Cambodia 1: Angkor, What?

DSC02664

For Paul and I, Cambodia represents our first step into the real unknown. While we’ve been to India, Thailand and Finland before, Cambodia is somewhere quite new.

DSC02606 DSC02651

We flew in on Cambodia’s premier (and only) airline Angkor Air to Siem Reap on a sub-forty-five-minute journey where the crew attempted to serve us a meal in the whole five minutes that the plane wasn’t ascending or descending.

I couldn’t get my head out of the inflight magazine – particularly loving the article about Cambodia’s first Western-Style cinemas, which arrived last year.

Siem Reap is best-known as the jumping-off point for Angkor Wat, the fantastic jungle temples that are so much part of Cambodian heritage that they now grace its flag

DSC02734 DSC02752.

For us it was less a jumping-off point and more a splashing-off point, as we arrived at the same time as Tropical Storm Vamco, which provided atmospheric and somewhat inconvenient sheets of rain.

DSC02547 DSC02538

Siem Reap also very much attracts the backpacker crowd to its ‘Pub Street’, a mass of cheap beer and pizza joints near the main market. Next to the real Gap Year students we felt particularly ancient – you’re practically invisible to other backpackers when you have children, they clearly just don’t see you as part of the same category.

DSC02796

DSC02693 DSC02687

Angkor’s temples can be best described by photo – so I’ll let Paul’s pictures show you how impressive they are. The girls liked the tuk tuk rides in between sites, and suffered the temples extremely well (Daisy even said ‘Wow’ in the right places), but they were mostly playing some imaginative game in which they were being princesses – so if you ask them what they thoughts of Angkor Wat I suspect they might just look a bit baffled – Clover in particular.

DSC02703 DSC02761

Top highlight for them, apart from the swimming pool at the hotel, was a night at the Circus called Phare. We’d impressed on the children a little of Cambodia’s bloody recent history (since there are landmine victims everywhere, it would have been hard to conceal it), and the Phare Circus is one of the initiatives to get Cambodian families back on their feet.

DSC02816

The Phare Project is a school teaching circus skills, amongst other things, and the most promising performers put on a nightly ‘Cirque de Soleil’ style performance in a big top in Siem Reap. It might be a charity, but it was very far from worthy- think huge skipping ropes of fire, improbable gymnastics and impressive climbing. The girls were far more entranced by this than they were by Angkor Wat.

Advertisements

Chiang Mai: Elephant kisses and cooking by emotion…

_DSC4414_proc

How do you get an elephant to kiss you? No, it’s not a joke – just one of the things we learned during our stay at Chai Lai Orchid – the elephant camp in Chiang Mai. Visiting elephants in Thailand is fraught with ethical dilemma, since the beasts often have a fairly miserable life, carrying tourists on heavy metal and wooden chairs through the jungles all day. Chai Lai was our compromise – the hotel is a charity that works with trafficked women from the Karen hill tribe, many of whom have come from Burma. At Chai Lai, they are trained in the hospitality industry. So far, so ethical.

DSC02306

Oh, and did I mention there are elephants? The hotel shares its land with a traditional elephant camp, so while the elephants don’t belong to Chai Lai, the hotel guests can choose to interact with them in a more natural way – no chair rides, plenty of food and of course, many happy baths in the river. You can bath an elephant whenever you want to – so perhaps it isn’t surprising that we didn’t do a lot else.

DSC02321

We arrived at Chai Lai in an absolute downpour, across a slippery suspension bridge that made me feel like an extra from Indiana Jones and made Mum and Dad wonder what mess I was getting them into this time.

We were nervous walking across the bridge holding the children’s hands. The locals rode their motorbikes across it nonchalantly, sometimes hands free.

DSC02331 DSC02337.

The children were in elephant heaven and Dad (who does love to take a photo or two ..million…) was pretty happy too. First up we fed baby Chai Lai, who likes to take sugar from your hand and break your umbrella given half the chance. Then we spent plenty of time bathing Dee Dee – a five year old elephant (“she’s big for five”, Clover remarked sagely). That’s when we learned how to get an elephant kiss – Dee Dee will ‘kiss’ you with her trunk when you say ‘choop choop’ to her – a little like having a sink plunger attached to your ear, but very cute.

_DSC4403_proc

Spending time in the water with Dee Dee was an amazing family experience. We laughed a lot, and the children bravely climbed up on her back and scrubbed her with a brush. As Dad – watching wisely from the bank – remarked, she really is the best bath toy ever.

