Week 11, Chiang Rai, Thailand, to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Global offices, big life questions, indoor leopard, shuttle surprise in Siem Reap

Ah, December! In short sleeves and sandals. Starting to look ahead toward Christmas, it’s going to be a very different holiday season for us. Still. With Chiang Rai being such a great family destination, we put aside thoughts of red and green for white and blue. And the time came for us to change countries, though getting from the airport to our hotel came with quite a surprise.

“Sure, Jodie and I are two slightly weird globetrotting, business-running, world schooling parents. But our travels aren’t a vacation, a break or a gap year.”

The global corporate offices of the St. Clair Family

There’s working remotely. And there’s working beautifully.

I’m going to pull back the curtain on my and Jodie’s lives a little. Not just the traveling curtain, which I try to do with every wee missive in our travel diary. No. I’m going to pull back a little of the business curtain.

As our “go date” got closer and closer and August, one of the last things we did in Eugene we meet up with a group of friends we hadn’t seen in a while. They asked us some great questions about our travels, including some that I hadn’t really thought about.

One that I hadn’t considered was if people were going to think we were on vacation for a year. Thinking about it, of course, that question makes total sense. Sometimes people take, say, a year off, and they and their families do something out of the ordinary. Perhaps they go RV’ing around the US or Canada. Maybe they take on a big volunteer project somewhere far afield. Sometimes they even travel the world.

Whatever they do, they sometimes take a big career break or a sabbatical, and have savings set aside to see them through.

That’s not what we are doing.

Sure, Jodie and I are two slightly weird globetrotting, business-running, world schooling parents. But our travels aren’t a vacation, a break or a gap year. We are working. Sure, we take days off. Well, more or less. Our jobs are also our travels. As content creators, Jodie and I make original content. We write, photo, video, and social like crazy.

We balance our sightseeing time with time for work and school. That also means that we don’t just work remotely. Our “offices” truly have become global—and quite lovely—in scale. Sometimes, our office becomes a bit of sightseeing in and of itself.

As we work around the world, here is a snapshot of some of our global corporate offices.

Oaxaca, Mexico

On the rooftop terrace at our rental in Oaxaca de Juárez, I loved going to the roof for some work time. While I often work to a playlist of the Finnish composer Sibelius, I also loved listening to the street symphony down below.

Sometimes I’d work in a loungy rope chair. Other times I’d set up at a small table and a straight-backed chair. Either way, the view overlooking Oaxaca’s Cerro Fortin always made for a wonderful corner office view.

Bangkok, Thailand

At our 7th-floor apartment in BU Place, on a bustling street in Bangkok’s Din Daeng neighborhood, my favorite workspace became the vanity-turned-desk in our room. The reason was mostly pragmatic ergonomics: I could keep my elbows at a proper angle and maintain better posture while working.

Jodie and I would swap out who got to use the bedroom desk. The table in our kitchenette made a good auxiliary workspace in our front room’s open office plan too. Either way, it was always easy to snag a glance at the gorgeous Bangkok skyline.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

The winding central courtyard in our rental had tables and chairs aplenty, perfect for when the sun had passed back over the buildings and left the patio in shade. Or, if we wanted to work indoors, the building nearby had a co-working space in the lobby. The space didn’t have wifi, but it did have quiet, and sometimes that was all we needed.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Our room in The Riverie was one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed. However, for work time, I preferred to go down to the hotel’s sumptuous lobby, which is also full of artifacts from the area’s Lanna culture. Tall windows overlook the wide, deep Kok River. I could settle into a squashy armchair, using my external mouse and keyboard while the laptop rested on a round marble table.

Or, on days where the weather was particularly lovely, I’d step out to the nearby balcony and set up at a wee couch surrounded by a whimsical flower arrangement (great as a photo backdrop too). Bonus: It was easy to bring down a cup of coffee from our room, or I could order a beer or a delicious mango smoothie from the lobby’s bar.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

As nice as our Chiang Rai was, our most recent global office may be my favorite so far. Our hotel near the city center was a comfy one-room space on the third floor, complete with a one-person desk area. For better concentration though, I preferred stepping through our sliding glass door to the tiled balcony and its wee slatted table and chairs.

The balcony overlooked the hotel’s pool and lush garden, full of palm and citrus trees. In fact, I’m writing this from that very balcony. Palm fronds are rustling in the breeze. On a couple of the trees, bunches of fruits are growing; they look like some sort of tangerine. Not too far off, I think closer to the city center, wafting on the sunny air is a sort of music-box like melody, played by something that sounds like a cross between a steel drum and a marimba.

