We took our first trip to Thailand in 2007. My husband, Brian, and I were feeling burned out on all the travel we did for our photography business that we decided to show up in Bangkok, Thailand with no reservations and no suitcases to roll behind us. We bought two backpacks from REI, Chaco shoes, and kissed the kids goodbye for ten days. It was our ten year anniversary, and we were desperate for an adventure off-the-beaten path.
Thailand was unlike anything we'd ever seen. It felt like we'd reached the ends of the earth seeing the huge limestone rocks jet out of the sand bars. We fell in love with the people who are quick to smile and make you feel welcome. It's not hard to see why Thailand is called the "Land of Smiles." Then we encountered the jungle and we knew we had to come back with our kids.
The next year, we returned as a family. We rented a house in the jungle for six weeks and decided to see what would happen. This was one of my biggest leaps of faith. I almost backed out several times from the constant fears and doubts that played through my head. What if we needed a doctor? What if something went seriously wrong? What if, what if, what if? Despite what friends may have thought, I also wasn't your outdoorsy, hardcore adventure girl. Living in a jungle with no electricity at night, no locks on the doors, and no roads or cars was something I'd never done. So why did we do it?
Pascaline and Blaze were four and seven years old. As parents, it felt like society was breathing down our neck with what pre-school Blaze should attend, what sports they needed to start, how fast or slow their reading and writing skills should already be...does anyone reading this feel me? All these expectations that "they" have created for families, whoever "they" are, is overwhelming. Brian and I decided we wanted to create our own family culture. We wanted a family culture that reflected our dreams, desires, goals and values. Spending unplugged time together, taking an adventure off-the-beaten path, were just a few of those things. We hoped our time in the jungle, away from all of society's expectations, would help us discover what other desires we had for our family culture.
In Thailand's jungles the rooster doesn't wake you up: the sing-song call of the Gibbon apes wake you. And when they start singing, the whole jungle responds. It's the most amazing experience I've ever known.
There isn't a gym that you go to three times a week for your cardio. Instead you walk endless, effortless miles with your kids each day. And during those walks through the jungle, conversations unfold. As a mom, I started finding access into the deeper parts of who my kids are, what goes on in their minds and spirits, and I had all the time in the world to listen. We would have limited hours of wifi each day, but enough to remotely keep our photography business moving forward. The pressure and rush of responding was gone because we were seventeen hours ahead. I started to breathe deeper than I ever had. That first year is one that our family will never forget. During those six weeks, we showered in the monsoon rains, battled forty macaque monkeys at once for our food (several times), encountered black tipped sharks while snorkeling and scuba diving, walked alongside elephants, saw fruit bats the size of our golden retriever fly overhead, woke to the morning song of gibbon apes, and slept under mosquito nuts lulled by the rhythmic chorus of frogs, crickets, and owls. We ventured even deeper into the jungle and slept on floating bamboo huts at a nature preserve, as the giant hornbill flew above and wild herds of elephants came to the lake for water. I watched our children play with the Thai children, even though they couldn't speak a word of the same language. I watched them run through the jungle, living out their own imagination of adventures, as curious Langur monkeys watched from the canopy.
We had no idea what that six week adventure would bring. We had no idea we'd come home changed as a family forever. For the last eight years, we've gone back each year. Thailand has become a second home for our family. The jungle has become my favorite place in all the world. If you told me ten years ago I would have looked at you like you were crazy. But when you step out of your comfort zone and expectations of society, despite all your fears and doubts, you discover something within yourself that you didn't even know was there.
When we took that first trip as a family, we had one goal: survive. Now we have a family travel show pilot that we're pitching to major networks. The spirit of adventure has become a major part of our family culture, taking us all over the world. Our kids have experienced Egypt's revolution first hand, explored the inside of the pyramids, slept in Thai fishing villages and waked early to see a day-in-the-life of a fisherman. They've sat with rabbis during Shabbat in Israel and asked their toughest theological questions, they've chased herds of sheep in New Zealand, and been mesmerized by the Colloseum in Rome. Experiencing other cultures is such a part of our family that we decided together to give up our home, put all our belongings in storage, and just go. It's crazy to think it all started with that one trip almost a decade ago.
In 2017, we are going to take our first group of photographers to Thailand for nine days. We're taking the group to our favorite spots off-the-beaten path. We're even going to spend time at our secret house in the jungle! The February group sold out within 48 hrs. We still have room in the November group if you'd like to experience the magic of Thailand. I promise, you will come home changed for the better.
Tips for Travelling to Thailand Travel: Get out of Bangkok as soon as possible. One day is plenty of time to visit the Royal Palace and get a feel for the crowded, hot city of Bangkok. Go north to Chiang Mai area or south to the white sand beaches.
Food: If you love Thai food, you'll REALLY LOVE Thai food in Thailand. I remember visiting China in my early twenties and being surprised that everything I knew as Chinese food in the states was nowhere to find in China. But in Thailand, you can find phad Thai and red curry from the street vendors or in any restaurant. Blaze and I are also gluten free, and Thailand is a perfect place for someone who can't have gluten. Most noodle dishes are rice noodles, and wheat in general isn't a part of Asia's diet.
Diving/Snorkeling: Koh Phi Phi is one of the most beautiful islands in southern Thailand and one of the top three places in the world to snorkel and scuba dive. Fly into Bangkok, then you take a second (short) flight to the south. (Phuket or Krabi are two airports you can fly into.) You then take a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. It's a bit of a trek but worth it, especially if you love diving.
Fun Place to Stay: Relax Beach Resort is a great place for families. We stayed a few days at this spot, and we loved it. It's on the back side of Koh Phi Phi, you can only get there by long tail boat. There's one open aired restaurant and Thai massage (which is an hour of heaven) for $10 an hour. You sleep in bamboo, beach bungalows and right off their private beach is some of the best snorkeling on the island. Nothing fancy about this place. Great food, beautiful beach, and a whole lot of relaxing for the family.
Elephant Sanctuaries: Make the time to visit an elephant sanctuary. Stay away from the tours offering "elephant rides". These companies often mistreat the elephants, overworking them. The sanctuaries are made up of rescued elephants. You don't ride the elephants, but you have the incredible opportunity to walk alongside them through the jungle, help feed them, and if you're really brave-- get in the river and help bathe them. It's the BEST!
For more information on Me Ra and Brian's Portrait of Thailand Photography Workshop and Tour, visit here. All levels of photography welcome. Their own kids who are now 15 and 12 years old and will help guide the tour.
To watch short clips of their family travel show, click Adventure Family.
Me Ra Koh, The Photo Mom, is Disney Junior's host to Capture Your Story and a regular go-to expert for shows like Live with Kelly and The Nate Berkus Show. Bestselling author of the series; Your Baby in Pictures, Your Child in Pictures, and Your Family in Pictures. She is also one of the original Sony Artisans of Imagery. Me Ra and her husband Brian, also an award winning photographer, cinematographer and director, have been teaching photography workshops to women for a decade. Learn more at www.merakoh.com.