Our Family in Faraway Places


You may be wondering how a Canadian woman and Filipino man working in South Korea ended up getting married, having a son and traveling all over most of Asia and beyond. It’s a bit of a long story but here is how we got to where we are today!

Family in Faraway Places

Our first photo together

How we Ended up in Gwangju, South Korea

Danny

After two years of living and studying in Japan, Danny had returned to the Philippines and was working for a Japanese company in Cavite. He wasn’t planning on going abroad again but his older sister had paid a recruiter to find her a job in South Korea. Nearly a year went by and the recruiter wasn’t able to find any jobs for women, so Danny agreed to go in her place. He joined the Employment Permit System (EPS), and studied Korean for 10 days. He passed the language test and training programs and in October 2006 he was off to Gwangju, South Korea.

Family in Faraway Places

First Christmas together

Jessica

In 2005 I had finished my university degrees. I had planned on teaching in high crime, low income neighborhoods in Toronto, Canada. My brother and his wife were living in the Middle East and my family encouraged me to try working abroad for a bit. I sent my resume out all over the world with no set destination in mind and was contacted by an art and design university just outside of Seoul. The job was to teach English but I figured it would be a way to combine my degrees in art and education so off I went (I never ended up teaching any art there!).

It was a fantastic job but the program shut down after just the one year. I had enjoyed my time in Korea though and decided to come back for another year. My next job was in Gangnam, Seoul the famous wealthy neighborhood that Psy sang about in the viral video Gangnam Style. The school started losing money though, there was a bunch of drama and I moved in April 2007 to Gwangju, South Korea to start a new job.

How We Met

I went home to Canada for my summer vacation that July. While I was away on vacation a group of Filipino migrant factory workers had started visiting a local expat bar. When I returned in August a group of friends and I went to that same bar to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We walked in the door and I’m told I said something along the lines of “There are a lot of hot guys here tonight, but that guy is mine!” It’s not the kind of thing I had ever said before but I walked right up to Danny and introduced myself.

We danced all night and just before he was about to leave I gave him a quick kiss. Danny was already pretty worried about his English skills and nervous about speaking to the second Caucasian woman he had ever met. The little kiss completely shocked both him and his friends. We completely forgot to exchange phone numbers! The next weekend he returned to the bar though, and we exchanged numbers properly this time. About 4 months after meeting we were officially engaged.

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

We were young, naive and in love. When I met Danny I knew nothing about the Philippines, or any restrictions its citizens might have. This was the man I loved and I didn’t care where he came from, or how much money he had. Immigration Canada on the other hand did.

We planned on getting married in Canada in August but a month before the wedding Danny’s visa application was denied. As a migrant worker Danny had been sending most of his paycheck home to his family each month and immigration felt that he did not have sufficient funds to visit Canada.

Family in Faraway Places

Getting ready for the wedding

Family in Faraway Places

 

Wedding at the courthouse

Upset but determined we decided to get married in the Philippines instead. Since we were only in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, there was not time to plan anything big. We were married in a courthouse with around 5 witnesses. A $10 wedding dress, his family cooked the food and we all ate in the backyard of Danny’s brother’s place. The majority of the guests were family and neighbors and we had a surprise visit from 2 of Danny’s best friends from college. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Newly Married Life

Before getting married Danny had lived in a small shared room at the factory where he worked on the other side of the city. I had my own apartment near my school so it just made sense that he moved in with me. He was being asked to work from 8am – 10:30pm every day though. When he got off work the busses had stopped running so it would be a $10 taxi ride to come home. In the morning he would get up and leave by 5:30 am to get to work on time by bus.

At one point he worked 14 or 15 hours a day, Monday to Friday and 8 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday for 3 weeks straight without a single day off. I contacted the labor board about it. They told us that he was only legally required to work 16 hours of overtime a week but we should not say anything to them because if he refused his boss might beat him!

We decided to just see each other on weekends. For 5 months we saw each other Saturday night and Sunday during the day. The arrangement was wearing us down. Danny tried to find work someplace else but couldn’t find anything with better work conditions. We thought that maybe he should just quit his job and go back to school. He decided to continue studying Japanese.

Family in Faraway Places

Newly Weds

We spoke with the foreign students’ department at a local university and they told us that to enroll he would have to take both a Korean speaking and written test. The speaking test was done informally and he passed. He would have to come to the university at a set time and date to do the written test. There was no way his boss would let him have time off work to write the test. He would have to quit his job to take it.

Once he quit his job he would have only about a month to find another job, enroll in a school or leave the country. The university assured us that the written test was only a formality and he would be admitted to the university. With that promise Danny quit his job. (The man who replaced him in the factory lost his fingers in the press machine a month later)

Danny did the writing test and the university told him he failed. They would not let him attend unless he first took Korean language classes from them for an additional $4,000. We felt completely betrayed! They knew we would be in a very difficult position if he quit his job without a backup plan. We didn’t have that extra money to spend and we felt tricked so we decided that he would not attend the university.

With only a month and a half before he would be required to leave the country, we made a plan to change Danny’s work visa to a dependent spouse visa. We contacted immigration and at that time dependent visas in South Korea were not as common as they are now. Our local immigration office wasn’t exactly sure what we needed to do. We were running back and forth to the immigration office and on the phone with them constantly. They kept asking us for paperwork from our home countries which doesn’t exist.

Family in Faraway Places

Weekend chairlift ride up the mountain

We also had difficulty getting through to the Philippine embassy in Korea. I would call and say something along the lines of “Hello, I’m calling to get some information about getting a spouse visa.” The woman on the other end would scream at me “YOU CANT JOIN YOUR HUSBAND IN KOREA!” and hang up. After several tries I called back and quickly yelled “I’m Canadian!” before she hung up the phone. She had thought I was a Filipina wanting to go live with my migrant worker husband who worked in Korea which is not allowed.

We had to leave Korea and come back to get a dependent visa. Our approval from the immigration office came only a couple of days before our flight. We would end up celebrating our 6 months of marriage back in the Philippines.

Before we left I called the Korean immigration office in the Philippines to make sure I had everything I needed. The switch board put me through to an officer and she started to list off things I needed. I paused for a moment as I wrote the information down and then the phone went dead. I called back and the switch board put me through again. I explained that the phone had gone dead. The woman said “I know. I hung up on you because I didn’t hear you.” I had paused for only a second.

She started to list off again what we needed. She said that I needed an invitation letter from my place of work. We had never been told this. I asked her what the letter had to say. Her response: “Just an invitation letter”. But what does it have to say? “They just have to write an invitation.” I could just imagine us going all the way to the Philippines to find it had been done incorrectly!

I asked her if there were instructions in Korean that I could give to my boss. She started to get rude with me. I told her I didn’t understand what was required. She said she already told me. I asked if I could maybe speak to someone else because I was confused. She said I couldn’t speak to anyone else because she had already told me.

She was being very rude and I asked to please have her name. She replied “What’s your name?” and hung up on me. I called again, explained what had happened and they put me through to another person. The first woman had been telling me the wrong information. An invitation letter is only required if you don’t have the visa number and you are applying from the Philippines.

Family in Faraway Places

Christmas together

When we finally got to the Philippines we went to the Korean immigration office. You needed to fill out the paperwork one day and the visa is ready to be picked up the next. It was a madhouse in there and a worker gave us the paperwork to fill out. A pile of 6 papers (3 for each of us) and told us to go fill them out…Except mine were all in Korean! I asked her how I was to fill them out and she just shooed me away. So we asked again and she told us to just ask some Korean.

We asked a woman who was there to do some visa stuff herself and she helped us out. She helped me fill out two forms and then she double checked the title. We were filling out the wrong forms! We were filling out the ones to apply for the visa and we had already been approved back in Korea. The woman who gave us the forms hadn’t bothered to look at our paperwork or listen to what we said when we came in.

So we went back to the front desk and the lady who had been helping us told them that they had given us the wrong form. She then gave us the right form. ONE PAGE! We filled it out, but when we went back to the counter and they told us “You’re too late. We only accept applications for visa’s from 9-11am. You have to come back tomorrow”. Coming back tomorrow would mean that we would have to wait until Monday to get the visa and have to stay in the hotel 2 more nights.

I explained that we had been on time but she gave us the wrong forms. She didn’t care and she left. I was at my breaking point. We asked everyone we could for help, the volunteers, security guards, immigration officers etc. and eventually someone from the visa department. They took the paper and the passport and told us to come back tomorrow. Except for a long wait, we got it the next day without a hitch.

