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

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