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.


BEES-Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

An elephant’s skin is tough. Wrinkled. Hairy. Yet soft. Grey from the years of dust bathing. Warm. The tip of the trunk is wet, soft, and pink. It reaches out toward me, searching, sniffing, snuffling for the sweet treat I am holding. Thong Dee’s trunk grabs all five figs from my hands and shoots them into her mouth. Before her tongue can even make jam out of the fruits, her trunk is already waving about, sniffing my hands for more. I feel blessed, and honored to be sharing this moment with someone so magnificent.dsc_0220

Elephants worldwide are abused, bullied, misunderstood. According to, the definition of “Sanctuary” is “a tract of land where birds and wildlife, especially those hunted for sport, can breed and take refuge in safety from hunters.” The key word here is refuge. Elephants all over are being poached for the ivory in their tusks (more often, it’s the African elephants being poached, as female Asian elephants do not have tusks. However, they might have what are called tushes, which are like little tusk nubs. Male Asian elephants don’t always have tusks, and if they do, they are much shorter and smaller than the African ones).

Asian elephants, even without tusks, are still under threat. They are more often used for logging, circuses, zoos, riding, and tourist attractions, because Asian elephants are more tolerant, and more likely to accept training and humans.  I can sort of understand why we want to interact with them; they are beautiful, majestic animals that have quickly developed a place in my heart.  What people don’t understand is that this is breaking them. Riding elephants is bad for their backs. Carol Buckley from ‘The Elephant Sanctuary’ in USA explains Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.”  On the other hand, horses are not hurt by human riding unless mistreated. According to Wikipedia, “Integral to the back structure is the rib cage, which also provides support to the horse and rider. A complex design of bone, muscle, tendons and ligaments all work together to allow a horse to support the weight of a rider.”

Image result for elephant spine    Image result for horse spine

Riding on a platform chair on their back hurts elephants’ spines. Riding bare neck is better, but still, if you were a wild animal and you got taken from your mother at a young age, then trained to kneel, let an obnoxious stranger climb onto your back, and then go on a trek through the jungle, would you like that? In logging, the poor animals have to walk, working long hours, with very little rest. People can’t use whips on elephants because their hide is too thick, so they use a piece of rope, with a hook on the end to force them to do what they want.Image result for elephant loggingImage result for elephant riding platform  Image result for elephant riding bareback                      In the circus, they are forced to do tricks, and must live on concrete, or in a very small enclosure. The same goes with zoos. Elephants are in the same enclosure day, after day, after day. In the wild, elephants move from location to different location, following their matriarch in the search for fresh water and food. Therefore, the Asian population is dwindling faster than their African counterparts. In the past hundred years alone, we have lost ninety percent of the Asian elephant population. There is a campaign started to save the elephants, and “sanctuaries” are advertising no riding, no chains, no hooks. Image result for chained elephantsSome are better than others, but the elephants are still mostly forced to do the same thing twice a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, and this is why you should do really good research before choosing your elephant sanctuary. This is also why I am writing a recommendation for BEES.

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary has three elephants. Mae Kam was their first ever. She is somewhere in her fifties, and doesn’t really like to be around humans. That makes sense, given her past. She was a logging elephant, before it was banned, for 50 years. Then she got transferred to trekking. She was not happy, and became very distressed after her second calf got bitten by a cobra and died. She could not work, as she started throwing tourists off her back, and was sold to BEES. The full story is on their website. I will put the link below. Mae Jumpee is their second elephant. She is around 73, and also started in the logging industry. She worked with tourists for a very long time, and has had 11 calves. That is a lot. (did you know that elephants are pregnant for twenty-two months?) Mae Jumpee (they just call her Jumpee) and Mae Kam are best friends.

