Travels with a Nine Year Old

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've got an extraordinary journey to share with you today. Theodora Sutcliffe and her son, Z, are traveling around the world for a year. Follow their site, Travels With a Nine-Year Old - now Escape Artistes, and you'll see the joys and challenges that they face while exploring new cultures and places. I love seeing a new article in my inbox, and love Theodora's common-sense voice. She's instilled with perfection how travel affects a family. Honest writing, great photos - these will lead you, too, to becoming addicted to following their journey!


Travels with a Nine Year Old

Z sparring with a centurion at the Moriones Easter festival in Marinduque, the Philippines


We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Theodora, about a round the world trip, traveling with a nine-year old, and more. Here's what she had to say...



WE:  Please tell us about your site, Travels with a Nine Year Old...

TS: Travels with a Nine Year Old is the story of the longterm round the world trip my son and I are currently taking. We left in January 2010, with the plan of taking a year away, but are now extending the trip.

So far we’ve visited Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines: we’ll be returning to Thailand (depending on the political situation), Laos and Vietnam, then heading down the Malay peninsula through Malaysia and Singapore, and into Indonesia, thence to Australia.

After that we’ll be heading to Latin America, with a short stop in the US en route… We’ll be learning Spanish in Venezuela, then working our way across to the West Coast and down to Patagonia, via Bolivia, then back up through Brazil.

I write about places, people, food, life as a family on the road, and I’m pulling together recommendations for good stuff for kids in the countries we visit.


Travels with a Nine Year Old

Z playing with a silk weaver's daughter outside Luang Prabang, Laos



WE: What was the genesis of your site?

TS: I’d always wanted to take a year out to travel with my son, particularly as I was self-employed when he was born, so never had maternity leave. It was always going to be his fourth grade year, and it was something we’d talked about a lot, but never really engaged in.


Then 2009 was the year from hell for me, and I hit the kind of turning point where it made absolute sense just to take this opportunity and actually do what I’d been dreaming about for years.


The site flowed naturally from that.


Travels with a Nine Year Old

Helping So (guide) cook in a Brao tribal minority village inside the Virachey National Park, Cambodia




WE: What are your top family travel tips?

TS: My Top Ten: 

1: Trust your children to adapt
We’ve stayed in bamboo huts, in hammocks in the jungle, in stilt shacks over a harbour, on a rattan mat on a rice farmer’s verandah, and in guesthouses of every shape and size. We’ve slept on boats, trains, planes and every type of automobile.

A lot of parents seem to think that children need a Western resort-type environment to be happy, well and safe. In my experience, that’s simply not the case.

There’s a traditional bath in S-E Asia, called a mandip, which you’ll still find in places where the water supply is erratic. Basically, this is a giant tank of water. You don’t get in, but you ladle water from it and throw it over yourself (and any family member who’s sharing your bathroom).

You can call it “no running water”. Or you can call it a bathtime waterfight. Now, how much fun is that? (It gets you clean, too.)



2: Involve children in the planning
Whether you’re planning a longer-term trip or a holiday, it’s great for kids to help choose destinations. And, once you’re there, involving them in questions such as whether to take bus, train, plane or boat, or letting them choose where to go for dinner, really, really works.



3: Have a safety plan
All the statistics show that children are many times more likely to be harmed by someone in their family or friendship circle than a stranger. But getting lost is terrifying, for both adults and children, and abductions do, sadly, happen.

Make sure kids know the name of where they’re staying and who to contact in an emergency. Our rule is the hotel owner, if you are in the hotel, a police officer or a woman with children otherwise. In places like ski resorts or beaches, where children tend to go their own way, we always set up a specific rendezvous point.

Z has my cellphone number, his grandparents’ numbers and his dad’s, and his own cellphone. He knows that in the absolute last resort he needs to ask an adult to call the British consulate.



4: Buy a decent camera
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a good camera. $100 is plenty. But, speaking from experience, they can be really hard to replace.

I’d recommend something small, light and cheap-looking, with stills and video capacity. Look for one with a manual viewfinder as well as a digital screen so that you can see what you’re shooting in the sun.



5: Get travel insurance
Comprehensive medical cover is an absolute must, wherever you’re going.



6: Zip-off trousers!
Trousers which convert into shorts are two pieces of clothing for the space of one.



7: Trust your children to make friends
My son is an only child. But children never go short of people to play with, regardless of language and cultural differences.



8: Learn a Little of the Language
Hello, please and thank you go a long, long way.



9: Don’t Sweat It
Travel should be a pleasure, not an ordeal.



10: Pens, paper, water, iron rations
Wherever you are, things can never go too badly wrong if you have pens, paper, drinking water and carbohydrates. If I had more self-discipline, we’d travel with emergency sweeties.


Travels with a Nine Year Old 

Flower found on three day trek in Virachey National Park, Cambodia



WE: You're heading into a year-long trip around the world – how does the reality differ from the planning?

TS: Well, the first thing we’ve learnt is that you will always cover much less ground than appears feasible on a map, because you need to mooch around, enjoy stuff, not be forever dashing from sight to sight. That’s why it’s no longer a year-long trip around the world!

