Japan · Osaka/Kyoto

Japan – Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka

After spending a week in Tokyo and Hakone we took a bullet train down to the south of Japan’s main island, Honshu, to Kyoto. After settling into our small but very modern apartment we set about for a day trip to Nara, which was a 45 minute train ride from Kyoto. I had read about the Silk Deer Park, and well, anything involving animals is a hit with the Reed girls. Nara is a charming little town. We walked from the train station up to the Park, stopping to sample some snacks and look in some souvenir shops along the way. It was quite obvious when we had reached the Deer Park as there were deer-biscuits for sale and deer roaming freely, everywhere. It didn’t take long to attract a gathering of deer and we quickly handed all of the food to Murray as we realised that they were not polite about waiting for a biscuit. If they see you with a biscuit and you don’t hand one over immediately, they head-butt you. Quite hilarious, but also a little terrifying if you are a small child. We all had a good laugh at Murray trying to fend off a dozen Bambys while simultaneously being head-butted.

We finished off our day at Nara with a visit to an Owl Café ( as you do). I was a bit skeptical after our rabbit café experience in Tokyo, but this café was pretty amazing. We each got to choose an owl to hold, with a special glove. The staff were very informative and terrific with the kids AND we got to sit at a table and drink tea.

While we were in Kyoto we were lucky enough to catch up with some friends from home, Cam, Bec and Annika, for an awesome dinner. We chose a Teppanyaki restaurant in a trendy food district ( thanks to Cam and his Lonely Planet Guide) and tried Okonomiyake ( cabbage pancake – it tastes a lot better than it sounds). Murray and I enjoyed some adult conversation and the kids absolutely loved hanging out with Annika. It was a huge highlight of our time in Japan to ‘do dinner’ with friends.

If you are thinking of visiting Japan, then Kyoto should be on your agenda just to experience Fushimi Inari Taisha. It’s not ‘just another temple’. It’s a walk through 10,000 odd Tori gates, up a hill-side and through a Shinto-shrine complex overlooking Kyoto. There are small shrines to stop look at along the way, lots of statues of foxes and places to stop for a rest or a drink. The gates apparently date back to 711 AD , which is mind-boggling. It’s a spectacular walk with plenty to keep the kids amused . Back at the base of the Fushimi shrine is a food market which was a good way to refuel after a big walk. We enjoyed sampling some traditional Takoyaki ( octopus balls) and fried noodles.

Moving on from Kyoto, we head further south to Hiroshima for the day. We have visited some significant war zones on our travels through Cambodia and Vietnam but the scale of the destruction to Hiroshima is hard to comprehend. The main building that survived the atomic bomb, the A bomb dome, was an Exhibition Hall in it’s day. It now stands alone, maintained as it was after the attack.

The other confronting thing about the atomic bom, was learning a bit about the after-effects on the people who survived the initial blast. A lot of people died the most horrific death in the days, weeks and even years afterwards due to burn injuries and emerging cancers.

The twins found the whole day-trip to be a little boring. There isn’t a great deal to do outside of visiting the Peace Park and the museum, and understandably, the atmosphere is quite somber. Maya found it hard to understand why it all happened, especially considering children were victims of the bomb. The museum wasn’t overly graphical in terms of images of people suffering, but had a lot of vivid visual representations of the city ruins. There was one room that was a replica of the town before and after the bomb. Black and white photos line the room from floor to ceiling, and there is an exact model of Hiroshima under a dome that shows the impact of the bomb as it detonated.

The most uplifting part of the day was having the kids ring the Peace Bell that sits within the Peace Park. It gave us a hopeful and optimistic feel for the future and Maya felt proud to become part of a peace movement that hopefully never bears witness to another atomic disaster.

Our final destination in Japan was the city of Osaka ( which is only a 15 minute ride away from Kyoto on a high-speed train). We spent a morning wandering through the Osaka Aquarium where the kids particularly enjoyed watching the whale sharks. We also browsed some traditional markets ( a lot of seafood on display) and bought some souvenirs. To finish off our Japan experience we treated the kids to a day at Universal Studios. The park is world-class and has some of the best rides we have encountered, but it also gets VERY crowded. We went on a Monday in the hope it would be a little quieter, but no such luck. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the highlight for us. You can sip on some Butter Beer, watch a magic show or buy some treats in Honeydukes. On the 3D ride you even get to venture through Hogwarts and play quidditch with Harry and Ron.