The last elephant at the sanctuary is named Mae Thong Dee. (Mae just means Miss or Mrs. In Thai language. At BEES she is just Thong Dee.) Thong Dee is around 76 years old, and approaching the end of her life. She only has one tooth left, and in the wild would have starved to death. She came to BEES after logging and then 30 years with a kind-hearted man who rescued her from that. Thong Dee’s best friend was Boon Yueng. They were inseparable. Boon Yueng however, died in July 2015. Thong Dee is left devastated and alone from her friend’s death, and mentally and physically scarred from her days in the logging and tourist industries. Despite the scars, Thong Dee is the sweetest thing. She is lonely sometimes still, but that makes her crave the company of people even more. She was a lovely animal to be around, and I miss her with all of my heart.

BEES is a true elephant sanctuary. They allow the elephants to go where they like during the day, only followed by their mahouts. A mahout is a person who works with an elephant. The mahouts are only making sure these lovely animals don’t get hurt. One of the days we were at BEES, Burm took us on a walk through the forest to find the elephants. We got to see them eating in their natural habitat, and being happy in their nice, relaxed, retirement home. We stayed for four days, but I could have stayed four weeks! They had twelve rescue dogs on site with them, and it was lovely being able to pet, and cuddle dogs without being afraid of rabies. They also had around 10 cats, although we only saw like five.

Burm made excellent meals for us, and it is a really fun place to be. The elephants come back from the forest on their own—like I said, they are not forced to do anything—for dinner. Sometimes we made a salad for Thong Dee (remember she only has one tooth left) and sometimes we chopped up sugar cane (the elephants love it), or we washed pumpkins. Now, I am not talking about jack-o-lantern pumpkins, I am talking about smallish pumpkins that taste (when cooked) like pumpkin pie. I am not kidding. No wonder the elephants love them so much. Diana (or Di, who works at the sanctuary) says that if the elephants like it, we should too. Thong Dee’s pumpkins and sugar cane must be chopped into fourths or halves, but Mae Kam can eat a whole stock of sugar cane as tall as me! She can put a whole pumpkin in her mouth, and squish it with her tongue! And that’s not even close to what her trunk can do.

It was amazing, being so close to these animals. It was remarkable, feeding Jumpee pumpkin halves, stroking Thong Dee’s trunk. Although I felt amazed, and loved every minute of it, the reason I could stroke Thong Dee, I could feed Jumpee, the reason I couldn’t feed or stroke Mae Kam, was all because of what we (humans) did to them. We broke them. But this is why I love BEES. They are giving elephants a chance to retire, and hopefully die happy in the place that they were free again.

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BEES website link:

Bees Elephant Sanctuary  (

A LOT of Thai cooking school (re-post)

Note:  This is a re-post, somehow I deleted my original.

A great benefit to travelling with my kids is an open calendar.  There are no soccer practices to get to, lawns to mow, or meetings to attend.  We have time.  Bring that to boil with a little seasoning of a personally recommended Thai cooking school, and Mia and I found ourselves with a delicious day.

A friend of ours, Jessica, an amazing chef in Bellingham and owner of Ciao Time, suggested we look up her friend Yui at “A Lot of Thai cooking School.”  They weren’t the cheapest school, but Jessica’s recommendation carries some serious calories.  I emailed them,but they only had space for two of us.

So, who get to go?  Mia was a sure thing as one of her goals is to make Asian food for friends and family when we return.  Amy was feeling a bit sick, so I drew the other lucky card.  I asked Yui if they had “kids prices.”  Yui responded,

“No, she is twelve, she is old enough to cook her own food.”  Immediately I liked this woman.

I must say that I am a little surprised that Mia wanted to go.  This was the day after “Temple Tired,” and Mia was in serious need of some downtime.  But, this young woman is mentally strong, my respect for her grows by the day (another benefit of traveling – I get to observe my kids more closely!).  When I suggested that she didn’t need to go, she ruminated on the choice:

“Well, I want to sleep in, but I also want to go to the cooking class.  I mean, I promised Auntie Amy that I would make her a meal.”  Yay, a day with my daughter, learning about one of my favorite pastimes, eating!

img_0071We were picked up by Yui and her husband Kwan in their charismatic Volkswagon bus.  I have yet to see another in Southeast Asia.  I asked her why they owned one.  She gave the typical bus owner’s answer:  A puzzled shrug of shoulders as if the answer was obvious, “We have a serious mental condition.”  She went on to tell me that there is only one mechanic in town who can work on busses, and he is 70 years old.  With a wink and a look over her shoulder at Kwan, she told us that she wants Kwan to buy the guy’s business (and tools).  He just shook his head, probably well aware of the life of a VW mechanic.