You may think that we were now free from visa problems but that was not the case. We came back to Korea and went through immigration. I went through first and then Danny was to go through. The immigration officer kept looking at his visa. Because I had already gone through they wouldn’t let me come back to help out. For the next 5 years or more he would always go through immigration before me because of this.

The man eventually called me back and asked Danny if I was his mother (possible language problem). We said “no wife”. I showed him that my name on my passport was also on his visa. He looked at it, smiled, laughed and then sent me back out and sent Danny to be interrogated.

They took Danny into another room and I couldn’t see what was going on. There was the immigration officer for pilots and diplomats near where I was waiting and he asked why I was there. I told him that they had taken my husband in for questioning. He asked where he was from. I told him the Philippines. He asked if it was his first time to Korea. I told him he had lived here for two years. He assured me that they were just double checking and not to worry.

In the meantime an immigration officer was looking at Danny’s visa. She then asked to look at his ear. We have no idea why. Then she asked who I was. He told her that I was his wife. They continued to look through his passport for about 20min more. I was out in the immigration area of the airport crying and asking anyone I could to please tell me where my husband was. Finally all the immigration officers came in to where he was. A young officer asked those inspecting Danny’s passport what kind of visa he had. They said “F3”. The officer told them “It’s fine! Let him go through” and that was it.

Now What?

Once we returned home Danny decided that he would study Japanese on his own at home. This “studying” was often turning into hours of video games. We realized that this wasn’t going to work long term so we looked into formal education opportunities again. I asked him what he would like to “be”. This was something he had never had the opportunity to consider before.

Eventually he decided he liked cooking. Our friend found a two year Hotel Cooking and Nutrition program locally. Despite being past the application deadline they let him apply and in March he began his classes. At the end of the year when they held a program wide cooking contest, Danny won!graduation photo

Our First Real Vacation Together

When we first got married we planned on going to Canada the next summer to celebrate with my family. During all the changes for Danny’s new visa, our visa renewal date in Korea had gotten changed as well. When we went to apply for Danny’s tourist visa to Canada we found that he couldn’t get one. For him to apply for a Canadian visa his Korean visa would have had to have been valid for more than 3 months past the month we would have been traveling. His Korean visa expired in August and we were going to Canada in August so it wasn’t 3 months. We could only renew our Korean visas one month in advance so we wouldn’t have gotten our Canadian visa back in time.

Visa Troubles Lead to Vacation Plans!

We were very depressed because we couldn’t go to Canada yet again because of visa issues and decided to use the money that we had saved up for Canada to travel to another country. We chose Cambodia because we had just seen a great Discovery Channel program on Angkor Wat, our friends loved it when they visited and because though I needed a visa to go, Danny FINALLY didn’t! All of our visa troubles lead to the beginning of our travels.

Family in Faraway Places

Visiting the temples in Cambodia

We went for 3 weeks and traveled right across the country for about $20/day including accommodation and food. We stayed in some really interesting places. Some good, and some bad. It was a really defining point in our relationship as this was the first place that we had traveled to together for no reason other than just to travel. That same year I started to study Tagalog (Filipino) and in January I started my Masters in Education with a specialization in TESL online. Danny completed his degree.

To Canada Finally!

The summer of 2010, we attempted yet again to go to Canada. An immigration officer at the Canadian embassy had told us that in the eyes of Immigration Canada, Filipino citizens are viewed as guilty of wanting to stay in Canada illegally until they could prove they were innocent. He would have an easier time immigrating to Canada than getting a tourist visa they said. With that in mind we created our case and submitted a tourist visa application an inch thick…and were finally approved! We renewed our vows in Canada and had a lovely pot luck lunch with many of my family and friends.

Opening wedding presents in Canada

The highlight of the trip (other than seeing family) had to be visiting Niagara Falls. Karaoke (videoke) is incredibly popular in the Philippines. There you can find machines everywhere! Often on these machines they show a background video of Niagara Falls. Growing up it was the only place Danny ever dreamed of visiting and it finally came true!

Family in Faraway Places

Finally to Niagara Falls!

The Next Big Trip

Since I was working on my degree we stayed close to home for the next little while. In July 2011 we made a small trip to Palawan, Philippines. We were talking about starting a family as I finished my course requirements in the winter of 2011. As a reward for all our hard work and as a last trip before we “settled down” we headed off on a trip of a lifetime to Northern India. My grandmother’s family had lived in India for generations as part of the British Colonies and so I had always wanted to visit. We visited Delhi, Varanasi, Arga, Jaipur, Johdpur and Jaisalmer in a little over 2 weeks in February 2012. By March I was pregnant with our son.

Family in Faraway Places

Varanasi India

Family in Faraway Places

Studying Korean drumming while pregnant (We cleared it with our doctor before we went!)

And Now There Were 3

Family in Faraway Places

​Being new parents in a foreign country with no help from our families was harder then we could have ever imagined. Traveling with our son though was surprisingly easier than we thought! In August 2013 when our son was 8 months old, we took our first trip together as a family to Phuket, Thailand.

Family in Faraway Places

Being blessed by a monk in Phuket, Thailand

We wanted to take advantage of infant ticket prices while we could so we traveled to Japan in January 2014 to visit Danny’s sister and her family. That summer we visited Canada in July and later the Philippines in August. We introduce our son to as many family members as we could before his ticket cost would increase when he turned 2. It quickly became clear that rather than ending our travels, our son was contributing to our travels!

Family in Faraway Places

Meeting lolo in the Philippines

Our son grew to be an incredibly active little guy who loves to explore and be outdoors and our life in Korea was starting to feel like it wasn’t the best fit anymore. The air quality was getting increasingly worse each year and we often had to keep him inside. The school system in Korea is also notoriously stressful. We looked at moving to the Philippines but in the end decided against it. If something were to happen to Danny there we would all be in a difficult position.

We then looked at moving to the Middle East but again Danny’s visa issues made it all but impossible. All of the visa problems over the years had made me very worried about what would happen to our family if something were to happen to me or Danny. We ended up choosing to move to Canada where there would be more safety nets. Danny could eventually apply for citizenship which would provide another layer of protection. We made one last big trip together to Indonesia before we would submit Danny’s permanent residency application in March.

borobudur temple sunrise tour

The Last Time is Never the Last

If you haven’t noticed there is a bit of a pattern with our “last big trip” not being our last big trip! There was a mix up at my work in the spring and we weren’t able to submit our application in March 2015 as planned. Having a bit more time in Asia we headed to the Philippines again in the summer and submitted his permanent residency application in August. While waiting for approval we headed to Myanmar to visit the country where my maternal grandmother had been born and grew up.
family atop a temple in baganAt the end of June 2016 Danny’s permanent residency application was approved but he was required to go to Canada to officially “land” before August. There was no way we could pack up a decade of our life in Korea and just go with such a short timeframe so he went alone, officially landed and then came back to Korea. We decided to make the move together the following year and set off on a trip to Vietnam in the summer.

Now that a year is getting closer though it looks like it will be another year. Eventually we do need to move or he will lose his permanent residency so we are trying to visit all the places we still want to visit in Asia. Then, someday in the near future our adventures will shift to North and South America. In the meantime, I guess we are just a family of accidental travelers heading out on our next adventure together.
Family in Faraway Places

Should You Swim With The Whale Sharks in Oslob, Philippines?

oslob whale sharks
It’s not an easy question to answer. In recent years there have been quite a few articles and advocates who have encouraged people not to visit the Oslob whale sharks. In order to have the whale sharks returning to the area daily so that visitors can swim with them, feeders give the sharks fish. This has resulted in the whales having an unnatural amount of contact with humans. The artificial feeding behavior has taught the whales to associate people with food. They will now sometimes approach boats rather than staying away from them which can lead to injuries. Injuries can also occur if tourists in the water accidentally kick a shark. 

s0033597

The feeding has also resulted in the sharks having less variety in their diet as they spend more time eating the fish that are given to them rather than plankton and such. Some of the Oslob whale sharks spend up to 6 hours a day feeding instead of foraging naturally. In the future, this could end up causing nutritional problems. Additionally, the migratory patterns of the sharks have also changed. The breeding pool of the sharks or the spread of this vulnerable and declining species may be influenced by this. It is hard to say though as the whale sharks are difficult to study and concrete answers hard to come by. Obviously, the best thing for these Oslob whale sharks is to be freely swimming and living the way nature intended.
s0123669

Whale shark very closely approaching one of the feeding boats in Oslob

Having tourists visit the Oslob whale sharks is a relatively new practice. Back in 2011 photos of fishermen interacting with Oslob whale sharks were featured in Mail Online. The article was largely positive with conservationist Shawn Heinrich praising the bond that had formed between the sharks and fishermen in Oslob. In other places in the region the same whale sharks were being slaughtered by fishermen. It seems strange that a conservationist would applaud fishermen touching, riding and playing with the sharks until you consider just how bad the slaughter of the whale shakes in the region is.