“I know, worst parents ever,” I said, as Connor and I chuckled together. “All we did was take you to a terrible place like Thailand.”

Big question at Thailand’s White Temple

One morning in Chiang Rai, Connor jokingly asked me if he could play Minecraft. Of course, I told him no; the kids don’t have options for recreational screen time until after 1:30 in the afternoon, and their school and daily lists have to be complete.

“I know, worst parents ever,” I said, as Connor and I chuckled together. “All we did was take you to a terrible place like Thailand.”

“Yeah,” said Connor. “Where the food is all sludge.”

We laughed some more. “And all the people are mean and there’s nothing pretty to see.”

“Yup. Terrible.”

In all fairness, the next day Connor may indeed have decided we were the worst parents ever.

Chiang Rai is home to two Buddhist temples that are among the most famous in the country, if not throughout Southeast Asia. And we were going to both. (While I adored the Blue Temple, which we visited later in the day, I’ll save thoughts on that for another piece.)

The White Temple, located a little outside of Chiang Rai, is a massive complex. Technically, it’s still under construction, with completion of its current plans not expected until the 2070s. (So, if I decide to return to Thailand as a nonagenarian, I just might experience the full shebang as it was originally intended.)

This gleaming temple combines beautifully designed, eye-catching structures, rendered not only in white, but in small, silvery mirrored tiles. The overall effect is ethereal, and can indeed persuade you to ponder the finer stuff of life, the questions of what matters most to finite beings like us, and if we are putting our time and energy into what’s important. And if that doesn’t get to you, all the terrifying imagery and figures of torment just might do it.

Like other religions, philosophies, belief systems, and mythologies, Buddhism has its own take on what folks in Christian-oriented backgrounds might call “hell.” While the White Temple can indeed get you to ponder the transcendental and divine, they’re not shy about getting in your face with the scary stuff too.

Scary demonish statues dot the landscape (including one that really wanted to go for scariest no-smoking sign ever). Approaching the temple’s main building, you cross a bridge over tormented bodies and souls. Inside the central temple—well, for starters, we had to put the cameras away, as the temple rules don’t allow photography or videography inside the building. Tech stowed, we took in the floor-to-ceiling, corner-to-corner murals that depict a sort of hellscape, full of flames and conflict—not to mention pop culture, tech, pollution, and various other elements of life that one could construe as distractions or destructions.

As you make your way toward the Buddha statue at the far side of the temple, the images transition too: from distraction, to focus, to epiphany, to freedom and nirvana and all that dal.

It’s fascinating and thought-provoking. But for Connor, it was also pretty overwhelming. Temples aren’t his favorite thing, for starters, and that’s fair enough. His big heart found the death and destruction imagery unsettling.

After, while Jodie and Connor sat on a bench in the shade to decompress, Aster and I wandered to another part of the grounds. A tall, broad, gold-covered building held exhibitions and events. The “Cave of Art” was still under construction. But we could wander the constructed external cavescape, complete with wee waterfalls (and little statues that merited double-takes—such as the ones that turned out to be of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complete with Splinter). She and I also rang all the bells that we still could ring (and, yes, Leonard Cohen and fellow Louise Penny fans, we forgot our perfect offerings too).

Back at the bench, Jodie and Aster went for a wander. Then Connor looked at me and said, “How can you achieve nirvana yet not desire nirvana?”

“Maybe that’s part of the process,” I replied after some thought. “Maybe the idea is you can figure out how to attain that clarity, but without being caught up in wanting to.”

Connor shook his head. “It still seems like it’s all built on a big contradiction.”

“It probably is,” I said. “Most things are. I think the idea is to get us to figure out a good way forward, even though things are full of contradictions.”

It was a complex conversation, made all the more so given the dad part of my mind that was blown away by the philosophical discussion I was having with my not-quite-11-year-old.

He might not like temples, but he didn’t shy away from the big questions they could bring to mind.

After lunch, we visited the Blue Temple. I could’ve stayed there all day, absorbing the designs and the peaceful blue color of the walls, and pondering the stories being told in the paintings placed all over the walls. Each depicted an important scene from the Buddha’s life, similar to how some churches have the Stations of the Cross for Jesus.

But mostly, I thought about visiting the White Temple with Jodie and the kids. How we talked with Connor about compromise, or how we will sometimes do things that not each of us are excited about, but we still try to have a good attitude.

