Of tem­ples and tents

Cam­bo­dia is per­fect for a fam­ily hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - JANE KNIGHT

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

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