30 weeks pregnant, I was warned. Don’t look directly at the monkeys. Local guides tried to dissuade my husband and me from boarding the boat that toured Brunei’s mangroves in search of Proboscis monkeys in their natural habitat. If you look them in the eye, bad luck follows. Your baby will look like them when he’s born; nobody wants a baby with a monkey nose.
Needless to say, our son was born without primate parts and, to our knowledge, no lifetime curse. But the imprint of travels throughout Southeast Asia marked his childhood. Both of our children (age 8, 4), born and raised in Singapore, grew up travelling the region. We chased rainbows at a farm in the Malaysian hills, dodged monsoon-like rainstorms at ancient temples, and raced hermit crabs on Indonesian beaches. Homeschooled for a semester, my son transplanted rice with my husband on business trips to Vietnamese farms; my daughter ordered rice at meals in Tagalog and Bahasa. Now, just four months into a new life in America, they still ask “what country” we are going to next.
Southeast Asia is a traveler’s playground, no matter age or interest. With budget airlines making travel affordable across the region, the hardest part is narrowing down options. Seasoned expatriates are hidden resources for planning adventures.
“The ideal destination will challenge our thinking, open our minds, or just get us to relax,” explains Sonia Gazet, a Canadian HR professional and mother of two girls (age 5 and 7), in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sonia, an avid traveller who has lived in Malaysia for eight years, heralds the region for its “diversity in experiences, culture, and wildlife.” Like many who live abroad, Sonia sees direct benefits from travel on her family:
What I want to teach my kids with these travels is to be open-minded, that learning languages is essential in life, that people have different needs, view points and lifestyles, and to never judge others… They are quick to make friends in most settings and will happily ditch TV to go for a hike. They look forward to visiting new places and get amazed by differences in cultures.
Interviewing expatriates and seasoned travelers on favorite expeditions beyond tourist hot spots, one theme dominated: the more you stray from the easiest path, the richer your experience. American Beth Cohen travelled halfway around the world from New York with her husband and two daughters (age 7,9) to see orangutans in Borneo with her family last summer. She summed up why she targeted Southeast Asia:
When you make an effort to go somewhere that is a little hard to get to you really feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s always worth it. When you trek an hour into the jungle you don’t know what you are going to see. It’s hot. You get sweaty. But the surprises are the best part for everyone.
With this advice in mind – to seek out learning, diversity, and challenges – Almost Fearless has collated a Southeast Asia short list sourced from personal experience and expatriates to inspire your next adventure:
- Hike an Active Volcano in Java: Mount Bromo
Small. A momentary, arbitrary speck in time. That is how I felt grasping my husband’s and 7-year-old son’s hands, staring into a steaming caldera of sulfur clouds at the mouth of Mount Bromo, an active volcano in East Java. My son said that if he waited long enough to catch ash from an eruption he could figure out how the earth was made.
Poised at the heart of Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park surrounded by a chain of dormant and extinct volcanoes, Mount Bromo belches and hisses fumes from the earth’s core, awing visitors with its cauldron-like heat and gasses. If you, like me and my son, harbor a fascination for geology, Bromo will humble you.
An expedition to Mount Bromo can be tailored to most ages and abilities – assuming children are confident walkers and can follow safety instructions. Famous both for viewing at sunrise and its easy ascent to the crater mouth, the trip to Bromo-Tengger Semeru National Park is about 3-4 hours from Surabaya and 1 – 1.5 hours from the quiet university town of Malang, depending on traffic. To access the park requires hiring a guide with a four-wheel jeep; your journey, bumping over unpaved jungle paths as you descend into the lunar like landscape of “Sea of Sand” is otherworldly, but not for those with motion sickness. To reach the crater, a railed staircase of 250 concrete steps guides visitors to the top. Guides and horses can be hired to help ease the climb.
To harbor good luck, vendors sell bouquets of dried flowers (shaped like teddy bears!) to throw into crater’s mouth, harkening a local ritual to appease a deity who blessed a 15th century childless prince and princess with 25 children and demanded the sacrifice of their youngest. With 360-degree views around, all that separates you from the vent below is a precarious wooden railing and a sign exclaiming Danger!
Logistics: Plan to sleep one night in a simple guesthouses in Probolinggo village to rise before dawn to watch sunrise before trekking the crater (For children that struggle with crowds and long waits, this can be skipped; the crater ascent is why you’re there). Hike time to the crater ranges between 45 minutes – 2 hours, depending on ability and time at top. If sensitive to smells and dust, pack a scarf or mask as sulfur fumes can be strong. Chill out in Malang for a night, and savor coffee at the Java Dancer, or wander the bird market.