Above all, I loved the big questions Connor is asking, considering, discussing. It reminds me that he is on the cusp of big changes—and reminds me to be grateful for the times we are having on these travels, no matter how bliss, joy, and challenge combine.

“Just as Aster did not know what was in store, I had no idea about the leopard.”

Pet the leopard

As we sat outside at the breakfast table between Chiang Rai, Thailand’s Riverie hotel and the Kok River, Aster and Jodie began to laugh. At a table behind us, which had been departed but not yet cleared of dishes, a stray gray cat had hopped up and nicked a slice of left-behind ham off a plate.

Little did Aster know how much cats would inform the day. After a day of sightseeing iconic temples, the following day we told the kids we had a special treat in store. But just as Aster did not know what was in store, I had no idea about the leopard.

Grabbing a Grab to downtown Chiang Rai, we had two objectives for the day. Jodie was going to get a massage. Across the street from the massage parlor, we were also going to have lunch and drinks amongst the kitties, at Chiang Rai’s Cat ‘n’ A Cup Cat Café.

If you’re not familiar with cat cafés—or “catfés,” as Connor says they should be called—the concept is pretty simple. The first cat café opened in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998, under the premise that instead of people needing to have a pet, they could visit kitties in a serene environment. From there, over time, the idea has spread, especially throughout East and Southeast Asia. (Apparently there is also a husky dog café in Bangkok, which Connor has told us he would like to visit.)

With our order number in hand and our shoes tucked onto a shelf, we opened the black-rimmed glass door that separates the front counter and ordering area from the land of the cats. As our bare feet walked over the warm wood floor, we picked a low wooden table and set down our things. Aster was all but vibrating. Around her, about a dozen cats slowly walked across the floor, or climbed wooden steps and beams that progressed in height from the floor to the exposed ceiling. On a tiered wooden platform in one corner by the large plate glass side window, four cats dozed, each on its own shelf. Spaced along the walls, small wooden crates and white, egg-like chairs all held slumbering cats.

Eyes wide as a cat’s in the dark, Aster buzzed her way from cat to cat. While she has occasionally befriended a kitty on our travels, this was the most she had been around cats since leaving our own cat, Jasmine (now recently departed) back in August.

“Aster as a cat,” said Connor, “would be two words: agile and adorable.”

A white cat with gray feet slow-walked around the room. Twin long-haired gray cats each did their own thing. One dozed in a wooden crate. The other strutted from the table to table, too cool to stay anywhere. (Though every time we saw that cafe walk away, I couldn’t help but think that from behind, long-haired cats all look like they’re wearing furry pantaloons.) A short-haired, cappuccino-colored, blue-eyed Siamese felt sleek and warm as it let each of us rub a hand over its peach fuzz back.

We gathered around the corner shelf—and all of us stopped.

On the third shelf up from the floor, a little leopard dozed. None of us had ever seen such a cat. (You, I am sure, have probably already guessed that we were awestruck by a type of Bengal, a breed that typically resembles bigger cats, such as ocelots—not the Minecraft kind—or, as we were now seeing, leopards.)

For the moment, we let the leopard sleep. Later, though, it had decided it was ready to make its rounds. The little leopard even let the kids hang out while the cat drank water from a bubbling fountain near the window. They sat on either side of it, taking turns petting it or scratching its head. The cat looked from one to the other, then continued doing its own thing. But it often stayed close to the children, moving on only when it seemed that something between them all had reached a completion.

Ever since we learned that Jasmine had passed away in mid-November, Aster’s love of animals has never waned. However, she has also gained more of the understanding that we can experience many feelings at the same time. She has felt joy around animals, especially cats, but that joy has been mixed with sadness and grief for our own beloved kitty.

Connor can be more internal with his own feelings, but he too has felt his share of sadness over Jasmine’s passing. Now, as they sat with this little leopard in a café in northern Thailand, I saw something else in their eyes: happiness. And healing.

Grief has its time, after all. It needs to. It’s healthy for us to grieve the loss of those we love. But in the children, as the little leopard left them for the last time, I saw in their eyes one more thing. The thing that comes from grief, or loss, or sadness, once it’s run its course, and we’ve learned from it.

I saw their capacity for love and joy get bigger. I saw their hearts get stronger. I saw them understand that if grief is a journey through a sad, dim country, there are brighter days on the other side. And now, at last, they were stepping foot onto that new place.

“We spent fifty-two hundred.”

Moonset over Chiang Rai

Our last night in Chiang Rai—our last night in Thailand—I finished settling our food and beverage tab at the front desk, and returned to our room stone-faced.