We arrived at the school with several other vagabonds from around Chiangmai.  The school is open-air, along a shaded side of their house.  Each student had their own cooking station, on a “proper Thai” cooking stove:  a dual-ring gas burner.  Pretty smart really, the outer ring allows rapid heating (for a boil say), while the inner provides a good low-heat flame to simmer.  Yui told us that successful Thai people who build their own “Western-style house” usually have a European kitchen with stove, microwave, inside.  But, they cook on a “Thai kitchen” outside.  Ha!  Yui’s observations often were seasoned with humor.

Mia at her cooking station

When you learn from a chef, you learn a LOT.  Maybe that’s why the school is called “A LOT of Thai.”  Yui is a great teacher.  She not only instructed us on how to make a dish, but she talked about the molecular nature of food, how to properly heat up a wok, how to cut food correctly, and about her curiosity and experimentation with food.  For example, she told us how she consults with another restaurant.  First thing, she looks at their facilities – their stove and cutlery.  She tells them to make dishes that fit those.  She instructed us to cut our vegetables into “woman bites.”  She ranted about male chefs who implicitly cater to men by cutting their food too large.  Food should be the right size to fit into a woman’s mouth, AND to fit on the eating utensil – no longer than the width of the spoon.  So smart!  A simple little bit of thinking about geometry to make the final eating experience more pleasurable.  The entire day was filled with such little gems of wisdom and experience.


Yui putting the finishing touches on pad-si-ew.

Yui began by showing us how to prepare Pad-si-ew, stir-fried noodles with vegetables.  This was a simple dish, and to be honest I wasn’t all that excited about learning it – stir-fried vegetables?  Sounds dull.  But as we all circled her wok, she tackled a problem I have wrestled with probably a thousand times:  sauteeing garlic without burning it.

“What we want,” she said, “is to get the flavors of the garlic into the oil, without burning it.  Why then, do we put the garlic into the oil and continue cooking?”  She suggested we get the wok and oil hot (two burners), then turn off for half a minute or so before dropping the garlic in.  Turn on low heat from there.  Genius!  My garlic never burned.  Good science:  Identify the problem, research the dynamics, hypothesize a solution, test!  I was so into this school and this teacher.

Yui explained the rest of the dish.  The key to a good stir-fry is timing, so it was important that we prepare all the foods and sauces first.  The actual cooking only took two minutes or so.  Mia was struck by the frenzy of the cooking.  Soy and oyster sauces into noodles to marinate, oil heats, garlic infuses, pork sizzles, noodles slide in, broccoli stems sear to translucent, greens heat to bright colors.   Turn off the heat, plate and eat!  Wow – stir-fry is too simple John?  Think again.

Our next dish was Som Tum, or green papaya salad.  Yui’s instruction focused on balancing flavors – she held up her two index fingers so the tips lined up.  She wiggled the left, “this is sour,” followed by wiggling the right, “this is salt, they are even.”  Then, in the air between, she drew a concave arc, like a little Asian style suspension bridge, “here is sweet.”  Next the drew a concave shape, like a stone arch, and shook her head at the bulge, “never too sweet.  You can always add sweet, but you can’t take it away.”  Whoa, life philosophy perhaps?

Another classic bit of Yui instruction:

“If you cut the tomatoes into the same size pieces, you will fail the class.  Make each bite interesting – different shape, different size, different amounts of flavor!” she instructed.  She went on to explain that by changing the size of pungent tomato pieces, every bite was different and interesting.  You add a different amount of flavor to every moment.

