What I Learnt in Phnom Penh

  • I can travel solo.
  • I can overcome the anxiety of leaving my children at home and fly to another country. For me it’s not the separation from my girls but the flying without them. I have “If this plane goes down they won’t have a mother” anxiety.
  • Countries that have wars in their recent history seem to have the friendliest, happiest people. Ok, so this is a complete generalisation but it is what I felt in both Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
  • Wondering through markets without kids is a completely different experience than doing it with kids. I could take my time.
  • Hotel accommodation is ridiculously cheap. I went completely over the top and paid $100US for a room with a private pool. Given I’ve been checking accommodation prices in London, where a generic hotel room will set you back at least $300 per night, this seemed such a steal.
  • You only need step outside your hotel and stand on a corner to observe the Cambodian lifestyle. Their life is lived pretty much on the street.
  • There is nothing like a morning of people watching in another country.
  • From taxi drop off to airport lounge took 5 minutes tops. That’s for check-in, passport control and baggage scan.
  • I’m not comfortable bargaining. I will do it, but then I usually pay them what they asked initially anyway. First world guilt.
  • When travelling by yourself it’s a good idea to hire a tuk tuk and driver for the whole morning or day, as then you have someone waiting for you when you emerge from wherever it is you’ve been. Or if you don’t emerge someone at least knows that you’re missing. Not that I have anxiety issues or anything….
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The view from a tuk tuk.

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Pig’s heads in the Russian Market.

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Street food at the Night Market.

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Petrol station Cambodian-style.

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Head shaving on the riverfront.

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Lotus flower sellers on the riverfront.

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Brotherly love.

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Offerings.

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What I Learnt in the Maldives

  • the country is pronounced Maldeeves, not Maldyves as I have always said.
  • sand can be so brilliantly white it hurts your eyes and you have to walk from your shaded sun lounger into the water with your eyes closed.

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  • Nemo’s dad was right – the drop off is scary! I am not a scuba diver but will happily snorkel on the surface, but when I stared from the surface into the abyss of the 30 foot drop off all I could feel was blind panic. Who knows what’s down there?
  • I can snorkel near reef sharks that are under about 4 foot but any longer than that and that blind panic sets in again.
  • the photos that I’ve seen of the Maldives in travel brochures probably aren’t photoshopped, the water really is that colour. It’s a country full of turquoise!
  • my “once in a lifetime” trip probably won’t be once in a lifetime. I’d better start saving.

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Travelling Like A Local

Our recent trip to Sri Lanka was a busy one insofar as we moved hotel almost every night.  On a map the distances around Sri Lanka don’t look that great and it appears to be feasible to base yourself somewhere and do lots of day trips with a return to the same hotel every night. But a hundred kilometres in Sri Lanka is not equivalent to a hundred kilometres in most other countries as the top speed you can logistically do is often around 40km/h.  The roads are winding and narrow, with cars sharing the road with tuk tuks, cows, buses, trucks, bikes and pedestrians (footpaths aren’t really a thing in Sri Lanka).

So, we moved from place to place and adjusted to the slower than usual travel pace.

It was suggested when we were planning our itinerary that we should catch the train that runs from the high country area of Nuwara Eliya to Ella as it travels through some really beautiful countryside and it turned out to be one of the travel highlights of my life. And all for only 60 cents (Singapore) an adult and half of that for the kids!

As we wanted to catch the early train that departs Nanu Oya station at 9.30am we didn’t have a choice of classes – so we travelled in Third Class. This had actually been our plan all along so it didn’t bother us at all but it did bewilder our driver a little.

The distance travelled is only about 30 kilometres but it took 3.5 hours to get to Ella with a few lengthy (but interesting) stops at stations along the way.

I can’t rave about this journey enough. I loved the scenery.  I loved sitting in the open doorway and waving to people we passed. I loved that when I offered a lollipop to the Sri Lanka girl across the aisle she checked with her father before saying yes. Never take lollies from a stranger translates across cultures.  I even loved how cold it got as we climbed to the highest peak of just over 1900 metres, and then how quickly it warmed up as we descended to 1200 metres at Ella.

Should you go to Sri Lanka you have to this train trip and I’d really encourage you to travel like a local – and save yourself some cash!

The departure board at Nanu Oya.

The departure board at Nanu Oya.