Overall, Japan has been a unique and exciting experience. We loved the orderliness and the slick way everything operates – from ordering food to using the bathroom facilities. We appreciated pin-codes, buttons, vending machines, tickets, queues and self-service. We loved the mountains, the small villages and the open space. We enjoyed the train travel. The only down-side for us was that it was perhaps too orderly , too rule-abiding at times. Our kids can be noisy. They touch things in shops and they get impatient with queuing quietly. On the whole, the Japanese don’t seem to embrace rambunctious kids, so I found myself putting a lot of energy into keeping the kids calm and well behaved. I think it would have been easier if they were a little bit older but I guess that just means we will have to come back again. Maybe for the ski season next time? 🤔

Next stop, Philippines. Back to the beach .., yeah!

Japan · Tokyo/Hakone

Japan – Tokyo & Mt Fuji

Japan wasn’t technically part of the original travel plan but I am SO glad we have been able to come to this country. Needless to say , we were a hop, skip and jump away in Hong Kong when we decided to fly to Tokyo and spend a couple of weeks exploring this very unique Asian country.

The first thing you need to get your head around when arriving in Japan is their rail system. Forget about taxis and Uber, trains are how you travel in Japan. It makes for a long trip when you get off an international flight and straight onto a local train, but the good news is that Japan has the whole rail thing sorted. Similar to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, the rail system is sleek, on-time and convenient. Oh and super fast if you get a chance to ride on a high-speed train.

We booked some accommodation in a small town called Uji, about 30 minutes out of the main Tokyo drag and we LOVED it. To be completely honest, we booked our accommodation fairly last minute and there weren’t a whole lot of options left, but Uji was perfect for us. It is a picturesque village with a train station, parks, playgrounds and lots of small, traditional hole-in-the-wall eateries. There are also 7-11s which have become a bit of a go-to over the last 8 months for us. We are more familiar with the inside of a 7-11 than probably anyone you might know.

For dinner on our first night we went to one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Uji and found that it was super easy to order a meal without really having to speak much Japanese (handy considering we only knew a few phrases). The Japanese love to display model food that looks unbelievably real and they also love a gadget. This meant that we could choose a meal from the display window, press a corresponding button on a machine, insert cash, hand ticket to restaurant worker and receive food. Brilliant, easy and delicious!

On the theme of buttons, if you have little kids like ours, Japan offers ample opportunity to press buttons. Very important and exciting if you are 5 years old….and well a little exciting for us big people too. Buttons operate every gadget in your apartment and no toilet in Japan would be complete without a set of buttons to spray water here and there, warm your seat and play some background sounds of gushing creeks and birds. The whole bathroom experience is something else.

We spent 5 days in Tokyo and ticked off most of the main touristy things to do and see from visiting a bamboo grove, drinking traditional green tea, experiencing the busiest street crossing in the world (Shibuya Crossing) and soaking up the atmosphere of the famous, eccentric Takeashite Street (yes there were a lot of juvenile smirks about this name) in Harajuku. We were also able to include a visit to Tokyo zoo in the mix (the polar bears were our favourite) and add to our list of themed cafe experiences by dropping into a ‘Bunny Rabbit Cafe’. The café was exactly as it sounds without the coffee or tea…or any tables strangely. In fact, come to think of it , we really just went to someone’s house and paid them to play with their pet rabbits.

The other ‘touristy’ thing we did in Tokyo was a sushi-making course. We were a group of mainly Australians in an apartment building in the burbs of Tokyo, being taught sushi making techniques by a lovely, polite and softly spoken Japanese lady. Our sushi rolls looked pretty professional if you ask me.

Moving on from Tokyo, we took a train to a village about 80 km away called Hakone. The main reason for stopping here was to see Mt Fuji, which is Japan’s highest peak and also an active volcano. I would be lying if I said we weren’t a little bit cold on this part of the trip. We had bought a jumper each in Hong Hong but most of the tourists in Hakone were kitted out in snow-type gear, getting ready to face a blizzard. Lucky we are pretty tough and didn’t let a bit of chill factor get in our way of having a good time. We might have been shivering and shaking on top of Mt Komagate, where we had a great view of Mt Fuji, but we layered up our clothes, enjoyed some warm, sulphur-spring boiled eggs and enjoyed the view. Staying overnight in Hakone was a special treat for us because we go to camp out together in a traditional-style room with tatami mats and futons mattresses rolled out on the floor with central heating and big blankets. We really felt like we had experienced a bit of traditional Japan and breathed in some super fresh air in beautiful Hakone.

