One thing about raising children as an expat is that your local children's library doesn't have the same cultural filter as your children's library "back home". The differences can be subtle, and surprising. You see, where I come from, my local librarian was actively trying to create a culturally diverse set of reading material - a little Roald Dahl, some Zen Buddhism, and one or two folk tales from Africa. And the thing is, it's easy to list off the things you've read your kids that are also being read to children in Russia, Qatar, or Milwaulke. But how do you tune in to what you're not reading? Well, you could do a hit and run trip through your local children's library, like we did last week.

Here's a short list of recent stories:

  1. A book whose name I have already forgotten, so great was my haste to return it. The story revolves around a boy who is playing happily in his room one day when his friends drop by, unexpectedly. His grandfather comes up to the boy's room to ask him if he'd like to come down and play, and the boy declines. The grandfather advises him not to be grumpy, and he assures his grandfather that he is not grumpy, he's just not in the mood for unexpected visitors who are, after all, unexpected, and kind of just wants to finish off this thing he was right in the middle of doing before they dropped around unexpectedly. The grandfather, with a knowing smile, sits down on the bed and tells him an "allegorical" tale... about a fish who is playing happily in his anemone when ditto ditto ditto and ditto. In the end, the fish learns that he should "stop being grumpy" and play with his damned friends already. Moral of the story? It is not ok to be an introvert. (Secondary moral? Some people do not know how to write allegories and prefer to write bricks that will shortly hit you over the head thinly wrapped in what may technically be called an allegory.) 
  2.  Today, Maybe (Dominique Demers and Gabrielle Grimard). The story revolves around a girl who sits passively at home making tea and jam sandwiches and entertaining visitors and talking to her pet bird and basically guarding her chastity and honing her domestic skills whilst her One True Love travels all over the world looking for her (and probably developing a fulfilling career at the same time). In the end, he turns up, they lock eyes, and... I guess... we are supposed to believe that they just lived happily ever. Because they are destined for each other. What is that? That is a book which should be ceremonially burnt by anyone who believes in either a) gender equality or b) real-life relationships.  Because, honestly. Grudging points for making the One True Love a bear, and not a white Anglo-Saxon prince (although the bear is still male).
  3.  Why Cats Don't Wear Hats (Victoria Perez Escriva and Ester Garcia). The story is translated from Spanish, and the language retains a charming foreign air. Using a series of "logical" steps, the book explains that cats don't wear hats, because that would lead to a chain of events which would eventually necessitate the renouncing of the cat's essential "catness". To be a cat is easy, the book concludes, as long as you don't want to wear a hat. This is a delightful book about foresight, unintended consequences, the true weight of material objects, and the way one desire can lead to another, transforming you as you follow each call. Its subtlety begs discussion and allows the reader the freedom to frame the moral within his or her own set of values. (Reading the back cover, for example, gives the impression that the authors think they have written a book about the importance of being yourself.)
  4.  John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (Jenny Wagner). A true classic. A dog and an old woman live happily together, until a black cat tries to join their household, invoking jealousy on the part of the dog. When the dog sends the cat away, however, the woman becomes sad and ill, leading the dog to relent in order to make her happy. The reader has the opportunity to learn not only that an extra friend doesn't lessen the original friendship, but that sometimes loving someone means putting their wants before your own. Again, the story is subtle enough to invite thought and is open to individual interpretation.
  5.  Green Eggs And Ham (Dr Seuss)*. Another classic - the story needs no summary. Again, one of its strengths is its subtlety - the messages are there, but they are not explicitly spelled out. This also allows the book to grow with the child. The more obvious moral - that you can't decide if you like something or not without trying it - suits younger children. The less obvious moral - that just because someone annoys you doesn't mean you will dislike everything they have to offer - can come later on.
  6.  MOM (Mom Operating Manual) (Doreen Cronin and Laura Cornell). This is a genuinely funny book, even if they did miss the opportunity to create a title joke by using a meaningful acronym (Mum Upkeep Manual?). Unlike another book which I also hastily returned and cannot now name, it does not employ sarcastic humour of the kind that its readership is unlikely to appreciate. (The other book contained advice such as: "Be sure to wake your parents up super-early so they'll have time to stop being tired before work." This book employs the type of humour which is not only funnier but less dangerous: "Your mum is likely not getting enough sleep if: 1) She has packed you a lunch of unsweetened cocoa and a raw egg." I know which I'd rather read to my preschoolers.) The inescapable message is that your mother has needs and will not function well if those needs aren't sufficiently met. Of course, realising that other people have needs and that harmonious relationships will result from having everyone's needs acknowledged and addressed is an important lesson which goes well beyond the home hearth.