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The tea fields covered in mist.

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We saw people waiting along the track & men on the train throwing parcels to them. Mail delivery, I guess.

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I was surprised to travel through eucalypt forests. It reminded me of home.

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Even the locals like to hang out the windows.

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Traders selling goods as we were stopped at a station.

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Two snakes “dancing”. Well…that’s what we told the Little Missy they were doing!

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Ice-cream, anyone?

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The Third Class carriage.

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Sitting in the doorway watching the world go by.

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The high point.

What I Learnt in ……… Sri Lanka

I learnt quite a lot during our 9 day trip around Sri Lanka, which is hardly surprising as all I really knew was they loved cricket and the Tamil Tigers were involved in a war there.  Needless to say I had big knowledge gaps to fill and here’s some of what I learnt:

  • they really, really love cricket. And they really, really love it when they meet Australians when Sri Lanka have just knocked us out of the Champion’s Trophy competition in London.
    Galle Cricket Ground. We don't like cricket, no! We love it!

    Galle Cricket Ground. We don’t like cricket, no! We love it!

  • they have more public holidays than anywhere else in the world. A quick Google tells me this year there are TWENTY SIX public holidays. that’s just one day over FIVE working weeks.  There is a public holiday (called poya) for every full moon. Our final day was Poya Day. There was no alcohol being served, shops were shut, temples were in full swing and there were tents set up along every road where they were handing out free food and drinks.
  • the high country around Nuwara Eliya is very, very cold in June. We really should have chosen a guesthouse with heating.
  • a 60 cent Third Class train ticket for the 3.5 hour trip from Nanu Oya to Ella is the best 60 SG cents you will ever, ever spend.
  • 500 rupees slipped to a policeman will get you out of a fine for not paying the registration/road tax on your vehicle.
  • 70 kilometres can take 2 or more hours to drive when you have to dodge tuk tuks, cows, pedestrians and buses.
  • rice and curry is good. It’s very, very good.
    Rice and curry. It's always a minimun of 5 curries and a salad to accompany the rice. So good!

    Rice and curry. It’s always a minimun of 4 curries and a salad to accompany the rice. So good!

  • not all milkshakes are equal. The missies were served milkshakes at the first 5 hotels we stayed at, but the fifth hotel brought milkshake consumption to a sudden, explosive end and scuttled our plans for a safari around Yala National park. Lesson learned.
  • it costs nothing to smile, and Sri Lanka is a land of smiles.  I think this struck me so much as Singaporeans are generally very guarded. When I smile at people as I walk along the street in Singapore (as is completely normal in Australia) they look startled and ready to call the police. Sadly, that’s not even an exaggeration.  In Sri Lanka everybody you pass (unless it’s very crowded) makes eye contact and smiles, and if you’ve just lost to them in the cricket they’ll pass comment on it.
  • there are places in the world where grown men will still play like boys without getting drunk. I noticed during our days at Unawatuna that young Sri Lanka are quite happy to hang out at the beach and play like boys. They splash about in the water, bury each other in the sand, wrestle and have no problems with physical contact with other men. In Australia it is only permissible for men to show affection for other men if they are drunk, when they will happily fling an arm around a mate and slur “I love youse, mate”.  I loved the way Sri Lankan men seem uninhibited in the way they interact with their friends. (As an aside I didn’t see any groups of Sri Lanka women hanging out at the beach….)
    Hanging out with friends in the waves.

    Hanging out with friends in the waves.

Travelling with Kids

Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends about travelling with kids. We have travelled a lot since we relocated. We choose travel over having a live-in maid.  Travel is our “thing”.

The Missies at Bayon Temple, Cambodia.

So, it seems that I am somewhat of an expert on travelling with kids so thought I’d write out some of the things we take into consideration when travelling.

FLIGHTS

Within Asia the flight times are usually under 4 hours and don’t require too much forward planning for those of us with older kids (meaning there are no nappies/diapers, bottle, sleeps, buggies to deal with).  If at all possible I will avoid night flights, but if we do have to travel through the night I make sure we don’t have much planned for the next day in order to give us all time to recover.