Jodie was sitting at the desk in our room. I closed the door that separated our space from the children’s bunk beds. Sitting on the bed across from Jodie, I stared at her and said, “I paid the damn bill.”

She laughed. “I see that face you’re putting on,” she replied. “And?”

A smile shattered my stony face. “We spent fifty-two hundred.”

Yup. That’s right. We stayed at this amazing hotel in Chiang Rai for a week, ate regularly at their café and restaurant for lunch and/or dinner, and we weren’t evening batting an eye at how we had dropped over five thousand.

Thai baht, that is. Good ole THB, with the currency symbol ฿.

Not US dollars.

And ฿5200, I should now explain, is about US$140.

For our hotel stay, that breaks down to $20 a day or, for our family of four, about $5 per person per day.

It’s going to be very, very hard to leave Thailand (again). I love the culture. I love the food.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I also really, really love the prices.

There are so many other things I love about Thailand though—and all the more so, given how much appreciation Jodie, Connor, and Aster had gained for the Land of Smiles during our month in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai. Our last evening in Chiang Rai, we stood on the balcony at sunset. We treasured the view, took in the river, the village on the opposite bank, the big Buddha on the hill just outside the city. Chiang Rai gifted us the memory of an incredible sunset, with wide sunny flat fingers splaying through the clouds, and casting a bright orange gleam over the hills.

In the morning, we rose around six, since we had an airport shuttle scheduled for 7:15. As we got ready to leave our room for the last time, we all took one last visit to the balcony. The world outside—even the big Buddha—was still dark. Soon we would be touching down in another place I had visited long ago.

For now we stood firmly in the moment. In the spot where yesterday the sun had gone down, now the moon was taking the same path. The moonlight took on a copperish gleam, from the haze that had been growing in the air as some of the area farmers began to burn the chaff from their rice fields.

Then we left. The hotel. Chiang Rai. And Thailand. First to Bangkok, for a wee layover. And then to a place I would be returning to, but it would be a first for Jodie and the kids: Cambodia.

“We’ve talked with the kids about how when it comes to travel, you never necessarily know what you’re going to get. Generally, as long as you have some sense and assurance of your safety, it’s good to go with things. Of course, it’s one thing to talk about this.”

Shuttle surprise in Siem Reap

Anthony's Cotopaxi Allpa 35L can handle the tuk-tuk ride in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Our week in Chiang Rai, frankly, had been pretty darn luxurious, but we knew that was about to change. While we would be staying in a simpler hotel near the Siem Reap, Cambodia, city center, we did not know what to expect from the ride we would be getting from the airport to the hotel.

Flying to Siem Reap was an encouragement. The flight was full—not just of people, but of nationalities and languages. People were coming to Siem Reap mostly for Angkor, once the world’s largest city—from India, Russia, Italy, Singapore, Germany, the Netherlands, and on, and on. (The kids told us they could tell where some of the people were from thanks to all the languages they’d been working on in Duolingo.)

As we made our way to the immigration area, I reflected on how grateful I felt for how far online tools have come since my first visit to Asia in 2003. Over a hundred people stood in line to get their visas on arrival.

We got the attention of an official, and I showed him the printouts of the e-visas we had gotten in advance from the Cambodia government. He in turn led us to a counter with no line. A few minutes later, he and the officer at the counter handed us back our passports, stamps and visas inside.

While others waited in line, we grabbed our checked suitcase, and headed outside. A big smile greeted us, along with a sign that had Jodie’s name on it, and we made our way to our shuttle driver.

We’ve talked with the kids about how when it comes to travel, you never necessarily know what you’re going to get. Generally, as long as you have some sense and assurance of your safety, it’s good to go with things.

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about this.

It’s another to shake hands with your shuttle driver, and see that your shuttle is a two-bench tuk-tuk cart being towed by a motorbike.

Our driver was a younger man in his mid-twenties, with a firm, honest handshake and friendly eye contact. His smile made it clear he wanted us to be okay, and to know we were in good hands. With travel as with so many things in life, you have to know when to listen to your instincts. They can tell you when a situation is bad. But, and this can easily get forgotten, they can also tell you when a situation is good.

Personally, I grinned inside and out. Jodie had arranged our transport with the hotel, but all we knew was that we would have a ride waiting for us. She hadn’t expected this. But after the initial surprise, she smiled, and began chatting with our driver as we got bags and people loaded onto the tuk-tuk.

