When Hannah told me she was off travelling with her family I was so intrigued and excited to know how back packing with children would work out; the food, the routine, the jet lag and was it all worth it? Here are my wide eyed questions and a little insight into Hannah’s family adventure in Sri Lanka! ~ Catherine
Why did you decide to travel with a young family?
This was our last chance to do something a bit more adventurous before we become tied to school holidays in September with our eldest (eek!). Neither Tim or I have ever been great at just lounging about by a pool for very long, let alone trying to do that with two energetic kids. We figured that if we really want the boys to learn something about the world, themselves and different cultures, then we’d just have to get out there and do it! So, we sold our car to help finance the trip and off we went!
Three weeks and seven different locations from West coast to East coast and back again. Beaches, Mountains, Cities, Jungles, Ancient ruins, Fishing villages, one monkey research camp and one luxury hotel to recover at the end. Only once did we look at each other and mouth the words “this is totally crazy, what are we doing!?”
What made you choose Sri Lanka?
Two main reasons: 1) We were going to attempt a tour of India but then figured it would just be too overwhelming to do a decent amount of travel with little ones (well, for their first international backpacking experience anyway!). 2) Some friends of ours went to Sri Lanka with their 4-year-olds last year and loved it. They convinced us it was a smaller, cleaner, friendlier and more manageable version of India….. SOLD!
What was the food like?
I wish I could be back there eating it right now. I’d heard it was good but pretty much everywhere we ate (and especially when we were made home-cooked meals by Sri Lankans), we had delicious food. Think South-Indian curries with lots of flavor, packed with veggies, coconut milk, lentils and coconut rotis! Yum! I’ll be making these for sure and if I’m successful, I promise to blog the recipe! Also, in a lot of places we stayed, we were able to find some food that didn’t resemble curry for when the kids just couldn’t face it again.
How did you make sure you had snacks whilst you were out and about that the kids could eat?
Well we took a load of snack bars with us (devoured in the first week) and a few sachets of toddler meals for emergencies, but we didn’t even use the toddler meals so ended up bringing them home again! We did a bit of self-catering in a couple of airbnbs so became pretty au fait with the Sri Lankan supermarkets and stocking up with food that was suitable for train travel and for when we were going to be staying somewhere a bit more remote. We definitely resorted to peanut butter and cucumber sandwiches on more than a few occasions! Also, the fruit is so incredible, sweet and easy to come by at every road side and market that we ate loads every day. The boys especially loved the small bananas, rambutans, pineapple and mangosteens!
What about water?
Bottled water was probably the thing we bought more than anything else. It’s a must, even for brushing teeth. It just wasn’t worth the risk of getting sick. It was easy to purchase everywhere we went and usually cooled. I freaked out slightly every time it looked like one of the boys had even marginally opened their mouths in the shower, and I even put Dettol in their bath water (we actually only had the luxury of a bath at one stop!). This was maybe a bit over the top, but none of us even got slightly sick the whole time, not even a dodgy stomach, so it worked!
Were you able to find food that wasn’t spicy in Sri Lanka?
The curries (and snacks!) tend to be pretty spicy but everyone was very accommodating at making non-spicy versions for the kids.
What about travelling around; did you feel safe using their public transport?
Yes, we really did. I think with Sri Lankan public transport you just have to take it for what it is, and embrace it. There don’t seem to be any rules of the road, but whatever the strange ‘rules’ are for over-taking and cutting each-other up, it kind of works and people just get on with it. Only a couple of times did we have to split up with one parent and luggage in one tuk-tuk and the other parent and kids in another. We just hoped for the best and that we’d see each other again at some point!! We figured that if we were freaking out about the water and mosquitos we should at least allow ourselves to enjoy whizzing about in tuk-tuks, hanging out of train doors, and jumping on and off crowded buses. Everyone we met was honestly so helpful, friendly and accommodating that this helped. Particularly on one occasion when we arrived at our train station and I sent my 4-year-old to get off the train first with his huge rucksack on whilst I negotiated my own rucksack, backpack and the baby. The doors opened and the platform was 4 feet below him! There was no way he could jump off but suddenly loads of people on the platform grabbed him, the baby, the pushchair and all our stuff and helped us out!
Did you take a buggy?
Yes. We didn’t use it a huge amount but it was useful for the times we needed it so worth taking. Most places were not buggy friendly and it was rare to see another buggy but it’s a tiny one that folds up small enough to go in an over-head on a plane so it was great for bundling into a tuk-tuk and for napping out and about!
How did you manage to meet the routine of your 22-month-old whilst travelling?
He learned to be incredibly flexible and sleep anywhere. He was pretty rubbish at sleeping before we went away but he slept on planes, trains, tuk-tuks, taxis, and even in the back of an open-sided, open-topped jeep (seriously!). We made a video montage to prove it. We managed to keep to a pretty good routine though with meals and bedtimes because the boys really needed that stability and predictability. We still managed to have a flexible, adventurous trip whilst making sure each day’s activities had been well thought through and decided on the night before.
Any tips for coping with jet lag?
The time difference is only 4.5 hours so it wasn’t too bad. We took a direct over-night flight on the way out there which meant they could get a bit of sleep at least. The excitement kept them going the first day and then a swimming pool at our first stop was the saving grace. Making sure you get straight into the routine of the country you’re in is the best way. We had to wake the boys up by 8am the first few mornings (even though it felt like the middle of the night for them) so we could get them out and running around in the sunshine straight away and that shifted their body clocks pretty quick! They were then so shattered by bedtime that they didn’t even notice it was really still mid-afternoon UK time! Coming back was worse, with wide-awake kids by 4am, but it was worth it and we had to get straight back to work/nursery which actually helped!
What was the best experience for the boys?
That’s hard to pick but I think seeing loads of wild animals like elephants and monkeys and huge monitor lizards (“THE SIZE OF ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS” – said in a 4-year-old’s voice) everywhere we went. They loved jumping in and out of tuk-tuks multiple times every day and walking though the jungles. They thrived on the constant family time and most of the time enjoyed the constant attention and sweets given to them from locals (two white, blond-haired kids stand out somewhat).
What would you say is essential to pack for a young family?
The 5 most useful things we took were SPF 50+ suncream, mosquito repellent, travel towels, hand sanitizing foam, and Milton sterilizing tablets. The Milton tablets were invaluable. Most days we’d fill up a bucket of water and pop in a tablet. We then had sterile water to soak cutlery and kids cups and also great for plopping apples and cucumber in so we could rinse and eat them without peeling! We actually managed to get most other things out there and bought a few extra clothes and kids toys and crayons once we arrived.
Would you do anything differently?
We’d stay for longer.