Last week, we went on a five-day family vacation to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. It was our first time to travel with the kids and also their first plane ride!
KK was an easy choice. Kayo has always wanted to go and I’ve read a lot about it being a kid-friendly city. Luckily, we chanced upon inexpensive plane fares making it affordable to bring everyone along, so off we went!
This trip was wonderful in so many ways and though we had our fair share of stressful moments, I can say we all handled things quite well, kids included. Let me just share some of the important things I learned bringing my children along this trip and things that helped make it a great vacation for us all.
1. Make an itinerary.
I did my homework of looking up the best places to see and visit with kids and marked them on Google Maps. Kayo and I didn’t get to create a daily itinerary prior to the trip but we took note of the places we wanted to visit, then every night after the girls were in bed, we’d create the schedule for the following day.
We visited clusters on the map at a time, allowing us to just stay in one area for a few hours, giving us time to wonder about and explore. But Kota Kinabalu is a fairly small city, this really wasn’t that much of a problem. We could go from one end of the city central to the other in a matter of 10-15 minutes. Uber is a lot cheaper in Malaysia compared to Manila and is also the best way to get around.
So you don’t need a fully ironed out plan. You just need the ingredients for one. Then add some spontaneity .
2. Rest and play are absolutely important.
Kayo and I have always been intense travellers. We like to fill our itinerary and really squeeze in as much as we can into our days. But with small children, we knew we had to pace ourselves and dedicate ample time for rest and play. We also had to make sure to eat on time. Failing to do so would result in crankiness, fighting and lots of tears.
In fact, our coffee exploration was… tactical. We included it in our schedule to give the kids time in the middle of the day to rest and recharge from walking and sight-seeing. While Kayo geeked out on coffees, the kids got to snack on the inevitable independent cafe waffle, draw, sit and relax in an air-conditioned space — sometimes even nap!
Play is important too. And thankfully, KK has many awesome playgrounds and spacious parks where kids could safely run free. We made it a point to take them in the afternoons. It worked out well cause it’s an activity they enjoy and it allowed me and Kayo to slow down, play with them and just enjoy each others company. And it doesn’t cost a dime.
We went to several playgrounds but the ones we liked best are in Perdana Park, near Inch Coffee, and the purple and yellow one in Telun Bay Park along the Coastal Highway, near the end point of the cycling lane. It’s a beautiful location right by the sea.
3. Carry along things to keep the little ones busy and distracted.
Traveling can involve a lot of waiting — in the airport before boarding and landing, in restaurants for food, in transit, in line to get inside places or to pay at the cashier — it’s a whole lot of waiting. Kids are not very good at that. So I thought it was imperative that I prepare for these instances. Keeping in mind what my girls like, I packed a small pouch for each of them containing a drawing book, markers and crayons, a roll of masking tape, stickers, sticky notes, string and other random stuff to keep their little hands busy. It worked out well and they ended up journaling each day’s adventures.
There were moments when the activity kit just didn’t cut it and that’s when I let them play with my phone or Instax camera to take pictures. Sometimes Kayo let them watch videos. But thankfully, more often than not, the little pouch of random stuff kept them occupied and kept us, parents, sane.
4. Prepare well, hope for the best and consider everything part of the adventure.
Something completely unexpected and unfortunate happened on our second night in Malaysia. While inside the hotel room, Jo, our youngest, fell off the chair face first and got one of her front teeth knocked out. There was a lot of blood and crying. The girls and I freaked out. I was terrified but also sad and mad. In short, it was traumatic. Kayo got in touch with his Mom right away to get hold of the family dentist.
We did what we could in that situation. We gave Jo medication, monitored and comforted her. We also embraced her sisters assuring them that everything will be alright. After the girls had fallen asleep, Kayo and I, shaken up by what just happened, comforted each other as well. We decided that the best we could do at that point was to accept that whatever happened had already happened, be thankful that Jo had no other complications, be as calm about it as we can to suppress the fear and anxiety we all felt, and make the most of the rest of our trip.
Thankfully, Jo was fine the next day. There was no swelling, no bleeding, she had no bruises and apart from one tooth missing, she was back to normal as if nothing had happened. We went on exploring. We even took a river cruise to see the wild monkeys and fireflies in the wetlands.
It was a terrible experience but it will always be part of our family vacation story. When we think about our trip to KK, we will remember how Jo got into an accident and also how we helped her, comforted her, prayed for her and cheered her up as a family. We’ll remember how scared we were and also how we made each other feel safe. We’ll remember how things can get bad in a moment but with each others’ help, can get a lot better after just a while.
5. Enjoy the world as the kids do.
Traveling with our girls has shown me what stopping to smell the roses really means. We literally stop all the time to appreciate things that amaze them like pigeons, bubbles, rocks, sticks, fruit, airplanes up in the sky, bugs in the dirt and so much more. Because it’s a strange place full of strange people speaking a strange language, their questions are incessant. In a good way, Kayo and I are forced to immerse in moments.
One of my favorites was during dinner at a hawker center, Emma and Summer saw a lady peeling soy bean. They were thrilled because they learned about soy bean in one of their favorite shows, Super Foods. They’ve never actually seen raw soy so they gravitated to them like flies. Then, later on, I discovered that they had started helping the lady too! They did this for a good 15 minutes and were so proud to have helped. Let’s face it, there is really nothing exciting about watching someone peel little white beans but these girls turned it into a highlight.
We had many magical moments like these and a lot of them happened when we chose to share in the girls’ excitement over things, being interested in what they became interested in.
To be honest, our five-day vacation was not all fun and games. Someone cried or threw a tantrum at least once a day and we had to deal with the same, regular day stuff (like fighting, messes, time-outs, constant cry for snacks) except in a foreign place. It did get quite exhausting. But all things considered, I definitely would do it again. Especially now that I know we can totally pull it off! I would love for my kids to see more and experience more, become experts at traveling and always have a desire to explore. I definitely would love that.
Thank you, Kayo for taking us to this amazing adventure. We will never forget it.
Watch out for our KK Family Hit List blog post! 🙂