Jane Marczewski famously made Simon Cowell speechless and shed tears on America's Got Talent with the line above. Going by her stage name Nightbirde, the Singer-songwriter got the coveted golden buzzer for her amazing performance. I loved her voice and the song she wrote. It is extra poignant because she faced a recent divorce after a cancer relapse and only had a 2% chance of survival. Despite the circumstances, she CHOSE happiness. She chose to do what she loved.
She died in February this year.
Being happy is a feeling indeed but I've come to realise that it is a feeling we can decide to have. The thing is, we CAN feel happy and sad at the same time. We can REFRAME our thoughts and adjust our lives to make room for more happiness. That's exactly what we set out to do 22 weeks ago when we set off on a trip with no end destination in mind.
It has been stressful trying to publish books, balance our budgets, school the kids and travel at the same time. Despite the stress and worry, I find that there's still so much room to choose happiness, faith and hope.
So how can we decide to be happy?
I found this picture Debra took of Gwyn and I walking in the mall when we were back in Kuala Lumpur. This picture alone gave me the inspiration and answer to finding happiness.
I've always found great difficulty in understanding why a balloon (a piece of coloured rubber filled with air) gave my children so much joy. I realised that they found happiness because they received a gift (in their favourite colour). To an adult, you really can't do much with a ballon other than stare at it or take photos of it. To children, they can come up with a million games involving bouncing, throwing and hitting the ballon.
In the same way, life is a gift. Waking up tomorrow is a gift. It is up to us to find joy in the moment through contentment. I truly believe that even on the worst days, we can find something to be grateful for and to be happy about.
2. Numbering your days
How many times will get to hold my daughter's hand while she looks at her balloon with immense fascination? How many more years will I have with my kids around my dinner table every single day before they head to University, Army or have their own families? When we realise how little time we have left, it puts things in perspective. That helps us appreciate what we have more and feel that happiness deeper.
I don't claim that being contented and numbering my days to be an easy exercise. I grew up in a society where million dollar properties, a fat bank account, a shiny career and an expensive car defines success. Spending almost all our healthy and years of youth pursuing these things have become almost a commandment and the only way to live life. Societal pressures can be quite daunting at times.
It is perhaps wise that we took this trip to reshape our world views and grieve at the same time. This trip we've been on has completely opened my eyes to how little we need to have happiness and joy in our lives. I'll use a little throwback to when we were in Melaka to illustrate this....
We live off two cabin sized suitcases. It is quite obvious we can't bring their collection of toys and furniture on the trip with us. We also believe in giving the kids as much freedom to be kids as possible. After their daily dose of academic exercises, they are free to do whatever they wish. Sounds like a formula for disaster for many parents out there eh?
We thought that way too for a moment but we've come to realise how resilient and creative kids can be. They spent hours drawing on the floor with chalk, collecting rocks (pretending to be penguin parents building nests) and playing hopscotch. There were genuinely happy. We don't hear the kids telling us "I'm BORED! There's nothing to play/do!". We got so much of that back in Singapore when they had an entire room full of toys, puzzles, crafts and books.
Matthias took my deck of cards (that I sometimes play with Debra in the quiet evenings) and decided he wanted to play solitaire manually. It was a game my late-father played a lot and Matthias learnt while sitting on his lap. I was pleasantly surprised that a deck of cards can occupy him for afternoons on end.
We do of course still carry some age appropriate toys that they can enjoy along the way. This box of Lego with a carrying case is the best thing we've bought for the trip. They have been making all sorts of fantasy worlds and characters with them. Gwyn narrates an entire epic while she plays with them. Its fascinating and hilarious watching her play.
We really don't need a lot to be happy. What we need most is to be contented. That means we have to stop chasing something more exciting, something bigger, something better. We have to stop comparing ourselves with others and stop building our self-esteem around that. We need to number our days and enjoy the moment.
Our evenings nowadays are pretty intense. It is filled with sly deals, sneaky +4s and saying NO. Lowest scores that night will entail some push-ups or squats. The kids have an absolute ball of a time! I'm so glad we are able to create these memories. I'm so glad we are able to fill their core memories up with the simplicity and joys of being together.
After many days of heavy downpour, we finally got a break in the weather. The sun came out and we headed to Patong beach! And boy, its beautiful!
Now that the monsoon rains are more frequent and the school term has started in the US/UK and Australia, Phuket is experiencing the lull season. It is unsurprising that the beach is a lot cleaner (still has some plastic trash) and less crowded. It is really soul soothing to just sit and enjoy the wide open space.
