With our 3 year old and 3 month old in tow, we set out on our 6-month adventure across five countries and three different New Years. Many families choose to wait until their kids are older and can have more memories of a trip, but why delay? Young children can benefit enormously from having their parents around full time, especially during their early developmental years. And parents will be surprised how easy and rewarding it is too.
You are standing along the side of the main street, shoulder to shoulder with virtually every local family and tourist on the island. It’s dark, but the whole street is lit with decorations. You hear drum beats and see flames down the street, and there is a buzz of excitement surrounding around you.
For the last four weeks you’ve seen enormous paper mâché statues being built along side streets across Bali. Balinese people are so artistic and decorative — at first you imagined they are statues to be erected in one of the millions of temples that blanket the island. Eventually you hear people starting to talk about ‘Nyepi’ — Balinese New Year. You can’t believe the coincidence — the chance to celebrate your third New Year in just four months!
After weeks of witnessing the dress rehearsal, it was finally time for the big show. The procession is nearing and you can finally see the twisting and gnarly titans each neighbourhood has built to honour a story in their folklore. The titans have exaggerated features, tongues sticking out, and hair in flames, and each is standing on one leg and carried by a procession of boys lifting them up and down, side to side, back and forth to the beat of the drums. Sometimes they lose their balance and almost fall into the crowd, but the titan recovers just in time.
After a few passess, the titans are brought to a field at the end of the street. You follow them and watch the spectacle as each is beheaded and then the body is burned. The head is paraded back down through the crowd and returned to the temple. The biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen is resulting from the burning of the titan corpses. You wonder if it’s appropriate to take pictures, and then realise you are the only woman in the field. You turn to make a quiet exit and three men stop you:
‘Madam, I hope you are enjoying our celebration. May we please take your photo with our kids?’
You’ve seen a lot of different tourists on this trip. Bus loads of Chinese tourists whose local experience seems to be filtered by Chinese tour guides while staying in Chinese hotels with Chinese food. Indian couples on honeymoon. Digital nomads on their latest southeast Asian stop. Traveling families. As more and more people have access to travel, you wonder what travel will look like in 10 years?
Will Balinese New Year become commodified displays for ticket-holding tourists? Or will these sacred cultural events occur strictly behind closed doors, beyond the reach of visitors?
You feel profoundly fortunate and privileged that you are allowed to meaningfully participate in something so unique and special to the people and place you’ve fallen in love with.
It’s your third new year in four months, but definitely your favourite.
A life of travel
As a kid, we spent 6 weeks every year driving around western North America in our camper van. It was a wonderful time in my life, and I have so many fond memories of building nests out of sleeping bags with my siblings, and late night conversations with my Dad to help him find a camping spot as everyone was asleep in the back.
As a young adult, I backpacked and lived around the world, visiting over 50 countries in 10 years. My brother lived in Japan, my sister lived in France, and I spent my education and then career peppered with constant ‘mini-retirements’, ‘sabbaticals’ and ‘gap years’. When my husband and I married, we vowed not to start down a path where we needed to stay in jobs we didn’t like, to pay for a mortgage we couldn’t afford until we qualified for a pension that kept getting pushed back.
Our goal was to spend 10% of our working lives as if we were already retired — 1 year of every 10, or 6 months every 5 years.
Clichés can happen to you
Once we had kids, travel just seemed to burden the logistics of our lives. Travel meant doing the same things we did at home, but with everything in the wrong place. I thought I’d be the exception, but I was making all of the same excuses parents make not to travel.
In our daily lives, the margins were tight — between waking up, eating, dropping off at school, going to work, eating lunch, picking up from after-school care, eating dinner and going to bed on time — where any deviation results in the whole schedule falling apart.
It doesn’t leave much room for anyone’s creativity. And I was struggling to maintain the rigidity of our working schedules while not becoming rigid myself.
The timing was accidental. Our toddler was to begin school in June, and we were expecting a new baby 11 months earlier. We had enough parental leave for me to spend 4 months at home with the baby, and then for the whole family to go on a 6 month sabbatical before school started. If we didn’t go now — during a natural break in my career, and before school started — we would only have more reasons not to go later. As long as the baby was healthy, it was time to seize the day.