Next stop is further south to the city of Kyoto and Osaka. We are hoping it’s a little warmer if truth be told…

Hong Kong

Hong Kong – City Living

I have always wondered what it would be like to live inner-city. To be able to walk out of your apartment and straight into a bar, restaurant or shop. Not having to jump into your car every time you wanted to go somewhere. I imagined it would be pretty cool – the pros would probably outweigh the cons, I thought. Hong Kong inner-city living was all this and more. It was exciting. It was convenient. I could nip out of our apartment, grab a coffee and be back within a few minutes.

View from Victoria’s Peak

If you come to Hong Kong for a holiday there is plenty to do and see. Besides shopping malls there are restaurants crammed into every building, markets selling fake designer labelled items, streets dedicated to pets, electronics, shoes and beauty products. There are parks, playgrounds and McDonald’s ice cream outlets on every corner. It’s a busy place and the transport system is terrific. You never wait more than a minute or two for the next train and you can pay for almost anything ( including McDonald’s) using your transport card. You don’t even need to speak Cantonese to get by as English is pretty commonplace.

That said, the sheer volume of people in Hong King city can be suffering. If you need to get away from the crowds there are islands a short ferry ride away. One of my favourite days was a trip to Lanna Island. It took about 20 minutes to reach Lanna Island from the mainland and to my absolute surprise it fairly uninhabited and breathtakingly beautiful. We enjoyed the uninterrupted views, the beautiful beach and feeling like we were far away from the concrete jungle and the masses of people.

The other big high for us was Disney Land. We arrived on the Disney train and spent the day trying out all of the different rides. We went on a week day and found the queues were virtually non- existent. With our 2 day pass we were able to see everything, enjoy some shows and soak up the magic of Disney. It was probably the best theme park we have been to for the kids, as it wasn’t too big and they could go on virtually every ride.

I also found Hong Kong to be a pretty easy place to meet people and strike up a conversation. During our daily visit to the awesome Kowloon Park playground, I met a couple of ex-pat mums. I think that if I were ever to live in Hong Kong it would be pretty easy to make new friends and find a social group. I found ex-pats in Hong Kong to be easygoing and very welcoming to newcomers.

Despite all of this, overwhelmingly, Hong Kong was also an assault on my sense of personal space. It took me a while to realise that the convenience of living inner-city did not outweigh the absolute privilege of open space. Walking without bumping into someone . Crossing a street without ducking and weaving between people. Walking alongside someone without being separated by the crowd. After 3 weeks in Hong Kong I craved some distance, some space, some quiet. I missed a bit of solitude. The 560 square meters of land our house sits on at home in Australia seems like a kingdom from here, in our tiny, expensive yet very convenient apartment in Hong Kong.

Next stop, Japan.

winning at Ocean Park

The cable car ride to Lantau Island

An early Halloween at Disney Land

Taiwan

Taiwan – anyone for some stinky tofu or BBQ snake?

Going to Taiwan and don’t read Chinese? Well get google translate ready because you are going to need it! Actually, a lot of Taiwanese speak basic English, but it’s the lack of English signage that makes it a tricky country for tourists like us. Thank god for modern technology, even if the google translation may seem a little bit off. My first attempt at google translate was inside Taipei zoo. We were looking for lunch options that did not involve eating organs (or meat in general). I waved my phone at some of the signs outside a food outlet. From the picture it was hard to say what the item might be. Sweet? Savoury? It was anyone’s guess. My screen popped up with ‘crispy concentrated heart puff’. Let’s just say we skipped lunch. It was our first clue that the Taiwanese had rather experimental tastebuds.

