‘Hi baby! Hi baby!” came the smiling call. My daughter set her face mutinously, very much on her newly five-year-old dignity. “I am not a baby,” she declared.
But if she was occasionally bemused as to why locals were constantly waving to her and monks wanted to take selfies with her, Cambodians’ love of children is one reason it’s a great destination for a family holiday.
There’s far more than the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor Wat to discover too, although which kid wouldn’t love venturing into overgrown temples with their snaking tree roots, spotting unexpected carvings which look oddly like dinosaurs and marvelling at the giant heads of Bayon and Angkor Thom?
So Siem Reap, the closest town to the ancient temples, was our first stop in a two-week adventure around Cambodia, visiting the colonial city of Battambang and capital Phnom Penh, relaxing on two sections of coast at Sihanoukhville and Kep, as well as the unspoiled Cardamom Mountains.
Watching tuk tuks flood through the narrow gate at Angkor Thom, overseen by serenely blank gazes of statues lining the bridge, it felt as if we should be entering this majestic complex with rather more pomp and circumstance. Almost 900 years on from its heyday, the ancient city of the god kings of Angkor and the glory of the Khmer empire has lost none of its power to impress.
With symbolic decorations on every surface, telling tales of myth and legend in intricately detailed carvings of gods, demons, snakes and dancers, I could have spent a week exploring.
Accompanied by a five-year-old, I reluctantly abandoned that idea along with any thought of seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat’s five famous towers. But with gorgeously dressed characters from Hindu epic the Ramayana wandering around and monks offering us an unexpected water blessing, her attention was as swiftly captured as my own.
At Bayon, the immense carved smiling faces are mesmerising for any age, and while we’re both yet to watch Tomb Raider, you don’t need Angelina Jolie to love Ta Prohm, the twining roots of the spung trees snaking around the stone as the branches spiral to the sky. Here, with our guide’s help, we found the mysterious carving that looks like a stegosaurus, before indulging in a few Indiana Jones fantasies by exploring the even more overgrown Beng Melea.
Partly held together by the encroaching jungle, huge piles of stone blocks lie heaped as if they’re a puzzle to be reassembled. With fewer tourists venturing this far, we could almost believe we were the first to discover it too.
For many, the city is their only stop apart from the royal palace at Phnom Penh, and the chilling memorials of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the stark horror of the Khmer Rouge’s rule making them the few sites which shouldn’t be attempted with young children.
But laid-back Siem Reap is only one of the highlights. As we sailed past brightly coloured and spindly-legged stilt houses towering above the water on a boat ride to Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake, we had a glimpse of one traditional way of life that persists today.
In nearby countryside, two water buffalo placidly pulled us on an ox cart, brilliant emerald rice growing in the fields where even the new houses have space for animals and hammocks underneath, just as they’ve done for centuries.
In Battambang, near the Thai border, the balconied riverfront buildings still show French colonial influences, while its own most famous temple of Banan is perched at the top of 358 steps. My daughter raced ahead energetically, determined to light an incense stick by the shrine at the top — I followed in rather more stately fashion with a few strategic pauses for photos.
Another Buddha emerged from a cliffside not far away, the huge head precisely carved while the rest of the body awaited more funds. And each day, over two million bats flooded out of the cliff’s narrow caves just before dusk, hunting insects which would otherwise decimate the rice crop.
We spotted the rice itself in something of a green blur from Battambang’s Bamboo train. More of a platform on wheels, powered by a small engine, it zooms along the track which once joined the city to Phnom Penh.
When the railway, constructed by the French in the 1930s, finally fell into too much disrepair for full-size trains, enterprising locals created their own tourist attraction on the surviving track. Reaching 10 miles per hour at top speed, they have the added benefit of being easy to dismantle when another approaches on the single line. The biggest group takes priority; finding ourselves at the front of a mini convoy, we rather regally lounged on our cushions as everyone else made way.
For every adrenaline thrill, there was a chance to relax. Heading south, tranquil Otres Beach near Sihanoukville was perfect for wave jumping and sunset cocktails, plus locals offering beachfront massage, mani-pedis and eyebrow threading as you lounged.
Along the coast towards Vietnam, Kep was equally chilled out. Once the favourite seaside resort of Cambodia’s King Sihanouk, who saw independence succeed colonial rule before the terror of the Khmer Rouge, civil war and eventual peace, the scars of the country’s tragic recent history are still visible.
Its Modernist buildings are elegantly dilapidated, while the king’s palace awaits its own renovation, gold paint peeling on the gates and caretakers looking after rooms which once housed royalty.
The jewel-bright colours of the butterflies flitting through the nearby national park are as vibrant as ever though, while beachside bakeries sell baguettes and croissants that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris.
To completely switch off, we swapped the sea for the river Tatai in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. While the spice itself wasn’t in evidence, the forests shelter villages where you can see everyday life before kayaking in the mangroves and walking to the cascading Tatai waterfalls.
Although logging and sand dredging threaten this unspoiled paradise, the area’s peace makes both feel very far away. Sleeping on the mirror-still water at Four Rivers Floating Lodge, its safari tents set on a floating pontoon that’s accessible only by boat, any tourist bustle seemed like another world.
At any age, it’s an adventure not to be missed.