Thursday, April 24, 2014

Indiana Jones and Lara Croft: Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

With over 40 temples in the UNESCO World Heritage Region, we could spend every waking moment in temples on a visit to Angkor. Actually, our guide's original itinerary had about twelve temples a day. Slow down, buddy. We've got five kids along for this rodeo. So I researched. I talked with families here and read some blogs written by families that toured Siem Reap. I heard a lot about a syndrome called "temple fatigue" and aimed our visit to avoid that nasty bug. I also looked up what tour groups aimed at families have for their itineraries. Then we crafted our trip with temple time, plus a good deal of other fun-filled activities. A few friends here in KL have asked for my itinerary, so I'll include it all at the end of the post.

So can you do Angkor with kids? Yes, absolutely! Siem Reap has built up a huge tourist infrastructure--with plenty of family fun activities. And let me be totally honest, I was so hot and tired after about 3 or 4 temple hours, that I was perfectly okay to pull out "the kids need rest" excuse -- and then park myself at the pool for a nap.

Wednesday: We had a later start (about 9:30 am) because we'd just arrived from KL. We booked a guide and driver ahead of time based on suggestions from friends in KL and TripAdvisor. I highly suggest booking ahead of time. You can totally book from Siem Reap, but having someone meet us there on Day 1 was great. Also, we communicated over email so I'd already laid out expectations (meaning seriously cut down the number of temples and add in huge break times).

Due to Khmer New Year, we opted to do the far away temples of Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea on Day 1. These were great because they got the kids moving and excited. Arriving back at the hotel at 6:00 pm, we had a good hour of pool time before walking to pub street and dinner. Siem Reap has many, many dining options. The area around pub street is stacked with Khmer and western food. I found the food to be South East Asia expensive. I think with all of these food options geared toward the US dollar-based tourist, prices run high. A Khmer curry dinner was $4.50. We'd spend less than half that for a similar dish in KL. If you are traveling from the US, you'll feel it's not expensive for dinner. Traveling from SEA, you'll have sticker shock. The kids enjoyed playing cards and hanging at dinner, especially when they got their own table! After returning to the hotel, the kids collapsed into bed. Monique, Dave, Brian and I played cards in the lounge this night (...and also every night of the trip). After losing a few hands in a row, the silent killer, Monique -- with trusty partner Brian -- swept the next 5 rounds to claim victory over game night for Day 1 (...and also every night of the trip).

The kids preferred mode of transit -- the tuk tuk

Thursday: Angor Wat at sunrise meant that we had finished up this crazy amazing historical site and were back at the hotel and in the pool by 10:00 am. Our hotel had cabanas with hanging beds AND ceiling fans. Lovely! We camped out in two of these cabanas all day and ordered food (and cocktails) from the hotel. After Monique and I returned from our massages, it was time to indulge in a lovely dinner of Khmer BBQ. Khmer food is delightful. The curries have a deep depth of flavor, with lots of lemon grass, similar to Thai cuisine. However, it's not at all spicy hot.

After dinner, we went to Phare-The Cambodian Circus. About 20 years ago, a group of men coming out of refugee camps started a program to reinvigorate arts lost during the civil war and to help orphaned children. Today, the organization has grown in multi-dimensions into a performance, music, and visual arts school. We saw the performance "Panic" which loosely strings together a plot of performers auditioning for a show. The acts are similar but in smaller scale to Cirque Du Soleil, with lots of juggling and acrobatics. Tyler especially liked the spinning fire dude. Violet was invited on stage (she flew from her seat and skipped across ten rows of bleacher seats) to participate in a slight-of-hand trick with the clown. The clown gave her a sneak peak how the trick was accomplished -- and she figured it out and performed it to a huge round of applause! After the show, the performers were super game to take pictures with the kids. Fun night! I highly recommend Phare to anyone traveling to Siem Reap. I did read that the shows alternate and some have more mature themes, so check out the website to see what's playing when you visit.