In 1997 alone around 20 whale sharks were killed in the Philippines to be traded on the Asian market. Others were also killed or harmed by fishermen trying to protect their catch. Around this same time the 1998 the documentary “Whale Shark Hunters” hosted by William Shatner was created for National Geographic. The documentary aimed to highlight the issues surrounding the hunting of whale sharks in the Philippines and to help find alternative livelihoods for the whale shark hunters. This film lead President Ramos to ban the killing of whale sharks and manta rays in the Philippines. The Philippines became one of the first countries in the world to ban the killing of whale sharks.

The ban was a great first step but not all in the Philippines have welcomed it. The sharks can interfere with the catch of the fishermen who already struggle to make a living. Even as recent as 2015 in response to whale sharks and dolphins eating the fish in the major fishing grounds of Tañon Strait, Nelson Garcia, mayor of Dumanjug town in Cebu stated: “I want to kill those whale sharks…Man should be the first to survive, not the whales, not the fish, because we will be violating the Bible. God said, man have dominion over the ocean, the fishes, the birds, the animals, and subdue it. That is the order of God.” Tañon Strait is a rich fishing ground but is also part of the natural migratory path of large marine animals.

Whale sharks also still continue to fetch a lot of money in the Asian market. In China a single whale shark at market can bring in $30,000 USD or more, though the fishermen usually get considerably less than that. About 600 whale sharks a year were killed in just one slaughterhouse in Southern China it was found in an investigation between 2010 and 2013. Then in August 2015 the world was shocked by videos of a whale shark in China (WARNING: Graphic!) being butchered at market while still alive. While the sharks are a protected species in Philippines, China and other countries which do not protect the sharks, share many of these fishing waters as well as the migratory paths of the whale sharks with the Philippines.
s0083639

Getting the fishermen and local people to see more value in having the whale sharks alive then dead has been key to protecting them. It is easy to say “It is important for our environment to protect the whale sharks!” but when it interferes with your lively hood and ability to provide for your family the choice is not so easy. Groups have instead been working to educate locals and to set up profitable eco-tourism projects in popular whale shark areas.

Donsol Bay and Oslob Whale Sharks

Both Donsol Bay in the Bicol Region of Luzon and Oslob, Cebu are well known for whale sharks. They have both created tourism industries for their small towns around them. As a result the fishermen who once killed them in these areas now protect the whale sharks as tourist dollars bring in more money for them and the entire community.

The major difference between the two sites though is that the whale sharks are not fed in Donsol Bay. This way there is no unnatural feeding, no increased contact with boats, and migratory patterns are not affected. But it also means that there is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark when you go out in your boat even during the peak viewing season. In the past couple of years reports from tourists started to come out that the whale sharks of Donsol Bay were gone. People were sighting one or no sharks for extended periods of time. This continued for a few years and tourism in the area dropped considerably. Though it seems that the whale sharks have been returning to the area, it is hard to lure people back.

s0073629

By feeding the Oslob whale sharks, Oslob is able to guarantee a sighting of a whale shark to its visitors. Seeing a whale shark in a completely natural environment is much more thrilling but when you’ve traveled from far and wide and paid for the experience, patience is hard to come by. As mentioned before though, there are all sorts of problems with this unnatural feeding behavior. The sheer number of visitors to Oslob has also created issues.  In 2014 over 110,000 tourists came to Oslob primarily to see the sharks. Conservation groups have stepped in and regulations have been applied. Tourists are only taken out to the sharks from 6 am – noon each day. Time in the water or boat is limited to 30 minutes. If you plan on going in the water you need to be free from sunscreen to help keep pollutants out of the water etc. Anyone who touches a shark will receive a fine or even jail time.

This does not seem to be enough and suggestions of limiting the number of tourists or stopping the feeding practice have been made repeatedly. They are hard things to put in place though when a guaranteed whale shark sighting means tourists and tourists mean more money for the entire community which doesn’t have many other employment options. The Large Marine Vertebraes Project Philippines (LAMAVE)  is a great organization to check out if you would like to know more. They are working in the Philippines to research and educate, while striving to find a balance between marine conservation, and local community development.

Our Experience
We visited Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental which is just a short boat ride from Oslob so we decided to go and check out the whale shark situation ourselves. We fully prepared to leave if it looked like the whales were being harmed in any way. We stayed in a guesthouse just outside of the town away from the sharks and wished we hadn’t. In there weren’t many restaurants and our guesthouse didn’t offer meals beyond breakfast. Nearly all of the businesses catering to travelers seemed to be around the whale shark viewing area.

s0343844Before we visited the sharks we spoke with some of the boatmen, restaurant owners and other locals. They told us the stories of how in the past many fishermen in the area (or even themselves!) would attack or kill the sharks to keep them away from their catch. Now though they loved the sharks and wanted to keep them healthy and safe. Following the rules and restrictions that had been recommended by outside organizations meant to them that tourist dollars would keep coming into the area. If there are no sharks or the area gets a bad reputation the tourists will go and so will their jobs.

The people we spoke to at the feeding site took their jobs and the safety of the sharks very seriously. It seemed like a well-respected job in the community that many were competing for. Around 300 people work at the feeding site not to mention all the other jobs in the community created to care for tourists. Some mentioned though that they felt that some of the money generated from the whale sharks which was supposed to go into developing the town was being used by other areas in the region instead. I really don’t know about the financial allocations though.

dscf3571-2We decided to go out in a boat to see the sharks based on the positive stories we had been told. We traveled in August and arrived around 7:30 am. There were not many people and so the three of us were sent out in our own boat with 2 staff after the safety briefing. One staff member would keep our boat in place while the other took photos for us (for an additional fee). If you are a strong swimmer you can get into the water to view the sharks underwater though most people stayed in the boats. If traveling with a small child it is best to bring your own lifejacket since they may not have the correct size for little ones. 

s0173699We did not see anyone touch or harass the sharks. The whale sharks did at times though get very close to the boats of the feeders. They may have touched the sides of them. If feeding the sharks is truly necessary (I don’t think it is) it would seem that some sort of alternative could be arranged so that the feeders had no contact with them at all!

We had an incredible experience and feel really lucky to have been able to interact with these beautiful and peaceful sharks. We left with more questions than when we first arrived though. There seems to be no straight cut answer as to how to best protect the sharks. Though Donsol Bay seems to be the clear choice for responsible eco-tourism, I don’t think I would say that you shouldn’t go to see the Oslob whale sharks. The community genuinely appears to want to find a solution that is both beneficial to the sharks but also supports their livelihood. The whales may also have arguably been more at risk when these same boatmen sought to kill them just a few years ago. Rather, supporting groups which actively work to find a balance, and reporting mistreatment or violations when spotted so that practices can be improved may be the way to go. It is clear though, that more can and needs to be done to help protect these gentle giants.

Like this post on Oslob whale sharks? Pin it for later!

Hue Vietnam Travel Guide: Tombs, Towers and Tanks

hue vietnam travel guide

Things To Do In Hue Vietnam

Once the national capital from 1802-1945, Hue Vietnam is home to the ancient Imperial City (Citadel) and the tombs of several emperors. The ancient sites around Hue Vietnam are spectacularly beautiful and it was well worth the visit. Learn more in this Hue Vietnam travel guide!

Hue Imperial City (The Citadel)

Emperors of Vietnam once lived in this walled fortress and palace. Much of the structure was damaged or destroyed by battles with the French in 1947 and American forces in 1969 with only 20 out of 148 structures surviving but it still remains an impressive complex with ongoing restoration.

Hours: 8am – 6pm

hue imperial city citadel
hue imperial city citadel

Hue Vietnam Provincial Museum (War Museum)

This small museum doesn’t appear to even get a mention in the guidebooks but if you are visiting the Imperial City next door and are interested in military exhibits it may be worth a quick visit. The museum is in bad repair. The grass hasn’t been cut in ages and there are large holes in the pavement leading down to the drains below. Staff scurried to turn on fans and lights when we walked in like they weren’t expecting visitors. Inside the museum some photos, small weapons and other wartime paraphernalia can be found.

