As a teenager driven by wanderlust, Laura Pauley spent months backpacking around the Australian outback.
She’d always had a yearning for travel and adventure, to discover new cultures, foods and people.
Becoming a single mum didn’t stop her. After years of scrimping and saving, Laura and her five-year-old daughter Summer set off around Asia for an experience neither of them will ever forget.
They worked with mistreated elephants and bears, in orphanages, trekked through jungles, lived with locals and found themselves lost in terrifying slums.
But Laura, who works for Portsmouth Hospitals Trust, wouldn’t change a thing. She has published a book about their adventure, My Asian Summer. And here the 33-year-old, who now has three children, explains her motivation.
‘The whole reason for me taking Summer to Asia was to help her realise how lucky she is and how other people can live in such awful conditions.
‘We had some incredible experiences but from it all she has gained real empathy.
‘And it most definitely brought us closer together, as we both learnt a lot about each other’.
At times the trip – where one journey took an eye-watering 27 hours by land, sea and air –was gruelling.
There was a run-in with a fake tour guide, a dodgy tuk-tuk driver and Summer’s hysterical reaction to having to take malaria tablets – in a silent Buddhist retreat.
But there were also moments very rarely experienced by other people, such as a stay at an elephant conservation centre.
‘We learnt how to bath the elephants, we watched the doctor help a baby elephant, we made the elephants meals and we fed them,’ says Laura.
‘Most importantly, we learnt about the mistreatment of elephants, beaten into performing in circuses and carrying humans on their backs. It is a lesson that, four years on, Summer and I still talk about now.’
For a lot of the trip Laura and Summer stayed off the beaten track with local families who could not speak English.
They experienced first-hand the incredible generosity of people who had little themselves. Laura didn’t shy away from allowing Summer to see the brutal reality of true poverty.
‘There was a young child, around eight, who lived on a train station step with her dog in Bangkok,’ says Laura. ‘From the moment of discovery we would take her evening meals and treats. On our last day in Bangkok, armed with a KFC children’s meal, the girl vanished despite being at her usual spot 10 minutes before.
‘Summer was absolutely devastated. Still to this day we talk about “the little girl who lived at the station with her dog” and wonder where she vanished too, and that we hope she is safe.’
Summer, with her fair hair and skin, was a like a mini celebrity and local people in Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand scrabbled to have their picture taken with her sometimes having to form a queue.
And the language barrier didn’t stand in the way of Summer making friends.
She says: ‘I always remember staying in a tree house and making friends with a little girl. She didn’t speak English but she always made me laugh. We used to push each other in the hammocks, play hide and seek around the tree house and tickle each other.
‘I loved meeting the elephants and making their food, washing them and cheering them up because of their hard life. I loved working with our guide, Apple, telling the group what to do and handing out the food to feed to the elephants or the buckets to wash the elephants with.
‘I also liked giving the children in the schools presents we had fundraised for.
‘And I gave some of my own stuff away, like my skates. It was funny because she didn’t know what the skates were and she just looked at us like we were crazy.’
After returning from Asia Laura fell in love with family friend, Chris, a down-to-earth farmer. Together they have had two more children, Casey, three, and Cooper, two.
Does Laura have any regrets about the Asian trip?
‘Not at all. It is those memories that I hope will keep Summer grounded and thankful for the westernised life that she has.’
My Asian Summer is available on Amazon.
The book launch is at Lavant Memorial Hall, West Sussex, on Saturday, September 15, from 1pm.