Travel: Babies and Buddhas do mix
Luckily for Mike Ash, most people in Thailand adore children, and his young son became a guaranteed passport to friendliness and kindness
Sunday 11 July 1999
They said it would mean an eternity in one place, unable to take the child away from school without causing some psychological harm and expensive therapy. Perhaps it was this which galvanised Carrie and myself to adopt a militant parent stance and refuse to go to baby prison. So we went travelling.
Joe was one-and-a-half when we set out. On reflection this was about the best age: he had yet to develop his will and was not yet a two-year- old monster. But he was old enough to cope with the rigours of travel. And he flew at 10 per cent of the price.
We travelled for nine months in South-East Asia and Australia, but the highlight was our five months in Thailand. Having Joe was an instant passport to friendship: in many towns we became celebrities, with Joe perfecting a royal wave from his buggy as people shouted "hello Joe" or "number one boy".
The Thais love children, and a snowy white, blond-haired one was hard to resist. Crowds often gathered with old women rubbing Joe's tummy unable to believe its whiteness. We kept a wary eye on him when he was surrounded by people, but only once did I ever pull him out from a crowd.
We stayed in basic hotels and found them fine. Getting Joe into the shower became a favourite game as he loved drenching the typical Asian bathroom, where the shower consists of a deep sink and a sloshing container. Another important ritual was jumping with shrieks on the beds of every new room, much to the amusement of the owners. Little rituals made up for the frequent change of towns and rooms. As we were trying to travel light (yes, even with a baby) we took along the way a small but very select group of toys. These included "Red Man", who later became "Broken Man", and "Digger" which in later months was referred to as "Broken Digger" (see a pattern?). All in all Joe survived on a handful of deformed toys, and now can't quite believe the mountains of Lego, animals and vehicles he has at home.
One reason why he did not seem to need his toys, even on long, hot bus journeys, was the kindness of other passengers. People would often pass him around and keep him amused by telling him stories and teaching him Thai. We became used to people looking after Joe and often enjoyed a meal in peace while he was being entertained.
There was no need to worry about him as Thais seemed to have a healthy attitude towards children; they actually liked them, enjoyed their company, and would take responsibility for the children of others. Odd though that this was the country notorious for child sex tourism.
Our chief fear was malaria. We decided not to take any malarial prophylactics as the weaker drugs seemed ineffective, while the stronger ones had unpleasant side-effects. Initially we were not as mosquito-aware as the Thais, who would make sure Joe was covered up, or light a coil as he slept in his buggy while we ate. We used a citronella-based insect repellent as its contents seemed less frightening than the chemical weapons we were using. Our main anti-malarial tool was the mosquito net. Hanging a net over a bed with a two-year-old bouncing on it is something everyone should try at least once.
All in all there were very few health problems, perhaps fewer than if we had stayed at home as we escaped the usual run of colds and flu. You know the one: Joe catches a slight cold for a few days, recovers, and then I suffer with it for weeks. Another great health injustice was that while Carrie and I needed several arm and bum-crippling injections Joe seemd to need none. We felt his young immune system would be able to fight off diseases such as typhoid, and a bout of hepatitis might have been to his advantage: it might give him lifelong immunity.
Joe loved Buddhas. I don't think he could believe his eyes when he saw his first huge, golden one. Whenever we passed one we had to stop and allow Joe to say: "hello Buddha", much to the delight of the monks and nuns. At one temple he was given a new toy: "Tiger Cat" - a little ceramic tiger containing a Buddhist prayer. Being ceramic, Tiger Cat became more and more disabled until his final demise. But I kept the prayer.
Hiking through the forests in the national parks was a big part of our trip. We had a backpack for Joe in which he would be dragged through undergrowth and soaked by monsoons. Luckily for us, or perhaps because of us, Joe seemed to like the jungle and its creepy crawlies. We had to be vigilant when he was on the ground, as there were quite a few snakes around which for Joe (and me) were a fascination and perhaps a little too tempting to grab. We saw other wildlife, which was remarkable as Joe would often be singing at the top of his voice while we tried to creep through the forest. The monkeys were more interested in him than us.
We're back in London now. I don't know what Joe's new classmates will think as he rattles on about Buddhas and jungles. But I am sure that he will not require any expensive therapy as a result of his adventures.
Hundreds of agents will sell you cheap tickets on dozens of airlines between the UK and Bangkok. The cheapest non-stop deals are likely to be on Eva Air from Heathrow, while connecting flights for even less are available on Balkan via Sofia, or Bangladesh Biman via Dhaka.
British travellers require no visa for stays lasting up to one month. For longer trips, a visa must be obtained in advance from the Royal Thai Embassy, 29 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5JD (tel: 0171-589 0173). The Tourist Authority of Thailand, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1X 3FE (tel: 0171- 499 7679).
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