The only reason we visited (twice!) is that out in front of the museum there is a collection of tanks, a helicopter, a plane and other military vehicles from the Vietnam War.  Each vehicle has a plaque with the name of the vehicle as well as the year and place it was captured from. Our son was THRILLED to see a helicopter so close for the first time and excitedly ran back and forth between each vehicle.

Hours:  8:00-11:00 am, 2:00pm – 5:00pm (closed Sundays)

Hue provincial war museum

Hue provincial war museum

Thien Mu Pagoda

Built in 1601, Thien Mu Pagoda is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. This seven story tower is part of the temple complex on Ha Khe Hill just outside of Hue overlooking the Perfume River.

thien mu pagoda

Not only beautiful, the pagoda has strong historical, political and religious significance in the region. In 1963 the Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam saw the Catholic government cracking down on the Buddhists majority (70-90%) in the country and Buddhism. The crisis began when 9 unarmed Buddhist were shot by the army in Hue. Thein Mu Pagoda became a major organizing point for the movement.  In protest of this crackdown and the government’s refusal to meet calls for religious equality, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon on June 10th, 1963. There in front of onlookers, reporters and supporters he conducted self-immolation by setting himself on fire.

]Self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Photo by Malcom Browne 1963

Self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Photo by Malcom Browne 1963

In the background of this world famous image by Malcom Browne the car he drove can be seen. It is presently on display at Thien Mu Pagoda.

Tombs in Hue Vietnam

There are 7 imperial tombs just outside of Hue but the most commonly visited are the Tombs of Emperor Minh Mang, Emperor Tu Duc and Emperor Khai Dinh. We did not have a chance to go to Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb but made it to the other two. When visiting the popular tombs it is best to get there early in the morning before the tour groups arrive or later in the afternoon when they have gone. It can get crowded! We visited Khai Dinh tomb before 9am because there are a lot of steps and we wanted to avoid climbing them in the heat. By 9:30 the tomb was packed with tourists arriving in tour buses. We then went to Minh Mang tomb and even around 10:30 the tour groups were just starting to arrive. Any driver you hire should be able to advise you on what times to go to beat the crowds.  The tour groups seem to have very set roots.

Khai Dinh Tomb

Khai Dinh Tomb took 11 years to build and was completed in 1931. Before his death he visited France resulting in the tomb being a combination of both Western and Eastern styles. Khai Dinh’s tomb is the last of the large imperial tombs in Vietnam.  The dragon sculptures along the sides of this temple were the largest dragons in Vietnam though the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang likely now holds this distinction.

khai dinh tomb hue vietnam

khai dinh tomb hue vietnam

Minh Mang Tomb

The construction of this tomb began in September 1840 but by January 1841, Emperor Minh Mang had passed away. The tomb was fully completed by 1843 under the watchful eye of Emperor Thieu Tri.  The burial grounds include landscaped lakes, and canals as well as beautiful architecture.

minh mang tomb hue vietnam

minh mang tomb hue vietnam

Is Hue Kid Friendly?

hue vietnam

We went to Hue when our son was 3.5 years old. In Da Nang, Hoi An and Hanoi we saw a lot of kids his age and some even younger but in Hue he seemed to be one of the youngest. There aren’t a lot of activities aimed at children in Hue and there are no beach resorts so it’s less appealing to parents traveling with really little ones. It seemed to be more popular with families that had kids 8 years old and up.

That being said, Hue is not unfriendly to kids! Many of the sites are free for younger kids. The Imperial City and Tombs offer a lot of space for kids to stretch their legs and to explore and as a vehicle lover our son really enjoyed the small war museum. We would go out early in the morning and then spend our afternoons in our hotel’s pool or playing indoors in our room. There’s a lot of walking so a good baby carrier that allows you to carry little ones on your back like the Manduca baby carrier can be a life saver if your infant to preschooler is too tired to walk. But short early morning trips, ice cream and swimming pools made Hue a great place to visit with a little one.  If I were to go back through it would definitely be in the winter months! It was 38 degrees the entire time we were there in July!

Getting In And Out

Private Car

We traveled to Hue by car from Hoi An through Da NangHoi An to Hue it is about a 3 hour drive and Da Nang to Hue around 2. The driver can take the route either along Hai Van Pass or through Hai Van Tunnel. At a length of 6.28 km, Hai Van Tunnel is the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia and it can save you between 30 minutes to an hour on your trip between Da Nang and Hue. Hai Van Pass though is much more scenic winding up the mountain and along the coast.  Most drivers and tour buses choose to dive the route along the coast and stop at the top for a break and to enjoy the views. There are shops and restaurants at the top as well.

Cost for a private car:

Around $60-$75 USD

Plane

There are direct flights to Hue Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat and Hanoi. The flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi arrive daily but Dalat only has flights every other day. We decided to drive into Hue and then flew to Hanoi.

It is also possible to book a local bus, train or a tour bus between the two cities. Tour buses seem to be most popular with group tours that are only going to Hue for the day but your hotel should be able to help you make arrangements.

Getting Around

Walking

We were in Hue in July and it was HOT. Even in the evening it was hot so we didn’t walk around too much. They do though have a nice park and walkway area along the perfume river. In the evening little shops and restaurants open up and it’s a lovely place to take a stroll.

walkway along river hue vietnam

bridge across perfume river hue vietnam

Taxi

Taxis in Hue are cheap and your hotel can easily arrange for them to pick you up. When visiting the sites it is quite common to arrange a set price and have the taxi driver wait for you while you visit. This means that many of the taxis you see waiting may not be available.  A couple of times we did not make these arrangements and were unable to find another available taxi despite being in the city. We did not run into any large problems with taxis in Hue but twice we were brought to the wrong end of a site even though our hotel had arranged the pickup.

Private car

We arranged a private car to visit the tombs outside of the city and to take us to the airport. I wish we had used them our entire time in Hue! They were absolutely fantastic and reasonably priced. There are several companies in the area but here are two we had contact with.

We used this company both times. We were picked up on time (actually the driver was early) in a fantastically clean SUV. Our son was thrilled since he had never driven in a large SUV like this before. All 3 seatbelts in the back were working. Our driver was safe, friendly and knowledgeable.  We decided to use the same company when we went to the airport and had the same experience the second time as well.

Website: http://www.stopandgo-hue.com/
Email: stopandgocafetours@gmail.com

We did not use this company but I was very impressed with their customer service. Their reviews on TripAdvisor are also high. We needed to make a last minute reservation and they were very quick to respond. They also have baby car seats available for small children. Unfortunately I was not able to connect to the internet at our hotel in the evening and when I finally got through to them they were fully booked for the time we wanted to visit the tombs. They offered us a discount if we would go later in the day or offered to take us the next day instead. We were short on time though and wanted a very early start to beat the heat so we went with a different company.

Website: http://www.tourfromhue.com/
Email: tourfromhue@gmail.com

Like this Hue Vietnam travel guide? Save it for later!

Hampyeong’s Herptile Eco Park

hampyeong herptile eco park

Hampyeong which is about an hour away from Gwangju, Jeollanamdo, is well known across Korea for its annual Butterfly Festival. Few people, even locally it appears, know about Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park (함평파충류생태공원 ). It’s hard to miss though once you arrive into the area of the Eco Park as the building is shaped like a giant albino Burmese python (they have a live one inside!).

I have not been able to confirm this, but I believe the Herptile Park opened only a few years ago in 2013. The facilities are new, well maintained and clean. The temperature is closely monitored and so on a hot summer day it was lovely and cool inside! There is a collection of more than 600 local and foreign snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, tortoise, and lizards primarily housed on 2 floors of the main building. Inside the main building there is also a theater area but there was no information about shows when we went. There is a separate building outside for some anaconda as well and a nice petting zoo and park area in the back as well.

hampyeong herptile eco park

I am not a big fan of zoos but the animals in these habitats seemed to be well cared for and the workers professional. We arrived at Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park at 9:30am on a holiday Monday and were the only visitors there at the time. They were still setting up for the day and it happened to be feeding time for the pythons. Upon seeing our 3 year old son heading their way the workers discretely put away the bucket of dead mice until he had moved past. Had he been older I’m sure he might have been really interested but I appreciated that they were sensitive to his age.

