Six months. Three small kids. One big island adventure.
Reflecting on our ‘radical sabbatical’ living on the Thai Island of Ko Lanta
Isla, 5, had been determined to stay awake all the way home to watch as much Paw Patrol and Andy’s Big Adventures as humanly possible. It was an impressive effort, 18 hours into the journey and with the wheels about to touch the Heathrow tarmac, she finally gave in to a deep slumber. Really! Why didn’t you use the past day to sleep? Why now? Just as we have to haul ourselves off the plane (now carrying all the kids and bags), along endless corridors, through passport control, baggage, and into the night. But this final episode of our epic — for us — adventure, sums up the fun and frustrations of leaving home with 3 under 5 for a journey of their lifetimes, and ours.
We’ve been home now for a month, so a good time to reflect on our escape.
Why did we go?
To try something different. To make the most of the chance whilst none of our children were in school. To chase the sun. To live in a different kind of natural and cultural environment. To try and make remote work, work. To make the most of this life!
How did we decide where to go?
Our decision making criteria were:
- Somewhere different to our UK home — climate, culture, community.
- Somewhere affordable.
- Somewhere with a local, international school.
- Somewhere with fast wifi.
We quickly narrowed this down to Indonesia (Bali), Sri Lanka (South Coast) and Thailand (Ko Lanta). Ko Lanta won on the basis of finding Global Village School and Kohub Coworking Space within a hundred meters of each other and the beach! It was the right decision.
How did the family business plan work out?
The plan was to cut our living costs by 20% and break-even during our stay. The one part we underestimated was the cost of accommodation during peak season on Ko Lanta — based on research we had forecast £500/month and the reality was £1000+/month. The 6 month adventure ended up costing us about £6000 more than we earned during this period (or around £1000/month). This included a 3 week trip to Vietnam and doing lots of activities (snorkelling trips etc…). So not break-even, but we agree worth the extra ‘investment’. Income came from renting our house in the UK, running Rebel Book Club (its membership doubled during the time we were away), and coaching and mentoring at Virgin Startup and THNK. Over a longer period of time I’m confident this would have balanced out as we got better at living ‘locally’ and earning remotely. We met plenty of families who were sustaining their finances pretty well as they roamed around the world or lived on the island.
What was the reality like compared to the expectations?
In a sentence, the climate was wonderful but tricky at times with the kids, the culture was beautiful but less intense than I anticipated, and the island had a lot more tourism infrastructure — and Swedish people (!) — than expected.
The Best Bits
Instant community via Global Village School. Like many families we made new friends through our children. It was no different on Ko Lanta. A lot of the children at the school were dual-national (one parent Thai, one parent not), so the mix of nationalities, cultures and languages was strong. By the end of the the 6 months we’d built a lovely group of family friends.
Outdoor living and the jungle gym. The only time we spent inside was during the heat of the day. Before 10am and after 4pm we were either in the pool or at the beach. I found an amazing Muay Thai Academy and cross-training gym (tossing car tyres, swinging ropes and sweating like crazy). By the end of our trip I would often try and squeeze in an extra session. I managed to keep up some running along the tracks and hills at dawn and dusk, but to be honest the heat was too much and night-running V cobras was not my idea of fun.
Water babies. We all spent a lot of time in swimming pools and the sea, so by the time we left the children were really confident in and under water. Snorkelling through the Emerald Cave to a secret beach with Isla and Mali is something I’ll never forget.
Fruit shakes and Massamans. Diet highlights included endless tropical fruits (3 year old Mali became passionate about passion fruit), many take-away curry’s from our favourite street-cafes, and surprisingly good coffee (thank you Fruit Tree Cafe).
wildLIFE. Two large (about 2 feet long) geckos lived in our house and did a great job munching bugs. We had a large toad who liked to sleep under the TV in the daytime. Monkeys occasionally scampered across the roof (and once into our bedroom), and we saw plenty of snakes (usually on the road), large lizards, birds, crabs, fish and millions of ants. The kids loved it.
Ahead of schedule. Having a 7 hour head start on the UK everyday meant that I could work in the mornings without interruption and respond to what had come in overnight. I worked about 4–6 hours/day on average partly because more help was needed with family and partly because I didn’t want to. Kohub was a great place to get work done (and fed), and I was impressed by the focus of the 50+ on average other ‘digital nomads’ there. Most were software engineers or developers, but there were also online marketeers, creative consultants, and a splattering of cryptocurrency hackers. The Kohub community is strong and makes sense especially for those who are travelling solo and looking to meet people whilst working.
Essential Oils. Susannah was looking for a new project to get involved with, ideally in natural medicine. When a British-American family moved in next door for a month, working their way around the world whilst teaching and selling essential oils it felt like great timing. Read about what happened next.
