Of temples and tents
Cambodia is perfect for a family holiday
Take one child floppy from jet lag, a little grumpy round the edges, and place in the early morning light at Ta Prohm, the temple from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, a movie he (very conveniently) saw the week before. Then stand back to watch the results, a satisfied smirk on your face. As parakeets call and a soft mizzle falls, you can almost see the excitement grip him like the roots of the trees entwined around the rock.
It’s a magical place, this temple, where nature has taken over to form a fecund pastiche of trees, lichen and moss. Roots crawl along the rock like the naga (snake) statues we see everywhere here in Siem Reap. There’s even an enchanted tower, once encrusted with 100kg of gemstones where, when you stand by the wall and strike your chest, you hear the soft thud return as a magnified echo. “This is the best temple,” rhapsodises 11-year-old Christian. “You can take as many photos as you like here.” Not bad from a child who, when confronted with the wonders of Angkor Wat the day before, laid down a three-photo limit on each site we visited.
It’s here, on the first day of our trip to Cambodia, that I know this holiday is going to be a roaring success. It’s not the most obvious country to take kids to, with the atrocious 1970s genocide under Pol Pot still so raw that our tourist notes warn us not to mention the subject to the locals. Yet pretty much as soon as we touch down, a Cambodian in the immigration queue with us broaches the topic. “The Killing Fields were dreadful,” he says simply. “But that is over and now Cambodia is a different place.”
Today’s Cambodia is a compact country, easy to get around and filled with interesting sights, charming people, tasty Khmer cuisine and excellent hotels. It still has a strong spiritual side, too, with monks clad in tangerine robes, yellow parasols held high, and Angkor Wat, the biggest temple complex in the world. Not that your children are necessarily going to appreciate being taken there before dawn to see the temple mountain emerge from the night sky. Nor will they probably care about the detail of the friezes, where 37 different hairstyles are sported by more than 3000 nymphs. (However, they may perk up at the Bayon temple, known as the smiling temple because of its thousands of faces carved into the rock.)
What they will definitely appreciate are the many fun activities that can be interspersed with the tourist sites, which is why we find ourselves whooping through the trees on zip wires after our first temple run. And why, when another day brings another temple, we end up rumbling around the mud trails of the charmingly sleepy Siem Reap on a quad bike. If the first rule of a successful family holiday is to balance each tourist site with something fun, the second is to allow for plenty of lolling time by the hotel pool. And there could not be a better pool by which to loll, or indeed a Siem Reap hotel in which to stay, than Phum Baitang. Modelled on a typical Cambodian village with wooden houses on stilts, it is surrounded by paddy fields with bison and farmers in straw hats, and gives an impression of bucolic bliss but with huge dollops of luxury. The food is superb (if pricey), the villas are cocooning and the pool is the perfect place to escape the hair-frizzing, nostril-cloying humidity during our trip at the end of the monsoon, the so-called green season, roughly from May to September.
Why this is considered low season is beyond me, as it seems the perfect time to come: the temples look even more scenic in the lush setting; the paddy fields are at their best; and, crucially, there are far fewer tourists. The end of the monsoon is also the best time to see the great lake Tonle Sap, which swells to four times its dry-season size, creating unusual sights such as the “floating” stilt houses and a monastery with a submerged drawbridge. It does rain on a few occasions during our visit, great buckets of it in fact, but it’s always brief and washes the humidity away for a few hours. One such downpour happens in Phnom Penh just as we are heading out to a restaurant. Here, in the buzzy capital of about two million people, we repeat the successful formula of Siem Reap.
The Lara Croft Ta Prohm temple, top; travelling by boat on Tonle Sap lake, above right; sun bear at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, above