Even I got interested in digging up the sand to find out what was below and bubbling! I didn't get to find crabs though. If you are a geologist or an expert with beaches, please comment and let us know why are there little holes in the wet sand that release bubbles!? It is so liberating to be on a beach that doesn't want to eat you alive. There aren't mosquitoes or sandflies here!
We were gifted one of the most beautiful sunsets we have seen on this trip. It really drove home the message for us. Life is as fleeting as the beauty of these sunsets, we can't wait until it isn't hard anymore to feel happy and enjoy it. We need to seize the moment because life will always throw difficult times at you.
We just want to end off by announcing the title of our second book and to give you a sneak preview of it!
"The aroma of his coffee" is our journey down memory lane as we remember a man's love for his family, travel and his coffee. Debra and I have been working together on creating this book that to help others journey through their grief of losing a loved one through remembering. We want people to explore the many forms that memories take. Although Photographs/Videos have been the primary medium through which we reminisce, we've realised how powerful smells (and other senses) are in rekindling memories.
Please support our work by generously purchasing our merchandise, art and book at www.hirojack.com :) We're also accepting donations and support for a remembrance trip!
Ovid the ancient Roman poet once said....
Winged time glides on insensibly, and deceive us; and there is nothing more fleeting than years
We have already travelled around South East Asia for a whole 21 weeks. By the end of our time in Thailand, we would have travelled for almost half a year. To be very honest, we didn't think that we would last this long with the little we had to finance the trip. We still crack our heads about how next month will be. But it has been an incredible feat, a journey by faith and grace. I'll talk about the crazy flight in bit...bear with me.
We know that our years are numbered and life is more than just accumulation of wealth or climbing up shaky ladders that may topple anytime. Having faced the very harsh reality of our mortality, we chose to spend our time and resources building lasting memories and doing what we are passionate about.
It has been a mammoth task juggling travel, homeschooling, budget constrains and a post pandemic world. On top of it, we are also walking through a very difficult journey of grief. This is why I'm incredibly proud of Debra who has completed the first book in a series she intends to write. It feels crazy to have an ISBN number allocated to your work and sending a copy to NLB.
We are thankful for those who have purchased the books! We've also set up a listing to accept support for a remembrance trip to New Zealand to complete a bucket list destination on behalf of my late dad.
On top of that we are also already in the process of publishing a second book called "The aroma of his coffee". I've authored this book and Debra is illustrating. This book is very very close to our hearts. Those who personally know us and my dad will know that we absolutely love coffee. The aroma of coffee has brought an enormous amount of comfort, memories and strength in our journey of grief. We hope this book will help others not shy away from reminiscing and remembrance.
We are deeply thankful that we've been able to create this much since we spent a month in KL to focus on writing. We haven't done much travelling in KL but enough to write this post about it!
The city was much kinder to us compared to our previous nightmare visit to KL. We even got to meet some old friends and our children had a whale of a time meeting up. So blessed to have a wonderful afternoon at the soft play and a pizza dinner to celebrate Matt and Gwyn's birthdays!
Our 30 day tourist visa quickly came to an end and we had to move on to the next destination.
The almost fateful flight
We thought we were catching a routine short haul flight from KLIA to Phuket, Thailand! Lo and behold, we had to come face to face with our mortality.
We only managed to get Batik Air (previously Malindo Air) tickets because other airlines offered unearthly timings and ridiculous prices. It almost turned out very very wrong. After we were issued the boarding pass, we went through the formalities of security and immigration checks before walking towards the gate printed on the boarding pass. Upon checking the screens indicating departure information at the airport, we realised we were heading the wrong way. The gate for our flight was printed WRONGLY on the card.
As the plane filled with passengers, it became really hot in the aircraft. We were all perspiring. The plane also departed late.
The full thrust came in and we were rather violently pushed into our seats. There were sounds of worried squeals on the aircraft. As the pilot accelerated hard down the runway, we were being swayed from side to side pretty hard by the pilot constantly kicking his rudder right and left. It felt like he was struggling to control his aircraft. It was a hot, sunny and still day. I'm not so sure if he was fighting a crosswind.
I quickly put that worry behind and just assumed there was a suddenly rush of crosswinds. The flight was uneventful for the next 1 hour but we were rather annoyed that the aircraft had entertainment screens but none was turned on.
We had a pretty uncomfortable descent with quite a few shakes and drops but I just assumed it was the clouds causing turbulence. As we rushed down the last 500 feet, it became quite clear that we were in for a pretty harsh landing. True enough, the aircraft landed with a very loud THUD AND CLANK. It sounded like something in the landing gear took a pretty bad beating on that landing. The plane swayed again from side to side again as the pilot engaged reverse thrust to slow the aircraft down. Gwyneth was holding on to her mother for her dear life as Matt and I held on to our seats.
