenses

There were some US expenses that we had to cover, notably our home mortgage and health insurance.  Fortunately, we found a family to live in our house.  They paid for most of the mortgage payment and utilities while we were gone.   Health insurance, on the other hand, was just flat-out expensive.  , and we bought travel insurance.   But, US-based health insurance was pricey.  We paid nearly $1,200 per month for Amy’s policy and a COBRA policy from teaching for the kids and me.  Ouch.  Luckily we didn’t need to use it for any real ouches.  We did not want to skimp on keeping access to good health care.

Here are a few things that I learned about medical care and health insurance.

Medical care overseas was excellent.  We went to a doctor or other medical provider several times on our trip, and we received excellent care each time.  The needs were minor, so we just paid for it.  Total expenses for three visits:  about $100 including some prescription costs.

Travel insurance.  Travel insurance was relatively inexpensive – about $150/month for the entire family [3].  We wanted it in case we needed emergency evacuation.  Travel insurance companies specialize in working with systems overseas.  We never needed it, but well worth the peace of mind.

Our US-based health insurance.  We decided to keep our US-based health insurance while we were gone, in case we needed to come back to the US for care.  Fortunately we never needed to.  Although very expensive (we paid about $1,200/month for our family), we would not have done anything differently.  We wanted to keep access to a medical system we know and trust.  That said, the manner we kept US health insurance was a little clunky, and we probably could have done it better.  Amy has her own plan as a self-employed person.  We just kept paying the ~$350/month.  That was fine.  The kids and I are on a plan offered through my employer (Bellingham School District).  I was informed that I could sign up for COBRA.  I did, and it cost about $900/month.  What I did not realize was the “COBRA” is considered a new plan.  So deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses reset.  Even though the health insurance was the same exact plan, with the same exact benefits, offered through the same exact provider, and I paid the same exact premiums, we ended up with a “reset” on deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses twice in 2017, once when COBRA kicked in, and once when we switched back to my non-COBRA plan (when the 2017-18 school year began).  Grrrrrr.  Next time, I will research this a bit better.  There are bound to be more economical options than what we did.

Step 4 – We figured out school for the kids

For many families around the world, leaving school for four months is difficult.  Some European citizens are even assessed fines for for taking their kids out of school.  As a teacher, I know how difficult it can be for a student to be gone from school for an extended period.  Fortunately for us, the US school system is more lenient.  Officially, we un-enrolled the kids from school.  That turned out to be pretty easy, though Mia lost much of her electronic cloud-based work in OneDrive when her account was deleted.

Our kids’ teachers were incredibly supportive.  Porter’s 4th grade teachers, in particular, were hugely helpful.  The amazing Ms. Herndon prepared four months’ worth of math curriculum for us to take as home school along the way, arranged in travel-friendly packets including assessments!

At first, I didn’t intend to do much formal home school.  We used challenges like, “You have $10 US to go buy a gift from this Indonesian market for your secret santa person.  How much Rupiah is that, and go buy something.”  The kids loved that sort of thing.

Here is a youtube link to Porter carrying out some “homeschool travel math.”

After a couple months on the road, we could tell that the kids needed some structure.  So, we designated a couple days a week as “home school days.”  The kids would be required to do some math and some writing, plus another activity they don’t do on their own.   Mia would be required to do some sort of PE, while Porter would read.  We started doing some more formal math lessons and practiced using the supplied curriculum.  I really enjoyed being my own kids’ teacher, and Porter commented that he thought he was learning a lot since there was a single adult holding him accountable.

Porter doing some arithmetic racing in Hoi An

Step 5 – Plan the logistics

Amy is our travel planner.  I could go on and on about how much work she did.  But, this post is not about that substantial effort.  In short, she planned the first 3 weeks including transport and lodging before we left.  For the rest of the time, we basically figured it out as we went.  We found out that with kids, we liked having places booked ahead, rather than just showing up and figuring it out.  The internet is amazing for research.  There are a myriad of excellent sites to find accommodation and travel.  Trip Advisor and individual blogs gave us lots of third-party reviews.  Generally, once a week we would sit still, preferably near a beach or pool, to plan out the next one or two weeks.