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the downstairs area there is a small climbing wall, and play and activity area for children. There are also some animals for them to interact with:  couple of birds out on a tree, a horned lizard, some iguanas and a tub of frogs. The frogs were upsetting. I’m sure they were very stressed with the kids reaching in. There was also an area where children can use nets to catch goldfish in two tanks and then rerelease them. Poor fish! Several times a day the Burmese python is also brought out for people to take photos with and interact with. It’s a lovely snake and the handler is good but a lot of people coming to see the snake were acting like idiots, screaming and yelling. The caretakers really need to inforce more calm behavior so as not to stress the snake out! But other than those things, everything and everyone at the place seemed to be working towards making sure the animals were well cared for.

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the back of the building is a small petting zoo with sheep, goats, chickens, and rabbits. It was the cleanest petting zoo I have ever seen! It’s free to enter and for 1,000 won you can buy food to feed the animals. The rabbits seem to have figured out that parents tend to give the food to the children and so one rabbit in particular kept chasing after our son. He was completely thrilled about this rabbit who wanted to run races with him. On your mark, get set bunny. Go!

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park


Hours

0:900 to 18:00 (Regular)

09:00 to 17:00 (November to February)

Closed

Every Monday, New Year Day, Seollal and Chuseok

* If a public holiday is on a Monday the park will be open but the next day (Tuesday) it will be closed


Price (Discounts for groups)  
Adults 3,000
Children 1,000
Kindergarten 1,000
Under Korean Age 4 Free

Website: http://ecopark.or.kr/hp_snake/ (Korean)

Address: 전라남도 함평군 신광면 가덕리 306-1번지


Bus Schedule

* This schedule is subject to change. Call the Hampyeong Bus Terminal at 061) 322-0660 to confirm.

Hampyeong Bus Terminal → Herptile Park Herptile Park →Hampyeong Bus Terminal
6:50 7:35
7:50 8:35
9:05 9:30
10:20 10:45
11:10 11:50
11:30 12:30
12:00 13:35
12:55 14:45
14:05 15:35
14:30 17:05
16:20 18:05
17:25 19:40
19:00  

 

Teaching Tagalog to our Kids, Part 2: Batibot

This article is part 2 on resources we have been using to help us teach our son Tagalog while we are living in South Korea and traveling internationally. These resources can help others teaching children Tagalog both in the Philippines and abroad Please check out part 1 here: Teaching Tagalog to our Kids, Part 1: Flashcards and Books

Batibot

I know what you are probably thinking. "What?! Batibot is still around?" Well the answer is "Yes and no". Like many kids across North America I grew up with Sesame Street and it was also one of the first TV shows our son ever watched. Fun and educational with songs you remember for a lifetime. For many Filipinos growing up in the 80’s and 90’s the equivalent was Batibot! The show was based on Sesame Street and was even originally co-produced with the Children’s Television Workshop. It was on the air from 1985-1998 and then resurrected from 2010 – 2013 before going off the air again.

Try as we may though we have not found much more than a few blurry incomplete episodes on Youtube of Batibot. We have looked online, asked in the facebook groups, searched video hosting sites, and asked in book and video stores in the Philippines and nothing! We aren’t the only people looking. Plenty of online forums are full of parents searching for the show but to this date, despite the demand, DVD's of the series have not been released. The best quality videos you can find of Batibot are from the Batibot saYoutube channel but they only have 9 videos available and the channel hasn't been updated in 4 years. Unfortunately, there just doesn’t seem to be any sort of equivalent in an educational children’s show for young learners in Tagalog these days. 

Batibot Apps

In August 2015 an app based on the Batibot TV program aimed at children from kindergarten to grade 3 was released. There are currently 2 apps:

Cover art                Cover art

Batibot TV and Batibot Games.

I’m not really sure what the purpose of having a separate download for Batibot Games is since the same games are also included in the more extensive Batibot TV app. So, if you’re looking for just games that option is there but from here I’ll just write about Batibot TV. The Batibot TV app includes 4 sections Kwenteng Batibot (stories), ABC, Games and Karaoke.


   Batibot TV- screenshot

Kwenteng Batibot

Kwenteng Batibot currently includes 14 videos to download. The stories are about 5 minutes long and feature simple animations or puppets along with the narrator. Our son enjoyed all of them even though he couldn’t understand them all fully. There seem to be some glitches with this section still. You need to download all of the free stories individually which can take a long if your internet is slow. Even though we have already downloaded all of the stories I often get a pop up asking me if we would like to download our first story. When I click back and enter the story section again the stories are all loaded. Other times I need to re-download “Ang Tinapay” and/or “Paalam”. In general though this section is kid friendly and educational.

ABC

The ABC section has all the letters of the Filipino alphabet. The letter name is said and a word starting with that letter is given. Some of the words, seem to be strange choices for very young children. For example, for “C” the word is “cadena de amor”. Most though are great examples of words related to Filipino culture. There is also a section where children can practice writing the letters with their fingers and an alphabet song video. In the background as children are exploring the letters, part of the Batibot theme song is playing. I love the Batibot song as much as the next person but after listening to it repeat over and over and over as my son explores and slowly writes 28 letters I start to go a bit crazy! There really needs to be a way to turn off the background song or some variety in background music would be nice.


   Batibot TV- screenshot             Batibot TV- screenshot

Games

Unfortunately the Games section which we were most looking forward to has been our least favorite. I hope they have more games in the future. This app is supposed to be for children who are kindergarten aged to grade 3 but our son is 3 years old and even he found the games to be quite easy and a bit babyish. Right now as I’m writing this the “Games” section stopped working and I had to restart it but usually it works pretty well. There are 4 games available.


   Batibot Games- screenshot

Pares-pares is a 6 card memory matching game. Flip the cards to find the matching pairs. Alin ang Naiba shows 4 pictures and the child must choose the one that is different. It starts off very very easy. For example, it will show pictures of 3 frogs and a robot or 3 groups of marbles and a pie. It then moves into more difficult concepts though like running shoes, sandals, boots and a jeepney. Pagsama-Samahin requires the child to sort the objects. Again it starts out very easy with two groups of very different things like robots and eggs that all look the same but gets more difficult like sorting fruits and vegetables or clothes and toys. Finally there is Pagsunod-Sunurin. The child must choose which picture is next in the pattern like: doll, bear, doll, bear….you got it! Doll! Then it moves onto sorting 3 things from small to biggest, biggest to smallest or putting 3 letters from the alphabet in order.


   Batibot Games- screenshot

Karaoke

The karaoke section has 10 songs like Pa-Pa-Parisukat below. Like the story section you need to download each song individually. The ABC song is the same song as the ABC song in the alphabet practice section but the others are original songs with live video, animations or photos. Our son enjoyed all of the songs. In particular, as a family we really liked Isang Linggong Pagkain but the video for this sonng annoyed our son. The image changes very quickly over and over again to the music and he found it difficult to watch which is a shame because he liked that song best.
 

Katuwaan sa Batibot​

I haven't had a chance to check this out yet as I only came across it while writing this review. It appears that there is also still in publication a Filipino activity book for children called Katuwaan sa Batibot. It promises pages to color, games, mazes and counting exercises. It can be purchased through Anvil Publishing

katuwaan sa batibot

Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong South Korea

Only about an hour drive away from Gwangju, Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong is one of the closest beaches to the city. We usually make it out to the beach a couple of times a year but like many beaches along Korea’s west coast extremes in the difference between high and low tide can make it difficult to catch a good day for swimming. When the tide goes out at Dolmeori beach it goes waaaaaaaaay out! You were left having to consult tide times and charts if you wanted to dip your toes in the ocean.

20160807_102642

I think I can maybe see the ocean out there somewhere…

Earlier this spring we went to the beach for a picnic and found that the beach was gone! There were heavy construction vehicles digging up the beach and a giant hole was in its place.  To the left side of the lookout tower is a rocky beach with a little sand and it was great for our picnic but we were left wondering what had happened to the main beach! This month we were told that they had built two pools and we headed out this past weekend to check it out.