I've travelled extensively and have flown enough times to consider myself a seasoned flyer. This wasn't normal at all. I've never had to feel like I was gonna die or experience a serious aviation accident in my entire life. This was just something else.
I would definitely avoid Batik Air at all costs in future!
Welcome to Phuket
The airport was efficient and we cleared immigration, customs and collected our baggage in no time. We were told by the taxi counter staff who claimed that our hotel provided free taxi transfers. We wasted 15 minutes walking back into the terminal and being asked asked to join this resort package sales talk to get a free taxi transfer. Don't waste your time like we did! (unless you would really want to purchase a resort package). We obviously declined! We are just poor aspiring authors, writers and designers!
We settled into our accommodation and had a hilarious conversation with the receptionist. I asked him about putting on masks in Thailand because no one wore one outside of the airport. He replied "You see, if you believe you don't have virus, and you don't test, you don't find out! You don't have to go to the hospital! So no need any masks, you are free!" We had a good laugh! Off with the masks then!
For the first time in 2 years, we walked down the street with our bare faces, seeing smiles and feeling the wind on our skin. We took an evening stroll through the Patong Beach areas.
The last time we hit the beach was at Port Dickson more than a month ago. It was nice to watch the sun set and be lulled to a relaxed state by the crashing waves. The beach is fast becoming lively again with tourist activities and local doing their Zumba to loud catchy music.
We tried to enter Junceylon mall for a stroll and grab our dinner there. We were shocked to find that the mall was closed except for the supermarket and a handful of shops around it. I've been to this Island 5 times and I consider this mall to be the crown jewel of Patong beach! You get all the family friendly entertainment, food and shopping in a large mall.
We explored the area further and found many surrounding hotels and resorts abandoned or shut.
It became clear that quite a lot of the tourist oriented businesses have folded after two years of continuous closure. We also discovered numerous other shops and hotels that were shuttered, empty and abandoned all around Patong. It was a sad sight.
A quick google search showed that some larger hotels and Jungceylon itself is being refurbished and scheduled to reopen in the 4th quarter for high season of 2022. If you want a quiet and less crowded time in Phuket, now is a good time! If you want to see Phuket in his former glory, it would be better to come by next year!
As many businesses shut, a huge new industry has emerged in Thailand. For the first time outside of the US and Holland, we've seen weed (Ganja, Cannabis, marijuana) being sold in public. They are everywhere! Booths, pop up stores and full blown stores selling them. I'm still not very sure how to feel about this development. Still have mixed feelings about it. Smoking anything would harm your health and addiction is a real risk. However, research has also shown that medicinal weed can help ease some very severe illnesses.
Despite the changes in Phuket, we were thankful that affordable and delicious Thai food can still be found! You just have to walk away from where the major tourist crowds gather. We are just so happy that the kids are eating well. No complaints, no protests and fussing at the dinner table. They absolutely love the simple stir fried dishes, fried rice, Pad Thai and omelette dishes. They cost just S$2.30 to S$3.10! There are of course more sophisticated curries, BBQ meats and salt baked fish that don't cost more than a maximum of S$10 a dish.
The weather is also pretty nice in Phuket at the moment. It ranges between 25 to 29 celcius daily. We are surprised it hasn't crossed 31 celcius. You'll still perspire at the beach but it isn't the searing or suffocating heat we experienced in Vietnam. We are positive we could get some sightseeing, beach days and our books completed over the next few weeks here!
Drop us some suggestions of family and pocket friendly stuff we can do in Phuket!
Thanks for reading and joining us on our journey this week! If you enjoy reading our musings, do consider joining our mailing list to get notifications when the latest one is posted!
EnJOYING Phuket with a 3 month old!
After the craziest drive from Singapore to Phuket (Read about it here), we arrived at Tri Trang Beach Resort. It is just a 10 minute drive from the famous and bustling Patong Beach which means you get the calm and quiet.
How did we enjoy a beach resort with a 3 month old?
Phuket like most South-East Asian beach resorts don't have advanced public transport like large cities. If you are able, rent a car! If you are adventurous, drive to Phuket from Singapore! We were so thankful we didn't have to haggle with Tuk Tuk/Taxi drivers on the road side and worry about finding a taxi to get around Phuket. If you have a child in toll, DON'T EXPECT to get a good bargain. The drivers know you NEED them. Having your own transport will make the trip far more enjoyable! We were able to venture beyond the resort, visited places like Promthep Cape and enjoyed delicious food outside of Patong Beach.
