The world offers us the ultimate education through its unbelievably packed museums. As adults we worship the artistry of the Sistine chapel, marvel at Mona Lisa’s smile, stand in awe as we take in the breadth of fort McHenry’s star spangled banner. How do you, on the other hand, guide younger ones through rooms of treasure and priceless artifacts without setting off the security alarms? The answer is two fold: first, try to choose kid friendly museums. There are some pretty fabulous choices out there.
Secondly, if you do choose one of the classics like the Vatican or the Louvre, prep them with the facts and translate that into some ownership. Kids will connect with art and history if they can connect some dots. Try familiarizing kids with that wonderful art by ensuring they have opportunities to see it. Books are the best way to start. Then, create some stories of your own about art so there is a reference point when your young mind sees it in person.
Once you decide on a museum, check out their website to see if they offer any kid friendly activities. For example, when visiting the HMS Britannia in Edinburgh, kids can keep a close eye out for stuffed corgis hiding all over the ship. Very clever! Additionally, The Louvre has an entire section of their website dedicated to helping kids understand art.
Probably the most important way to connect kids with art is to help them understand why something is impressive. The power to understand wow is an important tool to unlocking a true interest in art, history and the museums that house them.
Thailand. A country of extremes. A place where chaos reigns in big cities and beaches calm the soul with beautiful vistas. This South Asian tourist mecca layers itself with many personalities. Some are bright like Buddhist temples and floating markets. Others are a bit darker like the animal tourism industry or places called Sex Street. So, how can we travel to Thailand and find the right balance of vacation fun and broadened horizons? Let’s dig in!
Lay Of The Land
Thailand has more coastline than Florida. In fact, it would take about 20 hours to drive from North to South. It’s safe to say that a typical two week holiday won’t let you see the entire country. The country is anchored by three famous hot spots. To the north is Chiang Mai, to the south is beachy Phuket and smack dab in the middle is Bangkok.
Nestled between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, Thailand prides itself on some pretty spectacular beaches. The winner of this beach beauty pageant is Phuket.
Pattaya used to be the beach of choice decades ago but now turns its worn eye toward more industrial needs. That industrial emphasis has taken its toll on the tourism industry here. Yet, due to its close proximity to Bangkok, Pattaya it seems to hang on.
Conversely, Phuket seems to be the darling of them all. While it has been in the news a bit because of over tourism, the Phuket area enjoys the bulk of the tourist influx and, therefore has a far better infrastructure to support those numbers.
Half Buried Buddha
Marine Research Center
Gibbon Rehabilitation Center
Lay on the beach
Exotic and chaotic. Those are the first words that come to mind as I think back to Bangkok. Each intersection seems like a starting point of a great migration of cars, trucks, motorcycles and tut-tuts. Intermingled in all of it a precious temples and markers of real heritage. Plan at least three days to see all that Bangkok has to offer.
The Grand Palace
About 700 KM to the north lies this second city of Thailand. While still chaotic and perhaps overwhelming, Chiang Mai has a certain gentleness to it that can not be denied. At a fraction of the size of sprawling Bangkok, Chiang Mai offers quite a few unique experiences.
Wat Phra Sing
Wat Chedi Luang
Doi Suthep–Pui National Park
Bo Sang Village
Yi Pang Lantern Festival
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Asian animal attractions, and for that matter attractions everywhere, are under great scrutiny. They are being scrutinized more and more as to the care they give and the purpose they rely on.
There is an undeniable curiosity about animals. Let’s face it, the bigger and more furry, the more we as a global society are attracted to them. At the top of Thailand’s attractions are tigers and elephants. Much has been reported about the treatment and conditions in which animal tourism in Asia and it’s not without merit. So, what is the right call? I think that it is possible that some attractions have the animal’s best interest in mind while others are far more interested in lining their pockets. Take these three examples:
The Tiger Zoo was a cacophony of sounds and sites. To one side, was a fenced in gazebo with a pig, a dog, and a tiger chasing each other around in circles. To the other, the scorpion lady was covered in creepy crawlies. Straight ahead was the tiger nursery. About 100 juveniles were in “playpens” they eagerly awaited the visitors who they knew had milk to feed them. The place had the feel of a day care facility. Lessons were hastily given as to how to hold and feed these little ones. Once visitors have a chance to interact with the little ones, they were shown through to a circus like ring to watch the older tigers.
There were a lot of interactions with other animals- elephants, monkeys, snakes. They all were happily posed around visitors. I’m not sure how I feel all these years later about this particular venue. Maybe the correct word is uncomfortable. I guess I will leave the evaluation to wildlife experts.
For a different Thai experience, look toward facilities like this. The village is home to retired working elephants that seem happy to be in the peaceful patch of jungle. The village wants to allow these elephants to feel useful and educate visitors with the history of the role elephants played in this part of the world.
