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How We Chose A Different Life

When our kids were seven and four years old, Brian and I decided to take advantage of the down season with our photography business and do a trip with the kids. We looked at how far our dollar would take us and learned that we could spend twelve days in Maui or six weeks in Thailand for almost the same price. We chose Thailand. 

I’m not an especially outdoorsy-type girl. Living in Thailand’s jungle for six weeks had me terrified. The location was remote, and the only way to access a doctor was to travel forty minutes by a wooden long tail boat with an enormous engine that often has been removed from a car or tractor.

We had to get shots for jungle fevers I’d never even heard of. Were our kids vulnerable to being kidnapped? Horror stories from well-meaning friends started coming out of the woodwork. Friends from church asked if this was a mission trip. I felt guilty saying no. But inside I felt like the mission was our family. Other friends and family felt it was their responsibility to tell us how irresponsible the trip was. And I couldn’t help but wonder if they were right.

Was there wildlife, poisonous snakes or spiders, that could hurt us? We didn’t know the language or if we’d even like the food for six weeks! We knew we liked Chicken Pad Thai noodles but what if that wasn’t authentic Thai food? It’s not like we were in our early twenties backpacking. We were parents with young children and a mortgage to pay! And most of all, were our kids going to fight after that much intense time together—would we all end up feeling miserable and just want to come home? We hoped this would be an amazing adventure, but we had no idea what to expect.

The journey to get there is made up of twenty hours of flying and layovers and then climbing into a long tail boat for another forty minutes to get to a remote beach where our jungle home waited. I’ll never forget climbing out of the boat for the first time, jumping into the clear waters with our backpacks above our heads, feeling like our family was on an episode of Survivor. Were we nuts? We then pulled our camera gear and homeschool books along the beach with the kids in tow. From the beach, we headed into the jungle and found our home for the next six weeks.

Sony α900. Sony 24mm f/2 lens. 1/100-sec., f/5, ISO 1000

The Thai style, open aired house stood on stilts against a massive limestone rock. There was no air conditioning or electricity at night. There was no refrigerator but a cooler instead. There were no locks on the doors. But there was Wi-Fi to keep tabs on our clients while abroad.

In the morning, we’d wake to the soothing sound of Gibbon Apes singing their Whoooop, Whoooooop, Whooooop morning call through the jungle’s canopy. During the day, we’d swim and kayak in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, rock climb the limestone cliffs, and hike through the jungle.

At night when the electricity would shut off, we’d watch the ceiling fan slowly come to a complete stop and feel the heat stick to us. We’d grab our headlamps and crawl under the mosquito nets to read A Wrinkle in Time and Lord of the Rings to the kids. After they were fast asleep, we’d blog our adventures and catch up on work.

Sony α7. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens. 1/160-sec., f/2.8, ISO 800

That six-week adventure transformed our family; we came home closer than I ever thought possible. Pascaline no longer asked why we didn’t have a bigger house or nicer car like the neighbors. Blaze, our four-year-old, asked “Why do people [in America] have so much but their faces look so serious when Thai families have so little and always seem so happy”. Our family had been changed. Brian and I knew that we would do whatever it took to get us back there again. We were choosing to live a different life than our neighbors. And it felt right.

Some people remodel their kitchen or bathrooms. I’m embarrassed to say that we stapled a plastic tarp to our bathroom ceiling in Seattle to keep the rain from dripping on us. This way we could save more dollars to get back to Thailand. When Pascaline ruined the top oven from a baking experiment, we figured out how to make do without it. Every dollar was committed to getting back to the jungle. Yes, some people thought we were nuts.

For the next ten years we went back to our jungle home. This magical place became a second home to our kids. The locals embraced us as part of the family. And the kids have dozens of memories of running wild through the jungle with Langur monkeys watching from overhead and huge water monitor lizards crawling across the ground.

We continued homeschooling so we could travel as a family. And as I blogged about our family’s adventures abroad, more and more readers started tuning in. A few years later, we started filming our Disney Junior show Capture the Story with Me Ra Koh. The show was doing so well with inspiring moms and kids to capture the beauty of their everyday stories that Disney asked us what other type of show we’d like to film. Brian and I didn’t have to think hard, a family travel show without question! Adventure Family was born.

Combining our photography, filming, writing and family’s love for travel to foreign places, we started filming episodes at all our favorite places in Thailand, and then we expanded our adventures to Egypt, New Zealand, Israel, Italy, France, Greece and more. Choosing to homeschool the kids gave us the ability to make the world their classroom. It was a radical way to raise a family while still running our photography business and teaching workshops.

As a mom, I can’t even begin to count all the times I second guessed myself, afraid we were messing up our kids’ lives. They couldn’t ever finish a full season of sports because we were gone so much. Airports became a second home. Neighborhood boys teased Blaze because he didn’t know the rules to American football. But he had played basketball with on the West Bank, Connect Four with the captain of a Nubian ship along the Nile, and learned how to Thai Box on the beach in Thailand.

Sony α7R. Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA lens. 1/500-sec., f/3.5, ISO 80

The adventures and stories we collected along the way, the respect and comfort of being around other cultures, were are all worth the fears, doubts and financial risks we fought through.

Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens. 1/2000-sec., f/3.5, ISO 100

We’ve done homestays in Muslim fishing villages helping with tsunami relief work in Thailand. We’ve been stuck in Thailand’s jungle, and we’ve been stuck in Egypt’s desert. We’ve run out of money filming Adventure Family and somehow still circumnavigated the globe and kept filming. We’ve ridden on horse back, climbed trees, and dug our own hot tub on the beach in New Zealand, and we’ve explored beautiful, hedonistic villages off-the-beaten path in Italy and Greece, filming and shooting everything with our Sony cameras and lenses. Most of all, we’ve given our kids a front-row seat to the many ups and downs involved when building a dream.

Sony α7R. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens. 1/1250-sec., f/2.8, ISO 250

As people started watching our Adventure Family episodes, followers asked if we’d lead and teach travel photography workshops. Brian and I couldn’t believe we had never thought of it. What a great idea! Our Portrait of the World travel workshops launched in 2015, and we now take small groups to all our favorite spots in Thailand, Italy, Greece, Egypt, as well as picturesque destinations in America.

Our family has experienced the mountain top moments of being immersed in foreign cultures, and we’ve also been sick and lost our luggage more times than we like to remember. But the adventures we share, the closeness that we’ve developed, are what always keeps us coming back for more.

This series of articles in Alpha Universe is going to bring you behind-the-scenes on some of our favorite adventures. There’s only so much you can share in a ten-minute YouTube episode. My hope is that this series of articles will make you laugh, broaden your understanding of foreign places, teach you a few photo and filming tips, and most of all, bring the world close—inspiring you to take an adventure too!

I never would have guessed that our first six-week trip to Thailand would have inspired the life we now live. I guess that’s the thing about dreams and taking risks. You have no idea what to expect, no guarantees of whether your vision will be a success, and yet, you’re often led to a place you could never imagine possible. It’s taking that first step into the unknown that always gets me, no matter how many times I take it.

Me Ra Koh is a Sony Artisan Of Imagery. See more about her here. Follow her on Instagram @merakoh. Subscribe to her Adventure Family YouTube channel here.

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