We were constantly delighted, surprised and a bit disgusted at some of the food options available in Taiwan. We strolled through some of Taipei’s night markets and sampled potato puffs, jelly balls, chocolate dipped fruit, ice cream crushed with candied peanuts, ice mango deserts, pineapple cakes and many other delights. I also sampled some of the famous ‘bubble tea’. It seems that everyone in Taiwan drinks it, and it comes in many different flavours and varieties. The ‘bubbles’ sit in the bottom of the plastic cup. They are round and gelatinous. The tea and milk sit in layers on top. You shake it vigorously then suck the balls up into your mouth as you sip the tea. It was fun. It was different. In between all of the ‘delights’ we came across many ‘what the’ moments. Unlike us, if you are adventurous you could sample roasted snails, intestines, tendons and other various organs. Perhaps you might select a giant live snake to be barbequed? Or maybe some stinky tofu (yes that is the official google translate). Let’s just say we knew when were close to the stinky tofu and most people near us knew that we weren’t stopping to sample it. Brooke would walk past with her fingers over her nose loudly complaining about the stinky smell. The food options are endless and definitely a big part of the Taiwanese experience.

What did we do in Taiwan besides sample food and simultaneously consult google translate? Well we went and played game machines. I’m not kidding – they are everywhere! I’m talking about the sort of machine that you put your money into a try to ‘win’ a prize with a metal claw. Who knew it was such a big thing in Taiwan. You can barely walk 50 metres in Taipei before you stumble across a machine or 10. It makes for a long and expensive walk to the train station with 3 kids. You can win anything from iphones to perfume, keyrings, toys, hats and underwear. Yes, underwear – new of course. We spent a small fortune on some key-rings and stuffed toys (ok I might have won a perfume or two). It’s quite addictive. It’s impossible to visit Taipei with 3 kids without parting with cash for these machines. They want to go back to Taiwan just so they can play the machines!

After spending all of our money in Taipei on a couple of keyrings we travelled by high-speed train to the city of Tainan. Murray was as excited as a kid in a game-machine parlour to ride a high-speed train. He kept checking one of his apps and letting us know how fast we were travelling. Admittedly it was a pretty quick ride to travel from the north to the south of Taiwan. Maya has since declared that she now only travels by airplane or high-speed train. She will be in for a rude shock when we reach Hong Kong. We had four long days in Tainan. Maya was not overly thrilled when we made our first ‘tourist stop’ at the Tainan Fort. It was rated the number one tourist site in Tainan. It was okaaaay. Maybe I needed to do a bit more historical research to fully appreciate it. Murray loves a fort but even he had to acknowledge that it wasn’t the most exciting outing. Next the beach. Hmmm….let’s just say there are no beach chairs, no white sand and no bars or cafes. There was no swimming either. It was actually quite a beautiful spot, just not what we expected. I’m still scratching my head a bit. Perhaps the Taiwanese just don’t like swimming?

After a quick stop off at Taichung and the Sun Moon Lake (no swimming here either) we were on our way back to Taipei. We actually did pull our swimming costumes out of our bags in Taipei and got them wet at the local hot springs! It was a fun experience. We were the only obvious tourists at the hot springs and fortunately an elderly Taiwanese gentleman was eager to help us out. He explained the different pools and where to start. There were two cold pools and four hot pool which ranged from hot to ‘holy cow’. I managed about 30 seconds in the pool hot enough to boil an egg (45 degrees). The Taiwanese literally boil their eggs in the water outside the public pools and sell them as snacks. No, we didn’t try them.

Besides some visual communication obstacles, and getting used to a country that does not need to cater for English speaking tourists, (because there really aren’t all too many non-Chinese tourists) , the Taiwanese people are extremely friendly and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We had people approach us to help us ‘win’ toys for the kids in the dastardly game machine parlours. People offer to translate for us, to help us purchase tickets and explain how things worked. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Taiwan. It was unique, it was wacky and wonderful and just a little bit weird all rolled into one.

Next stop … Hong Kong

North · Vietnam

Vietnam – Hoi An and Hanoi

Hoi An has to be one of the most charming towns we have come across in Southeast Asia. The old town has a unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Japanese styles. It‘s famous for its tailors and leather makers and I think it would take a very strong willed person to leave without making some sort of purchase. We spent our time in Hoi An browsing the cobbled laneways of the ancient town, getting fittings for clothes and shoes and finding some fun activities for the kids to do. One of the activities we came across was lantern making. The kids LOVED picking out material, gluing it on lantern frames, trimming and putting the final touches onto their creations. If they had their way we would have come back each day to make more lanterns. Sadly, our backpacks were already full to the limit.

