Daddy are we there yet?” the little one queries as our airplane makes its approach to the runway.
“We’re almost there, baby,” I reply, pointing to the window where the earth is fast approaching. My daughter Leanne looks outside, her excitement barely contained. “I can see it now! Hello Cambodia!” she exclaims. Then she dutifully sits back in her chair, seatbelt strapped around her waist, as we touch down on the tarmac. Afterwards, she does what her mom and I had taught her to do over the course of a dozen other trips before. She packs her stuff — really just a teddy bear, some coloring books and a bottle of milk — and waits patiently for the aircraft doors to be opened. Then our three-year-old clutches her bag and strides out the airplane like the confident little traveler that she is.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a long-distance road trip or a long-haul cross-continental flight. My wife Joanne and I love to travel, and we haven’t let parenthood get in the way of our adventures. Because of this, our daughter began collecting passport stamps at a very early age. By the time Leanne was two, she had already frolicked on the shores of Phuket, and strolled (or been strollered) down the neon-lit avenues of Taipei and Hong Kong. However, it wasn’t until after her third birthday that she began to make any sense of her travel experiences. We quickly realized, though, that many of the things that caught her attention were different from those that caught ours.
Meeting Mr Buddha
On this trip to Siem Reap, us parents can’t wait to see our daughter’s reaction to the ancient city of Angkor. In previous weeks, we’d been prepping Leanne by showing her pictures and videos of the world-famous temple ruins. She looked at them with some interest, although we remained unsure of how she would respond to this hot, dusty and truly exotic place. With its developing infrastructure and steaming tropical weather, Cambodia isn’t exactly high on the list of family travel destinations. Nonetheless, Joanne and I had plenty of memorable moments here, and we wanted to share some of these with Leanne.
Arriving at the archaeological park, we receive a pleasant surprise as we walk hand-in-hand to the first stop on our itinerary: the jungle-encrusted Ta Prohm temple. “Wowwwwww,” I hear our daughter whisper, her voice oozing with awe. I glance to my side, expecting to see her stunned by this ancient sight. Instead I find her stooping down and staring at a line of ants on the mud!
Against the backdrop of one of the Khmer Empire’s most impressive remains, she inspects the tiny critters like a fledgling archaeologist studying a precious antique. She “oohs” and “aahs” over the insects for a while (much to the amusement of passing tourists), but eventually we make it into the temple complex. Here we gawk together at the cavernous confines, where stone reliefs of apsara (nymphs) and fearsome kala (demons) greet us at every corner. Leanne is especially enamored by a jumble of verdant, moss-covered laterite bricks — exactly why is a mystery to us, until she breathlessly exclaims, “Daddy, look! It’s so green!”
Elsewhere in the ancient city, there is much more to explore — and Leanne takes everything in without question or bias. She runs excitedly along dirt pathways and walks on centuries-old tree roots like they were monkey bars at the local playground. At the temple called Bayon — the 800-year-old handiwork of the Khmer king, Jayavarman VII — we play peekaboo amid the dark corridors. Instead of getting frightened by the structure’s massive stone faces, Leanne finds them rather cute and keeps waving at them. We can’t possibly explain that they are likenesses of Lokesvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion, so we tell her instead that the smiling dude is Mr Buddha.
She could have stayed in Mr Buddha’s playground all day, but we have to go easy on the sightseeing. Toddlers, too, need to rest (even if they never admit it), so we head back to town in our rented tuktuk. From the back of our motorbike-driven carriage, Leanne looks out with fascination at the surrounding countryside. While the sun lights her eyes and the warm Cambodian breeze caresses her face, she gazes at the bamboo huts, the palm trees and the endless rice fields of this strange new land.
Admittedly, pretty much everything is new in the eyes of a three-year-old. Yet, to my jaded photojournalist sensibilities, I find my daughter’s innocence about the world very refreshing. With Leanne on my lap, timelines, history and politics melt away leaving only this kingdom of wonders. Through her eyes, the Angkor ruins aren’t the decaying remnants of a fallen empire. They are the cavernous homes of dancing goddesses and grinning creatures; the abode of smiling, sleeping Mr Buddhas — and yes, there are plenty of fascinating little ants.
Beyond that, it is refreshing to know that family vacations don’t always have to involve theme parks or air-conditioned malls. I guess toddlers learn to appreciate a place based on how their parents react to it. And more importantly, the wide-eyed and innocent way that Leanne greets each experience is a beautiful testament to the magic of travel.
Not a piece of cake
As much as Joanne and I enjoy exploring places with our little girl, I must admit that it’s not the easiest way to experience a destination. In fact, nothing in my 18 years of professional travel prepared me for the parenting challenges we’ve encountered. Of course, much credit goes to Joanne, who seems to have secretly picked up a doctorate in childcare. But things like toddler tantrums in a crowded plane (lots of patience is required) or changing diapers when you’re miles away from any bathroom (use a sarong for privacy!) are just a few of many instances. There are also the occasional episodes of picky eating, bouts of sickness or cases of KSBK (“kids simply being kids”) that pepper our family travel expeditions.
However, with a little luck — and some help from the locals — we often manage to turn these into memorable experiences. Whenever the little lady decides to get choosy with her food at local restaurants, we try to get the chefs to cook a standard Leanne favorite for us — crunchy fish. Also known as “any fish as long as its crunchy”, their interpretations give us interesting insights into local cuisines. There was that restaurant in Phuket that came up with a delightful plate of peanut-laced, deep-fried shredded fish fillet. A cook in Taipei, on the other hand, knocked together a crackly dough fritter loaded with different kinds of seafood. And then there was that chef in Florence, Italy, who couldn’t come up with his own version — instead, he gave us a seafood pesto alfredo that was so good, we all forgot about our pesce croccante.
My point with all of this is that for parents who love to travel, bringing your little child on your trip could be well worth the trouble. You put up with the toddler hassles just to see your little one grow and experience the world in your company. You do it so they can experience the same pleasures you’ve picked up on your blissfully in a hidden lagoon in Coron or gorging on strawberry taho (soybean curd) at Baguio’s Burnham Park. You do it to see their eyes light up when they figure out that people are equal parts different and the same. I liked it when she asked if Indians were the same people as Turks (and if so, why did they bob their heads in that funny way?). And I loved it when she learned that Khmer, French, Indonesian and Pinoy kids all loved Choc Nut and playing in the sand.
Last but not least, traveling with our toddler brings up all sorts of inconveniences, but it also offers countless opportunities to bond as a family. Indeed, nothing beats a memorable shared experience with your loved ones, as I realize on the last day of our Siem Reap getaway. As our tuktuk makes its way to the airport, I ask Leanne what she liked about Cambodia. “Riding the tuktuk!” comes the little one’s answer. Then she thinks for a moment and changes her reply. “No — it’s riding the tuktuk with Mommy and Daddy!”
Lester and Joanne’s tips on stress-free travel with kids
- Travel at their pace. Don’t be overly ambitious with your itinerary.
Bring lots of food, milk and toys during a flight so your kid won’t get hungry and bored.
Bring a sarong. It’s handy to have if you need to change diapers outside.
Prepare a first aid kit. Always have mosquito repellant, antihistamines, paracetamol and your kid’s usual medications on standby.
Talk to them about the place so it will make sense to them. They’ll remember it more.
Book a room at a hotel with a restaurant so you can easily grab something to eat if they’re too tired head out.
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Smile magazine.