Cambodia and the kids agree

By CAROLYN BATT

Old ruins, rugged roads, pelting rain and a very Third World setting may make Cambodia sound like a place to skip if you’re travelling with kids but, in fact, the kids love it.

Charlie is sprawled languorously in the armchair, his eyes half-closed in blissful stupor as the reflexologist kneads and prods his feet.

I know just how he feels. We’ve spent the morning clambering around the ancient temples of Angkor, and a massage at the self-explanatory Dr Feet is proving the perfect counterbalance. But Charlie is still a week off his third birthday, you see, and not known for peaceful repose, so I’m amazed to see him so compliant.

Still, I am getting used to surprises. Siem Reap, Cambodia’s leaping-off point for countless atmospheric and breathtaking temples, has been high on our holiday wish-list for some time. Yet when we planned a short break with friends and booked our flights, I had a nagging certainty that the trip would be hard work with children (ours are seven, four and two, and our friends’ kids are seven and five).

A sight to behold: Angkor Wat at dawn.

As it turns out, the hardest part is leaving.

In varying states of grandeur or decay, the World Heritage-listed temples nestle amongst the rice paddies or loom out of the jungle. These architectural marvels dating back to the Khmer empire both dominate the landscape and also somehow blend effortlessly into the local way of life.

The most famous is the iconic Angkor Wat, best viewed at sunset when its five beehive-shaped towers are bathed in a honeyed glow. The world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat is a massive complex of three levels, surrounded by a moat over 5km in length and featuring bas-reliefs of incredible detail depicting everything from religious and battle scenes to everyday life in the 12th century.

It is a truly awesome sight, but as we approach across the causeway for the first time, I wonder if it will be possible to get the children, whose definition of “old” is their parents, to appreciate the temple’s 800-year-old splendour. I needn’t have worried.

Women carrying baskets to sell in Siem Reap.

While we marvel at the scale, symmetry and symbolism within Angkor Wat, the kids hunt for shells and unlikely forms of treasure. Or they explore the seemingly endless steps, passageways, rooms and courtyards of this vast and beguiling building, described by Frenchman Henri Mahout, who stumbled on it in 1860, as “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

In all, there are more than 1,000 ruins dotted around Siem Reap province, covering an area of roughly 300 sq km, so only the most dedicated scholar would attempt to see them all. Built by kings and wealthy landowners, each attempting to outdo their predecessors, the buildings showcase magnificent sculpture, intricate carving and, in their heyday, were decorated with jewels and gold.

We manage to see half a dozen temples in our four-day stay. At Ta Prohm, which is literally being swallowed by the jungle, huge tree roots wrap viper-like around the masonry while piles of moss-covered stones lie abandoned alongside.

For many visitors, this sprawling temple is a point-and-click Tomb Raider moment (parts of the movie were filmed here amidst the dramatic strangler figs and crumbling walls). But take a few steps away from the main thoroughfare of wooden walkways, and it is possible to gain a far greater sense of the other-worldly atmosphere of this place.

Children playing in the grounds of the Bayon Temple.

It is at Ta Prohm that the kids discover the joys of incense, lighting a half-dozen wafting sticks between them until we tire of putting riel in the offerings box. It is also here that we pass a band of busking landmine victims, and are reminded that for all the ancient glory of this country, it is the more recent tragic history — the Khmer Rouge rule and subsequent decades of civil war — that shapes the lives of ordinary Cambodians.

The ruin that remains etched in my memory is the Bayon, its 54 towers topped by more than 200 enigmatic carved faces, enormous visages that eerily watch over us as we progress to the temple’s heart. Built by Jayavarman VII, renowned as the greatest monument builder of all, the Bayon lies at the heart of the walled city of Angkor Thom.

If you tire of temples, there is plenty more to see. We tour a tiny corner of the huge Tonle Sap Lake, where villagers have had to adapt to a constantly changing environment. For six months every year, the Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong, reverses its flow and runs uphill, swelling the lake to around 10,000 sq km, more than triple its dry-season size.

To cope, surrounding houses are on stilts up to 10m high, while at Chong Kneas, residents live on houseboats and floating platforms. We pass a floating school, police station, church and even a (well-fenced) basketball court before the clouds open and pelting rain produces a deafening percussion on our boat’s tin roof.

A doorway engulfed by tree roots at Bayon Temple.

We take respite at a floating crocodile farm, but for the locals a bit of water is clearly just part of life. Alongside us, children delight in the downpour, splashing each other joyously from their bowl-like vessels. A picture of childish innocence, they are still savvy enough to know that providing a photo opportunity to tourists could be worth a dollar or two.

Siem Reap itself is a lively town with an attractive centre featuring colonial shophouses and pavement cafes. The main restaurant and bar strip is found along Pub Street, while there are plenty of upmarket jewellery and clothing boutiques in the alleyways around the Old Market.

The busy market is crammed with silkwares, handbags, clothing and basketry. It is a great place for souvenirs, but the best purchases we make in Siem Reap can be found at the Blue Pumpkin bakery and ice-creamery, where we fill our cones with flavours like green lemons and kaffir lime, caramel and cashew, and dark chocolate.

We eat incredibly well in Siem Reap. The FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club), next to the Royal Residence, looks dauntingly funky as we draw up in our tuk-tuk full of chattering children, but proves an ideal dining venue with a huge lawn where the kids can run while we savour our cocktails and fusion cuisine. At Viroth’s, on Wat Bo Road, we sample delicious local dishes like fish amok and fried eggplant with minced pork.

On our final morning, we transcend skyward in the Sokha Yellow Balloon, a tethered hot air balloon that reaches a height of around 200m. The rice paddies stretch beneath us, a carpet of impossible green reaching to Angkor Wat, which is simultaneously imposing and serene.

Perhaps it is the silence away from the tour groups, but the temple is somehow even more majestic from above — it is a shame the thousands who laboured to create it never enjoyed this perspective.

At the children’s request, though with little resistance from us, we manage a last visit to Dr Feet before cramming into a pair of tuk-tuk, our feet resting on suitcases and hair tousled in the breeze as we make our way to the airport. It is a memorable way to leave.

And, we all agree, it has been a truly memorable holiday.

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