Mel's recent post made me think about what our kids learn from the stories we tell them. Fiction is a powerful tool, because of its ability to engage a reader's interest and dispense with the bounds of reality. It can teach in ways - and on topics - that non-fiction cannot. I have this wild** idea that we should form an online picture-book club, to over-analyse what we are saying to our kids through fiction and make use of the internet to help set aside our cultural filters. It would be like any other book club, but less time consuming. If you want to join, please review a book you've read to or with a child (depending on their agegroup - it doesn't have to be a picture book if the kids are past that stage, neither does it have to be your own child - it could be a niece or the pupils in your class) on your own blog, provide a link back to this post, and leave me a comment asking me to add you to the list. I'd like to be mindful of the lessons I'm teaching.

Picture Book Club List:

  • Be first!

*The Dr Seuss is part of our own collection, but seems to be a favourite at the moment.

**Obviously my definition of "wild" has changed since my teens and twenties.

Apologies for the delay. I wrote the last post shortly before the Connecticut shootings (I think it posted just after - I wrote it at the same time as the first), and for some reason I didn't feel like writing more about our wonderful holiday over that particular weekend. I'm sure those directly involved aren't ready to be back to normal yet, but the spirit of Christmas and the freshness of the new year calls me to turn over a leaf and resume what I started. Without further ado:

Is Cambodia a good destination to travel to with kids? Yes, yes it is. First of all, people are generally welcoming of children. A lot of people speak English, and well, which makes things a little more comfortable for the monolinguistic four-year-old. It's easy to organise private transport and tours at an affordable cost, allowing you to tailor the journey to your needs, and there are blessedly few things to try your patience other than your own toddler. But there's more! Here is a range of observations and advice on taking your young kids to Cambodia, according to our experiences. I'm going to cover strollers, car seats, sleeping, eating, nappies, sightseeing, poverty, touting and begging, and health and hygiene.


They should be left at home, if you can possibly help it. If you can't, take the lightest, most foldable umbrella stroller you can find, or see if anyone's still making those ones that convert into a backpack carrier. We saw a total of two strollers the whole time we were in Cambodia. One was being pushed along the riverside by a rather well-to-do local woman in Battambang, who had three extremely well-dressed children with her. I don't know how many places she gets to use it, apart from along the river. The other was being pushed by a tourist in Siem Reap. The woman looked like she was getting pretty fed up with it.

It's not just that the streets aren't stroller-friendly (around the temples of Angkor, for example, you can pretty much forget it) - it's also that tuk tuks are a chief form of transport so you won't always have a boot to throw it into (a small umbrella stroller would be ok, though, as long as you're not taking motos). And if you're expecting ramps or lifts everywhere you go, you may have to reset your expectations. Many shops and markets are of the crowded type with narrow aisles and passageways. In addition, you won't necessarily need the stroller like you do at home - those tuk tuks and motos drop you pretty much at the door to where you're going, and there are usually plenty around, looking for work. The amount of walking we actually needed to do was very small.

We took our ergo, which (and they're not paying me to say this) is one of the best baby/toddler products we ever bought. With two adults and plenty of areas safe enough to let Miss explore on her own at a distance of a couple of metres (around the temples, for example, we barely carried her - she mostly either walked by herself or rode in the tuk tuk), it wasn't a hassle.

Car Seats

We brought The Young Miss's car seat with us. It's a Combi Corocco, which is lightweight and compact, so it fits easily in any vehicle with a seatbelt. We found the taxis we took all had good seatbelts, although the mini bus only had one - which we used for the car seat. I'm not sure I would rely on getting a car seat in Cambodia. The local kids travel in arms on motorbikes, or in hammocks made by tying sling carriers between the handlebars of bicycles, so I'm pretty sure they thought we were freaks for restraining our toddler like that. We only used the seat three times - from the airport in Phnom Penh, for the road trip from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and from Battambang to Siem Reap. The rest of the time we used tuk tuks (except for the one occasion where we used motos). The traffic, as previously described, isn't exactly screaming along, but we thought it was both safer and more practical for the longer trips and it was a small thing to pack it in for those rides.

For The Master, who is four, we brought along our Boostapak. Trunki are not paying me to say this either (although I wouldn't say no to a pink version to match our green one... Trunki?) but they are deadset geniuses. It is a backpack - a useable backpack you can put things inside - with a hard case and foldout bits to guide the seatbelt through. We used it on both our taxi rides, but not the minibus trip, as there was no seatbelt anyway. We also used it as a day pack around town most days, and as a booster seat at restaurants for the Young Miss (see under "eating").

If I have one criticism of the Boostapak (and I do) it's that the child tends to slump in it when they are of a certain, specific height. We've had ours for over a year now. At first, The Master's legs stuck straight out, so it was fine (he was technically under age for it at that point - we have no car and I can only lug one car seat around at a time, so I opted for the baby's capsule - but he was already bigger than the average 4yo when we started using it). Then he grew taller and his hip-knee length got to this awkward stage, where his feet dangled from the calf and he slumped in order to try and get them dangling more comfortably from the knee instead. Then he grew again and now sits straight and comfortable once more. I would have liked some sort of anti-submarine clip between the legs for that awkward stage, but I admit I can't think of how to add one off-hand. In any case, except for that 3-4 month period it has been an excellent product and it's certainly a good one for those travelling with young kids.