Friday: As we mentioned in the Siem Reap blog Part 1, the kids were enjoying the temples, but they were also starting to have a bit of temple fatigue by day 3. So we pulled out the extra magic and rode elephants to the temples on Friday! The long 2 km ride from the east gate to the Bayon was a blast. After mounting the elephant, we crossed a long narrow bridge over the Angkor Thom moat. The bridge, leading to the ancient city wall and gate, is flanked by stunning sculptures from the Hindu story The Churning of the Sea of Milk. Of course, this means that the bridge is jam-packed with tourists -- along with tuk tuks, cars, and vans bringing the tourists up to the Bayon Temple inside the ancient walls. Along the bridge, our mischievous mahout (elephant driver) ran our elephant up alongside a large group of tourists that were lost in a picture taking moment. The elephant flapped her ears, thus gently whacking the picture takers in the backs of their heads. We loved the looks and then laughter of people turning around to see that they were standing beside... an elephant. The girls and I rode together -- check out our on-the-elephant selfie!

We headed back to the hotel about 1:00pm. After saying goodbye to our guide and driver, we jumped in the pool. Monique and I had set up some clay classes for us and the girls. So after swimming and lunch, the ladies tuk tuked over to Khmer ceramics. We did a bit of wheel work, some hand building, and some paint your own. I'd taken a few clay classes back in Baltimore. However, this wheel was driven by a foot pedal. Wow - that's a whole new physical element to throwing a pot. It was a bit frustrating for me because I didn't remember all the steps to throwing and I kept forgetting to use my leg to spin the wheel, so at key points, my wheel would stop spinning. Monique and I are going to look around KL for a wheel class! While we worked on clay...

The girls were so tired during the tuk tuk ride to dinner.
...the guys went to Ankgor Putt, Siem Reap's first putt putt golf experience. (Brian's taking over for a paragrpah or two.) Dave and I were a little skeptical as the tuk tuk turned onto a dirt road and kept going for miles out of town. Our driver had tried to convince us to pay him double to wait for us to finish our round because we would not be able to find a tuk tuk that far out. We thought he was trying to con us so we said no thank you. We saw 0 tuk tuks on the way out to this place. When he dropped us off, we offered him double but he said "sorry" and drove off. Oh well. We've been stranded in worse places in the last 9 months.

The course was small (only 14 holes) but clean and well manicured. Each hole was temple-themed, so it was kinda fun when the boys recognized they just shot a ball over the moat of Ta Prohm, etc. We were the only people on the course which meant the boys had plenty of time for extra shots, mischief, etc. Every third hole or so, there was a doorbell with a sign that said, ring the bell for drinks. $0.50 beers (which meant you had to buy 2 at a time because there was no change!) - not a bad deal on a hot day. Dave was in the driver's seat until he fell apart on the last 2 holes (must have been the $0.50 beers...). Around hole 12 we started wondering how we would get home but that's when a group of 20 Chinese tourists showed up in 10 tuk tuks. Jackpot! We got a great deal playing the driver's off against each other.

Thanks to TripAdvisor, Team Clay and Team Putt Putt had a predesignated dinner meet-up at Jungle Junction. This restaurant is an indoor (movie theater, bouncy houses) / outdoor (sandbox, trampoline) play space for kids, with pleasant outdoor seating and cold beer towers for adults. The staff at Jungle Junction babysits the kids (Monique and Dave's 2-year-old had her own handler) and gather them up for you when it's dinner time. After drinks and a nice dinner, we ordered a second tower and headed up to the family karaoke room. Despite an English karaoke song selection devoid of music written after 1989, we had a total blast. (Who knew the Dutch loved Elton John and Celine Dion so much?) After the adults sang for 30 minutes, we turned on the disco lights and gathered up the children for karaoke/dance party. AWESOME day!

Yes, that is Antonio Banderas in "Desperado" killing a bunch of guys with his guitar case full of weapons as Violet sings Hotel California.  Desperado is a great Eagles' song but I'm not sure the connection was intentional.