In an ideal world I would fly every trip with Singapore Airlines but price usually dictates that we take budget carriers which translates as no seat back entertainment or food.  My girls both have a smallish backpack that is their “travel pack”. They are responsible for stocking it before we leave with whatever they think will entertain them in transit. I’m a bit old school and don’t allow electronic devices when we are at our destination but do allow them when we are in transit, so we have a few movies and such loaded onto their ipods.

In my backpack I have a change of clothes (thin ones like a t-shirt & leggings. Leggings are totally pants when travel is concerned), wet wipes, my kindle and a camera. After being completely overloaded with carry-on luggage during my first long haul flight with the girls (to Germany in 2010) I try to carry on as little as is practically possible.

I keep all of our travel documents in a plastic zippered pouch in my handbag.

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Loola Resort on Bintan Island, Indonesia.

ACCOMMODATION

I have to admit I can happily spend days choosing where to stay on our trips. TripAdvisor is my best friend (just weed out the perpetual complainers).

There’s a few things that I consider when choosing where to stay.

Firstly, it has to be child friendly with some sort of activity for kids whether it be a pool or a kid’s club.  I need somewhere the kids can let off steam as not everything we do or see on a trip is of interest to the kids.  For some reason they weren’t all that interested in the history of Hellfire Pass in Thailand but we rewarded them with a long swim in the hotel pool afterwards.

Secondly, price. Despite what many think of expats we are not made of money, so price is always a consideration. We are heading to the Maldives in August and price was a huge consideration in where we chose to stay. Those picture postcards over-water villas will set you back $1300 US per night, so we are staying on land!

Thirdly, do they have 2 bedroom units or is the cost cheap enough to afford 2 interconnecting rooms? I am not a fan of sleeping in the same room as my kids!  None of us sleep well when we are all together and having some extra space keeps us all happier. Most Asian hotels online booking systems are only set-up to accommodate 2 adults and 1 child in a room and prompt you to book another room if you have more than one child.  Something I’ve learned is that if you email the hotel directly and ask if you can have 2 adults & 2 kids in a room you can usually do it, thereby saving you a heap of cash. (On an upcoming trip to Sri Lanka we well be staying in the one room together. I was set on staying in this hotel but it was $$$$$$$ so I had to make a compromise!)

Before you book have a look at the TripAdvisor reviews, but I always discount a few grumpy pants reviews.  There are many online booking sites that purport to offer the cheapest room rates available but always cross check with the hotel themselves as often the price on the hotel’s own website is cheaper.  If the booking sites are indeed cheaper you can book with them or you can ask the hotel to price match.  I’ve not had a problem with third-party booking sites, but do always email the hotel before we leave to make sure that my booking has made it into their system.

SIGHTSEEING

The LM dancing as the sunsets over Phuket, Thailand.

The LM dancing as the sunsets over Phuket, Thailand.

We have had many different sorts of trips in the past 2 years. Some involve nothing more than strolling to the buffet breakfast and then to the pool. Some have us heading out to see stuff every morning at ridiculous o’clock. We try to balance the relaxing and the cultural, but if we are doing a trip that involves sightseeing we will always try to arrange a private tour.  Yes, it’s more expensive than jumping on a coach tour but I like the peace of mind of knowing that if my kids have their cranky pants on then it is only us that they are annoying, not 45 other people on the bus.  We also love the flexibility of a private tour as sometimes we might want to spend more time at one place, or head back to our accommodation if the kids are really not co-operating.

HEALTH

Before leaving Australia we were all vaccinated up to our eyeballs, but there’s still precautions we take. We never, ever, ever drink or use the tap water for toothbrushing.  We have a small travel medical kit that contains ibuprofen, paracetamol, anti-diarrhoea meds, rehydration powders, band aids, itch cream, Savlon, bandage, saline solution, some generic antibiotics and a few other bits and pieces.  We have excellent travel insurance courtesy of my husband’s work, but check your policy before travelling and purchase extra if you think you’ll need it. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

Hellfire Pass, Thailand.

Hellfire Pass, Thailand.

DESTINATIONS

Phuket (4 times), Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Bintan Island (Malaysia), Sibu Island (Malaysia), Sri Lanka, Bali, Kuching (Malaysia), The Maldives – this is the roll call of places we’ve visited in the past 2 years.  There’s honestly no place in Asia I can think of that I wouldn’t travel to with my kids (well, OK, North Korea!).  It really comes down to what you want to see and experience.  My travel bucket list 2 years ago was Cambodia and Halong Bay, so we ticked those off in our first big trip.  The kids’ bucket list was Disneyland and having their hair corn-rowed. Again, those were ticked off quickly so we are now casting our travel net wider and considering places I could barely locate on a map a few years ago. Just recently I read an article on Mongolia that planted a seed.