I heard reports that cots were available on request at some hotels, but since Miss hasn't slept in one for over a year, I couldn't really tell you. The beds we did have were generously-sized, particularly as regards their width, such that (in Battambang) three singles were adequate for our family (I slept with Miss). In the other hotels, we had even more bedspace. Usually, we either slept the kids together on a double bed, or pushed two singles together. The reason for this was so we could set them up under a mosquito tent - we'd brought the tent poles from our 2-person tent and the largest box-shaped mosquito net we could find, and assembled it over them. This served a double-purpose: keeping the mosquitoes away (obviously), and a firm tuck also provided some protection against rolling off the bed (for the toddler).

We were able to get family rooms in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which were large. We also had a pool and restaurant in both these places, as well as in-room wifi, which allowed the kids to excitedly skype their grandparents with updates each day.

 Eating - Cuisines, High Chairs, Room Service and Breastfeeding

The Master is generally a good eater, but he got quite unadventurous the moment he hit foreign ground - although Miss continued to be happy browsing from anybody's plate. We were expecting this, and had no desire to push it. It meant we ended up eating at tourist-orientated restaurants which served both western and local food, of which there are plenty (French and Italian food was the most common that I saw). Korean food, if your family is so inclined, is also very big, and we saw Indian and vegetarian restaurants in all our destinations, too. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list - it's just what I happened to notice and remember. I would advise a little extra forward-planning when it comes to meals with kids, keeping in mind that the pace of service tends to be slower than what you might be used to at home.

No restaurant we saw owned any high chairs. The Earl actually asked at one place and ended up having to pretty much draw a diagram, before they gave him a bemused and baffled, "Sorry, but no." We were half-expecting this, and the trunki boostapak on a chair (plus or minus the shoulder-harness we'd also packed) is a good alternative, but mostly we just opted to let her sit on our alternate laps instead.

Room service. Whenever that debate crops up about kids in restaurants, someone always gives this indignant comment about how, in their house, children are/were taught proper table manners at dinner time each night and they therefore have/had no behavioural problems when dining out. This always gives me a chortle, because these people either a) have poor memories or b) have the kinds of families where mum and dad are both home at 5:30pm with easy-going kids who are in pleasant moods after 3-hour-long afternoon naps. I'm sorry, but my kids don't do anything well at dinnertime, much less sit in a restaurant, and it's not because I'm too lazy to teach them table manners. (Truth be told, I'm talking here about one of my kids, but it only takes one to set the whole situation awry - especially when I am always wrestling them single-handedly at dinner.) I will happily take them - together, single-handedly - to any five-star restaurant, anywhere in the world, for brunch*, but by the end of the day (and especially when travelling) it is just time to fall back on room service and that is that.

I don't know how many hotels officially offer room service in Cambodia (none of ours did), but the hotel in Siem Reap was happy to let us order at the restaurant, take the plates to our room, and then return them at some unspecified future time (we returned them later that night, after the kids were asleep). The waitress actually went to the trouble of helping my husband bring the plates down. In other places (with one exception where we did manage to eat out), we easily found ourselves a hearty lunch no matter where we'd got ourselves by lunch time, and let dinner be something light from a bakery (mine don't tend to be that hungry by dinner under normal circumstances anyway - which probably exacerbates our dinner table troubles. They're like me - starving at breakfast, morning tea, and lunch, and then petering out).

As far as breastfeeding was concerned, nobody batted an eyelid and I was able to get on with it anywhere, including the back of the tuk tuk as we were going along (just watch for those potholes...).


We brought a pack and it lasted the whole week, but I am told (and believe) you can get disposables at all three of our destinations. We only saw one set of nappy changing facilities, however. It was a drop-down table in the ladies toilet at Phnom Penh airport, and I had to get the cleaner to unlock it so it could be dropped down. Otherwise, we changed our nappies wherever we could find a spot - most commonly on the back seat of the tuk tuk (or on the bed in our hotel room). Nobody was bothered.

Sights to See

There are enough family-friendly sights in Cambodia to fill the usual holiday, and that's without hitting the beaches (I'm told they're worth the trip, but I have no personal experience). Be aware that at least one young child (mine) considers the temples to be spooky, and a child's attention span with them may wane quickly unless they have a special interest (we spent only one day, compared to the three days we spent when there was just the two of us), but the grounds are still a terrific run-around area.