Saturday: No more temples on Saturday, but we were still up early to beat the heat. Today we went horseback riding at The Happy Ranch! Cambodian horses are small, so they are ideal for young riders (and short people like me). They also have a 200lb weight limit. The guides were amused that as Americans both Brian and I made the cut and were able to ride (that hadn't happened in a while). Dave and little 2-year-old V joined in the fun by riding in a cart pulled behind a horse (Dave is 6 foot 6 and didn't make the 200 lbs cut). The ride, taking us through villages and fields, gave a glimpse of rural life. The weather was hot, but the ride very pleasant. We trotted for a bit on and off. The ranch provided a team that helped lead the horses, especially for the boys. We did have a little scare when Violet fell off her horse during a trot. The horse reacted perfectly by stopping and move away from her and all the other horses stopped. She was fine, but had a sore little tush. After she dusted off, she got herself right back up on the horse and rode the rest of the ride. After living the old adage of "getting back on the horse," any sore feelings about the horses were washed away when Vi and the other kids helped bathe and groom the horses back at the stable! She did however limp around and milk the fall for frozen yogurt upon our return to town.

The stable was established by a Cambodian from Siem Reap who was working in the US embassy in Cambodia's capital in 1975 when civil war broke out. The US offered him asylum and he then lived in California for 30 years. While in the Golden State, he fell in love with horses. Returning to Cambodia a few years ago, he built and opened this beautiful ranch. I was impressed by The Happy Ranch. The stables are beautiful and horses well trained. The staff was professional in all ways -- prompt email responses to my inquiries, having cool water on hand, taking A in the ring for a few laps after the trail ride because she was still too thrilled to get off. And yes, all the kids (and me too!) want to take riding lessons. Fun fact: Cambodian horses don't eat hay and oats. They eat rice!  

We wrapped up the day by meeting Toby and his parents for dinner on Pub Street (they just happened to be visiting Siem Reap the same time we were). We found Monique a bottle of Champagne, ate brick oven pizza, and grilled up some crocodile and kangaroo (I'm not a fan).

The kids made it back to the hotel via tuk tuk, but fell asleep in the hallway before the adults could open the rooms. A great end to another amazing trip. We were thrilled to have Monique and Dave join us and hope they are on board for whatever adventures are ahead!


Transit - AirAsia, KL - Siem Reap direct flight
Accommodations - Family room at Memoire D' Angkor in Siem Reap, breakfast included

Guide, Mr. Borey. Arranged with

* Banteay Srei
* Beng Mealea
* (We'd planned to go to the Landmine Museum, but ran out of time and energy.)
* Swimming
* Dinner

* Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Hotel prepared a to-go breakfast.
* Swimming
* Ta Promh temple
* Phare Circus

* Elephant ride into east gate of Angkor Thom to the Bayon. Elephant rides start at 7:30.
* Bayon
* Walk to several other smaller temples, terrace of the elephants, terrace of the leper king
* Swim
* Clay at Khmer cermaics --
* Angkor Putt Putt --
* Dinner - Jungle Junction --

* Two hour horseback trail ride --
* Swim
* (We wanted to take an afternoon cooking class, but couldn't get it arranged. Cooking classes at Le Tigre De Papier get excellent reviews.)
* Dinner - Le Tigre De Papier --

* Early am flight back to KL

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Indiana Jones and Lara Croft: The Temples

It's spring break for Garden International School. Of course there's not really a spring in KL's consistently tropical weather; nonetheless, the kids are on a two week holiday.