_DSC4979_proc

_DSC4438_proc

What was really nice was that the charity volunteers at Chai Lai love bathing her as much as we did. They are raising money to rent the elephants from the camp for six months to prove that tourists will care for them without chair rides – paying only for baths and bareback riding – you can find out more here.

Speaking of riding an elephant, we tried it of course – but bareback elephant riding is not for the fainthearted. Or the fainty in general, it turns out. I used to pass out a lot as a teenager, so Paul’s quite used to it, but even he will admit that my timing was pretty poor this time. I did manage to get off the elephant first, but it was touch and go – Clover continued to ride the elephant with its mahout, while the lovely Chai Lai volunteers got me back to camp.

_DSC4742_proc _DSC4738_proc

After two nights of elephant bathing and watching, we decided something a little more culinary was in order, so went to central Chiang Mai for a cooking course. Cue the girls in aprons, wielding huge knives, learning how to cook their favourite spring rolls. From our chef teacher we learned how to season a Thai curry (‘by emotion’, and using a lot of fish sauce), and made and ate an entire seven-course meal. No wonder we were ready for a sleep on the night train back down to Bangkok, ready for our flight to Cambodia the next day.

DSC02388 DSC02400 DSC02404 DSC02407 DSC02435 DSC02442

And we know Daisy’s been dreaming about elephant kisses – she’s been saying ‘I want a choop choop’ in her sleep!

DSC02328

One night in Bangkok

IMG_20150908_140956220

…. Two, actually, but I’ve had the song going round in my head for the last week (thanks so much to Mr James, secondary music teacher for his assiduous instruction in popular musicals).

I’m rapidly finding that changing country is the hardest part of a trip like this. After all, you’ve got used to the last one, for all of its fallabilities and frustrations. I adored India, so perhaps it’s natural that I thoroughly resented Thailand for being ‘not India’, and it took me a few days to get over it.

DSC02168

Fortunately, Bangkok had one big attraction, in the form of Grandma and Grandad, who have very bravely arrived for a month to come travelling with us. We caught up with them at Bangkok airport. As well as being delighted to see them, the girls were thrilled with gifts from their auntie that are so large that we are seriously wondering how we are going to fit them in the case.

DSC02035

It’s been ten years since we’re been to Thailand (then sans kids) and Bangkok seems to have become even bigger and buzzier. The area we stayed in was also devoid of recognisable breakfast food, so we end up cooking pancakes made from tempura flour – not bad, actually.

The best thing about our apartment? A washing machine (did I mention my utter laundry obsession?).

Tempted as I was to simply stay in and do washing, I forced us out to do a ‘klong tour’, or trip on Bangkok’s old canals. Mum and Dad coped surprisingly well with the early start, the getting on and off a boat, and eating sticky rice in the market and noodles cooked on a boat.

DSC02221 DSC02214

Our guide Nui, educated us all about Buddhist Monks who are ‘not allowed to do the sexy’.

Apparently, it is common for older men who are married and have had children to leave and become Buddhist monks, and they welcome it. “They think, ‘he can go – I have the farm, and the grandchildren’ she explains.” I’d not previously seen Buddhism as a way of getting your menfolk off your hands when they retire, but it is always good to have a new perspective.

DSC02176

We also indulged in a little health tourism (hoping not to have to visit the hospital in every country we visit) when Clover went to have her stitches out. Thai private healthcare proved as efficient as everyone has said – she was in and out in twenty minutes, it cost £14 and she’s healing beautifully.

DSC02253

After Bangkok we took the night train to Chiang Mai, in the north, where we nearly got arrested for drinking beer on the train. “Did you not see the sticker!” shouted the guard at me, dragging me over the other end of the train carriage where a small sticker showed a glass of wine with a line through it. Felt like a naughty sixth former – haven’t had my alcohol confiscated in years.

DSC02286 DSC02284

Travelling with children – tips, tricks and trials

image1-13

Since I was so inspired by the blogs I read before hitting the road with the girls, I thought we’d wrap up India by sharing what we have learned so far from a month of travel. Partly to remind myself, but on the offchance you have stopped by on the eve of a big trip, this is what we’ve learned.

