Monday, 20 April 2015

Sweating In Siem Reap (Cambodia With Children)

'It's absolutely a possibility', beamed our charming host, Justin (who in actual fact bore a remarkable resemblance to a Cambodian Justin Bieber).

He was replying to my slightly embarrassed enquiry about whether the hotel could prepare our baby a vegetarian, allergy-friendly packed breakfast.  'Absolutely' and 'possibility' were words we heard a lot during our stay in Siem Reap.  I had the distinct suspicion that if I had asked our hotel staff to move our bed to the ceiling so that I could sleep upside down, someone would have been on it.

But it wasn't just inside the confines of our lovely hotel that congeniality reined supreme. Admittedly I've only spent four days in Cambodia and not seen beyond Angkor, but I'm pretty sure that if countries had catch phrases, Cambodia's would be 'can do'.

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My husband and I took Little Miss for three days to Siem Reap in March.  My ever obliging in-laws, who were staying with us at the time, offered to stay in KL with Master Five so that we could travel with our more portable child to one of the most adventurous destinations on our SE Asia Bucket List.  We stayed at the Golden Temple Residence, a new and flawless boutique hotel.

Like many tourists our main reason for travelling to Siem Reap was to explore the mind-blowing ancient temples of Angkor.  We also wanted to see for ourselves the beautiful spirit we have heard so many talk of, in a country whose war wounds are only just now healing.

We spent our first afternoon and evening strolling around Siem Reap town itself.  We made a beeline for the much-lauded Artisans d'Angkor.  Here we were taken on a free guided tour around a collective of workshops where we watched artists showcase traditional Khmer crafts including stone carving, silk weaving and lacquer work.  The organisation prides itself on providing education, a fair wage and employment opportunities for those with disabilities.  Older children will find it fascinating.  Little ones will be content to run around in the shade chasing butterflies.  Little Miss was welcomed with open arms, as she was all over the town.

We followed up with a delicious meal of Cambodian curry.  There are too many good restaurants to mention in Siem Reap.  We visited a few based on word of mouth, but were just as happy stumbling across others.  A word of caution though - I don't know about you, but dinner spent chasing a new walker out from underneath the feet of fellow diners isn't my idea of a good night out.  As with much of SE Asia, few restaurants have highchairs in Siem Reap.  We brought along a foldable booster seat.  It saved us a lot of grief.  Of course, there is always the chance that a friendly waitress will spot your dilemma and hold your tot for you while you eat.  This is also not uncommon in the region - and very much appreciated!

The following morning we visited the War Museum, a short tuk tuk trip out of the centre of town.  This was a sobering, but very worthwhile experience.  The museum is outdoors (plan to go early or late in the day to avoid the scorching sun), displaying remnants of artillery and vehicles used during civil war.  There are little huts housing vivid photos and accounts of the human implications of war.  But it is the guides' very personal retelling of harrowing years spent under the Pol Pot regime that really leaves a mark.  I was brought to tears listening to our guide's story of the day he was orphaned.  Little Miss was far too young to understand or absorb what we saw and heard and was happy to rest in the baby carrier as we walked around.  However, if you have older children you may wish to skip this.  We wouldn't have felt right exposing Mister Five to such things.

Lunch time calls for a siesta in Siem Reap.  Refreshed after a few hours in air conditioning we headed out to meet our guide for the rest of our stay in Cambodia.  On the recommendation of several friends who've also taken children to Siem Reap, we hired a guide with an air conditioned car.  Compared to the many tourists heading to Angkor on a tuk tuk or bicycle, we perhaps looked like a pair of uncool non-hipsters, but we took comfort in the fact that Little Miss was protected from the heat and the dust, both of which could have been overwhelming for a small person.  And we had at our disposal a very knowledgable and friendly guide who was able to pinpoint the best route and timings to keep us all comfortable.  It was reassuring to hear that our guide had a baby too though ever so slightly disconcerting when he told us she'd kept him up for most of the previous night...


On our guide's advice our first and only stop that afternoon was to the Bayon, inside the ruins of the city of Angkor Thom.  Almost one thousand years old, this monolith features clusters of eroded towers, all carved with huge faces.  In the late afternoon light, the serene eyes stared down at us as we meandered through the maze.  We stopped at some of the reliefs carved into the surrounding walls and listened to stories of the ancient civilisation depicted therein.  It's a cliche but I felt breathless (and not from the heat).  Little Miss was somewhat less impressed and slept throughout, happily strapped to my chest.

That evening we took a walk amongst some of the night markets in Siem Reap.  They are surprisingly gaudy, neon affairs and a rude shock after the refined elegance of the Bayon.  We struggled to find anything we hadn't seen in countless other markets in countless other cities in Asia.  We gave up on shopping and once Little Miss had nodded off, headed off for a street-side foot massage instead.  A much better use of our time!

The following morning we did the tourist thing and woke at five so that we could enjoy more temples before the day's heat became too menacing.  Our clever guide had masterminded an itinerary that saw us neatly sidestep all of the thousands of tour buses that descend upon Angkor at (apparently) predictable intervals.  Instead of catching the famous Angkor Wat at sunrise, we headed first to the very mysterious Ta Prohm.  Famous thanks to Angelina Jolie and her Tomb Raiding, we beat all the crowds and wandered around this evocative site as if we were the first people to discover it.  Birds sang overhead as the sun began to filter through the beautiful old trees surrounding, and growing within, the ruins.  Our guide told us that in an hour's time there would be no bird song, just the dull roar of thousands of tour bus visitors.

We left before anyone else came to share the moment, and drove on to Angkor Wat as the sunrise busloads were leaving and heading off for breakfast.  Again, we had the place to ourselves.  Angkor Wat was the only site that may have been difficult had Mister Five joined us.  So vast is this beautifully preserved ancient temple that our legs ached by the time we had walked halfway around (though the small person strapped to me may have had something to do with that too).  Again we marvelled at the intricate reliefs, the towers, the ancient sandstone that has stood the test of time in a way that's almost unfathomable.  As we walked towards the centre, steps became narrower and the ground more rutted.  In fact, children are not allowed to climb to the third level because the flight of steps leading up is considered too dangerous.  Much as I wanted to see the view from the top, it was a blissful relief to sit below with Little Miss while my hardier husband made the pilgrimage.


We made the decision to end our temple visiting at that point.  Those without little people to factor in may well choose to visit more of the many, many astounding ruins in Angkor.  For us though, it was enough.  We had seen the three major attractions and knew we'd created memories to last a lifetime.


Our last afternoon was spent swimming and pottering and eating.  We visited a few bookshops and local galleries.  Ate yet another curry.  Played peekaboo with strangers.  Somehow time whiled itself away and we found ourselves back in our hotel room and packing up after a magical trip into a country like nowhere else.

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So is it worth it?  All the careful packing, trudging through the heat, the sensible shoes you'll no doubt find yourself wearing?  Is bringing children to Siem Reap a good idea?

It's absolutely a possibility.


1 comment:

  1. We loved Siem Reap, we spent 10 days there with our 5 and 7 year old. We bought the 7 day temple pass and took our time,no more than 4 temples a day so the kids would not get fatigued. They were old enough to love the TukTuks and enjoy the histories and information about the temples. They loved the Cambodian food as well and the daily post temple reflexology rub. We would absolutely go back now we have the baby and ew want to see more of the country. Like you we did not go to any of the killing fields as we felt our kids were too young at the time. That said young children deal with horror the world round and we know we cant protect them for long.

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