You would think that traveling with kids would get easier as they get older and, in many respects, it does. You no longer need to worry about where to buy diapers or where to find plain spaghetti – not penne, not tagliatelle, and definitely no sauce – which is the only food that your toddler has elected to eat that month. But as kids grow, and we are all fortunate enough to travel to increasingly exotic and adventurous destinations, new challenges arise. Challenges which fill you with a combination of awe and dread, as your kids start to become more aware of their surroundings, develop empathy, and start to question the world around them.
Our first experience of this brave new world of family travel hit us from out of left field on a visit to Nepal a couple of years ago. Kathmandu is crazy and beautiful: a sensory overload, rich with culture and history. But poverty is rife. We encountered countless cases of begging on the streets; people in rags, many with multiple limbs missing, largely ignored in the gutters by those passing by. After the first couple of days, I asked the kids what they liked and disliked about the city. My older son, then aged 7, replied “I don’t like all the people with stumps”. Ah.
We had discussed poverty and the disparity of wealth and privilege in the developing world with them before the trip, but we weren’t really prepared for the effect it had on my bright, sharp-eyed boy.
Later, in the Himalayas, we met many delightful, inquisitive children, keen to practice their English. All of their fathers were working abroad, mostly in the UAE or Qatar, to earn enough money to send them to school. Though my boys were a little shy at first, all differences were forgotten when a soccer ball came out. Yet, as we returned to our lodge that evening, they again had difficult questions for us about the lives of the children they had met.
I believe that, with age-appropriate filters, honesty is the best policy with kids, but it was challenging to try to explain why our lives were so different from those we met in Nepal. I hope we did a good job. “But, Mommy, it’s not fair.” “No, honey, it’s not.”
Difficult subjects arose again last year on a visit to the Bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Though the Death Railway isn’t exactly an easy topic to discuss, we explained the history behind the bridge, albeit slightly light on detail, before we arrived. Once there, the reality started to hit home as we visited the allied war cemeteries and the brilliant and sensitively informative museums in Kanchanaburi and at the Hellfire Pass.
It’s straightforward enough to explain the factual history of WWII in the Far East, from the fall of Singapore to the extraordinary feat of engineering involved in building the railway – a supply route for the Japanese forces between Thailand and Burma across 415km of inhospitable jungle, broad rivers and solid rock – to the ultimate allied victory. But what about the brutality of the Japanese prisoner of war camps, the horror of the death railway’s construction and the senseless deaths of well over 100,000 men from ill-treatment, malnutrition, and disease: how can a 9-year-old process that, when it’s hard enough for us, as adults, to comprehend?
I was immensely proud of the insightful questions the boys asked, and for the compassion and respect they showed. Standing beside your son reading the inscriptions on the grave markers of the young men who didn’t return inspires nothing but gratitude for living in an age where we will never have to go through what their mothers had to endure. The fact that my great uncle had spent the War fighting in the jungles of Burma brought the lessons we were learning closer to home and the boys emailed their grandparents from Thailand with a long list of questions. We all learned something new about their great-great-uncle’s story and also, I believe, about ourselves.
Travel can often present us with situations that are complex and, with our own life experience, hard to handle. For example, it’s one thing to learn about the practices and beliefs of other religions: quite another to witness, say, a Varanasi funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges. Kids are open-minded and, certainly, to travel is to broaden the mind and learn about life experiences other than your own. But are some lessons too much to take on at a young age?
This issue has been on my mind a lot recently, as we hit the road again in a few weeks on a family trip to Cambodia. I can’t wait to get to Siem Reap and show my kids the wonders of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. But, before that, we’re visiting Phnom Penh, where many of the sights, rightly, relate to the country’s recent history and the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. I’m torn. I believe the kids ought to know about that era of history and understand why there’s a risk of landmines in the country: but I couldn’t take them to the harrowing, but essential, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly security prison S-21, where unimaginable crimes were perpetrated. How do you explain the killing fields to children? My oldest is now 10 – is that old enough to understand without the risk of nightmares? Yet Cambodian children live with the knowledge of their nation’s past and understand the real threat of landmines in their daily lives.
Our children are eager to learn and they understand more than we think. And I believe that we have a duty to teach them about the past in order to help them to understand their present and shape their future. I don’t know what I’m going to tell the boys about Cambodia, but I know for sure that there will be tricky questions and perceptive insights from them that will surprise us and make us proud, and make us panic, in equal measure.
Traveling with kids can be a profound learning experience for the whole family and it continues to throw up new challenges and adventures that I didn’t anticipate when on vacation with them as toddlers, looking forward to when it would get “easier”. I don’t always know the answers to their questions, and I may not always get the balance right in the lessons we teach, but I love traveling with these smart young global citizens. For those traveling with young families, rest assured that the adventure continues – it just changes. And at least I don’t have to source diapers.
About Pamela Wilkes
Pamela Wilkes is a freelance writer and former barrister whose life-long love of travel was sparked during her own expat childhood. Originally from the UK and currently living in Dubai, her wanderlust has evolved into a passion for family travel, involving regular global adventures with her kids. Follow her on her blog, and on Twitter and Instagram.
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