Reflect, and celebrate

Although $20,000 is a pretty big price tag, in retrospect it seems a bargain.  We experienced so much, yet saw only a few other families traveling with kids.  I kept asking myself, “How many families are at Disneyland right now, and how much would that trip cost?”   A little more Googling finds some answers – about $1100 per day according to Hip Munk [6].  I have nothing against Disneyland, but we lived with real elephants [3], we ziplined hundreds of feet over the tops of a real Gibbon-inhabited forest [4], and we met real people around the world [5].  And we did it for about one-tenth the price.  Just sayin’.

Links.  We do not receive any compensation for externally linked websites.

[1]  “The Indie Traveller” – A good site with lots of detailed information about costs of travel.

[2] Nepal trekking.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, April 2017.

[3] Bees Elephant Adventure.  Blogpost written by Mia Chesbrough, February 2017.

[4] The Gibbon Experience.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, February 2017.

[5] People are People.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, January 2017.

[6] World Nomads Travel Insurance.  We never needed to use the services, but they got pretty good reviews.  This company was fine for us, though we never needed to use their services.


Soaring, Gibbon style


This is a family post, about our adventure at “The Gibbon Experience,” and ziplining in the jungle wonderland in Northern Laos.  We spent three amazing days here – hiking, sleeping in treehouses, ziplining, meeting new friends, and dissolving into the jungle. The following are a few  words (well, a few more than a few for John), a string of video highlights, and several photos.  We can’t get enough of all of these; we have literally watched every video like 100 times.  They just keep making us laugh and smile.  If you are pressed for time, at least check out the last two videos of Amy and Mia, they are the funniest.

And a quick spoiler, although there are Gibbons living near where we stayed, we did not see any.  They are elusive creatures, rarely seen during this time of year, as there is not much fruit on the trees.  No matter, we were there to act like Gibbons, not necessarily see one.


It hurts to laugh.  My core muscles hurt.  It’s hard pulling in.  Ziplining is tiring, you have to lie flat on your back, trying to look up, suspended in the air by only your waist.  It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you do it like a hundred million times.  But, it is very, very, very, very, very, very, ∞ (and beyond) fun.  It is spectacular, and fun, and spectacular, and fun, and so on, and so on.  And the same for the treehouse.  We even got to sleep in it.  Too bad it was only two nights.

That was only the beginning.  I’m just going to tell you about a little part, and some other member of my family will tell you about the rest of it.  The part that I will tell you about is how to position your body on the zip.  I curled up in a ball, but everyone else would lie flat, and lying flat hurts your core muscles.  So, I go in a ball, but there is another reason I go in a ball.  Because I go faster.  But, I’m still too light, so sometimes I had to climb.  Climbing is what you must do when you don’t make it to the platform.  You turn around and pull up hand by hand on the zip-line.  Mia will show you that in one of her videos.

I kept track of the length and how many ziplines we went on.  Here are the facts:

Each of us traveled 31,713 ft on ziplines, that is about 6 miles!  We each did at least 50 total zips (but I probably did more), on 23 different ziplines.   The longest zip line was 500 meters (5 football fields!!!), the highest point on a zipline was 200 meters off the forest floor.

Poe is out (or in?)



Ziplining, hiking, treehouse camping. Those things pretty much sum up the gibbon experience. Also, beautiful views, sore muscles, and little animals. Our guide showed us around, we got to zip line, and sleep in a treehouse 40 meters (120 feet) off the ground. When you think of me, Mia, you probably think of books, books, books, books, etc. You might not expect me to love such an adrenaline sport like ziplining. Surprise! I actually trust the cable more than my own limbs. But still, I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared. Launching yourself into midair and hanging over the tops of trees is freaky, but exhilarating. The only downfall is my weight. If you are heavier, you go faster, but if you are light, like me, you stop before you get to the end. More often than I would have liked, I had to pull myself the rest of the way. The result is painfully sore arms, and waist. I also now have sore legs from trekking to the next ziplines, but all was worth the views, the exhilaration, the fun.

Here is Mia illustrating how to “climb like a gibbon,” assisted by Liv and Poe.


It never gets old.  Over the course of 3 days, zipping became a way of life.  Time to leave the hut in the morning? Get your harness on and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzip.  Let’s leave the treehouse after lunch?  Put your harness on and zzzzzzzzzip.  John and I were amazed at how MUCH fun we had.   But that fun came at a price.  Sick nervous stomach watching my children drop off a platform 150ft above the jungle floor, reaching speeds of 40 mi/h, zipping across the jungle canopy as far as the eye can see.  I fared pretty well as far as keeping my cool and only had a few OPM’s (over parenting moments), none of which ended in disaster.  I think I said “be careful” only once when Porter headed out into the darkness for a dawn zzzip to look for Gibbons.  I did have two brief, but sickening panic moments.  One for no good reason and one because Porter got disoriented in the dark of night, sleeping in a tree house 130ft off the ground.