Get ENOUGH REST! It is very easy to come back from a vacation needing another one because we tire ourselves out with too many activities! We spent the first day sleeping and watching tv, taking our minds off work. Take time to get organised and sort out all the baby stuff like washing towels, sterilising bottles and boiling water. Matthias was being himself, doing what a 3 month old baby does best: Eat, sleep, poop, repeat! We had the luxury of bringing his mattress in the car boot and that meant he slept with no issues!
Enjoy the pool with your little one! Make sure you get that sunblock on for everyone! Babies at 3 month old can enjoy the pool with a neck float! Make sure you don't forget swimming diapers for your little one! You don't want ordinary diapers to leak poo poo in the pool!!! We only took a stroll at the beach and enjoyed the wonderful views
If you are from the 4th most expensive city in the world - Singapore, you know that baby formula is priced exorbitantly. An average price for a 1kg can of milk costs between $40-60 Singapore dollars (USD 30-45). Visit a local supermarket away from the tourist areas if you are able to drive. You can get baby formula at almost half the price in Thailand! We bought a 6 months supply and saved quite a bit! Who doesn't enjoy a bargain?
Since the September school holidays are fast approaching, we are writing a throwback post on the craziest road trip we have gone on in our lives.
Back in 2014, when Matthias was 3 months old, we were dying for a holiday since it was December. We didn't want to shop for winter clothing and weren't too confident with long flights. I have been to Phuket 3 times before this road trip by plane thinking it is an Island disconnected from peninsula Thailand. Google maps proved me wrong and showed us we could do a road trip to Phuket by road!
Going by road means that you are not limited by any liquids rule or by overloading your luggage. The limit will be how large your boot is! We dumped the steam steriliser, Matthias' mattress, bottles, milk and toys all into the car for this trip!
All within an afternoon, all the planning and hotel bookings were done (This was a crazy bold decision!). Phuket is a very popular destination and is in high season between October and December. Try not to visit during May to July because monsoon rains are in full swing and you won't get to enjoy the beaches.
Some things we did to get ready before driving to Thailand:
1. Make sure you recently did engine servicing and everything is in good working order
2. Make sure all tire pressures are optimum
3. Top up the PLUS toll card for use in Malaysia (250RM should cover the return trip)
4. If you are taking your baby along, bring sufficient toys, milk, clean bottles and boiled water
5. A secure carseat for children
6. Print your vehicle log card from www.onemotoring.com.sg (Login with Singpass)
Printing a copy of this is COMPULSORY to purchase your vehicle insurance for Thailand and clearing your import permit with border officials in Thailand (if you are not the owner, please prepare a an authorisation letter with your name to prove you are allowed to drive the vehicle to Thailand)
7. Get enough RM and Baht in cash ready for fuel stops. Some remote petrol stations may not accept foreign cards.
8. Update your satellite navigation device's map.
If you are running mobile data to use google maps, do try to download certain areas on your phone to save data overseas. Sign up for overseas data plans or rent a portable router to save on data charges!
THE 17 HOUR DRIVE
We decided to do a night drive and set off at 10pm so that we can arrive at the Malaysia- Thailand Border early in the morning. The Woodlands-JB checkpoint was also less crowded.
I drove all 17 hours by myself because I was the only licensed driver. I thoroughly enjoyed the long quiet drive in the dark through Malaysia with almost no traffic on the highways because we set off at night. Debra and Matthias slept through most of the night while i enjoyed a nice speedy ride. The perks of bringing a 3 month old on such a road trip is that they only need MILK, SLEEP and DIAPER change! The constant movement of the car is amazing for lulling any baby to sleep!
The car had a tiny fuel tank so we stopped 5 times to refuel. It gave me time to have a quick bite and drink to stay alert during the trip. Make sure no one has to hold their pee! It is one of the most miserable things on a road trip! I stopped once for 15 minutes in a small town somewhere in south Thailand to take a short nap to ward off the ZZZ monster. Safety first!
Advice for drivers: we tend to drive on the right most lane and feel like we are entitled to be there once we hit the max speed limit i.e 80 or 90km/h. Things are quite different in Malaysia and Thailand. When you are in a foreign land, do as the locals do. Even if you are doing 160km/h and see someone flash their lights behind, get out of the way! They can be doing 240km/h and being rear-ended at such high speeds can end in tragedy for everyone. Many south Thai roads (Especially from Phang Nga to Sarasin bridge that links the mainland to Phuket) are very windy single carriageways! Do be alert and don't take turns at very high speed because you can't see what is on the other side of the bend! Pay extra attention because Thai drivers tend to speed.