The other competing activity was to go crab fishing at Coconut Village. It was so much fun we did this twice. Crab fishing basically involves being paddled in a round bamboo boat by a local Vietnamese lady and dangling a pole with some raw chicken attached to the end into some muddy banks then hoisting the crabs into a plastic tub, hopefully not dropping them into your boat in the process. Once you have collected enough you then release them back into the muddy river. If you are lucky you will also get to witness some local Vietnamese men ‘dancing’ on the water. This basically involved spinning their boats as fast as possible in circles while techno- like music is blasting from a nearby speaker. It’s rather amusing, but strangely doesn’t feel overly authentic. If you clap and cheer loud enough you will be expected to part with some cash as a donation to the dancer. Personally, I preferred to give my lady- captain a tip. She seemed to be doing most of the hard work.

We loved Hoi An and were very glad to have stayed in the newly refurbished Golden Holiday Hoi An Hotel in two lovely adjoining rooms ( and a swimming pool). It was perfect for escaping the heat and enjoying catching up on some reality TV on cable. We felt a little bit spoiled by the hotel staff who treated us like family. We were quickly pounced upon to explain where we were going and where we had come from on exit and entry to the hotel. In fairness, nothing was too much hassle for them and they were terrific with the kids. My only complaint was a mild over cleaning of the pool which resulted in the girls blonde hair taking on a faint shade of green.

Our final destination in Vietnam was Hanoi and Halong Bay. Once again we head for the old town in Hanoi which had a lovely vibe to it. Our room was up 5 flights of narrow stairs which made for a nice view and a good workout. Maya had her first haircut in goodness knows how long in Hanoi. She wasn’t too impressed with the several inches slashed off the bottom of her hair but after the braids, pool chemicals and lack of conditioning, her hair was desperately in need of some work. The hairdresser had probably never seen such an unhappy customer as she sat frowning in the chair – obviously not impressed to be on the receiving end of his expertise.

The highlight of our Vietnam experience though, had to be the cruise around Halong Bay. We spent 2 days and one night ( not long enough) on a charming boat. We were fed an absolute feast and got to cruise around the bay, kayak, swim off the front of the boat, visit a pearl farm and explore some spectacular caves. The kids did not want this part of the trip to end and neither did we. It was a terrific way to end our Vietnam experience. The Bay is unlike anything else and breathtakingly beautiful. I have a feeling I might be back one day to experience this again. Maybe an upgrade next time on one of the luxury boats?

Next stop , Taiwan…

South · Vietnam

Vietnam- from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang

Have you ever watched The Truman Show? Truman basically lives in this perfectly constructed bubble of a world where everything is neat, orderly and surreal. This is how I describe our experience of Ho Chi Minh city. A lot of the middle-upper class Vietnamese now live in emerging ‘Vinhome’ complexes; which are essentially small suburbs of high-rise towers complete with their own schools, shopping malls, restaurants, parks and every other bit of infrastructure you could possible need. The streets are tidy, every building has a swimming pool with a lifeguard, there are cleaners sweeping the pathways and traffic controllers to help guide the traffic. We rented an apartment within one of the Vinhome complexes and we were spoilt with everything the first world could offer. I’d like to say we regretted our choice of accommodation and immediately relocated to a more authentic, grubby part of the city… but no, we embraced our good fortune and dived head first into experiencing modern upper-class Vietnamese culture. Our daily visit to the VinCom mall was a highlight for the kids ( ok and for me). The kids LOVED the ice-skating rink (it became an obsession ). I enjoyed a morning stroll to a lovely, modern coffee shop where I sipped on a latte next to the guy who brought his cat along with him. No-one seemed to think this was odd. When we did leave the Vinhome bubble it was immediately obvious that this was not how the vast majority of Vietnamese live.

