A family trip to Cambodia is built for adventure

Its brutal past cannot be denied, but a transforming Cambodia can be a magical place to take children, writes Paul Chai.

'Dad, what does 'genocide' mean?"

It's one of those questions parents avoid if they can, but my seven-year-old son has been reading over my shoulder as I study a book for our trip to Cambodia.

In the past few decades the country has seen a perfect storm of tragedy - poor education, a self-serving monarchy, political infighting and revolution - all of which culminated in the Khmer Rouge's tyranny where an estimated 2 million people died.

Pol Pot's four-year reign of terror is incomprehensible to most adults, so explaining it to a child is nigh on impossible and it's this history - and the uncomfortable questions from kids - that mean Cambodia is not always high on the list of family travel destinations.

But as a new generation of Cambodians seeks to move forward the country is looking to the positive: the temples in Siem Reap, the renewed energy around the capital, the great international restaurants and local cuisine.

Our base for our trip is the White Mansion hotel in Phnom Penh, the one-time US embassy-turned-boutique-hotel that immediately establishes its kid-friendly credentials by presenting our two sons, four and seven, with teddy bears.

Later, hitting the expat-friendly strip at Street 240 we uncover my parenting Holy Grail, a kid-friendly speakeasy - Bar.sito, down the quaint, elbow-shaped alley known as 240½. The bar is dark and brooding in decor but staff greet our kids like they are Norm from Cheers.

I grab a Citrus Angel - tequila, Cointreau, lime, orange and grapefruit juice - my wife takes a glass of sauvignon blanc and the kids share a schnitzel as big as their heads.


We are journeying up to Siem Reap by car and it takes just a short ride out of town to see the crippling poverty that remains as a results of Cambodia's tumultuous past.

When we arrive at La Residence d'Angkor, our Siem Reap oasis with a dark-wood retro-colonial feel set in a walled garden, we hit the pool, then it's a dust-settling Angkor beer in the Martini Bar amid black-and-white photos of the temples we will visit tomorrow. Early.

To avoid temple fatigue among the little people, I have been working on a long-term plan; a steady drip feed of Indiana Jones bedtime stories. Yes, I'm reducing an entire 13th century civilisation to Hollywood cliches, but the strategy worked. What I didn't expect was to be filled with child-like delight myself; that was the effect of dawn on Bayon Temple. On a tip, we let the busloads of tourists watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat and made straight for Bayon, having it all to ourselves for the briefest of moments.

Later, we head down into the bowels of the temple via a precarious staircase and still the temple's giant faces are keeping an implacable eye on us as the kids make shadow puppets against the grizzled walls.

We move on to Ta Prohm, the temple famous for swallowing up Lara Croft, and for having its ruins slowly hugged into rubble by the roots of the soaring Tetrameles nudiflora trees. Not once are the kids bored.

The whole time the town of Siem Reap hums like a hornets' nest with tuk-tuks buzzing in and out in all directions and, for our younger son, Cambodia, will always be about the tuk-tuks, which he hangs out the side of like an excited puppy.

On our last night in Siem Reap he hits the mother lode. We wave down a Batman-themed "disco-tuk" which pumps dance music from its tiny, overloaded speakers. "Dad, I don't know what's cooler, the Batman or the music," he beams, shrugging his shoulders to the beat.

It's four hours past bedtime, he's wired and has a smile as wide as The Joker.

As he proved before we left, our older son is of the age where the obvious poverty bothers him and he picks up on our talk of mass murder and landmines.

So when we return to Phnom Penh we take the boys to the Bophana Audiovisual Centre, set up by filmmaker Rithy Panh, who was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his film The Missing Picture.

The centre is a huge archive of photos and videos, and it allows you to curate a history of the war-torn nation that is both truthful and palatable to young minds.

Over the next few days we can see Phnom Penh is a city that is regaining its sense of fun. The kids don't know where to look; they watch street vendors squeeze sugar cane into juice with a silver wheel and sweeten it with honeycomb so fresh that bees still buzz around the box in which it's kept; they chase pigeons outside the Royal Palace and are always amazed by the geckos that plaster the city's walls.

When we're all tired out we retire to the Foreign Correspondents Club with views of the popular riverside promenade and the point where the Mekong River and Tonle Sap lake converge. This was once a hub of journalists reporting on Cambodia's political upheaval. Now I'm happy to report that the kids have swapped their "Are we there yets?" for "When are we coming back?".

The writer travelled at his own expense.



Singapore Airlines operates flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Phnom Penh aboard its SilkAir subsidiary with connections in Singapore. See singaporeair.com.


Rooms at White Mansion, 26 Street 240, Phnom Penh, start from $US180 ($195) a night, see hotelphnompenh-whitemansion.com; Rooms at La Residence d'Angkor, River Road, Siem Reap, start from $US300 ($320) a night; see residencedangkor.com.


Bar.sito, 30 E0 Street 240, Phnom Penh; The Shop, 39 Street 240, Phnom Penh, see theshop-cambodia.com; Il Forno, just off pub street, Siem Reap, see ilfornorestaurantsiemreap.com; Foreign Correspondents' Club, 363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, see fcccambodia.com.