Since Mia and I had already made Som Tum a few times in Sriboya, we experimented.  To reduce the strong flavors that put Mia off most good food, she used only a nip of a chili pepper (instead of two or three whole ones) and she didn’t add any dried shrimp.  Hers was delicious.  Mine ended up a bit too sweet, as I free-styled how much cocunut sugar to add.  Yui was right, I couldn’t mask the sweet with lime or fish sauce.

The third, and last savory dish of the day was Khao Soy, sort of a red curry-like soup with soft and crispy egg noodles and chicken.  It is a specialty of northern Thailand and Laos, even though it is not traditional norther Thai cooking (coconuts generally don’t grow in the cooler North).  We started by deep frying a handful of egg noodles in oil to make an interesting crispy nest.  Next, we prepped and cooked the sauce:  Bring a couple tablespoons of red curry paste and coconut cream to a quick boil, or until the spicy-fragrance bites your nose.  Add the chicken until it is just seared, then add coconut milk and boil again.  Add curry powders, fish sauce, light soy sauce, sugar and a thick, dark, sweet soy sauce.  Check for a rich yellow-red color dotted by dark brown splotches of sauce.  Taste for all flavors but sour.  Simmer to be sure the meat is finished cooking.

Boil egg noodles and shake off the water to stop cooking.  Pour the sauce over, and add the crunchy nest to the top to make an appealing plate.  Serve with fermented vegetables, limes and thinly sliced shallot.  Wow, delicious.  I almost must stop writing this to run out and get a plate.  This dish must become a John-Mia Chesbrough signature.

Mia’s Khao Soy

The final dish of the day was mango sticky rice, hands-down Mia’s favorite dish to eat.  Yui, in typical fashion started by talking about high quality fresh ingredients – the right rice, a good mango, and fresh coconut milk.  She told stories about how her father was one of the first people in her village to buy a grinder to make coconut milk.  Yui had already cooked the sticky rice – a mix of about two-thirds white grain and one-third dark grains.  We mixed the rice with coconut cream, sugar and salt.  Sliced mango, not too perky, not too floppy, on top.  Finally drizzle a sweetened coconut milk sauce over everything.  Whoa, eating it is a sensation not unlike sliding your washed body into 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

Mmmmm, mango sticky rice

At the end of the day, Yui toured us through a local market, introducing us to the many foods and personalities of the aunties and uncles in there.  Lots of laughs and nibbles, although most of us were pretty food coma’d out by that time.  Finally, the bus dropped us off at our guest houses.  Most just had memories, but since Mia doesn’t actually like eating anything too spicy, we had a bagful of food.

We reunited with Porter and Amy.  Although Amy was not hungry, as we started re-telling our day, her interest perked up.  She devoured the stir-fry over Mia’s gesticulating story about a wild and hot wok.  Amy moved onto the Som Tum and finally the Khao Soy.  “MMmmm resonated through the concrete walls of our cramped little room.”  After eating all of the food, and listening to Mia, Amy basically asked us to tell her everything again.  She was so lost in the flavors, she had just let the words pour over her head like a massaging water fall.  A soundtrack to a lovely taste experience.

A getting well Amy devouring Mia’s Som Tum.

At the end of the day, we could not wipe smiles off our faces – proud, satisfied.  As we shared stories and food with Amy and Porter, Mia she stated one of her favorite sayings, “One of the best feelings in the world is when something you do makes someone else happy.”  The next day Amy’s sickness was basically gone.  Coincidence?  Can good food made with love cure someone’s ills?  I think so.

More photos from the day:

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Temple tired

Amy and I have had this plan for mental health on our trip.  Every week or so (every seventh day?), we would plunk down somewhere happy and fun for recovery and rest.  Maybe find a place with a swimming pool.  But in Chiang Mai, our budget was limiting us to small rooms without much space to lounge.  With a need to slow down, but no appealing place to be slow in, we compromised to a short outing – just a small wander to the Chiang Mai University gift shop.  That was the plan.  But I think I was feeling claustrophobic, a little stir-crazy, like Josie two days after her last run.  That’s my excuse anyway for why I hijacked our family’s weekly Sabbath.