Our first major departure from Vinhome was to the city centre to get a bus to the Chu Ci tunnels. It was a hold-on-to-your-child experience. The Vietnamese treat pedestrian paths a bit like an extension of a road. Motorcycles duck and weave around you, or more accurately, you are required to jump out of their way as they approach you from behind and blast their horn loudly into your ear. Crossing a road is a near-death experience each and every time. I will admit that I have struggled with the Vietnamese traffic more than any other country we have visited. The sheer number of motorcycles and the clear lack of rules is overwhelming. Maya had a school assignment on ‘Road Safety’ to complete during our stay in Vietnam. She had to demonstrate crossing a road properly using the ‘stop, look, listen, think’ principle. This was laughable in Vietnam. We honestly would not have crossed any road (outside Vinhome) if we tried to apply this in practice. Despite the 2.5 hour trip from the middle of the city to the tunnels (largely due to the horrendous traffic), it was a pretty enjoyable day. The complex itself was large and well set out. After we had looked at some of the tools of war and other exhibits, we were allowed to crawl through some of the tunnel complex. I Have to admit that I had slight heart palpitations just thinking about going underground in a small, dark, one-way tunnel. Maya was adamant that she was NOT going through the tunnels, full stop. I am pleased to report that Maya and I both managed 50m of tunnel (widened and lit-up for tourists). The twins skipped their way through about 100m and wanted to do it again (and again). Overall, it was a good family experience. Maya got to see first-hand how the Viet Cong lived during the war period and the amazing three tier complex of tunnels. When you see the widened section of the first tier, you can’t help but think ‘how on earth did they live like that?’. I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in a smaller, darker tunnel, and certainly not three levels underground. The twins thought it was a big, fun adventure, nothing more.

Our other major departure from Vinhome was to the local Suoi Tien Theme Park. It’s the sort of theme park that doesn’t seem to attract many visitors, and especially of the non-Vietnamese type. I can understand why. We were somewhat prepared for this as we had quite a bit of ‘unusual’ theme-park experience up our sleeves by now. We entered the Harry Potter House first. As we made our way through dark narrow, halls Maya started to experience mild anxiety. She had just finished her third Harry Potter book , so we thought she might find it interesting. Wrong. She had a major panic attack by the time we were half way through the house and was not seeing anything amusing in the creepy objects flying out in front of her. I had a bit of a giggle at some of the ‘Engrish’ signage. I was wondering about the specific ‘odour of the Phoenix’ when I was suddenly whipped on the backside by something or someone I could not see. Sure enough there was a creepy person waiting in a dark corner with what I imagine was a whip, ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. Maya was right – time to get out of this creepy house. Harry Potter house done, we head straight for the water park and spent the rest of our day splashing around in the underwhelming pools. All in all it was up there with one of the worst theme parks we have encountered.

Moving on from Ho Chi Minh we stopped by the beach-side town of Nah Trang for a week. We stayed in Air-BNB apartment across the road from the beach. The view was amazing and the beach is quite spectacular. Our favourite thing to do was hire some beach chairs for the day, eat food from the local vendors walking along the beach, and play on the HUGE inflatables in the water. Maya might be afraid of small , dark places but she is fearless when it comes to heights. Brooke and Sienna also loved the slides and trampoline. After hours playing in the water we would stop by one of the beach bars for a cool drink before heading home.

The week was broken up with a day trip to VinPearl (ANOTHER theme park) and a snorkelling trip. The snorkelling trip was a disappointment. There was a lot of pushing and shoving to get on and off the boats, the island was way too crowded and the reef was a disappointment. Vietnam seems to attract a LOT of Chinese tourists who love a day trip to an island. VinPearl, on the other hand, was a terrific day out. With the Chinese tourists packed onto small islands, the theme park was virtually empty. We went on a lot of rides without waiting in a queue and spent hours in a first-class water park. Maya had to coax me down one water-slide that was ‘not scary mum’. She forgot to tell me that the water slide would turn into a large sink with a hole in the middle that you literally fall through into a deep pool below. I think I preferred the lazy river with the twins. Besides the beautiful beach, Nha Trang has some incredible food choices (Japanese, Greek and of course Vietnamese) and the day spas are divine. If it wasn’t so hard to cross the damn road it would have been near perfect!

Cambodia

Beautiful Cambodia

We were super excited about reaching Cambodia for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we couldn’t wait to explore the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, and secondly we were meeting my friend from Australia, Jo and her son Jack. We took an evening flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap ( after vowing we wouldn’t do another night-time international flight) and found ourselves in one of many queues to get through the Cambodian immigration process. Just to clarify, immigration processes in Asia can test even the most patient travellers let alone those who are tired with three whiny kids. Our first attempt at queuing up was a complete disaster – we had incorrectly assumed the space on the form to note kids traveling with you, meant we didn’t have to fill in separate forms for them. WRONG. Go back and start again! ( we had already queued for about 40 minutes by this stage). Fast forward about 30 minutes and a kind official casually remarked ‘Oooh long queue, you want to wait?’ This man was good. We were easy targets and very willing to part with cash to avoid another queue. Murray whipped out his wallet and handed over $20USD quicker than if the man was offering Carl’s Junior burgers. Bribe accepted and paid. We were escorted to the front of the queue like the VIP’s we had become. Our bags were hand-delivered and we were out of the airport within about 2 minutes. We were very happy to embrace local customs on this occasion.