It was quite easy to convince my work, because it made more sense for them to hire someone for 1 year rather than 4 months (standard maternity leave in Holland, where we live). My husband’s office took a bit more convincing, but since virtually all of his colleagues could relate to his situation — they all had young children at home who they wanted to spend more time with — they supported him.
We said goodbye to our work colleagues. We moved our stuff into storage and rented out our apartment. We packed five bags and left the stroller at home.
The plan? Six months of outdoor family fun, surfing, and seeking out inspiring entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia from December 2016 through March 2017, and then two months to spend somewhere on the Adriatic in April-May 2017.
When I pictured myself on a family sabbatical, I imagined a beach house with french doors that spilled onto the sand, my children tackling me in the grass, and drinking out of coconuts from a swinging hammock.
The greatest privilege was witnessing our two little girls grow into sisters — something we certainly didn’t need to fly 7000 km to find. Many of our days were completely unplanned — eating a leisurely breakfast together, reading books and playing, going for a walk or to the beach, street food for lunch, dip in the pool while the baby took her afternoon nap, eating dinner out at a restaurant, watching the sunset together, home for the girls’ bedtime, followed by post-bedtime research to organise bigger day trips or work on any personal projects.
The girls thrived — especially the baby. Many people wondered what a baby would get out of travel with her family, but she loved all the time together, free of distractions that we would have at home. She was quite a nervous newborn, but at 3.5 months when papa stopped working, she completely relaxed. It was remarkably easy traveling with such a young baby. She was very content being next to us and carried everywhere in a baby carrier, playing on her own when at home, being entertained by waiters when our food arrived, and making faces at strangers everywhere we went.
Our toddler delighted playing in water every day — often several times a day. A few weeks she missed her friends, but we always managed to find a playground or children’s cafe where she could spend time with people her age. The language barrier was not a problem for her, nor was the cultural barrier. Though she did not like all the attention she received from adults (as a blond child in southeast Asia, she was constantly approached, but always with kindness).
We parents were both surprised how comfortable it was having little me time or me space. As working parents, we had 8 hours a day without our children’s constant interruptions and could enjoy peaceful lunch hours. On sabbatical, we were relentlessly with our children every waking hour (and many sleeping hours too). But it wasn’t a problem. We had over-estimated how much time we would have for personal projects and self-reflection, but enjoying each other was the reward.
Most days we felt a wonderful sense of freedom and access to everything we wanted. The times we felt less free were in places with limited or expensive transportation, and in expensive touristy areas with no options for local food / prices (especially in Seminyak and at some beaches in Koh Lanta).
We were expecting to see poverty, and were pleasantly surprised by how little poverty there was (except in the Philippines). Our biggest disappointment though was the state of the oceans in southeast Asia. Wherever we were — out at sea, at the beach, surfing, snorkeling or diving — there was trash everywhere.
Finding our perfect pace
What a luxury to have six months to explore at your own pace. But what is the ideal pace of a family with a toddler and a young baby? We wanted to find out.
We eased in slowly in the Philippines and spent our first two weeks in Anilao, recovering from our departure and settling into life on the road. Then over Christmas and New Year we sped up and were moving every 2-7 days. Every time we stayed in a new location it took about 2 hours to get all of the mosquito nets hung, and all of the essentials laid out so that we could easily find diapers, sunscreen and bug spray when we needed it.
After 3 weeks at that pace, it was time to spend a whole month in Hoi An, Vietnam. I had spent a lot of time researching our accommodation, and we had a perfect beach house there. Staying for so long meant we had our regular restaurants and cafes that we visited, knew our way around the market and even made some genuine friendships. We also had time to design our own leather bags and had them made and altered (when we realised our design flaws!) and knew the best surf spots on the beach.
When it was time to go to Bali, we decided to spend two weeks on the coast, and two weeks in the jungle. We arrived in Seminyak (where friends of ours were staying) and quickly realised two weeks was far too long to be spending in such an expensive party place. But then when we got to Ubud, we found two weeks wasn’t long enough — we wanted to stay forever.
But we had mistakenly gotten a 4 week visa on arrival, so our plan to spend our last weeks roaming freely around Bali and Lombok were interrupted by a visa run. Rather than spend $700 to fly to Singapore and back again, we decided to take the opportunity to go to Thailand where friends had kept recommending Koh Lanta for young families.