PLANNING

You can only plan so much.  Things will go wrong. Planes will be late. Kids will get sick/bored/hot/cold/grumpy. Hotels will not be what they advertise. You have to be a little chilled and not sweat the small things.

Last week I asked the Big Missy if she was glad that we moved. She wasn’t particularly thrilled in the first few months here so I was interested in her answer and delighted that she gave a resounding “YES” and then provided the following (which should stand her in good stead should she ever decide to become Miss Universe):

“Because I’m more open-minded now. I used to think poor countries were a bit yuck but after I went to Cambodia, and it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, I knew that the people are really nice and kind and that’s what’s important.”

I’ve yet to go to an Asian country that didn’t welcome my kids and make them feel special (at times it seems like every second person in Asia has a photo of my girls. It seems to be quite the thing to take photos of Western kids!).  There is always food available that kids (and the grown-ups!) will eat. Chicken nuggets and chips seem to be available in every country, and some of the best lamb I’ve ever eaten was in Phnom Penh.

Kids don’t care what country they are in or what they have seen they just need some room to run wild at some point during the day!

Go on! Book a trip today!

Our Cambodian Ramble

Here’s my guilty secret – prior to moving to Asia I had no interest in travelling in Asia. None. At all.  To me, Asia was a place you transitted in on your way to other places.

My husband being offered a job in Asia is, I believe, the universe sending me a message to put aside my judgements and go with the flow!  And I am extraordinarily glad to have the opportunity to travel in Asia and Cambodia was the first ‘must do’ on our Asian travel list.

It was only when we were in Cambodia that I asked my husband if Cambodia was where the Australian man David Wilson was kidnapped and executed in the mid-90’s.  I have a hazy recollection of thinking only completely crazy people would travel to such a country.  I guess that makes me completely crazy.

Here’s a ramble through some of our Cambodia trip:

  • In Siem Reap we stayed at the Siddharta Hotel. It was lovely and we had two adjoining rooms (BIG adjoining rooms) for $99 a night. This also included breakfast, a massage each, one dinner/lunch, a tuk tuk with driver and a Playstation in the kid’s bedroom. As our girls  have minimal electronic gadgets so they thought this was heaven.  The hotel is very clean and stylish, the staff are friendly and there’s a gorgeous salt water pool. As it was low season less than 1/5 of the rooms were occupied. My only niggle was that it was tricky to get the hot water going and the house next door (I believe it belongs to the governor of Siem Reap) has a little dog that barks all night. And I mean ALL NIGHT. Yap, yap, yap, yap.  The hotel is mid-way between Pub Street and Angkor Wat, so it’s not where the action is, but that suited us fine and was quite fortuitous as the river and the surrounding area was badly flooded.

  • The people of Cambodia are a delight.  Not once during our weeks stay did we witness any Cambodians angry or frustrated or annoyed. They seem so happy and I can only contribute this to the traumatic history of their recent past.  Little irritations must seem so insignificant when until recently you lived in  a strife-torn country.
  • The temples around Siem Reap are amazing. Astonishing. Astounding.  But temple fatigue sets in quickly so, if you possibly can, space out your temple-hopping. Seeing more than two in a day could leave you dizzy.  Also, try and visit temples when they are the least busy, your driver or guide should be able to advise you on this.  Arriving at a site the same time as 4 tour buses will hamper your enjoyment.  Our guide got us to Ta Prhom just past 8am when it was at its quietest and it certainly added to our visit.