Our week in Siem Reap with Jo and Jack seemed to fly by. The kids loved having another friend to socialise with and some of our most treasured memories will be of them playing hide and seek in the temple ruins. We bought a 3 day temple pass to use over the week and were able to explore Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Promh and a few other small temples at our leisure. Murray, Jo and I were thrilled that the kids not only got a hands-on history lesson, but they found our excursions to the temples to be engaging and interesting. The kids often led the way through the ruins and stopped to take photos or point out different stone carvings.

Siem Reap is a pretty chilled out place to stay. When we weren’t exploring the temple complex, we were enjoying our lovely hotel, wandering through local handicraft markets, eating delicious food on Pub Street ( ok except the tarantulas), getting $3 foot massages and racing around in tuk tuk’s. We even got to make some pottery during a lesson with young, deaf Khmer artists. We made an interesting party of 7 and were a bit of a curiosity to the locals. We think a lot of the Cambodians, particularly the hotel staff , may have thought Murray was traveling with his two wives and four kids. Every man’s dream – not! We were particularly sad to say goodbye to Jack and wifey number two. We had a fabulous week together, one we will remember fondly for years to come.

Next stop on our agenda was the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh. My impressions of Phenom Penh? Dirty, dusty , crowded and poor. There has been an attempt to upgrade the river-front into a cosmopolitan district, but you absolutely cannot escape the poverty and squalor that surrounds it. To get back to our hotel about 2 blocks away, we had to walk through a wet-market. This was essentially a bunch of people, sitting in mud, selling fish, chicken and meat. It was very sobering reminder of the living and working conditions of many people in Cambodia. I can’t help but think about my own work environment at home where staff complain about the lack of pot-plants in our air conditioned office.

We stayed in Phenom Penh for a few days, mainly so that Murray and I could go and visit the Killing Fields and S21 complexes, on our own. ( we didn’t want the kids to experience this). S21 is the name given to a high school that was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime ( 1975-1979). It is estimated that approximately 17,000 people were imprisoned here during this period. There were 12 known survivors. At the S21 complex you are able to wander through the classrooms, see the rooms as they were found when the Khmer Rouge fled, and view photographs of many of the people who were imprisoned there. It’s a dark dark history. Unbelievable almost. Cambodians killing Cambodians largely because one man, Pol Pot, decided they were a threat to his attempt to thrust Cambodia back in time and rebuild an agrarian society. The Killing Fields are basically a series of large pits discovered containing the bodies of those who lost their lives, estimated over the period to be up to three million in total.

I have to admit, I was pretty pleased to be moving on from Phenom Phen to an island off the southern coastline, Koh Rong. We were able to grab a low-season bargain at Sok San resort ( which we were to discover hosted the crew of Survivor Cambodia). We were thrilled to swim in beautiful blue water, indulge at the breakfast buffet each morning and do nothing much for 5 days. We did go for a couple of nature walks but I had read about the poisonous snakes that inhabit the island so it wasn’t an overly relaxing experience. We happen to come across a snake on a walk, thankfully already dead, but not long dead given we had walked the same path moments earlier.

A quick stopover in Sihanoukville on the mainland completed our Cambodia experience. We had read about the recent influx of Chinese workers to Sihanoukville and the 50-odd casinos they were building. Our expectations were pretty low and it was a good thing. We were pleasantly surprised at the beach front and the restaurants that lined the beachfront ( food was amazing), but we could understand why the Lithuanian couple who ran our hostel were selling up and moving out. The sound of high rise development was deafening, and its pretty easy to see that this once chilled-out, beach town was going to be swallowed up in hideous development.

One last observation, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries were have visited so far. Their own currency (riel) is virtually worthless and I doubt there is anyone unaffected by the events of the 1970’s. Despite this, they are the most friendly, happy and accepting people. We have been truely surprised by this and thrilled to have been able to visit this beautiful country.

Next stop , Vietnam…