I Google-found a blogpost about a trail leaving from near the university, called the Monk’s Trail.  The blogger suggested an hour-long walk up to one temple, followed by a second, steeper journey up to the “spectacular” mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep.  Perfect, I thought.  We’ll stretch our legs, get a tich of exercise, breath-in some nature, then return to the guest house to lounge the afternoon away.  I proposed the idea to the kids, “Come on, it’s just a one hour walk, it will feel good!”  They both responded with squinty eyes and raised hackles, sensing an intruder into their peaceful domain.

Mistake #1.  I bull-dogged my agenda.

Mia at the meditation retreat, this picture is foreshadowing?

We got a late start, around noon, and we flagged a tuk-tuk from our guest house.  I insisted we eat a proper lunch to prevent hangry kids and mom.  Turns out that was about my only correct decision of the day.  We explored the university; it was open and green, filled with enthusiastic and chatty college students.  Mia asked a couple helpful Thai girls for directions, and we soon found her shopping spot.  The birds were chirping and the sun was shining, a lovely day.

Then, as the afternoon wore on, I veered us towards the Monk’s Trail.  After about 1 km walking in the afternoon heat, we were on a nearly deserted road, and I first realized my second mistake of the day.

Mistake #2.  We had no more water.

Porter, never a fan of a boring walk without bike, scooter or skis, started dragging.

He lamented, “Uh, it’s so hot.  I’m so tired.  I’m so thirsty.  How far do we have to go?  This is a terrible day…”

I retorted with a perky carrot, “Just think how delicious the ice cream will be after we’ve had a bit of exercise!”

Amy sensed the precariousness of our situation, and brandished the stick, “You always hate hiking at the outset, then you have fun.  If you walk the whole way without complaining, we will get ice cream.  If you complain, tomorrow you and I are going to tour museums all day long.”

Laughter from Mia.  Porter retreated, and marched on in silence.

Correct decision # -5,285.  I married Amy.

We reached the trailhead after nearly an hour walking, both kids moving well.  The trail was quite nice, in the shade.  We reached a trail junction: one route offered a few more points of interest than the other.  The kids did not waver in their campaign to recapture the day, “Which one is shorter??”

We pushed on, reached a false summit, kept going.



Mistake #3.  I read every sign.  I explored the crumbled remains of an ancient temple. I lingered in jungle cricket noises.

We reached the first temple.  Actually, it was a meditation center, set on a hillside, in the forest.  It was lovely and serene.  The kids must have been relieved.  They had basically agreed to the hijacker’s terms.  We enjoyed the view over Chiangmai and found a stall selling thai ice tea and water.  Amy and I asked the vendor about further route options.  She suggested there no easy way to flag a taxi, the mountain-top temple was still 45 minutes to an hour further, the way was steep, but the view at the end was spectacular.  The blogpost I had read also suggested that the second part of the hike would be 70 to 80 minutes.


Mistake #4.  I said to Amy something like, “Probably just Thai time, they don’t realize that we are hikers.  I’ll bet it’s fifteen minutes, tops.”

Mistake #5.  I repeated the thought to the kids, verbatim.

In the air between my mouth and their ears, my words took shape, hardening from malleable conjecture into the hard promise of parent to child.  Mia and Porter leaned in, recognizing the day for what it was – a coup.   Like good soldiers captured by General Sherman, they just plodded on.

After 15 minutes following steep stairs chopped into the hard soil, we admitted the meditation center lady’s route description was probably correct.  By this time, the afternoon Sun was low.  Maybe not quite as low as Mia’s attitude, but close.  To her credit, Mia doggedly climbed on, losing water through sweat and tears.  A sobbing, frustrated, tired kid.  I dared not say anything, but Amy hung back.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”  Usually those kind of words are the kiss of death, especially the sweetie part.  But, I think Mia was too worn out to be mad.