  1. Never travel without one of these http://www.watertogo.eu – it’s much less scary being stuck on a train for hours if you know you have your own source of clean water…. Apparently you could drink your urine/the Ganges (not sure which would be worse) with one of these. We haven’t tried. Yet.
  1. You will become obsessed by laundry. Four people/hot climate means it builds up fast. Carry a travelwashing line and one of these (thescrubba.com). When in doubt – wash. Clean clothes are much less depressing to pack – and you won’t always be able to find a laundry.
  1. Ditto cash machines. You will be obsessed with finding one that works. Many won’t. Keep trying. Carrying dollars too goes without saying. If you can use a card, do, but mostly you won’t be able to.
  1. You / your children will crave food that tastes normal. But even if it sounds ‘normal’ on the menu it probably won’t be. Don’t assume conrflakes is a better bet than chickpeas for breakfast as your children will spend ages telling you they ‘don’t taste like home’. When nothing else works bananas and plain rice always taste normal. Also Margarita Pizza is always the answer.
  1. Take as few clothes as poss. It may come as a revelation but you can buy them. Much nicer and much cheaper. However, never wash any clothes you buy in India with your other clothes – they will dye them instantly (bitter experience- did I mention my current laundry obsession?)
  1. When despondent; buy sweets. Children find them instantly cheering. So may you. Sometimes despair really is just low blood sugar.
  1. When you can, book a hotel with a pool. Instant joy. When you can’t, pay to use someone else’s. Children’s stamina is limited for tours etc – swimming is the best reward. Take a UV sunsuit though, or risk burnt shoulders. I am regretting lack of swimming goggles for the children – chlorinated eyes are no fun.
  1. Packing up is hard work. Three nights in a place is more bearable than two. Be prepared to be flexible if you can – sometimes you might want to stay put a bit longer – the kids will thank you for it.
  1. Tuktuks and trains are more fun than coaches for children. If there’s a rail network, use it.
  1. Take an unlocked smartphone – you can get a data sim in most countries for a dollar or so a day – saves you worrying about the wifi signal or using extortionate international roaming. Familiarise yourself and your family and friends with what’sapp, Facetime and Skype.
  1. That said, don’t expect to have sensible calls with friends and family while the kids are around – they will just randomly wave their toys at the screen and shout. Video calls are just so exciting…
  1. School work is best done in the morning (though the children will, in a pinch, do times tables on a tuktuk ride). It will be stressful at times, since children aren’t keen on being taught by their parents., but the internet has some great resources including apps that make maths a bit more fun. The girls like Squeebles…
  1. Mix it up, accommodation-wise. Even if you could afford five star hotels every day (fat chance in our case) no-one will enjoy it if you do it all the time. Homestays are fun too (instant extra grandparents in many cases). Small hotels often mean you can sit out by the pool while the children are in bed within sight of your bedroom door. The odd apartment means you can cook for yourself – a bit of normality.
  1. This app (touchnote.com) is a great way for the kids to send real postcards to their friends. You can’t stick an email on the fridge, after all, and these send a photo postcard in a couple of days, and you don’t even have to worry about a stamp.
  1. People will be kinder than you expect, and most will be more interested in your children than you’d dream. At the risk of sounding like Blanche Dubois I’ve depended a lot of the kindness of strangers in recent weeks. But by then they’ve stopped being strangers of course.
  1. Travelling with children, you do it by doing it. One step at a time…

Bye bye India, hello Bangkok.image1-12

Goa – Love, and a bit with a dog

8 India 12

Well, I had promised, hadn’t I? Beautiful Goa, alas, provided the proof that you can take all of the preventative steps you like when you take your children away, but it is always the unlikely that will get you in the end.

We arrived in Goa on (yet another) night train, ready for four nights of relaxation at the fabulous Casa Susegad. Susegad, it turns out, means lazy or idle in Goan, and we were planning on being exactly that.

8 India 2

I can’t think of a better place to do that in. Goa is glorious and, despite the rainy season we didn’t see a drop of the stuff. The Casa, an elegantly restored Indo-Portuguese mansion house owned by a couple from Birmingham had everything we love. Swimming pool, great food, gin and tonic and, of course, cats and dogs for the girls to play with.

8 India 1

Clover has always been wary around dogs, but decided that the dogs at the Casa were her best friends. Norman, the lovely owner, explained to her how to treat them well. They are pets, quite used to children, and were happy to receive her strokes and cuddles. We all relaxed, until the evening on which Clover wandered off to give one of her new best friends a stroke.

