Saturday, March 4, 2017

My thoughts on backpacking in Asia with a baby

The three of us at Angkor

 The 22nd of February marked four months of backpacking in SE Asia for us, and in this time we have visited four countries, and numerous cities. We have traveled by train, plane, bus, car, tuk tuk, ferry, and boat, carrying two large backpacks, two carry on bags, and a stroller. And a roughly 9kg heffalump who we call our daughter πŸ˜‚
It has been a challenging, fun, fulfilling, exciting, and humbling experience so far, and I wanted to give my thoughts on some various aspects of what backpacking with a baby is like.

First of all, I want to talk about what 'backpacking' means to us. The definition of the word is quite simply, to travel carrying one's possessions in a backpack, but for us, it also means (attempting) to immerse ourselves in the culture, to live and travel on a budget, and to sometimes stray off the beaten path. Even though Charlotte will not remember any of the places we have been to, or the things that we have done, I strongly believe that the adventure that we are on now will help shape her personality and hopefully a love of travel and a global awareness. She is already an extremely social little girl, and has no problems in meeting new people, or even being picked up by a complete stranger. In fact, she loves meeting new people!

One of the most common questions we get asked when people see we are traveling with a baby is "What is it like? What is it like to travel with a baby?". Sometimes it's not the easiest question to answer, because for us, it's just natural. We love to travel, and traveled a lot before Charlotte was born, so it was just an easy extension to continue traveling with a baby. To those people who question, we just say it is fun, but it is different than traveling solo or as a couple. There are different things you have to consider when traveling with a small child, and these are some things that I thought I would talk about...

I recently read an article about traveling in Vietnam with a baby, and noticed that it stated "street food is not safe for small children to eat in SE Asia". I thought this was kind of a strange thing to say because parents in Asia feed their children "street food", and that is just normal for them. We have never had any problem eating food from street stalls or 'restaurants' set up in someone's garage, and in fact, the only time we have gotten sick is when we have eaten food from a proper restaurant!
Enjoying a coconut in Chiang Mai
 When we started our trip, Charlotte was only seven months old and not eating much solid foods. Back then we were still a little cautious about giving her the food that we ate, and we mostly tried to give her fruit and veggies. Now she is eleven months old, and while she still does not eat much solids, we have found it fairly easy to find food for her to eat while we are traveling, and we try to feed her what we are eating.

Street food stalls in Chiang Mai

A woman on the beach in Cambodia slicing some fresh fruit for us

 One of the things I love the most about SE Asia is the abundance of tropical fruit, and fruit is perfect to give to babies because it is usually soft and ripe, and requires no preparation. Although it may cause them to develop a sweet tooth 😜 When we first got to Asia, Charlotte loved eating those little bananas, which were the perfect size for her. Now she is a little more fussy and usually refuses banana, but she loves mango and papaya. Noodle soups like 'pho' are also really good to share with her, and we have even eaten in restaurants where some kind ladies have prepared Charlotte her own bowl of noodles and broth, cutting up the noodles into small pieces for her.

Breastfeeding Vs Formula
When we first arrived in Thailand, I was surprised to see that many women choose to bottle feed their babies there, and this trend continued even as we moved through Laos and Cambodia, which are among the poorest countries in Asia. Everywhere we go, we see shops filled with shelves of formula, and there seems to be no regulations on whether formula is promoted and advertised or not. I find it strange that breastfeeding is not promoted more here, because it is free, and you never have to worry about finding safe drinking water to mix with formula.
I have continued to breastfeed Charlotte because it is very convenient (no need to pack bottles or formula!), it is free, and I don't have to worry about sterilising anything! But unfortunately, it is just not common to breastfeed your baby in SE Asia.

The choice of accommodation that we have found in SE Asia so far is really varied and catered to every budget. We usually book rooms a couple of days in advance on, although sometimes we just decide to show up to a new city with no booking, and we have never had a problem finding something that suits us. We generally stick to a budget of around US$15 for a double room, sometimes we pay more, sometimes less. We've stayed in guesthouses, bungalows, hostels, hotels, and even a tree house!
Our bungalow in Don Khon, Laos. It was very basic, but we only paid $10 a night!