“I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, there’s a bug in my water, I miss Josie, this has not been a good Valentine’s Day.”  She sobbed.  But she kept walking, such a trooper.

Porter, was scampering up the hill, embodying his inner Josie.  He was tired, but mostly mad.  He just stared at me and said flat out, “You lied to us.”

Correct decision #2.  I kept my mouth shut.

We finally reached the top of the trail around the late afternoon, but unfortunately the end was just a bend in the very steep paved road.  The final half-kilometer of walking was on road.  A Thai traveler from Bangkok was taking a smoke break, and kindly offered our kids some fragrant oil to rejuvenate them.  After looking at their faces a bit closer, he just gave us the entire bottle.

We trudged up further, getting passed by fossil-fueled ease of modern transport – tuk-tuks and busses filled with sedated tourists.  Finally, we reached the parking lots and accompanying gawkers and hawkers.  I bought some water and offered to buy the kids any drink they wished.  Both kids refused to be bought off so easily; they would not allow me to buy forgiveness.  Finally, I just bought a couple Sprites and stuck them in their hands, this was survival now.  The final climb to the temple was a mockery – a steep, 100+ stairs of dragon staircase, crawling with tourists, like a ripe piece of mango made inedible by a swarm of ants.


100+ stairs leading up to Doi Suthep.  Mia had charged up so fast the first time, I didn’t get a chance for a photo.

Porter tried to wrest some control back, “Ok, let’s catch a bus and go down.  They are probably going to charge us to go in, and there are like a million tourists.  I don’t want to go up there.”  Porter was using a subtle art of persuasion – appealing to Amy’s thriftiness, and our dislike of overly popular tourist destinations.  I must admit to feeling some solidarity, both kids by now recognize the difference between meaningful moments and touristy visits.  But, I was going to see the damn temple.

“Seriously?” I protested.  “After all that effort, with the end nearly in sight, you are just going to turn back?”

Unfortunately for Porter, at my words, Mia resigned any remaining protest, and she just charged up the steps, powered by huff.  Porter moaned, but followed.

The temple was nice, but we were templed out.  However, the sugar from the Sprite was kicking into our blood and the tourists crowds were thinning out.  We admired the many gold-enshrouded Buddhas and other spiritual symbols.  To me, the more ornate a temple is, the less interested I become.  I sort of like the old, crumbly structures more.  Doi Suthep  is elegant, but very gold.  Mia and Porter fell into a laughing fit about lighting some candles and trying to take pictures of the flame.

Then, at 6 pm, a row of monks appeared.  They asked all tourists to be silent, and to kneel with them before the great steeple in the center of the temple.  The sun was low, the light was soft and all grew quiet.  An older monk lit incense, then led the others in bowing and chanting.   Mia and Porter had transitioned into tired hysterical mode, and couldn’t stop cracking each other up.  They finally clamped hands over mouths and scampered out of the area to enjoy their chuckles in peace.  The monks rose and moved into another chamber for more chanting.  We were invited to participate.  We kneeled until my body’s perseverance ran out – foot cramps, the bane of my spirituality.  I’d make a lousy monk.

We reunited with Mia and Porter, it was nearly dark by this point.  They had somehow flipped their attitudes from revolt to reveling, and we caught a tuk-tuk back down the mountain.  We had a great shopping experience with a woman selling meditation bowls.  Despite being the physics teacher, I am the worst at producing a resonant sound in the metal dish.  We met a very interesting couple from the US, Rob and Cailey, traveling for a bit before heading to Nepal for a 3-month research project into high altitude sickness.  We ate expensive pizza for dinner, and Thai pancake for dessert.  Yum.

A second goal in our trip was to be challenged out of our comfort zones.  This day certainly accomplished that.  We will see if there are lasting effects over the next couple weeks.