We spent the first week of break hanging out, completing the "Marvel Movie Challenge" (the kids challenged themselves to watch the Marvel superhero movies from Iron Man 1 through Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one week), swimming, visiting friends, and doing craft projects. Somewhere between Marvel and crafting, Tyler decided he wanted to make a Hawkeye costume (No, not the guy from MASH; the Marvel bow and arrow sharpshooter also nicknamed Hawkeye). We had excellent results from instructions we found online -- plus the kids now know all about PVC pipe fitting, including purchasing, cutting, drilling, and cementing PVC (

We also had a visit from Brian's friend from medical school, Walter Cheng! Walter's parents live in Taipei, Taiwan and when he heads to Asia to visit them, he enjoys taking a side trip somewhere in Asia. This visit he side-tripped over to KL for a few days. While catching up over some char kuey teow, Walter was pleased to hear the kids' basic Mandarin skills. Upon learning that the kids don't yet have Chinese names, Walter decided to create names for them. And he didn't just give the kids names, he also found a carver in KL's Chinatown area and had official hand-carved name seals made for Violet and Tyler -- or should I say 高愛樂  and 高太樂. Name seals are an important part of Chinese culture. The seals can be registered with the government and used with an ink (often a bright red ink) for official transactions, in a similar way to how we use our signature. Love you, Walter! Next time, we'll meet you and Courtney in Taipei.

Also during spring break we celebrated Passover with Ethan and his mother, Louise (Robin, A, and J hadn't yet returned from their spring break trip to the Philippines). What a fantastic evening! We loved seeing the family's collection of Passover Haggadah from across the years and sharing in the blessings, songs, food, and wine. Thank you for sharing the Passover Seder with us! As you can see from the picture below, Violet has very much missed matzo. Someone heading out here from Baltimore -- please bring us a couple boxes of matzo ball soup mix! :o)

For the second part of Spring Break, we visited Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the ancient Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat. Of course we first did our homework -- we watched a National Geographic special on YouTube -- my selection. And then Brian made us watch Tomb Raider! (

We were really pumped that Monique, Dave, and their kids decided to join us for the holiday. They were not at all phased when I sent them the Excel spreadsheet itinerary. Although they cheerfully pointed out when we diverged from the itinerary and asked why they didn't receive a memo, in triplicate, noting the deviation from aforementioned spreadsheet! Yep, I love traveling with these guys. We took so many pictures and had such a blast in Siem Reap, that I've broken the blog into two parts. First I'll share our temple experience. In the next post, I'll discuss adventures beyond the temples. I've been asked by a couple people how doable Siem Reap is with kids, so I'll post our itinerary (updated with changes) in the next blog entry as well.

So Cambodia is a quick direct two hour AirAsia flight from KL. Cambodia was home to the Khmer Empire, which consolidated and controlled the region from about 800 - 1400. The Empire formed huge cities with vast irrigation networks to enable large scale rice farming to support the population. The Khmers adopted Hinduism from India and it was during the Hindu period that kings ruling the Empire built huge temples as monuments to the gods (and to the king). Visiting the ruins of these temples is the major attraction in Siem Reap. AirAsia's early morning flight put us in our hotel, Memoire D'Angkor ( at 9 am. Our guide, Mr. Borey, met us at the hotel. We'd originally planned to visit Angkor Wat first, but Borey suggested we change the itinerary because our arrival day was the final day of the Khmer New Year. As we traveled out of town, we saw truckloads of people (really -- hundreds of people riding in the back of trucks) coming into Angkor Wat to celebrate. So good call, Mr. Borey!

The entire Angkor complex is managed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site ( Foreign visitors must purchase passes for entry anywhere into the vast complex area. The efficient pass purchasing system included snapping a digital photo for the pass. The passes for 3 days cost $40 US dollars (with kids under age 12 free). By the way, in the tourist town of Siem Reap and across the Angkor sites, the US dollar is the currency of transaction. Everything from street vendors to restaurant menus quote prices only in USDs. The ATMs dispense greenbacks. You'd think this would make it easy, but for a reference point--and for our Dutch friends--we kept converting back to Malaysian Ringgit (to then mentally be converted to Euros...).  They have dollars but no coins, so almost everything, regardless of size or actual value, costs a dollar.  Cab ride? 1 dollar.  Coconut? 1 dollar.  Beer?  1 dollar.  Piece of gum?  1 dollar.

