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.


Lollipop Goldstein said...

Ha -- wait, I don't like to arrive scheduled. I travel with people who like to be scheduled and I give them what they need. But no, when Josh and I travel sans kids, we aren't scheduled. And prior to having kids, I never had more than a city or two in my mind in advance, picking up and going where things took us.

I love reading about Cambodia. It's a place I haven't gotten to travel to yet and probably won't for some time to come. Getting to Asia is very expensive from here, hence why we always end up in Europe.

Mali said...

I am looking forward to this series. I first visited Cambodia in 1991, when the UN was just arriving, the Khmer Rouge were still a force, and Cambodia was pretty much an international pariah. I love Phnom Penh, and though I went back briefly for business in the late 1990s, I haven't been since. I was only briefly in Battambang once, visiting the NZ troops that were part of the UN peacekeeping forces before the election.

You're tempting me to go back!

Bea said...

@ Lollipop:

Ok! Well in that case we can definitely do a family holiday together. :) I can definitely understand getting organised to suit the party. It was your description of the nine-page itinerary that scared me, but I see the picture better now.

@ Mali:

You would hardly recognise Cambodia compared to 1991, I'm sure, or even compared to the late 90's. By 2002 it was definitely in the swing of tourism - plus or minus some poor roads. I can't imagine the rate of change between 91 and 2002.

Ellen K. said...

Fascinating! Your son certainly took the deep-fried tarantulas in stride.

I don't like itineraries other than flight schedules. A particular Disney World guidebook was like a horror story to me. My dad is very Type A; he needs organized tours. I adore traveling with D. We haven't been anywhere with the girls, really. Maybe in 2014 we will have money for a beach vacation.

ColourYourWorld said...

Oh I haven't been reading blogs,catching up right now.

This trip sounds great! Oh Boo would have loved the trip out to Kampung Pluk. What a wonderful experience for you all. And well done to The Earl for finishing the half marathon.
I'm really looking forward to the 3rd installment.

I wish I had read this earlier. I have just booked our trip back to Thailand for March, I would have looked into Cambodia....hmm maybe I still can.

Boo was 19 months when I took him the first time. I'm really looking forward to going back with him now he is a bit older.

Smithsholidayroad said...

Thankyou for sharing all these experiences. We went to Cambodia in 2010 with my kids aged 5 & 2. We plan to go in April with kids aged 8,4,1. Sounds perfect x can you share some family room accomodation in SR and PP?

Bea said...

@ Big Brother, Little Sister:

The hotel in Phnom Penh was

Hotel Nine
#48, Street 9, Tonle Bassac

They had a family room on the ground floor (short flight of steps from the street), not far from the reception, restaurant and pool. The room consisted of a double (queen? king?) bed in one room and they had put two single rollaway beds in the "sitting" room. Then there was an ensuite bathroom (shower, toilet, sink). It was quite quiet and they seemed well-organised. I sent them an email query before our arrival and they replied promptly and helpfully and everything.

The hotel in Siem Reap was

Angkor Spirit Palace
Phneachey Village, Svay Dangkom

It seemed to have a lot of repeat customers. One small thing was that we were there for a marathon so it was a very busy weekend and they take bookings from multiple channels with the result that they had accidentally double-booked us. One of their frequent flyers said that has happened to guests a couple of times during very busy periods, but they sorted it out (gave us a smaller room by the pool with a rollaway bed and free laundry services). As far as I know it's not a problem during other periods, and obviously people were coming back despite a couple of booking hiccups (apparently they have a relationship with a hotel on the other side of town if they need to send people there - they seem to be able to sort you out in any case, this from a fellow frequent guest, so I guess it works out fine unless you really don't like changes).

The restaurant was on the top floor and I seem to have a paranoia about children falling from heights but then that was the place where the waitress helped my husband bring the food down to the room. The rooms themselves are on the ground floor which suits me fine. The family room had a king size bed and two single beds with an ensuite (shower, toilet, sink) and a little sitting area by the window (and a makeshift, ten-pin bowling alley in front of the TV... but maybe that's just us).

The biggest complaint on tripadvisor was that it was out of town but they have a free tuk tuk service to town and can organise any trips or tours and we really didn't find it a problem at all. In fact it was nice to have an open field next door.

So that's where we stayed and you can look both those up online for further reviews. I would stay at either of them again, no worries.

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