The kids, granted, had no idea what to make of all this. They were definitely uncertain. However, they’ve also built much of their reactions in life around how Jodie and I react to things. If we were demonstrating that we felt a situation was okay, they were typically pretty good about trusting that we might be crazy, but at least we usually made good decisions.

To be fair, I couldn’t blame them if they did wonder about this one. We’d ridden in a tuk-tuk a couple of times by now, but this was going to be a very, very different ride.

Our driver stacked the two rollie suitcases on the metal tongue between the front of the tuk-tuk and where his back would be. My and Jodie’s backpacks were hung on thick metal hooks on diagonally opposite corners. (If you’ve seen our review of our Cotopaxi Allpa backpacks, you likely noticed the lead photo is actually from this tuk-tuk ride). As we learned later, you’ll find these hooks in many a Cambodian tuk-tuk. In additional to securely holding luggage, they can also support a hammock, perfect for the busy tuk-tuk driver who has a chance for a wee rest during their day’s shuttling.

The kids sat on the back bench. This gave them the peace of mind of looking ahead, into our direction of travel, so they could at least see what was going on. On the other hand, the wind kept blowing Connor’s hair into his face, and he clenched his backpack on his lap. Jodie and I sat with our backs to the road before us, focusing on watching the children’s reactions—and making sure our bags were, indeed, safe and sound.

Spoiler alert: Other than the backpacks swaying with the motion of the tuk-tuk, every bag stayed right where it was supposed to be. No suitcases went tumbling down the road behind us, tearing open and spraying school books, sandals, coffee, and yoga mats everywhere. My backpack didn’t slip off its hook and get crushed under a truck—or nibbled by one of the many cows on the side of the road.

The tuk-tuk kept a relaxed pace as we made our 20-minute drive from the airport to our hotel. The wide, smooth highway rode well, though the occasional bump did help remind the kids to keep a good hold on their backpacks. Coming into town, we turned onto progressively smaller streets. Ultimately, we turned onto a dirt road, a sort of alley parallel to one of the main roads for the area.

Newly constructed and remodeled buildings rose around the dirt road. We passed by the occasional trash fire. Late-model small SUVs and Toyota Priuses whirred by us. On one street corner, a row of white tuk-tuks waited for passengers. Each was shiny, and had signs proclaiming they were cleaner, newer, more efficient models that ran on natural gas.

We talked with the kids about how far Cambodia has come from very difficult times in the 1970s (though we’re not doing a deep dive into that history yet). When I was first here in 2003, the city, the country, had clearly made a lot of progress in infrastructure, education, and economy. But the Siem Reap I was seeing now made that city then feel more like a small town. I saw more school uniforms on children. Scooters and motorbikes far outnumbered cars. People chatted with us in clear English, then could switch back to Khmer in a breath. And they were always gracious with me as I tried to pronounce a few basics in Khmer with them.

That’s what really stuck out to me, actually. I remembered lots of smiles—from people whose national identity had gone through a long time where smiling would have been the last thing to come to mind. The city seemed to have more overall prosperity. But above all, that kindness was still there too. It’s a kindness that comes out in the little things. For example, our first night when we found a wee place for dinner, when Connor realized he needed the toilet, the server took him to a door—beyond which was her own family’s apartment. She led him to their own bathroom, smiling the entire way.

Unloading at the hotel, Connor said he would not talk about the tuk-tuk ride. He clenched his backpack as he made his way along the big square red tiles, past parallel rows of potted palms and citrus trees, into our clean, bright hotel.

But a couple of days later, when our driver returned to take us to the Angkor National Museum?

Connor was tentative at first. But by the time we were coming back from the museum, he was first on the tuk-tuk. Soon he was asking our driver questions about driving it (and reveling at how our driver had been driving since he was 10—same age as Connor).

The change of heart? It was practical things, such as not having to hold onto his backpack, or having his hair back so it wasn’t getting in his eyes.

But I sensed something else, something that the kids might not have been aware of, or if they were, might not yet be able to articulate.

Our driver was sincere, kind, considerate, and capable. He wanted us to have a wonderful time in his country. He knew, on a simple, pragmatic level, that much of having a good time is simply getting from place to place safely, and he was going to make sure we did. There was kindness in his eyes and in his smile.

And that is why the kids, especially Connor, turned out not only to be okay with the tuk-tuk, but to love riding with it. They were learning one of the most important things about travel—and about life.

Follow your instincts. And when you sense kindness, trust it, go with it, and return it with your own.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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