When you visit the Village, there are several animals to see and a few experiences to enjoy including an elephant ride. I felt like the elephants were given their space to roam the pathway at their own pace and I even saw the establishment change out an elephant that started showing concerns with one that seemed eager to participate.
One thing that surprised me was the wonderful lunch that was provided. Sitting under a lovely pavilion with that same soft music playing, local women had plate after plate of probably the best food I ate in the whole country. My feeling here was one of relief.
Contrasting the two options above, this sanctuary seeks only to educate rather than blend in entertainment. Here, don’t expect to ride an elephant. Instead, visitors are encouraged to understand the natural habitat life of elephants. From half day tours to week long volunteering opportunities (look to “adopt” a friend for the week and literally handle all of their needs), this sanctuary is the future of animal tourism.
While the sanctuary invites visitors in, it’s with caution. You are there to learn. There to understand how these gentle giants need our protection and there to understand the massive amount of work it takes to maintain the sanctuary itself.
Many of their packages come with meals, add on tours, and other options to make your time memorable. But then again, do you need much more than a baby elephant laying on your legs to be completely fulfilled?
That Famous Bridge
One quest you may be interested in is the bridge that spans the Khwae Yai River. Known because of its infamy on the silver screen. The dark history of what happened on the Burma-Siam Railroad is sad. You can learn more about it by visiting the bridge that sits just over 100 KM from the capitol.
In Thailand’s northeast, the Mekong River is king. This area perfect for nature enthusiasts, is known for its small villages, colorful festivals and impressive temples, this area may be the perfect area to enjoy many of Thailand’s treasures. Food for thought…
Two Thailand Tales
When I think back to visiting Thailand, I realize that I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m not too pleased with myself that I didn’t realize some of the travel choices I made weren’t the best. The Tiger Zoo comes to mind. I also was not prepared for having drivers who shuttled us down Sex Street without giving a second thought to the fact that I had children in the car. I was not the best traveler then and I learned lessons to make me better.
On the other hand, I loved Thailand for all of its gentleness. In fact, it’s that amazing aura that my kids remember most. I recently asked them about their favorite moment from that trip, and they all recall our time seeing the Reclining Buddha. It wasn’t the elephants and tigers that first pop to mind. Instead, they remember the moment we gave them each 100 Bhat.
There, at the reclining Buddha, 100 small pots are lined up. The goal is to say something you are grateful for at each pot wile you add a coin. As you move along, the soft ching-ching sound relaxes you. What a powerful way to start kids understanding the power of gratefulness and meditation. This was what they remember most.
Moments like this make Thailand a destination that is worth exploring again and again.
In ancient times, the goddess Athena looked after Athens as the patroness of the city. The small but mighty city crowned with the Acropolis has been the longest continuously inhabited capitol in Europe. It has seen its glory ebb and flow over not just centuries but millennia. So, what is it about this vacation magnet that keeps travelers coming back over and over again? What makes travel to Athens so appealing?
At first glance, Athens is not the prettiest city you’ve ever seen. With about half of Greece’s population residing in and around Athens, the overall urban sprawl of the place is staggering. Driving through the streets, I find myself asking why Athenians don’t see the overall decline of the area around them. Then, I realize, they are too busy living life. For Athens can be only defined by its people and they are- what’s the word I’m looking for? Kallos.
Athens is big. So big, in fact, it’s hard to envision covering it all in one trip. Most visitors (Xenos) focus on the area in and around the Plaka or old town. Making your home base in this area makes the most geographical sense as it makes probably 80% of your itinerary walkable. While some may say that this is the most “touristy” area of the city, there are plenty of options for everyone’s taste. If you do choose another neighborhood, be sure that you have transportation options easily available.
Eat Absolutely Everything
If there is one thing that makes me look forward to Athens it’s knowing a fresh cucumber and tomato salad waiting for me. Let me be clear: my first meal in Greece will always be a salad with a fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato! In fact, the last time I was in Athens, I was reading an article at breakfast that was about GMO free regions within the EU. And who is on that list? Greece! No wonder the food still tastes like food! Just like any other country, there are familiar dishes like gyros and souvlaki as well as dishes you may not have heard of like keftedes and pilafi. Hear me now! Eat it all!!!!!
I’d love to give you a perfectly vetted list of authentic restaurants but, in all honesty, I’ve never had a bad meal in The Plaka. Instead, try Hermion for a quiet meal and Kazakos Pantelis for the rooftop view that tucks you right in under the Acropolis.
The Central Market
Getting your head around the food choices in Athens can be a bit overwhelming. There are distinct differences between the touristy menu and the typical Greek menu especially in the Plaka. A great way to learn more about Greek food is to visit the central market. With two distinct parts devoted to meat and seafood on one side and fresh produce on the other, you can get a true sense of what makes Greek cuisine so yummy. Getting there first thing in the morning gives you a sense of the energy that it takes to get Greece’s menus out to her customers every day.
