Central America – part 2, Guatemala and Belize

I forgot to mention in part 1, Belize is Anjali’s 50th country and Ariana’s 25th!!! The drive to the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala was just 1.5 hours and the immigration out of Belize and into Guatemala was annoying (since you had to do paperwork twice 100m from each other) but generally seamless. We had gotten papers for the car at the time of rental which made things easy. We arrived at our resort just in time for lunch, and were delighted to see the beautiful green-blue lake adjoining the resort. After some local Guatemalan shrimp and rice, we all jumped into the pool and hot tub. We also took a stroll to the Peten lake waterfront where the water was crystal clear and warm. The sunset was absolutely stunning over the lake. The kids were tired and had a late nap, and we had an overall relaxing evening ending with some time for me to read a book and drink some wine on the balcony.

Next morning we headed out to Tikal, the world famous 2000 year old Mayan ruins and the primary purpose of our trip to Guatemala. A quick 45 mins drive north from the resort, we arrived at the entrance of Tikal. It’s a massive area in the middle of the rainforest scattered with Mayan temples, and it reminded us a lot of our recent experience at the magnificent Angkor Wat. We walked what felt like a really long time through the forest to the first pyramid and ruins. A few 100m later, we reached the Gran Plaza – a breathtaking site with the most famous ruins and temples on each side. On one side stood the super famous Temple I or the Jaguar temple. Opposite stood Temple II that Ayaan and I climbed to get an amazing view of the on plaza. And the north and central Acropolis on the other sides, that all of us enjoyed climbing and exploring. Tikal is not super kid friendly with its climbs and long walks, but it worked out well for us since we didn’t have FOMO to see every single temple. Also luckily we got a ride back to the entrance. Tikal was a great experience, much like visiting Angkor Wat or Petra, though not as magical.

That evening we went down to the lake to feed the fish and turtles. Kids loved it as the fish jumped to get the food and a turtle came by to fill his tummy. We ventured to the island town of Flores, 45 mins away for dinner. Flores is a quaint, colorful, tiny island town in the middle of the lake. We really enjoyed our dinner overlooking the decorated boats on the lake and capped it off with ice cream for the kids.

Next morning was a travel day as we drove across the border back to Belize (crossing was just 15 mins), returned the car at Belize City, took the Belize express ferry to San Pedro (made famous by Madonna’s La Isla Bonita) and finally a smaller boat to our hotel called Portofino. We learned that Belize had just 340,000 people, a former British Colony 37 years old and is facing a referendum to remain independent or join Guatemala. What is super unique about Belize is that it’s a mix between being in Central America and the Caribbean. Portofino at Ambergris Caye is a boutique hotel with just 17 rooms and a private beach. It was a very different experience than our other beach stays, very relaxing with the pool, bar and beach right outside our room. On a different note, I find it amazing how the kids adapt to not having toys. For example Ayaan is obsessed with how they clean and fill the pool with a pipe at this resort.

We spent our last 3 days of our travels in our sabbatical relaxing at the beach (slightly disappointing with weeds although water is warm and a lovely color), the pool and spending our time with the kids. Ayaan and Ariana were fascinated that they cut the coconut from the tree, cut them and served them absolutely fresh. The food and cocktails were fantastic with freshly caught seafood and local rum. We ventured out to the town of San Pedro one of the evenings, walked around the tiny town and had some ceviche with local rum. We we’re so lucky to catch a double rainbow with Ariana wearing her “Chasing Rainbows” tee. The weather got really nice (“only perfect” as Ariana says), sunny and warm with a slight breeze. On our last day we went out to snorkel at Mexico Rock, a part of the Holchan preserve. Belize has the 2nd biggest barrier reef in the world after Australia. The snorkeling was one of the best we’ve done anywhere comparable to the Red Sea and Zanzibar. Our guide was fantastic and we saw eagle rays, barracudas, lobsters, sting rays, pink conch, rainbow fish, puffer fish etc. The kids were well behaved and enjoyed seeing the fish come up to the boat as we fed them. Overall an amazing way to end our travels in our sabbatical as we head back to SF via Houston tomorrow! Again super thankful for Ayaan and Ariana and grateful that we got to spend all this time with them.