Our visit took us to the first temple site of Banteay Srei, also called the Pink Lady temple. This was a great temple to view first because it is smaller in scale with very intricate carvings in the pink sandstone. Mr. Borey began introducing us to temple construction and decoration terms, as well as many Hindu figures and stories that we would see in temple motifs here and across the Angkor complexes. Banteay Srei was rediscovered by the French in 1914. As the French were clearing and reconstructing temples in Angkor, they selected Banteay Srei as the first temple for reconstruction in a processes called anastylosis, a technique developed by the Dutch in Indonesia (at Borobudur! see our post from January) in which the ruins are cleared, cleaned, and restored using architectural building techniques as similar as possible to the original construction. At Banteay Srei we also grabbed a shady spot under a tree to hear a band play music with indigenous instruments. This sparked Brian's intrigue about the music and he ended up later purchasing a tror chhe, a two stringed fiddle in which the hairs of the bow pass through metal strings and the resonator is covered with a snake skin front.

After a pretty bad lunch at Banteay Srei, we headed out to Beng Mealea, a temple still very much in ruins. This temple, about 40 km outside of the main group of Angkor temples, permits climbing up the large heaps of stone.  The kids put on their Indiana Jones and Lara Croft personas and ran up and down the stone piles. Beng Mealea is one of the larger temples in the region and is also contemporary in age and building styles with Angkor Wat. In its ruinous state we were able to see the building construction with the inner laterite stone and outer sandstone. The half collapsed galleries provided us a cross sectional view of roof building techniques. It's also shady, uncrowded and just a very pleasant temple to visit.


The kids saw a big group of Chinese tourist young adults doing
a jump shot in front of Beng Mealea--they had the camera
on a tripod and all. Of course our kids joined the photo session!

Beng Mealea was only opened to the public about 10 years ago after extensive minefield clearing. Landmines are a devastating part of Cambodia's recent past. Under the Khmer Rouge and throughout Cambodia's civil war, all sides of the war planted an estimated 4 to 6 MILLION landmines. The US sadly had a hand in these cold war era tragedies. Landmines kill. But landmines also tear off legs and arms -- Cambodia's amputee rate is about one in 290, the highest in the world. Landmines are also devastating to the rural economy when farmers cannot plow their land for fear of the mines. I remember one of my public health classes in college discussing the Cambodian landmine crisis. This was somewhere around 1998 when the Khmer Rouge had finally fallen and the landmine clearing efforts were just beginning. Today, the temple is open and cows graze in the fields surrounding the temple. Sadly, there are said to still be a million landmines buried in the Cambodian forests and countryside. I found a very moving piece in National Geographic about landmine clearing. Check it out:

Thursday morning got us up super early to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The hotel packed us to-go breakfast boxes and we were out the door, breakfast in hand, a few minutes after 5 am. Angkor Wat's complex is massive. In this modern era I can't even begin to understand the vast engineering endeavor that was undertaken to build this temple. King Suryavarman II began construction of the temple around 1120 AD taking about 35 years to build. Because the foundation is on a huge flood plain that swells with seasonal rains and then substantially dries out in the dry season, building this temple took engineering genius. The temple is surrounded by a huge moat that is fed by the nearby river. Underground channels keep the sand foundation of Angkor Wat at a constant dampness from water flowing from the moat, thus retaining a consistent foundation. Pretty amazing. All the stones of Angkor Wat are laid without mortar and the seams are near perfect. They also employed a lot of woodworking techniques to fit stones together with essentially stone dowels (or as Tyler called them, "Giant heavy rock legos!")

The temple's decoration is beautiful. The outermost walls of Angkor Wat are surrounded by open air (and open light) galleries with bas reliefs. The reliefs were carved after the giant stones were set in place. I included a few pictures of the reliefs to try to give a sense of detail and scale. They are amazing! Unlike other temples in the region, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. The highest area of the temple was converted from Hindu to Buddhist and is still a holy site. Fun fact: a profile of Angkor Wat is on the Cambodian flag.