The Plaka’s Treasure
Browsing through the Plaka’s generous supply of stores will keep you busy for days. There are plenty of amazing shops to check out. While touristy t-shirt shops will always be a staple, there are plenty of gems to be found. Some of the legacies that you will find deep in the Plaka include Jewelry Stores that specialize in Byzantine styles. I highly recommendDimos Jewelry You will find owner, Stavros, making great quality pieces that truly reflect that Byzantine style that made the Plaka’s first jewelers so famous. Another incredible jeweler named Tom (Thassos in Greek) can be found at Old Orient Jewelry. While the name is a bit deceiving, make no mistake, its history is well founded in the treasures you find down at the National Archaeological Museum.
I’m Worried Someone’s Watching Me
It’s not your imagination! You are being watched by thousands upon thousands of evil eyes. Don’t let the name fool you, evil eyes are an old superstition meant to keep evil away. You’ll find them on absolutely everything from soap to pillows. Join in the fun, everyone buys them and has them in their house. I always look for the most creative ones to enjoy. If you are still worried, check out the beads that are strung to look like over sized bracelets. These worry beads are another Greek staple that’s well worth the enjoyment.
The best place to get your evil eye swag is at Helen’s which is just in front of Hermion. Check out this old school shop for all kinds of fun stuff to bring home and share. I’ve gone year after year and always have a great time visiting the owner. For more modern inceptions of the evil eye, check out the shops along Adrianou Street.
While not the crowning achievement of the Ancient Greeks, the Acropolis is certainly the most famous of all the marble piles. Tackling a visit to the City on the Hill can be quite daunting without a little preparation. There are three distinct places to visit to take in the whole story: The Acropolis, The Agora, and The New Museum.
Honestly, I don’t think that there is any right way or correct order in which to visit the sites. The museum does a great job telling the age old story. Then again, the Agora does a fabulous job of explaining ancient daily life. Of course, the climb is so iconic that you may not want to wait. See what I mean?
Know the Controversy
If there was one thing to make sure you know before going to Acropolis, it would be the story of the Parthenon Marbles. Known also as the Elgin Marbles, this group of friezes from the Acropolis. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Way back in 1801, Lord Elgin asked the ruling Ottoman government if he could have his pick of the ruins on top of the Acropolis. The government said okay and he took what he wanted including 75 meters of the frieze. That seemed to be the end of it. Fast forward to post WWII Greece.
The modern and current government feels that the marbles were taken under incorrect circumstances and would like them returned. England is not a fan of this idea since the marbles take center stage in London. There are many twists and turns in this story and it is well worth researching. It will also explain the empty floor at the Acropolis Museum.
Make The Climb
It’s hot and dry in Athens during the Summer but don’t let that deter you from planting your feet high above the modern skyline. Here, at the top of one of the seven hills (just like Rome) that surround Athens. Stop. Take it all in. Take in this crowning glory of ancient times. Walk around the Parthenon and examine the massive columns. Envision that great goddess Athena in all her glory filling the space inside. Study the intricate copies of the Caryatids that have held up the porch of the Erechtheion opposite the temple. Check in with the restoration projects to see how they are holding back the erosion of time. It’s an overwhelming moment for any traveler.
Last, walk out to the Greek flag. Here, learn the story of Konstantinos Koukidis and why he is so important to modern Greece. Be sure to also view the amphitheater and the main gate to get a full feel of what this hilltop must have been like in its prime. I would say that climbing to the top is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s the Summer heat that will do you in more than the hike.
On your way down, be sure to seek out a moment to climb the stairs to the rock where St. Paul talked to the Athenians. As in “a letter from St. Paul to the Athenians”. Yes, those passages in the Bible happen right at the foot of Athena’s home turf. Whether you are interested in religion or not, the stop is an interesting one to pause and think of time in terms centuries and millenia. It’s just astounding.
Get Out Of Town!
Athens is full of amazing sites and treasures. Just ride the subway to see that even when you are getting from point A to point B, you will run in to museum quality antiquities. Between the Evzones and stunning churches, and even a hilltop observatory, Athens has plenty to keep any traveler busy. I know it’s tempting to check as many museums as possible off your list and if that’s your thing, check away! But, if you are like most, you are probably wanting to balance ancient ruins with bougainvillea covered tavernas that overlook dreamy sea views.
If that’s your idea of fun, head south to catch the ferry to Hydra. This little, traffic free island has all the charm you can take. Enjoy the people watching and browse the little shops. Greece will not leave you wanting in the souvenir department. Most of all, pull up a chair. Order a drink and something delicious. Relax. Enjoy. You’re in Greece!
Another amazing side trip is to set your sights north toward a town called Meteora. World renown for it’s monasteries that are sky high, this little corner of the world is quite magical. Tour one of the monasteries and then enjoy the little downtown tavernas in the evening. This is a side of Greece that rarely get seen by the first time visitor.
If you plan to include the Greek Islands in your travels, check out our amazing post about seeing them here!