Central America – part 1, Belize

After a long, long flight from Mumbai to Houston via Toronto, we spent a week getting over jet lag and spending time with Anjali’s sister Dhara. They were great hosts and it worked out well as we got to acclimatize back to America and celebrate the holidays together including New Years, Dhara’s Birthday and a quick trip to Austin to visit the Art of Ice Cream Experience. Reenergized we took off for our last international trip as part of our sabbatical – to Central America for 10 days. Belize was a short 2 hour flight from Houston and it was great to get back to warm tropical weather. We rented an SUV for the first 6 days as we discovered the rainforest, ruins and Tikal in Guatemala. As we drove to the Cahal Pech Resort in San Ignacio, a 1.5 hour drive, we knew we were in for an adventure with bumpy roads and horses “parked” on the side of the road instead of cars.

The resort was rustic and local right by the Cahal Pech ruins and perched on a hill overlooking the city and the rainforests. We got a nice little hut to ourselves with a view and a hammock, that the kids loved. Belize was surprisingly not super kid friendly as the resort didn’t have a kids menu or a crib. It’s a relatively new country and is still building the tourism infrastructure. Our adventure began the next morning as we drove to Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve. I was glad we rented an SUV as the road was non-existent for a majority of the drive and not for the faint hearted. 1.5 hours later we made it to Rio on Pools, a collection of pools formed from the waterfall and rivers. We had the entire place to ourselves which was amazing (and a pattern for this trip) and Ayaan and I enjoyed wading through the pools and to the waterfall. Our next stop was the Rio Frio Cave a short drive away that was a unique experience with a river and beach within a cave that also featured stalactites. We were pretty tired and had lunch at the Gaia resort which had a stunning view over the river and waterfalls. Our last stop for the day after lunch was the Big Rock waterfall, which were nice but honestly too steep a climb with kids. Exhausted from the hikes and the drive, we chilled at the pool and hot tub with an early dinner and bedtime.

Next day, not deterred by the roads, we set off in the same direction again to visit the famous Caracol Mayan ruins. A very bumpy 2.5 hour drive later we got to the ruins and were delighted to only see a couple more cars. We were told that we’d need a military escort on the drive since it’s on the border, but it works out just fine without one. Caracol was luscious green and the ruins were there for us to explore on our own – pretty incredible for the fact it’s Belize’s most famous site. The kids really enjoyed running from temple to temple hearing Tucans and howler monkeys and occasionally climbing the almost 1500 year old “pyramids”. Definitely worth the drive. On our drive back, after the kids napped, we stopped at the Green Hills Butterfly farm. This was a wonderful experience as the kids got to see different butterflies, and learn about its journey from egg to caterpillar to pupa to a beautiful butterfly. The evening again was uneventful as we relaxed in the pool and had an early local dinner comprising of fish and chicken curry.

On our 3rd full day we decided to take the kids to the Belize zoo an hour away. It was an awesome morning as the kids got to watch animals and birds they’ve never seems before such as the tapir, tucan, jaguars, macaws, coatemundis, howler monkeys and several other. Ayaan’s favorite part though was pushing the baby cart we had rented. That afternoon the kids didn’t nap much so we visited an iguana hatchery at the San Ignacio Hotel. Ironically on our way to the hatchery, we saw a hug iguana trying to breakdown the bathroom window in the hut next door! The hatchery was an incredible experience as we got to hold the huge male iguanas and the kids got to pet and feed them. We all had a great time being one with the animals and birds all day.

Our last day in the area began with a quick visit to the Cahal Pech ruins next door. It was a pleasant surprise since it was compact but really nice and once again deserted. The kids were able to climb up the temples on their own and we got some great pictures. After a busy 4 days in Sa Ignacio, we set off for the drive across the border to Guatemala …

