I really enjoyed Mel's recent series on her family's Literary Tour of London and Oxford (I think I missed one there... but that'll get you pointed the right way). I'm a sucker for a travel blog. (If you are too, the other series that comes to mind is Vee and Boo in Thailand. Remind me how old he was then, Vee?) This travelogue is planned in several parts. Parts one and two describe our itinerary. Part three covers some general observations about travelling with kids of this age in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh to Battambang
We recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, with the young Master and Miss, who are now nearly-two and nearly-four-point-five. We last (and first) went to Cambodia in 2002 - a whole ten years ago - and there have certainly been a few changes. The first clue came when, just before the trip, a friend described Phnom Penh as her favourite city in Asia. "Really?" I thought. "Phnom Penh? That dusty little hicksville? Big enough to be mildly unfriendly and noticeably more expensive than the country's more regional areas, but without any more wealth or sophistication to show for it?"
Last time we came to Cambodia, we started out in Siem Reap, travelled across to Battambang, and finished in Phnom Penh. I admit this probably gave Phnom Penh a tough assignment - Cambodia is, without doubt, one of my two all-time favourite travel destinations, the other being Turkey. In both places we were able to rock up with no definite plans except a return air ticket from a different city*, and in both places we found the locals to be genuinely interested in making our journey a pleasure. There was no hassle and no hard sell from those who were also interested in making their money from tourists. Everyone was full of general conversation, and it was also easy to get travel suggestions. Organising stuff was a breeze. So of course, when we got to the less-welcoming big smoke, Phnom Penh, and sensed our return to the status of cashed-up strangers, it was bound to be the kind of let-down that paints an unfair memory.
Our guide-book described Phnom Penh as being "back", and they were right. The place has changed, and I might want to live there. Mind you, we saw it but briefly - we had only an eight-day itinerary, and we had decided we needed to ease The Young Master into it, as he tends to get a bit overwhelmed by new experiences, so we went straight from the airport to the hotel by taxi, hung out by the hotel pool and ate at the hotel restaurant, then packed up our bags fresh and early the next morning for our road trip to Battambang.
Phnom Penh to Battambang
Yes - road trip to Battambang. This was a new one for us. Last time we did the reverse trip, we did it by plane. You could technically get between the two places by road, but it was a fourteen-hour-plus trip - not including the time it would take you to dig the car out of a bog if it had rained recently - and that's if you made it past the land mines and bandits. The train service was worse, if a little safer from land mines. Nowadays, you can accomplish the 300km trip in five or six hours, along a sealed (though somewhat potholed) road. The train service and airline no longer exist.
We piled into our minibus at 9am after a hearty, western-style breakfast. We'd originally ordered a whole taxi since we filled one anyway, but the hotel could only locate a minibus, the exclusive use of which was offered to us at the same price but without most of the seatbelts. We used the one we did have to strap The Young Miss into her car seat, whilst The Young Master experienced the delicious thrill of travelling completely unrestrained. None of us were nervous about this - despite the newly-sealed roads, the traffic meanders. Our bus driver not only had to avoid the potholes, but also motorbikes, some with various trailers and ridiculous loads, bicycles, motorbikes towing bicycles, hand-led horses and cows, usually pulling carts, stray dogs, and people trying to hail minibuses from the middle of the "highway".
The Young Master spent the morning getting used to all of this from the safety of his vantage point behind the windscreen, which was just as well because the first time he actually had to interact with Cambodia directly - when we got out for a lunch stop - an elderly woman carrying a basket on her head bent down in his face, pinched his cheeks, flashed a toothless smile, and offered him some deep-fried tarantulas on a stick. He held up to this well, managed to decline the tarantulas politely, and even started playing with two of the local children whilst we ate lunch. When it all got too much for him, he asked to return to the minibus so he could hide out whilst everyone else finished up. The Young Miss, meanwhile, was in her element, having found a swinging chair, a playmate her own age, and more doting fans than she knew what to do with.
We got back on the road for the next big push, and the kids were just coming to the end of their attention spans when we pulled into Battambang. The hotel of our choice was unfortunately full, but we found a room with three wide, single beds in another one just across the road. We reshuffled our stuff and went out for an aimless walk around town to stretch our legs. The Young Master decided he was going to wave and say hello to all the under-ten-year-olds he saw, and he did. Before long, he'd found a group of them to play with, and he and Miss easily cobbled together a racing game despite the lack of mutual language. When it was finished, we walked on by the river - wow, such a lot of new buildings by the river since last time - where the Young Master was enthralled to discovered a game played with a shuttle-cock-like device, the name of which temporarily escapes me (lakeh? something like lakeh?). By this time, it was getting on for dinner. We grabbed some buttered corn cobs from a street-seller to tide the kids over, found ourselves somewhere to eat, and then headed straight "home" to bed.
Coming in Part Two: Battambang and Siem Reap
*Side note: I think Mel is a great person and everything and I really was interested in reading about her travels, but I have decided to NEVER, NEVER go on holiday with her family. This is for mutual benefit. I like to arrive informed, but thoroughly unscheduled. Mel... likes to arrive scheduled. We would kill each other.