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Xieng Khuan, Vientiane, Laos

Journey to Another World

When Leisa Gartsky travelled to Cambodia and Laos with her 11-year-old twins there were a few raised eyebrows, but three fun-filled weeks later the family was far richer for the experience.

Ever since a fabulous trip to Vietnam pre-kids, Daren and I couldn’t wait until Jolie and Zachary were old enough to handle a more adventurous style of travel. We tested the child-friendly waters of Fiji when they were four, then took advantage of a strong Aussie dollar to venture to Hawaii when they were 10. The kids took it all in their stride, and Mummy and Daddy secretly celebrated the passing down of the good traveller gene!

A year later we were about to embark on a more gritty adventure – a three-week trip to Cambodia and Laos. Not only were Daren and I itching to explore more of Indochina, we really wanted to push the boundaries with Jolie and Zac, expose them to a vastly different lifestyle and landscape and, although it sounds clichéd, we wanted the kids to see how people less fortunate live.

I settled on four destinations – two in Cambodia and two in Laos. My criteria for accommodation was simple – hotels would fall into the mid-price range, we’d all share a room and there had to be a swimming pool. I figured that if any given day proves too challenging, an afternoon swim will solve everything.

Holiday in Cambodia
On paper, Cambodia’s capital is definitely the least child-friendly of our destinations, but for Daren a visit to the Killing Fields is mandatory. Armed with Google, I found a great boutique hotel called The 252 right in the middle of Phnom Penh, away from the riverfront tourist strip but sufficiently close to the sites.

Leaving the airport for the hotel, it is crunch time. Jolie and Zac would either ‘get’ the craziness of an Asian city or the sensory overload would leave them pining for the West. Thankfully, the attraction is instant. They delight in the mayhem, the ordered chaos of the traffic; in fact a journey in a tuk tuk becomes the amusement ride of choice.

The Royal Palace and National Museum provide some fascinating history, and then it is time for the Killing Fields. I am concerned about exposing 11-year-olds to the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but in the absence of a babysitter, we decide to all go and assess the situation as it unfolds. Much to my relief, the kids are fine. They tap into the sombreness of the setting and question Pol Pot’s motives. I carefully check for nightmares the following morning. Thankfully there are none.

To my delight, the food in Cambodia is fabulous and kid-friendly. My daughter is a freaky gourmand, always ready to try something new. My son, on the other hand, would happily eat his body weight in hot chips. Most restaurants that Westerners frequent serve both Khmer and Western favourites. Everybody’s happy! The standout Phnom Penh eatery is Friends The Restaurant – not only is the menu completely scrumptious, it’s part of a broader business network supporting Cambodian street children.

Temple time!
The big drawcard for visitors to Cambodia are the Angkor temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat. To access the temples, stay in the vibrant little town of Siem Reap, a civilised bus-ride away from Phnom Penh. I’d booked another boutique hotel, the Pavillon d’Orient. We are allocated our own tuk tuk driver, so getting around could not be easier.

The kids love exploring the rambling ancient temples. The magnificent jungle-engulfed Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed) is just as impressive as Angkor Wat.

One day we take a boat ride to the flooded forest of Kompong Pluk. On the way we pass through the floating village of Chong Kneas, complete with a floating school, church and basketball court. Simply extraordinary. By night, Siem Reap comes alive. In the balmy air, we browse markets and funky shops and procrastinate over restaurant choices.

Lovely Laos
Sad to farewell Siem Reap, and our lovely driver Sokha, it is time for the second half of our journey. After a brief and uneventful stay in the capital Vientiane, we fly to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. Luang Prabang is nothing short of magnificent. Steeped in culture, the entire town is UNESCO Heritage-Listed.

Here we stay in a rented duplex, part of the Mekong Estate, complete with breakfast, ahem… a maid and bicycles. Luang Prabang is so small it’s easily explored by bike or foot. A former French colony, the influence is evident, reflected in the buildings and cuisine. This makes eating out a lot of fun.

The absolute high point of our stay is a trip into the lush jungle to the Elephant Village. For one day, we train as mahouts, culminating in a bareback elephant ride into the river. The excitement and joy on Jolie and Zac’s faces is priceless. This kind of adventure does not come cheap but is worth every penny.

When we pack our bags a final time, I can’t be happier with our adventure and am already dreaming of return visits. Cambodia and Laos are home to some of the most warm and welcoming people I have ever met. This had been an experience with real soul.

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