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I had high expectations for Chiang Mai….and it beat all those expectations! We were extremely lucky to have been in the city during the Loy Krathong (Floating baskets) and Yee Peng (Floating lanterns) festival which coincide with each other in Chiang Mai during the full moon. The entire city is adorned with beautiful colorful lanterns which are particularly prevalent in the city’s numerous temples. This festive atmosphere added a new level of charm and delight to this already beautiful city. As we approached the city from the airport, Ayaan started pointing out the lantern decorations along the way. Since the kids were relatively tired from the flight, we decided to dine at the hotel restaurant which turned out to be a fantastic meal of Penang curry and our favorite pad see ew. After the kids slept, Gaurav and I chatted in the balcony for a while before turning in for the night. The next morning, we took a 40-minute ride up the mountain to the famous Doi Suthep temple. As we ascended, we were greeted with views of the city below as well as Buddha statues and temples along the way. Ariana fell asleep as we approached requiring Gaurav to carry her up multiple flights of stairs to the top of the temple. Bright golden hues and several Buddha statues makes this temple particularly stunning! Ayaan enjoyed being blessed by the monk with water drops and a string around his hand. Ariana enjoyed playing catch with the new friends she’d made. We returned to the mall near our hotel for lunch and the kids enjoyed playing with the kiddie planes and cars and the huge Christmas tree outside. I seized the opportunity to get a foot massage near our hotel while the kids napped. That evening, we set out to enjoy the festivals and got dropped off near the banks of the Ping river. We dined at Woo, a restaurant and art gallery that was casual yet classy. We enjoyed a Khow Soi, A classic Chiang Mai dish of noodles and curry topped off with several condiments. Toward the end of our meal, we noticed the lanterns floating in the sky and decided to skip dessert and hit the streets. We walked along the ping river and stopped on the bridge. Thousands of lanterns were released into the sky and as they floated up, they illuminated the entire sky. Down below, the river was lit by thousands of small flower boats and baskets with candles and incense sticks, making for another feast for the eyes. It was a sight to marvel at, and we felt lucky to experience it. Ayaan bought his own floating boat which we released into the water, which is believed to release all ill and unhappiness.

The next morning, we decided to wander the old town of Chiang Mai, starting with Wat Chedi Luang. We were amazed that this complex consisted of several temples within it with countless statues of the Buddha. We then took a tuk tuk ride stopping at several notable temples within the old city, each more inspiring and rich than the next. We were awed by the collection of temples within such a small area of the city. Our final stop for the morning was the gate at the entrance to the old town where we saw a large decoration of beautiful lanterns. We ate lunch at a local restaurant that had a nice outdoor garden. Ariana who is still being potty trained had an accident while Ayaan lounged in his hammock. This time Gaurav went for a foot massage in the old town while the kids napped. When Ayaan awoke, I took him down to the hotel lobby where he made his own ‘Krathong’ to set down in the river. He also took one for his little sister. When she awoke, we set off to view the festivals by the Ping river. We arrived early and set our krathongs while wishing for the release of ill. This time, we had dinner reservations at the Gallery riverside restaurant. While the food was relatively average, the location allowed us an amazing view of the lanterns being released into the sky all at once, without the crowds. Ayaan was the first to spot the first release at 7pm. We retreated back to the hotel after dinner to prepare for our early morning the next day.

We visited the Mae Rim elephant sanctuary the next morning. Upon arriving, they had us feed the elephants several bananas to befriend them. We then walked with them to a large mud pool where we learned more about this magnificent creatures and how they were rescued from cruel camps or circuses to be cared for at Mae Rim. Next we set off to play in the mud pools with them which Gaurav and Ariana enjoyed thoroughly. Ayaan and I enjoyed the next water pool where we splashed the mud off their backs to clean them. As we retreated back, we played in the ‘human’ pool and then learned to make noodle soup which we devoured for lunch. The kids napped on the way back to our hotel. We took the kids to the nearby Maya Lifestyle mall that evening and they loved playing in the kids play area there. We’d called for a babysitter from the hotel that evening since Gaurav and I were hoping to spend some time with each other. The babysitter though didn’t speak any English and seemed way in over her head with both kids so we decided it was best not to leave the kids in her care. We strollered down to the Nimmam district for a quick dinner at Nimman Social before heading back for a nightcap in the balcony while the kids slept.

We were excited when we awoke the next morning since we were checking in to the luxurious Dhara Dhevi hotel in Chiang Mai. We took a ‘Grab’ (equivalent of uber in Asia) and were greeted by stunning grounds as we approached the hotel. The main lobby as well as most of the villas looked like temples with golden tops, and the grounds were lush and green. We spent a relaxing couple of days here, alternating between the resort pools, the kids club and the various restaurants. Ayaan enjoyed the buggies that would transport us within the resort as well as the local arts and crafts center where he made fish and frogs out of colored bamboos. The highlight of our stay was our family dressing up as local farmers and planting rice with the water buffalos while being serenaded with live music. The kids even played in their own little ‘orchestra’. Gaurav and I did manage to get a date night in at a nice, Italian restaurant while we left the kids with a caring sitter from the resort. We really enjoyed dining as a family in our outdoor living room on the last night as well. On the last day, a horse carriage took us around the resort before we left for our flight to Phuket.

