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Family holiday... without the whole family

One-to-one parent-child travel is on the rise and a great opportunity to bond, say parents and kids

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Clara Lock on 05 Aug 2018

The Straits Times

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Photographer and film-maker Stefen Chow, 38, calls himself a "jaded traveller".

 

He takes about 100 flights a year and has visited more than 50 countries. "I lose the curiosity to travel sometimes because I travel so much for work," says the father of two.

 

Travelling with his daughter Chow Jiahan, five, helps him rekindle that sense of wonder.

 

On their first father-daughter trip to Taiwan in 2015, Jiahan's fascination with the texture of the sand on a Hualien beach made him take note of it too.

 

"As an adult, you would not notice these things. You might just step on it and go on," says Chow, who has gone on five father-daughter trips with Jiahan and one father-son trip with two-year-old Chow Jiehan.

 

He is among a small but growing number of parents going on one-to-one trips with their kids - even if that means leaving a spouse and other children at home.

 

Where family holidays used to mean entire families travelling together, travel agents say they are seeing more requests for solo parent-child travel.

 

Agencies such as Chan Brothers, Dynasty Travel and Scott Dunn say there has been an uptick in such requests, with Chan Brothers marketing communications executive Justine Koh adding that such trips have been "trending in recent years".

 

And most note that these solo parent-child trips are not just family trips with fewer people.

 

For one thing, such travellers do not go as far or stay as long.

 

Dynasty Travel's director of public relations and communications, Ms Alicia Seah, observes that when parents go abroad with just one child, they prefer destinations within a three-to seven-hour flight and usually travel for less than seven days.

 

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are popular choices as customers find these places clean, safe and affordable.

 

In comparison, family holidays tend to be "not so compact" and customers venture further afield to destinations such as the United States, South Africa and Europe.

 

The main attraction of such trips, parents say, is less about the sight-seeing and more about the opportunity to really bond with one child.

 

Housewife Bonnie Chong, 45, who took her youngest daughter Cyanne on a five-day package tour to Hong Kong in June, says: "The difference is that she has more attention from me. It makes her feel more secure. She would not feel like the two other siblings constantly require my time."

 

She adds that travelling with Cyanne is fun and different from travelling with her older children, aged 13 and 15, who "prefer to be on their mobile phones or play games".

 

While solo parent-child travelling is rewarding, it comes with its set of challenges. Illness, fights and homesickness are par for the course, say parents.

 

"You have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Without your spouse there, everything has to be done by you," says businessman Lennie Chua, 40, whose nine-year-old daughter caught the flu and a fever during a 10-day volunteering trip to Yangon in 2012.

 

On Chow's seven-day trip to Kuching, Malaysia, last year with his son, the toddler cried eight times in two days.

 

"He was insecure about his surroundings, had difficulty interacting with strangers and was more shy than he was back home. At times, I wondered if this trip was worth it, if he was too young or if I should cut the trip short. I'm human after all, my patience is finite," says Chow.

 

In the end, however, he encouraged Jiehan to be positive and open to new experiences.

 

Chow also realised that while his son was less chatty with the locals, he enjoyed looking at animals.

 

With just the two of them, it was easy to be flexible with the itinerary. So they spent two days wandering around a kampung looking for cats. When Jiehan eventually plucked up the courage to pet one, it was a victory for both of them.

 

Chow says: "What's special about the trip is really the process. All these little things become very memorable at the end of it."

 

LETTING A TODDLER LEAD THE TOUR

 

On the first night of their first father-daughter trip to Taiwan, Stefen Chow let his then 21/2-year-old daughter plan the itinerary.

 

The photographer and film-maker suggested a few options - Hualien along the coast, Jiufen to climb a mountain or Kaohsiung and Tainan in the south of Taiwan. Chow Jiahan, who was fascinated by the idea of the sea, picked Hualien, so that was where they went in 2015.

 

When the 38-year-old holidays alone with his son, two, or daughter, now five, that is how he likes to travel.

 

He deliberately avoids booking accommodation in advance and prefers to leave the itinerary fluid so his kids can weigh in too.

 

"She could see how her opinion matters and not just follow me blindly. I see no reason why you cannot inculcate this in a child's mind," he says.

 

He adds that his children tend to be closer to their mum. He is married to Ms Lin Huiyi, 38, director of market research for a multinational company in Beijing.

 

Chow's first trip with his daughter was "a test I was giving myself, whether I could also give my toddler a meaningful experience".

 

During that trip, they cycled along the east coast of Taiwan, saw baby animals at a farm, visited fishing boats and ate street food. He also changed Jiahan's diapers and bathed and fed her.

 

"She saw that I was sufficient in giving her safety and guidance and certainly a lot of fun," he says.

 

The father-daughter duo have since visited Thailand and Japan as well as made another trip to Taiwan, visiting Kaohsiung and Tainan this time. Now, he says, they feel like "old travelling partners".

 

While his Facebook posts about their trips have garnered a lot of public support, he maintains that what he does is nothing special.

 

He says: "My wife often brings one or both kids on a flight by herself. People tend to see that as very normal, and yet when a dad does that, it becomes amazing."

 

TAKING TURNS TO ACCOMMODATE EACH OTHER

 

If not for the fact that she was travelling with only her 13-year-old daughter, Ms Glenice Toh would never have gotten on a roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan last year.

 

Similarly, if Kymberly Tay was on a normal family holiday with her parents and brothers, she would never have agreed to dress up in a kimono - something her 44-year-old mother, a real estate agent, really wanted to do.