We crossed from Malaysia to Thailand via the Sadao Border. (Opens at 6am, closes 10pm GMT +8)
Before you cross, do these:
1. Fill up your petrol tank to the brim. Petrol in Malaysia is highly subsidised and is much cheaper than Thailand's
2. At your last filling stop in Malaysia, the petrol stations near the border offer Thailand car insurance and immigration cards (they ask for 2RM a piece). Do fill them all up before u get to the border.
3. Print two copies of the TM2/3 conveyance forms here (these are for the temporary import of a foreign vehicle into Thailand) They will stamp both copies and return one to you. That is the one you have to submit when exiting Thailand. . KEEP IT SAFELY. THERE IS A HUGE FINE for losing it!
4. Don't be perplexed when the immigration officer asks for money. They usually ask for 25Baht for the driver and 5 Baht for each passenger. Just pay up.
5. After passing the immigration and having your passports chopped, do pass by the customs building to settle your vehicle import documents.
6. Adjust your watches 1 hour backwards. Thailand uses the GMT+7 time zone.
I bit off more than I could chew and drove the entire 1350km journey to Phuket in record 17 hours including 5 refuels and snack times. The crazy journey took us on the entire length of the north-south highway passing by, Malacca, KL, Perak ,Penang and Kedah. Settling all the paper work, we got past the Malaysia-Thai border and drove past Hat Yai, Trang, Krabi and Phang Nga before finally crossing a bridge onto Phuket Island. You don't have to be as ambitious as I was to take the entire journey at one go. Stopping by Penang to rest for a day would be great! Back in 2014 we drove our trusty old Nissan Latio all the way without a sleepover stop. It is amazing we survived all this with a 3 month old on board!
More on the time in Phuket itself and the perks of taking your car to Phuket in our next post!
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Gwyn only cut her first tooth at 10months and 3weeks. It was quite a challenge bringing a foodie (aka greedy baby) for our overseas trip. The only things that weighed on my mind were meals and nap times.
I would have been less worried if she actually had any teeth during the trip. It meant I could simply order soups/breads/mildly seasoned rice for her to have as her meals. Or she could simply nibble off our meals. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this option.
I didn’t like the idea of feeding her bottled baby food or instant powdered cereals for ALL her meals. So here are some things you can note in the event you’re stuck travelling with a toothless foodie too:
#1 Bring along a handheld blender and/or food scissors
We got our Philips handheld blender before the trip and it has been a lifesaver!
You can easily pop some fresh bananas/mango/apples/oatmeal into a hotel room mug and whizz it up for a quick meal or snack.
#2 Plan to stop by a local market/supermarket on Day 1 of your trip
It's so much cheaper to get fresh produce for your little one! We managed to get a bundle pack of pre-cut asparagus/carrot/baby corn and a small pack of spinach to use for 5 days-worth of meals together with the Heinz baby pasta we had packed for the trip.
#3 Make the most out of your daily breakfast buffet
There’s no need to feel ashamed about saving a couple of bananas, buns or croissants for your little one’s snack later in the day. You’ve paid for it anyway! On days when oatmeal wasn’t part of the buffet spread, we made special requests for the chef to cook up a bowl for Gwyn. You can also use this time to try out new food (within allergy-tested limits) with your child. By day 3 of our trip, we were mostly feeding her plain pancakes and bread pudding for breakfast instead
#4 Bring along an insulated food storage container
Our hotel room had a kitchenette, so we made requests for a saucepan, a chopping board, a knife and a ladle. I made daily meals for Gwyn by blending up boiled baby pasta and veggies and storing them in the food container before heading out around 2pm. The cooked meals are usually recommended to be consumed within 4hrs so you could either schedule earlier meals for your child or substitute bottled/prepacked baby food for dinner if you’re going to be out till late.
If you only have access to a microwave, you could whip up meals easily too.
Water+pasta in a bowl of water on max heat for a couple of minutes = boiled pasta
Water + veggies in a bowl of water on max heat for a few minutes = boiled veggies
Combine everything (throw out excess water), blend them up and you’re good to go!
I must say I was rather satisfied that there wasn’t a single occasion on which I had to deal with a HANGRY baby!
With barely any teeth now even at 11months, she has been begging us for our adult meals. It has been so difficult keeping up with her food requests. Perhaps, I’ll do up visual on what yummy solids you can feed a single-toothed 1yr old in time to come!
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Vincent & Debra Kwan, Founders of Hiro & Jack and stay-at-home parents with the odd life.
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