The fishing village trip we did (to Kampung Phluk) isn't awfully suitable for kids in the early stages of mobility (and corresponding impulsiveness), although the locals obviously get along, so it can be done. (Personally, I'm not sure that myself or either of my kids would do well at the under-three-year old stage if confined to a small boat all day. You should ask yourself how it would go down in your family.)

The standard tour around Battambang can be enjoyed by all ages, largely because it contains a pretty good amount of variety and the amount of time spent at each location is entirely up to you.

Poverty, Begging and Touting

Cambodia is not a rich country yet, though it has recovered substantially since its days under the Khmer Rouge. The villages certainly aren't full of luxury residences, but the simple pole-houses seemed full of happy, well-fed kids, even if they were dusty (our kids were at least as dusty - it's unavoidable) or sometimes naked. Touts were generally relaxed and friendly (there was a bit of a crowd, including some rather persistent kids, outside Ta Prohm temple at Angkor - but part of that was because I bought souvenirs and drinks straight out of the tuk tuk without even pretending to bargain) and we didn't experience the relentless "hard sell" tactics you have to get used to in other places. We saw only three beggars during our whole trip (which always makes me suspicious about what happened to all the other beggars... but let's assume they were being taken care of by the numerous NGOs) which is less than what you might see on a stroll through Brisbane, though more than what you'd encounter in Singapore (which is the place that really does make me suspicious).

In short, if you're worried your kids are going to be overwhelmed by the contrast between their privileged existences and the way the other half lives, Cambodia - at least the parts we visited - makes a very good starting point for your travels. There are certainly differences to discuss, but it will be a gentle introduction.

Health and Hygiene - Pills and Vaccinations, Toilets and Showers, Tummy Upsets

Obviously, this doesn't replace the up-to-date advice of your doctor, and is only our experience based on when and where we went, who we took, and the decisions we made. Hopefully, it will give you something to get started. We were advised by our doctor that malaria preventatives need not be taken in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and decided that, given the time of year and our very short length of stay outside those places, we would just use mosquito nets and repellents for the trip. One child got bitten by one mosquito - in Siem Reap. Antimalarials are available for young children, however, if you are staying longer outside those those two centres or want to err towards a different analysis of risk. Hepatitis A vaccinations are standard in the Singaporean schedule, so we were already covered there, although this would not have been the case if we were following the Australian schedule, so you need to check. Typhoid vaccination was also recommended, but the age-group-appropriate version we needed was out of stock across the whole of Singapore in the period leading up to our trip, so we had to fall back on standard food and water hygiene measures. We drank bottled water (some hotels have water coolers to reduce plastic waste) and freshly-cooked food, and tried to get everyone to wash their hands properly. We discouraged the patting or feeding of animals, as rabies is endemic, although all three of the places we visited could have provided post-exposure shots if necessary.

The toilets we used were all western-style toilets with seats, although not all of them could take toilet paper. We managed to get Master to use the hand-held bidet with some encouragement, but were glad we'd brought toilet paper and nappy wipes as backup. (On these occasions, we made sure he threw the paper or wipes into a bin next to the toilet instead of into the toilet itself.) Most of the toilets were pretty clean, by public toilet standards (the hotel toilets were all fine) and absolutely none of them - to Master's delight - had the hated automatic flushers he gets so scared about in Singapore. In fact, one of the toilets had a trough and bucket instead of a flusher, which Master found absolutely intriguing.

There were hot showers at all the hotels. Unfortunately for the kids, none of our hotels had baths.

More unfortunately, The Young Master did come down with a nasty tummy bug within twenty-four hours of our return - undoubtedly something he picked up from the trip. He recovered after 36 hours or so, and the doctor didn't find anything alarming on examination or via a stool sample. His little sister simultaneously had an extremely mild bout of runny stools with no fever or loss of appetite, and the adults were fine. So yes - it's definitely worth being vigilant, but no real harm done. I am blaming it on the home-made icecream he ate for afternoon tea on our last day, firstly because it's the only thing he had that nobody else ate, except his sister who had a grudgingly small spoonful, and secondly in the hope that I might be able to keep all the icecream to myself in future.

*The other day we stopped at the cafe near the supermarket and the kids shared a fresh coconut. They'd drunk the juice and were on to the flesh. The Young Miss was saying, "Peas, [Master], nunner piece?" and The Young Master was replying - and I quote - "Why, certainly, [Miss], I can get you another piece in no time!" And then he was carefully scooping her out a piece and feeding it to her with the spoon, whilst they both sat politely on their own chairs and I sipped a cup of tea. And if you'd seen me then you would have said I was the Best Parent Ever.

Fast forward two/three hours, and - well, we were having our typical dinner time scene, let's just say. I won't describe it for you. I will just ask you not to judge parents whose kids lose their ability to be civilised human beings at around 5pm. People only have so much power over whether or not to take their children places, and I am actually luckier in a sense than some with better-behaved children in that at least mine are very predictable.

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