DSC_5547

They have built 3 new pools along the beach area and they are free to use. There is a very small splash pool less than half a foot deep. When we went there was no water in it. Beside it they have built a larger children’s pool that is about a foot to two feet deep. There is a shade covering for parents watching close by. This pool is chlorinated fresh water. 20160807_092845

20160814_132838

In the past Dolmeori beach did have a bit of an enclosure that helped to keep some of the water close to the beach when the tides were going in and out but it only made a small difference. When we visited on Sunday the tide was completely out but this new ocean pool was still full of water! It is enclosed only on 3 sides with the 4th side being the actual beach. They have also made the far end of the pool quite deep so more experiences swimmers can go for a proper swim.
20160807_103030
20160814_132444

20160814_124241

The water isn’t clear. It’s a bit murky with kicked up sand but despite this, I’ve been told that the water at Dolmeori may actually be cleaner than some of the beaches in the area with more clear water. I’m not sure at this point how they are filling the pool but even when the tide was out we could feel cold water temperature changes in some areas so the water was moving and not just sitting still there in the tank.

20160807_095527It is possible to go camping at the beach and there is a small area with trees with limited space as well as additional spaces along the sand. To rent an elevated platform area for the day or night it is 20,000 won – 30,000 won. Small tents are currently free but you are required to purchase a garbage bag for 3,000 won from them which they will dispose of when you leave. Larger tents may be required to pay a fee but they didn’t tell us the exact price. I would guess it possibly depends on just how big your monster tent is!

20160807_103049

How to Get There: There is a bus at the Hampyeong Bus Terminal that heads to Dolmeori beach. It runs from 06:40-19:30 every 80 minuets. It takes about 20 min to get to the beach from the terminal.

Address: 616-10, Dolmeori-gil, Hampyeong-eup, Hampyeong-gun, Jeollanam-do 
전라남도 함평군 함평읍 주포로 614 (함평읍)

Phone Number: +82-61-322-0011

Hoi An, Vietnam: Spending Some Time Around the Old Town

In 1999, the old town of Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The narrow streets are lined with buildings from centuries ago and in the evening lanterns light their way. Hoi An is more than just this historic town though! Beautiful white sand beaches line the coast, fantastic restaurants can be found and it is about an hour away from the temple complex My Son. Found around 40 minutes south of Da Nang International Airport, Hoi An makes it an easy day trip or a logical second destination from Da Nang on your trip to Vietnam.

Accommodation

We booked our room at the fantastic Essence Hoi An Hotel & Spa. Just on the outskirts of town we were given a huge room with a fantastic floor to ceiling window overlooking the rice fields. Our son loved spending time just sitting in the window and watching the world go by. We witnessed some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen there and even saw some rare iridescent clouds one evening!

Though being outside of the main part of town may seem inconvenient it actually worked out really well for us! Essence Hoi An Hotel & Spa provide free bicycles for their guests to use and they do have seats for children. The busy main road can feel intimidating especially with kids in tow but right in front of the hotel is a small street that follows the path of the river. You can take this small road all the way right into the old town avoiding nearly all of the traffic!20160711_192259_HDR
Plan your trip to Hoi An with TripAdvisor! 

As well as bicycles to use free of charge Essence Hoi An Hotel & Spa also offers a shuttle service several times a day to the old quarter and the beach. If you aren’t feeling up to going to the beach they have a lovely pool on site! They can also arrange transportation and tours outside of town for a competitive price.  

The hotel has a great restaurant and will even prepare special meals to order at breakfast for people with special dietary needs. If you’re looking for something a little different a bike ride to the main restaurant area in the old quarter is less than 10 minutes away. We found ourselves getting dinner at the Indian restaurant Ganesh a couple of evenings while in Hoi An. Ganesh makes some of the best Indian food we’ve had anywhere, including India! It’s no wonder they were packed the first time we were there but luckily they offer take out as well. There are a fair number of child friendly items on their large menu as well.DSC_4868Best of all were the staff at the hotel! They went out of their way to talk to us, make sure we were ok and were exceptionally friendly. Everyone made an effort to learn our son’s name and to interact with him as well as with my husband and I. He felt right at home and needed to make sure to say goodbye to everyone before we left. Essence Hoi An Hotel & Spa is family friendly while retaining a feeling of class and professionalism. We highly recommend them!

Beaches

The two main beaches in Hoi An are Cua Dai beach which is closer to the old quarter and An Bang beach a little further north. Though many resorts can still be found at Cua Dai beach, much of this beach was washed away by erosion in 2014. Climate change, bad weather, hydropower dams, and sand mining have all been listed as contributing factors and sandbags lie in place of the beach in an attempt to prevent the erosion from continuing further. Due to the loss of Cua Dai beach, many tourists now choose to stay at beach resorts in Da Nang instead and those staying locally have now moved to An Bang beach. Though An Bang beach has been affected by erosion too, it is not to the extent that Cua Dai beach has and efforts are being made to help protect it. An Bang Beach remains a beautiful white sand beach.DSC_4810We visited An Bang Beach a couple of times during our stay in Hoi An. The chairs were free to use when we visited which we a good thing as it was exceptionally hot those days and there is little shade on the beach otherwise. Unlike Da Nang where there was no one trying to sell us souvenirs on the beach, An Bang Beach did have vendors and some were quite aggressive, one man so much so that he brought me to tears. Only when I was crying did he finally leave me alone. In all my travels, I have never run into a vender on the beach as unpleasant as he was. The others were persistent but not aggressive.DSC_4884There are a lot of restaurants around An Bang Beach and even some small convenience style stores which sell imported goods. I spotted Lays chips and Cheerios here and nowhere else on our travels in Vietnam. Our hotel’s shuttle dropped us off at the beach road near An Bang Beach Village Restaurant. The restaurant will take your order and bring your meal right out to your beach chair. That was a lifesaver when a certain 3 year old didn’t want to stop playing in the sand even though it was lunch time! We particularly liked their scallops and their fish wrapped in a banana leaf.

Old Town

In the evening, the place to be in Hoi An is the Old Town. The streets are closed to cars and motorcycles and as the sun sets the lanterns are lit. A ticket is required to visit the old town but despite the government’s efforts to make it clearer, there is a lot of confusion still. Previously a ticket was only required to visit sites within the old town and not to just walk around but it seems that now you need a ticket to wander the streets.  Each ticket costs 80,000 VND for locals and 120,000 VND for foreign tourists. The proceeds from the ticket sales go back into helping to maintain the town. We arrived fairly early one evening around the same time as a large tour group and so we were asked to purchase a ticket. The other days we arrived later in the evening or through other gates and were not asked to purchase a ticket nor did we have our ticket checked. We were told that the ticket is valid for 5 days and so we kept it on us each time we went just in case but I have also heard that it is valid for 10 days.

A night market is also set up each evening where you can buy souvenirs or one of the town’s famous lanterns for yourself! Don’t worry about how you are going to bring it home. They collapse down for easy packing! DSC_4816Some of the vendors will quote ridiculously high prices requiring a lot of haggling. One shirt I bought was originally quoted as being $30 but I got it for around $7 in the end. Checking out other shops to compare what they are asking for helps give you a good idea of what the going price is. Other items we didn’t bother to barter as it seemed like a reasonable price to us, though I’m sure locals pay less. Something we’ve never run into in our travels elsewhere but happened several times in Vietnam is that a vendor would quote a ridiculously high price and refuse to negotiate. In that case it is best to just walk away and forget about it…sometimes though it pays to go back.DSC_4768After being dragged around by mommy and daddy in the heat to the market our son REALLY wanted a cheaply made green backhoe toy, the kind you see at the dollar store back home. The woman wanted $7 for it and absolutely refused to budge on the price. We went off and wouldn’t you know, she was the only vendor with a green backhoe! Lots of yellow and orange ones but no green. Daddy went back to try again and the woman absolutely refused to budge on the price…until her elderly mother came by and told her to smarten up! He ended up getting it for about $2.50 which is still more than it’s worth I’m sure but our little boy was thrilled.DSC_4782

DSC_4784My Son Temple Complex

Built around the 4th century AD until around the 14th century AD, the My Son Hindu temple complex is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site just outside of Hoi An. Over 70 temples and tombs make up the site but it was badly damaged by carpet bombing during the war. Restoration and maintenance of remaining buildings continues to this day.DSC_4798Day bus tours from Hoi An cost around $5-$7, not including admission to the site. It takes about an hour to get to My Son from Hoi An and tours spend about an hour and a half at the site. Private cars can also be arranged but we decided to use the more economical option of a group tour. In our case a small mini bus picked us up from our hotel and brought us to the site. There was a guide included in that price but because we were traveling with a small child we told the guide that we would visit the site at our own pace separately. This was perfectly fine. It took us about half an hour to walk the complex, explore a bit and to sit under a tree to have a small snack. The tour group spent about an hour and a half.DSC_4799The site is well maintained and easy to walk around. There is also a lot of wild life around My Son. I have never seen so many large butterflies in my life! They were absolutely everywhere! We also saw a really cool lizard. It is not wheelchair or stroller accessible in some parts though. We did see a couple with a stroller but they had to carry it over some rough sections and up some stairs to get closer to the temple. If you can bare the heat, a baby carrier is probably a better option. DSC_4804As interesting as My Son is though, if you have visited any of the larger temple complexes in Asia like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Bagan temples in Myanmar you will likely feel underwhelmed. In the summer it is also exceptionally hot. Unless you are a really big fan of temples, I would skip it in the summer if you are traveling with small children. In cooler weather though it’s a great place to explore for an hour or so.