Cambodia

Our first journey as a family after 6 weeks in India started in Siem Reap. We took an early morning flight connecting through Bangkok and the kids did great on both legs. On arrival in Siem Reap we were greeted with a clean and organized airport where it was quick to obtain our visa on arrival. We took a taxi to the Le Meredien and we liked our driver so much that we decided to hire him for our entire stay here for $90. We figured it’ll be easier to be in an AC car while visiting the temples than Tuktuks in the sweltering heat. That first night we just relaxed in the lounge where the kids had some pizza and we had some great cocktails and after they slept early we had a date night dinner in the Italian restaurant downstairs.

On our first morning in Siem Reap (named for the city’s Victory over Thailand), we woke up comfortably and we had a sumptuous breakfast including local dishes. For our first trip to Angkor Wat we decided to get a babysitter to watch the kids while we covered the more strenuous temples. We got dropped off first at the Angkor Thom complex starting at the famous Bayon temple. Angkor Wat (or temple city) is filled with the legends of Ramayan, Mahabharata and Buddha and went back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism. Bayon was our favorite temple with its face covered edifices and different levels. After Bayon we visited the nearby Baphuon, another important temple in the complex with a grand walkway to it and a terrace at the top. We were glad we left the kids as there was a lot of climbing with very high steps and extreme heat. We also explored the several Buddha statues, Elephant and Lepper King terrace, Phimeanakas and a detour to Prah Palilay as Anjali and I got lost in the magic of the jungle. After 2 hours of strolling we were tired and stopped for a local Cambodian lunch with shrimp noodles and lemongrass chicken with Angkor beer. The short hiatus energized us to go see the grand Angkor Wat temple. Right from entering the moat, the temple is majestic and as you enter the west gate a long walkway leads to the main temple. The reflection of the temple in the pond nearby is a photographers dream! Climbing to the top of the temple we got a fantastic view into the Khmer empire among the forest that was built in the 12th century. That afternoon we decided to take it chill and we relaxed in the pool with the kids. We ventured out to Pub Street at night and ate a fantastic dinner that Ayaan really enjoyed at nearby Khmer Kitchen. Siem Reap is a fascinating little city that is well planned along the river and is extremely cheap with $6 massages and 50c beers.

The second morning, we took the kids and drove 45 mins to Kampong Phluk – one of four floating villages in South East Asia’s largest lake. We took a traditional boat out for 2 hours that took us to the amazing floating village comprised of houses, school, hospitals, temples, a church and restaurants where 600 people live. The kids did very well and were fascinated by seeing crocodiles, snakes and rabbitd all of which the locals eat and makes goods of. They also enjoyed seeing the mangroves growing in the lake. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a great place for lunch that our driver Sophian recommended where we sat is a private hut and our table was essentially a large swing in the gardens. The food as always was delicious and Ayaan particularly excited that he got sticky rice with mangoes (something he tried to order on the flight in but they didn’t have). The kids napped well after lunch while I had a foot massage and when they awoke we were off to the main Angkor Wat temple again to watch the sunset. Although not extraordinary (it’s better for sunrise but we were too lazy), the kids enjoyed their first visit to the temple and saw some monkeys as well. We once again ended the day with dinner at a Pub Street restaurant called Monsoon and walked the Night Market as well (that had $1 massages!). At night we had a little adventure as we sat in the hotel bar downstairs while the kids slept upstairs only to be called by the staff to let us know that Ayaan has escaped to the lobby!

On our final day, we visited the temples with the kids again. We first visited Preah Khan which worked out great with kids as they were able to walk the entire temple themselves, exploring it holding hands and posing for cute pictures. It wasn’t very crowded which worked well and it was quite an experience strolling through the long corridors with historic pillars and rubble. Ariana was happily singing songs while walking back through the jungle while Ayaan was busy collecting sticks and leaves. Our last stop at the temples was at the famous Ta Prohm temple made famous in the Tomb raider with many of its temples devoured by overgrown trees. It was an impressive site but it was too crowded with Chinese tour groups all of whom for some reason wanted to take pictures with our kids (it got creepy soon). We came to back to room service for lunch and after the nap took off for our short flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Cambodia has been very kid friendly with amazing food, cheap, and We leave wondering why Angkor Wat is not a wonder of the world.