Photo credit: Violet

A close up of a bas relief to show detail
A bas relief to show scale. This is the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
We saw this Hindu story portrayed multiple times in sculpture and relief across the Angkor temples.  

I took this picture to show the scale. We'd already cross over one of the
outer areas and up several flights of steps. And yes, those are the boys
at the base of the wall!

A view from the top of Angkor Wat.

I'm so very glad we visited at sunrise. In addition to seeing the
beautiful sunrise, we were walking out as hundreds of tourists walked in!
We wrapped up our visit to Angkor Wat around 9:30 and headed back to the hotel for second breakfast (yes - the amazing food in Malaysia has turned us into hobbits) and a much needed coffee. After swimming and relaxing, we jumped back in the van at 3:00 to head to Ta Prohm, AKA "The Tomb Raider Temple". I haven't yet mentioned that Siem Reap in April is very hot. Like sweating through your clothes at 9 am hot. Like can't go out at noon because you'll collapse hot. Like apply sunscreen every hour hot. (I live in the tropics, so I hate to complain about heat. But this was hot!) When archaeologists were clearing and reconstructing the Angkor temples, they opted to repair Ta Prohm while keeping the trees very much in the wild state in which they were found when Ta Prohm was rediscovered. This is the temple with the massive tree roots that pour over and through the temple walls. The temple is a burial monument and monastery, so there are many small rooms and burial pits. It's a great place for photos and a great place to "discover" cool nooks.  See if you can spot the place where Lara Croft found the jasmine and fell through the roots of the tree to the hidden temple below. Violet and Tyler are into Lara Croft. As Violet remarked as we were watching our post-trip decompression edition of Tomb Raider, "She's just like Indiana Jones, except she's a girl - that's cool!"

Our third day in Siem Reap was our final day temple-ing. We sensed that the kids were probably getting a little weary of temples by day 3 so we pulled out some extra magic for the Angkor Thom visit - elephants. That's right, we rode 2 km through the East gate of the complex on the backs of Asian pachyderms! Tyler was beside himself with glee when he saw Violet's elephant poop on the trail. The kids also got to feed the elephants whole pineapples which was pretty fun to watch.

Angkor Thom is a sprawling temple city that includes a number of large and interesting temples. It is probably best known for its multiple towers that have large stone faces pointing in each of the cardinal directions. There are various theories as to who the faces represent but they are probably all depictions of Jayarvarman VII, the king that built this temple. JV, as Brian likes to call him, was pretty cool. He was known as a man of the people. During his reign he built a lot of temples but he also built rest houses for travelers every 15 km along main roads and he constructed over 100 hospitals. The healing pools where sick people would communally bathe (including lots of folks with leprosy), was probably not the best public health idea, but his heart was definitely in the right place.

Probably the coolest temple we visited in the complex was the Bayon, JV's state temple. The stone reliefs depicting both battles and daily life were among the most detailed and interesting that we saw during our visit. The moat surrounding the city was at one time filled with crocodiles for defensive purposes so their were lots of scenes of enemy soldiers being eaten by crocodiles (Tyler especially loved the reliefs. They also provided the motivation for our BBQ crocodile dinner - but more on that in the non-temple blog).

Pausing for a few minutes to build their own temples...

JV was a Buddhist so Bayon has a lot of Buddha reliefs and places to pray and meditate. Violet was particularly interested when Mr. Borey taught the kids how to bow to family, friends and elders and took it upon herself to teach Dave and Monique's youngest daughter the proper technique!

Overall, our temple experience in Siem Reap was a combination of fun and engaging physical activities with the kids and great opportunities to learn about ancient Khmer history, culture and building techniques. We hope to return at some point in the next two years!

Our guide, Mr. Borey, was outstanding!