There have been zero major injuries and zero deaths at the Gibbon Experience, their safety protocols are excellent.  But towards the end of day two, I started to have some irrational thoughts about pushing our luck, kids falling to their death, and “inevitable carelessness” while not under my motherly watch.  It’s hard enough to manage fun fear, but child death fear on top of fun fear is just too much.  I probably lost 4 zips to anxiety before I got it under control.  Is this intuition or anxious worry? Intuition? Anxious worry? Anxious worry of course, but what if it’s intuition?  Aaarrrrgggghhhhh, stop the madness!   I worried less about Mia, she was a graceful zipper.  I worried more about Porter (obviously), he was an insane, feet in the air, no hands, monkey on steroid caffeine zipper. But, every time I checked he was following protocol and saying “yeah yeah yeah mom, I know, I know, I’m doing it, mom, I know how to do this!”

By the end of the day, snuggled up in the treehouse, playing cards with our jungle family, I was tired, relaxed and very happy.  All was well as we went to bed.  That night though, my motherly nighttime superhuman listening machine was turned on and I awoke (not really “woke up,” because who actually sleeps in a treehouse in the jungle with the cacophony of jungle noises, tree rats and flapping bark munching flying squirrels? Oh wait, John does…) to a faint cry from the upper level where the kids were sleeping.  I tore out of the tent and started calling for Porter’s location.   I found him trapped between the blanket tent and the railing (the other side of which is some thatch roof and fall to your death).  He and Mia had switched places in the night, he couldn’t find his headlamp and went out the wrong side of the tent.  He was a mess of tears and frustration and really had to pee.  I’m not convinced that he was even fully awake.  Needless to say, we brought him to bed with us for the remainder of the night.  After that scare, the superstitious part of me thought we had somehow paid our close call dues, and we would officially be fine for all the zipping on the last day. FYI – Superstitious bargaining is not a wise or sustainable anxiety coping strategy, but it did get me through the day.

Our treehouse mates were great.  Sonia from France, Brett from Australia and Immy and Liv the jungle babies from UK.  On the first night, Immy awoke to a furry animal nuzzling her neck, she and Liv didn’t sleep a wink.  Neither did I as flying squirrels flapped through our treehouse, occasionally slapping into our tent-like blankets hanging over our beds, and making loud munching noises on the tree house tree. On night two, they named me Jungle mom after I insisted on “tucking the shit” out of their net/tent before bed.  I am the master critter net tucker  in the jungle, and in guesthouses.

The zipping was super fun, the tree house was so cool,  and our jungle family was wonderful. I didn’t want to leave.


Ziplining and jungle living are amazing, but as with most amazing experiences in my life, the real treat were the people we met – our jungle family in Treehouse #7.

It started on the drive in.  Amy and the kids sat in the air-conditioned front of a pickup (to prevent car sickness), and chatted with Tungchan, one of the guides.  He spoke very good English and was a jokester;  Amy began scheming to get him as our guide.  I sat in the back of the truck and made small talk with other Gibboners:  a couple from Italy and two young travelers from the UK – Olivia (Liv) and Imogene (Immy).  The girls were on a gap year, working and traveling before college.  I was entertained by their miserable-on-the-cheap-bus-ride stories, and impressed by their informed perspective.  The gap year is such a good idea!

After 3 hours of dust, curves and bumps, we reached the end of the road, a pretty little village in the hills.  Twenty-two of us plus guides began hiking. After a half hour, we stopped for lunch.  Sitting next to us was a French-English woman named Sonia.  She was tall, composed, and had a bemused look on her face.  We were immediately drawn into her life stories of travel to Tibet and Palestine.  Amy and she bonded over similar feelings of animosity towards one nationality of people at the temples of Angkor Wat.  Same observations, same frustrations, same too-widespread conclusion, same guilt about it, and same effort to prove themselves wrong.

After lunch as we hiked, we overheard conversations of “Which treehouse do you want?  Where are you more likely to see Gibbons?  Where are you staying?”  Camp stress had set in.  Amy told me that she was going to take charge, and fight for Treehouse #7.   She asked if I was ok with her getting a little aggressive.  “Hell yes!” I said, and “Thank God,” I thought.

