THE FAILED BUS JOURNEY FROM JAMES BOND ISLAND
We bussed five and a half hours from Singapore to KL and four more from Hat Yai to Krabi without trouble. The ride that unhinged us took only an hour. What would you have done differently?
I would advise, for a start, not telling the travel agent at Kata Beach exactly what you're looking for, or in other words making it incredibly easy for her to lie for a quick sale.
She said we'd be picked up at 8:30 in the morning (actually 7am); that the transfer to the pier would take fifteen to twenty minutes (a little over an hour); that the boat ride from the pier to the island was a similar length (ditto); and that the swim after lunch - the one bit of active play which would allow the kids to kick off all the energy they'd have to control for the rest of the day - would be a solid hour or maybe more (we got about twenty minutes in total, of which our kids used much less, on account of one staff member's helpful response to P's routine enquiry about jellyfish).
Seriously, what is it with people?
Admittedly, she didn't lie to me about the deafening on-board party music consisting mostly of swear words - because I didn't ask about that. I naively assumed we'd be listening to the soothing song of a diesel engine laboriously churning the water.
The point is our trip to "James Bond Island" in Phang Nga Bay was a lot less child-friendly than we'd been led to believe.
Skip to my review on Trip Advisor for the short version where I don't ask for your advice on how to handle awkward and frustrating situations with strangers.
Here's how it went down.
It was quarter past five in the afternoon - forty-five minutes later than the woman had told us we'd be safely back at our hotel, and a challenging time of day for young kids under the best circumstances - on a day which, between the early starts, loud music, prolonged proximity to strangers, a lost favourite-ever shoe, and an almost total lack of exercise, could not easily be categorised under "best circumstances".
Somehow, we with the two young children had not managed to beat the group of twenty-something backpackers down the pier to the bus, and now we stood at its door looking awkwardly at the way they'd spread themselves around leaving only a smattering of isolated seats. We figured they'd move around if we waited patiently enough. It's what would happen in Singapore, where the teenagers will jump out of their seats on the MRT when I approach with my six-year-old, even though that is, frankly, ridiculous.
The pause lengthened. There was some awkward mumbling between Æ and the driver, after which one young man got out and transferred to the front so one of us could at least be in the same general area as our children, if not actually next to either. And that was that. We strapped them in and I took the rear-most seat in order to keep a watch from behind, while Æ rode shotgun. It seemed like the best we could do.
So of course the first thing that happened was T dropped her toy on the floor and started whimpering for it.
"What's up, my dear?" I asked, leaning forwards as far as I could.
"I've dropped my toy!" she wailed.
"Oh no. Well I can't really reach it from here..." I glanced at the guy sitting next to her but he was staring straight ahead, lost in his own world. "You might have to hold on til we get back to the hotel. Don't worry," I added soothingly, "it's not going anywhere and we won't leave without it. Why don't we sing a song? C'mon! Which song shall we sing?!"
But she didn't launch into song. Instead, she reiterated her point about the toy having fallen down and I had to have the same conversation again. And then again. By the fourth time around there was an edge to both our voices, as if things were on their way south, and I was starting to wonder how much time I'd spend unstrapping and crawling around the bus over the course of the next hour and how many future arguments it'd cost me about wearing seat belts if I went down the path of moving forward to retrieve the toy myself when a small miracle occurred: big brother P came swooping to the rescue, turning in his seat and distracting his little sister with a silly noise and a funny face. She forgot about the toy and started giggling instead.
I didn't breathe too big a sigh of relief, though: one crisis had been averted but it wasn't what you'd call a controlled situation, and sure enough, the volume levels rose quickly. But when I caught P's eye and gave him the pipe-down signal, he paused and tensed, and I realised I had a tough decision to make.
It was late afternoon. The kids were overtired, frazzled, under-exercised, out of their familiar environment, anxious about having to sit next to strangers, getting hungry, and thoroughly sick of having their tethers yanked all day. And they were giggling - a little loudly, yes, but essentially just giggling. It was the kind of noise I've stomped on in public trains and buses, but which wouldn't bother me as a driver of a private vehicle carrying nobody but our family.