Koh Lanta is a very relaxed paradise island, with perfect sunsets every evening on the west coast, and a dash of culture and variation on the east coast. Each beach had its own flavour, and we decided to spend one week in the south of the island, and the second week in the middle. But unless you can afford to go diving every day (the snorkelling and island hopping is fantastic), we found two weeks at the beach to be too much.
Back in Bali, we decided to spend our last week on Nusa Lembongan — an island just 45 minutes south of Bali. It had taken us two days to get to Koh Lanta, and another two to get back, and rather than spending another full day on a boat to Lombok we decided to stay closer and enjoy Balinese New Year instead. When we arrived, a young Italian couple gave us some tips on great restaurants and declared that 2 days was enough on Nusa Lembongan, but we found the island perfect for a week. It has 3 surf spots, the best diving in Bali, snorkeling, SUP boarding and you are never stuck in traffic. We explored the island by foot, boat and golf buggy, and never felt like we were running out of things to do.
Which pace worked best for us? My favourite time was the month we stayed in Hoi An. Your chance at having a deeper and more connected experience grows the longer you stay. But the combination of different paces was perfect, because not everywhere we went would be enjoyable for a month or longer.
My advice? Stay longer and find accommodation on arrival
On average we moved around roughly every 10 days. At that pace, we didn’t want to spend 2 days on arrival dragging our children around looking for a place to stay, so we booked everything in advance. But booking online is both more expensive and riskier, because google maps and photos can only tell you so much.
Next time, I would spend six months in only three countries — two months in each country. I would spend a few weeks traveling around to get a taste of the land, find somewhere we really liked and stay there for 4-6 weeks, or even longer. If you find accommodation on arrival rather than online, you can bargain, compare and really get a sense of the place and surroundings before committing. With cheaper accommodation, you don’t mind taking weekend trips and doubling your accommodation costs every now and then, because your per night costs can be as little as half compared to booking online.
We had friends in Bali who spent the whole winter there. They spent a few days looking for accommodation, landed a place at half the asking price, and then were free to take trips from there. They spent a week in Hong Kong, a week in Lombok, and did lots of 2-3 day trips in between. And they always had a home away from home to come back to.
Change of plans
Travelers should always be prepared to change plans — when someone gives you a tip about an interesting place to visit, or if someone gets sick on the road.
Our first child didn’t crawl until she was 10 months, so we were caught off guard when our baby started crawling at 6 months old. Travel with a crawling baby meant we were spending more time at ‘home’ and less time walking around rice patties. We were organizing the Adriatic wing of our trip and were having trouble finding accommodation that suited our new needs, within our budget. It was time to review our options.
We live in The Netherlands but I grew up in Canada where my family lives. Trips home are wonderful but stressful as we try to fit in visits with all of the people we love and do fun things for the kids and enjoy ourselves too. So we never have any time to explore and exercise our freedom — two essential components of any trip — when we’re back home.
With our toddler starting school soon, this would be our last foreseeable opportunity to have a long, stress-free visit with the family. We were needing a break from the sun and our toddler was craving more time to play with children. With two playful cousins her age in Canada, we couldn’t believe we hadn’t considered this option earlier!
It wasn’t the glamorous and exotic Adriatic ending we had imagined, but it was the best idea for everyone. We spent 8 weeks with family and old friends, took several trips to the islands, Sunshine Coast and Rockies and got to explore and be free together with all the safety and comforts of a baby proof house and car seats. Real, uninterrupted time with grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.
We came home to Amsterdam relaxed, refueled and reflected.
Enjoy the reality in between
Although our goal is to take another family sabbatical in 5 years, we are quite determined to fold lessons from our sabbatical into our daily lives at home in the meantime. Ultimately, I would love not to need to take a sabbatical every 5 years! But I like disrupting our routine lives, making space in our house, prioritising experience over stuff, and enjoying the change in perspective.
In Amsterdam, we are both working 4 days a week and each spend an extra day at home with the girls. We’re making a point of going out more evenings and spending more lunch hours socialising and meeting with different people to keep our ideas fresh and dynamic.
Inspired by the entrepreneurs we met in southeast Asia, I’m putting myself out there more and sharing my ideas, whereas before our sabbatical I tended to brew ideas in my head endlessly, trying to perfect the idea before asking for feedback on it. Exposing yourself and being more vulnerable to people shakes the armour off your skin and makes you much more available to all of the essential human interactions that surround you. With strangers, friends, colleagues, and especially your kids!