Kaleidoscope of colours. I’m more aware of this since coming home but the tropical colours and the cultures that reflect them are so bright and vibrant.
Island Time. Yes, it was slower than home, but not much as children keep you moving wherever you are. The first two months felt really slow — in a good way — as we setup our new life. We managed to squeeze in some hammock time, massages, paddle-boarding and reading but not nearly as much as we would have liked. We didn’t suffer from island fever, and rarely left Ko Lanta unless we had to.
No colds. Tropical life brings plenty of health hazards but we spent 6 months with barely a cough or a cold (except in Vietnam). Its easy to forget when you’re away what you’re not dealing with!
Sapa Valley, Vietnam. We spent an unforgettable Christmas by a river and rice paddies at a rustic eco-lodge in the mountains near the Chinese border. Travelling around northern Vietnam was challenging but worth the effort.
No clothes, less stuff! At home we barely got dressed. It was too hot for clothes anyway. My wardrobe consisted of about 2 pairs of shorts, half a dozen t-shirts and a pair of flipflops. I had a kindle, a laptop and a moped. So putting side the 3 kids and all that they bring (!!!) I enjoyed the ‘less-stuff-life’.
Family Time. Perhaps the biggest challenge but also the best part was the intensity of time we spent together as a family. Without the support network of our wider family and close friends at home we had to fill the gaps. I spent more time with all three of our children (and my wife!) compared to home. Curious questions were frequent (Where does the sun go? Why do they speak differently? Can we touch the snakes?), games felt less rushed, toys mattered — but less so, and playtime mattered even more.
The Hard Bits
Feeding the kids. We thought they’d live off fried rice and noodles. But it took the best part of 6 months to persuade them to. Sourcing non-Thai food wasn’t difficult but of course we couldn’t find the diversity and it was expensive. At one stage Jack would only eat bananas and rice, but he seems ok.
Too hot to handle. Between 10am and 4pm it was pretty warm (33–38 degrees) and so with usually 2 out of 3 children with us we’d often find ourselves driving around the island with the air-conditioning on, just so they could rest. Not an ideal activity. We also found the heat tested our levels of patience with each other as its harder to think straight when your dripping with sweat or the seat buckle can burn skin!
Travel Admin. It comes with the territory but when one of your team’s passports goes missing you’re in for a workout. Isla travelled on a special passport — an Emergency Travel Document — which she thought was great. Visa applications and extensions were also time-consuming but we expected that.
wildLIFE. Yes, we loved the wildlife but when Isla trod on a baby snake in our living room in week two we didn’t think we’d go the distance. A large hungry monkey found its way into our ‘courtyard’ one morning and chased us all out of the house! But it was the one’s you hardly see that really bothered us — the mosquitos (Mali & Susannah especially suffered) and the ants, often finding a way to infest your kitchen.
Plastic Beach. Sadly, the plastic problem that’s become such a big topic at home, is abundantly evident in ‘paradise’. Although a lot of tourists are now more conscious about how they consume it is hard to avoid and the local communities on Ko Lanta seem to be embracing single use plastic like it was one of life’s great conveniences. Ko Lanta is one of the less developed destinations in Southern Thailand, but it’s clear that plastic and other types of pollution are going to increase unless there is a change of priorities in the local government and tourism industry.
Missing conveniences/home support. Of course we missed friends and family and not getting any real relief from parenting was hard at times. Where at home, we’d team up with other families (or our own parents/siblings), it took longer to get to that point on Ko Lanta (almost 4 months to find any kind of at-home childcare) and so we found ourselves being pretty exhausted a lot of the time.
Would we do it again?
Despite the hard bits, the answer is definitely a ‘hell yeah’. It was a remarkable experience to have with our children when they were so young, and one we feel has made us closer as a family. Like all good travel journeys, doing something a little different helps your perspective. You get out of your bubble, you see how the world works somewhere else, you learn. As for Brexit, it seemed less important whilst we were away compared to more global social and environmental challenges. The evident impacts of mass tourism (plastic pollution), climate change (bleached reefs) and smartphone consumerism (every Thai child seems glued to their phone), has galvanised us to try and live and work with more awareness of the world than before.
Top tips for the those considering doing something similar…
- Do it, don’t over think it. Carpe diem!
- Setup as much work pre-departure.
- Pack less than you think you need.
- Find a school = quick community.
- Go for at least 3–6 months (chance to settle in more, plus cheaper the longer you stay and environmental impact of flight is spread).
- Here is our original financial plan and a forecasting template that maybe helpful to other families planning to try something similar.
- Sort long-term accommodation deals in the ‘green season’ (off-peak).
What next for us? Home, summer, and maybe the planning of a future adventure….