I weighed my options. They were almost certain to settle down in about ten or fifteen minutes. That is, if I didn't escalate matters by screeching ineffectively at them from the rear of the bus, thus pitting them against me in a battle of wills for which I had, from my current position, very few weapons.
So I decided on a tactical retreat - a sort of ceasefire - which I signalled by tempering my body language a little, in response to which P relaxed and made a new funny face and weird noise. But he kept half an eye on me. As they got louder, I leaned forward, and he checked himself slightly, at which I leaned back. Thus we went for five minutes or so. I thought it was a workable truce under the circumstances. Of course, not everybody agreed.
After five minutes a young woman asked them, in an exasperated tone, to lower their voices. I took the opportunity to lean forward and tap her travelling companion on the shoulder. (You remember him - he was the one in the seat next to T, the one who could have retrieved her dropped toy, but didn't.)
"Would you like to swap places so I can take care of them?" I asked. He looked away huffily without replying, and the woman turned to speak to me.
"They're too loud for this enclosed space," she said.
So I tried again, but testily this time. "Do you want to swap seats so I can look after them?" I asked her.
"No! I don't!" she replied. "I just want them to be quiet!"
"Well I can't do much about that from back here," I said bluntly.
"You could ask them to stop!"
Because that's obviously how it works. You can give an overtired, frazzled and hungry kindergarten child a verbal instruction from several rows away in a moving bus that they know full well you're not in control of and they will obey. They won't at all think, "Oh! this is a more interesting way to vent my whole day's frustrations and alleviate my boredom than any of my currently-available options! What's she going to do, anyway (within the next hour, that is)?" Nor will they completely unthinkingly throw a total strop regardless of consequences because their self-control is fading in and out; hanging tenuously; easily severed and in need of constant, hands-on repair - which is why you have to be there. As in right there.
I got through my first sentence of explanation before the male half of the duo started talking to me about showing respect and consideration for others, which struck me as odd because that was actually kind of my point, and the whole thing might have blown into an argument if the second miracle hadn't occurred.
P's self-control faded back in. Loudly and clearly, he called back to me: "Mum! Why don't we use your list of fifty ways to keep kids quietly entertained in the car?"
I mentally awarded him an ice-cream. "I'd love to, P," I called back, "but this is what I'm trying to explain. There're a lot of things I could do, but not while we're all scattered about the bus like this."
"What?" he yelled, as if to underline my point. Icecream with chocolate, I thought, and took my volume up a notch.
Love your work, kids.
"I SAID YOU'RE TOO FAR AWAY!"
"OH!" he shouted back. "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CD GAME? I'LL HUM A TUNE AND YOU GUESS IT. READY?"
And that was it - I just had to laugh. All these adults, and the only one helping out was the six year old. He didn't know enough to understand that a hum wouldn't travel where a raised voice couldn't reach, yet he was adding more than a busload of young men and women four or more times his age, most of whom probably had university degrees.
"OH, P," I called back, "I JUST CAN'T HEAR YOUR HUMMING."
"I'LL SING MORE LOUDLY THEN. DA DA DA DA DA DA DAAA!"
"IT'S SPACE ODDITY BY DAVID BOWIE, P, BUT I DON'T THINK IT'S MUCH QUIETER THAN WHAT YOU GUYS WERE DOING BEFORE."
"THAT'S NOT LOUD!" And I don't know what's shoutier than caps lock, but he started singing in it to prove his point, and of course T had to join him and now it wasn't I-could-ignore-this giggling but unbearably-loud grunting, and I was busy retracting my unarticulated promise of chocolate and wondering how I could reel them back from this mess when Æ, sitting in the front seat, turned and used his booming Dad Voice.
"BOTH OF YOU NEED TO PIPE DOWN. THINK OF SOMETHING QUIET TO DO." And then we both thought, oh dear, that's torn it, and we waited tensely for the whole world to fall apart.
Six year olds are tricky creatures - they're smart. Calculating, sometimes. Chastened, embarrassed, and thoroughly fed up, P's mood turned in a heartbeat and he started computing his revenge. To the casual observer it might have looked, at first, as if Æ's instruction had worked, but all I saw from the back seat was air thickening and wheels turning. "Quiet eh?" he was thinking. "I'll show you quiet..."