How to describe what happened next? We can only assume that the dog, surprised in the dark, thought he was being attacked. Clover’s screams were horrendous, and by the time Paul got to her (rather more quickly than I did), the dog had fled, and Clover was bleeding from a huge gash in her forehead and a smaller one near her eye.

My poor baby is, perhaps, the bravest girl I’ve ever met. I am so grateful that Norman knew a good local hospital that we could get her to immediately, but I can assure you that you never feel as far from home as when you’re watching your six-year-old daughter being examined in a hospital you don’t know and they are discussing whether she needs a general anaesthetic.

8 India 4

She didn’t, thank goodness. Instead Clover had six stitches using a local anaesthetic (lots of injections in her poor head) and one (just by her eye) with no anaesthetic at all. She was a star. Together with the ever-present Monkey, and her tablet computer, which she was showing to all of the nurses, she made such an impression that the doctor wanted her to go on a playdate with his nephew. By the time we returned home to a shaken Paul and Daisy she was less traumatised than either me or Norman, and had garnered enough chocolate to last her for weeks.

A few weeks on (and yes, I am late writing this blog) and we are delighted to report that Clover has healed beautifully and is unlikely to even have a visible scar to show for her adventure. We’re so grateful to all involved in getting her prompt medical attention. She’s also not nervous around dogs – the first thing she wanted to do the next day was tell the dog who bit her that she wasn’t cross. Apparently she can “tell he was sorry”.

We didn’t let Clover’s adventure ruin our next few days – though she was annoyed not to be able to put her head under in the swimming pool. We took a trip down to the fabulous beach and played in the sand and surf the next day (making sure not to wet Clover’s bandage), and enjoyed the extraordinary hospitality that we were offered. Clover and Daisy, by then, were ready to adopt Norman as an extra Granddad, and we were incredibly sad to leave on the final night train to Mumbai.

8 India 8 8 India 9

I didn’t think we’d like Goa – it has such a reputation for parties and we were expecting it to chuck down with rain – but it was instantly charming. We’ll be back (but we might keep Clover away from her four-legged friends next time). It was only the promise of meeting Grandma and Granddad at our next destination – Bangkok – that made it possible to tear the children away.

All’s well that ends well, as they say…

8 India 5

Kerala II Spice, spice Baby

7 India 1

It’s a relief to head up into the hills of the Western Ghats, to the home of the improbably-named Baby Matthew – Vanilla County.

Matthew (I somehow cannot call a fully grown man Baby) inherited the family plantation home, as is the custom for the youngest child in a family (hence the nickname I guess). The family fortune was built on the spice trade, with the home we’re staying in built on the proceeds from pepper.

7 India 5

Later the family, like almost everyone else in the area, diversified into rubber cultivation, and then (when prices for rubber dropped) into tourism too. Since Matthew is an excellent host, and wife Rani an excellent cook, Vanilla County is a fabulous place to spend a few days, and give the girls a bit of a geography/biology lesson to boot.

image1-10image2-4

It’s not everywhere where you can do a spice tour in the back garden. We find nutmeg, cinnamon bark, pepper, cocoa pods (and the girls enjoy sucking the sweet coating from around the beans) as well as lemon grass, pepper, cardamom and lots of fruit. We drink passion fruit and guava juice fresh from the garden, and eat pineapple and bananas grown on the premises. We also visited a tea plantation (close to my heart, if not the children’s).

7 India 11

If it seems like all I’m talking about is food, that’s perhaps unsurprising. We ate well – as we have all the way through India. Clover and Daisy ate a lot of pasta (because Rani is kind to small children), and we all enjoyed some superb biryanis and paratha.

7 India 2 7 India 6

Other highlights. For the children, swimming in the natural rock pools and walking along tracks lined with a type of mimosa known as a ‘touch me not’, which closes up when you stroke it (rather like the Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter – perhaps Rowling has been to the Ghats?), helping to tap rubber from the trees and turning it into sheets of rubber using formic acid and a really large mangle.

7 India 7 7 India 8

Lowlights… an enforced visit to a really dull orchid farm (I’ve always hated garden centres…) and a somewhat windy, twisty journey down the mountainside back to Cochi at the end. Loved the local restaurant we visited on the way down, though, with a full meal served on a banana leaf (so much better than plates – just throw away when you’ve finished) for £3.50 for four of us.