Also Nearby
Da Nang is only 40 minutes from the ancient city of Hoi An. Click here to read about what we did in Da Nang!

Vietnam travel guide - 13th edition, 13th Edition Aug 2016 by Lonely Planet

Vietnam travel guide – 13th edition, 13th Edition Aug 2016 by Lonely Planet

Colour maps and images throughout Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots Essential info at your fingertips – hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices Honest reviews for all budgets – eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience – history, people & culture, food & drink, arts & architecture, environment Free, convenient pull-out Ho Chi Minh City & Hanoi map (included in print version), plus over 86 maps. By Iain Stewart , Benedict Walker , Nick Ray , Anna Kaminski, Jessica Lee , Brett Atkinson . 13th Edition Aug 2016. . 520 pages, 192 pp colour, 93 maps.


Genealogy Search Brings us to Mandalay, Myanmar and Hitting the Research Wall

Prior to our trip to Mandalay, Myanmar a woman on Tripadvisor had told us that St. Mary’s school where my great grandmother had worked as a matron was now NO. (8) Basic Education High School. A volunteer working for FIBIS also provided us with the same information (from the same source unfortunately). I also found on a post that most of the cemeteries had been moved out of the city to Kyar Ni Kan Cemetery ages ago but that some gravestones had been collected prior to the move and were still behind St. Thomas Aquinas Pre-Major Seminary in Mandalay. So, these places were the focus of our search when we arrived in the city.

Planning our trip I made a fatal mistake. Since we had important work to do I decided to choose a hotel which belonged to a reputable international chain. Based on their reputation I was sure that the employees would be highly trained and would be able to assist us in where things may be located and such. Unfortunately though, by the time we arrived in the city the hotel was no longer affiliated with this company and though many of their employees remained the same, they were having serious training issues. One employee was absolutely amazing and helped us as much as he could but he was doing the work of 10 people at the hotel. 

Going to Mandalay, Myanmar? Search for hotels here! 

The hotel was a bit out of town. In Yangon our hotel had also been a bit out of the city center and it was no problem at all. We easily and cheaply got taxi rides to and from the hotel at any time. In Mandalay though there were no taxis near our hotel ever. Instead we needed to hire a private care each time we went out into the city. The hotel was 20 min from the city center in moderate traffic and at $10/hour the cost of transportation quickly added up. We soon ran out of our remaining available transportation funds so each trip to investigate needed to be short.

The day before we headed out the first time to find the school I did some more digging around about No. (8) Basic Education High School. From what I could find online I had a feeling that this was not the correct school. It looked like this school had used to be St. Joseph’s and not St. Mary’s. The manager at the hotel called the school and the person who answered the phone said that they were not sure and to come on by. 

So, we took the car to the school and there were signs everywhere saying that it used to be St. Joseph’s. I don’t know how the person who answered the phone had not been aware of this. If someone is looking for St. Joseph’s though the people who work at this school were very friendly and welcoming and they have a booklet of history and old photos of the school available for people who visit. 

One woman at the school told us that there had never been a St. Mary’s School in Mandalay. Another woman said that there was a St. Mary’s school and it had been just down the street. So, with our driver we went down the street and found St. Mary’s church but no school. An old blind woman at the church told us also that there had never been a St. Mary’s school but then asked if it had been Catholic or Anglican. I told her it was Anglican. Suddenly she said “Oh yes!” there HAD been a St. Mary’s school next to St. Andrew’s school and her own father had attended it. She said it was now No. (1) Basic Education High School. 

So we found No. (1) Basic Education High School. There were 3 ladies at the front gate who were very nice but then suddenly a man came up and wouldn’t let us talk to anyone anymore and wouldn’t answer any questions. We just wanted to know if this school had been St. Mary’s. He told us to go away and to get a pass from the school’s office a few blocks away. So we went there and they told us that the person we needed to see was in a meeting and would be unavailable all day. They suggested that we talk to the school chairman who was back at the school. We went back to the school and they told us that he wasn’t there. We asked if we could perhaps call him and the same man at the gate told us that he didn’t have a phone number and ushered us out of the gate area. We finally got out of him that we should try asking at the school’s main office a few blocks away. 

We went to the main office and they told us that we should come back later in the afternoon to speak to the chairman. No one at the main office could tell us if the school used to be St. Mary’s or not and they also would not call the chairman. Our driver suggested that rather than coming back in the afternoon we should come back on Monday at 9am. Classes would be starting then and so someone would have to talk to us. 

Instead we went to find St. Thomas Church to find where some old grave stone of the British have been kept. When the military took all the old graves out of the city a priest saved a few stones there. We had been given the wrong address and had been told that it was not a seminary but a church. It IS in fact a seminary and eventually we did find it. Only around 30 stones remain there and most are in pieces. After 3 hours we were exhausted and had found nothing. 

St Thomas Seminary-2 St Thomas Seminary (2)-2 St Thomas Seminary (3)-2

The stones that remain at St. Thomas Seminary

On Monday we set out on our search again. Unfortunately they fantastic driver we had had before the weekend wasn’t available to help us on Monday. This second driver was not as um…”dedicated to the search” as the previous man had been and asked few questions.

We were sent to an old Methodist school/church, which sent us to a church next to the YMCA. They sent us back to St. Mary’s church which in turn sent us back to No. (1) Basic Education High School. They in turn ended up sending us back to No. (8) Basic Education High School where we had started our search originally on Saturday. A nun there sent us to a Baptist Church where she believed the school had been and her sister had apparently even attended the school there! The people at the Baptist Church told us there was never a school there and didn’t offer any additional leads. 

Mandalay Palace (6)-2

We know that St Mary's school was on the South side of Mandalay Palace

We headed over to the Mandalay Cultural Museum and Library but found that it was closed on Mondays. Probably for the best. Costing nearly $5 per person, Lonely Planet describes the museum as “This dowdy, poorly lit three-room collection displays archaeological finds, Buddhas and a bullock cart. It’s ludicrously overpriced”. I doubt a trip there would have helped in our search. We decided to skip going to Kyar Ni Kan cemetery on this trip. I think it is our best bet for finding my great grandfather’s grave there but we couldn’t even get a straight answer as to whether there are still British graves there. We had run out of enough time and money to spend our day searching the stones as the following day we had to leave Myanmar. 

I strongly believe that St. Mary’s School may still be in the city. In our round about search we were sent to numerous colonial era schools, churches and buildings but what each one once was has been lost to the general public. Some have little plaques with dates and names. Others, the current occupants hold the history and information like the nuns at the school that once was St. Josephs. Mapping it all out and recording it all would be a great and worthwhile project! Perhaps someone has already undertaken this task but we were unable to find the information.

We’re hoping to make it back to Mandalay in the next year if possible to search again. Online I think I’ve hit a brick wall. I have not been able to find out any new information through the genealogy sites in ages. I’ve recently been sent a message that the location of the old St Mary’s School is now St. Mary Language School between 77 & 78 roads on 26 Street in Mandalay but I have not been able to find any information about that school yet. So, at this point our search is on hold until new information arises or we can make the trip back to Myanmar.

Things I am still wondering:

  • Who was Gladys Edith May’s mother? 
  • Who was Gladys and where did she go after marriage?
  • Where is St Mary’s school?
  • Where is the grave of Joseph Plato Cooper?
  • Is there any additional documentation that shows Joseph is the son of George James Cooper?
  • Are there family photos from the time?
  • Where did the sisters do their nursing training?
  • Audrey said she was in Calcutta at one point nursing. How did she end up there?
  • Is there any documentation of my great aunt Heather at the time? Where was she born?
  • The family visit that took place in the 1950’s, what were they doing there?
  • What were they all doing in their lives there?
  • And anything else that may come up in the search!