- Island Hop in the Philippines
Kristi Ligaya, an American mother of three children under six years old, living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is an expert on island life. After two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Kiribati – a remote island with 1,000 inhabitants in the Pacific Ocean where the international dateline and equator intersect – Kristi has “always yearned to travel.”
“I think I’m just very open-minded regarding travel destinations, which I’m grateful about because I’ve had the rare opportunity to really experience the ‘stranded on an island’ scenario.’” she explains. “The isolation, the simplicity is something that will stay with me forever.”
Having lived seven years in Asia, Kristi raves about island hopping in the Philippines with her family; in her third trip to the country, she and her husband travelled between El Nido and Palawan islands with their two young children (age 4 and 1.5), while she was five months pregnant with her third.
“The trip had lots of beaches, boat rides, kayaking, paddle boarding and island exploration. My oldest loved pretending to have a treasure map and go treasure hunting when we are island hopping.” Afternoons of kayaking and paddleboarding “gave us some one and one time together on the water” while marveling at sea life.
Logistics: Per ease and accessibility, Kristi advises that the Philippines has “something for everyone.” With endless beaches and English as a national language, a Filipino island exploration is well-suited for English-speaking young children. Kristi sources trip recommendations from expat groups instead of online review sites which she finds “hit or miss.”
- Reach for the Sky: Rock climb in Thailand
Turquoise above. Turquoise below. I can’t tell where the sky ends and the Andaman Sea below begins. Scaling the limestone cliffs on Railay Beach, an iconic rock-climbing destination in Krabi Provence, Thailand – I feel like I am flying.
My son and I first rock-climbed at Railay on a last-minute mother-son get away when he was 6; neither of us had previous climbing experience. Exhilarated by the challenge (and the discovery of local vendor which he insisted sold the sweetest banana milkshakes in Asia), we returned with my husband and 2-year-old daughter. “I found gold!” my son shouted, mining imaginary caves as he searched for hidden coins my husband concealed in crevices meters above our heads. Our toddler daughter dug patterns in the sand, gathered shells, and tested her appetite for climbing, safely tethered to her dad.
For my family, Railay combines three of our top criteria for travel in Southeast Asia: outdoor activity for all, jaw-dropping natural beauty, and a memorable challenge which leaves everyone talking fast and proud of their personal accomplishments. Skill and strength aren’t barriers at Railay. With over 700 climbing routes rated by difficulty level, Railay caters to all – from thrill-seeking experts who boulder and plunge into waters to first-timers and families with young kids. World known as a climbing mecca, Railay is jammed packed with climbing schools, all of whom provide rental equipment (including child-sized harnesses, shoes and helmets) and small classes with experienced guides.
Logistics: Railay sits at the end of a peninsula amidst a vibrant living coral reef, only accessible by boat (about 15 minutes on traditional “long tail” boat from Ao Nang harbor or 30 minutes from Krabi). Travellers can stay at Railay or easily make a day trip from Krabi, as we did (accommodation at Railay are primarily budget/backpacker or high-end with little in between). As Railay’s only medical facilities is a small pharmacy, medical emergencies must be served on the mainland.
- Experience Local Vietnam by Train
For Billie-Jo Dixon, a British expat who works in financial services in Singapore, some of her favorite trips before becoming a mother included traveling by sleeper train in Malaysia, China, and Thailand. Despite cheap airlines and short travel times within Southeast Asia, Billie-Jo enjoys how trains open experiences which are bypassed on short-haul domestic flights. Thus, when planning their family trip to Vietnam, Billie-Jo and her husband booked a 17 hour overnight train ride with their 7 and 4-year-old children from Ho Chi Minh City to DaNang.
“We spent time with local people and other travels . . . watched locals jumping on the train at stations to sell food, saw great views of paddy fields, lush green fields and mountains” she narrated highlights. The adventure of sharing a sleeper cabin was equally exciting for children and parents – and miraculously, everyone slept, despite bumps and noise.
Characterized by lush beauty and agriculture, Vietnam is an ideal country to explore by rail. Other routes favored by local travellers include the more touristed overnight route of HaNoi to Lao Cao, about 50 minutes away from the hill station of Sapa in the North or a half-day excursion along central coastal Vietnam from the World Heritage Site of Hue to DaNang — a 2.5 hour trip with outstanding views of the coast. Regardless of which route you choose, the journey is as memorable as your destination.
Logistics: Sleeper train tickets should be booked in advanced and can cost more than domestic airline tickets. The ride from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang does not include seaviews. Food and culture are distinct in Southern, Central, and Northern Vietnam, and the North is much cooler in winter months.