  • Cambodian food is delicious. I highly recommend the lok lak and the amok.
  • The airports at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were a surprise – clean, modern and efficient!  I was expecting something similar to what we experienced in Harare, which was little more than a tin shed.
  • Phnom Penh doesn’t have a heap of touristy things to do, and several aren’t suitable for the Missies so we stayed in the Sofitel and left the girls in the Kids Club.  We went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum (better known as S-21), and my husband went to the Killing Fields the next day on his own.  I found the museum upsetting, but I’m glad I went.  It’s a very raw museum, very graphic.  There are blood splatters on the ceiling and floors and photographs of the dead bodies that were in the rooms after the Khmer Rouge fled.
  • My girls favourite place in Phnom Penh was undoubtably The Russian Market, and seeing it on The Amazing Race a few days before we left gave it added interest. It has most of the usual knick-knacks you find throughout Asia, but it had a great ‘vibe’.  We also loved having dinner at Sisowath Quay and watching people (and elephants) pass up and down the street.

We are very keen to return to Cambodia, particularly to the south.

The Happiest Place on Earth

As a kid Sunday night was Disney night.  We’d scoff our tomato soup and buttered bread (Sunday night was always an ‘easy dinner’) and be freshly bathed and PJ’d ready for the start of The Wonderful World of Disney at 6.30pm.  If you missed it, you missed it.  There were no VCRs, DVDs, or you tube to catch up with it later.

We’d watch the opening scenes of kids enjoying the REAL Disneyland in amazement.  Those kids were so lucky and must’ve been American as no-one I knew as a kid ever went to Disneyland. People just didn’t travel overseas then.

This past weekend my girls had a five-day weekend courtesy of National Day here in Singapore and the great Australian tradition of “Pupil Free Days”. Sorry, I mean Curriculum Days. Whatever.

Anyways, to celebrate Singapore’s 46th birthday we went to Hong Kong Disneyland. Makes perfect sense, huh?

We flew Jetstar.  They were neither great, nor bad, and the highlight of the flight was sharing breathing space with one of the original Popstar girls from Bardot.  I should be embarrassed to admit I knew who she was straight away, but I’m not as I was addicted to that show and even have their first CD to prove it.

We went all out on this trip and stayed in a Balcony Seaview room at the Disneyland Hotel.  The hotel is Victorian in style and the attention to detail is amazing (which made up for the completely tramatic check-in).  There are little Disney touches everywhere, which i found quite charming as it wasn’t completely over-the-top.

As this was a birthday trip for the two Missies we splashed out a considerable amount of cash on dinner in the Enchanted Garden restaurant with the Disney characters.  We dined with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto, which gave the big kids as much of a thrill as it did the little kids.  Surprisingly, the buffet was FABULOUS.  The food was plentiful, well cooked and top quality. Even my husband, who is very quick to criticise restaurant food agreed that it was amazing.

Disneyland Hong Kong is a little kids dream come true.  All the iconic Disney rides are there – Teacups, Flying Dumbos, Small World.  Disney characters appear regularly and I was thrilled (and a bit puzzled) that I was allowed to take my own photos, negating the need to buy those snapped by the Disney photographer.  My girls got to meet all their favourite characters, and even one bear called Duffy who I’ve never seen or heard of before.  Although, for some strange reason, Donald Duck seems to have disappeared.

We copped the two hottest days of the year in Hong Kong.  It was so hot I could wring the sweat out of my bra, and at one stage I had a a pool of sweat in my EARS.  Fortunately, staying at the Disneyland Hotel meant we could catch the handy dandy shuttle back to the hotel in the afternoon and return for the night session when it was a little cooler to catch the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

I’m not sure why queueing turns reasonable people into maniacs but it became a recurring theme in our visit.  It’s A Small World did not have a line (which was a shame as the queueing area had air conditioning!), but people would still RUN to the boats like they were in the finale of The Amazing Race.

I think it’s fair to say that certain cultures have different levels of respect for those already in the queue ahead of them.  On the Jungle Cruise a family of five carved a path from the back of the 25 minute queue to the very front, stepping on the Big Missy’s foot and pushing the Little Missy’s head into the railing.  We comforted our kids, raised bemused eyebrows at each other and got on with waiting.  To our surprise, the Disneyland staff member gave them avery animated  five minute tongue lashing, which we couldn’t understand given our non-existant Chinese language skills but they did not board the boat.  Yay, for the Disneyland lady!

We spent our last full day escaping the Disney bubble and headed in to Kowloon. We did a cruise on Victoria Harbour, strolled around, had a sensational dinner at a Chinese restaurant with my husband’s colleague and caught the MTR back to the Disney bubble.

It was such a wonderful weekend (despite the oppressive heat) and is certainly a weekend that will live in our memories forever.