From riding elephants to working in fields, touring temples to visiting schools, Amanda Woodard sees Thailand and Cambodia through fresh eyes – those of her children.
I HAD a flashback as I stood on the station platform at Bangkok: I remember this train. I remember hauling a backpack into one of the economy carriages with my then-boyfriend. And I remember sitting through a long, uncomfortable night on the way to Chiang Rai with a sheet draped over my head to stop the bugs flying into my face through an open window.
“Mum,” this time more urgently from my eight-year-old daughter, “where is our cabin?” Did I ever imagine back then that I’d be here 25 years later with a husband and two children remaking this journey, albeit a lot more comfortably?
Yet here I am on a month-long trip through Thailand and Cambodia, introducing my children to one country I have such fond memories of and another I’ve always wanted to see.
There was never any question that we would travel overland to the north from Bangkok. Although the noisy rolling stock suggests this is the very same train I travelled on all those years ago, there’s the pleasure of watching a glowing, neon city filter out into a darkening rural landscape from the concealed viewpoint of a moving bed.
Despite the obvious changes to Bangkok – the sky train, the homogenous malls – a ride along the train track reveals something that hasn’t changed much: the urban squalor. In shacks of corrugated iron and bits of wood, tender moments of domesticity pass before our eyes. Grandma sits on a chair in her bra and skirt while daughter and granddaughters wash and groom her; a father returns from work and two skinny naked children run to grab his legs.
When dawn breaks, it is over a misty and much prettier landscape on the outskirts of Chiang Rai. On my last visit to the north, I went elephant riding like every other tourist but this time I’m looking for something more authentic for the children. I’ve heard of an elephant-handling course in Chiang Rai run by “mahout”, people who live and work with elephants every day. But before we travel to the Golden Triangle region, we plan to venture into the mountain villages.
In the minibus, our guide briefs us about the hill tribes and how opium has been overtaken by coffee as the most lucrative crop, which is welcome news since coffee is my drug of choice and there are now cafes everywhere.
We arrive at a Lisu village where we are to spend the night and, thankfully, our host family has children. Theo, 10, and Ava, 8, pull cards, dominoes and balls from their rucksacks to begin the international language of play. After a huge supper, which we eat cross-legged on the patio, the children get to wash from a mandi, a deep, tiled basin of cold water housed in an outdoor shack. Scooping water over each other amid much shrieking, they struggle into pyjamas and we settle on mattresses on the floor to prepare for an early start to our hike.
The hills are steep and fertile; even the villages appear to sprout out of the valleys. We pass women and children carrying sacks of ginger on their heads, oxen and goats following in their wake. The heat is merciless and on the outskirts of one hamlet we come across a water mill powering a threshing arm used to pound rice. The children wade across the stream to cool off and watch this ancient and beautiful machine up close.
Chiang Rai is known as “the land of a million rice fields” and, after a few days spent roughing it, we’ve booked into the Four Seasons Resort. The hotel was designed around working rice fields, the harvests of which are distributed to local villages. The gardeners who maintain the magnificent estate conduct rice-cultivation lessons for guests, so one morning we don customary wide denim pants, jackets, gumboots and coolie hats and set off across the fields.
Once new shoots have established in the water they are ready to be plucked and separated for replanting. This is where we come in. The most difficult part is moving through the sticky mud, without overbalancing, while embedding your rice shoots evenly apart. Theo and Ava also have a go at threshing harvested rice and separating husks from the grain using woven trays almost as large as they are to swirl and lift the rice into the air.
This is a single morning of labour in what is otherwise a few days of luxury. Our suite comes with a live-in housekeeper, Khun Tom, or Tommy as she prefers to be known, whose charm and warmth wins us over in seconds, as do her home-made cakes. Reaching the resort pool and restaurants entails an idyllic stroll beside a lake over which fireflies twinkle at night. But it’s hard to stray from our own private pool with its views over the rice paddies and my only advice if you decide to come here is to make it the last stop on your journey because you may never want to leave.
But we have an appointment with elephants and so leave we must for a two-hour journey to the very apex of Thailand where the country touches palms with Laos and Burma. The elephant camp is based at Anantara resort in Chiang Rai, which has magnificent views from all its rooms across a misty valley to Laos.
Anantara has been home to the elephant foundation since 2005 when the first rescued elephant and its mahout family came to live here
. It offers an alternative for the mahout to hawking elephant rides to tourists on the streets of the big cities. The resort encompasses a village where the women cultivate silkworms and weave silk, the children can go to school and the men (and some women) tend the working elephants.
Our day at the camp begins by changing into mahout denims and meeting the elephants, including a newly arrived and temperamental baby. Learning Thai commands to control your elephant is the first step and the children quickly become fluent: “pai” (go forwards), “baen” (turn) and, most importantly, “how” (stop). Time to get on board and we are shown several ways to do this. One way is for the elephant to lower its head to the ground; the mahout leapfrogs nimbly on to its neck and then turns to face the right direction.
Less nimbly, I attempt this manoeuvre, causing hilarity among the mahout’s wives. But most heart-stopping is the method whereby the elephant lies down while Ava sits astride, perpendicular to the ground, and grabs both ears. The elephant then swings itself upright, my daughter hanging on for dear life.