Logistical stuff, also, always takes much longer than you think, and there’s more of it than you anticipate. Visiting the dentist, for example, means an extra day spent in whatever town you’re in.

Visa applications and visa extensions can also take aeons.

I didn’t really think a huge amount about kit, or gear. My thinking was focused on how many countries we could sensibly squeeze into a year, which we had to eliminate, &c.

We brought hiking boots, ski jackets (for mountain tops and the Andes), snorkels, sunglasses and a flashlight. My son’s Swiss Army knife disappeared at the critical packing moment.

I’ve since had to buy head torches (much easier than flashlights) and am really kicking myself for not bringing a drybag. It’s also really tough to find backpacks for kids: with the chest and waist supports and a decent capacity.

I spent a lot of time with my son going over the possible negative experiences: homesickness, tummy bugs, long delays in transportation, insect bites, having to eat vile things in the name of hospitality, etc.

But it’s worked out, so far, much better than I would have anticipated. Touch wood!


Travels with a Nine Year Old

Building a bamboo raft in Virachey National Park, Cambodia



WE:  Your son, Z  - what is his favorite part of travel?

TS: One really obvious element is how much pleasure he takes in the logistics of getting from A to B: outriggers, longtails, sampans, ferries, motorbike taxis, tricycles, jeepneys, tuk-tuks, pickups, sleeper trains, sleeper buses… You name it!

He enjoys exploring new places and getting to know different cultures and ways of life: from staying the night in a tribal village or a tiny island in the Mekong to shopping malls and luxe residential enclaves in Manila.

He adapts well to different types of etiquette, and ways of being. For example, in parts of South-East Asia it’s very rude to point your feet at someone or show the soles of your feet. He internalized that far faster than I could.

He enjoys meeting new people, experiencing different climates and nature in all its form. He’s got a scientific mind, so things like climbing volcanoes, finding flowers in the rainforest and exploring coral reefs are a real buzz.

He loves water, and he really appreciates the quality of the light in Asia. Things like sunsets, starlight and skies are clearer, brighter and more dramatic than back home in the UK, and this is something that he identifies as a real pleasure, and loves to draw.

And – excuse the gender politics, but this is such a boy thing! – he loves any historical site with heavy weaponry.


Travels with a Nine Year Old

Z on a sawngthaew in Laos (again!), about to take a ferry across the Mekong to Don Khong, one of the Four Thousand Islands.



WE:  How can families best prepare for travel?

TS: That depends very much on where you’re going, how you’re traveling and how long you’re going for.

A globe is a fantastic way to communicate where you’re going. Read guidebooks, talk about them, and pick out a few things that sound good, and a few things you really have to do. Itineraries can be very restricting.

The younger children start to travel, the easier it is all round. My son got his first passport at five months old. He’d traveled to fifteen countries, on five continents, before we set out on this trip.

If you’re going to be spending time in nature, or underwater, then some sort of field identification guide really helps put names to the wonderful things you see.

When it comes to history and culture, I think it’s useful for children to have a handle on different religions, and their stories, and the basics of a nation’s history.

I think it’s really worthwhile as a parent to read up on the history of places you visit so that you can answer questions and contextualize things you see.

For a longer term trip, where you’re traveling with what you can carry on your back, I think the key thing is paring down possessions. Which teddies and stuffed toys can come? Which can go to charity? Which should go to friends? Which need to stay with Granny and Grandpa for a while?



WE:  How do you suggest families give back, while traveling?

TS: This is a tough question, and one I’ve been grappling with. There are all the obvious sustainable tourism rules: stay with local-owned businesses, eat at local-owned places, trek with local guides and generally return money to the local economy where you can.

There are also smaller things you can do, such as taking pens and paper to rural villages to give to the kids – Big Brother Mouse, in Laos, publishes children’s books in Lao and English which make great gifts for children in villages and for children at home.

For families, in particular, I think street beggars, who often have babies in tow – adults and children are sometimes deliberately mutilated to increase their value in very poor countries – are particularly challenging. Open packages of food or drink provide sustenance but cannot be resold, so make a good donation.

The formal volunteering set up is not tailored to families with kids, but I’d like to find a literacy project we can work with locally. I think that’s an area where an urban, Western nine-year-old child might contribute in a meaningful way.



WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

TS: I asked my son to answer this. He says:

“Just be observant. Often people will pretend they are out of cheap hotel rooms.”

“Only use the most up-to-date guidebook recommendations. The best recommendations are ones from people you know.”

“Always look at rooms. You can’t trust a book by its cover.”

“Also, listen to kids' instincts. I had a weird feeling in my fingers and, lo and behold, we found the wrong cinema.”

“And bewaaaare of shady chaps.”

You can find more pearls of Zac's wisdom at his blog:


Travels with a Nine Year Old


WE: Thanks so very much, Theodora and Z! Your journey - and the sharing of it - are inspiring!

For more information, please see (note the new name!):


All photos courtesy and copyright Theodora Sutcliffe.