An hour up the trail, we stopped at a camp of a few stilted bungalows, the jungle kitchen for treehouse #1.  We donned our harnesses and stared at the map of houses.  Amy quietly tried to form an alliance with three other travelers (so we could get the eight-person treehouse #7 and Tungchan as our guide), but they didn’t bite.  Other groups were banding together, as the primal instinct of “where will we sleep?” was taking hold.   A guide told us to figure out who would sleep where. The stress!  I immediately withered into my 7th grade, last pick for the football team self, while Amy leapt into action.

“Treehouse #7 over here!” she called out, stepping away from the group.  Mia, Porter and I followed her into our newly claimed land.  Nobody protested, and immediately others started adjusting their own plans to the loss of four available spaces. A master-move, as she grabbed the first mover’s advantage.  And, those who joined us would be choosing to be with kids, an important factor in close-quartered living.  I love that woman, and the fact that she has the bullying power I so obviously lack.  Four others quickly moved up to fill out our band – Immy, Liv, Sonia, and Brett, an Australian tech worker.

Up the trail, and on to ziplining.  We’ve written plenty about that, but I will just say that it was a exquisite thrill each time, about as close to a day of good powder skiing as I have experienced.

In the afternoon and evenings, we had time to relax in our treehouse, enjoy each other’s company and survey the surrounding jungle.  On the first afternoon, we spotted wide- throated lizards, brightly colored birds, and a “giant black tree squirrel” clamboring around the tree tops.  By giant, I mean giant – about the size of a small black bear!  During the nights, we had limited electricity, so we entertained ourselves with puzzles, riddles and cares.  Every member of the family, including Tungchen were gamers, making for spirited competition.

Throughout the time, I was struck by how interested Immy and Liv were with Mia and Porter.  They would often strike up conversation, asking about top-ten lists, how our family operated, and what they missed about home.  Over time, we realized that even though the girls had the composure of adults, and felt like travelling peers, they were actually much closer to the ages of Mia and Poe.  They probably identified with our kids, and felt some kinship.

When Amy found out their age (19), she exclaimed, “You are just babies!”  They laughed good-naturedly, accepting the title “the babies” as they had numerous other times with older travelers.  When Amy offered to tuck their mosquito tent in on the second night to avoid unwanted furry bed-fellows, they rejoiced to be taken care of by a “jungle mom.”

On the ride out of the Gibbon back into town, Sonia, Immy, Liv and I all got into a political discussion.  I wanted to know their perspective on Brexit, they wanted to know what I thought of the US election.  Once again, I was impressed by their knowledge of the world, and their facility to think critically.  After I ranted about our US president for a bit, Immy asked me an insightful question,

“Are there any policies of Trump that you agree with?”

I was a little stumped, but I appreciated her question, she was asking whether I was a nuanced thinker.  We went on to share our impressions of the cultural differences between people from different nationalities. When describing Americans, Liv said she thinks of us having a “Gaw shucks, attitude,  VERY positive,  Action-oriented.” It was especially funny to hear her drop her proper English accent, and take on a “John Wayne” kind of swagger.

It did not take me long to figure out I was swimming in deep waters, without much of a stroke to swim by.  All three women were interested and aware of world affairs.  I mean, I didn’t even know who the current leader of the UK is.  As Sonia and the two nineteen-year-old girls sort of schooled me in geo-politics, I bemoaned the fact that I, as an American, do not really understand the world very well. Immy asked sweetly, “What do you think could be done to improve US citizens’ understanding of the world?”

Whew, tough question!  In a sense, it is understandable.  The US is a large and incredible country, offering plenty to explore without needing to leave the boundaries.  Our food, water and roads are safe.  We have wonderful people at home.  Everyone speaks English there.  So it makes sense that many Americans may not leave the comforts of home to meet the wider world.  But I am still left with this nagging questions from a couple of 19-year-olds, laughing, traveling and expanding their own worldviews…

I could not resist adding this last video, showing Mia on the 500 meter zipline.  Every time I watched, I would gasp as the zipper slipped away from us.  It was surreal, looking a bit unnatural – like the speeder bikes in the Ewok forest scenes from Star Wars.  On this one, she was still going after 30, 40 and 50 seconds.  Here’s Mia:


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