 

"I have only one daughter and if I come here with my sons, I can't do some of the girly stuff like what I did with Kymberly," says Ms Toh.

 

With no other family members to sway decisions, mother and daughter say they took turns to accommodate each other's preferences.

 

"We had a good time bonding through our shared experiences," says Kymberly.

 

Ms Toh planned the trip after her daughter's Primary School Leaving Examination last year as a reward for "an intensive six years of primary school".

 

Her husband, a 48-year-old director of an IT company, took their two sons, aged 10 and eight, on a separate trip to Thailand with a group of friends.

 

Ms Toh says she wanted a chance to spend one-on-one time with her eldest child and get to know her better before she became a teenager.

 

During the trip, she talked to Kymberly about what to expect during her adolescent years - including puberty, modesty and the transition to secondary school. She also reminded Kymberly that "we love her for who she is, not how she fares in her results".

 

While Ms Toh planned the bulk of the 11-day itinerary, Kymberly surprised her with a few good suggestions, including a visit to an instant ramen factory and the Meiji No Mori Mino Quasi-National Park - places she would not have thought of on her own.

 

As they navigated the busy streets and subway stations in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe, Ms Toh also learnt that her daughter was tougher than she had expected.

 

"She could carry luggage and walk long distances to our Airbnb apartments. She's resilient - not so xiaojie," says Ms Toh, using the Chinese term loosely translated as a fragile young woman.

 

FIGHT ON A TRIP? GET OVER IT QUICK

 

Parent-child holidays are chances for bonding, but spending so much time in close proximity can also be a hotbed for disagreements.

 

That was certainly true for Ms A. Yagnya and her mother Geetha Ananth during a trip to Japan in 2016.

 

"We are very open with our emotions, very Bollywood," says Ms Yagnya, 28, a freelance theatre director.

 

And though the argument was fierce, she adds that travelling together forced them to calm down faster as neither of them wanted to spoil the trip.

 

"In Singapore, we'd have had a bit of drama on our hands. Angry words, some crying, the whole package," she says.

 

"You don't want to wake up tomorrow with an argument on your mind and go to the (Arashiyama) bamboo forest angry," adds Ms Yagnya, who made an effort to communicate her feelings "without being hurtful about it".

 

So the duo made amends - and the next day, at the bamboo grove in Kyoto, there were tears of a different kind.

 

"I couldn't control my tears at Arashiyama, at Nara, at Mount Koya. I felt so proud that my daughter is able to speak Japanese, plan the transport and find vegetarian food for me," says Mrs Geetha, 53, a housewife.

 

She made the trip in 2016 to visit her daughter in Japan while Ms Yagnya was teaching English in Toyama, a coastal city in the Honshu region.

 

They then took a seven-day trip through Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama and Hyogo.

 

Ms Yagnya's 58-year-old father, a credit risk manager who is based in Hong Kong, could not join them as he did not have enough days of leave. Her 24-year-old brother, an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, was in the middle of his school term.

 

Even now, Mrs Geetha still tears up when she thinks about the trip.

 

Ms Yagnya says: "It's a special memory that my mum can hold on to. She still talks about it till this day."

 

TAKING MUM OR DAD ON A TRIP

 

As more parents take their young children on one-to-one trips, grown-up children are doing the same with their parents.

 

Many of them plan and pay for these trips as a chance to thank their parents for years of care and sacrifice.

 

Ms Chua Yan Yu, 28, has gone on three mother-daughter trips since 2014. The duo have visited Hong Kong, Seoul and Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, China, together.

 

"My mother worked very hard to bring us up, so it's time for her to enjoy," says the former civil servant, who is between jobs.

 

Her motherAng Gek Eng, 68, works part time as a janitor.

 

Ms Chua, whose father died from an accident at work in 2011, recalls how life was tough for her mother during that period.

 

On top of losing her husband, Madam Ang had to manage the household finances by herself as her three children were still in school.

 

"It's something I appreciate a lot more now that I'm older. This is a chance for me to repay her in a small way," says Ms Chua.

 

Although the family could afford to travel once she and her elder brother entered the workforce, it was difficult to coordinate everyone's schedules. So the two older children take turns to take their mother overseas.

 

Their younger brother is still in university.

 

Ms Chua, who spent five months on a student exchange programme at Shanghai's Fudan University as an undergraduate, says: "I'm very lucky to have had the chance to travel, but if we don't plan anything for our mum, she will just continue with her day-to-day life."

 

When it comes to the itinerary, children usually plan it around their parent's preferences. Through the process, they come to understand their parents better.

 

Ms Chrys Ng, 27, a former part-time teacher at tertiary institutions who is between jobs, travels about once a year with each parent.

 

She says: "It's nice to get to know each of them as a person, more than as just my mother or father. Even if it's learning about a very simple preference of theirs, like which mango pudding stall is their favourite in Bangkok."

 

Such trips can also be an opportunity to break long-held traditions.

 

For as long as freelance theatre director A. Yagnya, 28, can remember, her family has taken a mini rice cooker with them on holidays.

 

Her father is most comfortable eating Indian food, so her mother takes idli, thosai and packs of semolina flour to make upma, a South Indian dish.

 

But on a mother-daughter trip in Japan in 2016, Ms Yagnya told her mother to leave the rice cooker at home.

 

"I told my mum she was not cooking on this trip. We were going to eat out, which is what you're supposed to do on holiday."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.