Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Travelling with kids Part One

I feel like writing down a few of our recent travelling experiences. There is a whole chapter on travelling with kids in my book, and I will publish a bit of that on here while I am gallivanting around the UK in February visiting family. Oh hang on, I’ve just remembered I’ll be alone with two small children, no house and no car for a month. A more accurate description might be slogging around, sponging, begging, scrounging for lifts, beds, meals, toys, warm clothes, wellies, raincoats… Still it has to be done. Two tiny new babies have been born into my life back home and I have to go back and see them and their mothers. I could not live this life without regular trips home to my beloved friends and family.

So, I’ll just give you a few of my favourite moments on the road since we came back to Cambodia after Bella was born, six months ago. The first one that springs to mind was the rare spontaneous moment James and I decided to actually make use of that long part of the day when, despite our attempts at denial, both children are awake and raring to go. Most weekend mornings we wake at 7 but never actually get round to anything other than lounging around the house eating breakfast and playing games until about lunchtime. On this particular Sunday, when Bella was about one and a half months old, we remembered we had the Oxfam car for the weekend, so we packed a picnic and headed out of town in the direction of Takeo, a small town about 70kms out of Phnom Penh.

We do not have a car for two reasons. We cannot afford one and we live in a city with far too many cars already and where there is absolutely no reason to have one. I cannot think of a city in the world easier to travel about in without a car than PP. I’m not suggesting walking – PP is flat and smallish but busy, quite smelly, stupidly hot and pavements are few and far between. I love walking with my children but the short distance to our local cafĂ© is quite enough to get us all very sweaty, rather stressed because Jemima has been just missed by a moto about 20 times, and a few hours closer to the day they diagnose me with skin cancer.

No, no. Why walk when at our disposal we have no less than four affordable modes of door to door transport – motodups (moto taxis - no great photos sorry but they can carry anything and any number of people you want them to - including breastfeeding mothers and out-patients on a drip - with a friend holding up the bag behind them),cyclos (bicycle rickshaws), tuk tuks (motorbike rickshaw carriage type things) and taxis. The first are not safe but feel great, the second are wonderful for a relaxing trip around the quieter streets, the latter are boring but good for the airport, and tuk tuks? Well, what could be better!(This one was taken when we arrived nearly two years ago - a spot of shopping for the house.)

They come to your door, the kids love them and don’t have to be strapped, moaning, into car seats, and they give you precious moments to cuddle your children on your laps in a climate which is not conducive to physical contact. They tried and failed to introduce public transport into Phnom Penh. People are so used to being able to flag down a motodup in the street or on their doorstep, and then be dropped off right outside their destination, that buses and bus stops seemed a far less attractive option.

I do worry about the fumes we breathe in when we are out and about in a tuk tuk, but the air pollution here is much less severe here than other Asian cities, or London, for the time being at least. I would not drive in PP either. I just know that I would certainly kill at least one person, perhaps injure another hundred and be a very stressed mother. You need to have your wits about you on the roads here – motorbikes come out of nowhere, there are no rules - which actually works because no one breaks them and no one gets cross - but it also means you have to be on the alert 100% of the time. I haven’t this sort of brain, even without two children chattering at me from the backseat.

One of the things I will miss most about living here is the daily ease at which we can leave the house and get about town. I can happily do without the wasted time, endless negotiations and wrist ache that the art of getting kids into car seats involves. I am already wondering what I will do when Bella gets bored and starts crying on the motorway when we go to the UK. If she does that here when we borrow the car I take her out and feed her. The traffic here is so slow and the Landcruiser from work is the biggest thing on the road so it feels pretty safe. I dread just having to let her cry for half an hour until we can get off and stop. When I think of it, Bella just never ever cries because there is always someone – whether family (Srey Mach included) or random stranger on the street – to pick her up.

The other thing about not having a car is that, a fact that we are reminded of when we do occasionally borrow the work vehicle, driving around Cambodia in a four-wheel drive (I am vehemently anti- SUVs in any conditions other than flooded or dried out and rutted dirt roads) with the air con on, looking down out of high windows at life in the streets, completely cuts you off from the country we are living in. Given that we live behind gates, eat out mainly in western restaurants and my best Khmer friends other than Srey Mach are my regular tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers, well, a car would be the final frontier between us and them.

Sorry! Huge digression but all in the interest of painting a picture of life here! What I was leading up to was that not having a car makes the occasional trip in a car all the more luxurious and exciting! And it makes us far more likely to explore than when we use the bus, which feels like it needs more planning.

So, that day we headed out through the pouring rain (it was the rainy season, unlike now) and enjoyed an actual conversation while the kids slept. Even better was the fact that we switched on the radio to find that one of our favourite Radio 4 programmes, From our own correspondent, was on the BBC world service! Only if you are an expat will you understand the joy and nostalgia that comes with discovering something like this! One of my most missed activities from the UK, apart from country walks, is staying in bed on weekend mornings eating toast and listening to Radio 4. Heaven. More digression!

Ok, we arrived at Takeo and drove to the lake side. I say lake side, but actually in the dry season there is no lake, only rice paddies. After some negotiations with a local boatman we climbed into a rowing boat with an outboard motor and sped across the flooded rice paddies to Phnom Da – the ruins of a very ancient temple (500ad Funan period – pre-Angkorian) on the top of a small hill. We were greeted and guided by the usual entourage of scruffy barefooted children who watched with fascination as we changed Bella’s nappy on a tree stump overlooked by a couple of long-horn cattle.

After that we took the boat over to the small town of Angkor Boray where we visited a tiny museum which shed more light on the Funan period (this part of Cambodia was a perfect stop-off point for merchant sea voyages from China to Malaysia so was a busy prosperous era) and told a bit about the Buddhist and Hindu traditions of the time. There were a handful of statues of Hindu gods and goddesses and some carvings in stone which had been taken from the temples but not a lot else. It is sad that tourist sites such as these are always woefully inadequate when it comes to information and presentation and it is easy to come away with less info than you could glean from a guidebook. I guess you could say it’s not surprising in such a poor country etc but when you see how much development is going on here and how many huge and posh hotels are being erected (with no regulation, and often after forcible evictions of previous occupiers of the desired land), well it is a shame that they don’t put more resources into their tourism so that more people would visit and the local population would make some money from it. That’s probably why they don’t bother. The government is only interested in the all-inclusive resort style tourism which stands to make a handful of already very rich folk even richer. Cultural heritage is undervalued it seems.

We finished off our adventure with a meal of rice and various different meat and vegetable dishes in a ‘Hang bay’,‘rice shop’, or blue chair restaurant as we call them, due to the abundance of blue plastic chairs in all of these open-air food stall/restaurants. Of course this was in the days before Bella had started eating, but since it is relevant I will just say that this weekend just passed, also in the countryside, Bella, on her second week of solids, sat quietly shovelling rice, fish and papaya into her mouth for about half an hour! More on Khmer food in another installment… I have to get Jemima from school now… And I will also come back to tell you about New Years Eve, which we spent playing musical chairs by the river in our favourite weekend getaway, listening to 1950s French tunes and eating roasted pig (not I, mostly veggie/occasional free-ranger)…

Reading back over this, our trip doesn’t sound so interesting now, (but I have written it so I will publish it anyway!) But it was hugely exciting for us, in this country where there is not that much to do with kids without a little research and planning. The boat trip was fast and bumpy, the temples were interesting and it was just so great to get out of the city and hang out with ever-friendly, ever-inquisitive Khmer people for a change.

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