7 India 13 7 India 12

We left Kerala on (yet another) night train, just in time to avoid the one-day general strike that would have stranded us for 24 hours. Next stop Goa…

7 India 10 7 India 3 7 India 4

Kerala I (in which we discover that God is, alas, a teetotaller)

6 India 7

27 hours is a long time on a train – especially when you arrive at Mumbai station to discover that the train is already delayed by three hours. We’re heading to Kerala – God’s own country, as they call it – as immortalised by Arundhati Roy in the God of Small Things.

6 India 1

Kerala is also, famously, a dry state. “But you can get alcohol” all of the guidebooks state “usually in teapots”. After 27 hours on a train (in which all of the food we ordered for breakfast arrived at lunchtime, etc etc, because we were so delayed), we could have done with a drink. Alas, despite all of the guidebook insistence, in our entire week in Kerala, we managed to get two cans of beer from the state liquor store (which required quite a bit of queuing), and even that was virtually undrinkable – the equivalent of White Lightning at home.

I’d hate you to think, though, that we spent our entire time in Kerala searching fruitlessly for alcohol.

We arrived at Ernakulum Junction station just in time for Onam, Kerala’s eight day harvest festival. Nearly as important as Christmas in the Keralan calendar, Onam is an excuse for new clothes, time off school, and lots and lots of “special promotional sales”. That might explain the queues of traffic in the middle of Ernakulum (well, that and the fact that they are digging it up for a new metro system).

6 India 4

Never mind. We headed for Fort Kochi, Ernakulum’s gentler sister. Built on the water, and largely abandoned in favour of Ernakulum itself, Fort Kochi has a sleepy charm all of its own. In high season, I should imagine it is buzzing, but while we were there we had the place largely to ourselves. Fort Kochi is an excellent place for posh clothes shopping, Margarita pizzas (which would have been particularly lovely with a beer, but no matter), and watching the sunset over the harbour. We were very happy.

6 India 2 6 India 3

And at this point I should admit that my enjoyment of the next stage of our trip was probably coloured by my reading material. Naturally I reimmersed myself in The God of Small Things – a tender, elegiac tale that has at its centre the drowning of an eight year old. I wouldn’t advise this sort of reading material when you’re taking your children to practically the spot in which this supposed drowning occurred.

Tharavadu Heritage Hotel, in Kottayam, is right on the Keralan backwaters, and is very beautiful. Unfortunately, it turns out, it is also next to a Hindu temple that does amplified chanting at 4am, and the children’s playpark appears not to have been repainted since the 1960s.

6 India 5

No matter. We explored, taking a ferry across the lake and spending an afternoon at Alleppey Beach, and the children enjoyed the dilapidated playpark, if not the food and the 4am Hindu chanting. Daisy, clearly with back-to-school on her mind, informed me that she’d dreamed that her headteacher was the high priestess of the Hindu temple next door. At least she’d have kept the noise down, I guess.

6 India 9

Because I’m working while we travel, my enjoyment of any place is naturally constrained by my deadlines and the functionality of the WiFi. At Tharavadu, this was only available in the office, inevitably also occupied by the bored-looking sons of the Sikh family who were the only other guests, shooting things on their mobile phone games.

The office also had some of the most uncomfortable chairs I have ever had the misfortune to sit at, which naturally didn’t help my temper. However, the night guards at the hotel got very used to the girls watching Ever After High on their tablets – and probably now understand it better than I do.

Our next stop in Kerala was Vypin Island, probably the least developed bit of the area, where our experience couldn’t have been more different. At the Silvermoon Heritage Homestay (no, I’m not just obsessed with the word Heritage, they are all called things like that), we met Daniel and his mum Jessie, trying to run the place after the death of Jessie’s husband Joe.

6 India 10

They were so sweet and kind at their home on the Keralan backwaters, where the cooking was amazing and the birdwatching equally so. The girls revelled in the fact that they had a bathtub (rare luxury), and Daisy discovered she loves chickpeas for breakfast.

6 India 11

On the most important day of Onam we headed out to Cherai Beach, along with the entire local community. The girls revelled in the sand and waves, and we all had our pictures taken with most of the locals, as the only non-Indian tourists on the beach. Unfortunately for me, Indian women don’t seem to wear swimming costumes to go into the sea, instead going in in all of their clothes. Which meant I had to do the same. A Punjabi suit does not double up as a great swimming costume, it turns out.

6 India 8