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Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.
You know the June holidays are here when your Facebook feed is inundated with pictures of friends holidaying overseas. How envious I feel when I see my friends’ kids licking ice-cream in Hokkaido, strolling on cobblestone streets in Spain, journeying in the wilderness of Scandinavia, feeding emus in Australia or basking in sunny California.
Such is the danger of social media that men as old as me might fall into its trap of envy and start to keep up with the Joneses. I count myself lucky not to play this game because financial circumstances dictate that I do not have the means to take my family on long holidays to Europe or the Americas.
Even though I have to be careful with money, that does not mean my family should be denied a fun and relaxing holiday. From excursions within Singapore, staycations or regional trips, we just have to be wiser and work within our budget.
Our family travel was restricted to just Melbourne, and that was a work trip which my wife and daughter tagged along on. It was fun for the parents because it was some sort of getaway to a temperate country and provided an excuse for us to wrap our then-6-month-old in thick and cute warm clothing. However, we soon realised that we could have attained the same level of happiness anywhere, as long as the family is intact and together.
We resumed our travels more extensively after the second child was born. When I said "extensively", I meant we travelled more frequently but always focused on Southeast Asia.
We went to Kota Kinabalu to savour the seafood and cool, fresh air. In Kuching, we shared river taxis with locals and rode speedboats to a national park to see wild proboscis monkeys and free-roaming bearded pigs. Punctuating the two Borneo adventures was a winter trekking trip in Sapa, where I nearly slipped and rolled down a steep mountain with our then-two-year-old boy on my back.
Undeterred, we continued to challenge the mountains by peering into the crater of Mount Bromo, soaking in sulphuric volcanic mud in Bandung, and trekking through the jungle in Bukit Lawang to meet semi-wild orangutans.
We also witnessed the splendour of Angkor Wat and the ingenuity of the Cu Chi tunnels dug by the Vietnamese soldiers. We bathed elephants in Kanchanaburi and marvelled at large sunflower fields in Khao Yai.
The furthest my family has been to is Hong Kong and Taiwan; the former for her Disneyland theme park and the latter for her less visited eastern coast, which I laud as a poor man's Hokkaido in summer (in a complimentary way).
Then there were the many short road trips to my birth country, Malaysia. Beside the perennial favourites Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, we had boarded the train to Temerloh in Pahang, sampled good food and slow life in Ipoh and Taiping. As I am typing this, my daughter is in a hammock reading a book while my son is playing with sand, on a small island off Pulau Langkawi.
It sounds like a lot of overseas trips, but they were all done on a shoe-string budget. Fun can come in different forms, and at different budgets. It can also happen anywhere. To a child, fun goes beyond ranking based on the amount of money spent.
I see it as my personal mission to make sure my kids are not pampered with luxuries. The “hardship” holidays have trained them to make do with basic amenities, and there were a few times they even had to placate their rather “traumatised” mother. They have learned to enjoy itinerary-free holidays and we can dump them anywhere and they can entertain themselves.
They have learned to enjoy the simple pleasures – blowing gigantic bubbles at a playground next to Taiping Lake; playing table tennis with cousins at a cottage in Malang; soaking in icy rivers in the Sumatran jungle.
If parents have to constantly plan "exciting" activities to do with their children, then the holidays might be saddled with so much stress and expectations that any popping of balloons may result in major disappointments.
I have no doubt as they grow older, they will be asking for more exotic locations. Lately, the elder one has indicated her preference for somewhere with snow. My reply to her? “Your father only got to see snow for the first time when he was 20. You have nine more years to go.” By delaying her gratification, I think the kids can be kept hungry and motivated. My job as a father is not to satisfy all their wishes. My job is to train them such that they are better equipped to make their own dreams come true after they grow up.
Today, my kids naturally cannot remember every single trip. In fact, they can only remember the darnest details; they still laugh at the mention of my being dragged away from the shore by strong currents on a Phuket beach. I do not want to sound like sour grapes by stating that it may be a waste of money to go on big-ticket trips with young kids because they may not remember much. But I have to stress that everyone can do whatever makes them happy.
Studies have shown that we are happier when we go for shorter but more frequent holidays, as compared to one or two major ones. Personally, I can attest to this because as a child, I always looked forward to our yearly drive to Desaru and the waterfalls. Even though they were not particularly spectacular, the experience was pleasant and stuck with me.
I will not have any property worthy to bequeath my children, but I hope I can leave behind some heartwarming childhood memories for them. They need not cost a lot. In fact, they will be priceless.
KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.