"Let's have a singalong!" I suggested brightly, and also desperately. But in the aftermath of the Space Oddity disaster, both kids were even less willing to sing than they had been the first five times I'd suggested it. "Heads And Shoulders, anyone?" I started performing it like an idiot, but nobody joined in. "Not that one? How about If You're Happy And You Know It?"
"P's pointing at me!" T said suddenly.
"Yes, well he shouldn't be doing that, but please ignore him, he only wants your reaction. C'mon, let's sing Happy And You Know It instead." But she didn't - she lunged forward, waving her arms and screeching.
"T tried to hit me!" said P, triumphantly, from approximately half a metre beyond the fullest extent of her reach.
"You both need to cut it out. Now. Sing. With. Me."
"No! P's pointing again!" T wailed, and I thought, oh yes, thanks a lot everybody, this is much better than loud giggling, and T started growling and banging her fists together and kicking the back of the seat in front, and I thought, fantastic, she's going to blow, what can I do? What can I do quickly?
So I did that thing that's going to cost me an argument every time we take a car for the indefinite future. I unstrapped myself in the moving vehicle and scooted forward, wedging in beside Mr Consideration And Respect (who remained safely strapped and totally inert), so I could place one hand on T's shoulder and cup her cheek in the other, turning her face towards me. And as P pointed (the wavy point now - twice as deadly) and levied loud accusations and calls for justice I whispered to her, "T: I guessed P's song before - now it's your turn to sing. What do you want to sing?"
"I DON'T WANT TO SING!" she screeched.
"What about that one from Frozen - I think that's your favourite, isn't it? How does it start?"
"HE'S STILL POINTING AT ME!"
"But look at me, T, look at me." I turned her face gently again and shielded her eyes, using my hands as blinkers. "The snow glows.. the snow glows... what is it?" "The snow glows white on the mountain tonight STOP POINTING P! HE'S POINTING!"
"Look at me, T, that's it," I turned her head a little further and sung softly, bent down to her level, eyes locked. "The snow glows white on the mountain tonight... What's the next line?" She was listening. "The snow glows white on the mountain tonight... "
"Not a footprint to be seen..." She was singing now, too - progress. But her eyes flicked backed again towards her brother.
"Look here and sing, T. Not a footprint to be seen...?" I stroked her hair and grinned encouragingly.
"A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I'm the queen." She paused for a moment, her face expressing the anguish of a deep abandonment, so I popped an imaginary crown on her head, and she smiled.
"What's the next line?"
With a great deal more gusto, she continued: "The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside..."
And we'd turned it - P stopped fighting, and you have to close your eyes now and imagine the two of them looking at each other across the seats, clasping their hands theatrically to their chests like twin Elsas, and singing the next line together, lingering plaintively on the last note:
They crescendoed together towards the chorus - giving it the full super-caps-lock treatment in all its glory. And me - I scuttled to my seat, despositing T's dropped toy on her lap as I went, and sat back to listen.
It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small. Only a few kilometres after they finished their duet we arrived at our first drop-off point, and I was able to swap the seats around so we could sit next to each other. And once we were sitting together, everyone got on just fine - just as we'd managed on our five-and-a-half-hour bus trip from Singapore to KL, and our four-hour trip from Hat Yai to Krabi.
Lessons To Learn
It would have been better if I'd explained at the outset that kindergarteners don't usually go well if seated next to strangers on a bus for an hour straight, especially at five or six in the evening after an unexpectedly long and intense day, when we'd completely run out of food on account of breakfast being much shorter and everything else being much longer than we'd originally been told when we'd specifically asked for a detailed account of timings - and especially if those strangers they're sitting next to have no desire whatsoever to interact with the children, such as (for example) by fishing a dropped toy off the floor.
The only trouble is - and here's where you come in - I really need a script for that conversation, so I don't say the first sarcastic thing that pops into my head after a whole day of working intensely to keep two young children in check on a crowded boat booming with party music.
So how would you put it if you rocked up to find that a busload of people you'd been travelling with all day and were (not to belabour the point) therefore well aware that you had young children along had seated themselves so your young children were forced to sit alone for a whole hour?
What (exactly) do you think I should have said? What would you have done differently?