​Click here to read how the search for our family history in Myanmar all began!

3 for 2 on all Books, eBooks and Digital Chapters

Myanmar (Burma) travel guide, 12th Edition Jul 2014 by Lonely Planet 

Grieving a Loss or Death as an Expat Far from “Home”

DSC_0140

Agni Pooja infront of the sacred Ganges river. Those who are cremated on the banks of the Ganges or who die in the city of Varanasi recieve instant salvation.

I found out through Facebook that my great uncle in Canada is expected to pass away in the next very short while. I knew he was sick. He hadn’t been doing well recently but then suddenly there in my facebook news feed was a post that today may be his last day. Sitting in my office at work during a break I was instantly reduced to tears. He was the last of my grandfather’s generation still holding on and active to the end. As a child I always adored him. In a family full of chaos he was a constant calm. He was always a gentleman whom no matter what our age treated us with respect.

But here I am in Korea. Distance and cost make the trip home for final “goodbyes” impossible. In 11 years abroad this isn’t the first time I’ve found out about passing of friends and family online. I found out about an old teacher’s passing from condolences on his facebook page. Confused, I scanned through them only to find that they weren’t for someone he knew but for my friend himself. Another time I went to send a message to an elementary school friend I hadn’t spoken to in some time only to find out that she had passed away 2 years earlier. Because we hadn’t spoken in a while, Facebook had filtered her posts not to appear in my newsfeed. I hadn’t even known she was sick.

I also got an email about my grandmother passing after she had already been buried and her things divided up among her children or sold off. I got a message from the mother of the boy who I consider to be my first love. We were best friends for years but had drifted apart when I went to university. We had just reconnected online when I got the message that he had passed. Since it came in an online message it was even harder to believe than usual that it wasn’t some crew joke. Even the passing of one of our very good friends here in Korea was announced online. I turned on the computer and there it was.

None of this is unique to expat living. In this “digital age” finding out through social media of the passing of loved ones has become more and more common. And rather than one tragic phone call or letter, the news is announced to us over and over each time we turn on the screen. As an expat though, the distance in time and space complicates things even further. Family may gather but we are unable to attend. Whose death do we return home for? Can we return home for anyone? How do we mourn?

As an expat it can be incredibly difficult to get enough time off of work to return home. You may get a few days off but that only covers the trip itself and leaves no other time for arrangements. I know of more than a couple of people who have had to give up their jobs abroad since they had to suddenly go home for an extended period for emergencies like an illness in the family. It is not a stretch that some would be on shaky terms at work if they needed to leave for a week or more for deaths in the family.

In countries like the Philippines where so many traditionally work abroad, viewings and funerals can last around 3 weeks but even then it isn’t always easy to return. When my husband’s lola passed away in 2006 he had just started a contract at a new job and wasn’t allowed any time off yet. We can’t quite remember why we didn’t return at the beginning of 2012 when his lolo passed away as well. But it was around the time I was finishing up my degree, we both had work, were either in or heading on a trip through Northern India and I was either pregnant or we were trying to become pregnant. It was a busy time. My husband’s parents are getting older now. Both my husband and I know that if we move to Canada in the next few years and they pass away he likely won’t be able to make the trip all the way back home for their funerals.

DSC_2315

Finally visiting lolo's grave 2 years after he passed

If we don’t attend there is the guilt of not showing enough sacrifice and love for the family, of not helping enough during this difficult time. This is coupled with the guilt of being far away before they passed and of not sharing in enough events over the years. One of my friends died young and tragically. If I had been at home could I have perhaps guided him to a better path?

More often than not these days, mourning ends up taking the same approach that the announcement did. We change our profile photo, post pubic condolences, and maybe post a little memory of the loved one. Then we internally debate about when we can change our photo back, if it is appropriate to share something else in our news feed yet and if it is ever ok to “unfriend” someone who has passed if they had a social media account.

When my grandparents moved abroad it would have taken months sometimes for them to get the news through mail. All this digital connection has given us opportunities for those of us far away to connect nearly instantly and to mourn together over social media but it all feels rather empty. While those around me can relate to the loss of a loved one, no one around us actually knew them. There are no past stories to be shared over drinks.

There is no finality of the funeral. No seeing them one last time. In our minds they remain as they were the last time we saw them. There is no good bye or closure. The act of mourning seems to be missing in formality and in return we are either cursed or blessed with their image of them forever young, as they were when we left our homes to go abroad. 

Searching for Family History Beyond the Genealogy Sites

We started off our search for information about our family in British India with some fairly usual sources. One of my mother’s cousins joined Families in British India Society (FIBIS) before I got very involved in the search for the family history and later I also began searching the site. The organization is a charity which helps people who are researching the history of their family in British India. Since we do not live in England, a volunteer from FIBIS was able to help us with search in country and online which was incredibly helpful! We then turned to some of the bigger geneology sites for information: ancestry.com, findmypast.com and familysearch.org were the main sources of focus. Just before our trip to Myanmar and since I have been branching out. Here are some of the additional resources which may prove useful that we have used at this time.

monks at a temple in bagan using cell phone

Freemasons

After finding that my great grandfather had been a Freemason, I consulted a friend of mine who is also one for some additional information. He informed me that many lodges keep good records and are eager to help families of past members. Through the Library and Museum of Freemasonry it is possible to request genealogical information. If you know the United Grand Lodge of England lodge name or the number of the person you are asking about, there is no charge. I had found my great grandfather’s registration with the lodge Victoria in Burma through ancestry.com. If you have your own lodge number the fee is £15. If none of the above applies to you, then the fee for the search is £30. The search can take up to 8 weeks. 

I got a response approximately 5 weeks after I submitted my request. Unfortuantely the only information they could provide me with was the same as what I had already found. No further records for my great grandfather could be found. They were very patient with my follow up questions about terminology and helped to clear up some questions I had. This included whether men who had registered at other lodges in the area who held the same first and last name of my grandfather but didn't list his middle name were infact him. It doesn't look like it was.

British Library India Office

I also contacted the British Library India Office. They provide a family history search and when I contacted them they got back to me in about 4 days’ time. While they did provide me with information, none of it was new to us at that point. They probably would have been a good starting point earlier in our search. They did though provide a list of organizations which may be able to help further as well as a list of research agents who might be able to undertake further paid research for us.

Google Book and Map Searches

The name of the school where my great grandmother was a matron is St. Mary School in Mandalay. I did a Google Books search of the school and was able to read excerpts of books containing related information. The entire book isn't online in most cases but a fairly large preview is usually available to be read. Through various Google searches I was able to eventually make contact with two women whose families had been connected to the school in some way. 

Using Google Maps I also searched for St. Mary's School in Mandalay…and didn't find it. But it was a good try! When they moved to England from Burma my great aunts Phyllis and Heather both listed the same address that they were going to move to on the passenger lists of the ships they traveled on. I was able to find an image of the house which is still standing.

United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG)

The first person I connected with as a result of my Google search was the author Anne Carter who has written the book Bewitched by Burma. As mentioned in her book, her aunt Fan had taught years ago at St. Mary’s but unfortunately her time there and my family’s time there does not seem to have overlapped. She did though suggest that I contact the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), now shortened to United Society (US). At the time St. Mary’s was run by them. US has an archivists who can help with the search for family connected to the Anglican Church but as they work part time it can take up to 4 months to receive a response. As of this writing it has been just over 4 months and I haven’t heard back yet. I have sent a follow up email.
 

TripAdvisor

Though it is the place where I do most of my planning for my trips, TripAdvisor also has a wealth of information beyond that! They have forums where travelers can ask for travel advice and information in the area. This also includes a Myanmar forum and its different regions which was helpful to our search. This is how I found the second woman I made contact with.

The second woman I connected with was the wife of a man who lived at the school with his mother who was a teacher at the same time that my family was there. Her husband wasn’t able to add too much information about his time while our family was there since he was so young but we have kept in touch. While we were in Mandalay he relayed his childhood memories of his walks around the school area to us so that we could try to locate the school in present times. There were some great “Ah ha!” moments as we would see something in front of us that he had mentioned.

I also found a post asking about St. Mary’s made by a spouse of one of my relatives that I had not been aware of. A local travel agent had given suggestions where to look for sites in the city. Another person had an old map of the city and give suggestions as to where the school may be. and a third person even told us the current name of the school. None of this is verified though so, as we later found out, comes with no guarantees. 

Follow this link to learn what we have found in our family search!