As I mentioned above, we have taken a lot of different types of transportation on our trip. Since flying to Thailand in October, we have only taken two flights since then, which seems crazy considering the amount of geography we have covered. The rest of the time, we have mostly traveled by bus, often taking a local bus where everyone is packed in like a tin of sardines! We try to schedule travel with Charlotte's nap time, which sometimes works well, sometimes not 😝
She usually does pretty well with bus rides, but she hates sitting still which is why it's great if she sleeps :)
Somewhat surprisingly, Charlotte loved traveling by tuk tuk, and sometimes she would even fall asleep! It must be something to do with the breeze of the wind on her face :) Another surprisingly good journey was our slow boat trip up the Mekong River to Luang Prabang in Laos. We were given seats right up the front of the boat and Charlotte was very entertained by watching the scenery go by.

In our tuk tuk touring the temples of Angkor
 Safety with transportation in SE Asia is an issue, but with many things here, you just sort of have to go with it. Families of four cram their kids in between them on their motorbikes, and car seats are non existent. Buses are crammed full of people, and just when you think they can't fit any more people on the bus, they pull out plastic chairs to seat people in the aisle. Just go with it ;)
On the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Interaction with the locals
The people in SE Asia love babies! Especially blonde haired blue-eyed ones like ours. From day one in Bangkok people were whipping out their smart phones to take pictures of Charlotte, even grabbing her to pose with her. It can be overwhelming. We often get fed up with the constant attention and people trying to touch her, and people often get offended if we say 'please don't touch her'. Charlotte on the other hand loves the attention, and often squeals with delight and smiles and giggles if people pay her attention. She is so cheeky and knows how to play it up in front of other people.
We often have people in restaurants come and take her while we are eating, but Charlotte is always very happy to have someone come and play with her. I think if she were more shy, people would respect that and leave her to sit with us, but as it happens, she practically begs people to pick her up!
Making new friends in Laos

Before we left for our trip, we made sure that we got travel insurance that would cover any costs if we got sick or had to go to hospital. I also made sure to see a doctor about getting any travel vaccines, and while Charlotte was too young to have any extra vaccines, she has had all of the recommended ones based on regular guidelines. My breastfeeding her also provides her with some immunity, should any of us get sick.
 I was initially worried about what we would do if any of us got sick, as health care in SE Asia is very limited and of poor quality. Thankfully, none of us have been seriously ill, and while Charlotte has had a fever a handful of times, we weren't worried as this is completely normal in a child's first year of life.
There are usually international medical clinics in bigger cities of most countries, which is comforting to know. The staff there will usually speak good English and are used to dealing with expats or tourists. Some hospitals in Thailand seemed to be quite modern and of a high standard, but in Laos and Cambodia, as they are poorer countries, the standard was quite bad (outside of bigger cities at least). This can be worrying traveling through these countries with a baby, but if you are sensible and try to stay healthy it shouldn't be a problem.

Stroller Vs Baby Carrier 
When we started planning this trip, we considered whether we would buy a new light weight stroller, or just buy a second hand one. We found a great stroller that was super light, compact and easy to carry, but it was quite expensive. Then we looked at second hand strollers, and found a Maclaren stroller in good condition, that is also light weight but not as compact. Well, we decided to buy the second hand one, and I am glad we did, because it has been battered around, and it doesn't matter because it wasn't too expensive. The footpaths in SE Asia are not designed for strolling. In fact, I often joke that they were designed purely for motorbike parking! We call our walks with the stroller "extreme urban strolling". You have to dodge broken footpath, trees, garbage, parked bikes, etc.
We persist with using the stroller, however, because it is often very hot and Charlotte and I would both swelter if I carried her in the ergo carrier everyday. The stroller also has a nice sunshade on it, so it protects her from the sun.
We do use the carrier when we're going to places like the beach, or a national park, and of course we used it to explore the temples of Angkor. So there are pros and cons to each one, which is why we brought both with us.

In the carrier exploring Angkor Wat

There are probably more things I could talk about to do with traveling with a baby, but I think I'll leave it here for now. I hope you found this interesting!

Thanks for reading.
Hannah xx

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