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Fresh seafood

This post is dedicated to my dad who passed away about one year ago.  He would have loved this experience.  Also, for my father-in-law, Mike, and any other seafood lover out there.

We are currently staying on Sriboya, a predominantly Muslim island in the South of Thailand.  We are travelling with our friends Ant and Keri, who have family on the island.  I’ll write more about the island and people later, because they are both lovely.

We are staying at a smallish resort, with several ex-pat owned bungalows (mostly French I think.  It’s about the only tourist accommodation on the island.  But there are only a handful of people staying here right now – it is quiet and lovely, we are awoken under mosquito nets and fresh air to the sounds of the jungle.

The other night, we asked, Tuom, one of the very friendly staff, for other restaurants on the island.  He suggested his brother’s restaurant. “But, only seafood!” was his terse review.

“Seafood??  Yeah baby, let’s go!”  Ant and I agreed.

Mia and Porter were like, “What the…” and “But…” before being scooped onto the back of the motor-scooters.

We arrived at the other end of the island, and saw that the restaurant was floating about a hundred feet off the pier – a platform of wooden planks, supported by blocks of foam, tied in place by heavy ropes falling off into the depths.  The planks surrounded large pens and nets all sagging into the water.  The place had a sense of decay to it, the same feeling I get in any working fishing village:  wooden boards sun-bleached and warped, discarded bits of the sea dessicating in the sun, smells of salt and drying fish permeate the air.  You’ve probably been to seafood restaurants where you pick the food from a big tank.  In this case, we literally picked it right out of the sea.

The menu was essentially indecipherable.  Ant and I ordered by pointing at something, the owner would pull up a net, throw some on a scale – “more?”

Clams.  “More?”  “Yes, we’ll take a few more clams.”

Snails.  “You want?”  Oh yeah, gotta try snails.  “Kap, mak-mak”  (Translation:  yep, more, I think).

We also ordered crab, clams, crab in curry sauce, fried fish and deep-fried crab.

The food was lip-smacking delicious, although the crabs were small and did not match up to our Pacific Northwest Dungeness.  I’ll attach some photos, but once I got into the crab, there was no chance I would touch my camera with sticky curry-fingers.  So, unfortunately we did not get all of the food.

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The snails were particularly interesting.  The shells were small, with a small little tough bit sticking out (a toe?  an antannae?).  I would grasp it, then pull out the rest of the meat.  It was a long, curled up thing, meaty at first, but gradually becoming more gooey.  I mixed a bunch of green chilli sauce with it, and yum!  It was less chewy than clams or squid, really quite tasty.  Mia could not watch.  If you want to experience it with me, I’ll attach a youtube video link at the bottom.

While I was enjoying my maritime gastronomic adventure, at the other end of the table, Mia was struggling.  She knew this dinner was a favor for dad, but she was also super hungry and needing some food herself.  She ate some rice and a couple pieces of fried crab.  Porter was also so-so, but at least he likes crab.

When we returned to our bungalow in the dark, the adults were tired, happy, and full.  A full seafood extravaganza for about 7.5 diners for around $50, total!  Unfortunately Mia and Porter were still not content.  So she and Porter decided walk down to the restaurant and order a Thai pancake with banana (basically a fried Indian bread rotee with sliced banana inside.  Wow, delicious).

The next morning, Tuom and Lok kidded around with us, “why don’t their parents feed them?”  Laughter all around.  Obviously, no grandmas had come with us on this trip.

We talked about how grandpa Mike would have reacted.  We agreed his response would be something like:

“This is so freaking cool!  This is so freaking COOL!”  Over and over, as his rapture with seafood would take on praise in Allah-like proportions.

My dad also would have loved every bit of it – from “talking” with a salty old fisherman in body-sign language, to fishing from the restaurant, to getting his fingers crusted with crab juice and curry sauce.  Good food, good times.

Here is the snail-eating video:

John eating snail in Sriboya