Riding bareback through the forest on these extraordinary, intelligent creatures is a highlight of our trip and at the end of the day we ride them down to the river for a bath. Theo’s elephant immediately submerges so he stands up looking like he’s walking on water. My husband’s elephant obligingly fills its trunk and repeatedly soaks him while he scrubs its back. Tired and elated, we head back to the resort for supper and the elephants roam freely back to their favourite spot near the river.
Two days later we’re looking at another noble elephant, only this one is carved of stone on a plinth near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After an overnight train back to Bangkok, we have travelled by road to Siem Reap, the gateway to the magnificent 12th-century Angkor temple complex and heart of the Khmer civilisation.
Our minibus and guide are from the locally based company ABOUTAsia, which ploughs its profits into funding local primary schools for disadvantaged children. Having a guide that can negotiate this site, spread over 200 square kilometres, and avoid the worst tourist logjams is vital. We have Bunchhay, who loves Angkor so much he even has family picnics here on days off.
We begin at one of the “jungle temples”, Ta Prohm. By the 15th century, the Khmer civilisation was in decline and the temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the forest. Although restoration is going on in different parts of Angkor, many temples have been left largely as they were found when stumbled upon by European explorers in 1860.
At Ta Prohm, the roots of a gigantic silk cotton tree are wrapped like the tentacles of a giant octopus around the entrance. This is where Angelina Jolie emerged as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and gaggles of South Koreans all want to re-create the moment on film.
None of them are looking at what Bunchhay is showing us – something even more remarkable.
On one of the thousands of bas-reliefs is a carving of a dinosaur no more than 25 centimetres square. It’s unmistakably a stegosaurus. The question arises: how did the Khmer know about the existence of dinosaurs? They may have found bones but it required a complete set to re-create this image. The thought is intriguing.
Our itinerary, designed by ABOUTAsia with children in mind, ensures we don’t get “templed out”. One morning we take to mountain bikes to cycle in the forest around outlying temples, hopping on and off when Bunchhay wants us to see something close up. Another day, we take a trip on the mesmerising Tonle Sap lake, the largest in south-east Asia. In a strange phenomenon, the river that feeds it reverses its flow twice a year, dramatically influencing the level of the lake. Surrounding villages have had to adapt by constructing their homes, schools and temples on bamboo stilts up to 10 metres high. We walk to the dock through one village with sheets of prawns drying in the sun and children playing games of skittles with plastic bottles. It’s hard to believe this will all be under water in a few months’ time.
As we put out across the vast, coffee-coloured lake in a converted fishing boat, the children throw themselves into a hammock strung across its width. The water, which turns azure blue at other times of the year, yields some of the richest fishing in Asia and we pass entire families pulling loaded nets into their boats.
Contemplating the tranquillity of this scene, it’s worth remembering that this is a country only now shaking off the trauma of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Although Cambodia’s recent history isn’t palatable enough to be taught yet in schools, at least schools have emerged again.
The effort to get the country back on its feet is huge and in Siem Reap, almost every business donates to charity in one way or another.
The Hotel de la Paix, where we are staying, runs a sewing school for disadvantaged girls to teach them skills and provide machines. Our children, however, are curious to see what a Cambodian school looks like so Christopher Smith – an avuncular chap who used to work for Unilever but now works tirelessly for the charitable arm of ABOUTAsia – takes us to see a couple of the schools the company has helped to fund.
I can see my two thinking “where is the whiteboard, the computers?” Where is anything? Sixty eager children are sitting patiently in an open-sided building with benches and chairs. There is no equipment but they have heard that guests are coming, which usually means new stuff. My children have brought pens, paper and posters but it is the balloons and sweets that are most in demand. As everyone joins in batting balloons to each other, this time I get a flash forward; an image of my children, grown-up, revisiting this place maybe as volunteer teachers. Who knows, I might even come with them.
Need to know
It’s challenging but not impossible to take children on a touring holiday and it all comes down to good planning. I got the children involved early on so that they were in on the adventure from the beginning. Exploring new places, relaxing and just having time to talk, argue and play together have been some of the best times we have spent as a family. The children gained confidence, made friends easily when we were on the move and learnt about the world at large. The times when they got fractious were hard work for us but blew over after a bit of shouting on all sides. The children could find trekking and sightseeing hard going at times, so I balanced them with activities they love doing (elephant riding, swimming, mixing with other children).
What the children loved Ava’s favourite part was the mahout training, where she fell in love with the elephants, whereas Theo enjoys his comforts and chose our stay at the Four Seasons Resort as his highlight.
What the adults loved The Golden Triangle has an atmosphere like no other. The confluence of rivers and misty valley that connects Thailand, Laos and Burma is somewhere I could have lingered. The afternoon we spent with Cambodian children in a temple school funded by ABOUTAsia was memorable. We chatted with young monks while my kids played until dusk with local children, easily overcoming language and cultural barriers.
Top tip Buy a cheap digital camera for each child. Not only do they enjoy making their own record of the trip but it keeps them busy in temples and museums. It’s also amazing how different things appear through children’s eyes.